Eamonn Walsh and I thought we'd save weight on the boring ski up the Moraine Lake Road, and instead of bringing a tent, bedded down on the tables in the picnic shelter beside the lake. With dinner out of the way, we were leisurely packing for next day's climb when Graham Maclean and Rob Owens showed up. They had skied in that morning, climbed the notorious Gimme Shelter, and were on their way out to complete a one-day ascent of the route. They also brought some bad news.
"Barry [Blanchard], Steve [House] and Rolo [Garibotti] are up the valley, and they're getting on your route!"
The news was as surprising as it was unwelcome. And the unclimbed thin white line on the east face of Mt. Fay belonged to us, dammit! Having failed the previous fall a couple of kilometres out of the parking lot, when our bikes ground to a halt in the few centimetres of fresh snow on the road that was already closed for the season, we believed we had a unique claim to it. After a quick discussion, we decided we'd get up extra early, sneak past the others' camp in the dark, and start up before they realized what hit them. We weren't looking to start a fight, but it was only right and fair, no?
And the plan might've worked had it not been for Rolo. We were already well past the stand of trees where the others had camped, and felt safe in turning our headlamps back on. Down on the valley floor, three headlamps appeared in pursuit but we had a comfortable lead on them. But then one of the lights detached itself from the others and began gaining on us faster than seemed possible. Soon it was passing us and leaving us far behind.
By the time Barry, Steve, Eamonn and I got to the base of the route, Rolo was already halfway up the rope they had fixed the day before. It was clear our gambit had failed and there was nothing for it but to laugh, wish the others good luck, and ski out for pastries at Laggan's. After all, as the song says:
"You've got to know when to hold 'em,
Know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away..."
The obscure object of desire, the line that became Sans Blitz.
Barry Blanchard joins the predawn gathering at the base of the coveted line.
Why do we care so much to be the first ones on a particular piece of vertical real estate? Why do we seek out unclimbed drips and drabs of ice, often many hours from the nearest road, up obscure, trackless valleys? Is it, Star Trek like, to boldly go where no one has gone before? Is it to draw our own lines on the blank canvases of cliffs and mountainsides? Or is it for the "awesome!!!" and "amazing!!!" comments on our Facebooks and Instagrams? I'm not sure I have the answers.
Sarah Hueniken had a few days off from guiding while I had my reading week. It was time to play.
"Got any ideas?"
"A potential new route..."
"Those blobs left of the Nasty Habits finish?"
Our objective being a roadside line in Field, I insisted on a casual start. Sarah wasn't too impressed but deferred to my extra hour of driving from Calgary. Field greeted us with low cloud and wet mist. We traversed below two parties already on the ice sheet of Twisted, another one on the skinny pillar of Nasty Habits, and made for a low-angled gully further right. It might not have been overly inspiring but at least it was unoccupied. A couple of easy ropelengths got us to a drippy stance below the blobs.
Now here too some drama ensued, all the more dramatic for being unexpected, with two parties finding themselves at the same point of our four-dimensional spacetime, intent on more or less on the same objective. But fortunately, upon closer inspection, there turned out to be more than one way up the ice-spattered wall above, and at the end of the day (figuratively speaking), everybody went home happy. But enough drama already. Let's go climbing.
Heading for an arête adorned with ice blobs the size of beach balls, I grovel up a chossy slot to a ledge. A perfect knifeblade crack appears. A bodylength higher I could probably stretch and place a cam in some exfoliating rock. I hesitate, but with the prospect of a ledge fall, I pull up the drill. The bolt placed, I clip the drill to my harness and commit to the blobs. A good blue Camalot is just what's needed before the mantle onto the highest blob.
Going left would be the most direct way but the dry, flaky rock looks uninspiring. I place an upside-down blade and have a shufty to the right. It looks like more blobs and maybe a crack, but first I have to pull onto a ledge stacked with loose blocks. I eye the blocks, I eye the blade, the blocks again, and finally replace the pin with a bolt. A red Camalot crack does materialize above the blocks. It's only a bodylength or two long, but it's the Rockies and you take what you get.
Above the next blob, a short bulge blocks access to a corner. With a decent blade to my right, I start torquing and hooking over said bulge, but soon the hooks turn small and slippery. I don't fancy landing on the blob below me with the drill and everything else I have hanging from my harness, so I drill another bolt as high as I can reach. The corner above ends below a roof. A meagre foot ledge doesn't promise great comfort, but it's probably the best place for a belay. I sink two bolts into the grey stone below the overhang.
There are few things more tedious than reading a move-by-move account of a pitch of climbing. Perhaps belaying said pitch comes close. Still, I suppose I wanted to explain why, given how easy it would've been to climb one of the neighbouring routes and rappel down the blobs, I never really considered rap bolting as an option. For me, going ground up has less to do with ethics (as, given a power drill, it'd be easy to put up a bolt ladder, and there's nothing bold or adventurous about that). No, I simply like the process of venturing upward into who knows what, free climbing while I can, getting in gear where I can, and where I can't, aiding off of tools and drilling as high as I can. It feels more like climbing than construction work (even if sometimes it can degenerate into that). And I like to think the resulting routes have a little more character, maybe follow a more natural line, than if they were established on rappel. But that's just me.
Summary of statistics: First ascent of Blob Blob Blob (60 m, M6) by Sarah Hueniken and Raphael Slawinski, February 2017.
The Twisted area on Mt. Stephen on a misty morning in February.
"Hmm, let's have a shufy at those blobs over there..." Photo: Sarah Hueniken.
It's almost a given that if you bring a drill, you'll use it. Photo: Sarah Hueniken.
Sarah Hueniken nears the end of the first pitch.
Another day, another experience: Tim Banfield and yours truly on the first pitch of Blob Blob Blob a couple of days later. Photo: Crista-Lee Mitchell.
On that day, there was no uncertainty of venturing into the unknown. Photo: Crista-Lee Mitchell.
However, the sport climber in me wanted something more than the adventure of bashing in pins and looking around corners: he also wanted flow. Photo: Crista-Lee Mitchell.