"The sun, just now dipping below the mountains to the west, sends out lines of gold threaded with orange and purple hues. God, this is beautiful - should have a camera. No! This wouldn't look any different from any other sunset on film. Even the memory will fade in time. We climb for the moment, and the special enjoyment gained from that moment. Looking back and remembering will never be the same as the original experience. If it were, we should just sit by the fire for the rest of our lives; sipping beer, smoking and just remembering. Instead we climb on and on, searching out those most precious moments, wherever they may be found."
- Billy Davidson, after making the first ascent of CMC Wall, Yamnuska, 1972.
In a binder on a dusty shelf, I've got some slides from the first time I climbed Riptide. I haven't looked at them in years. I don't think they're very good - it was a grey, murky day, and those don't make for great photos. Not that it'd make much difference if they were bright, striking images. In the end, looking at even the best photos we've ever taken is still just sitting around, reminiscing. But I do smile every time I remember that while Bill was a seasoned alpinist, it was James' first multipitch ice climb.
I don't think I even took a camera the second time I did the route. Maybe I figured Bob and Eamonn would take theirs. Either way, I don't seem to have any photos from the day. I do remember standing tethered to a cluster of pins at the top of the ice. While I belayed my friends up, I kept glancing across a slab of near-vertical limestone to where some ice had tried to form. Maybe if we'd brought rock gear... We didn't, though, so we threaded the ropes through some tat and headed down from the pins.
"A rare final pitch has been climbed above the usual end to Riptide. Alone, it would be one of the hardest single pitches in the range. When climbed on top of Riptide it becomes legendary. Led by Guy Lacelle in continuous spindrift and alpine conditions, this pitch traverses right on mixed rock and continues up a full pitch on an overhanging, delicate and icicled pillar."
- Joe Josephson, Waterfall Ice Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, fourth edition
It was late April, and spring had arrived even to the usually frigid Stanley Headwall. The ice was melting, delaminating from the warming rock and weeping long black streaks down the grey walls. But I wasn't quite ready to hang up the tools yet, and tried to think where else good ice might still be lurking. Earlier in the winter, while driving up the Icefields Parkway, I'd noticed Riptide looked unusually blue. Even more enticingly, the ice appeared to reach all the way to the top of the wall. And Jon hadn't done it, so he was keen.
I started the fourth pitch by traversing down from Jon's belay in a drippy cave. Topping out on a hollow curtain, I saw the familiar nest of pins and tat up and left. But instead of making for the anchor, I tiptoed across to the right, careful not to smash my picks on the rock just beneath an icy veneer. From the end of the traverse, I took off up a column of glassy blue ice. The ice rolled over and disappeared beneath a gentle snow slope just as the ropes came tight. In the conditions we found it, the pitch wasn't the epic battle I'd been half dreading, half hoping for. I suppose I'll have to come back for that experience.
The Patterson bowl, the ultimate ice and mixed arena. From left to right, some of the routes are The Shadow, Riptide, Tsunami (unformed) and Rocketman. Photo: Jon Walsh.
Just another hundred metres! Jon in the steep couloir below Riptide.
Sustained weirdness. The ice was bluer and fatter than usual, but there was still much hooking in hollow curtains, and much trial and error before screws bit into solid ice.
On the second pitch, we resisted the temptation of lower angled, fatter ice straight up. Instead, to avoid bombarding the belayer, we traversed left onto a funky crust. Photo: Jon Walsh.
The forecast had been for cloud and snow, to the point that we'd asked ourselves if it was even worth getting up early and driving out. It goes to show that it's (usually) worth trying.
The third pitch looked straightforward, and I wondered why Jon was taking so long - until it was my turn to follow the ropes up the snowy weirdness.
The thick blue ice on the last pitch was a nice change from the usual Riptide fare, and the position on the exposed column hundreds of metres above the approach slopes was outrageous.
By the time we drilled our first v-thread, the skies had clouded over, finally threatening the snow that'd been forecast.
The wind kicked up too, sending waves of spindrift down the climb as we rappelled. Fortunately it wasn't until we were wallowing through isothermal snow by the Mistaya River that the first fat flakes swirled down.
A week later I ventured up into the Patterson bowl again, but it was getting just too warm. Perhaps fittingly, Riptide with the Continuing Saga finish would be my last ice climb of the winter. Instead, in a couple of days I'll be getting on a plane bound for Alaska and its endless daylight. I have lots of photos of the icy giants of the Alaska Range, but in the end they're just that - photos. And so I climb on, "searching out those most precious moments, wherever they may be found."