Monday, December 25, 2017

A Hyalite Adventure

The plowed road ended in a large parking lot. The cleared expanse was more reminiscent of a suburban Walmart than of a backcountry trailhead. That was where we'd been told to park my low-suspension wannabe-sports-car and start hiking. But the road went on further: no longer plowed, but well traveled all the same. Tempted by the prospect of saving an hour's walk - each way - I drove on with barely a second thought.

And for the first couple hundred metres continuing seemed like a reasonable course of action. Other than the deep drifts just beside the tracks, the hard-packed snow beneath the tires didn't feel all that different from the plowed road we'd left behind. But then the ruts got deeper, and the undercarriage started dragging on the ridge between them. At first it was only an occasional touch, but soon we were scraping loudly along the bottom. Juan and I exchanged worried looks. We could well imagine how this adventure could end: in the car getting hopelessly stuck, and us spending the rest of the day trying to get it back to plowed pavement.

I coasted to a stop. There was nowhere to turn around, so I shifted into reverse and slowly started back down the tracks. A curve in the road, a steering wheel insufficiently turned, and two of the tires settled into the deep snow outside the ruts. Was this it, the foreseeable and inevitable outcome of a harebrained idea?

Our dumb luck held: a slight downhill and some aggressive back-and forth bouncing got the car back on the tracks. After that close call Juan walked backwards, his arms waving and directing me left or right as needed. All he needed was a reflective vest and those orange luminous wands, and he could've been guiding a 737 to its gate. A tense 10 minutes later we were back at the gloriously plowed parking lot. Walking an extra hour now struck us as a downright appealing prospect.

***

The night before I'd asked around for route suggestions. "A must-do, a classic." Winter Dance wasn't in, but the Big Sleep was. A Doug Chabot and Alex Lowe first ascent, it was supposed to have a bit of everything: just enough of an approach to give it a backcountry feel, some rotten cobbles to let you know you were in Hyalite, and a burly pillar for some good, clean fun. In keeping with the route's name, we went to sleep early and didn't set the alarm. After all the 4-am wake-ups in November to slog into Protection Valley, sleeping my fill before a day of climbing seemed downright decadent.

And we could've slept even longer, as an earlier-rising team was just finishing the crux pillar when we got to the base of the route. We took our time changing into dry shirts and socks, munching on bars and sipping hot tea. Eventually we judged we'd given the others enough of a head start. We racked up, tied in and began the familiar ice-climbing dance: swing, kick, kick, swing, kick, kick.

The swinging and kicking ended where the ice did. Some twenty metres of what looked like dried mud with river stones embedded in it separated us from the ledge where the ice resumed. A cam went in behind a loose block. There was nothing better to be had, so I put it out of mind. A pick scraped into a sandy hole, bare fingers wrapped around a cobble, crampons breaking footholds, I mantled onto a fridge-sized block. A wire went into a crack between two dusty rocks. If you can't have quality protection, you might as well have lots of it. Fortunately the rest of the traverse was a shuffle on big, if suspect holds, and soon I was anchoring to a solid tree.

Ice, even steep ice, almost always feels a lot more solid than mixed ground. It's especially true of mixed climbing on a badly-built stone wall, the cement between the stones dry and crumbling. We ran up the remaining two pitches of pillars and curtains to where the ice disappeared beneath faceted snow. Back down at our packs, we thought about checking out Narcolepsy, another Doug Chabot and Alex Lowe creation around the corner. In the end though, between our late start and other shenanigans, we decided to call it a day. On the way down, a pickup truck stopped and gave us a lift back to the parking lot. Sitting on our packs in the back of the truck, swaying as it bounced around corners, we inhaled clouds of weed smoke wafting from the cabin.

***

That evening, over chili and cornbread, I told Doug about our day: stuck car, cobbles, rednecks and all. "A classic Hyalite adventure", he summed it up.

A fatter-than-usual Big Sleep from the approach. Note the climbers on the crux pillar.

Juan Henriquez starts up while another party climbs the crux pillar. Fortunately the two sections of the climb are offset by a rock traverse, and all the bombs land harmlessly 20 metres away.

Juan Henriquez hopes that the boulder he's holding on to remains attached to the wall...

... and hooks up the crux pillar.