What the Hell's an Enchainment?
As many climbers know, the cool thing to do these days is an “enchainment” – in other words, climb a number of big routes on the same day. These types of feats, usually performed by mutant strong, full time climbers, often end up featured in climbing magazines. For example, Peter Croft is well-known for an enchainment in the Bugaboos where he climbed a route (solo) on each of the Howser, Crescent, Snowpatch and Bugaboo spires – to give you an idea of what an athletic feat that is; his day represented over 40 pitches of sustained alpine climbing, not including the hiking between each spire. Two years ago, a European couple visiting Jasper Park climbed “Polar Circus”, “Slipstream” and “Curtain Call”, all in a day (about 20 pitches of ice). Each one of these ice climbs are plums in themselves, but to do all three in a day, is simply inconceivable to me.
I explain this, because on this day Greg and I decided to climb an enchainment of our own. Of course, Greg and I are only humans (not mutants); and are also married, each with two young kids and a full time job – so our idea of an enchainment is slightly less ambitious and amazing than the previous examples. For our day, we planned to climb “Stanley Falls Senior” (1 pitch),“Shades of Beauty” (3 pitches) and the “Rick Blak Memorial Route” (1.5 pitches). These climbs are all located on or adjacent to Tangle Ridge in Jasper National Park.
It had been absolutely beautiful in Jasper the last week, with balmy highs of 8 degrees Celsius and not a cloud in the sky. So as luck would have it, the night before we were to leave, it started puking snow. I picked Greg up at his house at 6 o’clock the next morning and we headed off toward Jasper in a snow storm. This was a little depressing given the weather we experienced the last six days while we worked in an office.
But what’s this? Our luck had changed - about five kilometres outside of Jasper, the snow stopped and the sky cleared. By the time we arrived at the parking spot an hour later, it was a bluebell day.
The first climb - Stanley Falls SeniorOur first objective of the enchainment was “Stanley Falls”, primarily because it faces south and gets morning sun. From the vehicle, we followed the well-trodden path up the creek drainage to the “Shades of Beauty” climb (about a hour’s hike). But when we arrived at the location where one needs to start the steep hiking up the mountain to Stanley’s base, we were dismayed to find no path. This climb doesn’t get done very often, as most folks who walk in only climb “Shades of Beauty”. Breaking a trail up to Stanley wasn’t really a thrilling proposition. There was two feet of sugary unconsolidated snow – lucky for me, however; Greg is younger, fitter, and has a lot longer legs. He volunteered to break trail. It still pretty much sucked for both of us, and a few of the fallen trees I had to flounder over were so big I thought I might need a belay.
We finally arrived at the base of the climb 30 minutes later to see a beautiful 40 metre pitch of sunny ice. I had led the last pitch we climbed the previous weekend, so Greg got to lead this one. What a great pitch! It had pretty good ice, and consisted of a section of vertical ice, followed by a rest, followed by another section of even steeper ice. Greg could have gone left on the top half of the climb into some easier (i.e. not as steep) ice, but took the proudest line instead. After I arrived at the top, we rappelled down, packed up and headed down our nice new path.
The second climb - Shades of Beauty
I led the first pitch; a fun grade three, which can be fairly steep if you take the hardest line (which I did). I arrived on top, out of breath, but in one piece. The ice itself was a lot harder than on the other sunny side of the drainage. Greg quickly followed and racked up for the next pitch.
The second pitch of “Shades” is normally considered the crux (short and steep grade 4). Today it was in pretty good shape. After dealing with a bit of crappy ice at the start, Greg got established in the nicer ice above, and soon polished off the pitch. I followed with the pack (which just sucks in principle) and managed to make it without too much difficulty.
The last pitch is the longest (about 40 metres) and generally considered the best by connoisseurs of the route. It can be anything from easy grade 3 to easy grade 4 depending on your line and the condition of the climb. Today the climb seemed quite steep, and I tried to take the steepest line. There was one descent rest spot about half way up that I milked for a minute or two; then hacked my way to the top. When Greg arrived at the top, we both thought that this pitch was harder (via the line I took) than the second pitch.
The Third Climb - The Rick Blak Memorial Route
In order to get up to the true start of the Memorial Route (grade 5) you need to climb a short 10 metre section of Grade 3 ice. We did this quickly and then waited for the other guys to finish. Soon enough they were done and rapped down. We started chatting with the first person who arrived – he was a young fellow living in the Canmore area named Willis. As we were talking with Willis, the second climber rapped down. I watched him rappel and noticed right away that he was a very tentative rappeller – he looked like someone who hadn’t rappelled that often. That thought went through my mind, but I never said anything about it.
When the tentative rappeller arrived at the station, he introduced himself as Giles. We talked with them for a few minutes and asked what they had been climbing. Willis told us they had done “Curtain Call” yesterday. For those not familiar with Rockies ice climbing, Curtain Call is a grade 6 ice climb with a fearsome reputation as being hard and scary. We had looked at it on the hike in and declared it not in shape. We were wrong.
Willis told us, not only did they climb it yesterday, but it was Giles’ third ice climb ever. That’s right; ever. This suddenly explained my confusion over watching Giles climb a thin grade 5 ice climb, but then look inexperienced when he rappelled it. Can you imagine climbing a big scary grade 6 ice climb on your third time out? Willis said Giles only fell once. We should have asked him if he needed to change his underwear – I think I would have.
After a few more minutes of talking, they headed off to the right to climb a mixed line, and Greg started up the Memorial Route. This amazing looking route is about 40 metres in length and never wider than three metres, narrowing down to two feet in a couple of spots.
This route was hands down one of the most fun routes either of us has ever climbed. Although thin and narrow in spots, it was never really desperate. The climbing was thought provoking and steep, but you could stem in spots (often onto the rock) in order to get the weight off your arms. The exposure was awesome – in a few places you could look right between your legs all the way to the bottom. Greg did his usual good job of leading and arrived at the top about 30 minutes after starting. He was so stoked about the climb that he couldn’t wait until I got to the top before talking to me about. We had a conversation about how cool the climb was, while I was still 15 metres from the top.
After some backslapping, we rapped all the way back to the bottom and then watched Willis for a while as he led a cool looking mixed line. None of us were sure if it had been climbed before, but hats off to Willis for having a go at it. He slowly made his way up the rock, hammering in a couple of pitons on the way. He then transferred onto the hanging ice pillar and climbed it to the top. Willis was obviously a good climber.
By this time it was 4 p.m. and getting late. We quickly marched over to the bottom of Shades to get our other pack, and then soon started the hike back to the truck.
The Final Chapter
As I complained about my age walking up the mountain yesterday, Greg explained that endurance athletes often come into their prime in their thirties. It was a good theory, but I had to remind Greg I’m 45.