This was the question Aaron was asking around 10 pm on Saturday night April 25, 2009. We had already been on the rock for several weeks and ice climbing had not been on my mind for about the same amount of time. All that said, after a week of very winter-like weather, typical spring in the Canadian Rockies, I answered "I think we should go check out Curtain Call."
"Really?" was the reply.
Curtain Call is a classic grade 6 ice climb that dominates the view at the base of Tangle Ridge along the Icefield Parkway an hour south of Jasper. It is another one of those climbs I would love to be able to say I "have" climbed. The reality is that my stomach has turned in knots every time I have driven under this gnarly beast for the past 6-7 years. I have seen this ice climb form up in
varying conditions. Most years it has been too "bad" for this father of two, but this year formed up fat towards the end of the season. Luckily Aaron was down with shoulder surgery so there was no real expectation that I would head that way this season.
Well Aaron has been back climbing much faster than the physiotherapist in me would like or expect. This coupled with the unseasonably cold weather we have had this last week and the somewhat regular jabs from Aaron that we should go look at Curtain Call lead to the suggestion we at least go take a look...
How many great adventures start with that same objective?
Getting GoingI picked Aaron up at 7 am on the morning of April 26, 2009. It was obvious that neither of us was convinced we would be ice climbing that day as we both had our rock and mixed climbing gear with us as well as the bolting kit in case the weather really crapped out. We had oursleves adequately deluded that Curtain Call was a long shot as we set out down highway 93 south of Jasper to the Tangle Ridge/Beauty Creek area.
No Questions Asked
The approach to Curtain Call is reasonable by Rockies standards. It follows either a slide path to the right and traverses back accross to the base or works straight up through the trees and open slopes right beneath the climb.
After some token post holing at various points along the way, we finally arrived at the base of the climb 45 minutes after leaving the vehicle. "That's enough to get your bowels moving!" Aaron proudly proclaimed as we eyed the ice up from below. The climb had obviously seen some sun over the last several weeks, but we were both hopeful the cooler weather recently would have consolidated things at least a bit.
We quickly organized our gear and Aaron decided to take the first lead adding that I had better hurry up before he lost his nerve.
Pitch 1 - Steep, Sustained and Manky
Having to deal with less than stellar ice conditions Aaron knocked off a large piece of ice that had eyes for only me. Seeing the whole thing unfold I dove madly up and to the left narrowly avoiding the icy meteor. Unfortunately I was on a very steep slope and quickly found myself sliding downward. I was able to arrest the fall just before reafing Aaron off the climb.
While in the cave Aaron recovered before attacking the next 20 metres of dead vertical ice. This next section proved, in my opinion, to be the crux of the climb for us. The ice was not confidence-inspiring, but it was solid enough to warrant continuing on.
As Aaron methodically worked his way through this section taking 2 much deserved and reasonable rests along the way, I started with the usual head games. It went something like this. "Sure he looks like he is struggling. He just had shoulder surgery in September, I mean really. It just has to be easier for me. I mean yeah its steep, but it can't be that steep...can it?"
I lost sight of Aaron as he rounded the crest running it out to the belay in a cave just to the left of the final pillar of ice. It was a complete rope stretcher and I found myself staring straight up at the base of the climb. At this point all the head games were promptly quelled and the realization of what was to come hit me like a tonne of ice.
I followed the first pitch thankful for the bottom 2/3 to be on toprope. Around the upper 1/3 the ice improved significantly and the kicked back just enough to take some of the weight off your arms. Winded and pumped I finally made it up to the belay. It was fine lead anyway you looked at it, and I believe Aaron's best to date.
Pitch 2 - Steep, Technical and Talk About Exposure
I started up the ice straight above us and found it much steeper and more technical than I expected. Thankfully the feet were solid throughout which helped ward off any sign of a pump. After about 15 metres and facing an overhanging roof, I started making my way right out onto the face. The thing about traversing with ice tools is that you can't swing too high or you have no leverage to remove your tool. Needless to say this is exactly what I did and I subsequently found myself in a five minute battle with my left tool pushing and pulling every which way in an vain effort to free the tool. In the end I was forced to make one move up to gain the necessary leverage to free the cagey Viper from the ice. Now thoroughly pumped I moved back to the left to recover before committing to the face.
It was with some trepidation that I leaned out and had a look at the face. To my utter delight I was presented with a small cave in the middle of the face some 2-3 metres along a small but solid ice ledge. As a very famous man once said "I love it when a plan comes together." (Hannibal - The A-Team) The exposure on the traverse was spectacular looking down between your legs some 80 metres to the slope below.
I rested in the cave a short while before attacking the steep ice to its right. Given that I had just climbed sideways 5 metres I was hesitant to place any gear too low as I was cognisant of the impending rope drag. I was able to make my way up the steep ice for a reasonable distance before placing another screw. From this point I could see that the ice kicked back in another 10 metres and I quickly made my way up on near perfect ice to this next session.
The next 30 metres proved to be the highlight of the climb. The ice was just off vertical and reasonably solid the entire way. Somewhere near half way up the second pitch, the pillar had a large horizontal fracture that ran the entire width of the climb. Although healed and solid enough, it was still quite obvious. The moves up and over this feature were very cool especially being that you could see almost clear through the pillar to the rock in behind.
I continued my way up systematically balancing the pump in my calves with the pump in my arms. The ice remained solid the entire way and the climbing proved to be quite enjoyable except for the weighty rope that despite my effort to avoid was causing some added challenge. As I neared the top I could see the landscape begin to roll back and as I pulled over the top and felt the sun on my face I let out my token Whoooo!
I quickly set the belay and brought Aaron up.
Half way down I traversed back into the base of the climb to pick up the pack which Ed the Raven had kindly left alone. Once all the gear was gathered I headed back down the slope snapping multiple pics along the way.
The Road HomeIt was hard to believe we had ticked off this impressive climb, especially considering how late in the season we were, and how "off the cuff" the entire plan had been. I suppose that's just how it goes sometimes.
With that the Curtain Falls, pun intended, on the 2009 Ice season...or has it?