The Ghost at Last
“Hmmmn, let me see – probably not until the end of March”, Greg replied.
Crap! We’d been trying to plan a trip into the Ghost for at least the last three years, but seemed to always have been foiled for one reason or another. In 2008, it was due to warm weather (at the end of March) – we climbed Polar Circus and Professor Falls instead. In 2009, it was due to my shoulder surgery (but we still managed to climb “Curtain Call”; a long time seemingly unattainable goal). Would we be shutout and shutdown in the Ghost again?
For those well-adjusted, non-masochistic, tea-toddling, un-frostbitten, folks who don’t ice climb; the Ghost is a mecca of classic ice climbs located in the remote, hard-to-access eastern portion of the Rocky Mountains near Cochrane, Alberta. Greg and I really wanted to climb two of the uber-classic ice climbs found in the Ghost – “The Sorcerer” and “Hydrophobia”. The reality, though, is we both have young families (even though I’m not particularly young), and scheduling an entire weekend for both of us to be away is harder than you might think. That being said, we managed to get a leave of absence from our understanding (but unsympathetic of any frostbite injuries) wives for March 26, 27, and 28. The date was booked – now all we had to do was hope the climbs were still in shape by the end of March (not a sure thing, by any means).
The Ghost - Trip #1
This was good and bad. Greg and I had been talking of the Ghost for so long that I really didn’t want to climb “Sorcerer” or “Hydrophobia” with anyone else. In fact, I felt a little guilty climbing there at all. But on the positive side, Simon was well versed with the access into the Ghost (often the crux of climbing there), so this would give me a chance to scope out the area for when Greg and I arrived in two weeks time.
My trip with Simon was excellent. When I last saw Simon, he was a teenager with unlimited enthusiasm and motivation (in all aspects, not just climbing). Now he was married, owned a house in Calgary, was building another one, and was working for Shell Canada piloting 80-passenger jets across Canada. None of this surprised me one bit.
On our first day in the Ghost, we climbed with one of Simon’s friends, and a friend of his visiting from Australia. My only request was that we didn’t climb “Sorcerer” or “Hydrophobia”. We climbed “Chilkoot Passage” and “Fang and Fist”. Both were fun, but “Fang and Fist” was by far the quality route. After reading so much about the Ghost, it was very nice to see it first hand. I was very impressed.
The second day, Simon and I climbed together and we did “Beowulf”; a long rambling ice climb with three pitches of harder climbing (easy grade 4), with lots of ice steps in the grade 2 to grade 3 range – we soled all of these. The weather was beautiful and scenery unparalleled – it was another fun day and a great introduction to the Ghost.
The Ghost - Trip #2Once back home, I briefed Greg on my trip and we strategized on what we wanted to do. We originally thought about camping in the Ghost, but after being there, I realized coming back to a tent after a long day of ice climbing wouldn’t really be that much fun. We booked a hotel in Cochrane – hey, I never said I was a hardman…
During the last two weeks in March, Greg and I watched the weather religiously. We didn’t want a long warm spell, as the Ghost is famous for its Chinooks (warm winds on the east side of the Rockies), which destroy ice climbs faster than Alex Honnold solos Half Dome (that’s fast, for any non-climber who doesn’t get the reference).
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we saw. A spell of unseasonable weather hit Alberta, with highs in the 15C (59F) range in nearby Calgary – the weatherman predicted more of the same for our climbing weekend. While disconcerting, we knew the climbs we were interested in were high up and sheltered from the sun. With high hopes, and a six pack of beer I stole from my wife, we left for the Ghost on March 25, 2010 after work. Once we arrived at base camp (the Bow River Inn), we sorted gear and got ready for the next day. The plan was to climb “The Sorcerer” on Friday and “Hydrophobia” on Saturday. Sunday we would play by ear. The alarm was set for 5:00 a.m. the next morning.
The Sorcerer - Approach
After a pop-tart and glass of water, we were off. The access into the Ghost is a bit complicated, and is best attempted with a high clearance 4x4; although people do sometimes get away with other lesser vehicles, but sometimes they don’t. Greg was glad I had been there two weeks previously, as trying to figure out the access in the dark for the first time, would be a low probability endeavour. I was glad we were driving Greg’s truck.
We parked at the Sentinel Crag and started the hike into the “Sorcerer” drainage just as it was getting light. The approach crosses the Ghost River (forded in your boots) and then takes an old seismic line north between Black Rock Mountain and an immense rock wall on your left. We followed this seismic line for about ½ hour until we reached a small (mostly dry) lake. From there we picked up a hard to follow trail at the end of this lake, which took us up and over a shoulder and into the “Sorcerer” drainage. Following this trail would likely have been much easier two weeks ago; but with all the warm weather the trail was melted out and easy to lose (resulting in ugly and mojo-destroying bushwhacking). Oh yea, also the weatherman sucks – it started snowing about 15 minutes into our hike. And snowing hard – not blowing off the rooftops snow; but real snow, like you get in British Columbia.
Soon enough, and thoroughly wet, we got our first glimpse of “The Sorcerer”. Although we had both seen many pictures of this climb, it’s a different story when you see it in real time. It’s in quite a breath-taking location – there are huge overhanging limestone walls and towers on both sides of the climb, which itself pours over a cleft in the rock, uninterrupted for over 100 metres into a hanging basin. From there, it narrows down to only a few metres as it funnels through a small gap in the rock, finally ending at the head of the drainage. The heavy snowfall added an additional menacing atmosphere to the climb.
The Sorcerer - The Climb
I led the first pitch, which started up some just off vertical ice for 10 metres, and then kicked back to easier ice for about 20 metres. From there, the ice runs over an overhanging cliff band, making for a short 10 metre section of vertical ice. While not particularly difficult for me, the ice was very thin and not well-adhered. Each tool placement resulted in a very unsatisfying hollow reverberating sound. I put this out of my mind (an ice-climber’s best trick) and kept going. After this vertical section, the ice again kicks back to easy grade 3. I reached the bolted belay at exactly the 60 metre mark of the rope.
Greg led the second pitch (still snowing). This pitch consisted primarily of steep snow followed by 15 metres of grade 3 ice at the end. He belayed off of a bolted anchor in a small sheltered alcove on the right of the main ice.
Pitch three was my lead and it wasn’t going to be easy. It started off with a slightly overhanging mushrooming section of thin hollow sounding ice. Because I had to traverse directly right for about eight metres before I could start climbing up, I didn’t put in any ice screws until I had climbed up a ways (or the rope drag would be horrendous). Once I got my first screw in, I started to relax and enjoy the climbing. I made a long rising traverse to the right. The climbing was sustained grade 5, with a few technical sections to overcome, and then just steep pumpy ice to the top. There is a new bolted station in an overhanging section of rock to the right of the main ice. The pitch was about 50 metres long.
Greg arrived shortly and got set to lead the last pitch – the snow had stopped and the sky was clearly; a good omen. There was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be the crux pitch. To start off the pitch, Greg had to traverse out of the belay cave and onto the main ice sheet. This involves climbing horizontally for about 5 metres with awesome exposure looking down between your feet – this is one of the things I love about climbing.
Once Greg had traversed out, I lost sight of him, but due to the geography of the bowl we were in, I could hear him quite clearly. He seemed to be breathing very heavily (and moving fast).
Soon enough, Greg was on top and had me on belay. It was my turn to climb. Once established on the face, I followed Greg’s line directly up the middle of the ice fall becoming more and more pumped the higher I got. At one point, Greg could have veered off to the right and climbed some less vertical ice, but instead he just kept going up the dead vertical ice in the middle of the climb. The lactic acid level in my forearms was starting to red-line, but somehow I kept ploughing along. Fifty metres later, the ice finally rolled back and I could begin the long process of de-pumping. Man, what a lead! I think I would have cried like a teething baby, if I had have been leading (and for sure, I would have veered right to the easier ice).
The actual top of the ice flow was still another 15 metres of easy ice away and is protected by a rather good sized (and slightly intimidating cornice). Most parties, including us, forgo the trip to the top and rappel from here. Four straight forward rappels (60 metre ropes required), brought us back to the base, with big smiles on our faces and thoughts of the beers waiting back at the truck.
The hike out was uneventful, but hard on my aging knees and bad ankle – the beer seemed to help. A trip to a “saloon” in Cochrane was just what the doctor ordered – some nachos and pints capped off a great day.
Hydrophobia - The Approach (sucks)
A bit of background is required. “Hydrophobia” can be accessed by vehicle through a complicated system of roads, trails, creek and bog crossings, and some good old fashioned praying, via the Wiaparous Creek drainage. In fact, Greg and I had scoped out this access after we climbed “Sorcerer”. We soon realized that the warm weather was going to make this access sketchy at best – while one might be successful in the morning when the ground was frozen, coming out in the afternoon was going to be a crap shoot. Also, Greg was driving his family’s main mode of transportation (complete with the car seats still in it) – not exactly the vehicle you want to thrash in a low probability approach. Any damage would be hard to explain to his wife.
Caution being the better part of valour, we decided to make the approach to “Hydrophobia” via the Ghost. Joe Josephson’s guidebook tells one to follow the same approach to “Sorcerer” but break left past a second lake and then “bushwhack northwest into the next drainage north…. Follow your nose or take a compass, especially if there is no snow to leave tracks. Allow three hours”. Boy, sounds like fun.
With the alarm set for 4:30 the following morning, we arrived at our parking spot at about 6:30 a.m. We hiked the same seismic line as the day before, but as directed in the guidebook, continued on until the end of the second lake. From there we could see a well defined trail (in the melting snow), that cut across the frozen lake. We followed this trail until it entered the forest at the northwest end of the lake. From there, it disappeared and we never saw it again for the next two hours.
For those who have enjoyed the pleasure of bushwhacking, not much else needs to be said. In some places there was two to three feet of unconsolidated snow and in other places there was none. Generally, if you wanted to walk without fighting the undergrowth, you ended up post-holing through the deep snow. If you wanted to get out of the deep snow, you then had to walk in the thick underbrush (which accumulates less snow). Every once and a while we would run into someone else’s old tracks, but they were impossible to follow for more than a few metres, as the snow was gone under the trees and only present in the opening. At one point Greg said to me, “Geez, we must really like ice climbing to do this”. That or we’re stupid.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was only about two hours, we broke into the drainage containing “Hydrophobia” and got onto the main path nicely trampled by all the folks with a bigger 4x4 or bigger balls (i.e. those that made the 45 minute Wiaparous approach).
What could be worse, than walking three hours (well, actually it only took us 2.5 hours) through the thick forest? How about seeing two other climbers just starting the route you’ve walked your ass off to climb. Yep, it was true.
“Well, what do you want to do?” Greg asked when we got over our initial disappointment.
“We have two options”, I replied, “Sit and wait for them to finish, or turn around and walk back”.
To Greg’s credit, the option of turning around was never seriously discussed. We didn’t come all this way to turn around. We got unpacked and then set about entertaining ourselves for the next three hours.
Just looking at the climb was intimidating. It’s huge, and appears to be dead vertical. The walls surrounding it are also enormous and overhanging. It’s truly a beautiful spot, but not quite as ominous as the Sorcerer drainage (but a close second).
In retrospect, watching the route being climbed by someone else was a big advantage. We saw the line they took, how many pitches, and also got to see the line they rappelled. They also left us fresh V-threads to rappel off of (when it was our turn). Both Greg and I got some great pictures of the route with climbers on it; something we would not have gotten if we were by ourselves.
Also working in our favour, was that one of the persons on the route was Eric Dumerac, a well known local guide. He led all the pitches and climbed very fast, as did his client.
Hydrophobia - The Climb
Interestingly, on our drive down to the Ghost, we had talked about soloing. In ice climbing, often a certain amount of soloing is necessary. It speeds up your time significantly, thereby allowing you to be on the climb for a shorter period of time (which shortens the time you may be exposed to objective hazards, such as avalanches or ice fall). We also talked about how we both climb far faster than we used to years ago and with far less protection. We agreed that we needed to be mindful of this more recent apparent nonchalance we had toward soling and/or running it out.
So, the first thing we did on “Hydrophobia” was decide to solo the first pitch. In our defence, it didn’t look very steep; but our mistake was that we compared its steepness to the rest of the climb (which made it seem less steep and short). In reality it was solid grade three ice climbing for about 30 metres – so much for the soloing discussion.
When Greg arrived at the belay (I got there first), I said, “We probably should have pitched that out”.
“Yep, probably should have”, Greg replied.
Not much else more could be said.
This belay “stance” was in an overhanging alcove, and about the size of an average kitchen chair. We carefully managed to get roped up and geared up to climb the next pitch. This pitch (the second) was supposedly the crux pitch of the climb (grade 5+).
Greg headed out of the alcove and up into the guts of the climb. I was nervous for him, but knew it was well within his ability. I lost sight of him immediately, but the rope played out quickly and steadily. About 10 minutes into his pitch, I heard a loud scream. I immediately braked my belay devise, as I thought Greg might have been falling. After no tug on the rope, I yelled at him, wondering what was up. There was no reply and he began to climb again. I soon forgot about the incident. He reached the top of his pitch in fine style and belayed in a small ice cave.
Once I was on belay, I shouldered the pack and began climbing. The pitch was about 40 metres long with two long sections of vertical to overhanging ice. I was tired when I arrived at the belay, but still had reserves. The belay was so cramped that I ended up clipping into an ice screw just below the belay cave and gearing up for my pitch from there. After a short rest, I was on my way.
My pitch started off vertical for five metres and then eased off for about 10 metres. From there, I climbed up and to the right aiming for a grove on the right side of the climb. From this grove, there was another 25 metres of vertical, technical climbing to another belay in an ice cave (this one had lots of room). It was sustained grade 5 climbing, but I felt pretty good the entire time. At one point, something happened, which happens to me rarely when ice climbing, but when it does I find it quite enjoyable. About half way into my pitch, in the real vertical section of the climb, my brain kind of stepped in for a minute and made me stop and look around at where I was and what I was doing. It’s hard to explain, but normally when you ice climb you are entirely focused on exactly what you are doing from one second to the next. You have no time to just remove yourself from that situation and ponder what it is you are doing, why you are doing it, and how much you truly enjoy it. This happened to me on my lead – all of a sudden, my concentration unfocused and I stopped for a second or two to look where I was and think about what I was doing. It was very cool. A couple of seconds later and I was back in full concentration mode and gunning for the belay.
Greg made short work of the pitch and was soon at the belay with me and gearing up for the last, and very long, final pitch. The ice cave we were belayed in was very nice – it was perfectly flat and we were surrounded by ice except for a small opening that you had to climb in and out of. Greg snapped off some quick pictures and then was off.
The start of the last pitch from the ice cave was rather spicy. You needed to down-climb a little to get your feet established and then traverse directly left on poor, thin, hollow ice – falling was not an option. Greg styled the exit and was soon moving up in his usual quick and competent style. Unfortunately, again I was unable to see him, once he exited the cave (of the four pitches Greg led during our trip to date, I had only actually seen him climb once – the easy second pitch on the “Sorcerer”).
This final pitch we knew was exactly 60 metres long, because we had just watched the previous climbers run out of rope on this pitch (and we had briefly talked to them on their way down and Eric had told us this pitch “was a real rope stretcher”).
Greg hadn’t quite gotten to the belay when I had to start climbing, but as I didn’t know that, it really didn’t bother me at all. This pitch was stunning. It had it all – a beautiful line, awesome exposure, and unbelievable position. At one point, Greg was enjoying the climb so much he forgot to put protection in. The guidebook describes this pitch as having “a sting in the tail”. Indeed it does – there is one final vertical to overhanging section right at the 50 metre mark; and right as your arms are screaming for some fresh blood. I hung in there and made it to the top exhausted but elated – I thought this pitch was harder than the first “crux” pitch, but Greg thought the first pitch was harder. Some handshaking and back-slapping ensued, but like all climbs, its only half way over at the top; one still needs to get down safely.
Three long rappels later, and we were back at the bottom, and we allowed the happiness and relief to wash over us. The impending three hour hike back didn’t even seem so bad. I also finally got to ask Greg what all the screaming was about. Turns out it wasn’t him, but it was Eric’s client – apparently also relieving some of the pressure after a successful climb; a bit of a no-no (yelling when people are climbing nearby), but understandable none-the-less.
The hike out sucked pretty much as bad as the hike in – the difference being my knee hurt more, but I cared about it less; after all we had just climbed friggin “Hydrophobia”!
The last of my wife’s beer never tasted so good back at the truck. We arrived back at base camp at about 9 o’clock with numerous A&W hamburgers and were in bed about an hour later.
The Last DayThe next day was a travel day home, but we did manage to stop along the way and do the two pitch classic ice-climb “Melt Out”. We were car to car in two hours – 10 years ago, this climb was an all day affair.
It was a long time coming – this trip to the Ghost, but definitely worth the wait. We both agreed that this was our best ice trip to date and our favourite two climbs. Now what to do next year? Any suggestions?