The Approach“You’re not going to believe what Kassie said to me this morning as I was eating breakfast” Greg said, as we drove down the highway early in the morning on our way ice climbing.
“I’m not even going to guess”, I replied. Greg’s daughter Kassie is 4 years old, and is never at a loss for words.
“She told me that if Mr. Jones starts to cry, make sure and give him a hug”, Greg said laughing.
Now, I’m not sure why Kassie thought I might be crying, because I’m not normally known for my sudden outbursts of crying, but as it would turn out she was fairly prophetic.
It was December 2006, and Greg and I were going to attempt to climb “Rocky River Blues”, a beautiful 3 pitch ice fall located in a side drainage of the Rocky River in Jasper National Park. We had been wanting to climb this route for a while, but two things kept us from doing it. The first was the long approach (approximately 3 hours). The second was that if the first pitch isn’t in (and you can’t tell this until you get there), then you’ve walked 3 hours for the exercise only. We’d heard many stories of climbers who had done the long approach, only to walk back out without climbing a pitch.
With binoculars, we could see the upper pitches of the route from the highway (but not the lower), and they looked fat and green, so we were hoping the first pitch was going to be good to go.
The crux of the approach is choosing the right side drainage of the Rocky River to walk into, because you can’t see the climb until you’re basically at it. We had lined up which drainage the climb was in while scoping it from the highway – a particular large patch of unburned trees (there was a large forest fire in this drainage two years ago) was our landmark. This helped immensely and got us into the right drainage. From there, we stayed on the left side of the drainage all the way up, not traversing into the drainage itself until we were right at the ice climb. It’s quite a steep approach and we had to put our crampons on for the last half hour.
The first views of the climb were breathtaking. The ice flows out of a very narrow canyon in a blue sinewy ribbon. It’s immediately apparent where the name “Rocky River Blues” comes from.
The first pitch was definitely in, but looked hard and scary. For some unknown reason I volunteered to climb the first pitch – this was a decision I was soon to regret.
The first pitch was a steep, chandeliered, free standing column. It was difficult to protect and hard to get good sticks with the tools. I made it up about half way, but was thrashed and had to take a rest – the funny thing about that was my ice screws were so bad (rotten, airy, ice) that I was afraid to rest my weight on them. After shaking out for a few minutes and regaining my composure, I headed up again. I had gone another 10 feet, when the whole ice column shifted with a large auditable “thunk”.
“Greg, what sh..sh..sh.. should I do?, I asked nervously, hanging from my tools and trying not to wet my pants.
“I don’t thing there’s anything you can do, but keep climbing”, Greg replied, as he ran for cover.
“Greg, I think I need a hug”, I asked, even though I hadn’t started crying yet.
I think Greg was too busy getting the hell out of the way to respond. You might notice the picture on the left is a long ways from the ice fall - this is where Greg is belaying from. Smart guy.
I did gather my courage up and managed to make it to the top of the climb. Greg followed in impeccable style; meaning no crying or need for hugs. The ice column remained standing.
The following pitch was the pay off for the hike in. It was as beautiful a pitch of grade 3 ice as you’re ever going to see. It consisted of a single band of blue ice 50 metres long with hardly a dimple or icicle on it. Greg was salivating and started on it right away. It was pretty much one stick ice with both your the tools and crampons – Greg couldn’t stop smiling the whole way up. It’s for an occasional pitch like this that we suffer the long approaches, the frozen hands and feet, and all the objective dangers of ice climbing.
The third pitch was just some rolling ice with a few steeper sections that needed an ice screw or two.
As always for me, with my bad joints, going down is worse (in the pain department) than going up. We took it slow, and were back at the vehicle just as it was getting dark. Rocky River Blues is a wonderful ice climb and we’re glad we did it.