Day One - Knuckle Gnasher
Terry and I left at the reasonable hour of 8 a.m. on Saturday morning. We were going to climb Knuckle Gnasher, a fun climb located just north of Grand Cache, Alberta. I’ve climbed this route three times previously and have always enjoyed it. I also wanted to climb a route that wasn’t going to tire me out too much, as Greg and I had a big day planned for Sunday – we were going to do a climb called “Kitty Hawk” off of the Dave Thompson Highway, near the town of Nordegg, Alberta.
Terry and I arrived at the parking spot at about 9:30 a.m. – we packed up and headed off on the mellow approach to the first pitch of “Knuckle Gnasher”. The approach involves walking across a long (very active) railway bridge suspended high above the Little Smoky River. Once across you head down an old quad road until you cross the small creek that drains out of the “Knuckle Gnasher” drainage. A 10 minute walk up the creek puts you at the base of the first pitch. We normally put all our gear on at the junction of the creek and the quad trail, because you can walk off this climb, and you end up coming out on the quad road about 100 metres south of the creek junction. Leaving your gear here, saves you from having to walk back up the creek bed to get your pack. This long explanation actually has some relevance to the story, which you will see if you read on.
The first pitch was steep (easy grade 4) and about 30 metre long on fairly decent ice – it was quite enjoyable. When I was belaying Terry up it, he accidentally dropped one of my quickdraws (a type of climbing gear used to attach the rope to the ice screws). This meant that we would have to walk back to the bottom of the climb anyway (at least Terry would). Again, this will have relevance later on.
From the top of the first pitch, there is about a 30 minute walk steeply uphill where you hit the final sections of ice. Here you have a choice – there is an easy grade 3 pitch directly in the drainage; there is a very hard grade 5 pitch coming in from the sidewall of the drainage, or there is a long grade 4 pitch, which usually forms up right beside the grade 5 column.
The grade 3 ice looked kind of boring – so we started looking at the two pitches on the sidewall. I thought I’d give the grade 5 pillar a go. It looked pretty scary, as it was only just touching down, but I thought if I could get through the first 10 feet, I’d be on some better ice, and it might be OK. Well, I did give it a go, but the ice at the bottom was simply horrific. After about 10 minutes of swinging, I couldn’t even get one good stick with my ice tools and knocked off about 500 pounds of ice. At the rate I was going, I was going to knock off all the ice and it would be a free hanging pillar again.
I then turned my attention to the grade 4 line. The ice looked really thin, and it wasn’t even really touching down to the ground. I thought if I could rock climb my way up to the ice, I might be able to carefully work by way through the thin bulging ice, to some (hopefully) better ice higher up.
I carefully lay-backed and under-clinged up the rock until I got underneath a slight bulge. At this point I was about 3-4 metres off the ground. The ice was very thin – two to three inches, and extremely brittle. I managed to get a marginal short ice screw in, by placing it sideway into a small column of ice. I then carefully, slowly, worked my way left until I was on a little thicker ice. I got another better (longer) screw in and then pulled over the bulge.
The ice higher up was definitely better, albeit a bit thin at the start – my ice axes were actually coming through the other side of ice, which is a bit of a strange feeling. Once past this initial thin section, the ice was vertical but fairly good. I worked my way up, placing another couple of screws. I was about 5 metres from the top, and just stepping onto a little rest spot, when my right crampon blew off. This is very disconcerting to say the least, because without a crampon, on vertical ice, you’re screwed. I was in a bit of an awkward spot and had to down climb with one crampon a couple of moves to get to a position where I could put another screw in and clip into it. Once I clipped into this screw, I quickly put in another one, and set up an anchor. I looked at my crampon and saw that the front bail had actually broken – it was un-repairable.
Once tied off on my anchor, I untied my end of the rope, lowered it down to Terry, who then took off his crampon and tied it to the rope. I pulled the rope (and his crampon) back up, and then the games began. Because Terry and I have very different feet size, his crampon didn’t fit my boot. I then had to resize the crampon to fit my boot, all the while hanging on dead vertical ice, and trying not to drop the dam thing. Eventually I got it to fit and finished the climb. I set up a toprope and Terry followed in fine style with no falls or rests.
Meeting some LitterbugsWe walked off the mountain on skiers left and arrived back at the quad trail/creek junction about 30 minutes later. Terry walked up the creek to retrieve the dropped quickdraw.
About 20 minutes later I saw him walking down the creek with some stuff in his hands, which he kept dropping. I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing. Finally, as he got closer, I could see he had pop bottles in his hands. What was going on?
“They stole the quickdraw”, he said.
“What are you talking about”, I replied.
“Somebody walked up our tracks, took the quickdraw, and left pop bottles and cigarette butts all over the bottom of the climb”, he answered.
This was fairly unbelievable, as we could see no reason why anyone would walk up to the bottom of this climb, unless they were ice climbers, plus, I’ve never even seen another person here before. Based on the litter left behind at the bottom of the cliff, these guys weren’t climbers. Somebody had obviously followed our tracks up hoping to find something at the bottom of the climb (perhaps, they’ve done this before). Luckily for me, my pack was hidden behind a tree.
Well, there was nothing we could do but swear a little and head back to the truck. As we hit the train tracks on our walk back Terry looked ahead and said, “There’s a guy standing on the railway bridge”.
I looked up and sure enough, there was someone on the bridge, looking over the edge. He hadn’t seen us, so we quickly walked up to him; our noise being easily covered by the howling wind. We were about 50 metres from him when he noticed us – we yelled at him, but he quickly walked off the bridge and jumped underneath it. Terry and I started running. This was actually pretty funny – try running with a big pack on in mountain boots on a railway track; we didn’t set any speed records.
When we arrived at the bridge (out of breath), we dropped our packs and scrambled under the bridge abutment, expecting to see someone running away below us. Instead what we saw was really quite bizarre. There was one male (late teens, early 20’s) hanging onto a climbing rope that was attached to one of the railway ties up above him on the bridge deck. He was holding onto the rope and had two carabineers clipped into his belt buckles. There were two other people up in the bridge – one on the abutment and the other on the frame of the bridge; all we could see of them, were their dangling legs. About 5 seconds after we arrived, another male came down from the same direction as we did – he was obviously the guy we had seen on the bridge (he had decided not to abandon his buddies after all).
I said to the kid holding the rope, “Did you guys pick up one of our quickdraws?” He looked slightly confused (probably not understanding what a quickdraw was). Terry then asked them if they had walked up to the bottom of the ice climb and took a piece of our gear. They said that they hadn’t.
Having noticed the two carabineers on his belt loops, I thought I’d play a bit of a bluff, and told him he was lying as I could tell those two carabineers were mine. Not knowing that I couldn’t identify my carabineers from anyone else’s at 15 feet, he assumed I knew what I was talking about, and returned them to me promptly.
Terry asked them about the remainder of the quickdraw (the section that connects the two carabineers), but they told him they had left it up there – which may or may not have been true.
Terry then asked them about all the litter. They looked sheepish, but that was about it. He asked them where they were from and the replied “Grande Cache”.
“Is this how you treat your back yard?” Terry asked, not so nicely.
They really had nothing to say for themselves, except to generally look stupid. We left them with some parting words about what we thought about their character. I’m sure they were laughing at us before we were 50 metres away.
Looking at this in retrospect, I can give them the benefit of the doubt about taking the piece of gear. They might have just followed our tracks to see where they went, and found a piece of gear at the bottom of the climb. That’s fair game. But the pop bottles and cigarette butts was not at all cool. I also wonder where they got the climbing rope – they obviously had no idea what to do with it (the best guess we had, was that they were swinging on it). Perhaps, another climber has lost some gear at the bottom of this climb.
In any event, so ended an interesting and weird day of ice climbing. Terry lent me his crampons for the following day.
Day Two – Kitty HawkKitty Hawk”. This climb has a bit of a fearsome reputation – the first attempt on it resulted in a fall and a rescue. The successful attempt resulted in an accident of the way down and over 20 stitches to repair the damage. The climb is also subject to extreme avalanche danger – a huge bowl drains out through the tight gully where the climb resides.
We deemed the avalanche risk to be fairly low – we haven’t had any snow in the last 2.5 weeks and the temperatures have been pretty constant (between zero and minus 10). The bowl on an adjacent drainage had already avalanched (“Elliot Left Hand”, which we had done the previous week)
We took Highway 40 (the Trunk Road) down to Nordegg and then headed west along the David Thompson Highway for about 50 kilometres. We arrived at the parking spot just as it was getting light at 8:30 a.m. and started hiking about 8:50.
The hike in takes about an hour and isn’t too bad as far as approaches go, but they all pretty much suck to me. During the last 30 minutes of the hike you gain a lot of elevation and by the time I got to the bottom of the climb, my heart was beating quite nicely. As the climb comes into view during the hike up, you really get a sense of just how steep it is, how narrow the gully is, and why you wouldn’t want to be there in the event of an avalanche.
The first 100 metres of the climb ascends a steep, narrow (6 feet across in spots) gully. You can either rope up and lead this section, simu-climb it, or solo it. It’s steep snow with some short sections of grade 2 ice. While not particularly hard, if you fell, you probably wouldn’t stop falling for a long, long ways. We choose to solo it.
Once we got to the bottom of the steep ice, we got a belay set up and I started leading. The first pitch is called technical grade 4 in the guidebook. The guidebook actually says that you should climb this section in two pitches, but we had read a route description, which said it could be climbed in one long 60 metre pitch.
As I started up, I could immediately tell that this was going to be a very long pitch, and that I would not be able to put very many ice screws in, if I were to have any left to set up an anchor at the top of the pitch. To make matters a bit more interesting, the ice was absolute crap and quite thin in spots. It was brittle and fractured wildly at each swing.
I slowly and carefully, continued to make my way up, putting in ice screws about every 8-10 metres. My already very slow pace, was made slower due to the fact that Greg had “hydrated up” at the bottom of the climb (drank a litre of water), and had to piss about every 10 minutes. He figures he peed about 8 times between the start of my pitch and when I reached the top (which might speak more to my speed, than his bladder capacity).
Establishing a belay at the top of this pitch wasn’t straight forward. Also, I had ran out of rope and so Greg had started simu-climbing with me. When I stopped he was right in the middle of a steep section. There is one bolt here on the left, but it was put in when the ice was considerably thicker, and I couldn’t reach it to clip. There was an older “abalakov” (this is when cord is threaded through holes made into the ice with an ice screw), that I backed up with a couple of screws and finally got off belay. It was a very long and sustained pitch. The next pitch (the crux) looked even scarier.
Greg climbed the pitch quite quickly and arrived at the anchor very unimpressed with the ice quality. He was hoping the next pitch would improve because it looked very hard. This pitch was also supposed to be about 60 metres long. It started off with some 80 degree ice for about 15 metres and then you hit the business – a section of dead vertical (felt overhanging) ice formed by a number of hanging icicles. This section, clearly the crux, was about 15 metres long. After that the angle eased off and we couldn’t see anymore. Another looming issue was the position of the belay – it was obvious that the belayer (me) was going to be in the direct line of fire for quite a bit of ice. I clipped the pack into the highest anchor point and arranged it to offer me a bit of protection (with some quick ducking, I could hide most of my body under it).
Greg re-racked the ice gear, took a 5 minute breather, and headed off. Last thing I told him was don’t be afraid to hang on some gear if you get too pumped. He assured he had no problem hanging if he had to.
The first 15 metre section went well, even though I was getting pelted by ice – it really didn’t have time to work up any significant speed. Once Greg got to the bottom of the really steep ice, he took a descent rest. The ice continued to be awful – and it only got worse. Through the steep section Greg was swinging each ice axe 5-7 times to get anything to stick. I’m not sure how he hung in there – I would have been crying like a 12 year old girl. He got right to the top of the steep section and was just about to break out onto the easier (but still friggin hard) grade 4 ice, when he told me to take. I cinched the rope up, but then he said “hold it”. I asked him what he meant. He said “I still may have some strength left”. He continued to stand there alternately shaking out each hand, and then progressed on.
His main issue now was going to be running out of ice screws – he’d put quite a few screws in down low and through the steep section, and now only had four screws left and about another 25 metres of ice. He needed to save 2 screws for an anchor, so he really only had two screws left. He told me he was going to suck it up and be brave. He climbed the last 25 metres with 2 screws, and the last 15 metres with none. It was the best lead I’ve ever seen him do.
I followed the pitch with the pack on, which truly sucked, but managed to get myself up it. It was while seconding it that I really began to appreciate just how hard of lead it was. The ice was just terrible – I was cleaving huge pieces of ice off with each swing of my tools and kick of my feet. When you finally managed to get good sticks, you still didn’t feel really confident in them. When I finally pulled up to the anchor, I think ever muscle in my 45-year old body was tired. I then looked up and saw another pitch of ice. Crap.
We weren’t expecting this, but it didn’t look too hard or long (about 25 metres), but in order to say we climbed “Kitty Hawk”, we figured we might as well climb it. As Greg said, “I’m not coming back here”. I took the sharp end of the rope and headed off. It was 70-80 degree grade 3 ice – not exactly what my screaming calves needed or wanted. I managed to get myself to the top. I threw in a couple of ice screws for an anchor and brought Greg up. While belaying Greg I noticed a bolted anchor to my right that my dehydrated and fatigued brain had missed. Greg climbed the pitch quickly and walked past me and clipped into the bolted anchors. We were both definitely at the top now.
AvalanchesFrom here you are right at the end of an enormous avalanche bowl – which all drains over the top of the climb (actually right over my belay). It was obvious the bowl had already slid, but it was still a bit nerve-wracking being there.
Greg had taken out his camera and was taking some pictures looking back down the climb, when a little snow-slope to the right of us slid. Now this wasn’t a lot of snow – it was more like a big spindrift avalanche, but you sure wouldn’t have wanted to be under it when it happened. It was wet heavy snow and it poured down the route we had just finished climbing minutes ago. Because Greg actually had his camera out when this happened he got a picture of it – a very cool photo indeed.
That was our cue to get out of there and so we did. We did a 25 metre rappel on one rope to the top of the crux pitch, and then a 55 metre rappel off of ice anchors to the top of the first pitch. From there, it was a full 60 metre rappel (again on ice anchors – an abalakov) back down to the start of the first pitch. We then down-climbed about 30 metes to another bolted station, and then a final 60 metre rappel (over the terrain we had soloed) to the bottom of the climb.
The walk out seemed long as we were both beat. Arriving back at the truck at 4:30 p.m., we were two tired, but happy boys, psyched to have completed the classic David Thompson climb “Kitty Hawk”.