Rocky Mountain HighRocky Mountain High
Three of us went climbing in the Canadian Rockies last July. Our objective was to make an attempt on Mount Assiniboine, followed by some classic rock routes in the Bugaboos over the course of three weeks. The three of us comprised Rob MacCallum, a tough, middle-aged Scottish mountaineer, Jim Osborne, a Manchester-born poet, photographer and Munro man, and myself the younger, general all-rounder.
Assiniboine was the big prize. Dubbed the ‘Matterhorn of North America’. It is a beautiful freestanding peak of 3618 metres, prominent among dozens of other hills, situated in a remote part of the Rockies, straddling the Alberta-British Columbia border. Quite similar in shape and in the postcard attention it receives to its Swiss counterpart.
There were two challenges involved – one, getting to the base of it, which was a test of endurance and determination in itself. And two, the actual climb. We reckoned it was a solid week’s work: two days trekking and scrambling to get to the hut at its base, one day to climb it, followed by a two-day retreat. Technically, as an alpine climb it is not difficult, however given its remoteness and a short climbing season of just six weeks, unlike the Swiss version it doesn’t see many challengers. Would it entertain us? We’d have to wait and see.
Off we went, into the sticks, driving 40km up a dirt road to the trailhead. Once there we loaded the packs on our backs and began the 26km march through the forest. It wasn’t easy. Each man carried a load over 20kgs. After four hours tramping the shoulders complained. The heat was draining also. And the prospect of an encounter with a hungry grizzly bear played on our minds. We passed numerous signs warning us of them. But the grizzlies were no match for the heat and the swarms of mosquitos who bedeviled us constantly, biting and taunting. We could never stop for long and, like beasts of burden, were forced to march on. After six hours we reached Assiniboine Lodge – a cluster of log cabins set in a beautiful alpine meadow, with views over a pristine lake Magog and several surrounding peaks. And there, at the end of the lake towering above all, was our objective, Mount Assiniboine – Stoney Mountain. I had seen several photographs of her up to now and had been drawn to her aesthetics – her classic freestanding pyramid shape, her delicate ridge lines, her hewn faces, and above all her stately position, dominating all other peaks for many miles – like a silken queen aloft on her throne, overlooking lower, lesser mortals. Unquestionably from us, she evoked a mutual sense of awe. Were this not the Rockies we could have easily been convinced we were gazing at a significant Himalayan peak. Shivling perhaps, or Kailash – something equally arresting and venerable. We felt much like the early explorers on seeing her for the first time, stopped in their tracks, captivated by her. Of her recent history, she was named in 1885 by a George Dawson, after the native Assiniboine people – a tribe also known as Stoneys for their custom of cooking food by placing hot stones in large bison-skin containers of water. Several attempts to climb her were made in the late 1800’s, however poor mountain conditions of snow and ice repelled all parties. It wasn’t until 1901 that a human stood on its summit. That human was a James Outram, together with two Swiss guides, Christian Bohren and Christian Hasler.
Through a telescope we studied the North ridge, our planned route. There was a fair sprinkling of snow along it, and we were concerned it might be out of condition. And the headwall approaching it – Moser’s Highway – a bowl-shaped barrier of dubious scrambling ledges over a steep snowfield and high bergschrund, added to our concern.
“No one has climbed it so far this year. If you can do the headwall by Moser’s Highway and get to the hut, you can do the climb. The mountain’s fine”, claimed Sepp Renner. Sepp had to know something. He was a Swiss guide based at the Lodge and had summited Assiniboine a record forty-six times. This was his mountain. Time would tell if he was right.
That night we trimmed our packs. A lightweight attempt was called for, so we jettisoned all non-essentials, taking only the minimum food, climbing gear, water and clothing. Early the following morning we carefully navigated the headwall and made the hut by noon. Striking distance of our quarry now. All that afternoon we lounged around the hut, admiring the mountain. Its North face commanded attention, and we routinely found our eyes wandering back and forth and all over it. Through binoculars we scrutinised the route. 900 metres of ascent lay ahead of us, up a steepening triangle of multi-toned limestone – red, green, purple, brown, beige, black, white, grey – all the colours you can think of. Much of it loose and uncertain, strangely enticing. All of it softening in shadow by a lowering sun.
The night was lonely and quiet. The hut, spartan and small. No other souls around but ourselves and we were miles away from anyone. The night brought the deep silence of an eternity into the hut. You could sense few people came here. And you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d left this world altogether. An atmosphere of profound isolation and distant spirits pervaded. Stoneys perhaps, or fallen climbers? I had experienced this sensation once before, strangely, while spending a night in an equivalent hut on the Matterhorn. It gave you a sense of what hermits on the Skellig islands might have felt, night after long dark night in their beehive huts out on the Atlantic, a thousand years ago. An other-world emptiness.
But it didn’t last forever, and in the half light of dawn we set out. Hardware clinking as we left shelter. We padded over a bouldered moraine down to the glacier. Roped up and ascended the ice, gently at the top onto the mountain’s lower rocks. Off with the crampons and we forged our way up three hundred meters to the main snowfield. It was early, hot work. Gingerly we crossed this, taking the odd slip. Then onto boulderfields and innumerable ledges to the wide grey band. Tons and tons of loose jagged rocks littered the face. Going to be fun coming down all this, I thought. But at least the rock was dry, making movement easier. We progressed quickly, working a running belay when needed. Gear in, clip on, clip off, gear out, keep moving. Rob led the way. Just one pitch to see us through the grey band. A traverse right to reach the red band. A second pitch to break through it. And how red it was – like climbing an industrial chimney made of clay bricks. Then a final pitch leftwards, balancing tentatively to make the ridge crest. Not far to go now. With three and a half hours climbing behind us, we stopped for a short break. While drinking and nibbling biscuits we scanned around. The green-roofed hut was a speck in the distance below and the North face was emerging from shadow. While the vast East face basked in the glow of a strengthening sun. It was horrendous looking. A thousand metre precipice, concave in shape, punctuated by long narrow snow flutes, barely hanging on. All capped by a formidable cornice on the summit. The thought of anyone climbing it made my stomach turn. The others felt likewise.
“Give me a big wall in Yosemite or Baffin Island any day”, I said.
We coiled the rope and pressed on, sensing close proximity to the top. Up the ridge tower. At 10.10 we made the subsidiary summit. The ground flattened now as we moved on an arcing track carved by the footprints of previous climbers. At 10.19 we made the summit. Quiet satisfaction now replaced five hours sustained physical effort and concentration. And a chance to sit down. We gazed across the Rockies, over a vast expanse of snow-capped ridges and peaks, as far as the horizon. Given the remoteness we were probably the only climbers on any mountain for 100 or 200 square miles. The range to ourselves. No birds in flight, just stretching blue sky and rolling cloud. Below us a heavenly patchwork of ancient glaciers, turquoise lakes and endless pine forest. A magnificient vista. We breathed the cool clean air. This is the reason I climb mountains, I thought ... for these rare moments. And it was hard to think otherwise – I was experiencing Paradise on earth.
Our descent was steady, re-tracing the route down. A mixture of abseils and down-climbing, with alternating leads. Train-loads of choss covered the steps and ledges of the North face and I was glad we had chosen the ridge. A few close calls were had from rock-falls discharged by errant feet. Rob’s helmet took a dent from a missile of my making. Luckily it was just his helmet.
Wearily we progressed down the bands, across the snowfield and over the rocks. Four hours after leaving the summit we stumbled onto the glacier. And ten and a half hours after leaving, we fell into the hut. The remaining afternoon saw us copiously re-hydrating and recalling the climb in high spirits. No more anxiety. It was over and we were tired.
That evening Jim cooked us a meal of noodle soup and pasta, which we washed down with buckets of tea. We hit our bunks before nightfall. Packs of cards and board games lay in the hut for climbers’ amusement, but we weren’t up to games. Instead we talked and joked about the various incidents of the day. I leafed through the hut logbook. The only other entry for an attempt on the mountain in ‘07 was for 1st April. A futile winter attempt by three Canmore locals. They had it rough. Their words said it all:
“F**king cold. White-out condition and crazy wind” ... Francois, Wade & Paul.
We slept soundly that night. No spirits from the afterworld came to visit. Early the next morning we packed up and made for the Lodge, carefully negotiating our way back down Moser’s Highway. Altogether the climb had been great. The weather was perfect and mountain conditions had been favourable. Our timing was fortunate. As for ourselves, we each nursed a few cuts and scrapes, which can only be expected from such an undertaking. But we also had our fair share of luck: Rob fell into a bergschrund on the way up the Highway, but easily climbed out. While heading back down, casually, as last man, I happened to check a fixed abseil peg and ring. It appeared loose. It was just as well I did, as it slipped out of the rock effortlessly, like a coin rolling off a table. I held it aloft in my fingers.
“Look what you two just abseiled off”.
To say there was surprise in their eyes would have been an understatement.
Back at the Lodge Sepp confirmed we’d made the first ascent for 2007. At best two dozen parties might follow in our wake over the course of the summer, assuming weather and conditions prevailed. Some years the mountain has witnessed very few climbers. And practically never anyone in winter. Unlike the Alps, winters in the Rockies are extremely harsh and particularly long.
That night we spent in a cabin at the Lodge. A lovely peaceful night, under a full moon and a million stars. Job done, we hiked out of the park the next day. 26km back to the trailhead, with moderately lighter loads. And although for better or worse, we didn’t run into any bears, we were graced by the passing presence of beautiful flora and tame fauna: endless aromatic sprucewood, colourful wildflowers, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, marmots, cotton-tailed mountain rabbits, grouse, butterflies and singing birds. All of these creatures thriving in a wonderful land of dense forest, cool, fast-flowing rivers and towering snowy peaks.
In the heat of midday we reached our car where we collapsed, exhausted and thirsty. All told, it had been a tough, rewarding adventure; five days out, a major peak climbed, all challenges overcome, with each man a few pounds lighter and in need of a rest. We were well pleased. Still, would we consider returning someday to Assiniboine for a second ascent?
Copyright © Gerry Galligan - August 2007