Some BackgroundBeing out of the climbing game for almost a year due to an injury has provided me with some new motivation to climb even harder in 2009 – you might say I’m making up for lost time. I’ve got a trip planned to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado (cancelled last year) with my climbing partner Greg, with the goal to climb (at least) the South Face of the Petit Grepon (5.8), Syke’s Sickle on Spearhead (5.9), and the Casual Route (5.10) on the Diamond (Longs Peak). Later on in the summer, if we get a 2-3 day window of stable weather, I’ve also made plans to climb “All Along the Watchtower” (5.12), a 32-35 pitch route on the west face of North Howser Tower with Mirek, another long-time climbing partner. All this planning has made me realize I better get my fat ass in shape – and the sooner the better.
Malign Sport Ice Climbing?Malign Canyon is a deep very narrow gorge carved out of limestone by the Malign River – in a few sections of the canyon; seeps pour over the edge forming spectacular ice falls. We headed to the area generally called “The Queen”, where there were five separate steep grade 4 pitches, all about five metres apart.
I led the first two lines, while Greg led the last two (one line was too wet). After each lead, we pulled the rope allowing the other person to lead the climb only having to clip the ice screws already in place. This was the closest to sport climbing on ice as I think you’re going to come. At the end of the night we were both super pumped, but also super stoked.
Bouldering at Home
Friday was a rest day.
Stanley & ShadesShades of Beauty” and “Stanley Senior”. Stanley is on one side of a steep valley and Shades is on the other. We hiked in for about an hour along the valley bottom slowly gaining elevation – at this point you head straight up hill for about 500 feet of elevation to the base of Stanley. It’s best to do Stanley first, because it gets morning sun.
The climb is about 45 metres long, with two sections of steep ice, broken about 1/3 of the way up with a decent rest spot. The ice looked horrible as it was very sun affected; luckily, looks can be deceiving. Once climbing, the ice was actually pretty darn nice, with one-stick swings being the norm rather than the exception. The sun was shining and the ice was awesome – I was totally enjoying myself. Once on top, I quickly set up a belay at a handy tree and prepared to bring Jolene up.
Now Jolene had just started ice climbing last year, and this was only her third time out with me this season. She had been progressing incredibly well, having no problems with the grade 3 climbs we had previously done. Today was to be her first attempt at grade 4. She had no issues with the climb and popped up over the top with a big smile on her face. We rapped to the bottom, packed up, and then descended back to the valley floor.
The walk up the other side is a bit longer – perhaps 600-700 feet in elevation gain. We arrived out of breath at the bottom of Shades 20 minutes later. As well as being a classic 3-pitch ice climb, Shades also has another more mysterious reputation – a group of very resourceful ravens live nearby and have developed extraordinary skills at opening the packs of climbers and stealing anything edible (or shiny). If you are not aware of the local inhabitants, you will arrive back at your pack to see the contents strewn about and wonder what the hell happened. They can easily open zippers and draw strings – if they can’t get in, sometimes they crap on your bag anyway; just so you know who’s boss. It can be funny to read some of the posts on local climbing forums from visiting climbers, complaining vehemently about some thief hiking up to the bottom of the climb they were on and stealing their lunch – of course, not realizing it was the birds. Anyway, I digress.
The first pitch of Shades is a fun grade 3 pitch of rolling wet ice. Three screws and 40 metres later, I was at the top. The second pitch is normally the crux – a short 15 metre steep grade 4 pitch. I tried to take the longest line up the middle, but it was absolutely pouring with water, so I decided to go a bit right of centre. The ice was mushroomed and a bit tricky, but soon I was past the main difficulties. About 4 metres from the top, I swung my right ice tool, and noticed the black tip of the tool come flying back at me. Crap! This was the first pick I had broken in the last ten years. I managed to get to the top, but it does suck climbing steep ice with 1.5 inches of your tool missing. Jolene again flew up this pitch with no real difficulties, but I thought she might be starting to get a bit tired because I know I was.
The top pitch of Shades is normally the best – a full 50 metres of wet plastic ice. The flow is quite wide so you can take different lines. Depending on the year, some lines are grade four and others are grade 3. Today, in the spirit of getting myself in better shape, I took the steepest longest line up the middle. Because my spare pick was back in my raven-proofed pack, I had to borrow one of Jolene’s tools, which I planned to lower back to her on our rappel rope after I got to the top. I also took the leash off, to avoid having to resize it to my hand. So I was climbing with two different brands of tools, one leash-less. I’m pretty sure this was the first single leash, un-matching tools ascent of this climb – I’m thinking of writing into Rock & Ice.
I must admit, by the time I got over the steep section, I was getting pretty darned pumped – give me leashes any day when climbing ice. When I was bringing Jolene up she was climbing quite quickly, but ¾ of the way to the top I heard a very loud “Take!”. I pulled on the rope, felt her weight for a second, but then the rope was unweighted again. Turns out Jolene had a little pep talk with herself and decided she didn’t need to rest after all. Her problem was spaghetti arm – the bane of all ice climbers. For those that don’t know what this is – it’s pretty self explanatory. You are so pumped your arm takes on the characteristics of a limp noodle, and rather than crisp swings with nice sticks, you end up bouncing the side of your axe off the ice often narrowly missing your face. This really sucks when you’re leading.
So after a one second rest, Jolene was back on track and arrived on top five minutes later, pretty darn tired but happy to have completed her hardest climb to date and in grand style. We arrived back at our vehicle at 6 o’clock – having been on the go for 8.5 hours. I felt skinnier already.
The next day dawned absolutely bluebell. Nick and I picked up Greg at 8 a.m. and we headed off to try a new (or rediscovered) ice climb near Brule Alberta. There was a nice post about this climb on Gravsports-ice.com by a local Hinton climber who had just soloed the route. He described it as four short pitches and one 35 metre pitch of ice in an alpine gully setting – he named the route “The Condemned”.
While gearing up at the vehicle another truck came down the narrow dirt road – it was other Hinton/Jasper area climbers Dana and Karl heading off to climb rock at Bedson’s Ridge. Such is the climbing during spring in the Rockies that your first decision of the day is do I climb rock or do I climb ice?
The approach to “The Condemned” took about an hour and followed up a steep dry gully until an obvious fork was reached and the first short pitch of the climb was visible in the right hand gully. A five minute walk up the gully brought us to the bottom of the “ice”. It was about 7 metres high and was actually more waterfall than ice. Although sketchy looking, I decided I’d give it a go. I was actually putting on my harness and gearing up as fast as I could, because the climb was disintegrating right before our eyes. When I got my crampons and tools on, I walked up to the bottom and sunk my axe into the thickest part of the pathetic looking chunk of ice. The tool held nicely, but as I weighted it the entire 8 foot section my axe was sunk into flexed about three inches out from the wall. I quickly removed my tool, took off my crampons, put my pack back on, and walked away, tail tucked firmly between my legs. We skirted this section by traversing way right and then left back into the gully.
Fifteen minutes of uphill grunting in this steep gully of ice, brought us to another short pitch of grade two ice – we quickly soloed this pitch and headed up again. After another 60 metres, the gully turned sharply to the left and we found the 35 metre pitch we had read about. Greg offered to let me lead it in recognition of my somewhat brave but stupid attempt to lead the first watery pitch. I declined having already had a great day of leading yesterday and knowing that Greg was just being nice.
Greg quickly dispatched of the grade 3 pitch and then linked up the next eight metre pitch, with me simu-climbing for about 10 metres. We then brought Nick up on an 8-mill rope I trailed. From there it was another steep slog up the gully to a few final short little ice steps, which we all soloed and that brought you to the top of the gully system.
We’d probably gained about 1200-1500 feet of elevation and were nearer the top of the mountain than the bottom. We took a few minutes to soak up the incredible views of the stellar limestone rock wall above us and beautiful Brule Lake below us. It was 11:40 a.m. and it was time to head down – we were hoping to do some rock climbing next.
We descended climbers left down an extremely steep treed slope until finally coming out into another avalanche gully. After some ugly down climbing and scree sliding (with crampons on), we hit the snow again and managed to otter-slide back down to the fork in the gully leading up to the first pitch. Greg volunteered to walk up there and get the two packs we had left at the bottom. When he arrived back at the packs, the entire first “ice” pitch was gone – nothing but rock and water. It was 13 degrees Celsius (55 F) and sunny.
The Juno WallWe arrived back at the vehicle at 1 p.m. – from there we all piled in and drove another 45 minutes to the Juno Wall. Ice axes and crampons were exchanged for rock shoes and quick-draws – we were going sport climbing on perfect grey limestone. The approach to the Juno Wall is a 45 minutes uphill hike and follows a lovely ridge until you can make an exposed traverse into the bottom of the wall.
Greg and I had developed all the routes on the wall (there’s 21 pitches of climbing) three and four years ago – it’s one of the first places in the Jasper area to climb in spring due to its south west exposure. Imagine our surprise when we rounded the final corner and saw more than 10 other climbers having fun on all the routes we’d put up. I should say climbing in the Jasper area is not normally a social outing. Most times we’re actually happy if we see other climbers on our crags – overcrowding is not an issue here.
We each managed to climb a few pitches before I had to head home in time for Sunday dinner with my family. This was the first rock climbing I’d done for almost a year and I totally enjoyed the feeling of moving gracefully over rock again – ice climbing may be a lot of things, but graceful isn’t one of them. I also enjoyed socializing with many local climbing friends that I hadn’t seen for a while due to my absence – it was kind of like the first day back at school after summer holidays.