The morning of January 7, 2008 started, as usual, bang on 6 am with Aaron knocking at the door and ready to hit the road. We had often talked about climbing down around Nordegg but only recently had seriously considered making the nearly 3 hour trip south down the Forestry Trunk road. Being new to the area we chose to tackle Elliot Left Hand, a more moderate line on the stunning Mt. Elliot.
As the crow flies, and as the gravel road we took south from Hinton travels, the village of Nordegg is really not that far a trip for a couple of climbers looking for new terrain. A truck is necessary and 4x4 an asset. We made it to the parking area in about 2 3/4 hrs (not the 6 1/4 hrs Google Map estimated). The climb is situated on beautiful Mt. Elliot and is obvious two drainages left of the stunning David Thompson classic Kitty Hawk. The weather was cooperative remaining mild and cloudy most of the day, and given the lack of snow over the last week, any concerns about the avalanche slope threatening this climb were muted.
In our eagerness to get going we failed to listen to our intuition that a well trodden path should be evident. Unwilling to look around a bit longer we eyed up the climb from the road and hit the trees breaking trail for 45 mintues. If is difficult to get lost here as everything seems to funnel back towards the drainage below the climb. This is where we first saw the aformentioned trade route to the base. Joining this trail we saw the first clear views of the first pitch of the climb. As described by Joe Josephson in his guide Waterfall Ice the approach is about 60 minutes.
A.Jones Keeping it Dry On Pitch 1
Pitch 1: Aaron took the lead on the first pitch which proved to be close to 60 metres of solid grade 3 ice. Opting for the drier ice Aaron chose the steeper line up the middle. Working his new ice tools it was clear he was adusting his swing to accommodate the notoriously sticky BD picks. A beefy chain anchor is present on the climbers left so disregard the old 1/4 inch bolt and pin station to the right.
The start of the Rambling Middle Pitches
Pitch 2-5: The next section of ice can easily be simu-climbed. This is a series of grade 1-2 ice steps separated by easy snow slopes. The ice is just steep enough to keep you from walking upright, but not steep enough to keep you from looking like a fool with your ass stuck in the air. Some of the climbing was interesting as the ice was thin, but besides the aerobic workout it is far from inspiring. Watch for a station on the climbers left at about 60 metres. It is useless on your way up, but it can be difficult to see if you don't know where to look on the descent.
Pitch 6: Once you clear the last ice step and start working your way up the final snow slope the hidden final pitch comes into view. I had read over this climb many times in the guide book and with that written description and picture I had a clear vision of what this pitch of ice would look like. Needless to say that was not what we saw. Instead of a wide expanse of steep, thick and well-formed ice, we were looking at a thin pillar of anemic ice complete with flowing water visible in behind sections of thin clear ice. After some discussion we agreed this must be the pitch and planned our attack. Some bail sling was visible 1/3 of the way up the climbers right, where I was initially planning to climb. After some discussion I decided on Aaron's suggestion to the left.
Working My Way Through Thin Ice Towards the Ice Runnel Up and to the Left.
The climbing started with some easier moves to surmount the base of the ice pedestal. From here things steepened significantly. The next 25 metres involved some precise placements into sections of thicker ice that was surpisingly solid. As is my style, I placed pro almost as readily as I swung my tools and the pro too was surpisingly solid. About 20 metres off the ground I experienced every ice climber's nightmare as both feet blew out of their tenuous placements leaving me hanging by my tools. Like a cat on hardwood floor I scratched at the ice to reestablish my feet while feeling the rope quickly snug up in Aaron's anticipation of me going for a ride. Once I reestablished my feet, I made my way up to the "Thank God" rest atop this steep section of ice. I took some time at this rest to shake out the pump while negotiating the thin section of ice above me.
The flowing water was clearly visible just under the clear ice in front of me as I made the short traverse right and up above this thin section. This put me in a narrow runnel that eased off to 80 degrees. The ice continued to be solid up through this runnel for the next 6-8 metres where the things kicked back nicely to some grade 2 steps and the final traverse left to the belay tree.
The First 50 Metre Rappel
The descent is straightforward. An easy 50 metre rappel off the belay tree is followed by some easy downclimbing back to the station seen on the way up. Two more 60 metre rappels had us back at the base of the climb. We followed the climbers trail back to the highway instead of backtracking our trail and found this to be a very smart choice...unlike the approach.
The Final Pitch 2003 (Eric and Lucie)
The Final Pitch 2008
What is so neat about ice is that it is a temporary feature capable of forming up differently year to year. On top of that, the conditions can shift day to day.
I found it interesting to compare the climb as we found it to previous years. Although the ice was far from what I was expecting, it proved to be an amazing ice climb in a very cool setting.
That's the thing about ice, you never really know what you're going to get, and it never shows up in ugly places.