A Plan Comes Together
After having a fun day (for once) climbing the Right Side of the Weeping Wall two weeks previous, Greg and I had to decide on our next climb. Having scoped out (from the road) “Mixed Master” the previous week (when climbing the Left Side of the Weeping Wall), I suggested we have a go at that. Greg agreed.
The first pitch of "Mixed Master". The ice in the second pitch can be seen in the middle left of the picture (just above the climber).
Mixed Master, according to the Guidebook, is one of the best mixed climbs in the Canadian Rockies. The climb is seven pitches in length, with ice up to Grade 5 and mixed climbing to 5.8. The crux is the rarely formed last pitch, which (when formed) climbs a ten-inch wide smear of ice for 10 vertical metres, and then another steep thin section of ice to the top. I had looked at the last pitch through binoculars on the previous Sunday and it appeared formed to me.
Our plan was to leave at 6 o’clock Saturday (Feb 6) morning. By the time 6:15 rolled around, I was in the awkward stage where I’m not sure if Greg has slept in and I should be calling him. My problem was that if he rolled up in the next five minutes, his wife was going to be pissed off I woke her up at 6:15 on a Saturday morning. At 6:20 I reluctantly picked up the phone and was just dialing when Greg showed up. We got out of town at 6:30 a.m. – it’s about a 2.5 hour drive from Hinton to the bottom of Mixed Master.
The drive was non-eventful, with the usual interesting conservation between good friends. After gearing up at the car, we started up the gruelling and sole destroying hike to the base of the climb; no just kidding – its 15 minutes on a nice trail. It was a beautiful blue-bell day with highs expected in the +6C range.
There was a nice place to gear up at the bottom of the climb and we hid one of our packs in a natural snow/ice cave at the start of the route. Greg raven-proofed his pack by clipping a little carabiner to the zipper end (i.e. on the top of his pack), and then clipping that to the pack proper. No stupid raven was going to outsmart him (more on that later…..). He was, in fact, so confident is his raven-proofing that he left the car keys in the top of the pack (this is a writing technique called fore-shadowing).
The climb starts off in a big right facing corner with ice plastered along its inside edge. The first pitch, which Greg led, is about 40 metres long and ended at a single quarter inch bolt (which we backed up with an ice screw) on the left hand side. It was mainly grade 2 ice, with a couple of steep sections with poor ice.
This is the fourth pitch of "Mixed Master" - this is where the "mixed" portion of the climb comes in. In order to protect the rising traverse, you need to climb close to the headwall to place gear.
The second pitch, was stellar – one of my top ten favourite pitches of ice. It started out with some near vertical thin ice for approximately 10 metres. From there, the ice narrowed to about 18 inches wide with some vertical sections nicely interspersed with some just off-vertical. The climbing was very fun, with generally good ice with ample opportunities to place screws. You definitely had to work the rock a bit in order to stay in balance. After about 25 metres of climbing you come over a lip to a good rest spot. There is a bolt belay here, but I didn’t (nor should you) use it. After sauntering up some easy ice, I was confronted with another very steep and somewhat hollow section of ice. I carefully worked my way, via hooks, up the right side of the ice until I could traverse to the left onto the better ice. From there I powered up to the top of the steep stuff. One more ice screw for piece of mind, and then about a 15 metres section of steep snow, and I was at a comfortable two-bolt belay. Great pitch – probably no more than grade 4, but a little more tricky due to lack of ice in spots!!!
Pitch 2 of Mixed Master
The next pitch was Greg’s lead and it started off with an exposed traverse of about 20 metres to the right. From there you climb up about 15 metres of grade 3 ice and belay in an alcove off of ice screws.
The fourth pitch was where the true mixed climbing starts. The pitch makes a rising traverse to the left of about 25-30 metres, following a big headwall. From that point the climb heads straight up following a large left facing corner. I got to lead this pitch and really enjoyed it; although to be fair, it’s not for the faint of heart. Although the climbing really isn’t hard (5.8 at the crux) it is mainly on rock, which must be protected with rock gear and climbed in crampons. In order to place gear, you need to be up near the headwall, which can throw you off balance in a few places. We never brought any pitons, but there were a couple in-situ pitons that I clipped (which were old and rusted). The gear was generally there, but like all limestone gear climbing, it’s not exactly confidence inspiring. A small rack with some wires, and small cams (I had a set of Aliens) seemed to do the trick – the biggest piece I placed was a #1 Camalot.
Pitch 4 - at the crux
In any event, I managed to make my way carefully across and up. There is a little ice climbing to be had right off the belay and then the climb turns into pure rock climbing. I ended up holstering my tools and climbing with my hands only – I even took off one glove in the steeper section going over the crux. Caution was needed through this section because any fall/slip could prove disastrous. I also had to make sure I was putting in enough protection to protect Greg in case he fell – because of the traversing nature of the pitch; a fall for the second could be just as nasty as a fall for the leader.
Once over the crux and around the corner, the climb follows steeply up a big left facing corner. There is a section where it is obvious one needs to traverse out of the corner further to the left to gain some steep snow/ice terrain. I carefully slung a chockstone in the corner with a long sling and clipped my rope. There is then a delicate move from the corner across to the snow/ice terrain. It’s a long step sideways to the left and you end up being stemmed quite wide. Right when I was in the middle of this move and just as I was trying to shift my body all the way over to the left – I was abruptly and strangely brought to a complete stop. Looking down, I realized the problem immediately – I had clipped a loop in my leash (as well as the rope) into my long sling. Picture me stemmed out to my max on sketchy rock/snow/ice and having a hard time to move anywhere – fun times. I managed to get my leash unclipped from the sling, but then couldn’t clip my rope back into the sling without reversing the move (which I really didn’t want to do). After screwing around (carefully) for a minute, I just let the sling go (as I couldn’t clip it to my rope) and kept climbing.
Due to the traversing and then vertical nature of the climb, you end up with some bad rope drag (especially if you’re only climbing on one lead rope, as we were). And as is often the case in situations like this, there’s a very cruxy little section right at the top of the climb. I needed to make another delicate move around the jutting corner with not much for tool or hand placements. Some delicate stemming and some marginal ice – got me to the anchors. Another great pitch, with a little bit of everything!
Greg had no problems on the pitch, climbing most of it with his gloves off. He did wonder what the hell I was doing when he climbed up to a long sling slung on a chockstone, but not clipped into the rope. I told him my long sad story.
The next pitch followed a narrow seam of ice up the corner for about 35 metres and ended at a tree belay. About 20 metres up, there is a section where you can go right or left around a jutting piece of rock. Greg placed a good cam in the corner and then traversed out to the left taking the left hand option. When I followed it, I took the right hand option – either is probably about the same but the right hand option was perhaps a little thinner.
From the tree at the top of this 5th pitch, we had our first look at the upper pitches. We were both disappointed to see that the last pitch didn’t look climbable. The problem was the sun. By this time (probably around 1:30 pm), the sun had been directly shinning on the pitch for at least 3 hours – and on top of that, the ambient air temperature was probably right around freezing. There was lots of water running down the ice; in addition there was the occasional larger discharge of snow and rock over the lip of the last pitch (which wouldn’t be fun for the leader). All of this did not look promising, but I badly wanted to climb that pitch, so we decided to climb the next steep snow pitch, so we could get a better look from the bottom.
I headed off up a steep snow slope – it was a bit disconcerting because it was quite a steep slope and the snow was not well adhered to the ground. I slung a little fir tree for courage, and then made a rising traverse to the right until I got to the bottom of a short section of actual ice. Five metres of ice climbing and I was back on the steep snow. Another 10 metres of slogging and I arrived at a nice two-bolt belay.
Pitch 6 - looking down
While I belayed Greg up, I had a good look at the next pitch. The 10-inch ice seam, the supposed crux of the climb, was pretty much gone. The guidebook did say you could traverse around this section with some 5.8 rock climbing to reach the thicker ice above. However, a closer look at the “thick ice” up top showed a thin ribbon of ice, with water running underneath it.
When Greg arrived at the belay, we went back and forth about what to do – I really, really, wanted to climb it, but in the end, we decided it wasn’t worth the risk. One thing I did realize, however, was that the pitch wasn’t nearly as hard looking in real life as it was in the picture from the guidebook. Certainly, if you’ve made it to the bottom this pitch, and the ice is in, you’d have no problem climbing it. That didn’t make me feel much better, however, and I am definitely going to want to come back and finish this climb off.
Getting Off (no pun intended)
The last pitch - note all the water; it was running over and under the ice
Five fairly straight forward 50-60 metre rappels put us back to the start of the climb and our raven-proofed pack. I was the first to touch down and could see right away that Ed the Raven had outsmarted us again – D’oh….. The raven had managed to open the top zipper of Greg’s pack and its contents where strewn about everywhere. There was a twenty dollar bill there, a sandwich wrapper here, toilet paper over there….. When Greg arrived, his first question was “Where are the car keys?” They definitely weren’t in the top of the pack anymore….
I pulled the pack out of the little cave and believe it or not, the keys were sitting on this small snow pedestal, right up against the rock edge. If they have been 5 inches to the left or right, they would have fallen into the black abyss – that wonderful little gap between the rock and snow at the edge of any wall. Even if we had known that the keys had fallen there, it would have been hours to dig them out. Moral of the story – you are not smarter than a raven.