Sunday, January 24, 2016

Beware expectations

I’ve been bashing ice in the Rockies for longer than I care to admit (but coming up on a quarter of a century). When you’ve slogged up a particular valley or bowl more than once (or twice or thrice), it’s hard to keep your mind free of preconceptions. The resulting experience ends up being as much about the baggage of expectations you carry up as it is about the snow, ice and rock beneath your crampons and tools. The beginner’s mind proves as elusive as it is clich├ęd.

***

N’Ice Baby, WI5

“… an excellent route offering a good compromise of excellent ice with difficult, but not unrelenting steepness.”
      Joe Josephson, Waterfall Ice Climbs in the Canadian Rockies

Rather than type yet another text, I decided to shortcut the exchange. I dialled Jon’s number just as he was about to dial mine.
“The forecast is for high winds, not ideal for that smear on S.”
“I was thinking the same thing. I guess we could just go ice climbing. The bowl above Le Tabernac looks good.”
“I could be into that. What time do you want to leave?”
Hanging up, I felt myself relaxing. The uncertainty of many pitches of virgin rock leading to an unclimbed dagger had been replaced by the prospect of plastic ice in spectacular yet familiar surroundings. Sleep came easily.

In the flat light of a December afternoon, all the waterfalls at the back of the bowl looked equally inviting. Mind you, Les Mis wasn’t quite formed and we’d both done Whoa Whoa before. The wide strip of N’Ice Baby was the obvious choice. My picks bouncing off the black limestone just underneath the sugary ice were the first hint we might be in for a fight. Suddenly I was glad of the rope above me, glad we hadn’t soloed the initial shield as I’d almost suggested.

Leaving Jon tethered to a couple of shortish screws in ice blobs, I traversed back to the centre of the waterfall, where the ice looked to be the most solid. More screws into blobs – not ideal but the thickest ice around – and I arrived at the bottom of the opaque streak I’d envisioned climbing. Picks rattled disconcertingly in the desiccated ice. Instead of the blue plastic I'd been expecting, I looked up at vertical curtains thinly draped over rock. “I can climb this but any screws will be crap,” I thought. I considered retreating but I pride, stubbornness, call it what you will, wouldn’t let me.

A few metres to the left a slight corner promised ice that'd be less detached. Unfortunately it was directly above the belay. “Jon, any chance you could move a bit left?” Given that the belay was hanging it wasn’t a very reasonable request, but Jon managed to find some shelter. Taking a deep breath, I started upward: hitting rock, knowing there’s nothing better so keeping the tool steady, locking off and reaching for the next shallow hook. So much for the “excellent ice” we’d been promised – or rather, expected. The climb fell down a few days later.



Slogging up into the bowl above Oh Le Tabernac, with the confluence of the Saskatchewan, Howse and Mistaya Rivers in the distance. Photo: Jon Walsh.


From left to right: N'Ice Baby, Whoa Whoa Capitaine and Les Miserables. Photo: Jon Walsh.


Yours truly starting up the second pitch of N'Ice Baby. Photo: Jon Walsh.


Striving for beginner's mind on N'Ice Baby. Photo: Jon Walsh.

***

Dead Eye Dick, WI5+ R/X

“… ice of variable thickness ranging from thin to very thin.”
      Sean Isaac, Mixed Climbs in the Canadian Rockies

“We were belayed to a thin pillar.” Chris’ eyes got wider as he got to this point in his story. “If it’d broken as I climbed it, both of us would’ve gone all the way to the ground.” Chris loved danger: runout pitches, manky belays, dancing along the fine line separating control from chaos. I, on the other hand, was bold only reluctantly, when ambition and conditions forced my hand. I didn’t do Dead Eye Dick that season.

“I had three stubbies but I wish I’d head more,” Jon texted. “The first pitch is R-rated for sure, but you get decent gear where you really need it.” Walking up to the base I had definitely more than three 10-cm screws in my pack. And even though Jon said rock gear wasn’t especially useful, I also packed a full rack of cams.

Craning my head, I climbed the first pitch in my mind. Ten metres of thin but lower-angled ice led to a small pillar. The ice turned vertical for a few metres then backed off again. Seen from the parking lot, the thin strip had looked dead vertical. Now, from the deep snow at its foot, the angle of the wall revealed itself to be much more reasonable.

I didn’t bother with screws until I got to the small pillar. Once there, I threw a long sling around it. Bomber. I could afford to fall off now – not that I was planning to. I expected to have to run it out on the vertical curtain above, but the ice looked solid just below where the angle eased. I stopped, got in a good stubby and relaxed. I came expecting to teeter on points sunk only a centimetre or two into the ice, while facing an unthinkable fall. But my tools struck rock only rarely, and protection was sparse but solid.

Almost out of rope, I pulled up beside a slender pillar. A horizontal fracture bisected its base. No matter. I spun in a couple of solid screws below it and added a sling around a tree-root-like icicle for good measure. “Secure!” I yelled down to Juan. I looked up at where the pillar connected with the rock roof. It was probably thicker than when Chris had climbed the route all those years ago. But what really mattered was that the pillar was much, much thicker than the fragile stalk my imagination had conjured up.


The Weeping Wall complex, with Dead Eye Dick on the left.


The rarely formed Dead Eye Dick.


Yours truly bouldering out the start of Dead Eye Dick above a comfortingly deep crash pad of snow. Photo: Juan Henriquez.


A long sling around a thin pillar. Bomber. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

***

I suppose one way to recapture beginner’s mind is to climb somewhere we’ve never climbed before. Maybe that’s why I’m writing this from a train station in Edinburgh, on my way to discover the pleasures and miseries of Scottish winter climbing. I’ve heard stories and seen photos of rimed walls and corners, deep snow and driving rain. But truth be told, I really don’t know what to expect. And it’s probably for the best.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Tainted Love

November 2014. Ian and I were gunning for The Hole, a natural arch in the middle of the north face of Mt. Lawrence Grassi, a prominent yet obscure wall above Canmore. But we missed the break leading up to it and instead found ourselves below The Gash. The thin ice dribbling out of the giant chimney looked innocent enough. It was only when I was halfway up the twenty-metre flow, picks wobbling in shallow placements, that I began to think I might have strayed over the line separating scrambling from soloing. Pulling onto a steep snow ledge, I spied faded cord connecting two bolts: relics of previous attempts on The Gash. But we hadn’t come for The Gash. Tying into the rope, we took off on a rising traverse in search of The Hole.

December 2014. The Hole route ended up being fun in an alpine kind of way, but the sport climber in me was drawn to the project on the wall. A couple of weeks later Ian and I, joined by young Sam, slogged back up to The Gash. This time, instead of traversing away from the plumb line, we continued straight up. Water-worn rock, frozen moss, unconsolidated snow – and more old bolts. After a couple of pitches they ran out. A slabby rock step, a short snowfield, and we entered the guts of The Gash. With Ian and Sam bundled up at the belay, I started up the overhanging back wall. Hooking frozen choss, hanging from tools, drilling bolts: an altogether too familiar anything-goes dance to get up the pitch.

In the grey light of dawn the wind washed over the bare scree on the ridge like a river. “Reminds me of the north side of Everest,” Steve shouted into my ear. “Not so cold maybe but feels cold with the wind.” Ian, always more of an alpinist than a sport climber, declared himself uninterested in my newest construction project. Instead, I convinced Steve and Juan that shivering for hours at a belay for while I aided and bolted would be a fun way to spend a dark December day. I forgot to mention the belay would be barely sheltered from all the rocks I’d be trundling. After all, who would’ve expected the shattered, overhanging fault line that’d become the crux pitch to have any loose rock?

Ian might’ve lost interest in The Gash but he stoked my obsession with it. “Pete’s from the UK, working at a climbing shop in town. He couldn’t believe when I told him The Gash was unclimbed and he’s thinking of heading up to check it out.” Once I got over feeling possessive about my project, Pete and I made plans for Friday. The day was forecast to be cold, but I was leaving for Hawaii on Sunday, and figured I would’ve plenty of time to warm up there. Racing fading daylight, I pulled on bolts to my previous highpoint. Then, with the terrain ahead merely vertical, I headed up armed only with cams and pins. Standing below a rock outcrop in the snow gully above, I pulled up the drill and made an anchor. On the way down I cleaned my rattly pins and drilled bolts. Next time I wanted gear that’d hold a fall.

January 2015. I fully intended to finish the job when I got back from Hawaii but weather and conditions conspired against me. Either it was too cold or too warm or too windy or avalanche hazard was too high. And when stars finally lined up, I’d lost my motivation for drytooling choss, preferring to carry it uphill instead to train for an upcoming Himalayan trip. Spring, then summer, came and went. Once again mornings dawned frosty and fresh snow powdered Mt. Lawrence Grassi.

October 2015. It was becoming clear that redpoints of my latest Echo Canyon projects would have to await the following year and hopefully stronger fingers. Shivering for a purpose is one thing, but shivering just to squeeze in another day of rock climbing didn’t appeal. My thoughts turned to unfinished business in The Gash. I considered finishing the job honestly, I really did: climbing from the bottom, hauling up an optimistic rack of gear and a realistic drill, and getting up what appeared to be the last steep pitch. But the prospect of dragging all that junk up the route only to run out of daylight, or to find the necessary ice wasn’t there yet, was too depressing. Thus it was I came over to the dark side. One sunny fall day, Wiktor and I scrambled to within a stone’s throw of the summit of Lawrence Grassi, and then dropped in to bolt the last overhanging pitch on rappel. On the bright side, the trundling, with no one below, was tremendous.

November 2015. “The route’s rigged, it just needs to be sent.” I thought it more likely Juan would be interested if he knew it wasn’t another aiding, bolting and standing-around mission. Young Colin was also in the Rockies from Colorado and we’d talked about going climbing. “How about this project I need to finish? Sport mixed in the alpine, should be good fun.” They were both game. For once it was a mild, windless day. The snowpack in Miner’s Gully and in the couloir below the route was also reassuringly solid. Perhaps I’d earned a treat after all the blustery, snowy days spent working on the route. Now all that was left was to climb it.

A few hours later all three of us stood tethered to the station below the crux corner. I eyed the largely decorative icicles dripping from the dihedral. “I haven’t really tried the moves before, so first I’ll just go up a few bolts to check out the holds,” I said as Juan put me on belay. “I’ll buy you a beer if you send the pitch first try,” he replied. Good point, I thought; might as well try. To my surprise, a few minutes later I was searching for a seam, an edge, anything to take a tool over the overlap where the wall kicked back to vertical. Blindly finding a hold, I released the bottom tool. If I fell off here, they’d hear about it down in Canmore. But the hold was good. Slowly, carefully, I hooked and torqued my way up the last few metres. While I belayed my friends up, I strapped the headlamp to my helmet. We’d be finishing the route properly: in the dark.

The north face of Mt. Lawrence Grassi from near the top of Miner's Gully. To quote Monty Python: "Forbidding, aloof, terrifying. The mountain with the biggest tits in the world." Well, maybe not.

Colin and Simon approach the route on a rare windless day.

Juan gets into the drytooling section on the first pitch...

... and cleans some snow on the second.

Juan comes up the snow slope on the third pitch, with the meanders of the Bow River far below.

Yours truly starts up the fourth pitch. Photo: Colin Simon.

"I'll buy you a beer if you send it first try." Yours truly starts up the crux fifth pitch. Photo: Colin Simon.

Sunset, always a melancholy sight from high on a climb.

Colin comes up the seventh pitch by headlamp (not his own).

On top! From left to right: Raphael, Juan and Colin.

The north face of Mt. Lawrence Grassi from Canmore, with the final part of the approach marked in yellow and the route in red.

Tainted Love, 320 m, WI3 M9
FA: Juan Henriquez, Colin Simon and Raphael Slawinski, November 28, 2015 (with help from Sam Eastman, Peter Holder, Wiktor Skupinski, Steve Swenson and Ian Welsted).

Gear: 15 or so draws including some double-length ones, Camalots #0.3-1, a couple of stubbies.

Approach: Park in the Goat Creek parking lot and hike up the backside of Ha Ling to the top of Miner’s Gully. You can leave gear here for the descent. Drop down the gully to where it opens up, then traverse to skier’s right (east) to below the big gash in the north face of Mt. Lawrence Grassi. Slog up the gully past a small ice step (buried later in the season) to the start of the route. 2-3 hours. This is big terrain so take care with snow conditions.

1) 40 m, WI3 M4. Climb low-angled ice to a snow ledge. If the ice is thin, some stubbies and cams may be reassuring. Pass a 2-bolt rappel station on your left and drytool up a bolt-protected corner on the right. 2-bolt belay on the left wall.
2) 40 m, M5. Climb the left-facing corner above the belay (ignore a single bolt out left from an earlier attempt). A couple of steeper moves lead to an insecure exit. Slog up snow to a 2-bolt station at the top of the gully above. This pitch is all bolt protected.
3) 40 m, M3R. Step down and right from the belay (#1 Camalot placement) and climb a short groove. Clip a fixed pin in the back of the groove and commit to easy but runout moves left and up. Slog up a small snowfield to a deep cave. 2-bolt belay on the right wall.
4) 50 m, M7. Drytool a chossy corner on the left to a steep exit. From the small ledge above, continue up a short right-facing corner. Scramble past a 2-bolt rappel station on your left and climb some thin ice on the left wall to a lower-angled ramp. 2-bolt belay. Some cam placements complement the bolt protection on this pitch.
5) 30 m, M9. Step right from the belay and enter an overhanging corner. Sustained drytooling with bad feet leads to easier terrain. Continue to a snow gully and a 2-bolt station on the right. This pitch is all bolt protected.
6) 70 m. Scramble up snow and easy ice to a 2-bolt station at the base of an overhanging corner.
7) 20 m, M6. Drytool up and right below the big roof. From the groove above, step right to a 2-bolt belay on a small ledge. This pitch is all bolt protected.
8) 30 m. Scramble to the top. A 2-bolt station is on the right just below the lip but will probably be buried in snow.

Descent: Since all stations are bolted, it’s possible to rappel the route. However, it’s probably faster (though not completely straightforward) to descend the backside with some rappelling and downclimbing. To do so, follow the ridge west to the top of a short step. Downclimb or rappel the step on the north side from a rock thread. Scramble down to the top of a chimney and rappel it from a bolt-and-pin station on skier’s left (south). Continue scrambling down paralleling the ridgeline, then drop down a broad gully to skier’s left (south). There are a couple of rappel stations on the skier’s left wall of the gully (fixed wires and rock threads). It’s possible to scramble down this terrain, but  it would be unpleasant if it’s snow-covered and/or dark. From the scree slope below the last rappel, contour back up to the top of Miner’s Gully, with one last bit of downclimbing just before the col.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Dog Days

Last month, if you happened to glance at the southeastern horizon at dawn, before the sky was bleached by daylight, you'd have seen a bright star rising. In Greek mythology, Sirius, the brightest star in the northern night sky, was the Dog Star, the canine companion of Orion the trophy hunter (he once bragged he'd kill every animal on Earth). The fact that the star rose together with the sun at the hottest time of the year led ancient Greeks to suppose that Sirius was responsible for that heat. Hence, the dog days of summer - a classic instance of confusing correlation with causation. Reality is, as always, stranger and more interesting than superstition. In the nineteenth century, Sirius was found to be in fact a double star. The previously unseen companion is a white dwarf, a fantastically dense object held up against the crush of gravity by an exotic quantum mechanical effect.

Thoughts of ancient superstitions and modern physics flitted through my head as I sweated up the trail above the Bugaboo glacier. Ian and I had waited until late afternoon to start hiking but to little avail. The sun might have started down from its zenith, but down among the trees and bushes the air lay warm and still. The dog days of summer indeed. Finally, some ways above the ladder ("Good training for the Second Step on Everest," I quipped), we emerged from the stuffy greenery into a light breeze. My sweat-soaked shirt felt cold and clammy against my back as I shouldered my pack after a quick snack for the remaining half-hour grind to Applebee.

"This wasn't in the forecast," I complained early next morning. Sirius, and even the sun for that matter, were hidden by dark clouds trailing ragged tendrils of rain. A few heavy drops spattered ominously on the granite slab where we sat eating breakfast; thunder murmured in the distance. Suddenly unsure, we lingered over banana bread and cowboy coffee, before a few patches of blue sky enticed us out of camp. It was a good call: by the time we were stumbling up the melted-out rubble of the Crescent Glacier, the east face of Snowpatch Spire glowed in the sun. Our toes, cold from kicking into snow down in the moat, quickly warmed up on the blindingly white granite of the rock scar at the base of what used to be Deus Ex Machina and was now Welcome to the Machine.

The following morning we slept in and didn't emerge from our bags until the morning sun had turned the tent into a sauna. The evening before, an off-route ramp that went nowhere, along with lengthening shadows in the valley, had turned us around a couple of pitches from the summit ridge. Still, with ten pitches of sustained climbing to get to that point, we felt like we'd earned a lazy start to the day. A black tea, a coffee, then another coffee, while we sorted gear for a cragging day on Eastpost Spire. Finally, after a couple of hours, we got enough caffeine flowing through our veins to motivate us for the fifteen-minute approach. We picked up the packs, then put them down again. The sky, a flawless blue just an hour earlier, was now the dull white of a cataract. To the west, over the ruin of the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col, dark storm clouds built by the minute.

"I think we should pack up and head down," Ian voiced what we were both thinking. A few minutes earlier we'd been casually packing to go climbing. Now, as the first drops came down, borne on gusts of wind, we frantically dumped out the gear, balled up the tent and stuffed in the sleeping bags. Fifteen minutes later, as we headed down the trail, the skies opened up while thunder cracked between the spires. "Good timing, eh?" we congratulated ourselves. On the drive home, we cranked up the heat rather than the air conditioning. The dog days of summer were over.

Ian below the east face of Snowpatch Spire, one of the finest alpine crags around.

Ian starts up the first pitch of Welcome to the Machine out of the moat...

... and comes up the steepening ramp of the second pitch.

The fourth pitch has a bit of everything, even a deadpoint for those whose crack-climbing technique isn't up to snuff. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Yours truly starts up the seventh pitch. Higher, perfectly spaced fingelocks lead up an overhanging dihedral. It doesn't get much better than that. Photo: Ian Welsted.

For inspiration, we were treated to the Matt-and-Will show on the Tom Egan Memorial Route. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Ian comes up the "enduro" ninth pitch...

... and begins the fists section of the tenth.

From high on the east face, we look down on Applebee enjoying the last of the day's sunshine.

The following morning the sun's nowhere to be seen as we leave the nearly deserted campground.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Himalayan snapshots

The last time I wrote a post for this blog, I was on a 13-hour flight from Vancouver to Guangzhou, the second of the three flights taking me from Calgary to Kathmandu. A great deal happened since then, most of it unexpected. Was the Nepal earthquake a black swan event? Or was it merely an instance of Russell's turkey? I suppose it's a matter of perspective.

I wrote about my experiences on the north side of Everest on my sponsors' blogs. For raw impressions of our expedition as it first unfolded and then folded, check out the blogs of Arc'teryx (instalments 1, 2, 3 and 4), Black Diamond (instalments 1 and 2) and Scarpa (instalments 1, 2, 3 and 4). I didn't feel I had much to add to what I wrote there, so rather than repeat myself I thought I would relive the trip through images. I didn't find the experience I was looking for in Tibet, but I lived through the one nature dished out. I am one of the lucky ones: I still have a future to dream about.

Everest from Chinese Basecamp. In spite of its chequered reputation, in the end Everest's still just a big, beautiful mountain. Like on other sought-after peaks such as Denali, while normal routes might be crowded, when you step off the beaten track you can find all the solitude and adventure you could wish for.

David Gottler and...

... Daniel Bartsch, my partners for our proposed alpine-style attempt on a new route, sipping espressos in Kathmandu's Thamel district. It felt strange to go on a big trip with two people I'd never met before. More than anything, it was the jokes that flew back and forth in countless emails that convinced me we'd make a good team. And we did.

Before leaving Kathmandu, we sought blessing from a lama. The three of us knelt before him while he uttered incantations and tapped our bowed heads in an elaborate ritual. He didn't take long with Daniel and David but took his time with me. I never did find out why.

The svastika, a thousands-years-old symbol of good luck in several Eastern traditions, on a Nepalese truck.

When we first crossed into Tibet, I didn't quite know what to expect. I was mortified when a Chinese border guard dug out a khata from my pack. Somewhat to my surprise, he let me go. Later, I realized that Chinese authorities are fairly tolerant of Buddhist symbols and practices - so long as they remain safely apolitical. 

Four days out of Kathmandu, we drove over a 5000-metre pass. It was the fastest I ever went from thick to thin air. Fortunately, other than the occasional stop to stretch our legs, we didn't have to exert ourselves.

Tibetan towns are full of dogs. Theirs isn't an easy existence, wandering the streets looking for scraps of food. At least they have thick fur and each other to keep warm on the cold high steppes of central Asia.

Late in the afternoon on our second day in the town of Tingri, the skies cleared. There, high above the brown plains with their herds of sheep and goats, rose the snowy Himalaya. Cho Oyu is on the right; Everest is the pyramidal peak on the left.

The following day we drove over more high passes on a bumpy dirt track. Everest disappeared behind intervening ridges. When we saw it again, its huge bulk filled the southern horizon.

A few kilometres down from basecamp is the "old" Rongbuk monastery, a cluster of buildings and caves where monks have lived and meditated since the 1700s (the "new" monastery further down valley was founded in 1902). When I first stepped into the candle-filled cavern, I rushed straight back out: between the 5000-metre altitude and hundreds of burning candles, it felt like there was no oxygen left to breathe. Once my heart slowed down I eased back inside, knowing now what to expect.

After a few minutes my eyes adjusted to the dim light. It was then that I spotted a cat napping in a corner of the cave. In spite - or perhaps because - of being oxygen deprived, it looked supremely content.

Speaking of oxygen, on this trip even more than on any other Himalayan expedition, we needed to take our time acclimatizing. Instead of following the yak trail to the 20-kilometre-distant advanced basecamp, we spent our days hiking up a talus-covered ridge directly above basecamp. There, just a couple of hours from camp, we could pitch a tent at nearly 6000 metres and begin the arduous process of getting used to functioning in air containing less than half the oxygen we breathed at home.

We scrambled up the nearest peak, a rounded 6300-metre hump. The shattered limestone rubble near the top reminded me of my beloved Rockies. It was strange to think that we were in fact higher than the summit of Denali. We didn't yet know it would be the highest point we would reach on the trip. Photo: David Gottler.

From our modest summit, we gazed across at Everest, still more than two and a half kilometres higher. We knew that our plan for climbing a new route in alpine style was a long shot. All the same, as we grew more comfortable in the thin air, we felt anxious yet optimistic about the coming weeks.

It was while we were resting back down in basecamp after one such outing that the earthquake struck. Luckily camp is in the middle of a stony plain, with nothing worse than rubbly hillsides rising above it. After the initial shock passed and we realized we were likely safe where we camped, our thoughts turned to the south side of the mountain and to the deep valleys of the Khumbu. The sometimes confused news arriving from Nepal during the coming hours and days proved worse than our worst fears.

To begin with, we thought about going to Kathmandu and helping in any way we could. Then, once we realized we would be worse than useless there, we considered going on with the expedition. However, after a few days' hesitation, the China Tibet Mountaineering Association decided to close the big peaks of Tibet to climbing.

On our last full day in basecamp, we wandered up the rubble of the Rongbuk Glacier toward the north face of Everest. It was a cloudless, shining, windless day. The distant icefields and couloirs glistened in the sun. I knew it was selfish of me, with the tens of thousands of tragedies unfolding in Nepal, but I couldn't help feeling disappointed our expedition ended before it had truly began.

The next morning, our cook Sitaram smiled as he bid us farewell, even though back in Kathmandu his family slept out in the streets, too scared to go back inside their damaged house. What was thwarted ambition next to lives that would take months, even years to rebuild - if they could be rebuilt at all?

Less than two days later we were in Lhasa, playing at being tourists, taking pictures of the Potala palace with a red Chinese flag flying above it. Everest and all that happened there was already receding into the past, a past remembered but no longer experienced.

Lhasa is a strange mix of the old and the new, of Tibetan tradition and Chinese development. The two appear to coexist peacefully, though SWAT teams in their black uniforms lounging in the corners of temple squares say otherwise.

We wandered through the city getting haircuts, dining on an eclectic mix of Chinese, Tibetan and Nepalese food, playing street pool.... In another day we would go our separate ways, the whole strange trip but a memory.