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Canadian Roadside Attractions


 

by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

Originally published in Climbing Magazine #71

"You can not learn to fly by flying. First you must learn to walk, and to run, and to climb, and to dance."
Nietzsche

For a boy raised in the Northwest on a diet of volcanic snow slogs and classic alpine literature like The White Spider, the Canadian Rockies held an irresistible allure. The big mixed climbs on the north faces of Edith Cavell and Assiniboine caught my young imagination. These were technical mountain climbs, on a scale of size and difficulty equal to the Alps, only a day's drive from home.

Two trips north in my early teens whetted my appetite even further. A lack of technical expertise kept me on routes similar to those I had done in Washington, essentially long snow and ice scrambles. But the views from these climbs were breath-taking. Steep ice plastered walls of shattered limestone appeared impregnable to all but the most suicidal of attacks. I knew from my reading that such climbs were regularly done in the Alps, so I figured it must be possible to achieve a level of fitness and ability to even the odds.

Eleven years after my first glimpse of the Rockies I was back, finally ready to fulfill my youthful dreams. In the interim I had moved to Salt Lake City to go to school and ski, discovering in the process excellent rock climbing on the local crags. Here I developed my technical rock climbing skills, honing them further on the walls of Yosemite, and the Wind Rivers. The local Wasatch mountains also provided unparalleled access to excellent winter mixed climbs, and frozen waterfalls, where I could climb on weekends.

A lack of time and money kept me in the lower 48 during my time at the university. These years had some great climbs, but they never quite lived up to my concept of "the real thing." I considered it time well spent toward reaching a fuller climbing maturity - experience which would serve me well when I did actually set foot onto the great North Faces.

Finally I saw it all coming together. I had graduated and was teaching school, earning my first real income, plus having the summer off. After a couple of years without a real climbing goal, I was ready for a good challenge, one that would force me to train hard, and push my limits again. Canada was the obvious choice.

Throughout the winter I discussed my proposed summer trip with many friends. No one could get together the time, money, or desire, to come along, so I decided to head up alone.

I turned my car off the highway and drove up the dirt road leading to the Columbia Icefield campground. Slowly rounding the small circle of wooden tent platforms, I spotted a likely looking group of slovenly characters. Their motley assortment of army surplus wool pants, Hawaiian shirts, and pile jackets identified them as resident climbers. Pulling up beside an ancient V.W., I saw more telltale signs: an MSR stove brewed tea on a picnic table, next to it a copy of "Fifty Classic Climbs" lay open to the section on the Canadian Rockies. I got out of my car and sauntered over, asking the obvious, "You guys climbers?"

"Of a sort," was the typical depreciating reply.

"Any of you looking for a partner?" I asked.

A tall, thickly bespectacled fellow, with pale watery eyes and unkempt stringy blond hair, asked what I had in mind.

With only ten days to spend in the Rockies, with their notoriously finicky weather, I decided to be blunt and to the point. "Well, I've been psyching myself up for the Grand Central Couloir, or the North Face of Alberta," I blurted out.

Raised eyebrows, and shaking heads, showed their reaction to my hubris and audacity in just driving up and immediately looking for partners to attempt such difficult and serious routes. I felt uncomfortable, and a bit embarrassed, in the role of intense hot shot, but if I wanted to get up on one of my dream (nightmare?) climbs, I'd have to go for it in every way.

"Well, do you guys know of anybody in the area who would be interested?" I asked.

"No, but would you be into doing some easier climbs until you meet someone for the big stuff?" a familiar looking guy asked.

And so, within minutes I ran into Bob Wills, whom I had met in the Teton climbers' camp a few years before. Originally from Colorado, Bob was going to medical school back east. He had just taken a year off to work in the western oil fields, and was enjoying his last vacation before school started up again. Bob's reluctance to just run off and go for it with some unknown, self-proclaimed hot shot, was my first exposure to his solid, cautious nature. He proved to be an enthusiastic, yet practical partner on all of our climbs together. The climbs we decided to try were the "roadside attractions" (classic climbs with easy approaches).

Sharpening crampons by headlamp that night, I realized this was it! After all the reading, looking at pictures, and dreaming, I was, sitting in the Icefields Campground, sharpening my tools in preparation for my first Canadian test piece. The North Face of Andromeda's West Shoulder waited patiently three miles across the valley, indifferent to my excitement. Originally soloed by Jeff Lowe in 1973, the route is a classic direct line up a beautiful 1,700 foot face of 50 degree snow, ice, and rock. It would be a good introduction to Canadian mixed climbs - hard enough to be interesting, but not too serious.

At 3:30 a.m. Bob poked his head into my tent. "There's hot water going if you want some coffee," he said quietly.

"I'll be right up," I replied, instantly awake. I was out of my bag in seconds, zipping up my new pile pants, pulling on boots and gaiters, and shrugging into a jacket.

A crisp cool breeze whispered through the fir trees as I walked up to Bob's campsite. Above camp, the jagged outline of peaks loomed dark against the twinkling stars.

A huge mug of steaming hot coffee and cocoa warmed hands and stomach. Cautious sips alternated with mouthfuls of cereal. Sitting in a small pool of light around the picnic table, I felt like a conspirator meeting for some secret conference. We were the only ones up this early, so our muted conversation was quiet and succinct. The crunch of boots on gravel, axes clanking into the car, the car's engine starting up; all were magnified by the quiet early morning darkness.

The caffeine coursing through my system produced a sense of energized alertness. A George Thorogood tape set a hard rocking pace on the two mile drive to the parking area. As we headed out on the faint trail over the moraine, scrambling over loose talus, the first hint of dawn crept into the sky, faintly illuminating the peaks with a grayish blue light.

We stopped to put on crampons and rope when we hit the glacier proper. As we approached the face I found it hard to concentrate on glacier travel as the morning alpine glow hit the upper snow and ice slopes, turning them a rosy pink against the dark blue sky.

Bob and I both used the bergschrund as a convenient toilet. We unroped here, figuring we could move faster, and safer, unencumbered on the 50 degree slope of neve and occasional ice.

The next l,700 feet were a pure joy. Excellent snow and ice, a bit of exciting loose rock at mid height, and some slush near the top. It all flew by in a rush of pumping legs and heaving lungs. The next thing I knew I was planting my tools into the firm snow of the summit plateau and pulling over the cornice.

We arrived back in camp at ll a.m., psyched for more. We'd had a good chance to check each other out. Satisfied by what we found, it was time to move on to bigger and better things.

Edith Cavell was an obvious choice. The half mile approach qualifies it as the queen of Canadian roadside attractions. That evening we cooked dinner in the parking lot below the 4,000 foot north face. The wall looked to be in good condition - well snowed up, so we anticipated good neve conditions, and little rockfall. We decided to do what we thought was a first ascent because it looked to be the best line (I later read that some Colorado guys did it a week before us). We would head right up the tongue of the Angel Glacier, then traverse left on the glacier to a system of snowfields and ice gullies snaking through rockbands directly to the east summit.

About 4:30 the next morning, I backed off a short vertical stretch of glacier ice. We roped up for this, the only belayed pitch on the climb. In the windless predawn chill of morning, our headlamps illuminated only the next hammer placements in the steep hard ice.

Daybreak found us on the upper glacier, looking up at a layer of gray clouds hiding the summit. Light rain began to fall, but coming this far we decided to at least get onto the face and check it out before descending.

The weather never got threatening, so we continued. The climbing was fantastic - interesting, but never really hard. Firm slopes of neve narrowed down to ice ribbons that wound through short rock bands. We took crampons off once, for a 200 foot band of 4th and easy 5th class solid quartzite.

Nearing the summit we climbed up into swirling mist and fog. The long constant ascent began to make itself felt in calves and arms as we approached the cornice up a steepening slope of wet snow and crusty ice. Bob cut through a small overhang and executed a difficult pull over onto the soft summit snow (we really should have roped up for this).

The most enjoyable alpine climb I had done ended with a horrible descent. Just wrong size scree (big enough to look stable, but small enough to slide out underfoot), and a long hike around the back side of the mountain to the road, finished off a l6 hour day.

After a rest day swimming at the Jasper public pool, we headed south to Lake Louise. A two hour hike into Lake Annete set our camp below the 4,500 foot north face of Mt. Temple. The Lowe route up the central rib was our goal. A Mountain Magazine cover photo, of Jeff Lowe aiding the overhanging ice cliff, had gotten me psyched, and the rib lulled me into thinking it would protect us from avalanches. Ha (on both counts).

The next day's climbing went quickly as we third classed up ruble until hitting the steep gray bands at three-quarters height. As I scrambled up a scree covered ledge to lead the second band, a chunk of the ice cliff above us let loose. It fell a hundred feet to the east, showering us with tiny fragments. When I first heard the roar, and saw the glittering pieces of ice flying out over my head, I was overcome with a sense of frantic desperation. Searching in vain for an escape, I found none. Pressed against the wall, I waited for the inevitable crushing blow to wipe me off the mountain. As I watched the avalanche flow down to the side, a massive adrenalin rush left me badly shaken, feeling weak as a baby. I found a spot to sit and recover. Long minutes of deep breathing passed before my pounding heart slowed down. I finally regained enough strength, and nerve, to get up and lead the next pitch.

The ice cliff itself was very intimidating after our close call. A layer of brittle water ice shattered off in plates, bouncing off my helmet to fall to the snow slopes below. We finally retreated and traversed a couple hundred feet around the ice cliff, continuing up knee deep mush to the summit.

The next day we walked out and hitchhiked up to Moraine Lake. After an ice cream at the lodge, we headed up into the Valley of the Ten Peaks. The number of tourists on the trail decreased exponentially with every mile we put between us and the parking lot. Camp was set in a beautiful secluded meadow just below Eiffel Lake.

Half a mile away, Deltaform's Super Couloir rose in direct simplicity, a narrow funnel of snow and ice 3,500 feet long, ending abruptly with a 200 foot rock band on the summit ridge. A storm the night before had dusted the upper mountain with snow, giving the face a distinctly alpine appearance. We felt very fit and competent on such terrain, and so anticipated a hard, but enjoyable climb.

When the alarm went off at 2:30 a.m., it took a minute for the cobwebs to clear. Once I snaped on my headlamp, and got some hot water going, a nervous energy began to bubble up inside me. Some cereal and two mugs of coffee-cocoa were the last amenities. By 3:l5 we were tramping across the rubble covered glacier under a cold clear sky.

The coffee conveniently did its job on both of us before we donned crampons at the base of the climb. With bodily functions out of the way, tools in hand, and a light pack on my back, I was ready to cruise. Due to the inevitable rockfall in the couloir once the sun hit the upper face, the faster we moved, the better.

Bob's headlamp gave out just below the bergschrund, so I shined mine down to help him get over a 40 foot section of gravel covered rock.

Once established in the couloir proper, a continuous rhythmic upward motion began. The angle was such that front pointing with one foot, while resting the other in a French position was most effective. Climbing unbelayed, I decided not to ration strength or energy. It was time to push - to escape the danger zone as quickly as possible. Recovery could be made in relative safety below the rock band.

About halfway up, the gully narrowed and the neve turned to hard ice covered with an inch of powder. Secure pick placements were mandatory on the 55 degree slope, slowing us down considerably. An angling traverse got us in the final steepening ice section of the route. As I moved out into the shooting gallery a couple of small rocks whizzed by, prompting me to quicken my pace, much to the distress of aching calves, thighs and lungs. "This is what all the training was for!" mind tried to tell body. Then, while engrossed in the crux ice pitch, a small snow slide, thirty feet to my left, produces the shot of adrenalin necessary to force protesting muscles to give their all in clawing a way up the last couple hundred feet to the rock band.

I chopped out a stance and waited for Bob. When he arrived, we set a couple of screws and roped up for the first time. I Ied a full rope length up to the right into a chimney which splits the rock band (normal route). From below it appeared to be the obvious weakness. It turned out to be steeper than it looked. Gently overhanging, it's dark, loose, and verglassed depths repelled me. After much wasted time and effort, I rejoined Bob. He then led a traverse left on thin snow and ice over crumbly rock, searching for an easy way out. There might be a possibility, but a total lack of belays brought him back to my stance - right where we'd started two hours before.

With no choice left, I headed up the forbidding wet corner directly above us. What followed was the hardest climbing I had ever encountered. Steep, verglassed, fist-sized rubble, was precariously glued together by the melt water frozen between the squarish black chunks. Luckily there were a couple of decent piton placements in intermittent cracks, so I was reasonably sure I wouldn't go the distance. The rock got progressively worse until I was finally brought up short under a last bulge the consistency of potato chips. As I scrunched beneath it, welding in a couple of stacked leepers with both hands, my helmet sent off shards of crumbling limestone every time it brushed the overhang. The last 25 feet were incredibly delicate and time consuming. Any hold large or flat enough to be decent was covered with snow, which had to be brushed off. Every foothold had to be tested, and poor ones kicked off, much to Bob's chagrin when a couple bounced off him. His minor injuries were no concern of mine. I was extended nearly to my limits, drawing on every reserve of strength, experience, and composure to make the slightest progress.

Then, right when my concentration should have been total, an inane ditty from an old TV commercial got stuck in my head; "Washington builders will make that old place look like it never did before," resounded over and over in my brain. Try as I might, I couldn't stop it!

We had been farting around so long the sun had softened the final cornice, which proved to be the crux. Moving up, I jammed a forearm into the melt space between rock and snow for balance, while I hacked with an axe in search of a secure placement in the mushy snow. I finally got it placed well enough to be used as a balance point and moved my feet up on the last of the rotten rock. When I hesitated, my hands began to freeze. With extreme trepidation, not really knowing if it would go, but having no choice, I finally stepped and pulled up simultaneously, thrusting my left arm into a down sloping crack in the vertical snow. From here I could get an axe over the top. A last burst of nervous energy gave me the momentum to continue. With a grunt I threw a leg over and rolled onto the ridge, gasping weakly from the effort, immensely relieved, and a bit surprised that I had made it!

It took a couple of minutes for me to come back down to reality. It was a good thing I had a haul line along because the only belay I could find was a huge boulder 80 feet away which I looped. I tied the climbing rope to the haul line so Bob could jumar up with the packs. The rock band had taken us many hours. It was 5 p.m. by the time we head down the back side of the mountain, our big plans for a traverse and descent back to camp had to be abandoned.

A long, cold, sleepless night, with no dinner or bivy gear was spent beside a small lake. The l3 mile hike out in stiff boots the next day did a real number on our feet, but it all seemed worth it when we were soaking in the Banff Hot Springs that night.

It was socked in and raining the next day when I drove out of camp headed for Seattle. I was looking forward to some chess with my little brother, a bit of reading, lots of eating, and many naps. Altogether I could not have asked for a better trip. First, I'd easily found a great partner, then phenomenal luck with the weather and snow conditions allowed us to use eight days to best advantage. We got in a perfect combination of climbs: short and fun, long and continuous, then an intense finale that left us burnt out and humbled, ready to go home and relax. For once reality had surpassed my dreams.

Twelve years after taking my first climbing course, and reading The White Spider, I had finally set foot on some "real" north faces. They turned out to be as great as they were built up to be. I got up on Kitchner the next year, but I went at it realistically, knowing what I was in for: a tough challenge, a real adventure, and more great climbing on another Canadian roadside attraction.



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