For thanksgiving break from school in Boulder, myself and a few climbing partners conjured up a scheme to head to the Canadian rockies to climb ice routes instead of consuming ungodly portions of turkey at our respective homes.
Kirill Langer, Colin Simon, Freshman Dave Lee, Bern Lam, and I packed Bern’s Xterra and Colin’s piece of crap Camry to the brim and took off as soon as we could. Colin & Freshman Dave were able to leave a couple days before the rest of us, so they stopped in Bozeman to sleep and climb for a day on the not so formed ice flows of Hyalite Canyon. With the help of RadioLab, Kirill, Bern and I drove straight through from Boulder to Canmore, where the other guys already had a hotel room waiting for us.
With as little time and money as I have at this point in my life to take big trips, making the most of them is extremely important to me. I like to hang out, socialize, and do normal-person things sometimes, but trips are always more distinct in my memory if I have a clear focus and plan throughout. I wanted to start with something big to set the tone for the rest of the trip.
I had been to Canmore twice before this trip to climb. Firstly in the summer of 2010 with Hard-man Brett Pierce, who has traveled more miles in those mountains than I can ever hope to. For some reason he decided to take me under his alpine wing, pouring tons of time, effort, and gas money into the sake of me becoming a more knowledgeable and thoughtful climber. That trip shifted my priorities as a climber in ways that I am extremely grateful for. He implanted alpine ideals into my sport climbing and competition minded brain of the time.
I went back in the spring of 2011 with college friends to do more technical routes. On that trip, my friend Will Buckner & I failed to finish the super classic Polar Circus because another party beat us to it. We climbed to the base of the gigantic ice-flow that makes up the last five pitches only to realize that time and falling ice would make continuing unsafe. It was incredibly frustrating to have to turn around with that beautiful flow right in front of us, especially since we knew that we were physically & technically capable of finishing it. Previous failure makes the idea of a successful ascent even more appealing, so naturally it was a main target for this trip.
Bern isn’t the strongest climber out there, but he is mentally very capable, and psyched to go on every trip that he can, and climb almost anything that anyone proposes. This makes him a great partner. He didn’t think it would be a great idea to climb the 2,300’ of Polar Circus the first day, right after driving 22hrs with no really restful sleep, but after I pushed a bit more he agreed. We racked, packed, scarfed and crashed at about midnight. After a two hour power nap, we chugged coffee and drove an hour and a half to the climb. Snow pounded down as we drove through Banff. I figured the day would be a flop unless a miracle caused conditions to hold out for us on Icefield Parkway, which wasn’t very far away at that point. Miraculously, when we reached the parking spot for the climb, it was beautifully calm.
We downed our coffee and cruised. Hardly any snow had fallen on the area, which made the approach up the left side of the gully a nightmare of unconsolidated choss. If I climb the route again in similar conditions, I’ll most likely stay on the easy ice in the gully to approach to the first pitch of WI4. On our way up this choss, Bern’s headlamp sputtered and died. The batteries were fine but the lamp itself was not happy. We continued more slowly in the now darker dark. We cut right onto some fun but very wet easy ice until we reached the base of the first official pitch.
Bern wasn’t feeling his normal confidence because he hadn’t touched ice yet that season, so he let me to stay tied into the sharp end of the rope for the whole climb. Once I reached the top of the first WI4 pitch, I couldn’t find the bolts of the anchor because they were about 10 feet higher than they were the last time I had been to this same spot. The climb has been much “fatter” the last time I had been on it. I slung a boulder, brought Bern up, and we ran up the snow gully to the base of the next pitch. I soloed up the relatively easy pitch, and dropped a rope for Bern to follow. Again, the rappel bolts were about ten feet higher off the deck than they were the last time I was there. Some dry tooling allowed me to clip the anchor. We quickly walked up the gully and scrambled through some easy ice under the non-existent Pencil. Turning the Pencil wasn’t as stressful as it sometimes can be because of avalanche danger. The lack of snow made this part of the climb safer and quicker. The next part of the climb after the Pencil is the beautiful top five pitches of fat ice. It was a great feeling to stand at the base of that flow again, but to be unhindered by other climbers. We flew up the next few rope stretching pitches of virgin ice, linking pitch 6 & 7. I doubt I’ll link these in the future though because rope drag was crippling near the top of p7. The last two pitches were incredibly fun. I don’t recall seeing a single pick mark from previous ascents on the entire flow above the Pencil.
The end of the last pitch felt a little saucy because of the early season thin conditions. Reaching the anchors required some quite insecure moves on dry rock that kept my interest. These were the most difficult moves on the climb.
We were psyched!… but tired and hungry. The descent wasn’t quick with only a single headlamp. It was quite dark by the time we reached the bench between pitch 7 and 8. The rappel off the top of the pencil was eerie in the dark, but very cool. We reversed our steps back to the car where gallons of water and delicious caffeinated cake that friends in Boulder had made us for the trip enhanced our spirits for the drive back. It felt like a greatly successful first day of climbing.
We returned to the hotel to find Kirill with an ankle the size of a grapefruit. He had taken a big lead fall onto a screw on the Kananaskis Country classic route called Research & Development. During his flailing fall, he caught one of his crampons on the ice, jerking his foot upward. He didn’t believe any bones were broken, but it seemed pretty obvious that some of his structural stuff was not… psyched. I confidently hypothesized that he had broken a bone. The next day my confidence without evidence was validated by an X-ray showing a shattered talus bone. The trip was over for Kirill.
Research & Development (R&D)
The day after Kirill annihilated the bone holding his ankle together, Bern went with him to see a doctor while the rest of us made the trek back to the route he had fallen off of to get his gear. He had lowered off of the screw that he had fallen on, leaving five or six screws and draws on the route. I lead up the route, finding it to be quite a bit more strenuous than I expected from looking at it. On the way out, I learned that tele skiing in the dark with a heavy pack is not easy for me. It was a surprisingly fun day of playing around on snow and ice, even though we didn’t do a momentous amount of climbing.
Valley of the Birds
Kirill needed to fly home to get surgery from an American doctor so that his insurance would cover the cost of the operation. Bern and I planned to make an alpine start to drive him to the airport while Colin & Freshman Dave would attempt Polar Circus. On the way to drop our cripple off, we got a call from the other guys saying that Colin’s piece of crap Toyota failed to cart them to the base of the climb with too much snow on the roads. We made a grand scheme to meet up after dropping off the broken one, with the intent of checking out the Ghost Wilderness for the first time. To add to the days logistical snags, I was given the opportunity to learn that cars don’t work if you don’t put gasoline in them. We ran out of fuel on the way to meet up with the other guys so we had to enlist them to bring us a jug.
We finally took off for the Ghost. After some rough roads with fun river crossings, we reached a cool looking gully with some ice pouring out of it. We thought it was an easy classic called House Of Sky, but it turned out to be the mouth of the Valley of the Birds. We soloed up steps of ice for quite a long time before reaching a very steep, very virgin, very cool looking pillar of ice. I was a bit nervous about leading it, but peer pressure prevailed. It was one of the better leads of my life. It didn’t feel ridiculously difficult, but I felt more solid and dialed than I ever have on ice. Though the ice was vertical, so it feels overhanging, I felt like my technique allowed me to rest through the entire route. I’ve climbed more difficult ice routes, but never felt quite as in control.
Freshman Dave and Bern decided to ski the next day, so Colin and I planned to give Mixed Master a go. MM was pretty dry, so we instead made the extremely long & strenuous two minute approach to the Weeping Wall, which is accessed from the same parking lot. There was only one route up the gigantic smear of ice that looked doable, which was right in the center of the face. It was wicked cold as we racked up at the base, but became radiantly warm. I had a lot of fun leading the whole thing, especially some quite tricky chandelier ice on the last pitch. Almost all of the screws were crap, but the configuration of the ice made stemming and resting fairly easy, so it wasn’t unreasonable to get up. It’s pretty incredible that such a super classic climb is so close to the road. I love the Canadian Rockies.
I wanted badly give Nemesis a go the next day, but high avalanche conditions disallowed this. We decided to cruise up the super classic moderate Professor Falls, just outside of Banff. I soloed the route, and had a lot of fun doing so. When I started climbing ice, I thought that leading was a little stupid and reckless, and that soloing was ridiculous. I never thought I’d ever want to do either of these things. My experience and mentality has somehow completely transformed to the point that I didn’t feel out of line in this instance. I felt dialed to the point that it didn’t feel terribly scary. I felt in control the whole time.
The next day we rolled back to Boulder, again in a single twenty-something hour push. It was a great trip. It seemed like we took advantage of our time well. It wasn’t as fun as it would have been with Kirill’s bombastic personality around the whole time, but it was still very epic.
I’d like to send infinite thanks to my homies at the American Alpine Club for making this a reality.