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BOLTING! Here we go again…

May 3, 2013

“It is the nature of the climbing community worldwide that the vision and art of the first ascensionist is respected and celebrated, because it is a tangible reflection of the potential of that human at that moment in time. It is up to us to live up to that or to put it aside as a wondrous point of inspiration or a mirror for humility—most often both at the same time.” —Duncan Ferguson

I first saw the above quote on the AAC’s excellent (hopefully not defunct?) Alpine Briefs, and I think it really sums up my feelings behind this post.

It’s no secret to my regular partners that I don’t get out rock climbing as much as I get out wielding my ice tools, at least not these days.  But when I do get out to old haunts and familiar rock routes, I like knowing that, broken holds and natural rockfall aside, not much has changed.  If it is the ephemeral, dynamic nature of frozen waterfalls that attracts me so much to ice climbing, it is the near-permanent nature of rock climbs that keeps me coming back to favourite local classics every spring.  I guess this dichotomy is essential to practicing the sport year-round.

As of late, I have certainly noticed that the fundamental respect for first ascentionists’ style in establishing local rock climbs seems to be diminishing.  I suspect this is due, in part, to the massive increase in the number of local climbers and subsequent fragmentation of the local climbing community.  Not everybody knows everyone anymore, and perhaps the history of local route development and climbing ethics has become lost among the latest generation of local climbers.

Recently, the old sport vs. trad debate has reared its head again at some of our popular local crags, and I can’t help but wonder if some context, a bit of history and a personal anecdote or two might be in order.  Besides, everyone else has been posting opinions online and in emails, why not me?

One thing has that has become readily apparent to me is that when a transgression to the local ethic has occurred, it has rapidly become accepted as the new norm if left unanswered.  That, combined with our rapidly growing community, and a lack of connection between recent generations of local climbers, has had an impact on our local ethic.  To that end, here’s my take on our local ethic – or at least some background on how my own ethic developed:

A (possibly completely biased) brief history of our local ethic (as I have experienced it)

I consider myself to have been fortunate to begin climbing when I did in this area (and like many, wish I had discovered climbing when I was way younger!).  While I newbied my way through learning to climb, a handful of folks were developing what is arguably some of Ontario’s best rock climbing in Orient Bay.  Some of their climbs were (and still are) over my head, but I gleaned a lot from them in terms of the local style and ethic.  This despite their only letting me tag along with them a couple of times.

For the first couple of decades or so of climbing in Thunder Bay, that ethic was a fairly strict ground-up approach to establishing new climbs, and even recently most of the new routes in Orient Bay were opened that way (which I think says something since they are big and fairly difficult/committing for the most part).  Additionally, the approach has always been to minimize climbers’ impact on the rock by minimizing the use of artificial protection (bolts), and generally avoiding it altogether where adequate natural protection is available.  This might be summed up as clean trad protection first, pitons or other fixed gear in natural cracks second, and finally bolts.

This view evolved somewhat as the tremendous freeze-thaw cycles during our epic winters frequently result in unsafe pitons, and replacing them tends to create further rock damage or blown placements.  Accordingly, a good, stainless bolt goes a long way to actually reducing impact here in the long run (I still carry a piton hammer with me from time to time to test or reset placements on routes I know have fixed pins on them for this reason).

My early mentors informed me that for a long time locally (long before my time), sport climbing was in fact sneered at and most local crags were predominantly trad, with perhaps the odd belay or lone protection bolt on a “mixed” trad/sport pitch.  If one of my mentors is correct (and some preface material in an early guidebook to the area seems to back his claim), the development of climbs like Record Body Count, Stairmaster and the Black Stallion Arete at another popular crag established sport climbing in the area, but not without controversy.  Eventually though, even the most crusty old-school tradsters accepted it as a new and worthy addition to the area’s climbing, and there is no doubt it dramatically raised local standards.

What is important to note, though, is that these pioneers seemed very careful about avoiding creation of sport climbs where a clear trad or mixed-protection climb might exist (the aberration here seems to be Positively 4th Street, which I understand led to tremendous debate among locals due to the obvious good trad protection on the upper half of the route).  In fact, they went so far as to preserve some fairly bold trad lines as well (right beside a good sport route in some cases) to ensure that all styles of climbing were in fact accommodated there and, I like to think, to show respect for the abilities of their friends.  An example here is Greco, which has a fairly hairy start without much in the way of gear and has seen an injury or two from falls low down.  Still, the route was trad and nobody even considered adding bolts after the FA had been done as such as far as I am aware.  It became accepted as is by subsequent generations of climbers.  Interestingly, some recent attempts to bolt it (that have been dissuaded) have stemmed from comparatively new climbers who had never lead it.  The idea of bolting it never even occurred to one climber I know that was banged up on it – his remark in hindsight to me was that he should have waited until he was better before trying – or in another words, get good enough to meet the climb on its terms, rather than bring it down to his level.

This brings another important point home in terms of “a” (not “the”) local climbing ethic, one that my mentors brought to me and one that I have adhered to – always respect (and celebrate) the style and vision of the first ascentionist.  Read another way, if you can’t climb the route in the same or better style than the first ascentionist, climb something else or come back when you can.  If you’re considering adding additional permanent protection to an existing route, seek the blessing of the first ascentionist before proceeding.

I bring a further story to the table, again as some history and again because I think it goes to show just how far local climbers have gone in the past to minimize impacts on the resource.  Quite some time ago, a major event was planned for the city that was to include rock climbing at a local crag for its participants.  Shockingly, the organizers proposed (and unbelievably had approval) to bulldoze some of the trees in the vicinity of the most popular area, drill huge bolts a ways back from the cliff edge, and establish large, permanent chain anchors at the top.  Fortunately, members of the local climbing community intervened and instead installed a small handful of bolted TR anchors at the top of the climbs, deeming it the lesser of two evils.  Since then, bolting at that crag has largely been strictly limited to TR anchors, and usually only done where trees at the top of popular climbs either die, through old age or vandalism, to avoid stringing lengths of webbing across popular hiking trails.

At least one hard sport climb has been established there, but I’m not clear on why it has damaged/missing bolts.  Certainly, attempts to bolt popular headpoint routes and boulders like Galaxion (yes, that is actually a boulder problem to some folks!  And an exciting headpoint to others) have elicited a hostile response, and at one time the climbing community accepted that minimal fixed anchors were a good idea here given how public the crag is.

Not our first bolting conflict

A decade or so ago, some folks new to our spectacular area took it upon themselves to start drilling and equip many popular TR routes, and a few trad ones, as sport routes.  Not surprisingly, the reaction from long-time local climbers ranged from not caring to hostile.  After some time, and a brief bolting war, these same people came to respect and even celebrate our local ethic.  A consequence though was that a few of those routes were forever changed, and as they were not chopped to avoid further damage, they have become accepted as the new norm and part of our local ethic – to the point that others have arrived, seen the examples, and established routes in the same, more liberally-bolted fashion.  Sometimes they were innocent enough – unaware that these climbs might have been done on gear – other times they just did not seem to care.

So, if you don’t like the bolts don’t clip them right?  

The above remark in the current debate about a certain route at our only sandstone cliff prompts me to tell a personal story.  Like many people, I have always been attracted to the unique sandstone climbing we have (one of only two sandstone crags in Ontario that I am aware of, and as I understand it this one is far better).  Early on, I enjoyed the sport climbs but once I had done them all I started paying more attention to the less-popular, more obscure routes and discovered an exciting (if committing and sometimes risky) collection of stellar trad climbs.  One climb in particular called to me, and that was Wild Child – which at the time had NO bolts on it.  The regular 5.8+ route that traverses under the roof is an area classic, and is even featured in Ontario’s Finest Rock Climbs as a classic trad pitch (as it is in the original crag guidebook).  I ticked this without much fuss; though it does have some exposure the trad gear was quite good where it counted.  But what really grabbed me was the 5.10+ variation directly over the large roof.  With some mucking about projecting on TR, I found some solid gear placements to the left, but falls were potentially going to be big and it took some effort to work up the nerve to commit to going over the roof on lead.  Never mind that the route was at the very limit of my technical ability at the time.

Unfortunately for me, the day I thought I might finally send, I showed up and saw a contrived line of bolts a couple of feet left of the crack, and a big shiny bolt directly in the roof that I had been working up the nerve to pull.  I still tried, but the presence of that bolt no longer demanded my best commitment and when fear got the better of me (remember, I thought the fall was huge but safe with the solid gear out left), that bolt was just too easy to clip and I lowered off instead of allowing the commitment to bring out my personal best.  I left feeling a little hollow.  Sure, I could choose not to clip that bolt, but its presence did remove the commitment the rock alone would have brought by deciding to move out the roof, past the point where someone of my ability could reverse the moves.

In all fairness, I had not done the route yet, and therefore did not see that I had a leg to stand on when it came to opining about those bolts – someone with a different creative vision got there first (before anyone had ever freed it on gear to claim a first ascent in a different style) and added the bolts.  Fair enough (though I do question how necessary the lower bolts were a couple of feet from the usual trad route).

A then a near miss…

Fast forward a few years, and a friend and I were updating and replacing a few fixed top anchors at the crag and we found ourselves on Everything Goes Green, an uber-classic 5.10 top roping route.  We did add a new top anchor there for two reasons.  One was the existing cliff-top anchor bolts were aging and one of them was in a depression that actually caused a mild cross-load on some styles of carabiners; second because there had been a much more popular TR anchor slightly lower on the cliff that consisted of a slung boulder behind a tree with rap rings.  This met its demise one spring from frost heaving … kinda spooky that, when you think about how many people must have used it over the years.  After replacing the anchor, we actually did consider bolting the climb as a sport route, purely out of convenience.  No question it would have been a nice sport pitch.

Fortunately for my personal ethic, before we could get back up there, we ran into two strong local trad climbers who were psyched to inform us that they had actually been leading the route on all natural protection.  I immediately felt like crap for even considering bolting it – on one count because of my experience on Wild Child and not wanting to steal a potential experience from others (even though they had already bagged the route – there would no doubt be others when word got out).  Second, I’d nearly inadvertently done something against the local (and largely worldwide) ethic of respecting the style of the first ascentionist – even if it had been innocent enough by not knowing about the recent trad ascents.

I drew inspiration from the young guns, both of whom were clearly climbing circles around me despite my decade-plus more experience than they had.  I immediately set about sussing the gear placements on TR, and on a fine fall day sent the line myself (and for a time it even became a spring tradition for me).  The experience was incredibly rewarding for me in the end, and I know it has been since for others.

More food for thought?

I have had the great fortune to climb with, and make close friends of several out of town climbers, both unknown and well-known.  Most incredibly more talented and better-travelled than my 5.easy self.  I have always enjoyed playing tour guide on the local crags, bringing them from classic to classic at many different areas.  I have brought quite a few of them to our sandstone playground, and we nearly always climb Everything Goes Green, either on gear or top rope.  After the usual remarks about the awesome climbing community we have here, and the quality of our climbing, they nearly always make two comments that make me proud to be a Thunder Bay climber.   One is that we appreciate our traditions and generally adhere to a strict local climbing ethic of respect for those that have gone before us.  The other comment many make, and often cannot get over, is how two contradictory styles of climbing have coexisted respectfully at the same crag for so long.

Often, they say they wish it were the same at their home crags.  I’d hate for us to look back in a few years and find ourselves saying the same things when we visit other areas.

So what?

It should be obvious this local history has had a strong, and to my mind, positive, influence on my own ethics and style choices in climbing – as it has on others.  I hope I’ve shed some light on why things are the way they are around here…or at least why they were they way they were…

When it comes to sport vs. trad, and what’s best for a particular route, I am certain your own ideology will dictate your finding facts in here or elsewhere to support either point of view.  Certainly, if you think I’m wrong, you’re quite possibly right.

You guys have it all wrong Daddy.  All this talk about climbing instead of climbing is making me sleepy.  You know what else sandstone is good for?  Zzzzz...

You guys have it all wrong. All this talk about climbing instead of climbing is making me sleepy. You know what else sandstone is good for? Zzzzz…

One more afterthought, specific to the current debate.  Route developers should do well to consider that this crag is our ONLY sandstone crag in the region.  And yep, it ain’t as great as some of the southern sandstone, but it’s still our only one.  Why can’t we try especially hard to preserve at least a few quality routes of both styles on it’s nicest wall?

Starquake

January 7, 2013
Brian Bottan cruising up Starquake in December 2012.  Wes Bender Photo.

Brian Bottan cruising up Starquake in December 2012. Wes Bender butt shot.

Some people like to tick routes and never go back.  Others climb them more than once.  I know many have local routes they return to again and again.  There’s more than a few ice routes in particular I will confess to returning to multiple times.  The beauty of ice climbing is that they offer a different adventure nearly every time.

Starquake is one of the last (or first, depending which end you come from) climbs you see driving through Orient Bay.  Most years it offers a single long pitch of WI5 cauliflowers, curtains and pillars.  Some even do a second short pitch of WI2 or 3 when the ice is thick enough to cover the shrubs making it worthwhile.  The yellow and sometimes blue ice of the first pitch, like all good ice climbs, forms a bit different every season; some years the left side of the curtain touches, some years the right, which is usually a notch harder.  In fat years, a devious line up featured cauliflowers forms on the left edge offering a bit of relief from the sustained upper curtain.  If you can get past the familiar highway noise and occasional honks from spectators or other climbers (whom you may have scooped) that dogs many of Orient Bay’s ice routes, you’ll no doubt agree the climb is among the finer pitches in Orient Bay.

My first encounter with Starquake was during my first season of ice climbing…more than a few years ago now.  Straight-shaft ice tools were the norm, save for those radical black and yellow things that Charlet-Moser put out.  Too radical for me I remember thinking.  I had just spent a very long eight months working in the forests of northern Saskatchewan as a forestry summer student, about as far away from ice and climbing as one could get.  Sure, I’d found ways to get outside but there is not much for vertical relief in that province…funny how Saskatoon has one of the most active Alpine Club of Canada Sections.  They must drive a lot.  Getting outside there, at least with people I knew from work, meant hunting and fishing, a throwback to my childhood.  And an opportunity for something new, my first buck (they grow big deer there), complete with a gang of Grizzly Adams types.

Still, a long time spent working for a Big Company meant decent pay, and living in the remote north meant not much to spend money on, so I’d saved more than enough for tuition and rent that year and had plenty left to buy a complete set of ice gear for the second half of that winter – too bad I’d forgot about groceries in my budget planning.  I ended up having to subsist on Kraft Dinner for months.  It was definitely straight-shafted Black Prophets for me though, not those radical Quasars.

Back in Thunder Bay, I was a newcomer to the close-nit ice climbing community.  I’d gotten out a few times but could never find enough partners and so landed at the Nipigon Icefest in March partnerless.  No problem though.  Within minutes I’d secured a partner, Stein Erik from Norway, with about the same experience as me on waterfall ice (nearly none), but much stronger.  Off we went, climbing different routes until we climbed Starquake’s easier neighbour, Andromeda Weeps.  It was a helluva route for a couple of beginner ice climbers, and that was enough to leave us with much to bullshit about, telling everyone what we’d climbed.  At least until we found out others had climbed Starquake.  Unroped.  That shut us up.

A few years later, having climbed nearly all the local routes of lesser grades (and a few in the Rockies by then) I finally climbed Starquake, seconding Randy in the early season.  Perfect plastic, and the first day of the season for us to boot.  Randy had a set of those too-radical-for-me black and yellow tools – but they definitely worked a tad better on the cauliflower ice of the crux pillar.  We were definitely legends in our own minds after that one.  In the bar that evening I tried my best to impress a particular girl with stories of my climbing prowess.  She lasted about as long as my cash did to buy her drinks, which wasn’t long.  And to think the first time I encountered that route a few years prior I’d rented a car for the whole weekend for the price of just the gas for Randy’s truck cost this time.  But all of that paled in comparison to her bar tab.

The following winter seems a bit more of a blur, but I still had another encounter with the climb.  Climbing steeper ice had gotten easier, at least until the Club secured exclusive use of a cabin at the north end of Orient Bay.  Even though I had upgraded to a set of those funky bent-shaft tools (but not too bent, 1st-gen Cobras), they weren’t much help when I had to climb through the haze another hangover.  The original idea behind what became known as The Royal Windsor Academy of Higher Learning and Other Cool Stuff had been to be able to avoid the treacherous drive to Nipigon and climb more by staying close by; instead, the cabin itself became the focal point of most trips and a great many antics and happenings occurred, most of which should never be mentioned in print.  I’m sure the camp’s former history as a vacation destination for British Royalty, and it’s current status a moose-hunters’ camp, meant those cabin walls had already witnessed a few happenings in their day, but we made sure they saw a bit more.

Knowing the usual nightly pattern, a then-new friend, Bryce, and I jetted across the highway. The Academy was within sight of, and a 25 min walk from Starquake.  We were bagged from a long, cold January day knuckle-bashing with the rest of the boys (men?), but we wanted to get another route in and so trudged back into the cold before too many beers and bottles of scotch found there way into our hands.

Starquake faces northwest, overlooking Orient Bay proper and providing a glimpse into the great dark expanse of Lake Nipigon proper.  It forms right on the northern battlement of the Orient Bay cliff line.  Why we thought heading up there on that particular night, with the prevailing 25 km/hour northwest wind and -40C windchill would be a good idea is beyond me, but we did.  Bravado perhaps?  Hubris?  Wouldn’t be the first time.  No doubt we wanted to have one up on the rest of our friends – most of whom were sufficiently into the cheap single-malt by then that they probably forgot we were even there in the first place.

Thinking about it now, that sort of decision making (biting off more than we can chew, not the bit about trying to impress others – we’re long past that!) has been and continues to be a pattern for us.  We need to change that.

Regardless, an epic yo-yo ascent ensued.  I can vaguely remember certain details.  Perhaps out of necessity, an ice climber’s memory is a wonderful thing that way – short and poor when it comes to suffering I think.  My mind recalls a less pleasant side of climbing – the sounds and sensations of Orient Bay ice in January:  the unsettling sound of squeaking ice screws turned into dense ice with an ice tool for leverage (like fingernails on a chalk board), the complete loss of feeling in my feet due to a particularly ill-fitting pair of boots (it took me 10 years to understand well-fitting boots equal warm feet), multiple episodes of the screaming barfies, frightening sounds and fracture lines on the crux free-standing curtain, world record dinner plates, a couple of broken picks, and each taking turns lowering off the sharp end after one or two more screws.  I cannot even recall if we were successful.  Probably not.

But Leo did make a successful ascent of the shitter later that evening.  In his underwear.  That I do remember clearly.  The scotch must have kept him warmer than any amount of fleece and polypro could have.

I know it was at least a couple of years before I was back on the route, one year because of the epic conditions and all the first ascents we were racing for – no time for established routes when there were new ones literally everywhere all season long.  Another year because of the opposite, and the golden-yellow route remained despairingly void of ice all winter long.  Somewhere in there I separated a shoulder on another route, and missed my annual ascent.

A year later I did get back, again with different tools.  This time I had a set of the latest deer antlers, and though expensive, their cost paled in comparison to what gas prices were doing.  The route was not quite formed, but that didn’t matter.  Now I was a mixed climber, I thought.  I’d spent most of the season in venues closer to home, developing new mixed crags with more new friends and and mentors and dramatically honing my skills.

I explained to Dom, my less-experienced belayer on this occasion, that the route would be no problem despite his misgivings.  No, I wouldn’t climb the verglas on the left side.  “Mixed climbers avoid that easy stuff Dom!”  Instead, I’d come in from the right and climb the little rock cave then step out to the hanging curtain.  A few screws up the lower ice, and my deer antlers were already failing me.  Damned things didn’t swing worth shit – though I had yet to admit it at the time.  Great for rock, but you’re mixed climbing, you idiot – you still have to climb some ice too.

“Nope.  I’m almost there” I responded to Dom asking if I’d lake to trade tools.  An hour later I was in that cave feature, and quickly discovering all the rock “holds” sloped downward.  All the cracks did the same.  Hanging in there was strenuous but I managed to bash a less-than-bomber knifeblade in – pointing down.  Better back that up, I thought.  The second piece was a thicker blade in the same crack.  As it went in, the crack expanded and the first one fell out.  I was not all that happy.  Definitely not a real mixed climber.  I forced a bugaboo into the crack, this time liking the sound a lot better.  Unfortunately it also expanded the crack, and the little constriction higher up that my pick was torqued into also opened.  Just enough to add to my despair.

My tool popped and I fell backwards – against the curtain.  My shoulders and helmet bashed the curtain hard (I can’t believe to this day it didn’t just break) and my feet remained pressed against the rock, crampons skating quickly.  I hadn’t actually fallen off!  Holy shit!  Holy shit!  Holy shit!  Dom said nothing – not even sure he saw it, sore neck and all after a 2 hour belay, he was looking down and probably wondering why he’d gotten up so early and if he’d even get to climb anything that day.  Somehow I got established on the curtain and topped out, pumped and scared out of my mind.

Dom seconded in all of 15 minutes.  “Really not all that bad, this mixed thing, is it?”  I had nothing to say.  Bloody ropes even got stuck after the rap.

A few years later a friend inquired about the sport-mixed possibilities on that stretch of rock.  “Not even close to worth your time pal!”

A couple more seasons went by, and Starquake was witness to one of the biggest acts of bravery I have ever seen.  Wes told my wife she was fat.

Water levels were high that year and the three of us crossed the mostly-frozen ditch to access the approach trail carefully.  Wes and I made it.  Both 200-pounders naked.  Jenn barely weighs 100 pounds soaking wet.  Maybe 120 with clothes and climbing pack loaded.  In a cruel twist of fate, she went through the ice, to which Wes remarked:  “Way to go, Fatty!”  Somehow, laughter ensued.  I’m not sure what my marital and general health status would be today had those been my words.  Brave man, brave man…

Wes of course was a total gentleman the rest of that day – no doubt feeling a bit like when one has gotten away with a close call on a big, dangerous solo and feels the need to overprotect the easier climbs done in the days afterwards.  He and I coaxed Jenn into a lead of Andromeda Weeps, a big step up for her at the time.  Then he put on his usual “clinic” and climbed Starquake displaying flawless technique.

A bit later, conditions were prime and two friends and I took turns climbing Starquake ropeless.  A day later I repeated the feat as part of a large soloing effort enchaining 13 classic routes in the corridor.  I had intended to stop at 12, 13 being an unlucky number.  I’m glad my mistake in counting did not occur to me until I was at home that night, rather than during the 13th climb.  Fortunately my mind had been engaged in the task at hand, and climbing sans rope does not allow much time for arithmetic.

Another couple of years passed, until one weekend this December when I was out with Bryce, now an old and very close friend.  Both just back from the Himalaya, and enjoying the lung and leg fitness on the approach, but not so much the skinny forearms.  The day before, our first of the season, had been humbling.  Though Bryce knew better, I’d been forced to accept I’d have some work to do to get back into shape, and backed off my first lead of the season.  Still, ratcheting down our expectations we’d had an excellent day afterwards on easier routes.

This day, Duncan accompanied us and we decided to get back after it, starting with Starquake.  Besides, Duncan would ropegun it if I backed off the lead.  At least that was what Bryce and I were thinking – I’m not sure how Duncan felt about that though.  I was slow, climbing craftily to take advantage of every rest, but got it clean and without help in the end.

I knew I would though.  After all, that climb has been witness to my entire evolution as an ice climber.  I was just visiting an old friend.  And I took that devious easier line up the left.

One day can make a season…

April 4, 2012

…and I was counting on it this year to be sure! Ice conditions here at home were absolutely horrendous this season – the “winter” that never was – and the worst I can ever remember. Only one (1) of our local ice routes came in this season, and I quickly grew tired of climbing that by a bunch of contrived variations and “styles” that seemed to be increasingly risky. So I quit climbing it. No other routes to do, not even the classics that always form, every season, without fail. First time for everything I guess. I hate winter.

I really missed the pre-dawn solos before work, charging out the door with a few too many shots of espresso in the bloodstream and an excited pup on my heels. Trying hard to catch my breath afterwards, and just making it to the office on time. Not this year.

Nipigon was not much better. Sure, there were plenty of routes to do, but I’d managed to climb the ones I was most interested in several times by mid-season and was quickly losing interest. Combine that with a couple of days where I was generally not climbing well at all, and the fact that two of my main partners were out with injuries for the season, and it’s amazing I climbed as much as I did. I guess that’s what a six-month drought does going into the winter, no matter how much snow we get and how optimal temperatures might seem for ice formation.

I only had time for a very short whirlwind trip to the Rockies this season, but my lovely wife did make sure I went, after I had already given up on the idea. She’s great that way and I love her. On the flight out though, I have to admit my expectations were low. Getting on the alpine objectives I’d been hoping for was out of the question given a remarkably unstable and upredictable snow pack this March (even for the Rockies). I was also fighting off a nagging, low-grade cold that left me knackered after just packing for the trip.

Nonetheless, there’s something about that mountain air and just being in the Rockies that makes all of that cease to matter. It’s even better when you click on the ski bindings and start skinning toward a mega-classic waterfall you haven’t yet done, and I quickly forgot the season that wasn’t, along with my cold.

Bryce beginning the approach to Whiteman Falls, K-Country.

Fittingly, we chose lower-commitment objectives and did our best to avoid avalanche terrain, and my season was made on the first day of the trip, having a perfect day out climbing on Whiteman Falls/Red Man Soars in K-Country. Oddly enough, I’d never been into those climbs and Bryce, good guy that he is, agreed to go despite it being his third trip in there this season.  We did have some other great days out (stories for another time), but this one made the trip for me.

Breaking trail on the road in, we were constantly reminded of the unstable nature of the snow pack, with occasional settlements and woompfing under the skis. Still, a reasonably quick 5km ski and we were stashing skis and skins and bootpacking up Opal Creek, climbing a few short ice steps, and warily passing under a couple of small slopes that had some avalanche potential. It was snowing like stink (as it had been for a while and would continue to do throughout my six-day trip), at times alarmingly so.

Up the drainage to the climb, plenty of snow(!). Bryce Brown photo.

Even though the snowfall obscured our view of the climb as we approached, I could see it was incredibly aesthetic and got really fired up to climb it. I handily won best 2 out of 3 in Bryce’s new version of RPS, as he’d learned from Barry Blanchard (ninjas always rule) and got the first pitch.

First glimpse of the route. Red Man Soars is tucked just out of sight to the right.

Having not climbed anything in close to a month, I happily avoided some hairy-looking climbing on the right side in favour of a very easy and cool tunnel feature we climbed through on the left side, and Bryce quickly dispatched the upper pitch. Traffic there, and the tunnel pitch, meant we stole the climb at a level much easier than the guidebook WI6 rating.

Pitch 1 of Whiteman Falls, plenty of snow and spindrift to add to the "experience". Bryce Brown photo.

Bryce emerging from the "cave" at the top of P1.

Topping out on the route after Bryce's lead. Bryce Brown photo.

Bryce graciously ceded the first pitch of Red Man Soars to me, and it was definitely the classic pitch everyone describes. Seemed to climb easy for the grade in the conditions we found (though I could have done without the endless snow covering all the tool placements, they weren’t hard to find and quite thunker). Excellent protection throughout and a smattering of fixed gear, and mostly on your feet – perfect for my whimpy-feeling self. Bryce followed during an epic five-minute snow dump, and continued through on a short second pitch.

Buttshot alert! Pitch 1 of Red Man Soars. Bryce Brown photo. I believe this route was originally FAed with a bit of aid by none other than Barry Blanchard, with the late Alex Lowe being the first to free the route many years ago. It has since become a super-classic trad mixed route.

Pitch 2 of Red Man Soars. Who's got the nicer butt?

Four great pitches, and we had the place to ourselves for the day, a rarity that week (I heard more than a dozen folks were in there the following day). To top it all off, we had the added “joy” of breaking trail on the ski out as well. Watching the sunset as we approached our vehicle, I couldn’t think of much else I needed to be happy. A grand day out with a close friend, in my favourite range. What a great season! I love winter.

A rare moment when the snow wasn't falling. Whiteman Falls (left), Red Man Soars (right).

Back to the wind and snow, ridiculous strength and volume and fighting to go downhill.

Bulletproof – 20 cold weather ice climbing tips

January 4, 2012

Well, it’s getting to be that time of the season here in TB where we can expect a nasty arctic air mass to come and settle in at some point.  The kind of air mass that makes for two or three straight nasty, bitter weekends of ice climbing and has me second guessing the madness of this pursuit and questioning why the hell I didn’t stay in my nice warm bed cuddled up to my nice warm wife in the morning.  We’ve had a couple of cold mornings already this season that have given us a bit of a reality check, and some discussion during those outings led to this post [thanks also to Wes Bender for adding some info to an earlier draft].

If you climb ice long enough and often enough, it’s inevitable that you will, at some point, be out on a day where the ice is bulletproof, tools bounce off the ice like you’ve hit a rock, and dinner plates are a fact of life.  The sounds in those conditions are unmistakeable, ice fragments sound like broken wine glasses and fine china falling down, and tools and crampons squeak like nails on a chalk board.  Still, there are a few things I’ve learned that make life a lot easier and can at least make a cold day out tolerable.

Brian Bottan enjoying steep ice on a cold day - find the sun, climb the wet, tread lightly.

  1. Sharpen Up! – I see this every season, and I’m still occasionally guilty of it myself, but keep all your pointy bits sharp!  Properly sharpened picks (the profile restored to that of a brand new one, or properly tuned if you know how) make a huge difference in how easily you’ll get a good tool placement in cold ice.  Accept that your picks are replaceable for a reason – they wear out from time to time, and stop trying to save a few bucks by avoiding sharpening them when they need it – strive for that “new pick” feeling.  Don’t forget to work on the top of the pick as it gets shorter to keep the front profile true to stock.  Remember to swap out those T-rated drytooling picks for thinner B-picks if you have them.  If you find your picks “sticky”, tune them to release properly – nothing like cold ice to really get your tool stuck.  Ditto for your crampons – dull points will have you climbing like you’re driving a Flintsone car on the expressway, no matter how good you use your feet. You shouldn’t have to kick more than once or twice to get a secure foot.  Finally, don’t forget your screws.  Nothing will increase your confidence more than starting an ice screw quickly when you need it most, and only razor sharp screws will do in very cold weather.  If you’re lucky enough to find a wet line (see below), any screw can be a nightmare to start in dense ice with a wet surface.  Sharp screws help here, as do the most recent screws from major manufacturers which seem to deal better with this stuff than older versions.
  2. Swing lightly – if your ice technique is lacking (i.e. you’re a lumberjack), it will become even more apparent in cold weather.  Heavy-handed swinging is not only more fatiguing, but will result in more dinner plating; and on more difficult climbs, it may break off features you would prefer remained in place.  Practice climbs at your limit in these conditions while on top rope, and you may be surprised and how much better a lighter touch seems – and how much more efficient it will be in the long run.  The trick is to find the balance between a secure placement and minimal effort and ice displacement.  On difficult ice with fragile features, I often “drill” my tool placements with a few lighter taps, displacing minimal ice but getting a deeper, more secure hole to hook.  If the hooking gives you the willies, a slightly harder tap at the end sets the pick in the ice more securely.
  3. Happy Hooking – take advantage of natural features or, on beat out routes, old pick holes, wherever possible.  No swinging usually means no dinner plates.
  4. Dealing with Dinner Plates – A lighter swing will go a long way to minimizing the number and size of dinner plate chunks of ice you knock loose.  At these temps though, they are a fact of life for even experienced climbers.  Climbs with fresh or undisturbed, smooth ice (in addition to being pumpy or real calf-burners depending on the angle) will be the most challenging in this regard.  When you do knock a plate loose, try to avoid sending it down the climb intact to your belayer (or your face).  Lightly break it into smaller pieces first, working from the top down so as to minimize the chance it goes all at once.  Dodging (or getting hit by) smaller chunks is always preferable.  It doesn’t take a large piece of ice to do serious damage when it hits a person.  Some plates may be best left in place, as long as there is no danger of them coming loose later and hitting someone.  Also, sometimes clearing the surface ice with a large dinner plate can reveal more cooperative ice underneath – I’ve found the ice below often seems to be under less tension and easier to get a good stick into, or the plate may reveal ice features underneath that are more aerated and better accept the displacement of a pick.  A properly worn and adjusted helmet (so that the forehead is protected – not tilted back) helps a ton – use your helmet to deflect ice debris from your face.  A regular partner of mine has a visor on his, usually worn flipped up, for added protection from this hazard.

    Wes with his trusty helmet visor.

  5. Obey the Basic Rules – If we’ve been spoiled with a long spell of soft ice and warm temps, we often get used to bending the “rules” of tool placements – getting sticks in fragile features or on top of bulges.  Look for the holes, gaps and depressions, you’ll displace less ice that way.  Avoid the crests of bulges and cauliflowers, and the outsides of narrow columns.
  6. Seek out the Water – 16 years of ice climbing, and I’m still amazed that I can find flowing or seeping water at -30C. Following that wet line can make a cold climb much easier, and mean the difference between struggling like you’re chopping a cord of wood and cruising up some plastic.  Be careful about swinging too hard again though, and pay attention to icing on gloves and tool handles if you’re going leashless.
  7. Climb the “Crap” – I’ve often managed to make quick work of an imposing route in colder weather by climbing the rougher-looking ice that I’d avoid in warmer conditions.  Snowy patches on the ice can sometimes make for an easier stick (I suspect the aerated surface ice-snow interface helps here) – watch for onion skins and other surprises though.  Similarly, sun-rotted ice, especially if it’s just the inch or two on the surface (yielding good ice and protection below) will often be more aerated and less prone to fracturing – it’s a fine line though between total crap and easier overall climbing.  I also use this to advantage topping out on vertical routes – sometimes the sunny side of a bulge offers an easier time during the trickiest part of a climb.  Be especially wary though of very cold ice that has only recently had the sun on it, there can be a lot of tension there and consequent surprises when you try to get a stick.
  8. Dagger Intentions – Now is NOT the time to be getting on those free-hanging daggers or free-standing columns.  They will be under a LOT of tension and sometimes a sneeze will be all it takes to snap them.  Save those for warmer spells (they’re hard enough as it is!).  As Wes notes, it’s a good idea to pay attention to temps in the days leading up to an ascent of a free-stander, sometimes if it’s a tad cool, but with consistent temperatures, it might be okay.  Me, I’m a chicken and if it’s cold I stay off them unless they’re super fat.
  9. Beware Big Swings – even if the daytime high is forecast to be tolerable, or you’ve found that sunny climb out of the wind, pay attention to changing temperatures.  These put the ice under a lot of tension, particularly if temps are dropping or rising quickly (most climbers have heard climbs cracking during a sudden drop in temperature), and your tools can seemingly explode from the ice.
  10. Free Your Wrists – And your circulation will follow.  Using leashes can be of benefit in colder weather (particularly when using thicker gloves) and provide an additional margin of security, but they prevent natural circulation to your hands and make it easier to get in over your head (by being able to do more with semi-frozen hands).  Climbing unleashed will keep you moving your hands about more, make it easier to drop them to restore circulation, and also keep you more realistic about just how cold you’re hands are getting, making you more likely to turn around while you still can.  Be proactive and shake blood into your hands frequently while climbing to avoid the barfies.
  11. Protect the Belayer – if you can set up the belay in a cave or anywhere out of ice fall range, do so.  Icefall is even less avoidable now than when it’s warm.  On single pitch routes, avoid ground anchors unless absolutely necessary and choose climbs where the belayer has ample room to dodge icefall.
  12. Dress Appropriately – Goes without saying, but come prepared.  Consider a change of socks after longer approaches, and a spare undershirt.  In addition to your big puffy jacket, a nice set of puffy pants can make all the difference at a long belay.  My friend once produced a sleeping bag you could walk in, leaving me comfortable belaying in -36C weather while he drilled and cleaned a new sport mixed pitch for 3 hours.  Thankfully our heated batteries still died prematurely and ended that sufferfest.  Ditto for your hands – a good pair of expedition mitts for the belay session can stave off the inevitable barfies.  All this can add up to more “stuff”, but sharing one set between partners can keep the packs smaller and lighter. And now is the time for those super-warm double boots that you only wear once or twice a season.  Keep them laced looser to permit adequate circulation to your feet, and lace them tighter when needed while standing in them (always a good idea, regardless of temp – the shape of your foot changes when weighted vs. not).
  13. Eat and Drink – It took me years to understand just how important this was in cold weather.  I tend not to eat much at all most days out climbing, and in cold weather I drink even less.  Having hot drinks available, and plenty of them, makes this more appealing, as does some fatty foods.  Drinking adequately during the day will help with recovery later as well.

    Bryce Brown fueling up with a light snack on a road trip. Remember to stoke the furnace!

  14. Focus on staying warm – Everything just takes a bit longer and bit more effort on colder days.  Accept this, and think about keeping warm.  Proactively warming cold toes and hands makes you more useful as a belayer and safer while climbing – do your best to avoid the barfies.  Shine those lips up with good balm, and cover your nose and ears if it’s windy.  Keep an eye on your partner for signs of frost nip or worse.
  15. Climb the Classics – Getting on a popular route often means the route will be hacked out, and this can be a plus in cold weather since you’re hooking more and swinging less, and expending less effort.  If the route is busy, be first (though see next tip).  Climbing under another team on vertical routes with no steps is a bad idea on any day, it’s even worse in colder weather when even more ice will be raining down the route.  If you get scooped, go elsewhere, or head to the coffee shop and talk about how rad you would have been if you had been first.
  16. Sleep In – Getting a later start is often a good idea.  Pick a lower-commitment objective and, if there’s any chance of things warming a bit, give the day time to do so.  It’s amazing how even a few degrees can make a big difference in your mood on a given day.
  17. Consequence – Remember, cold weather always makes any accident or injury, however minor, a lot more serious.  Any situation resulting in immobility carries with it a serious risk of hypothermia or other cold injury, and administering first aid or coordinating even a simple self-rescue quickly becomes more challenging – plan accordingly.  Now is a good time for lower-commitment objectives.
  18. Be Ready to Bail – That’s why you’ll-be-backin-offs (aka Abalakovs, aka v-threads) were invented.  As with any ice climbing, if it ain’t happening, accept it and get out of there.  No shame in turning around, I do often (then again, I do get shamed for it…).
  19. Think of Your Pet – Unless you’ve got a Yukon sled dog as your companion (and one that’s habituated to the cold, not a couch dog), leave your canine buddy at home.  Common sense prevails here!
  20. Stay Home – This is always an option, after all, ice climbing is supposed to be fun, isn’t it?  I know a lot of folks that just stay home on the colder days, which makes good sense to me.  There’s always that -15 rule – if it’s colder than that, technical climbing gets a lot more challenging and down right sucks in most cases.  Of course, we still sometimes go (hence this post), but the folks that do it often are also the same guys that believe slamming your fingers in a car door is a good way to train for ice climbing.  And fight that ever present “this is my day off and I’m doing it no matter what” syndrome that gets us all into trouble on occasion.

Even with all of this, climbing when the temps are in the negative double digits is most often Type II fun, sort of like WI6 on an ideal day.  Perhaps it’s more like repeatedly banging your head against a brick wall – it feels good when you stop.

2011 General Mountaineering Camp – Tsar-Somervell

November 20, 2011

Fine weather greats us on transition day.

Well, now that summer’s long since over and I’m thinking about ice, I ought to get this blog moving again.  A couple of summer updates are in order…I know, it’s already November and I owe a lot of people some pictures…been busy, what can I say?

 This summer marked the Alpine Club of Canada’s 105th(!) General Mountaineering Camp (GMC).  To my knowledge, this is the longest-running camp of this style in the world, and probably one of (if not THE) only annual camp of its type today.  It’s an event loaded with history, and in fact many of the early first ascents of major peaks in the Canadian Rockies happened as a result of this camp at the turn of the century.  Though it seems hard to believe now, climbing these peaks back then was a totally different, and far more involved, undertaking.  The “capital” of western Canada at the time was Winnipeg (and in fact, that’s where the ACC was inaugurated in 1906), and so any endeavours in the Rockies required quite the resources.

After its near-demise in the 1980s, the GMC has become an annual highlight for the club.  From my perspective as an amateur leader, I find it extremely rewarding and worthwhile despite the occasional challenges of leading others in the mountains. Volunteering alongside professional mountain guides and other leaders with vast amounts of mountaineering experience, it’s both an opportunity for some serious fun in the mountains with a wide variety of personalities, as well as a great opportunity to keep those mountaineering skills sharp.  I learn something every year, and to date I’ve only had one helmet fire that I’ll admit to!

This summer’s camp was located on the bench below Mount Somervell and basecamp afforded wonderful views of Mounts Tsar, Shackleton and others; at least when the weather cooperated.  To say this year’s camp was not without challenging weather would be an understatement.  I was there for Week 4 of the six-week long camp in the last week of July, and we dealt with everything from winter snow at higher elevations (and the concomitant avalanche concerns at times), to rain resembling falling pitchforks, to thigh-deep post-holing, soft crevasse bridges, whiteout navigation and unfrozen snow and “ice”.

I’ve often heard it said that the Inuit have a number of different words for snow; I’d say we encountered most varieties and I’ll also note that mountain guides have quite a few different words for bad snow…most of which I probably shouldn’t repeat here.

Despite the at-times horrendous weather though, we did manage to climb something on all but one of our seven possible climbing days (and we got to watch a lightning show to remember from our tents that day).  Most days I got really efficient at putting on my rain jacket only to take it off moments later.  Other days I just stayed wet from the moment I left camp.  Unfortunately, the heavy amounts of winter snow still falling at higher elevations left the bigger peaks out of condition with double-corniced ridges and treacherous snow slopes to negotiate, so Shackleton, Somervell and Tsar remained unclimbed during my stay.  Mount Tsar was the only one of the big prizes to be climbed this year, once during Week 1 and again during Week 5 (just my luck…) – congratulations to those parties, looked like a fantastic outing!

I had a great time, as always, having the chance to again see some old friends and mentors, hone my own skills, and make many new friends.  I also had the immense satisfaction of seeing a lot of smiling faces as many folks bagged their first peaks.

A classic day at a classic crag

August 20, 2011

Man, oh man, it feels good to be getting back into the cragging scene a bit.  Got on some classic sport routes today with some great friends, good day out and a great way to gauge where the climbing fitness is at (I have some work ahead of me in that department…).  A few pics from the day, mostly Oman getting after it on Unknown Pleasures (11d) and Kuma showing how best to utilize the “dog days” of summer.  A grand day to be out and yet another example of what ignoring the doom and gloom weather forecasts we’ve gotten here lately can do!

A long way from somewhere steep

July 16, 2011

I wake up feeling like I have sand in my eyes.  Lack of sleep has left me confused and disoriented.  My first thought is a bit of snow blindness from the bright sun on the glacier, I really should have been more attentive to wearing my sunglasses.

A few more moments pass and a bit more clarity ensues – that can’t be it, it was only a dream.  I’ve not been anywhere near a glacier, or anything climbable, in quite some time.  Far too long in fact.  Confusion sets in again as I try to suss out my surroundings and recall where I am this week.  The sort of confusion that arises from not having slept in my own bed for more than a few nights since early May.  My eyes hurt because they’re full of dust and smoke from the arid clearcut I was working in yesterday.  Another moment passes and I realize where I am and how I got there.  A second or two later I’m nearly launched into orbit when my all-too-crass travel alarm startles me at the advent of another work day.

A hasty breakfast and morning routine, followed by a seemingly endless drive along a bumpy bushroad (who knew these things had kilometre markers in excess of 180?) lands my partner and I at another site we are to assess in the name of forest research.  This work has by now become tiresome and repetitive, like any good forest survey, and I’m crashing through the young jack pine stand on autopilot.  A loud bellow of obscenities ensues as a pin cherry branch whips my face in protest of my careless passage.

While measuring another plot, my mind wanders to places where, and people with whom, I’d rather be – anywhere but here, again.  Looking down at the lichens I notice my tattered nylon pants, grabbed by a thousand pieces of slash, prickly roses and jack pine branches,  I think of how many summers I’ve done similar damage to similar pants.  You know, the same kind of pants preferred by climbers the world over.  Quick drying, stretchy, synthetics – great for bush work as well.  Except those summers were the kind I live for – endless roadtrips, one lasting three months in the Rockies where I wore out three pairs of pants learning to read topos and thrutch up cold, scalloped limestone chimneys.

Somehow I manage to measure several more plots, another hour ticks by and I don’t even remember recording the data.  A look at the field computer confirms it’s there though.  Instead, my mind was on the climbs I’ve  done and the people I’ve done them with.  I chew on the last of my too-small lunch, and it’s only 10 am.  Figures.  I commence my next plot thinking of my wife and how little I’ve seen her this summer.  Indeed, I’ve yet to sleep more than four nights in my own bed this summer.  Thinking of her brings a smile to my face and the next few plots go better.

The sound of a water bomber overhead actioning a nearby fire transports me to another daydream, this one to Alaska and the sound of the aircraft landing on the snow at Kahiltna International Airport.  I still feel cheated by an unexpected illness on that trip, cheated out of an opportunity to try a big route with some great and patient friends, as well as to test myself on one of the most awe-inspiring peaks I’ve ever seen.    I resolve to get back there come hell or high water, and soon, to try again and this resolve carries me through my next hour of work with fervour.

Finishing up the survey late in the day, it’s time for the endless march back.  This particular road has been actively reclaimed by the forestry company, and traveling down it is difficult.  Thirty minutes later I’m walking on autopilot, switching between the road and the adjacent forest, trying to decide which is easier.  My mind again wanders to climbing, and my latest long-term dream climb.  I’ve had a lot of those lately and they’ve changed as often as the places I’ve slept this summer, I haven’t found one yet that grabs me the way they once did though and I worry about losing my commitment to climbing.  Perhaps that’s not it.  It’s more likely that I miss the commitment that hard climbing demands of me.  Being away from climbing for so long leaves me wanting.

On the drive home, my enthusiastic partner convinces me to stop and try a few casts in a promising river and we manage a couple of plump walleye to bring home.  Standing on the rocks below the fragrant branches of an overhanging cedar, I see my reflection in the calm surface of the eddy.  Wow, I look tired.  Landing another fish I think about what’s next – I need something to get me through this season.  A glance at my watch and I realize the date – in another week’s time I’ll be heading to the Rockies and leaving this work behind for another season.  I’ll spend a week being challenged by leading others and sharing in their joy of discovering the many secrets of my favorite mountain range.  Immediately after that, I’ll be able to introduce my wife to one of my all time favorite parts of the range, and spend time in the mountains with my favorite climbing partner.

There’s still another thirty or so plots between me and that light at the end of the tunnel though.  Not surprisingly, I don’t remember doing those either.

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