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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.

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