American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The North Wall of Mount Edith Cavell

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1962

The North Wall of Mount Edith Cavell

Yvon Chouinard

Mount Edith Cavell, in Jasper National Park, rises on its north side a full 4000 feet above its base. Even in normal years its cliffs are plastered with ice and snow. For Dan Doody and me it stood as the symbol of our ideal, a technical climb in alpine conditions with objective dangers. Having discovered the wall independently, we had both fallen under its spell. We came with Ken Weeks in 1960 to climb it, but it rained and snowed every day. Also we made the mistake of looking at the wall too often. It is not a good thing to look at great walls for too long a time.

But winter restored our confidence. We made our plans for the summer, collected together the best equipment that we could find for this, our greatest climb. I even made some special pitons with no taper for the stratified rocks.

We arrived in Jasper in early July with Fred Beckey along to take the place of Ken Weeks, who was in the army. Driving up to the tea house at the base of the wall, I could see that the face was very dry because of the abnormally hot May and June. However, the weather now was very poor and we waited out the rain storms in the Jasper Park Lodge. Every morning at three I would rise and look outside only to see storm clouds. Finally on July 19, the weather bureau predicted clearing weather for the next day followed by a new front on the following day. Possibly if we got an early start and moved very fast we could climb the face in one day and beat the storm.

The next morning I awoke with a thumping heart and ran outside to find the sky still overcast and the weather very warm. Disgusted, I did not bother to wake the others. At seven Doody stormed into my room, asking "What the hell is going on! Why didn’t you wake me?” The sky was perfectly clear. We woke Beckey and decided to climb, even though the late start ruined our hopes of doing the wall in one day.

Shouldering our very heavy loads, we quickly walked from the tea house along the glacier to the base of the face. Doody’s pack was especially heavy as he had a great deal of movie camera equipment. (This was to limit his leading on the climb.) He was planning to make a movie on the climb for television. Without hesitating, we crossed the simple berg- schrund and started up the easy rocks. It felt good to be moving fast, not worrying about ropes and pitons, on the enjoyable, steep face on good holds. We quickly passed a few cairns that Beckey and I had built on a previous reconnaissance. There was not even a hint of rockfall, and the climbing was mostly 4th class and easy 5th. We stayed unroped to save time on the lower third of the wall as it is threatened by the ice cliff of the left arm of the Angel Glacier. In a short time we were at the base of this 150-foot cliff. Spotting a gap through it, Beckey led up and over in grand style in three pitches, using no ice pitons. I felt relieved to get above the cliff and on the flat, safe Angel glacier. Later the entire ice cliff collapsed, covering our route completely.

We trudged up the glacier to the base of the upper wall where we were greeted by the constant rumbling of rockfall. The route we had picked out from below followed a zig-zag system of ledges and cracks up the center of the face, but it was there where most of the rocks were falling. As we looked over to an alternate route on the left, a volley came down, peppering the snow like machine-gun fire and dashing our hopes for that route. Only one possibility was left—to go up the very center of the face via the vertical rock rib which stood out a little way from the wall, and we hoped this was free from rockfall.

Beckey crossed the difficult bergschrund and sped up the first pitch, a difficult vertical system of jam cracks. He moved very fast knowing that his belayers were in constant danger of rockfall. The next thousand feet was moderate to difficult climbing on very steep rocks, just loose enough to keep us alert and to make us distribute our weight over more than one or two points. Because of rockfall, every belay spot had to be under an overhang. To save time, pitons were hardly used except as anchors. The belayer kept his eyes and ears open for rocks. One place in particular stands out. After an extremely rotten and difficult pitch, Beckey was belaying me up when Doody yelled, "Rock". I ducked and a rock the size of a grapefruit hit where my head had been. This was one of the "high flyers" which were dislodging from 500 to 1000 feet up. Doody had the same experience when he came up. We all huddled under a steep wall. Beckey and I were jumpy, but Doody was very calm and quiet. The next lead was mine and after several false starts I managed to get the courage to leave the "womb" and go onto the "shooting gallery." I came down several times and finally left my pack as I could not make the move over a tricky, unprotected overhang. I finally got over it and moved onto the easier rocks as fast as I could. Doody took the next lead and went for 120 feet without any protection in very fast time. When I tried to follow I found that I could not make the move and had to use pull from above. It had been a fine lead by Dan. Above the last pitch of the vertical section of the buttress, the angle eased off, offering no overhang to belay from. All that I could find was a four-foot boulder, above which my head stuck out a couple of inches. As I was bringing Beckey up, I heard a roar and automatically pulled my head in like a turtle to let a sheet of snow and small rocks shoot over, leaving all the area around me white.

It was easier above and the rockfall eased somewhat, but unfortunately the rock became more rotten. Beckey led for the rest of the day as he was climbing in top form. He led pitch after pitch of moderately difficult rock, paralleling a couloir down which avalanches of rock and snow plunged every few minutes. Knowing we would have to cross this couloir, we dreaded the thought. At ten p.m. we reached the spot. Beckey led up and put in a poor piton then dropped back down and crossed the verglas- covered gully, a magnificent lead over steep rotten rock. He stopped only long enough to brush the snow off the hand holds and look for the route. When I came across I fully realized how great a lead this was. I led another pitch before Doody was brought up. Beckey went up one final pitch and found a place to bivouac, the first that we saw on the entire face that was large enough to sit down and yet afforded protection from the ever present avalanches and rockfall. We each had a two by three-foot ledge to ourselves. It was about midnight and having gone all day without food or water, we were very happy to stop at last.

Fast approaching heavy clouds soon showed that it would storm in the morning. A retreat from here would be impossible, but we felt that the worst of the wall was below us. Having done so much that day though, we felt confident that we could handle anything this terrible wall could offer. It was a warm night and I slept well—one of the best bivouacs that I have ever had.

In the morning I looked down between my legs at the Angel Glacier 2000 feet below, peered up to a completely overcast sky, saw Doody to my left, a black blob on his little ledge, and twenty feet up to my right, Beckey who was just waking up. I felt very good and very happy to be alive, so good in fact that I started singing, quite a contrast to the day before. A feeling of calmness came over me, accompanied by great confidence: I felt invincible!

It began to rain just as we started climbing. It was easy climbing on low- angle rock and we moved at a steady deliberate pace. We were not going to let ourselves be forced to move fast by fear. A far cry from yesterday! It began to hail and we could hardly hear each other above the noise of the wind and thunder. Lightning was hitting the summit 800 feet above us. Clouds moved back and forth unveiling ghastly views of the ice-plastered wall to the right and left of us.

In about three hours we reached the summit ice slope. It looked very steep but not long, possibly two pitches to the summit rocks, but it was to take 500 feet of step-cutting before we were to reach them! The ice was in terrible shape. Since it was granular and kept sliding, I had to chop steps all the way. The higher up we got the worse the ice became, while the slope continued to steepen. Through breaks in the clouds Doody and Beckey appeared below me, huddled against the slope trying to avoid the ice chips. Below them the wall dropped sheer and Eiger-like for 3500 feet. Lulls in the storm gave hopes that it would stop, but hail and snow kept us soaked through for the rest of the day. Freezing feet made me chop a little faster but I had to make bigger steps for my weaker legs. With only a few ice pitons, we had to keep the leads fairly short. My left foot had lost all feeling. After an interminable time we reached the summit rocks only a little way from the top, but the face was not going to give in so easily. The next 300 feet took everything I had to lead. On horizontal bands of the loosest shale, pitches had to be short because of the lack of piton cracks. Each move was a desperate effort to keep from sliding down the wet slabs. Doody belayed perfectly calmly, never complaining of countless rocks dislodged onto him. The last pitch took me to 80 feet above Doody on extreme rocks with no protection. I got above a small band of dirt and there I was with my hands on the summit! I tried to pull myself up but could not. My feet slid continually and my fingers dug deeper into the dirt, but I could not move. I looked across 50 feet to the summit pole and then down 4000 feet to the ground. O God, what a place to get it! I was afraid for the first time during that day. With frantic eyes I spotted a two-foot long patch of hard snow ten feet to my right. I very cautiously eased over. It felt solid, so I pulled up, mantled and was up. Never have I felt so happy as that day on the summit with my friends.

Even though we encountered a great deal of objective danger I feel there are times when this wall is perfectly safe. When we climbed the wall, it was in very poor condition. Future parties should try to climb it in cool weather, perhaps the first week of July, when the summit ice slope would be in better shape as normally nearly all of the rockfall is caused by the summit ice fields avalanching and flushing rocks. Since retreat from high up the face would be next to impossible, enough gear should be taken along to last three days even though in good conditions a two-man party could climb the wall in one day. The summit rocks should be avoided by climbing the 60° ice to the left. Speed is the biggest safety factor on nearly any great wall, so it is better to go unroped as much as possible. No more than 10 pitons need to be taken, two of which should be knife blades.

Summary of Statistics Area: Canadian Rockies.

Ascent: Mount Edith Cavell, 11,033 feet, July 20-21, 1961—first ascent of north face.

Personnel: Fred Beckey, Yvon Chouinard, Daniel Doody.

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