American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

A Rampart Wall — Oubliette's East Face

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  • Publication Year: 1963

A Rampart Wall —Oubliette’s East Face

Fred Beckey

Occasionally in mountaineering an unplanned undertaking, spurred by the spice of adventure and a sudden promise of perfect weather, can be as safe as a thoroughly programmed outing. It is bound to be more dramatic and most certainly less well organized. In our case a subdued interest in the wonderful Ramparts in the Canadian Rockies near Jasper blossomed into a top priority when storms and new snow on the highest faces dashed our original plans for a semiexpedition. Three of us, Brian Greenwood, Don Gordon and I, literally snatched four days’ food supply, rope, pitons and a tent from the car at Cavell Lake and set a fast pace up the Astoria Creek Trail. We had seen so many photos of the great walls in the Ramparts that a major ascent there had long been a prime target for each of us. But in our rapid decision to pursue this quest we had forgotten such essentials as a map, mosquito lotion, and had not memorized the names of the individual peaks of the range. We were still trying to recollect the sequence from Paragon to Geike, and the proper spelling of "amethyst”, when the full grandeur of the Rampart walls broke into view. Like a battlement, the great east faces of these peaks are unique. From what we had heard, climbers had outflanked them but never made a direct conquest.

Nobody can truly describe the beauty of this range. The meadows, alpine trees, and Amethyst Lake give a soft foreground to forbidding precipices that suddenly rise sheer for 3000 feet. Beyond the lake only an abbreviated moraine separates the base snowfields and glaciers from the immediate faces. Certainly these are some of the most majestic mountain walls in North America, and not one of them had been climbed frontally. While we mused over the reasons for the neglect of these "great challenges” by technical climbers, a wave of mosquitoes drove us to our feet again and around to the south shore of the lake. We definitely sought the windiest spot on its muskeg shores. The wind did rise, and between zipped parkas, the wind, and the fire’s smoke, we survived the afternoon hours of the pesky bugs.

Both the desire for a great climb and the need to escape the stings made "tomorrow” an attack day. We had a variety of choices, but without dissent, all cast votes for the front buttress of the three major summits above the lake (Oubliette, Dungeon, Redoubt). It led to the summit of Oubliette, though at the time we mistakenly called it "Paragon”. This was the longest wall in sight, nearly 3000 feet vertically, certainly an alpine classic. The next day, July 27, we hoped would mark the beginnings of a new era of great climbs in the Ramparts. We had a number of factors in our favor: brilliant weather, determination, good equipment, and zeal for a good climb.

At daybreak we were already scrambling over the moraines of the far shore of the lake. Traverses and then some snow climbing brought us to small schrunds at the foot of the east face. The great east wall soared overhead, so steep that it seemed a hopeless proposition. Route finding was now almost futile; we had carefully plotted the many cracks and ledges that we chose to follow from a distant vantage, and our proposed route was virtually memorized and sketched on paper. From close-in, we could only work out the best short-term patterns in line with the general route program.

A minor problem was where to leave the ice. Since a giant schrund cut us off from the front wall where we had hoped to cross, we had to retreat to a lower ice bridge and scramble onto the first ledge. Here a smile erased the first anxiety, which was for the condition and stability of the rock. We had heard many conflicting reports about its nature. Above, obvious strata layers changed at various levels but here the rock was a crystalline quartzite. It was a good omen.

This 3000-foot face is a very long one-day ascent, considering the difficult nature of the climb. We obviously had to move, and move fast. Rockfall from above spurred us into action. We had to get higher before the sun loosened debris and icicles. The face here was flat and open, with no protection from falling matter. For 1000 feet we climbed furiously, as if our very lives depended on speed. We roped, then when a passage could be done without the safety of the rope, we coiled it. Much of the climbing was continual fifth-class difficulty, but we had already decided to sacrifice rope safety for speed. There would be no protection from missiles once the sun loosened the upper walls.

A series of increasingly difficult chimneys led to an overhanging alcove. We roped again, and using pitons for safety, Brian found his way over a bad slab, around an exposed traverse, and up to a dangerous position. We all had to take turns at this difficult section, made distasteful by showers of ice and rock. As they whirred by, we knew we either had to get up this section fast or hide for the remainder of the day.

After another difficult pitch, the face slabbed back to a fringing band of snow-patches, obvious on all the photos. Rather than climb on the snow, we traversed beneath, on treacherous slabs, to a great gully. Here the rock suddenly turned to mud and shale, but it compensated for this disagreeable feature by overhanging above, like a protecting cavern. We roped, and made a half-dozen leads to the left, in and then out of this gully. Protection was terrible, and the exposure the same. We either had to grope along on half-frozen mud or eke out a way along the thin band of snow. Finally, a strong band of snow took us to the nose of the great central buttress we had sought so long. Now in the safety of a rounded crest, we took time for a mid-morning snack.

Oubliette now resembled a great wall in the Tetons. The rock was of gneiss with occasional areas of good quartzite. Colors varied from yellow to red, and where they darkened, we marked this as an area to avoid. At first, we had the choice of a number of crack systems to follow; higher, they merged, and the proper route was highly important. We had already discovered that this climb had many blocked exits. About 500 feet higher, groping and pushing my way up a chimney, I graphically learned this. Piton protection was poor, and where I had expected a good belay spot, there was nothing but slab; all I could do was jam my feet into the crack while the second man came up 40 feet. A crux move took me around to the right and in a half-hour we were again on more certain ground. This chimney is a key to the climb, and one of its two most difficult pitches. The other fell to Brian, who made a spectacular lead from a notch on a thin arête for a full lead of vertical and beyond-vertical. Fortunately, the rock here was good quartzite. Packs swung free as we hauled them up, ice-axes scraping the rock at the converging point.

The climb was beginning to take its toll of our resources, and as the afternoon ebbed on, we were climbing more slowly. There were more difficulties, but they were individual in nature. Two or three very spectacular pitches threatened to benight us, but the excellent nature of the rock brought us through. When we were only a few hundred feet from the summit we cut and kicked steps up a web of snowpatches. We could look to both flanks and see that we were above the gaps separating the summits of the Ramparts. The top was not far away. Darkness was close, timewise, so we had no opportunity for the delights of the summit panorama. We just gasped at the spectacle of peaks, walls, glaciers, a cycle that seemed to repeat itself for miles in all directions. Such peaks as Geike, Robson, Cavell, Clemenceau, and Columbia were covered in one glimpse. The next word was "down the south side”. Fortunately, the route was easy, and we did not need to rope or belay. Just as it really was beginning to dim, a final cliff dropped off into the col between us and Paragon. A quick rappel, and we were down. Our plan was to descend the great ice couloir, and fortunately, the surface was in good condition for heeling. Darkness found us over 3000 feet lower, in a steep, but really speedy descent. It had been a tough, but very rewarding day. And, it was the last one for climbing on this Rampart venture, for with the morning a sharp wind blew in a strata of thickening clouds. By noon we were hiking into the timber, and a blast of heavy hail forecast an early end to the Canadian summer.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Rampart Peaks, Canadian Rockies.

Ascent: Oubliette, 10,100 feet, July 27, 1962 — first ascent of East Face.

Personnel: Fred Beckey, Don Gordon, Brian Greenwood.

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