American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Northeast Face of Mount Babel

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  • Publication Year: 1970

Northeast Face of Mount Babel

Brian Greenwood

SOME YEARS ago a leading California climber stated that climbing in North America had not yet reached the same standards as in Europe. I am sure no one would express that opinion today – certainly not in rock climbing. The technical advances developed in Yosemite are recognized throughout the world. I suppose it is inevitable that climbers will make comparisons. They like to feel that the climbing in their own home area is of as high a standard as anywhere else. I would like to believe that about the Canadian Rockies. I cannot as yet, but perhaps in a few more years it will be so. In Europe technical advances in rock climbing were originally made on the limestone of the Eastern Alps, whereas here in North America almost all the major rock climbs have been on granite. Sometime in the future the Canadian Rockies, with its limestone cliffs, will cease to be the mountaineering backwater which they presently are.

I reflect thus to try to assess the importance of our climb of the northeast face of Mount Babel. I do feel that it is the most consistently difficult pure rock climb in the Canadian Rockies and the position of its crux pitches makes it a serious undertaking. Calgary climbers have for a few years made difficult routes on the Yamnuska, a kind of limestone Tahquitz, but with the possible exception of the north face of Mount Geikie, the major climbs in the main chain, Edith Cavell, Chephren, Howse, and Temple, have been of the mixed variety.

Mount Babel is not like this. Almost 2000 feet high, it may be compared to a major Dolomite face. Even in winter only a limited amount of snow sticks to the face. In summer only a large ledge in the centre of the face holds snow. By last summer I was familiar with the face and its problems. With Charlie Locke three years ago I had climbed all but the last 250 feet. Now others were growing aware of the problem; competition was becoming a definite possibility.

John Moss, an English climber now living in Edmonton, and I made plans each week through June and July to do the climb but continuous bad weather had thwarted us. When good weather returned during the last days of July, John again suggested Babel. Two days later we left the campground at Moraine Lake for our face. After the early morning start, I hardly remember the walk to Consolation Lake or the long scree slope to a steep snow couloir at the top of which we arranged our gear for the climb.

I pointed out the route to John; first a buttress, 300 to 400-feet-high, the top of which could be reached easily by its left edge. Above the buttress rose a blank section, but higher a steep crack led to easier ground. From there the only real line on the face continued almost to the top. I doubted that this line could be followed to the summit but about 500 feet below, a traverse right could be made to reach a faint line through the upper face.

We crossed the few yards of scree to the face and, unroped, began climbing an easy ramp to the left. Still unroped, we climbed an F5 chimney system after which more easy scrambling to the right put us on top of the first buttress – our rope-up point. A short easy pitch over loose rock was followed by a shallow inside corner. Above this rose a chimney and a short easy pitch to a ledge. This was immediately below the steep crack, the key to the central face. Although I have climbed this pitch four times now, I have not developed a feeling of contempt for it. The initial chimney is simple enough but on the steep crack above, which others might climb in an elegant fashion, my own progress has never been other than a desperate thrutch.

Now we were at the beginning of the main feature of the face – a fourth-class lead, then a great slab to the big central ledge. To this point we had climbed difficult pitches but they had always been separated by easier ground. Above, the climbing was to be consistently difficult. Fortunately I knew the way and we climbed fast, avoiding the delays which arise from uncertainty as to the route. By early evening we had reached the ledge where we hoped to bivouac. Three years before, Charlie Locke and I took two days to reach this point. Now, with daylight remaining, we made a start on the difficulties ahead. A short lead round a corner put us on a small ledge which was to be our base for the next 14 hours.

The wall above was definitely overhanging. The obvious line was a crack varying in width from regular piton size to six or more inches. If this would not go, there was a faint possibility a few feet to the left. John took the iron and hauling line and began to climb. Each piton was difficult to place. Progress was slow but steady. John moved higher and hammered a 4-inch bong into the back of the now wide crack. Since further piton placement in this crack was impossible, John looked around for an alternative. A piton to the left seemed to offer hope but a second one only loosened the one on which he was standing. Hurriedly he retreated to the bong, which immediately pulled – to leave him hanging from a lower piton. He quickly reorganized and hammered in the bong again. In the dusk, our best hope seemed to be a bolt from which we might reach the crack continuation above. Though John was only 25 feet above me, I had to reach out beyond the ledge for the hauling line in order to send up the bolt kit.

With our short advance consolidated, John dropped back to the ledge and we settled our bivouac. As we tried to sleep, I could not help remembering my last time on this ledge. Charlie Locke had fallen some 20 feet while trying to nail the left-hand cracks. His wrist was broken and we spent a third night on the face, at this ledge, waiting to be rescued.

I remembered Warden Billy Vroom being lowered by cable and passing us, some 15 feet out in space. Eighty feet lower he touched rock. I threw him our rope and pulled him into the ledge as he was hauled up from above. Charlie and I were both on top of the face in the early afternoon, a remarkably efficient rescue organized and led by the late Walter Perren.

In the morning, after losing the short argument as to who should continue, I began to arrange my ropes and pins for the attempt. I jümared to the first piton, unclipped and swung out from the face, paused to recover my breath and normal heartbeat, then using the Jümars, climbed to the bolt. A further pause to reorganize, then away. I could not reach the crack above from the bolt but a propitious hole on the right wall took a Lost Arrow perfectly and I was away. A few smaller angles to a widening of the crack, a knife blade, a Lost Arrow behind a jammed block, a couple of bongs, some desperate thrutching free moves, then more free climbing to a belay. All this must have taken four hours to climb, though looking back it seems like only a few minutes. Perhaps this is the fascination of aid climbing. I tied off the climbing rope, hauled up the sack and settled back, finally allowing myself the thought that our climb would go.

John passed me and led the next pitch, still overhanging, still calling for difficult pin placement, and once he had to drop down to recover pitons for further use – but that was it. When I joined him at the next stance, I could see that the climb was ours. There remained 120 feet of moderately difficult climbing and the northeast face of Mount Babel had been climbed.

Summary of Statistics.

AREA: Canadian Rockies

NEW ROUTE: Mount Babel, Northeast Face, August 3, and 4, 1969 (Brian Greenwood, John Moss).

TECHNICAL DATA: Height of face: 2000 feet. NCCS V, F9, A4; UIAA VI, A4, Iron list: 8 assorted horizontals, 4 stubby angles, 3 3/4” angles, 3 1” angles, 2 each 1 1/4”, 1 1/2”, 2”, 2 1/2” angles, 1 each 3”, 4” angles. Hanger removed from bolt.

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