North America, Canada, Canadian Rockies, Summary

Publication Year: 2003.

Canadian Rockies, summary. The variable weather of summer 2002 defied forecasting but paved the way for a remarkable fall. July saw some notable ascents in the front range. The northeast aspect of Mt. Rundle is lined with rock buttresses up to 500m high. A few, such as the First Buttress, also known as the East End of Rundle, are crisscrossed with routes, but most remain virtually untouched. Eric Dumerac and Raphael Slawinski were drawn to the unclimbed north face of the thumblike Second Buttress. Due to difficult routefinding and tricky climbing, it took three attempts to establish La Bastille (500m, 5.11-). Later that month Slawinski teamed with Cody Wollen to make the first traverse of the Three Sisters. The three rocky peaks, rising 1,600m above the valley floor, are a prominent Bow Valley landmark. Slawinski and Wollen enchained the technical routes on the north aspects of the three peaks in a long day, in the process making the FFA of the north ridge of the Middle Sister at chossy 5.10.

The summer also saw a controversial project started on Mt. Louis. The upper east face of this beautiful obelisk is formed by an exceptionally clean vertical bedding plane several hundred meters tall. Over the years this “Diamond Face” has been the subject of speculation and been attempted by a number of strong climbers. But the attempts have floundered due to lack of natural lines. Last summer Dumerac and a variety of partners, after rigging a Tyrolean traverse to the top of the giant flake, began the monumental task of rappel-bolting the face. The ongoing project has sparked a lively debate in the Rockies’s climbing community, with reactions spanning the spectrum from outrage to disapproval to enthusiastic support.

After early August’s snows receded, the alpine summer finally began. In mid-August Will Gadd, in an impressive display of fitness and skill, soloed the South Face (normal) route of Mt. Robson in 17 hours car-to-car. Although not highly technical (at most easy 5th class), the route entails an elevation gain of 3,000m, ascends a variety of terrain ranging from steep rain forest to exposed loose rock to steep alpine ice, and is exposed to objective hazards. This was likely the first time that Robson was day-tripped from the road. A couple of days later Gadd teamed with Slawinski to climb the Japanese (normal) Route on Mt. Alberta in 13 hours hut-to-hut, thus bagging two of the Rockies’s most coveted summits within a week.

In the fall Americans John Catto and Scott Simper spent time new-routing in the Tonquin Valley, west of Jasper. The Tonquin’s superb quartzite peaks are guarded by approaches of up to two days and often inclement weather. Catto and Simper made three first ascents on the Amethyst Lakes Rockwall, including Jokers and Fools (V 5.11), an 18-pitch route on a satellite summit of Redoubt Peak. In recent years a small group of Americans, realizing the potential of the Tonquin, have been quietly putting up some impressive new routes. These include two new lines on the north face of Mt. Geikie—the Hesse-Shilling (VI 5.10 A2) by Mark Hesse and Brad Shilling in August 1994 and Honky Tonquin (VI+ 5.10 A3) by Scott Simper and the late Seth Shaw in July 1999. In September 2001 John Catto and Mark Hesse climbed a 23-pitch new route on the northwest buttress of Mt. Postern (VI 5.10+), making what was likely only the second ascent of the peak.

Late September and early October were cold and wet, making for excellent early-season ice conditions. By contrast late fall was exceptionally warm and dry. The warm weather sublimated much of the ice, rendering the remaining ice season merely average. However, the extended high pressure made possible some outstanding alpine ascents. In mid-October Dumerac and visiting French alpinist Philippe Pellet climbed a likely new route on the northwest face of Mt. Kitchener. (There are indications that it may have been climbed previously, but glacier conditions may have changed significantly over the years.) Rights of Passage stands out as one of the hardest pure ice pitches to have been climbed on a Rockies alpine route. But Kitchener was merely a warm-up for the main event. In late October Dumerac and Pellet teamed with Barry Blanchard and in four days completed an oft-attempted line on the far right side of the Emperor Face of Mt. Robson. They named their route Infinite Patience. The third major fall alpine event was an ascent in early December of the east face of Howse Peak by Gadd, Kevin Mahoney, and Scott Semple. Their Howse of Cards shares some common ground with M-16, the first route on the east face of House. Not only did Gadd, Mahoney, and Semple place no bolts, but they used no aid or jumars, all climbers free-climbing the entire route.

Looking for early-season ice before winter snow made backcountry travel difficult, local guide Larry Stanier ventured to the “backside” or western slope of the Columbia Icefields with Grant Statham. The result was Panama (300m, M5 WI5), an excellent new route on a small peak between Mt. Columbia and Mt. King Edward.. Stanier then teamed with Steve Holeczi to explore the backcountry on the north side of the Goodsir Towers. Their objective was a ribbon of ice coming down from the Central-North Tower col. Steep Foam Alabama (foam grade not given) climbed six harder-than-they-looked pitches of serious foam, with correspondingly challenging belay and rappel anchors. Under better conditions the route could be pushed to the col in another eight to ten pitches.

By early October stringers of ice were appearing all over the Bow Valley, precipitating a flurry of first ascents. In late October Kirsten Anderson and Grant Meekins put up Blackbeard (320m, M5 WI5+) on the north face of the Little Sister. The route featured much thin, poorly protected mixed climbing, with the crux being a fragile overhanging pillar. Farther west, an oft-attempted line of ice, easily visible from the bars of Canmore, forms most years on the southeast face of the East End of Rundle between the summer rock routes Balzac and Dropout. In early November Ben Firth and Jeff Honig took advantage of a rare combination of conditions that allowed for bare-handed rock climbing, as well as for ice climbing, to make the first complete ascent of Balzout (475m, 5.9 M5 WI4).

The Kananaskis Valley was also the scene of early-season first-ascent activity, accompanied by fierce competition. Slawinski and Peter Smolik kicked things off with the first ascent of Ulalume (250m, M5 WI5), an aesthetic narrow strip of ice high on the west face of Mt. Blane. This is another early-season route, forming with the first freeze and ablating away later. Slawinski next turned to the spectacular upper valley of North Ribbon Creek. Barely visible from the road and guarded by a three-to four-hour approach, the valley under the northeast walls of Mt. Sparrowhawk has long been known to hide some of the most spectacular unclimbed ice around. Slawinski and Jason Thompson were first on the scene in late October with VSOP (400m, M4 WI5+). The route started on moderate mixed ground, continued up thin, snowy ice, and finished on a series of steep pillars. The crux last pitch was climbed by headlamp. The first ascensionists narrowly beat out Blanchard, Gadd, and Steve House, who went into the area a few days later. Finding the most obvious objective already climbed, they went instead for its thin left-hand neighbor. Squid Drinks Courvoisier (350m, M5+ WI5+) was named in reference to the cloak of secrecy under which Slawinski had attempted to hide this exciting area. With Chomo (210m, WI5+) being climbed by Slawinski and Smolik the day after VSOP, this backcountry venue now holds the highest concentration of long ice routes in the front range. Farther south Dave Marra and Jeff Relph climbed a likely new route they named Billy Goats Gruff (1,200m, WI4) on the east face of the south peak of Mt. Kidd. A fun quasi-alpine route, it ascends a succession of aesthetic ice and snow pitches leading to the summit ridge of the mountain.

The season also saw some unusual ice formations in the Ghost/Waiparous area. On the spectacular rock wall to the right of the classic Hydrophobia, Sean Isaac and Shawn Huisman originally put up Cryophobia (150m, M8+) as a bolted mixed route with long stretches of drytooling between occasional ice smears. But last fall the upper hundred meters formed for the first time as a pure ice climb, more reminiscent of the Terminator than of the original Cryophobia. Gadd and Slawinski are thus unsure whether they made the second ascent of Cryophobia in fat conditions, or the first ascent of Cryophilia. They did agree that it was one of the best and most sustained ice routes either had ever climbed.

Between sustained cold spells and a dangerous snowpack, calendar winter was not conducive to big routes. The Greenwood-Locke (summer IV 5.9) on the north face of Mt. Temple continued to attract interest but remained unclimbed in winter. Farther north, along the Icefields Parkway, Dumerac, Sean Easton, and Firth attempted Against All Odds on the northeast face of Epaulette Mountain in January. After a bivouac at treeline they climbed three long pitches of snowy ice (WI6) and a few hundred meters of alpine terrain above, with severe exposure to serac and snow-avalanche hazards. Eventually heavy spindrift forced retreat. While the lower pitches may be considered to constitute a complete waterfall ice route, the team considers the route incomplete without the summit. In February Firth and Slawinski, over two short days, traversed the four peaks of Mt. Lougheed (summer III 5.5), the probable first winter traverse of the four peaks. The crux was snowed-up slabs, likely trivial in summer, leading to the fourth summit.

As winter gave way to spring and temperatures rose, the snowpack finally stabilized and allowed climbers to venture more safely into the alpine. In early April 2003 Slawinski and Pete Takeda made the first ascent of the West Chimney (II M5) of Mt. Athabasca. This obvious, easily accessible line above the snocoach road is similar in character to nearby Sidestreet on Little Snowdome, and is recommended as an enjoyable alpine alternative to the ice climbing routine. Also in April 2003 Rob Owens and Semple climbed an impressive new line to the summit of Mt. Stephen. Great Western (2,000m, M7 WI5) starts up the popular ice route Extra Light and continues up snow, ice, and mixed ground to join the North Ridge route near its top. The first ascentionists climbed the route in 32 hours car-to-car, with a seven-hour bivy one pitch from the top.

Raphael Slawinski, Canada