Friday, March 30, 2007

Ski Conditions: Lawerance Grassi Peak (Mar 28)

Jeff Relph invited me along for a Canmore range ski traverse mission. The plan was to hike up the backside of Ha Ling Peak to ski the Canmore Couloir (aka Town Gully aka Miner's Gully) then ski/boot up to the ridge above Canmore Wall and ski into the Ship's Prow drainage to continue over the Ship's Prow for a descent into Three Sisters Creek. How could I resist an interesting adventure right above my home?

Leaving the car at 7am at the Goat Creek parking lot, we transitioned a few times between skinning the icy trail and hiking until we finally decided hiking was easier. The wind was gusty strong from the west once on the ridge between Ha Ling and Miner's Peak threatening to blow us off. It felt very wintry despite the air temperature only being -5 C. Even though there hasn't been much new snow for transport, intense ridge top transport was observed.

A test pit at the top of the couloir revealed 55cm of HST and wind deposited snow sitting on the rain crust. A compression test produced the low end of hard results (CTH 21) and was quite resistant (not planer). HS was 220cm. Ski pen was 15cm with the top of the gully providing good powder but the lower section turning wind crusted. In general, good quality skiing and a classic line.

Instead, of continuing down the open bowl (traditional descent), we traverse skiers right and donned crampons for a 1.5 hour (600m) boot pack up the S-couloir on the east side of the North Face of Lawrence Grassi Peak. The gully (which occasionally gets skied) is steep (up to 50 degrees) and narrow (2m wide in places). We managed to stay on old debris most of the way but had to climb over some thin spooky slabs (2-10cm thick). We topped out at 2700m on the ridge not far below the summit.

Upon seeing the route over Ship's Prow, we immediately shit-canned the plan without need for discussion. It looked too exposed and sketchy so we skied the SE aspect down to below Ship's Prow for 1100m vertical of skiing. The snowpack was thin (HS = 80-100 cms at the top) but supportive with a variety of laminated crusts being the dominant layers. Good skiing near the top turned to frozen sun-crust. The lower angle terrain in the lower bowl was perfect dust-on-crust. A size 3 (last 36 hr) out of the steep rocky wind-loaded ledges (NE aspect @ ~2500m) ran across the lower bowl.

We were surprised at how far we could ski down the narrow gully. The snow was well frozen allowing us to keep skis on (mostly) down to 1600m leaving only 200m vertical to walk to reach the Peak's of Grassi neighbourhood. Nothing beats a big adventure within spitting distance of your front door. In total we had about
5000' of ski descent.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ski Conditions: Wapta Icefields (Mar 21-26)

I spent 5 days on the Wapta Icefields as a practicum with Brian Webster and his 6 guests. Dick, Wendy, Reed, Rick, Peter and Ben were keen for an adventure on skis and that is what we got. The plan was for a Wapta traverse from Bow Lake to Sherbrook Lake. The weather was surly right from the first day as we skied across Bow lake in a vicious headwind. As we worked up the final gully to the hut, a size 1.5 slough poured off the headwall right of the ice cliffs. but did not travel far once it hit the flats.

We had day 2 planned for touring above the Bow Hut and maybe bagging a peak but that night, the wind reached extreme values. With the glacier scoured, Brian made the call to drop down and spend the day on Crowfoot Mountain which offered a bit more shelter from the Patagonian-esque weather. We worked up the moraines to the toe of the small glacier on the backside of Crowfoot Peak where the snow became more wind affected and crusty.

Day 3 dawned calm but the wind picked up again once on the glacier above Bow Hut. Glaciers seemed well covered with 240cm of HS at lower elevations and 300cm+ at upper elevations. With heads down, we trudged over the St Nicholas - Olive Col then cruised down the Vulture Glacier to Balfour Hut. The ceiling lifted enough to give us a quick view of the crux of the traverse, the Balfour High Col. Friends had warned that a large crevasse has been causing many groups to turn around as it bars the safest route pushing you close to the steep face and ice cliffs on Mt Balfour. This crevasse combined with poor stability due to strong-extreme winds for 4 days and poor visibility the next morning, made Brian decide to turn around and return to the Bow Hut. Everyone else at Balfour Hut agreed and bailed as well. GPS and Compass work got us back to the Olive-St Nick Col where we "enjoyed" some flat-light skiing back down to the Bow Hut. Of note, cornices were growing rapidly with the wind and new snow. We observed a 4-5 meter layered cornice on the Onion and other lee features.

The final night it was snowing (straight down as opposed to sideways) steadily (almost 4cm / hour). Almost 30cm of HST but over night the incessant wind returned blowing most of it towards Saskachewan. From the hut we observed a few new slabs (up to size 3) that must have pulled out over night with the new load. All was not lost, as the best section of the slope was sheltered enough to preserve the fresh snow. 4 laps of knee deep goodness made up for all the headwind slogging of the previous 4 days. Brian rated stability on March 25 at P / F / G.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Ice Conditions: Louise Falls (Mar 18)

Guided Louise Falls today (March 18). It is still in great shape with lots of hooking and stepping due to lots of traffic. The big hanging daggers on either side of the pillar are a little unnerving but exposure time can be limited by choosing safe belays and climbing lines. The walk off is a well packed trail. Weather today at Lake Louise was cool in the morning then warming up quickly by noon. Lots of low cloud drifting around but this was burning off by the time we left around 12pm. We hit brief rain and snow showers on the drive to and from (between Banff and Castle Junction)but no precipitation at Louise itself.

On a side note, Kicking Horse Pass has been closed all day due to an avalanche closure so no though traffic to Golden via the Trans Canada Highway. A detour by Highway 93 South and Radium is required if Golden and beyond is your destination.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Ice Conditions: Weeping Wall Right-hand (Mar 17)

Richard Hunter and I climbed Weeping Wall Right-hand today. Highway 93 North is snowy and icy to Bow Summit (poor driving conditions). North of Bow Summit it was just wet and not slippery. Mixture of rain and wet snow all day. Total accumulations at Weeping Wall was about 10cm of moist snow (could easily make a snowball). There was some sloughing from lower angled ice shelves as the heavy snow built up.

The climb is still in great condition with good plastic ice and solid screws. The new snow plastered to the ice (even the vertical ice) made finding placements awkward but this should melt off quickly. There was also two groups on the left side. Snivelling Gully looks to have lots of open water now. I wouldn't even use it as a rappel route.

Beware of raven's. We left a pack at the base which they managed to un-zip and pull all the contents out. My wallet was lying beside my pack with everything pulled out of it. Luckily I had no cash for them to steal. I have even heard of raven's relieving their bowels on packs just to add insult to injury. Needless to say, it's better to fully rack up at the car and not leave anything at the base.

There was a car parked at Polar Circus but today did not seem like the day to be up there. With "considerable hazard" in the alpine posted then the heavy wet snow combined with warm temperatures, I would avoid big terrain trap routes like Polar Circus and similar.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Ice Conditions: Carlsberg Column (Mar 16)

I climbed Carlsberg Column today (March 16) with Richard Hunter. The access road is still open, or at least it was today. They seem to keep putting off the closure. They are doing logging work near the beginning of the road but were allowing vehicular traffic through.

Carlsberg is in its usual big blue condition; however, it has not seen as much traffic as usual (probably due to the fact that many people think the road has been closed) so it requires a lot more swinging and less hooking. Use caution on the 3rd class approach/descent. Last weeks avalanche cycle combined with recent cold temperatures has made the snow surface very hard. A small slip traversing across the slopes could easily turn into a tumble (with major consequence).

Of note, when rappelling from the small tree on top, it is very easy to get the knot stuck at the lip. This has happened twice this season to me. The solution is to rappel to the lip then feed the rope so the knot is beyond the troublesome lip. With 60m double ropes, this leaves just enough on the ground. Both times, I pulled the ropes from way over to the right and used a small tree to set a 3-to-1 Z-pull (with my ATC-Guide and Tibloc) to pull the rope.

From the road, Pilsner Pillar looked fat but has a brown streak down it which is probably a ruminant of the heavy rains last weekend. Guinness Gully is still big and fat and had two parties on it today.

The weather today in Field was more wintry than the Bow Valley with temperatures maxing out just below zero and snowing lightly all day.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

If it ain't Scottish, it's crap!

I returned home last week from an amazing climbing trip to Scotland. The Scottish hills and crags are the birthplace of technical ice and mixed climbing in the same way that Chamonix is the orgin of alpine climbing and Yosemite shaped big wall climbing. Since I began ice climbing 15 years ago, I have always wanted to check out Scottish winter climbing but have been scared of wasting a week or two sitting in the rain waiting for conditions to get good. Indeed, Scotland is known for fickle weather but it is this same maritime weather that is the reason why the ice and mixed climbing is so good. Magazine photos of hoared rock and rime ice have tantalized me for years. I have also found the Scottish style interesting where bolts are forbidden and a ground-up onsight ethic prevails.

My opportunity to visit the Ben's and Corrie's of Scotland came in the way of the BMC winter meet which is a week long event where 2 climbers are invited from various countries around the world. This unique gathering occurs every 2 years and has been going on for 10 years now. I represented the Alpine Club of Canada as part of a late Centinnial project along with 40 or so other climbers from all over including most European countries and as far away as China, Japan and South Africa. Yes, South Africa has ice.

Our basecamp for the week was Glenmore Lodge near Avimore in the Cairngorm Mountains. The first evening, Mr Scotland himself, Simon Richarson gave a short slide show on the various areas of Scotland as well as lecturing us on proper Scottish winter ethics. He warned, "If you are caught climbing rock without a good coating of white, you will be sent home". To me coming from the Canadian Rockies, this seemed contrived and silly. Why wait until the rock is caked in snow then have to go and scrape it all off so you can climb the rock underneath. Why not simply wait until the rock is snow free? The answer is simple. Winter is Scotland is different than here. We do not have to fake winter since it begins in earnest in October and sticks around until late April. Even if our rock is dry, the frigid temperatures still dictate winter techniques as opposed to summer rock shoes and chalk. Conversely, the weather changes hour to hour in this maritime climate so certain rules are self-imposed to keep "winter" ascent legit.

The first day, I was paired up with Ollie Metherell, a climber from Sheffield. We headed into the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms to Coire an Lochain home to classic mixed routes like Fall-Out Corner, Savage Slit and The Vicar. Thinking mixed climbing, I underestimated the weather and dressed in my normal rockies winter garb of softshell jacket and pants. By the time we completed the 1.5 hour approach (this is their "roadside " crag) I was soaked to my underwear from the horizontal slashing rain.

The following day Ollie and I went to Ben Nevis and climbed the classic Indicator Wall which ascended 3 pitches of moderate ice topping out right on the summit of the UK's highest peak. The ice was thin but very soft making for enjoyable climbing but useless for ice screws. It is given Scottish IV 4 which is like WI3 but felt more serious due to the thin ice and run-outs.

Simon Richarson tempted me with a plan for the next day: A new route in a remote corner of the Cairngorms called Braeriach. The next morning we arose at 4am and set off on bikes for a 1.5 hour ride up a valley. This was followed by 3 hours of hiking up and over a pass in whiteout conditions. Simon's map and compass skills got us across the high plateau and we dropped down the other side to our objective. an unclimbed buttress on Corrie of the Chokestone Gully. Simon graciously took the first pitch so I could have the crux mixed pitch. His lead entailed almost vertical grass climbing. Nothing beats a good stick in turf and we occasionally encounter this nebulous medium in the Rockies. This was different as all four contact points were embedded in solid frozen flora. My lead started up a steep rock corner decorated with rime. It was perfect mixed climbing. one foot on rock, one on snow. One tool in sunk into a blob of grass while the opposite hand stuffed into a verglassed jam. Pure ecstasy. The corner was topped by a roof which was pulled onto neve covered rock. At home, low-angled snow covered rock instills fear since it typically consists of powder over slabs with no gear. In Scotland, the snow thaws and freezes all winter forming squeaky neve offering quality pick and point placements. One more short pitch of steep snow through the cornice and the route was in the bag. Now for the grueling return trip back to the car. In total , a 12 hour day with 3 pitches of climbing (really only 2 real pitches). We named the route "Slovenian Death Water" (Scottish V 6 or M5) after Rok Zalokar's grandmothers homemade schnapps she sent him to Scotland with for getting us all wasted. I definitely prefer single malt scotch whiskey.

The next day was a wash due to extreme avalanche hazard and hideous hangovers we all suffered from Rok's grannie's moonshine. I felt human enough by the afternoon to go on a whiskey distillery tour. Nothing like the hair of the dog that bit you.

Day 5 also posted high avalanche hazard but Viv Scott and I managed to sneak safely up to Coire an Lochain to do the classic steep chimney, Savage Slit (V 6). I lead the first 2 pitches as one resulting in one of the best pitches of mixed climbing I had ever climbed. Perfect pick slots and bomber nuts and hexes almost whenever you wanted; all of which was nicely coated in frost and verglass. Dreamy.

The final day, everyone gunned for Ben Nevis with big goals. Some locals guessed it was probably the most productive day of Ben Nevis ever (check out this news link). Testy Simon Richardson routes like Darth Vader and Cornucopia saw 3rd and 4th ascents in addition to 3 new routes being established. Ian Parnell gave me a gnarly dose of hard Scottish mixed with a first ascent on the Sioux Wall. Last winter he and Ollie made a winter ascent of the summer Sioux wall route at VIII 8 naming the mixed version Sue Wall after Sue Nott who Ian climbed the Colten-MacIntrye on the Grand Jorasse a few years back. Freddie Wilkinson of the USA and Rok were gunning for the 3rd ascent of the Sue Wall making for social belays. Our line took the steep arete to the left. After a moderate first pitch of snowy rock, Ian spent 2 hours unlocking the tenuous crux second pitch. It was technical and bold compounded by route finding difficulty. By the time I reached the belay, Ian was already shivering so he launched off on the next pitch which was still hard but had better gear. This deposited us at the Sue Wall finish which was climbed in 2 more pitches to the top. I pulled over the cornice on top of the Ben just as it got dark. Without headlamps, we carefully worked down the ridge trying not to fall off the cornice. It was easy to locate the top of the #4 Gully descent due to all the traffic from the busy day. We didn't get back to the car until 9pm and immediately drove to Fort William for greasy Fish and Chips.

I already can not wait to return to Scotland. The Haggis sucks (bad texture, no flavour, nasty ingredients) but the excellent single malt and classy climbing more than makes up for it. Scotland's no bolt ethic and ground-up onsight style provides big adventure from little mountains. It is no wonder why some of the best alpinists in the world hail from the UK. My four days of climbing were some of the best mixed climbing I have ever done. As the saying goes: "If it ain't Scottish, it's crap!"

Monday, March 12, 2007

Ice Conditions: Chantilly Falls (Mar 12)

With heavy rain falling all night, we needed a safe venue for a multi-pitch day. This much rain in mid-March is pushing our realm of experience so descision making needs to be very conservative. High avalanche hazard, road closures and the concern of rock fall limited our options. We decided on Chantilly Falls in Evan-Thomas Creek in Kananaskis Country. Moderate rain on the hike in gave way to graupel at the base of the route. Temperature at 9am was +4 C. The ice was very plastic (one hit shit) but had lots of surface water flowing over it thus saturating ropes, slings and gloves. It was definitely a Gore-tex day. The only rock fall observed was a few small rocks releasing left of the climb when we first arrived. Other than that surprising little in the way of natural rock fall. Having said that, there is much unfrozen loose rubble to either side of the ice that is easily knocked off with careless feet and/or rope work. This evening in Canmore, temperatures are already returning to more seasonal values which should gradually improve conditions on routes that were not overly affected by the recent rain storm. It is fair to assume that lower elevation routes took a beating and if still standing should be treated as structurally suspec. Example: "Hers" in Grotto Canyon crashed down today as reported by a fellow guide on Grotto Falls.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ice Conditions: Wedge Smear (Mar 11)

It was a warm, wet day at Wedge Smear in Kananaskis Country (March 11). At 1:30pm at 1760m at the climb, it was +7 C. Light rain was falling all afternoon. Now in Canmore this evening, it is a steady moderate rain. Feels more like late-April than mid-March. Despite these unseasonal weather conditions, the ice was blue and plastic without as much surface water dripping as one might expect. The flow is wide offering a variety of WI3 to WI4 lines to climb. Of the three bolted mixed routes on the right side, only the M8+ is climbable as the other 2 (the M5 and M7) are formed over with ice. The M7 could be climbed but you can cheat by stemming off ice the whole way. With High to Extreme avalanche hazard forecasted, an avalanche free zone, like Wedge Smear, is the only game in town. Please stay far away from any climbs that have even the slightest bit of open snow above them until the weather turns more seasonal and snow stability improves.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Ice Conditions: Louise Falls (Mar 9)

Brian and I climbed Louise Falls this morning (March 9). Temperatures were more seasonal at Lake Louise with a -4.5 C at 8am at the base of the climb. The ice was dry but well pocked with lots of hooking and stepping. The pillar is in easy shape due to the amount of traffic it has seen and is no harder than WI4. The are some big ugly hanging daggers fringing the roof on either side of the pillar. If one of these decided to snap, it would be game over if you happen to be climbing beneath them. Therefore, find sheltered belays off to the sides and avoid spending too much time under them. The far right or far left margin of the lower apron often feels less exposed but today the safest line on the lower half appeared to be right up the middle since there it is only the fully-formed pillar above you and not the big icicles that threaten the sides. The walk off is well packed out and offers straight forward cramponing on hard packed snow.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Powder Cowboys

I had my best week of skiing ever during the last week of January while doing a practicum at Power Cowboy Catskiing. I know this post is a little late but I recently received some photos from the week that got me reminiscing. Pow Cow, as it is affectionately known, operates in the Lizard Range on the southwest edge of the Rockies just across the ridge from Fernie ski resort. This area gets much more precipitation than most of the Rockies thus has a deep snowpack and quality powder. Most of the terrain is treeline or below but the trees provides shelter from the wind thus keeping the snow deep, light and fluffy. The photo of me left is by professional photographer Todd Weselake of Fernie.

Long time friend, Darcy Chilton, is the mountain manager and he was my in. I spent the entire week tagging along and learning the art of downhill ski guiding and snow safety forecasting. My first 3 days were helping as a tailguide. Darcy was the lead guide. Simon Robbins the tailguide. Me the practicum guy aka the assistant tail guide. The week began with a huge dump of cold smoke. It was my first experience with over-the-head blower. I will never forget my first face shot and cliff drop.

As the week progressed, the snow stop falling and stability got good. Darcy, Olivia Stoffer and I were on snow safety which entails whipping around on snow machines with our skis strapped to the sides in the search for relevant information on what the snowpack is doing with regards to stability. After the first day we decided the stability was good and improving so the definition of "snow safety" morphed from collecting information to finding the coolest chutes and ripping them. Darcy had his eye on the north face of April Fools Peak. Over the course of 2 days of "work", we skied 3 gullies on this face, 2 of which may have been first descents. Each time we dropped into a virgin untracked couloir, I was nervous with excitement but after the first couple jump turns, I relaxed and let the skis do there stuff. The photo left is by professional photogrpaher David Silver of Fernie. It shows the right side of April Fools Peak and if you look closely you can see our tracks. Check out more of Dave's images at

Needless to say, after 8 days straight of skiing (remember I am a skinny legged climber), my poor chicken legs were toast. I am already looking forward to heading back next winter as an official tail guide.

Ice Conditions: Weeping Wall (Mar 7)

Climbed Weeping Wall Left-hand today (March 7) with Brian McKenna. A white-ish, sun-leeched crust is providing soft one-swing sticks but you need to chop and dig deep to find semi-blue ice for trustworthy ice screws. I was happy that I brought a handful of long screws (ie- 19 and 22cm) for anchors. Central Pillar and Right-hand Weeping Wall were also climbed today.

I would avoid rappelling down Snivelling Gully as there are lots of free-hanging icicles baking in the sun ready to crash down and sweep the gully. The bolted rappel descent immediately right of Right-hand Weeping Wall is a less hazardous option.

Even though Weeping Wall does not have much in the way of Avi terrain above it, the warm temperatures (+7 C at 12:30) has turned the snow isothermic causing wet slides from seemingly benign features. We witnessed a size 2 avalanche release off of the treed ledge between Weeping Wall and Mix Master that dusted the highway.

By the time we were driving home at 1pm, light rain was sprinkling the windshield. It's getting a little too warm for ice climbing. Need to find high, north facing routes with no avalanche hazard.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Ice Conditions: Grotto Canyon (Mar 6)

I spent a warm day in Grotto Canyon with Brian McKenna of Toronto. It was +6 C at 2pm; not exactly winter conditions. The dirt road into the upper parking is an ice rink in the morning. A SUV ahead of us got stuck on a slight incline and could not go forward to backwards without slipping sideways so they parked it in the middle of the track to wait for softer ice in afternoon which would offer better traction. Seems best to park further back and walk a bit more.

Grotto Falls: It's a waterfall in the truest sense of the word. There is lots of surface water flowing over the ice and it is impossible to keep ropes and gloves dry.

Hers: Very white and sun leached. Lots of rock showing through and closer inspection reveals that it is all detached from the rock behind. Seemed too sketchy to climb safely so we gave it a miss. I think it is done for the season.

His: The ice is in better condition than Hers; it is blue and well attached. A big ice umbrella / roof has formed halfway up but is well protected by bolts on the left. I think these bolts are new this year since I have never seen them before.

Mixed routes: The 3 bolted mixed routes are very wet with lots of water flowing over the rock. I'd avoid them until temperatures get colder or you'll just end up ripping unfrozen rock holds off.