CANADIAN ROCKIES

Posted on: July 1, 2006


November 2005. It can be difficult to get Will Gadd to go alpine climbing. "That looks cool," he'll say when shown a photo of a potential route, "but it doesn't look like a whole lot of climbing. Why don't we go to the Cineplex instead and get worked?" I only got him to go to The Wedge (2665m) in Kananaskis Country after making a deal that next time he would get to choose the objective. The steep trail familiar from summer after-work runs was now transformed by snowdrifts and full packs. After a downward wallow, we stood below the obvious gash that splits the north face. I have come to enjoy pointlessly scratching up snow-covered rock, and I anticipated more of the same here. I was thus surprised to find our chosen line much finer than expected. Thin, frothy ice in one corner offered just enough purchase for our picks and points, with spicy runouts between shaky pins. Higher up, the smooth walls of another corner yielded to strenuous torquing and liebacking. A final, deceptively steep bit of choss delivered us to the windy summit ridge. We called our line The Maul (WI Thin M7, 300m); I thought it every bit as good as the classic alpine-cragging routes in the Columbia Icefields.

Raphael Slawinski on the technical crux of The Maul (WI Thin M7, 300m), north face of The Wedge (2665m), Canadian Rockies. Slawinski climbed the route in a day with Will Gadd in November 2005. Slawinski would manage four more major climbs in the Canadian Rockies before we closed our notes. [Photo] Will Gaddcollection

January. Though Ian Welsted and I had only met the previous weekend in Haffner Creek, I knew of his bold ascents in the Rockies and Alaska, and I figured he would make a good partner for a free attempt on Balzout Direct. This discontinuous ice route, dripping down the half-kilometer-high face of the east end of Mt. Rundle (2590m) is easily seen from every Canmore bar. As a result it had been sieged, rappelled, traversed into, just about everything but actually climbed—until Dana Ruddy and Eamonn Walsh sent it last November in a sixteen-hour effort. The knowledge that they aided up the bolt ladder leading to the big dagger presented a challenge that the M-climber in me could not resist.

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Classy mixed climbing took us to the base of the crux. There I hooked and side-pulled and underclung and sweated and swore, and upon snagging the ice, screamed for joy. We almost ran up the rest of the route, which we called the Balzout Direct (WI5 M8/9, 500m), and were back at the car with daylight remaining.

February. A few hundred meters left from Balzout lurked another ice dribble, guarded by a long stretch of snowed-up rock and overhung by a monstrous cornice. But who worries about such things with friends like Eamonn or Ben Firth? We laughed at Eamonn for moaning as spindrift, with perfect timing, came down while he barehanded the rock; at Ben for dropping a tool early on; at me for postponing my lead block to attend to my bowels. But I did earn my keep on the last and crux pitch, as I swung gingerly onto a free-hanging icicle with a couple of pins halfway out for courage. We called our technically moderate, but adventurous outing The Great White Fright (WI4 M6, 500m). I thought it quite good, but Ian, who quickly made the second ascent, commented that he would not recommend it to anyone.

Will once quipped that success is a matter of accumulating a critical mass of failure. I had started gathering mine on Mt. Sarrail (3174m) in Kananaskis Country in December 2004, when Valeriy Babanov and I climbed 500 meters of thin, snowy ice to the summit snowfields, only to retreat in darkness and deteriorating weather. Though the result of our effort, which we named Riders on the Storm, stood on its own as an ice route, I was not satisfied about stopping at the end of the, ahem, difficulties (to borrow Kelly Cordes' phrase). So in February, Eamonn and I made good time to the previous high point, only to slow dramatically at the ramp slashing through the steep summit block. Winter storms had twisted the snow into fantastic flutings and rolls that collapsed under my weight as I breathlessly swam upward. Below the cornice the terrain steepened to near vertical, blocking the summit ridge. I took great care packing the last few steps up the east face. With a fierce west wind tearing at us, we quickly pounded a lone pin into the shattered limestone on the top and eased back over the edge. Once we returned to the ice, the rappels began flowing more easily, and we touched down on the approach slopes just as the headlamps came on. I could finally get the east face of Mt. Sarrail, aka Riders on the Storm Integral (WI4, 700m), out of my head.

Raphael Slawinski, Calgary, Alberta, Canada



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