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Picking the Plum Line on the Storm Creek Headwall

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[A version of this article was originally published November 9, 2014 on–Ed.]

Leclerc on the approach to the Storm Creek headwall, Canadian Rockies. On the right is The Plum (WI6 M7, 120m), which he and author Jon Walsh put up November 8. On the left is The Peach (WI5 M8, 110m). [Photo] Jon Walsh

On Saturday November 8, Marc-Andre Leclerc and I established The Plum (WI6 M7, 120m) through the middle of the Storm Creek headwall outside of Banff, Alberta (though it’s actually on the BC side of the border). It’s a line that’s been in the back of my mind, and in my dreams, for the past decade. It follows a slender flow of ice that drips down the nose of a steep buttress, creating funky mushrooms, daggers and pillars that are a real treat to climb on.

I had attempted it approximately 10 years ago with my ice mentor Rich Marshall. He started on a pitch of steep ice out of the big cave that would later become the first pitch of The Peach (WI5 M8, 110m), Raphael Slawinski and Grant Meekins’s fine addition to the Rockies’ trad mixed collection. From there, Rich led the wildest pitch he said had ever led. It was one of the craziest leads I’d ever witnessed.

He was committed after climbing through a couple of M6 overhangs, and had just two knifeblades to protect the 25 meters of vertical ice above him, its thickness wavering at an average of two centimeters. He slowly tapped and tested his picks in the verglas (which he thought would be little thicker), shook out the acid building up in his arms, and forged on. Fortunately, thin ice was his specialty and, despite the X rating, he was in his element. I honestly don’t think many others could have pulled off such a lead. Following it, I hung from just the first tooth of each of my picks. I took the lead on a short pitch above his anchor. Darkness was closing in, and another wild and committing bit of climbing stretched above me. I had to build an anchor and lower off.

Rich Marshall on the first attempt of The Plum line, circa 2004. [Photo] Jon Walsh

That day entrenched itself in my memory. I’ve been back to that part of the Storm Creek headwall a few times over the years, always interested to see what that sector of the wall was looking like, but never saw the buttress ice up enough to look inviting again. Cold snaps can cause the early season ice to delaminate, and then it just doesn’t reform.

One week ago, however, Michelle Kadatz and I were hoping to climb something in the area, but unseasonably warm temperatures made steep or unstable ice too dangerous to climb or stand under. Our day turned out to be nothing more than hiking and scoping. We ventured far enough up valley to see that more ice was dripping down the dream line than I had ever imagined would form. It dominated my thoughts for the following week.

Luckily Marc-Andre Leclerc was heading to the Rockies for the first time and was keen to get out. I say “luckily” because the Banff Mountain Film Festival was responsible for tying up most of my other partners who I would normally try to recruit for such an outing. I figured it would be great first route for us to climb together, as well as perfect intro to the Rockies for him. He’s known to have a solid head for intense climbing, and power to spare.

(Top) Walsh near the start of Pitch 2 (WI6), where most of the protection was found in rock, he says, but he also placed six screws. “The WI6 grade is a definitely more for the technical difficulties then the pump, and [it’s] harder than your average pitch of fat WI6,” Walsh wrote on his blog. [Photo] Marc-Andre Leclerc | (Bottom) Leclerc pulls through the roof on Pitch 1 (M7). The duo left two peckers and a knifeblade fixed on that pitch. [Photo] Jon Walsh

It took us three hours to hike from the Stanley Headwall parking lot in ankle-deep snow. We sunk to our knees as we got closer to the route. At the base of the wall, Marc immediately arranged the rack on his harness, so instead of the usual rock-paper-scissors for first lead, I offered it to him. He seemed so keen. Two options presented themselves. He chose the left one, a shallow right-facing corner with a bit of ice dripping down it. Small icicles dangling like Christmas tree ornaments decorated the surrounding rock. The climbing was steep and thin, with long, technical movements. The protection was tricky, too, and Marc moved slowly but confidently, never knowing where the next hold or piece of protection would appear. A difficult pull over the roof on one- to two-centimeter-thick ice was followed by a fun, iced-up hand crack and a good ledge for a belay. It was definitely the best first lead in the Rockies I’ve ever witnessed! Three out of the four pitons he placed were left fixed.

The next pitch was pure fun–the type of climbing that’s always special to me–steep, thin ice with most of the gear in the rock. I was surprised to pass the old anchor from 10 years ago that I had built. I thought we might have been farther right. It gave me a good boost of inspiration to have joined our original line, and I felt determined to finish the business.

From a stance at the top of a strange, fin-like pillar of rock, an anemic ice pillar guarded the weakness bisecting the overhanging wall above. I beat a knifeblade into a seam next to the pillar, preparing mentally for some very engaging climbing above. But then I noticed an inviting foothold right on the crest of the arete. I stepped over to it and saw I could turn the corner and traverse into some ice runnels through better, more protectable terrain. Once among the runnels, my pace picked up. I made it to a perfect belay ledge with good cracks for an anchor just as I ran out of rope. As Marc neared the station, he asked if all climbing in the Rockies was this good. I had to apologize for spoiling him on his first route.

Leclerc leads Pitch 3 in the light snow. [Photo] Jon Walsh

He easily dispatched the last pitch of ice, and we were soon on our way to down, already talking about more possibilities in the upcoming weeks. Although the difficulties of this route weren’t too hard on toprope for the second, the intensity and seriousness of leading the first two pitches far exceeded the technical levels of the climbing.

For me, it was satisfying to share Marc’s first experience in the Rockies in this way, and to finish an old project. I had dreamt about the possibility for so many years. It was also an amazing feeling to have walked up to such a line and completed it first try without placing any bolts. We did carry a bolt kit in the pack, but that was where it stayed. I think it’s pretty obvious from what’s written here that this line comes highly recommended to those who like the style of proper traditional mixed climbing in a wild setting.