Tuesday, 8 March 2016

El Botri, Spanish Travel, and Questioning What I Know.

Mad genius who did the FA of Niagara Falls and half of those other routes too? We are not in Chamonix but this definitely is El Botri.


I recently attended the Mashup exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery with Sam Eastman (thanks for the brief tour Sam!)  Let's just say this post is not about alpinism in Chamonix.




Corinna and I visited southern Spain in January for the first time.  The trip was so full of new experiences that it has taken until now to process.  Stephen King says any good writer should write 4 hours every day, so that stories do not get old and stale.  For me it has taken a month and half to order my impressions.  As memory is a subjective faculty it is not surprising that the story has become murkier along the way (a link which perhaps explains why my memory and my campusing are so poor?).


At 10 am, sat on bar stools, in the Mari Jose in Redovan, I didn't pay particular attention to the stubbled wirey Spaniard with the statuesque, made up blonde on his arm.  This was our second bar stop of the day.  We were surrounded by older men who were hand-poured various licors along with their java.  All before a brief day sport cragging at El Rut.  From many trips to Mexico, and from the literature of the greatest Latin American writer of our generation, I should have known to be aware of my surroundings in such an unassuming venue.  I didn't put two and two together when my friend Sergio said that El Botri had done half the first ascents on La Pancha.  The legend has two routes named specifically for him, La Botri 1 and La Botri 2. He used his fortune made in Spain's building boom to climb the world over when he wasn't on his local cliffs.   



 " I think of the Botri, opened in only one day during the fiesta of the patron saint and in infernal temperatures (the only time I thought I would die of dehydration).  45 celsius and only one liter of local vermouth to drink."


We headed to El Cantalar, a small seaside crag developed by Javier Cos Baviera.  Amazing that in Spain you can climb 8b and be humble as pie.  We were warned about the long downhill approach.  A half hour, at a very nonchalant stroll. The locals don't really visit too much, but for us guiris they made an exception. To the north of Murcia are Sierras, covered in forest, but the locals figured we would be more intrigued by the Med.  They weren't far wrong, what a view!



The giant bay of Cartagena is one of the most important harbours on the Med.  Now, as two thousand years ago, it really is the new new thing, as the Romans humorously named it. All we are waiting for in Canada is for our prices to deflate like the tech bubble did, and the Spanish real-estate boom has.  Then we'll be enjoying tapas and drinks at $5 a person too.

 Corinna is a champ, from recovering from death defying accidents, to putting up with lots of guys talking way too much about climbing, in Spanish, and for suggesting we come back the next day to run from Cartagena (the mid-point in the photo) to the Castillitos point.    That evening we were regaled with Javi's paella, his high bottle pouring antics with local ciders (essential to "add air" to get the full flavor), and his next climbing project.

Only in Spain:

"My next project, it is with a boat, it is 15 kilometers long, it is a deep water solo.  But it takes me 4 days, so I need a boat driver."

 "So, if you fall, you fall into water? Really, deep water solo?"

" Yes, I fall between, mmmm, 1 meter and 7 or 8 meters."


This photo shows the more familiar, garden variety type of Spanish climbing scene.  It's sport climbing, and it's what all North a'mericans think of when the think os Spanish rock. I am above Mullas and Bullas, home to lots of vineyards, at El Ferrari.  Later we would sample some fine 1.7 Euro quality vino tintos and 4 liters of the finest vermouth served up in plastic juice bottles.  Plenty of the famously unemployed Spanish youth were pulling down in shocking style. Just down the way is another crag with "a couple of" 9as.  

The diversity of climbing available in the Iberian peninsula is amazing. Pictured is a popular guidebook to climbing areas in Spain.  Each area only gets a brief few sentences to describe the overall aspect of the area.  There are 900 zonas, and it is a select guide. Sergio pointed out that all the visitors go to the crags in the latest Chris Sharma videos.   I was quite happy to have locals to show me around some of the lesser visited areas, where we rarely saw other guiris. 


One of the locals we had to show us the lesser visited treasures was Jose Luis Clavel.  Here he is on his route Eiger on the south face of Leiva.  Jose Luis is a doctor.  He works one 24 hour shift in an ambulance making house calls.

"It saves money on hospital bills" he wisely noted when I mentioned house calls don't happen in Canada.  

Then he takes 4 days off and goes climbing, and lives. I told Jose Luis about the standard 23 on 4 off patch shift in Alberta. His reaction reminded me of the footage of euros in disbelief in Michael Moore's latest movie.

We visitied the adjoining summit, saw wild sheep, and were on our way out when I thought I'd ask Jose Luis about his climbing. 

"Jose Luis, Sergio said you had done some first ascents on the face."

"Yes."

"Which ones?"

"Well, the one I was on, Eiger."

"Any others?"

"Well, the one you were on too."

"Any others?"

"Yes."

"When was that?"

"40 years ago."

It was heartening to see how well people climbed, that it is a part of the culture, and that people don't seem to need to boast about it.  Something else to learn from Jose Luis was when I asked him about bolting natural features.  He said all the routes were put up in the 60s and 70s using aid. Then in the 80s they started to free climb them, and they thought they needed to bolt them.

"But now we don't bolt them so much, we have learned we don't need to."



This is Jose Luis on the crux pitch of Rockabilly on the Tozal de Levante.  The pitch has a few bolts, but it also has in situ pitons, and slings, along with crazy huecos and steep shattered rock pillar pulling.  In the Rockies, can't imagine it.  Put up in 2012, it shows the progression of Spanish climbing, weaving an intelligent line through huge roofs at a reasonable grade.  And the Rock, if only we were so lucky!

Having done one great adventure climb Corinna and I went and climbed above Finestrat, where we narrowly avoided the British climbing scene at the Orange House.  The orange groves of Valencia glistened in the fields below, as we basked above the very strange sight of the towers of Benidorm.  Remember, 

"Only Guiris eat the oranges growing in the streets."


 Only Guiris would ever want anything to do with Benidorm, like a pustule of the worst of UK and Spanish culture exploded on a beautiful sandy coastline.  Just a touch further north, slightly downsized, and preferred by the Russian oligarchs, is Calpe, home of the impeccable  Penon de Ifach.  It was very nautical.  There were seagulls screeching, fishing boats passing.  Our route was called Pirates, and earlier I had climbed Navigantes.  All very enjoyable! 



On the summit I had one of my traveler's misunderstandings. An older Brit couple were descending, accompanied it seemed by their couple of domestic house cats.  I knew a woman in Canmore who would take her house cat ice climbing.  Stranger things have happened.

"Are those your cats?"

"No."

"Huh.  Will you take our photo?"



So that is how we have some summit shots of the Penon with cats, and some without.  

The traveler's misunderstanding was truly realized when I saw the following sight.


From decades of traveling, I have become familiar with the following scenario.  The first time one experiences something new, totally out of one's sphere of reference, the conscious mind does not know how to classify it, and one is prone to overlook it.  Then by the third or fourth experience, one's mind has begun to construct a pathway which can absorb and deal with the experience.  It is at this moment that one first becomes aware of the new experience. Only on reflection does one realize this is not the first experience with the new thing, as memory flashes back to previous unconscious memories.

When we first saw these flocks of brightly colored birds we thought a load of parrots had escaped.  My Spanish is quite good, but Sergio's explanation escaped me at first. On one of the last days in Spain I was driving along a small rural road when I spotted both a flock of bright birds and a motley collection of men of various ages, some in cars, some on scooters, others on bikes.  I raced to get my camera, but by the time i returned all trace of the sighting had disappeared.  Returning to Sergio's I heard a faint cooing over the fence.  Lo and behold, next door was the scene depicted above. 

It turns out there is a cult like sport in Murcia and Valencia.  The game seems simple.  Men get a load of male pigeons, and paint them bright colors so they can discern one from the other.  Then they scent the males on a single female, whom they release.  The human males then bet on the prospects of their male pigeon counterparts.  And whichever male first "covers" the female wins.  Like an allegory on life.

The other inexplicable sighting, the roundabouts, are a sign of that other truism of human existence, political corruption.  From the looks of things something needs some explaining.



That is the great thing about traveling.  One's mind gets expanded by trying to absorb new concepts and experiences.  The town, Al Cantarilla, which in Castillano (there is no language named "Spanish" I learned) means "the sewer" named such by the Moors as to them it meant water container.  The oldest boat in the world, to be found off the coast of Cartagena. The "nun's bush", a prickly plant which it is best to avoid touching. Rock climbers who climb 9a and above who are not known by sight, and are mere unsponsored amateurs ("lovers of", in french).  Tapas at $3 a plate, fine vino tinto at $3 also, and vermouth by the plastic jug.  55-year-olds who have been establishing routes for 40 years and now laugh at their mad bolting sprees.  

And one mad rich construction boss named El Botri who says the worst thing about climbing in Nipigon was that he had to lead everything in his duvet, but that when he climbed Niagara Falls as a lark it was only grade 4.

Amazing the things one learns when one travels somewhere new.  So much more than climbing, so much of interest.  



Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Trying to Climb with the Big Boys


Jeff making the key chossy moves to the right



I'm sitting on the couch licking my wounds after spending a week trying to climb with the big boys, Jeff Mercier and Marc Andre Leclerc.  It has been a while since I have been so obviously outclassed, but it's good to get a harsh reality check once in a while, and good to get out with such humble and naturally talented senders.  The highlight was Jeff's first ascent of an awful new variation in the Whiteman Falls chasm, a mini venue which packs a mighty punch.



Jeff was at Glenmore lodge a month ago when Raphael Slawinski and I were at the BMC International Winter Meet.  In the question and answer period after a slideshow he gave, Raphael was asked about the future of climbing in the Rockies.  I interjected that I thought climbing was advanced by the injection of fresh blood when visitors came to our home range, giving the example of Ueli Steck putting up the unrepeated Cock Fight, and Josh Wharton rampaging around the range.  To top it off I said, in an off hand challenge, "Now we just need Jeff Mercier to come and visit."





It was only a brief week later that I received an email from Jeff asking if I would want to get out as he was headed over.  I'd really put my foot in it.  For years I've associated with the type of climber who can win Ouray and enchain multiple routes in Kandersteg in a day.  Now Jeff was on his way over and I was going to have to step up to the plate.

The perfect storm came together at Jesse Huey's condo in Canmore, when Marc Andre Leclerc, fresh back from Scotland, also happened to be in the Rockies.  Jesse's buddy David was only on his 5th day using tools and didn't seem to have any problem with the mixed game, and I'm a local, so again I thought I'd better step up.

Jeff was eager to come along as Marc and I avoided terrible avalanche conditions by going to the Real Big Drip.  Marc onsighted the first mixed pitch, and admitted that there were some "powerful moves", the secret to which I couldn't quite grasp.  With Jeff as the second party I had to motor along after falling off, just in time to fix the static line for his photographer.  It was quite revealing that neither of the world class athletes along that day seemed to have much trouble with a pitch that seems to spit off most of the local senders, leading to significant griping on conditions forums.
Marc was kind enough to wait til I wasn't hanging to take the photo.


The safety conscious wouldn't be on the Real Big Drip anyway.  Alex Lowe climbed with no helmet, and it seems like Marc is the one having the most fun, so he's doing something right.




Maybe what I enjoy about climbing with total crushers is that they don't seem to mind my minor foibles of self doubt in the face of failure.  Marc did have a certain note of surprise in his voice when I quietly asked for a take on my lead when I couldn't see how to proceed after about 5 minutes of hanging about.    Neither Marc nor Jeff seemed too bothered by my effort. Jeff even encouragingly noting that I was "only a few moves away" on the RBD.  Well, a few moves and about ten minutes of hanging on the bolt.  Maybe I like the fact that the rope goes up in record time when climbing with world class athletes, and that I get to climb outrageous things, but it's also nice when people don't make fun of you for not being as good as they are. It often seems the best are comfortable with their abilities, while it is those struggling to keep up who make the most noise about how good they are


The same went for the next day when we headed in to Whiteman Falls. I kept asking Jeff what he thought of the climb, and he kept things positive by noting what an incredible venue it was, what amazing ice formations, and how impressive the ice was. I've lapped the icefall a load of times by now, but seen through fresh eyes it was fun to hear Jeff's appreciation for it.  It was a good thing too that he was in a good mood once again, as it was the second day in a row I had forgotten my helmet. 


Down on the ground I mentioned that Steve House had an unrepeated variation connecting the top of Redman Soars with Whiteman Falls, named Whiteman Soars.  It's interesting how Jeff refused to be baited by any challenges I threw out, rather choosing to follow his own intuition.  For example, I had mentioned that Will Gadd had a few standing hard cave routes. I thought Jeff might be just the man for them.  Seemed he hadn't traveled half way around the world to drytool drilled pockets as they have loads in Chamonix. He'd eyed up a new natural line. I couldn't believe I'd never noticed, it was staring everyone straight in the face.




The red route line is Redman Soars, The White line from the top of Redman's to the top of Whiteman's is Steve House's Whiteman Soars.  And the tricolor, the red white and blue is in honor of the nationality of the ropegun on that day.  

I was enjoying watching Jeff's skilled climbing as he started up the initial layback thin crack, making it all look so easy.  But even Jeff had known what yellow rock usually means in the Rockies, and the fine thin crack led only to a chossy roof.  Suddenly a stream of rock came cascading down as he made the most athletic moves of the day.  He had the presence of mind to take out the piton hammer and swing away at the choss, clearing the way to pull over the roof.  Balancy crampon smears gave way to a bit of burliness.  I prepared a joke about super strong Frenchmen who tag up half the rack mid pitch and are sponsored by Totem cams, but the climbing was obviously too serious for that.





I loved the first 20 meters of the crack on top rope.  Just enough feet and some techy pick torques.  At the traverse the feet blanked out, but there were amazingly mouldy patches which accepted steel, fed by the sand coming out of the chossy roof.  It was a sandy "hold" which defeated me as my pick dragged through as I made the crux pull.  Joining Jeff I had to admit he'd done a great job linking about 10 meters of rope into enough gear to make a solid belay.

Now, Jeff works as a secouriste in Chamonix.  Usually he is rescuing tourists, though he has mentioned that some of the rescues are a little more daring.  So it was really not my intention to back off my lead on the second pitch. I really should have trusted the 000 that I put upward in a chossy crack, but I just couldn't.  The ice which would have made Steve's traversing pitch appealing was useless, and the rock it left behind was abysmal, even by Rockies standards.  I went right, I went left, and almost found a neat escape route back to Whitman's, but I just couldn't commit to the moves given the pro.


Not only did Jeff have to take over, I had to give him back his helmet.  With a hop skip and a jump he took a quick glance at the rock, judged it correctly to be horrible, and took off hard left on the traverse around the arete I had balked at.  At the end of the day I had to admit that I was too scared to do it.

"I was just too scared to do it given the pro".

"Well, I didn't look at the pro and I just didn't think about it".

One of the most endearing things about Jeff was that he would race down from the climbs in the evening to get news from his family.  His three sons are at various levels of involvement with their hobbies, and Jeff just couldn't wait to hear their news every day.  So, how you manage the risk when you have a full fledged family I don't know.  I guess the simple truth is that if you climb M14, a short unprotected 5.6 traverse is no big deal.  Still, impressive mind control.

If the cam had come out there would have been about 10 meters of slack in the system, enough to cause some serious problems.  At Jesse's that night I looked up the guidebook description of Whiteman Soars.  It reads in part, "If the ice half way across the traverse is not thick enough for screws, then the pitch gets an X rating because rock gear potential is minimal."  

The ice wasn't in, I wasn't in, and that I guess is what differentiates me from the big boys in this game.

A big thanks to Jeff, and an apology for making him work on his vacation.  As he muttered as I apologized for my performance, "This is what we do for work".  I'm not sure if he meant as a sponsored climber or as a securiste, but it was none the less very impressive to see, and fun to participate, if only with the rope safely above my head. Seems the police in Cham know how to have fun.



The next day I did something I have never done before; I hung on a screw.  By the top of Drama Queen my arms were useless.  Rather than fall on ice, I took the safe way out, again.  Poor Jeff, I'd been hoping to get him onto a genuine Rockies dagger, but he was so cold after my molasses paced lead that he declined the delight.  

I was done, done like dinner as they say.

Thanks to Leonhard Pang for some of the photos he took while on Whiteman's.












Saturday, 12 December 2015

Caution: Fresh Coconut Juice, Tropical Temperatures, and Tigers can be Hazardous to Your Mental Health


For years, the object of my desire.




I truly believe that if you haven't seen this view, you are wasting your time in the Canadian Rockies.


My wife was sleeping with another man. It was not a situation I could liberally turn a blind eye to. She told me she was falling in love with him, her married-with-kids boss at the fancy heli-ski lodge where he'd wanted her as more than an employee. She told me not to come back. How it had come to this I had no idea. I'd left the mountains two weeks earlier to head to the coast on my seasonal migration for work. I was faced with months of straight labour and my reality was shattered. Something had to be done to change my mental state. As before, I turned to the mountains for peace and solace.

At work on the remote west coast of B.C. my mind raced looking for a solution. I would wake with a heart rate of 120. Like an animal caught in a trap, I manically searched for something new to give my life meaning. Always attracted to alpine climbing for the deep spiritual experience it offers, my mind took me back to the next most intense experience I could recall, to the North Face of Twins Tower in the Canadian Rockies

The most impressive spot in the range.
I had met my wife in the days following my first attempt to climb the Twin. I returned to my climbing partner's rental home with a hand the size of a softball and a new respect for rockfall. It had made an impression on my psyche, bailing down that face with a broken arm. My jalopy van was parked at my buddy's. The owner of the rental home...my future wife. I guess there are some benefits of being an addicted alpinist. That was 5 years or so earlier.

Early on any Twin adventure you realize you are entering a special zone.
By the end of the summer I finished a purgatorial 110 days of coastal tree-planting. My new reality as a divorced man was about to begin. My coping mechanism was simple; head straight to the spiritual well, the Black Hole of Mounts Alberta, Stutfield, and the Twins. After moving my stuff out of her house I would avoid contact with anything that would remind me of my ex and head into the mountains to meditate. Trip after trip had me hiking the short 3 hours to the MacKay hut, and then further in to the Black Hole to stare at the North Face of the Twins. Could I find renewed meaning on that dangerous limestone canvas?

It gets more real as the sun rises.
She had told me she was attracted to me because I was pursuing my passion. We dated, went to the climbing gym, went ski touring, did all the middle of the road activities most couples can do together. None of which were as exciting as attempting the North Face of the Twins. But really, I hear Kevin Thaw dragged his girlfriend up The Wild Thing for its third ascent, but that wouldn't have worked in our case. I grew to accept and began to revel in the idea that I was beyond taking absurd risk, that I had matured and grown into my true self.
The rockfall relents once you exit the gully.
Slowly, as before, the mountains of the Rockies began to bring me peace in my heart. Little by little I began to relearn that there is joy in the mountains. They serve more than to be a place to challenge one's existence. One day I saw massive spontaneous rockfall explode from one of the vertical walls mid way up the Twin. Anyone anywhere on the lower half of the Blanchard route would have been instantly killed. I abandoned any idea of climbing the wall. With a renewed lust for life I realized there was a more moderate option, the North West Ridge, the unrepeated Abrons route. It was a perfect compromise for my older, wiser, mature self. It fit the person I knew I had become, rather than the impossible caricature my ex had taken me to be.
 Not many established routes take you to this vista.
She had told me she had jumped ship for her older, established ACMG boyfriend because she felt secure with him. I scared her because I took too many risks. What? I was the guy who'd broken my arm on the most notorious North Face in North America, and she was surprised I took too many risks? Well, forget about that, I had a new life to live.
Some absolutely abysmal Rockies choss. Takes a  special person.
Returning to town after my mountain seclusion I rediscovered the warmth and magic of making climbing plans with new climbing partners. By the second attempt with the second new partner we got it right. On the rope was the editor of this magazine. I'd always made fun of Brandon for being so boisterous about his climbing, so psyched and loud and jazzed about it. He made lighthearted company up a serious route. Laughing at the rock quality was the only thing to do. As the rockfall floated by some of my stress and worries of the summer fell off my shoulders too. Years earlier on the North Face I had not understood what Steve House meant when he wrote of the “mind of the observer”. Now I accepted the rockfall for what it was. I accepted Brandon for who he is. I accepted my ex for whatever it is that makes her tick. And I accepted myself for whatever risk I choose to take and whatever mountain I want to climb.
The famous Black Hole.
That night saw the most amazing meteor shower I have witnessed. Many wishes were made.
We crossed the Columbia Glacier having made the 5th ascent of the Twins from the Black Hole. Getting lost and sleeping on the glacier in the early morning, we returned to the highway to make a two day trip highway to highway. It wasn't the most rad climb ever, it wasn't the North Face, it wasn't “world class”, but it sure was fun and adventurous. It brought peace to my mind and new friends to my life. And as a younger wise friend put it to me after, “That's what it's about anyway”.
If climbing doesn't make you smile why do it?
6 months ealier:
 Caution; Fresh coconut juice, tropical temperatures, and tigers can be hazardous to your mental health.

This story first appeared in Gripped Magazine. See gripped.com








Sunday, 6 December 2015

Now You See it, Now You Don't.


Notice the blue rope tied around the snowy pillar.
“Do you think we should untie the anchor from the pillar?”

“Hey Alik, the pillar's unsupported at the bottom”

A few taps and Alik manages to reduce the foot wide pillar to a dagger. Chris and I are sandwiched into a tiny alcove behind the most solid ice we have seen yet on the route. I glance around and take in two tied off knifeblades, a small C3 cam with one of its three lobes fully expanded, and the ropes tied around the now freehanging dagger. I try not to portray my concern, but I'm looking around for gear. The simplest way to escape the consequences of the dagger peeling off and loading the anchor is to untie. It's only the second time I can remember doing so when unhappy with how we are all anchored to the mountain. We're 5 pitches up the unrepeated mixed route Zeitgeist, and I figure my chances are better just huddling in this little alcove while Chris and Alik figure out what they're going to do next.

WI4 usually implies some ice.  Are we in the right place? It's storming, why are we here?

We'd started the first pitch in the dark. The route description says it's WI4, but Alik only finds slick waterworn quartzite, which makes for slow movement.We're not sure if we are in the right place as we skied in to Taylor Lake at 4:30 a.m., but when we all regroup we are at two fixed nuts.

150 meters of bottomless snow excavating makes me insanely sweaty. Have you ever been in a gully where it is easier to drytool the sides and campus your legs out of the snow that to try to break trail up the slope? Above Chris gets an easy looking ice lead, which turns out to be unconsolidated, narrow, and tricky.

Why does ice always look so easy while belaying?
“I wanted more gear, it just wasn't there”.

The Scottish snice gully.
The same is no doubt true of the anchor.

Tap tap at the pillar/dagger.
I never know how to react in these situations. Am I just overly worried? Untying the loop around the dagger is definitely a good start though. How much does a foot round tube of ice 5 feet high weigh? Would two tied off pins and a tipped out micro cam hold that impact? Why is it Alik is so calm about the situation?

Alik spots a cam in a crack just above the anchor, and asks if we've investigated. We had discounted it as it's got ice and munge in it, which is typical of limestone cracks on alpine routes. I can only speak for myself, but once one of the lead lines is running through it everything seems a bit more reasonable.

Spot the difference.
A light swing at the top of the dagger, a body height above the belay ledge. And it's gone down the gully. About the size of a falling climber's body, but seems more dense.  Good thing we untied that loop of rope that was around it. Alik is not at all flustered. Something about soloing A4 in Yosemite when you are 15, calms the nerves. He does a great job of stemming the steep moves out of the cave. I try to talk myself down after the dagger debacle. I tie back in to my end of the rope.
Route description says, "Drytool around pillar". Not an issue now.
By my lead on the next pitch I've begun to clue in to the fact that the ice is not as fat as when Rob and Steve put the route up. Alik tries to talk me into going up a thin veneer which follows the path of first ascent. After unconsciously considering his risk tolerance and mine, I decide to go for a steeper chimney system which promises protection. It's 3 pm, we've already mentioned that we are not going to make it up the route today, so I don't even care if it takes me off route. I jam myself hard into the corner, determined to make myself feel secure on the pitch.

The route description says to go up the "ice" in the corner in the left of the photo.  I had had enough of trying our luck.

View of the same pitch on the first ascent.

From the comfort of my living room I reconsider the day. On Rob's old blog I see a photo of the ice on the crux pitch, described as WI5. It is, no surprise, fatter than when we were below it. His blog also reminds me that he is a strong and bold climber. I'm glad I decided to give it a pass. We turned around just below the photographer's viewpoint. We didn't make it up the route, but I feel some “good learning” took place.

Maybe I was making myself overly secure in the chimney.  





Friday, 27 November 2015

Above Canmonix


Sitting down mid pitch to appreciate the surroundings. Photo Alik Berg

“There are no routes on the face of Lawrence Grassi”, my well informed buddy mentioned at our lazy downtown coffee hang.

Really? It's the tallest alpine peak above Canmore. There is a road, a school, and the most popular tourist spot in town named after this famous climber, trail builder, miner, guide, and local hero of the 20s. And not one of town's climbing population had thought fit to go see what the face offered?

“Want to go drytooling at the Playground?” It was 11 am.

Bring your warm jacket.  The Playground on a slow day. Positive pulling on drilled holes.

“Nah, I can't get motivated for that hike. Let's go to the Elevation Place, get a better workout anyways”.

Dragging myself out of the leather seat and away from my 4th coffee I stepped out onto Main Street. I turned my gaze past Ha Ling to the easy looking mixed face above town. Hard to believe that the man himself hadn't soloed it on one of his days on strike from the local coal mines back in the day. These days, however, if it wasn't tweeted and hashtagged and filmed it wasn't fact, so I set my mind to exploring this crag.

Red is Perpetual Spring, yellow The Gash (unclimbed) and blue is The HOle. Photo John Price
When I'd first moved to Canmore I'd heard through the rumor mill that the face of Lawrence Grassi had seen an attempt. Two of the top dogs of the day, Rob Owens and Sean Isaac, had been up there in the winter. The route had already informally been named, The Town Gash, and it's reputation had grown. It had to be formidable if it had turned those two around. Both those guys have now reverted to a more normal lifestyle replete with kids and successful businesses. I figured young blood was the best bet for this mission.

At the local climbing store it wasn't a hard sell to young Sam Eastman. I'd heard Sam could crimp with the best of them, and he sure was itching for some alpine action. He wanted to get past his Ontario background of single pitching, and I could use a partner who could make up for my climbing.

“Hey, come over to the window”

“Really, we could climb that?”

“Yeah, and no one's ever climbed anything up there, so we'll be famous. You'll be able to point it out to all your friends when they visit.”

After an hour and a half of hiking from the trailhead , a shorter hike than to the local drytooling crag I might add, we were below the face. I got us in position through some whiley old-guy choss chimneying and pointed Sam up a blank wall. Soon he was lightheartedly chatting over his shoulder about fine chert crimping before the 20 foot run-out off the piton had him downclimbing to me. The youth was ready to head down when I suggested,

“Why don't we just walk along this grass covered sidewalk here and see where it leads”.

Sam crimpin and pimpin on chert, which he seemed to enjoy.

From Mark Twight I've taken to the suggestion that when in the alpine and in doubt...traverse. Sam later said he was impressed with my amazing alpine intuition. Our talents were overlapping nicely. After that there was some “overglamorized scrambling” as one of town's better known crushers has called what I like to do. It was solely for Sam's future benefit in town and with sponsors that I Facebooked from the face. I should know better as this method has only ever gotten me cold shoulders at the local supermarket but I couldn't resist. “Miner's Waltz in C (choss) with a Minor” is a better route name than our scramble deserves. Having moved on from Ontario, Sam was even legally quaffing a pint at the end of the day.

First time through the HOle.  How is it Raph is so often on the coolest leads?  

The highlight of this first route wasn't the climbing but that we had spotted an amazing feature half way up the face, a huge hole (The HOle) puncturing the wall. It was to draw me like a warp in the space time fabric. And who better to investigate with than the astronomy prof? Raph was looking for long days of cardio training in preparation for his next trick, a new route attempt on the big E. For me, the draw was doing the first winter ascent of the face and the bragging rights it would confer to my ego. I got us lost on the starting pitches. We traversed and were faced with... a giant hole in the gully above us. A small dribble of an icicle at the start of the pitch let us pretend we were legitimately on a mixed route. The waterworn smooth topout of The HOle, above a rattly cam placement, had Raph excited momentarily. It was fairly selfish that later I argued that we had only added two new pitches to my effort with Sam, so it didn't deserve a new route name. Really, I just wanted finally to do an FA without Raph's name attached. It was the first time we had to return a call to the K-country wardens who had been advised by caring Canmorons that there were headlights from missing “hikers” on the peak.

Gets deceptively steep and waterworn smooth.

Next, in spite of being a committed married man, Raph decided it was worth paying a visit to the Town Gash. Raph is super successful at what he does best, new routing in the Rockies. As a result sometimes it is difficult to convince him that he is wrong in this pursuit. Thus we found ourselves traversing around the front side of Ha Ling peak, negating one of the prime features of our newly-loved crag, it's short approach up a well established backside trail. Sam seemed to think he was witnessing high performance alpinism, but really it was a go look see sojourn for Raph to plug in a bunch of bolts on a very steep roof and then bail back down the climb.

Trying to look cool like 18 year old Sam. and hide from the rescue forces at the same time.
As a projecting day Sam and I were battling it out trying to one-up each other in our dismissal of practicality by sporting our best skater-turned-climber style. When you are 25 years older than your 18 year old friend it's impossible to outdo him in questions of style. I tried with my used army surplus camo pants but Sam won with his triple oversized hoodies all hanging akimbo as though he were on the street corner. A second call to K-country rescue was made as they tried to guess which one of the town's likely suspects was triggering the alarms this time around.
Cool perspective on the HOle direct, with David Lussier and Jay Mills. Canmore below.

By now I was intent on sending the direct route through The HOle. A no nonsense approach was required, and who can beat ACMG guides for no nonsense practicality in the mountains? The style changed from urban/mountain to dead-bird with blue and white club patches.  No big deal for Jay Mills who was establishing a couple of new alpine routes a week in his work shoulder season. David Lussier, visiting from Nelson, did comment on the amount of “scratching” required, but there are photos to prove he had a smile on his face.
Jay sets off on the easier but run-out second pitch, the n thinks better of it and traverses left.
Third time lucky. At the top of the Town Chute ski run David started asking about avalanche conditions but Jay tipped it over the edge and started down the convex lee slope without discussion. I figure he has to know something, he's sat in those classrooms in Revelstoke and knows all of those acronyms. We found the direct start, comprising one short overhanging chimney and a second run-out moderate face pitch. After placing a stubby in the two feet of ice on the route it took me a good bit longer to commit to the crux exit of the hole than it had the prof.
It's around this time David phoned Kananaskis rescue to tell them we weren't lost hikers.
 The payback was not so much in the climbing but in the amazing photo potential of the spot. Truth be told, one can easily traverse around The HOle on a huge ramp. When Steve House and Rolo Garibotti comment favorably on your Instagram feed though, who cares what the climbing is really like. David being a very thoughtful guy phoned his wife and the wardens from half way up the face. We joked about cragging in Canmonix with the lights of town burning brightly as we topped out.

Red is Perpetual Spring, blue is Kurihara (bolted descent). Photo Noel Rogers

By mid winter the guides were busy working, Sam was off to a future in Vancouver as a cutting edge contemporary artist, and Raph was training lungs and legs exclusively. I needed a new strong young ropegun for my next, most obvious, can't-believe-it-hasn't-been-climbed natural line above town. A little convincing was needed before Alik Berg agreed that there was an obvious winter line on the Canmore Wall, a first winter ascent to boot. Alik comes with a special pedigree. About two decades ago I met a dad and son combo who made me question what was normal. In the Grand Wall parking lot in Squamish was a cute kid with a bowl cut who was maybe 4 feet tall.

Alik Berg has done a lot of sketchy aid climbing since I first met him at the age of 10.  He laughs in the face of loose Rockies choss.

“My son just rope gunned me up the Grand Wall”, said the obviously proud father.

I wondered whether I should be contacting Child and Family Services.

This was Alik when he was 10. He only factor two-ed onto his dad once so it was considered a success, and he repeated the task once more when 12. Since then Alik has climbed 19 El Cap routes up to A5. Having that special calm demeanor that comes of hanging off tiny pieces of metal poked into irregularities in granite, one has to coax these astounding facts out of a self deprecating talent.

The start of the route showing the resevoir above town, a popular location for summer SUP yoga lessons.

Two hours uphill from Lawrence Grassi Ridge Drive we started up the natural line, again with not a scrap of ice on it. We were dubious of our chances of success. The forecast was for a five day storm arriving by noon. Waves of spindrift washed down the face, as we laughed at our worsening wet glove situation. By about two pm I was Facebooking away again only to be informed that we were next to an established bolted rock route, Kurihara. Simultaneously, Alik called out that he had spotted a bolt. Well, we had to be on route then! I missed the two bolt anchor on the next pitch but by staying on the natural line got us to the bottom of the corner we had come to investigate.

It got a little stormy on the first attempt.
Only two pitches separated the easy ground we had climbed from the upper weakness we were aiming for. I started up perfect corner cracks plugging in gear at will, beautiful and plentiful positive edges for front points everywhere. And then as though specially placed to thwart drytooling, a five foot section devoid of edges for the feet appeared. First my sidepoints were on the wall, attempting to smear, then my knees were on, attempting some unknown technique, then the inevitable happened and I was doing my best impression of an El Cap bigwaller, hanging from the gear. It is always key to have ones excuses ready at hand before starting out on a day of climbing, and the weather couldn't be overlooked as atrocious.

Paste the feet and mantle sideways at the crux.


The move that Raph pulled out of his repetoire at the crux section on our successful visit is the second most bizarre move I've seen climbing in winter, a sideways mantle with the tools only for show. Good thing Alik had his camera at the ready to capture the move. I was suddenly distracted by the popping piton no longer in the anchor, a great cue for strong laughter among some. Looking at the image I still can't figure out what Raph is standing on. I had spent considerable time hanging there investigating precisely this issue on our first attempt. Next came the easier but more adventurous pitch. Our special invitee pinch hitter cast out left for 8 meters following a series of edges with no gear beyond the corner. Alik got the glee of leading the 7th pitch and cleaning choss for trundles which could have been clearly seen from town.



By my leads it was a foregone conclusion that we would summit. In the dark I chimneyed through easy corners choked with spindrift. This was the upper snow-filled weakness that I had glassed from town, curious if the pitches leading to it could be climbed. We named the route Perpetual Spring after the winter that wasn't of 2014-2015, or alternately for the never-ending supply of first ascents of natural lines possible within sight of Canmore. An obvious ramp at the bottom of the face, a huge chimney at the top, unclimbed in winter.  Somehow Raph was flip-flopping between buying it as a great new-route experience and being unconvinced.  My case seems unassailable to me.  We put up two new winter routes in four days out.  And while the Town Gash has seen upwards of 10 days on it, and the hole count is growing, it is yet to be climbed.

Guess there are different offerings for different climbers.  To paraphrase the drunk guy from the bar in Team America, 
              Being a gear climbers isn't that bad.  In Canmore, there are three kinds of winter climbs. Peg boarders, bolt clippers, and gear climbers.  Bolt clippers think everyone can get along and peg-boarders have never seen a hole they don't want to drill.  And gear climbers just want to hammer our tools into everything.


Canadian Alpine Journal 2015

Blue is Perpetual Spring.  Red is Kurihara, used for descent.

Route photo The Hole: Red is original line with Raphael, yellow is direct start , orange is unclimbed Gash.