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.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Soloing and Roped Climbing; Both Fun, but Different.

Juan Henriquez high on the ridge, on a hot, low snow year.  When I had visited the upper ridge years earlier, the gargoyles were rather larger.

The Emperor Ridge was calling one summer. With more desire and spare time than climbing partners, I decided to climb it alone. It was an intimidating prospect but the idea was fuelled by my history which gave me an understanding of the mountain. The magical display of the thin red line of sunrise I saw while soloing the easier Kain Face had begun my infatuation years earlier. I came as close to dying as one would like on one of three attempts to solo the North Face when the entire face avalanched above me. Bold though the idea seemed, the Emperor Ridge as a ridge was safe from rockfall and avalanche danger which threatened the face routes. And what a route the ridge was. It was arguably the longest feature on the highest peak in the Rockies. The Berg Lake approach trail I would follow is justifiably renowned: the scenery is Alaskan in scope with huge glaciers pouring into the lake gained after 22 kilometers and two spectacular waterfalls. For directness the line could not be rivalled as it rises straight from the western foot of the mountain as a knife-edge to the summit. And it was said to be a perfect training ground for the greater ranges for which I pined. The route was technically easy enough to solo predominantly unroped. Of course there were the famous gargoyles of the upper ridge which sounded dangerous. I had to go and see for myself.

One of the bigger routes in the Rockies.  As Juan, a former Aconcagua guide, noted, it's like climbing a technical route on Aconcagua in a day.

Making the decision to attempt the route was the most difficult part. Once in motion, the beauty of the activity drew me on. At 3:20 am I took a photo of my wristwatch at the parking lot. The idea was to complete the route and descent in 24 hours so as to claim a one day ascent. I jogged full of anticipation to Kinney Lake through a floating blanket of knee high morning fog. Crossing the icy braided fan of the river below Berg Lake I left the tourist trail behind. From there to the foot of the ridge lay interminable scree slopes. Two steps up one back , but I was so enraptured by the immensity of the terrain that I hardly noticed the effort. Too engrossed and distracted by the looming ridge, I missed my last opportunity to get water and spent the rest of the climb without liquid. I arrived at the foot of the ridge at 10 am. Ominously, the rock had changed from steep but passable scree to nearly vertical scree.
Almost a decade after my solo I did the route again, with Juan Henriquez and Raphael Slawinski.   Not as scary as soloing it, and more laughs.

Route finding was easy. Left, right, avoid anything difficult. My mind raced ahead, bounding up the blocky and ledgy terrain of the lower ridge. It slowly got more solid and narrower. At one point my doubts got the better of me and, hauling my backpack, I self-belayed up a ten metre step using the minimal 15 metre piece of rope I had brought for tricky sections. Being alone made for fast movement and intuitive decision making. I felt the solitude which was both exhilarating and disconcerting. At mid height on the route I took a step left onto the vast expanse of the famed Emperor Face itself and into the shade. A roughly-bounded ice gully was coldly dark and gloomy but afforded speedy passage. Suddenly I was 600 metres up the face. Retreat would be difficult.

At various points you actually have to climb.

The extreme exposure here hit me. After once glancing past my crampons I made sure never to look below me again. On the ridge proper a fall was conceivably non-lethal but here one would stop falling only at the flats at the base of the face. Time slowed and my scope of vision narrowed to focus on each swing, each step into the old and brittle grey ice which shattered with every movement. The mental aspect of such a climb seemed tantamount with action following unconsciously. Doubt battled desire and I drove on.

Upon exiting the gully and regaining the sunny ridge, I encountered a perfect bivouac circle of stacked rocks. What a relief it was to encounter a touch of civilization, a perfect time to rest, eat, and recuperate away from the huge exposure. No longer mentally gripped by the action my mind leapt to the idea that the mountain gods were showing their pleasure with my passage by providing this sign of previous human activity here in this lofty eyrie. I reflected that the bivi circle was probably the work of the man many consider to be THE Rockies mountain god, Barry Blanchard. By an incredible coincidence of fate, years earlier I had witnessed Barry, Eric Dumerac, and Phillip Pellet on the first day of establishing their new route which I had shared since the gully, Infinite Patience. At the time, sitting in the meadows below the Emperor Face, I had succumbed to severe FOMO ( fear of missing out). A familiar lonely, self-pitying jealousy had gripped me. As a new arrival in Canmore and a bit of a loner, I felt myself to be outside the crew of people who climbed at such a level. Now, by foregoing the need for a partner and practicing self reliance, I felt like I was sharing in the pantheon at that moment on the ridge.

The upper ridge with very little snow.

The gargoyles beckoned above. It was the hottest part of the day when I was in the midst of them. A magical fantasy land of snow sculpture enwrapped me. My worries about the hazards of soft snow did not materialize. Styrofoam-like snow made each axe placement as secure as a belay. With no partner to act as counterweight, the usual advice to weave the rope through as many formations as possible did not apply. I did not think it hazardous though. The features were so large that I was never forced to peer over the Emperor Face itself but climbed on the highway side of the ridge or on the crest itself with perfect snow the whole way. Enchanted, I wandered and weaved and climbed until the last mushroom flattened out into the mellow grade of the summit plateau.

Arriving at the summit was stereotypically anticlimactic. The summit plateau was broad and featureless in contrast to the unique forms of the upper ridge. As I had already summitted previously, there was no special elation. Parched by the effort, I would have given anything for a sip of water but made do with sucking on icicles. Realizing just how alone I was, my solitude suddenly struck me as a potential problem and I was only half way through my journey. Due to the time of day, 6 pm, as the air and my body cooled my mind turned to the descent. As much thought had gone into the descent as the climb. The known terrain of the Kain Face was topped by a cornice for much of its length and, from above, finding the correct spot to begin descending would be tricky. I had decided to downclimb the normal south face route instead. In the cooling temperatures of late afternoon, a misty whiteout had formed on the glacier just below the summit with not a breath of wind to clear it. With no visibility, I feared falling into one of the few crevasses. By 9pm I was getting decidedly cold but had no option but to take the decision to sit down and rest. In a small wind trough, I climbed into the black garbage bag that I had brought as an emergency bivi bag. The inevitable sleep was not restful.

Older, wiser, and glad to be on the summit with friends and a sleeping bag.

I woke from a dream of helicopters and rescuers flying up to my position. I was on my own on the summit of the Rockies and I had no one to look to but myself. No one even knew where I was, part of my man-on-a-mission ethos of the time. Far removed from the established Squamish-Canmore axis of the Canadian climbing scene, the summit of Robson felt very "real" and far from the madding crowd. I was learning that it truly is a stand-alone world. Lights on the Yellowhead Highway 3000 metres below made me realize my situation and that the whiteout had cleared. The watch read 3am and I was convulsing involuntarily from the cold. Time to get a move on!

Face out down the slopes of the south face I heel plunged gulping the massive open air at my toes. It crossed my mind that if I fell I would end in a heap at the flats by Kinney Lake. As I ran below threatening blue-green seracs, a strangely intense wind kicked up tossing stones, not just pebbles, through the air. Everything above my elevation was capped suddenly by a thick summit cloud. Crawling on my knees had not been part of the plan for a speed ascent but it was the only safe way to proceed toward the Ralph Forester hut. Finally sipping water, I resisted the urge to sit down.

Spot the climber.  Undoubtedly the most dangerous part of the outing , on the Shwartz ledges. As Raph said, "At times you just have to shut your mind off". At least when you have partners you only have to turn it off briefly.

Some parties fly in to Berg Lake or out from the hut. I had more adrenaline than money and so continued jogging down the gravelly trail. Eventually I got off route and ran down the belly of a massive avalanche gully to the blessedly flat valley. How sweet and easy normal, everyday terrain seemed after my mountain circuit. Thirty-three hours of adventure had elapsed when I returned to the parking lot having experienced hallucinations, delusions, unforgettable climbing, self doubt, and visions of what is possible with a little self-confidence. It was a highpoint of my time climbing in the Rockies, a joyful day of adventure which still fuels my love of the "King" to this day.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Times are Changing

I love getting away from roads, phones, and coffee. Managed to do this a couple of weeks ago, with Maarten Van Haeren and Jay Mills. Came back, put it n Facebook, and within two days it was online at the American Alpine Journal.

Maarten is relatively new to the first asscent game, and wanted to know why the story was getting so much attention for such an easy climb.  Big fish, little pond?  Slow news day?  Who knows.  Sure was fun.

What have we here?

Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.
-Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada (1968-79, 1980-1984)

Times were changing in Canada. We were celebrating the end of the ten year reign of Canada's Conservative party and their fear based policies. They'd been trounced by Justin Trudeau, the son of one of Canada's most revered leaders. It was October and the mountains were dry. Things were headed in the right direction.

Jay and I spent a day approaching, then a day and a night getting high above Moraine Lake, featured on the old twenty dollar bill. . The road was closed. We road our bikes in ten kilometers and had the valley to ourselves. That's the amazing thing about alpine climbing in Canada; you don't even have to go anywhere obscure to have the first ascents to yourself. There are only three alpine routes on the side of the valley we were interested in, and the last one was established 30 years ago.

We didn't make it up our objective in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. But it couldn't be beaten as a backyard adventure There is nothing more Canadian than a trip into nature, no matter how brief. It seems to have been put aside in climbing circles, this need to commune with the natural world. A friend has challenged her mixed sport climbing friends to try establishing one new non-sport route each this winter.

In 1988, just down the range, Ken Wallator had spent 4 days out on Storm Mountain. He and Tom Thomas were getting chased around by wardens for pirate camping, so they figured they might as well spend the time up on the mountain. It was a route that had grown to mythical proportions, partly due to Ken's widely reputed hardman abilities. I had been talking about going for a look see at the face for at least five or six years, the same period I and all of my friends had been wishing for a change back to a more Canadian attitude in our national politics. We'd managed to get rid of the might-as-well-be-Texan Alberta politicians; maybe we could get up Ken's route?

Jay was chatting with our new team member, Maarten, about whether Alaska or Cham is better. Maarten works in a wilderness centre for addictions recovery, helping troubled young men find solace in nature. He had spent the last 6 nights camping out.

“Come on, look at where we are, we've got it the best”, I interceded, “where else do you have the entire trail to yourself as soon as you step off the highway?”

We'd just managed to climb an easy gully up the center of the Northeast Face of Storm in 13 hours camp to camp. We hadn't revisited Ken's fierce looking effort from the 80s. Instead we'd shocked ourselves with how easy it was to get up this face we'd all looked at so much. It seemed like we had created an insurmountable problem in our minds, rather than just going for a look. Like how Canada had veered into scary xenophobia from the Conservatives as they tried desperately to hold onto power. We'd voted the fear-mongers out of power, just as we'd faced our doubts and found a path of little resistance. Sometimes the way ahead is just staring you in the face if you'll only take it.

“Can I name it 'Canoeing to Cuba' after Pierre Trudeau? You know, he tried to canoe from Florida to Cuba to visit Castro. He worked in the cane fields there when he spent a year traveling the world when he was young”, I recounted.

See more photos at:

24 Hours of Balzout

Here's a short story I wrote partly about being a belayer to the stars on my first climb with Raphael Slawinski, when he freed the bolts on Balzout Direct.  It's obviously partly about other things too.
Jon Walsh paid me the compliment of saying it was one of the best pieces of climbing writing he'd read.  It was fun to write.

Eamonn Walsh on the first ascent, a week or two before we climbed it
Photo: Dana Ruddy

The 24 hours of balls-out
I T WAS THE MOST AMAZING 24 HOURS. Is it not what we seek,why we
 come to the Bow Valley? Forget the trophy homes and  the picturesque 
 views. The fast women, the fast climbing — that’s what it’s about. 
By 6 p.m. at the end of the day, I was back on the couch at
the 4th Street Manor, enjoying the debriefing and cocktails. It
had begun the day before at the same hour. The most eligible
bachelorette in Banff was in our living room, drinking red wine.
That she wasn’t single was a minor moral dilemma, as I knew her
boyfriend; but in sex, as in climbing, sometimes one has to throw
caution to the wind.
We stayed up all night, as we had done every night together.
As preparation for the second ascent of Balzout Direct, the sexiest
route in Canmore, it couldn’t be beat. Balls out, that’s the way to
go. Balls out in bed, balls out in climbing, balls out in Banff and
Balzout on EEOR.
That I was going multi-pitch climbing for the first time
with Raphael gave me some performance anxiety, but the compliments
were flowing so fast and furious that that was quickly put
to rest. As Raph is no slowpoke, I refrained from getting inebriated
for the first time with her, which made the night’s activity
even more vigorous and memorable. We did not refrain from
testing the limits of core strength, so crucial for mixed climbing.
Woken at 5:30 a.m. after a few exhausted winks, I was eager to
apply myself to a new challenge.
I made the short walk downtown for a 6 a.m. meeting and
coffee. The climb passed in a blur of sleep deprivation, save the
one pitch. The pitch where Raph hung on like a spider for an
hour, on-sighting for the FFA. With my friend’s going-away party
on that night, I was determined to prove Raph wrong when after
the crux he mentioned that we were sure to finish in the dark.
Big smiles on the top, only 10 hours removed from the comfortable
reality I had been questioning up on the windblown face.
What could be better, what more could I want? The sexiest
woman, the sexiest climb, and a party to go to, all in one day.
What to desire? Only more.
A week later, the blur of drinking, slaying and climbing was
over, as she left the country. Vitality sapped by the all-nighters,
I was left making excuses and telling tales at the base of the sport
crags. That’s the thing with lustful affairs: women come and they
go. The routes, they always remain.
ian welsted

the canadian alpine journal 2006

Here's a link to the original route description:

I climbed the second ascent of Great White Fright a week after these photos appeared online.

Little Karim: What makes a climbing hero for me

This article was a finalist in the Banff Mountain Book Festival in the Mountaineering Article category.  Gave me a good excuse to hang out in Banff for a few days.  It was great to see Jon Griffith for the first time since Pakistan.  Congrats on picking up the Mountain Image award.

It was also a great opportunity to chat with Bruce Kirkby as he described his trek with his family and 85 various film people on his way to a three month stay in a Buddhist monastery.  Had a chance to ask John Vaillant a few questions, saw Cory Richards for the first time since our Ice Porn bivi, congratulated Ed Douglas on taking the award that was meant for me,  and just generally partook of way too much Tasty Talking.

Thanks to Brandon Pullan and Raphael Slawinski for the help with editing, and to Joanna Croston and Christine Thel for the encouragement.

To get the article in its original form, check out  Gripped Magazine, Aug/Sept 2015, or

Being entertained by incredible climbing tales in basecamp.
Meeting Little Karim of Hushe was magical, like being a tourist in Iceland and actually seeing a fairy. In previous trips to the Karakoram I had brief glimpses of the abilities of the locals. Humble and diminuitive at 5'2”, Karim's tales of unrecognized high altitude exploits put me in my place. My climb of K6 West that summer received considerable attention. In contrast, Karim's many achievements are barely known. Karim's happiness and warm welcoming aura drew me to him, to find out more. I came away with an appreciation of what makes a true climbing hero for me. It made me feel that in Canada we are missing out on the story.

Little Karim was guiding a Spanish trekking group. A journalist in the group was surprised that we didn't know Karim's reputation and encouraged us to speak with him. Karim grabbed my hand. Within minutes of sitting down for tea with Karim it was clear his climbing career included many highlights. Karim has a humorous story for almost every year spent with westerners in his local mountains.

Karim, and his favorite mountain.

1978: 1800 Balti were at the polo field in central Skardu to apply for portering jobs with Chris Bonnington and Doug Scott's K2 expedition. Little Karim was dismissed as too small, at which point he hoisted a rather larger Bonnington onto his shoulders and paraded him around the field. He got the job.

1981: Karim was head high altitude porter for the Japanese West Ridge expedition. He was above base camp for three weeks when he heard that the summit duo of Nazir Sabir and a Japanese were out of oxygen and gas at their high camp at 8100 meters. They would not summit. Karim hiked up these supplies from 7100 meters. The next day Sabir said Allah had brought them supplies and they summited. Karim says, “not Allah, Little Karim.”. Nazir Sabir went on to become Pakistan's most famous climber.

1985: Karim carried a hang-glider to the summit of 8035 meter Gasherbrum 2. Jean Marc Boivin had promised him an extra $50 to carry the load so that he could become the first person to fly off an 8000er. Karim was not paid. Laurent Chevallier, a French filmmaker accompanying Boivin made a film, Little Karim, and later Apo Karim. As a result Karim visited France as the chairman of the jury of the Autrans Mountain Film Festival.

1987: Karim climbed to within 100 meters of summitting K2 on a Spanish expedition.

1988: Karim carried a monoski to the summit of Gasherbrum 2 for Henri Albet. Albet was suffering altitude sickness. Karim tried to convince him not to ski. Albet mentioned he had to as he had to please his many sponsors. The monoskier slid to his death. As Karim put it“You like the money or you like to die.”

The stories went on and on, too many to list. It was surreal sitting with a 60 year old teddy bear Balti and hearing this record of ascents which put him near the top of the list of world mountaineers. Such is the world of high altitude climbing as seen by westerners. Too often Asians do the majority of work, and yet receive no recognition, and are deprived the chance to summit. In journals, Karim's ascents are usually listed only as “accompanied by high altitude porter”, the euphamism for paid Asian climbers. I left our conversation feeling like the wool had been pulled from my eyes.

There is not a hint of bitterness on Karim's part at his lack of fame or fortune through climbing. He only laughs when talking about being underpaid by foreigners. He was all smiles and congratulations for our successful climb. He was happy to be accompanying visitors and showing them the beauty of the mountains in his back yard. Proudly standing in front of a poster of K2, he enthusiastically traced his many trips in incredible times up his favorite mountain.

Raphael, Iqbal, Karim, and the lodge owner, in Hushe.

I felt like I had met authentic climbing royalty. But that is what makes climbing special. We get to climb and hang out with the heroes of our sport. I was reminded of this upon the death of Dean Potter. A friend of mine, Nick, had moved to Yosemite to climb full time when Dean had just done the first solo one day link up of The Nose and Half Dome. Dean was the ruling king of North American climbing. Within a year, Nick was roping up with Dean upon his first visit to Squamish. I met Nick around this time and it was this lesson that partly drew me to climbing. In other sports there are athletes and an audience. Climbing is different. Armchair climbing is boring.

What does Dean Potter have to do with Little Karim? By a few degrees of seperation they both show that the magic of climbing is in the doing and not the perception. Dean become a well known name. Little Karim is known only to a small clique of high altitude climbers. But they both reached high levels of climbing success by doing what they loved most in the mountains. Dean spent years in obscurity climbing full time in Yosemite. Little Karim continues to live a simple life in a small pastoral mountain town. His climbing hasn't taken him anywhere other than up and down a lot of tall mountains.

I hope this aspect of climbing never changes. Superstar climbers are more prominent now than ever. Some climbs heralded as groundbreaking are nothing but carefully staged advertising events. I wonder, am I a target market here? Would that climber really be doing that if all the cameras were not there? Is this climb really interesting?

Advertising is designed to make us feel inadequate. Make the audience feel unfulfilled, offer them a more desirable outcome, and associate a product with that desire. Then, offer the product as a substitute for the desired outcome. Climbing is meant to make us feel good. So, more and more I try to ignore the climbing stories which are only designed to sell an overpriced nylon shell or sports drink. Instead, I go climbing and pay attention to the people around me. Who knows what might happen, I might get to climb with the next Dean or share tea with another unheralded Karim.

It's kind of obvious, but it has to be said.  Without the locals, visiting climbers would have...

Death was on the mind a lot

I just wrote a piece for an instructional ice manual on epic-ing less and climbing more.  It took me back to this early lesson I was taught.

ian welsted
Sunset over Mount Alberta
I thought I was dead. Not in some metaphorical, hypothetical sense, but literally. Or rather, I felt dead. Before my mind could process a thought, I realized that I was seeing stars against a black backdrop — that the mid-morning light had been extinguished, as had any desire or care as to my destiny. Standingin a chossy limestone coffin, I reckoned that being hit by rockfall a second time was to be my last memory. It took a few seconds for my mind to refocus, at which point I understood that I was indeed alive, but that my toes were tingling. I’ve been paralyzed, was the next thing that came to me. Like a hypothermic animal caught in a leghold trap, my subconscious decided to accept its fate and simply not care. To give up like this two thirds of the way up one of the biggest faces in the Rockies is not a good survival strategy. Or is it? Maybe not caring was the key to my fortunate outcome.

In reality, though, my continued existence as a living human is due to the effort of my best climbing buddy, Chris Brazeau. Like a knight in shining armour, here he came from above, rapping our single fifty metre line to arrive at my presumed death stance with less than his usual smile. How was it that Chris could chuckle about what had just happened to him while fixing that rap? “I thought I was going for the big one,” was his comment as he described the ten foot fall he had taken while jugging to free our stuck rope. A calm mind, that was the differentiating factor. It was not the first time I realized that there was a difference between Chris and me: he enjoyed the thrill of danger while I all too often did not. But let me leave the lessons learned till later and describe how we had gotten into our predicament and how Chris got us out of it. As Dave Cheesemond wrote, “It would be an impressive and expensive descent ….” (Pushing the Limitsp. 209).

Looking out after the first day
Really, it all centers around a keen climbing and personal friendship. Chris and I began climbing at around the same time. When a couple of years later Chris moved to Squamish to slum it at “the River”, it sounded like such a riot that I couldn’t resist. But while I kept working and maintaining some kind of material quality of life, Chris would do such things as work 17 days in a year so that he could climb as much as possible. Over subsequent summers, I got rope-gunned up the three hardest “multi-pitch routes of quality” in Kevin McLane’s guidebook, always feeling sheepish when leaving the ground with either the unspoken or even the explicit understanding that the crux pitches would not be mine. After all, I only lead 5.10. On our first trip to the Rockies, we figured we would train for the hardest route in the book “’cause it’s only 5.10.” Luckily, we were kept from our intended goal by a snowstorm. So, in the summer of 2004, when we decided to slay dragons and attempt the unrepeated Blanchard-Cheesemond route [North Pillar] on North Twin, I was not in the least surprised when Chris offered to lead what he figured from the route description was the crux of the route. That we didn’t flounder in the first rock band” was not of my doing. 

Our preparation was complete after seeing North Twin on the way to doing Alberta’s Northeast Ridge. Perhaps we didn’t have a full “training diet of big limestone rock routes”, as Dougherty suggests, but Chris had on-sighted Astro Yam without the aid of the #4 Camalot (I’d forgotten it in the car) at the beginning of the season. With my impatient, now-or-never attitude and Chris’s skills, how could we fail? That we didn’t wonder after avoiding the North Face of Alberta due to its reputation for rockfall in the summer is a bit of a mystery, but obsessions are obsessions. 

We’d been e-mailing about strategy, getting psyched. The fact that the Eiger had been climbed in four hours, combined with my recognition that I couldn’t lead .10d with a pack, somehow made me agree to the suggestion that we go for it in a day. Light is right,” they say these days, so we took a tarp, two puffies, one rope and a five-millimetre shoelace pull line cause we’re not going to use it, anyway.” Never mind that we’d tried the Salathé in a day the previous fall and it had taken us two and a half; hitch yourself to a madman and see what happens, I figured. So it was that we headed over Woolley Shoulder — and promptly headed away from our objective and to the shelter of the Lloyd McKay hut. Chris had spent the day before humping loads for pay in to the Elizabeth Parker hut, where his girlfriend, Kitt Redhead, was cooking. Similarly, I’d jogged into Berg Lake to retrieve a pair of sandals from the base of the Emperor Ridge as an excuse to visit my girlfriend, who was finishing the Great Divide trail that day. Being slightly shagged both, we figured the one-day push would require all of our energy, so we might as well start well rested. The extra day gave us the chance to enjoy the beautiful meadows below the north face of Stutfield, eye up a 3000-foot waterfall for future winter reference, and be psyched for the 3 a.m. start.

Yup, he’s a madman, I was thinking. We’d just trundled some rock at our first belay, promptly chopping our rope to fifty metres. And here he was, run out maybe eighty, maybe a hundred feet, already a good way up the face, since we’d soloed the easy choss. I couldn’t watch, only looking up to take a photo, because here we were on the pitch that had drawn my attention after seeing the photo from the first ascent in the American Alpine Journal. It had looked so stellar that I promptly sent a copy c/o Poste Restante, Chamonix, trying to lure  Brazeau back to Canada. Our belay had  taken a #2 and a #3 Camalot, so all Chris had left for the wide crack was one #2 from the anchor. It didn’t want to swallow the #4, which only got put in at the overhang at the top of the pitch. So on that pitch there were two pieces a long way apart. Later, friends and those “in the know” (e.g. Don Serl) suggested that the epic to follow was due to our being on the face when it was too hot. Well, wet limestone a hundred feet run out is one thing; maybe sopping wet it’s another. From my vantage no real problems were encountered for a while, although Chris was twice hit by rockfall. Interesting how, until it happens to you, such objective hazards can be dismissed. My inexperience showed when, crossing the “sinister gully”, I stopped to build an anchor and Chris called up to just hip belay, after the second missile from above hit him on the lip. Pitched-out climbing on the left side of the gully led through some enjoyably solid cracks to an overhanging wide crack (.10d) mentioned in the route description. My conscience got the better of me at this point and prevented me from pulling my usual gambit in such situations. Many times before, I have simply stopped my lead blocks before such cruxes, handing over the sharp end to my rope-gun friend. Somehow I talked myself out of it. As I climbed up to the overhang, I had to manoeuvre around a loose block my own size perilously hanging out from the wall.

Solid cracks with loose blocks

Later I would read Steve House’s description of a loose killer block on their ascent, and of his climbing past it with equanimity. I, on the other hand, was terrified. What the hell am I doing up here; if I fall we’ll both die, was my overwhelming thought. Never mind that I’d read the Buddhist text No Death, No Fear in preparation. In hindsight, I realize that it is the “mind of the observer” that separates those who send these biggest of routes from those, like me, who are haunted by their failures months or years later. Wanting to build an anchor just above the block, I called down my intention to Chris. An encouraging response came from below, and I resorted to aid. At that point our upward progress slowed considerably, like a climax before the foregone conclusion. Finally, the rope-stretcher pitch ended and I was rewarded with the opportunity to try a classic Rockies technique that I had only read about before: for want of a solid anchor, Chris jugged the line off my harness.

Being two working-class non-locals with little Rockies experience, we figured that 8 p.m. was a good quitting time for the day. When the next party gets to this point, they will be amazed that two thinking people could choose a bivy away from the face, unprotected from falling rock, for the night. Perhaps as amazed as we were when we found a Knifeblade in the left-hand wall at the base of the final headwall — the only sign of human passage in the 3000 feet of the route which we completed. Later, I came to believe that the pin was put in only as an anchor for a bivy up against the rock, safe from rockfall, unlike our sandy ledge fifty feet out. Luckily, the mountain gods didn’t hurl anything down on us in the night, although they did treat us to some amazing scenery.

The next morning, entertaining me in one of our usual debates over route finding, Chris obliged my fancy for a first pitch straight up from the pin. You see, I always claim that I complement Chris equally in our partnership with a greater “mountain sense” even though I’ve spent much less time in the mountains. "Oh, the number of times he would have started up the wrong crack if I hadn’t put him right,” is my line of reasoning. I now know in my heart that we would have been safer on the steeper ground to the right which Chris favored. Rereading the route description has made me realize my conceited error. Mostly, however, it is the continued reality of recovering from breaking my arm while seconding only three pitches after “winning” our debate that makes me aware of my mistake. 
Jiugging with a broken arm

Thus it was that we began our epic 30 hours after leaving the ground. Reinhold Messner wrote in Big Walls that hebelieves that climbers at the  peak of their game avoid such eventualities, while others — let me say “imposters” — fall victim to the same forces. Does the “mind of the imposter” act as an attractor, a black hole that draws in negative energy? I think it does, for I will never forget looking up and seeing those missiles curving in towards me from perhaps six or eight pitches up. “I can only think how different the outcome would have been if the rock had been a foot the other way,” I wrote in the hut book on the way out. But which way? Left, and we would have continued with the climb and, hopefully, completed the second ascent. Right, and the rock would have hit my helmet. And what if we had gotten an earlier start that morning and finished one more pitch by the time the sun was hitting the upper slopes of the mountain? For we were within one pitch of the overhanging portion of the upper headwall, where we would have been protected from above. All rather conjectural when one is an El Cap height off the ground with a broken arm. An unenviable choice stared us coldly in the face. Our first decision was to make an effort upward, for the easier terrain above was definitely much closer than the ground. As I jugged the next pitch, I could not balance properly and raked the rope across a loose block while swinging after removing a piece. Like a sitting duck, I hung on as the block floated past me. After two hours, I reached Chris and we reassessed our decision. A list of factors: two hours to jug one pitch; Chris would have to lead every pitch; if he got hurt, I wouldn’t be able to help; overhanging jugging to come; pain… Down we went.

Sometimes you have to lie back and take it all in.

The editor of the CAJ said, “I’d like to know how you got down.” What can I say other than that Chris engineered a retreat with all the care and experience that he could muster. The first few raps to our bivy spot went well. Next we had to go off the ledge where the previous day I had found no solid anchor. Using a V-thread and a few slung loose blocks, we made it down to my “death stance”. Let it be known that “light is not right” if you ever have to retreat and use a five-mil accessory cord to pull a knot over a loose edge. At least take Spectra or static or something, which we two dirt bags figured we couldn’t afford. No kind of pulling would get the knot to move. To remedy the situation, up went Chris for his free fall when the knot slipped back against the anchor. And down he came to rescue me from my fatal fear with one 50-metre rap line to rap let’s say 750 metres. Thirty raps sounds about right.

Rapping, I am told, is statistically more dangerous than climbing. That we made it attests to Chris’s great ability and his love for life. Only once did I wonder — no, make that twice. The first was when we seemed to be rushing to make it to the lower ledge system on the face before dark. We had crossed to climber’s right of the sinister gully on a loose ledge system. Some of North Twin’s vertical cracks are impeccable, but the low-angled ledges are definitely choss. Out of these little bits and pieces of shattered rock, Chris had made an anchor of two pins, in part to conserve our dwindling rack. As he rapped off, he said something about direction of pull”, but I missed it; upon weighting the anchor, I found myself leaning back on one very dubious Knifeblade. To my undying shame, I yelled at Chris for his (read my) recklessness as I rapped over the edge. By that time I had become completely dependent on Chris for my rescue. When he asked me for my input on our final rap in the dark that night, I did not understand what he was asking. He had rapped to the ends of our rope and could find no good anchor. As I was coming down second, he asked me to build an anchor, tie off, pull the rope, and then continue down to him. It was such a shock to be asked to take responsibility for myself, and I was enjoying being babied so greatly, that I simply refused. After I rapped to Chris and the ends of the rope, we spent our second night on the face on a non-existent ledge. Throughout the night, we would wake to air-tearing, screeching volleys from above and flatten ourselves as much as humanly possible. Sheltered only by our tarp, I found myself scared by this sound like no other. A breakfast of chocolate-covered coffee beans greeted us in the morning — the last of our food.

The second time I wondered about Chris was when we had reached the safety of the northeast ridge by the middle of the third day. There was finally no mountain looming over us, ready to let loose a barrage of limestone. My idea was to wait it out for the wardens to fly in and rescue us, as friends would phone to report us missing in three or four days. What was Chris thinking? He was worried that Kitt would have to hitchhike back from her work, since he had borrowed her truck to drive to our trailhead. A thousand feet up, with a rinky-dink leftover rack, and he was worried about someone else. It was all I could do to refrain from saying, “F--- Kitt, my arm hurts and we’re still not down.” A better friend you couldn’t ask for.
Luxury away from the face

On the third night, we lounged in luxury on a large ledge system to the north end of the mountain. After we had considered all kinds of traverses off that would have been possible for able-bodied climbers, I finally convinced Chris that I was unable to function at a level that would allow for downclimbing. Some wild hanging belays in a waterfall below a hanging glacier brought back the fear factor, but they also brought us to our ledge. The impending darkness led us to delay our ground-coming until the next day. Chris claims that he was never so jealous as when he heard me snoring that chilly night away after I finally unfolded my emergency silver bivy bag now that we only had one night to go. When we finally reached non-technical ground the next day, I think that Chris was more relieved than me, for he no longer had the responsibility of caring for an invalid. This thought occurred to me as I let out a great “whoop” of unbridled joy when I knew our epic was behind us. Having not shown any outward signs of stress during our descent of two and a half days, Chris suddenly called out, “Ian, how do I get down?” All that remained between Chris and a scree slope was a ten-foot-high chimney that even I had downclimbed. Now that he knew we were down and safe, Chris could finally show some weakness and ask me for help. How he handled the stress, I don’t know. Probably the same way he deals with the soloing and the wet, 100-foot run-outs — with the calm mind of the pure climber. After all, as he put it, “Death was on the mind a lot.”

Thanks to Dr. Mark Heard of Banff, it is fully functional and only aches occasionally.

My many thanks to Chris, Kitt (for not asking for her rack back and for
insisting that I go to the hospital when I was in delusional denial) and
Dr. Mark Heard (for fixing me up).

The Canadian Alpine Journal 2005