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.

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