I hear that as of September 21st 2018, this climb is in again. Once every decade...
This is a story I wrote about our original try at the FA. One of the best adventures I had with Dana Ruddy.
Beware the original warning offered by Dave Marra (no shrinking violet himself.)
|Real Ice Porn aka Polarity: Photo Jon Jugenheimer September 19, 2018|
Ice Porn is in!” said Dave Marra as he pointed toward the unclimbed north face of Mount Snowdome. Around the corner from Slipstream (VI WI4+, 925m) was a thick stream of blue ice flowing uninterrupted from seracs above. What an unlikely spot for a clean line of ice—straight down a nearly vertical and unblemished dark expanse of limestone where nothing had ever formed before. Furthering the audacity of the line was the history of the fictitious ice climb we were referring to: Ice Porn. Five years ago, Joe McKay—a local guide—had spoofed the climbing media’s incessant need for hyperbole by inventing the ultimate ice epic set in the very spot where this new line now appeared. He had photoshopped pictures of Nemesis (V WI6, 160m) onto the north face of Mount Snowdome after climbing the former with Dana Ruddy and Paul Valiulis. With over-the-top phrases like “Gather about three metres of extra slack . . . then like a coiled
leopard, I launched myself out . . . aiming for the hole in the curtain out in space,” the climbing rags reported it as fact. Ice Porn had been etched in the collective consciousness of the Rockies climbing community, and here was our chance to actually climb the real thing.
“But if you guys decide to go do it, I’m out,” Dave
continued, “’cause I’m a family man now.” The three of us had
different reasons for being on the hunt for a first ascent: Dave
had a short break from family responsibilities to reassert himself
in the mountains he so loves; I had just worked every day for six
months; and Cory Richards seems enthusiastic about climbing
big stuff in general. However, three years earlier Dave and I had
nearly met our demise on the same day while climbing different
routes in adjacent cirques off the Icefields Parkway. Dave had
benn famously spat off the final pitch of his new route For
Fathers (V WI6, 1000m) when the serac he was climbing up
exploded. Meanwhile, I had been avalanched on at the base of
Cerca del Mar (V WI5+, 160m). For this reason I felt a spiritual
connection with Dave although we’d never climbed together
in the mountains, and deferred to his advice on the subject of
seracs. With the possibility of heading up as a threesome ruled
out, Cory and I bid him adieu. He put us in touch with Dana
Ruddy, and made us promise not to touch the blue glacial ice
if we got that far.
Dana had been on a send-fest for the past few years in the
Rockies. Judging from the state of his boots, I believed him
when he casually stated, “I don’t think anyone has put on more
miles in the alpine in the last couple of years.” No surprise that
he agreed to climb the Emperor Face on Mount Robson with
Cory and me. We marched the 20-something kilometres to Berg
Lake, saw the snow-covered face and walked out again. Nothing
beats a backcountry marathon with full packs to make one want
to travel vertically rather than horizontally. Over the next three
days the discussion centred on whether we’d get scooped on Ice
Porn. One day we saw Celtic Reforestation trucks cruising the
Parkway. “Oh my God, it’s Guy Lacelle,” I worried. Luckily, it
turned out that the trucks were simply on their way to a poorly
paid beetle-probing contract based in Canmore, and the world’s
foremost ice soloist was not scooping us. At the time it only
managed to put more fire under my desire to get going on the
route. Dana didn’t seem worried as he argued that we were in
Jasper and climbers there weren’t competitive.
“Yeah,” I reasoned, “but if JR sees that thing he’d be up it
in an hour without a backpack to slow him down,” referring to
one of the Rockies’ better-known speed demons—Jonny “Red”
Walsh. With a whiteout up high and continued bad weather in
the forecast, Cory and I hiked gear into the base the next day in
an effort to scope the route. From below we convinced ourselves
that the seracs were not overhanging and actually rather benign.
Dana spent the day hanging out at home, unsure of whether to
go due to the obvious objective hazard. Earlier I’d said to him
that the desire to climb the route, “depends what you have to
live for.” Given that he enjoys a nice lifestyle as a “legendary”
Jasper local complete with a lovely girlfriend and a slack work
schedule, I imagined it would take some convincing. I was
happy to hear upon our return that he was keen and considered
the climbing “no problem.”
If the climbing was no problem I thought, the length of
the route might be, with its 1,000 metres of vertical rise from
the glacier to the summit, 600 metres of which looked to be
WI5 or harder. Had any of us climbed that much steep ice
in a day? Never having climbed ice by headlamp I figured we
could be shut down by time rather than technical difficulty, so
I convinced the other two to bring light bivy gear. Dana was
most concerned about minimizing time under the seracs so he
suggested going over the top and descending the glacier instead
of rappelling the route. We tilted the odds in our favour by
taking a few luxuries and going as a team of three, bucking the
present fashion to be fair to the mountain.
First thing in the morning we climbed 300 metres of
easy ice. Dana successfully rope-gunned four 70-metre pitches
of beautiful ice while I silently prayed he would somehow
continue. Pitch one: “I would have been off that one.” Pitch
two: “Wow, my arms aren’t working.” Pitch three: “Yup, my
arms are non-functional but I think I can take over somehow.
I’ll find an easy way up but hope it’s not vertical.” Dana brought
me back to reality: “Nope, I saw it and it’s vertical, but I think
I’ve got another pitch left in me.”
A couple of weeks later at the opening night of the Banff
Mountain Film Festival, I recognized the same team dynamic in
the film The Alps, in which Robert Jasper guides John Harlin Jr.
up the north face of the Eiger. Robert Jasper (Dana) does all the
hard leading, his wife (me) belays while John Harlin Jr. (Cory)
feeds the slack. This may sound a bit harsh, but let’s be honest
about what happened up there: Dana was “the man” and Cory
and I were the belayers. To be fair, Cory led the last WI4 pitch
up to the base of the serac, while Dana and I discussed how to
surmount the overhanging glacial ice-cliff. It was obviously the
steepest ice either of us had ever seen.
“I know,” I offered. “I’ve seen photos of Jeff Lowe aiding
the serac on the north face of Temple. We’ll just sit on screws.”
“I’ve never aided,” responded Dana, so I thought my
chance had come to pay him back for his consecutive leads.
Being the slower of the two, I arrived at the belay behind Dana
to hear that we were pulling the plug. Cory had decided that
the risk was too great. If the serac came off from the force of a
climber, we’d be crushed. A more usual level of risk aversion had
returned to our team and it didn’t take any convincing to decide
to rap. “Not the worst idea ever,” became our rally cry.
We were glad for the bivy gear two pitches down as we
settled onto a comfy protected ledge, which was better than
rappelling slowly in the dark. We had done the “first team-ofthree
ascent to the top of the rock buttress on the north face
of Mount Snowdome and shiver bivy at 3,200 metres with
associated smoking of a large celebratory hash joint”…ever! It
was the most memorably enjoyable night I have spent in the
Descending to the valley the next morning, we returned
to a different climbing reality that includes all the details,
which I suppose matter but didn’t seem to at the time. Four
days later, Ueli Steck and Simon Anthamatten from Switzerland
repeated the route but climbed through the final serac adding
50 metres to our effort. However, they didn’t climb off the top
of the mountain either, as it was blocked by a cornice. This
prompted the question about who, if anyone yet, had done
the first ascent. At the time, Cory had chatted to Will Gadd
and Barry Blanchard and both seemed to think we’d done
the first ascent of the waterfall, but not an alpine first ascent.
Unfortunately Cory’s correspondence with the climbing media
resulted in Climbing.com’s Hotflashes (coincidentally sounding
pornographic and thus perhaps appealing to the same male
instinct) reporting it as the first ascent of the north face of
Mount Snowdome (Cory had not told them any such thing).
As expected, people let their opinions be known and correctly
pointed out that it was not the first ascent of the north face since
it did not top-out. Then again, M-16 (VI WI7 A2, 1000m) on
the northeast face of Howse Peak didn’t top-out either. Does
that just make it some kind of cragging route?
Then there’s the nature of our climb—serac threatened.
Barry points out that there are various reasons for grading a
route commitment grade VI. Difficulty and objective hazard
are a couple of the criteria. Clearly the climbing was not that
difficult, at least not for someone in shape like Dana. Does
it deserve grade VI commitment just because the entire team
could be obliterated? It is definitely not an alpine grade VI but
is it a waterfall grade VI? I don’t know. Barry says he’s climbed
through seracs only once—on Borderline (VI WI5, 800m)—and
won’t ever do it again. We didn’t, and Dave Marra on For Fathers
didn’t either (but he tried). So why is a European climber willing
to accept the risk that modern-day Canadian alpinists won’t (or,
in Dave’s case, have their sanity questioned for even trying)
Arctic Dream (VI WI6, 500m) below the Quadra Glacier shares
a similar history. Canadians did the first ascent of the waterfall
but it took Europeans to go through the seracs. The exception is
Eric Dumerac and Shaun King’s ascent through the seracs above
Gimme Shelter (VI WI6, 500m). I can relate when Ueli says he
didn’t know if he “would ever get a chance to climb something
like that ever again in the alpine.” Looking back, in a way I
wish we had tried the serac pitch. Having said that though, I’ve
learned to be happy for what I manage to do in this life.
Polarity (VI WI5+, 800m), north face of Mt. Snowdome,
Columbia Icefields, Jasper National Park, Alberta. FA: Cory
Richards, Dana Ruddy, Ian Welsted, October 13–14, 2007.
FA through serac: Simon Anthamatten, Ueli Steck, October 18,
2007. Note: Anthamatten and Steck did not top-out either due
to a large cornice blocking access to the summit plateau.
About the Author
Ian Welsted is lucky to have witnessed great feats of ropegunning
prowess in a variety of conditions, predominantly in
the Canadian Rockies’ winter season of late. Ambitions center
around dreams of permanent retirement from compulsory
employment with B.C.’s thriving forestry and mining industries.
The Canadian Alpine Journal 2008