Charles weaves a tale of ice climbing that extends beyond the barfies and calf pumps.
It was March 11th, and the sun rose with a vibrant hue in the eastern skyline. I had spoke with my lifelong friend, Dean, a few days before and he assured me he would come down with a dose of the sunshine flu so that we could pursue a weekday climb to avoid the urban dwelling herd that flocked to the mountains every weekend.
I pulled up to his house shortly after 8am with my 1986 Steve Bauer mountain bike loaded in the back-bed of my Ford F-150. Dean rolled out his beefy full suspension bike and threw it into the box along with his pack, and from there we set off for a fabulous day in the mountains. Our objective was a cruzy climb, The Professor Falls in Banff, to tick off the last pitch of the climb for Dean. Having introduced another friend to the unforgettable Technicolor ice that is The Professor Falls just the day before, I bared witness to the effects of the melt-freeze process and the state it was leaving the access road in. We usually approached by bicycle, and with neither of us sporting studded tires, I knew that what was normally a 35-40 minute easy ride could very well turn into painful lesson on the coefficient of friction between sheet ice and rubber. With my previous days experience at hand, I enlightened Dean on the projected conditions of the road, and the showery state of most of the pitches on The Professors.
Now don't get me wrong, I love a good soak-fested romp up The Professors in Spring conditions as much as the next guy, but it had been a mere 12 hours since my four pairs of gloves, softshell pants, rope, and rack of draws had gone from dipping to dehydrated. Needless to say, I twisted Deans rubber arm, and we went from Banff bound to K-Country compelled, and set off to venture up Evan Thomas Creek in search of stellar Spring condition ice.
Rocking out to the bluesy tunes of pre Fleetwood Mac’s Mr. Wonderful album, Dean and I rolled into the Evan Thomas parking lot around 9:30am to find an older solo climber and his dog gearing up for a stroll to Moonlight. Happy to hear that his plans didn't clash with mine, which were to show off the monstrous mound of green shaded ice, aptly named “The Green Monster”, I dropped the windows, cranked up the tunes, and shared the bluesy melancholy melodies with our new solo climbing pal. In no real rush, Dean and I soaked up the sun and divvied the gear on the tailgate of my pick-up. While getting a solid dose of Vitamin-D, it dawned on me that the trail in to the climb would most likely accept our pedal-drawn velocipedes. Ready to roll, we mounted our aluminum and steel framed steeds and pedalled to the ice.
Finding the trail in incredible biking conditions, we quickly made head-way and before we knew it, were on the shelf ice of the creek. But, as with many things in life, good things come to an end. Eventually the hard-pack snowshoe trail became soft with the warm ambient air, and our steeds were no longer able to trot easily. We dismounted, pulled out the cable lariat and hitched our rides to a sturdy pine. Within about 500m, Chantilly Falls came into sight. The bottom pitch was full of bright blue ice that narrowed above the upper pitch. In excellent shape, I suggested to Dean that this may be a great WI2-WI3 lead to get under his belt, but eager to lay eyes on ‘The Monster’ we continued up to our objective. Not much further ahead, Moonlight, Snowline, and 2 Low 4 Zero came into sight. I was taken back by the volume of ice that the trio held on to through the continual warm spells our mountains received this year, and quickly suggested we should at least wander up to their base and scout them out. As we drew nearer I looked for a soloist ascending the leftmost line that is Moonlight, but couldn't lay eyes on him. We arrived at the climbs base trail, and began to hike up. Soon I could see the soloist flaking his rope, and preparing to journey upwards. The entirety of Moonlight and Snowline came into view. Seeing that the fat formation of ice had received many a climber’s “picks” and “kicks”, it resembled a long blue strand of Swiss cheese. With the soloist’s back to me, unaware of our presence, I hollered out, “Holy hooked out Batman!” A loud chuckle came out from him as he replied “All the better to solo on my friend!” As both Dean and I reached the top, his young, rambunctious pooch greeted us. Quickly the soloist and I hit it off, and he introduced himself. You could tell by the way the soloist held himself, he was abundant with experience and seemingly void of ego.
The three of us continued to yammer and without a word to one another, Dean and I both decided that we would like to climb alongside our new soloist friend, and tackle ‘The Green Monster’ another day. David offered up the choice line, Moonlight, but as the saying goes ‘First come, first serve’, and we were happy to take Snowline. The soloist set off up Moonlight, and I soon followed to his right.
The climb is classically graded WI4 but in its current conditions would be hard-pressed to climb at WI3+. After a solid season of climbing, with a few days of soloing, and having just ticked off my first wi5, I was feeling strong. I racked up, tied in, turned up the Mozart I always climb to, and started off on the 65m rope-stretcher to a bomber tree anchor. Armed with 9 screws, and 10 draws I “swing, kick, kick, swinged” my way up the climb. Feeling good and with seemingly abundant with gear, a conversation I had with a friend a few days prior came into mind. He called me out for soloing and said, “If you have the gear, and a belayer why bother running it out?” I didn't have much of a reply that didn't seem to stem from an ego, I thought “Shit, well I’ll just throw one in now.” A few moves later, more bomber ice presented itself, so I pulled off another screw from my hip and cranked it in. At no time had I felt I really needed protection but my friends nagging voice kept on overriding the symphonic tones of Wolfgang Amadeus. This driving factor lead me to place 5 screws in the first 30m of easier climbing, and as I approached the second half of the pitch I could see that the bomber, solid-ice would change to a more “snicey” unconsolidated style. Not that the difficulty of the climbing really increased by very much, it was the variable complexion that now had me on guard, on top of the fact I had ignorantly placed over half of my screws below and with more than half of the climb left and the true crux to come.
Off to my left, I could see that David had paused on the ice and placed a screw. It appeared he was building an anchor. I called out to him, asking how the climbing was feeling. He replied back that the ice was first-class but that he had broken his wrist a few months prior and the past injury had spontaneously come back to plague him. Making the conservative choice, he decided to bail, and joined up with Dean on the ground. I wished him well and continued up the degrading ice.
One swing sticks quickly became several swing sticks as I made sure to drive the pick deep into the granular ice for reassuring confidence. As I tried to space myself out between the 4 remaining screws, I let my own psychology get the better of me, and placed 3 of them within 20m past the midway point. I was now left with a single screw and 15m of climbing involving the crux moves. The only thing I had going for me was that the ice had reverted from unconsolidated, granular ‘snice’, back to strong, unified ice that accepted my axes with ease. Although the climbing steepened, I found comfort in the final moves, traveling over true ice with a bomber screw only a few meters below me. I reached the anchor, secured myself, and exhaled a sigh of excitement.
Looking back down to the ground, I could see that Dean and David were caught up in conversation. Hollering out “Secure!” I heard Dean reply back, “Off belay!” Leaning back into the anchor, I pulled up the remainder of the rope. In the minute it took taking up the excess slack, I recounted the climb and the unique nature of the constantly changing medium. I wondered where the origins of its name, ‘Snowline’, came from? Did the first ascensionists, Barry Blanchard and Iain Stewart-Patterson, came across similar dilapidated ice form? Did the climb resemble more of a 100m vertical snow-cone, interlaced with occasional chunk of solid ice, back in February 1983?
All my thoughts about the climb came to a halt when I felt the tension of Dean on the other end. Quickly putting him on top belay, I let him know he was good to climb and began bringing him up. A short while later Dean was standing next to me at the anchor. He began to tell me about how interesting of an individual our newfound soloist friend was, and that he almost wished he could have just stayed down along side him just to hear more. With the enthusiasm Dean spoke about the soloist I had half a mind to pull the pin on the final pitch and start our descent. We both looked over our shoulders to see he had started making his way back to his truck with his pup in tow. Quickly realizing the blighted hopes of conversing more, we bellowed out a bid adieu as we began to re-rack the gear for the final 30m of climbing.
The quality of ice through the remaining portion of the route was much higher than that of what we had already ascended, and with exception to the occasional piece of dinner plating ice, the climbing drew no drama. In no time, I stood at the top, secured to a well rooted Douglas Fir. Calling out to Dean, I let him know that I was anchored in, and ready to start pulling up the excess slack. In a flash, Dean cruised through the last section of climbing, and soon we began to reorganize the rope for our descent. We chose to rappel down Moonlight given its higher quality ice and that we would most likely need to build V-thread anchors to continue our way downwards.
The establishment of a new anchor was unnecessary given the climb was littered with V-thread tats and that finding a sound point of attachment was rather easy. Soon, our gravitational journey was over and we both set foot on solid ground. Within an hour the ropes were recoiled, the gear redistributed, the aluminum and steel steeds remounted, and we found ourselves back at the truck with snow chilled Indian Session Ales in hand. To our elation, a note from David was left on the windshield. It went on to say that he enjoyed our friendly conversation, and that if we were interested in getting out for a climb, to send him an email some time.
More than content with the quality of the day, we loaded up the bikes in the back, turned up the tunes, and headed for home. Another stellar day in the mountains was complete. What more could we ask for?