Cookoo Polar Drip: Team T4 in the Rockies

Antony and I just finished up a week of climbing and skiing in the Rockies, in anticipation of our trip to the Alaska Range this summer. Our expedition name is “T4”, named after the monster burger found at the Bear’s Den in Golden. Our buddy Tim crushed one of these beasts last winter, and the memory has lived on. Because what’s bigger, better, and juicier than a T3? T4, Baby. Maybe the Bear’s Den will supply us with 60 patties each for glacier life (enough for 15 T4’s a piece).

Antony starting up the Cookoo’s Nest.

Anyways, it’s been a cold February and we started things off in sunny kicking horse canyon with an ascent of the Cookoo’s Nest. The climb was in great shape and we opted for the spicy traverse pitch (linking the first two rock pitches together) as opposed to the direct line.

Seconding the rock traverse. spiccccyyyy.
Roosting in his nest.

The next day we had a classic romp up Polar Circus, in polar temperatures. The sun didn’t hit us until the final tier, which was lovely as those were my leads. The ice was hooing and hawing under tension from the deep freeze followed by March sun, but thankfully nothing broke off on us, above us, or under us.

The circus!
Antony leading the lower half of the upper half of polar circus.
Final pitch in the sun! (Photo Antony Wood)

We were due for a little skiing, and decided to head down to K-country next for some turns and also to have a look at The Drip at the Center of the Universe. We ended up putting in a skin track all the way to the base, to have a better look at the route and also to assess the snow conditions. Quite satisfied with both, we got some sunny turns all the way back to Burstall Lakes and made plans to attempt the route the next day.

Australian punk-rock star getting some exercise before his show in the eve.
It’s the DRIP!!!
Getting a couple turns in after setting the skin track to the route.

Leaving Canmore at 5 AM, we made quick work back up our skin track and swapped into climbing boots in the morning sun. The loose, faceted snow pack made for slow progress towards the ice, but the stability seemed reasonable. The route itself was phenomenal, albeit in super thin, “alpine” conditions. I led four pitches consisting of run-out climbing on thin ice, short overhanging steps, and a superb vein of ice interspersed with mixed moves. The climbing was all there, and there was just enough gear to support the decision to continue.

Antony coming up snow slopes at the beginning of the drip.
Me leading the second ice pitch in thin conditions. (Photo Antony Wood)

These types of winter climbs blur the line between “ice climb” and “alpine climb”. I was definitely approaching it as an alpine climb, intent on making the summit, as opposed to others who choose to rappel after the ice pitches, forgoing the 300 meters of snow and easy mixed leading to the summit. I think if we had approached the climb with an ice climbing mentality we probably would have bailed pretty quickly, as the ice conditions were quite thin compared to how to climb forms in other years. The leads were thoroughly engaging and technical and definitely rank up there as some of the more memorable I’ve experienced.

Antony finishing up the second pitch. Finally on some good ice.

Above the ice, we swapped out breaking trail and leading the slog up to the summit, which was longer than anticipated. After a couple minutes of afternoon sun we headed down, mostly rappelling the route with some short down climbs. We reached the car around 10 PM, 16 hours after leaving that morning, but with plenty of time to get back to canmore for take-out pizza. Unfortunately, I discovered (nearly 24 hours later) that I suffered mild frostbite on the tip of my big toe, likely from putting on frozen ski boots at the end of the day. Thankfully it isn’t serious, but a reminder to not let your guard down towards the end of a mission.

Summit shot before we began rapping the route.
Antony rapping off the summit block.

After spending most of this winter focused on developing my capacity on ice and mixed terrain, it was rewarding to be able to tick a big alpine climb with a good friend. The proximity to town and ease of access does not take away from the beauty of the experience; the silence of a landscape painted with a coat of white, the wordless exchange of trust and deep companionship as we moved together upward into a separate world.