Fall ’23 Roundup

A friend recently told me that his wife asked him, upon returning from an expedition, “Why do you want to climb so much right now, didn’t you just get back from a climbing expedition?” His response was, “Yes, but we didn’t do any climbing!”

Basecamp in Sikkim.

That much can certainly be said about this fall, returning back to the Rockies after 5 weeks in India. We barely got a chance to walk around, let alone go climbing. After a few days in basecamp there was a glacial lake outburst flood originating quite close to the valley we were camped in, leading to a flash flood and destruction of many bridges between us and the rest of civilization. It would have been great if we could have just carried on, minding our own business in the Sikkimese Himalaya, and letting the disaster response respond to, well, the disaster. Unfortunately we were depending on a second supply to bring enough food to last us 4-6 weeks in basecamp, and we had a small complication with the government who essentially told us that they would come extract us via helicopter, and that we better be ready. Ready we were, every day for two weeks, when we were finally flown to Gangtok from an army border post at the end of the road.

Finally back in Gangtok with the four-man crew that came to evacuate us.

I certainly had to go climbing when I got home. And especially since I was jobless and the fall was shaping up with excellent mixed climbing conditions. Life fell into a nice rhythm of climbing every other day, and spending team with family and friends, while also tying up some loose ends from my last research position and starting to look for something new.

The climbing community seemed to swarm to Storm Creek in early fall, where many routes were fatter than normal, formed differently, or just hadn’t formed before. On my first day back there, I took note of a few routes. Scar Tissue seemed to be formed as a full ice route (!), there was a wild-looking dagger up valley to the right of it, and Check Your Head seemed to have a new flow of ice above it, right of the original finish. I was interested to quest up the latter, but Maarten and Jas were set on Rectal Squirrels Indirect, and I willfully obliged. It was a great route, and I was reminded of how cool of an experience it is to be the first ones to touch a piece of ice each season. Though we climbed the indirect start, multiple parties eventually sacked up and climbed the direct, a thin and hollow dagger of ice that hadn’t been touched since the FA.

Maarten starting up the second pitch of Rectal Squirrels.

I was planning to go give Check Your Head a go, mostly since it looked like it could go all on gear. It did, when it got climbed a few days later.

Maarten and I were heading for it on the next day, but switched plans and headed up valley to the heavy dagger no one had seen form before. Although there were whispers about the crazy fully formed “Scar Tissue,” it became immediately apparent on that second trip that the beautiful steep, thin ice route at the end of the valley had actually not formed before in the dancing up frozen waterfalls era. Maarten’s practicality was pushing for us to just go climb that instead, given we could just arrive at the base, and climb it to the top, but with the drill in tow, the dagger beckoned. We were rewarded with a unique mixed pitch that followed a nice crack system, ending in a devious slab problem to mount the ice. After adding a few bolts I lowered back to the belay, and Maarten went for the first lead attempt. It all went well until he was stymied by the slab. I was up next, and it was a similar story. I sussed the beta, practiced my karate kick to the ice (height and/or flexibility dependent, of which I have neither), and lowered back down, wanting to leave the ice untouched for the true first ascent. We rappelled the rest of the route, stashed our gear at the base, and planned to return the next day.

Maarten on the first lead attempt of The Unconditioned.

On the approach the next morning, with our friend Chelo in tow, the prospect of climbing the new ice route resurfaced. Our gear was already stashed, so why not treat ourselves to the aesthetic piece of ice next door before returning to the dagger? It was a treat indeed, a thin first pitch leading to a steep, featured column that kept going for a full rope-length. Cloudburst (WI5+, 130m) was indeed not Scar Tissue, nor could it be more different than the daunting hanging dagger to its right. The Sikkim government blamed the flood on a cloudburst, a heavy, localized downpour. It did indeed snow a little bit the night before, but it certainly wasn’t triggered by the weather, just good old climate change at large. A scientist surmised that perhaps an iceberg calved into the glacial lake, and the ensuing wave broke the unstable moraine holding in the water.

Topo for Cloudburst, courtesy of Frozen Limestone Publications.

We once again stashed the gear, and Maarten and I were back two days later, to finish the first ascent of The Unconditioned (M6+ WI5+ 95m). The slab went down first go, the karate kick brought crampon to ice, and stemming up the untouched icicle demanded full focus. I enjoyed becoming a part of that beautiful valley for a few days. But it was time to move further north.

Topo for The Unconditioned, courtesy of Frozen Limestone Publications.

Since we had come back from India earlier than expected, Maarten’s schedule was as empty as mine. While we were dicking around in Storm, American friends had climbed The Wild Thing on Mt. Chephren, which reminded us there are mountains out there!

After dropping Andrea at the airport (Spain bound), Maarten and I drove up the parkway to scope the conditions on Mt. Wilson, specifically Dirty Love. Alik and Uisdean made the second ascent a couple years ago, and Alik said it was “the best mixed route” he had done in the Rockies. Many claim the best this or the best that, and they should mostly be ignored, but from Alik this was high praise.

Maarten busting out his best drop knee on Riders on the Swarm.

Although the snow had largely not flown yet in the mountains, and we had a good forecast, there had been some precipitation the night before, and combined with high winds and signs of avalanche activity along the parkway, we decided against plan A. Plan B arose quite naturally, as Maarten had spotted another cool-looking dagger above Mosquito Creek. We booked it back to Canmore to get the drill, and sleep in our beds instead of the hostel (one of those things you do want to do when you have a wife and just got back from an expedition, at least according to Maarten) and the next morning we made the casual walk to the base of the route. We climbed two cool mixed pitches on gear, on of which had mostly unhelpful ice that had to be cleaned to find gear and holds, and the other of which had just barely climbable ice but protected with rock gear. Both were surprisingly good and thoughtful. The third pitch to the dagger was another engineering project, with Maarten out front and me at the sunny belay. It was a hot sunny day, and as Maarten drilled the last bolt to the ice and lowered back to the anchor, the sun dipped behind the mountains and the streams of water coming down from above turned to drips. “Sending temps.” I once again got the honors, hooking deep pockets between chossy placements, somehow managing to stay on the wall. Located on Noseeum Peak, above Mosquito Creek, we settled on the name Riders on the Swarm (M6+ WI4, 150m), paying homage to the pesky insects buzzing around for first ascents. “No friends on new route days,” Maarten put it.

Riders on the Swarm.

Having my parents around for the week surrounding Thanksgiving (the American sort) was good for an excuse to take a rest, though not without a long day out at the Headwall to climb Fiasco. I am not someone to post the conditions of my every whereabouts on the internet, but I felt like Fiasco was a bit of an underdog deserving of more attention, and thus shared its condition online. I think it got some ascents this year because of that, which is great, but it also got some new bolts added, which sucks. I would like to think with a bit of reflection more people in the community would align with trying to leave ice climbs in their more natural state, especially since it is so easy and practical to rappel directly off ice. As Raph put it, bolts should add to the adventure, not take away from it.

More high pressure was on the way as I was again at the Calgary airport dropping off my parents. Zac had a well-timed reprieve from his crazy work schedule and I still had Dirty Love on my mind. We drove up to the Rampart Creek Hostel and set our alarms for midnight. The next morning (if you can call it that), we were happy to find the first two pitches of Totem Pole in condition enough to climb, and the snow much squeakier than normal. By the time we had properly woken up, well past sunrise, we reached the base of Dirty Love, which starts 1200m above the highway, and climbs another 500m of sustained mixed directly to the summit of Mt. Wilson.

The “famous” shot, stemming out of a cave on Dirty Love. Photo: Zac Colbran.

We stopped for a quick brew and I started up the first block. The climbing was phenomenal. Stemming, chimneying, squeezing, and grunting up the steep ice-choked gash splitting the upper walls of Mt. Wilson. I had to clean a ton of ice, sometimes to even make space to fit into the chimney, but the rest of the ice was surprisingly solid, with most of the gear still in rock. After two pitches the route breaks out of the gash, and after the traverse out I passed the rack to Zac. He led a rock pitch back into the chimney (perhaps with the hardest few moves of the route), after which the winter sun was starting to dip and we started faffing with the belay, as there was so much ice to clean and nowhere sheltered from the firing line. After one more pitch, it was clear our momentum was stalling, and as great as it would have been to rally, we had a ways to go and a long night ahead of us. We relished in the good climbing, and rigged the rappel. Though the precedent had been set to climb the route in a push, perhaps in the darker months a bivy would be warranted. Or a bigger engine!

Pretty neat climbing up high on Mount Wilson. Photo: Zac Colbran.

I couldn’t bare to reverse the traverse back to Totem Pole, and thus convinced Zac we should rap directly down Shooting Star, which is the route directly below Dirty Love (Totem Pole traverses into the gully from the left). My stubbornness (or optimism?) got the best of us, as many rappels ensued, many of them down short steps of rock that would normally be buried under the snowpack. I couldn’t find the anchor for the last rappel (which supposedly exists) and thus swung around the steep, water-warn wall, finally finding a pin and nut to support us on the final free-hanging rappel. It obviously wouldn’t have been faster to climb the rest of the route and walk off the back, but would it really have taken that much longer in the end?

Feeling satiated, I thought it would be a good idea to give my shoulder a few days off to hopefully recover from the endless nagging pain, soreness, and clunkiness. In hindsight, all this meant is that I started going dry tooling more to relish in the easier days out (and more sleep), which is always the worst thing to do for my shoulders.

Properly steep ice on French Reality.

Further highlights included Superbok, French Reality, and Virtual Reality, and finished off the year with a trip to the Sorcerer with Cassie and Bea. It was the first trip to the Ghost in winter for both of them, which made it all that much more special. It’s been a couple months of grounding down into people and place, and I’m grateful to look out my window at the monoliths sitting proud above town, to have many good friends within a small radius, and to get to spend so much time in these wild mountains, momentarily free from the rush, pressure, and conditioning of our culture and society. It is a gift for which I am forever grateful, to simply connect to a quiet winter landscape, sharing breaths of cold mountain air with a friend or two.

A beauty day in the Ghost.