The topo above describes the routes detailed in this post. For information about the routes Cloudburst and The Unconditioned, click here

Mid February and I was back at the Stanley Glacier parking lot. All signs of travel led straight up to the headwall, but once again we took the left fork, breaking trail through fresh snow back up to Storm Creek. Although the winter’s snow was slowly covering the rubble ledges of the steep walls of the Rockies, the avalanche hazard remained low, and the temps moderate. While adding some additions to the already long list of stellar routes in Storm Creek in the fall, I had eyed a piece of hanging ice in the more trafficked area surrounding the climb Buddha Nature. Armed with a double rack and a notorious Calgary professor, I had high hopes of finishing a new route in a day, ideally without the temptation of our favorite battery-powered toy.

The first pitch of Buddha Nature took us up to the large ledge splitting the face, from which we traversed rightward toward “the pedestal”, a pillar jutting out from the steep wall with cracks in the back on both sides. From the pedestal, I could see a thin smear of ice snaking its way upward toward a smaller ledge, and a dagger looming above. After having a look at both sides, I started up the right side of the pedestal, finding smooth cracks for good protection in a sorta-kinda Scottish style mixed corner. The climbing was secure and fun, switching between the left and right walls of the corner and throwing out a leg to stem between the two. Twenty meters up I made the final mantle onto the snow covered pedestal, and got a close up look at the smear of ice above. A water-worn slab of smooth black limestone peppered with plates of ice headed straight up for another 10 meters before the ice thickened to a more climbable form. I searched around for gear and found a good nut on the side of the ledge, setting it solid a few times before refocusing my attention on the job above.

I reached up and hooked a plate of ice as high as I could, setting and testing the first tooth of my ice pick before leaning in and bringing my front point to rest on a small dimple in the rock. It looked like there could be a thin seam in the rock a few body lengths up, and I honed in on trying to climb slowly and delicately up to that point before I would be able to place protection to stop me from slamming back down onto the pedestal should I take an unexpected fall. A few tricky and balancey moves saw me eye-level with the weakness in the rock, which after further inspection was deemed unfit for preventing ankle-shattering ledge falls. I down-climbed a couple moves to a slightly better stance, where my tools felt somewhat secure and my crampons dug into the ice, if even just the tips of the front points. I was still a good ways above the pedestal, and considered down climbing back to a much more comfortable stance. Instead, I turned my head down toward Raph, patiently belaying below, and issued the all-too routine order: “Drill!”.

Raph transitioning onto thin ice.

I clipped the tag line into one of my ice tools and started hauling up the toys, while simultaneously keeping balance on my feet and a hand on the other ice tool to keep balance against the wall. After finagling the drill into my right hand I fired in the first bolt from a free stance, took a deep breath, and continued upward. I felt validated when I climbed higher and still found no protection. All the cracks were sealed full of ice, and as I continued toward the smear above I drilled two more protection bolts from precarious stances and finally tapped the tooth of my tool into ice that would actually hold. The transition to the thin ice was airy, and I was rewarded with stellar thin ice climbing all the way to the ledge below the dagger. 

My job was complete, and it was time to put the doctor to work doing what he does best, finding the line up steep and chossy limestone. The dagger pitch was shorter than anticipated, and after sussing out the proud line gaining the hanging ice from directly underneath, Raph lowered back to the belay and promptly sent the pitch. 

The Doc helping the rock to reach its potential.

A few days later I was once again skiing up the valley with Zac and Stefan, admiring the line Raph and I had climbed. This time we were headed to the head of the valley, where I had noticed a bunch of new ice formations that had appeared mid-winter out of nowhere. It was crazy to think a couple weeks prior, during an extreme chinook, we had been climbing rock above Canmore in t-shirts. Perhaps the warm weather had reopened the flow around the route Cloudburst, which we had climbed in the fall along with an exciting mixed route, “The Unconditioned”. Although the massive dagger of The Unconditioned had snapped off, an entire new line of ice was now snaking down the cliff 20 meters left of Cloudburst, and we were gunning for it.

Starting up pitch 2 of Knee Deep in It. Photo: Zac Colbran.

Zac took the first pitch up a mixed corner and up and over a short steep step of ice and onto the big ledge below Cloudburst. He traversed straight left to below the new feature, which would require some mixed climbing before gaining a thin veneer of ice, gradually thickening into a steep column above. I was graciously given the lead, having scoped the line, and off I went, onto another spectacular pitch of thin ice and mixed climbing. When I think of mixed climbing in the Rockies, especially mid-winter, I imagine locking off while working my way up steep dry rock, gunning for a hanging piece of ice above. It felt like a treat to now be questing up technical rock peppered with frozen blobs, gently dancing my way toward the centimeter thick sheet of ice, and proceeding to slowly tap my way up it. “Knee Deep In It” went free, onsight, and all on gear. Although I do enjoy the labor of love, slowly hooking steep rock and drilling bolts into overhangs, it is special to sometimes do away with the engineering and establish a climb free from any power tools and fixed protection. I was psyched to have not put any bolts into this part of the wall, and only a few on The Unconditioned and the new line next to Buddha Nature. 

Zac and Stefan on Knee Deep In It.

Though the work for the day was done, there was still another line of discontinuous ice to explore, and yet again, a few days later, Stefan, Jas and I returned, this time to climb 20 meters right of Cloudburst. After scoping the possibilities, the line choice was obvious, there was a natural gash in the rock, splattered with blobs of ice between sections of rock. It was Stefan’s turn to quest, and he cruised the difficulties, on what was perhaps the best pitch of all the pitches that we had recently established. The ice blobs, good pro, and numerous transitions from rock to ice and back made for cool climbing that feels quite hard to come by in the home zone. Having found a good anchor behind some flakes, Stefan brought me up and I grabbed the rack and started up towards the short overlap of steep rock capped with a very thin column of ice. With a screw at my feet, I was able to reach above the overlap to the ice better attached to the mountain, and in a couple swift moves transition onto the ice sheet above. We rappelled the route on v-threads, and back at the base looked back up at this gem of a wall of ice, which had appeared out of nowhere mid-winter, and had delivered so many fun and engaging pitches. “Old and Crusty” we called it, after Jas had bailed back to the valley midday with back pain.

Stefan on Old and Crusty.

I never dreamed of finding so many new routes to explore in such a notable valley, and in a single season. Don’t be fooled by anyone who tells you that the Rockies is climbed out. Or at least remember that there are no friends on new route days!