Southeast Gulley of the West Lion

When my alarm went off at 7 am on tuesday, I turned it off, slept for a few more hours, and then went bouldering.  On wednesday, I rolled out of bed at the slightly more humane hour of 8:15 and, after writing a note describing where I was going (I recently watched 127 Hours) and stopping for coffee, left the trailhead in Lion’s Bay by 9.

Looking north to the East and West Lions from the summit of Mt. Harvey.

I passed beneath the imposing north side of the West Lion where the year before I had climbed the Northeast Buttress.  It’s the most aesthetic feature on an iconic local peak (it’s the buttress dropping left from the summit in the above photo) and in good winter conditions it’s relatively moderate.  Last year I’d approached it alone with a certain amount of trepidation only to find straightforward climbing on styrofoam-like snow and rime ice from bottom to top.  In fact, down-climbing the “tourist route” on the south side was quite possibly the most challenging part of the day.  The climb had taken me five and a half hours from car to car and I had no reason suspect that things would be different on the Southeast Gulley.

Classic North Shore alpinism on the Northeast Buttress of the West Lion. Someone has kindly trimmed a path through the shrubbery. In spite of a few sections like this, the Northeast Buttress is actually an excellent route.

The slope below the East Face felt like a serious place; there were bulbous cornices overhanging the ridge on the left while on the right, bits of rime ice were tinkling down the wall.  I picked a line up the middle and did my best Ueli Steck impersonation.  This lasted for approximately two minutes, at which point the lactic acid building up in my legs became unbearable and I settled into a more reasonable pace.

There was a cloud hugging the south side of the mountain when I arrived at the col below the route.  I couldn’t see much, but it didn’t look too threatening and I rationalized that it was preventing the snow and ice from becoming too sun-affected.

Looking up from the base of the Southeast Gulley.

The climbing was mostly on low-angled ice.  Unfortunately, it was of disconcertingly poor quality in places and I found it necessary to climb very slowly and carefully.  I had brought a six millimeter rope that I had intended to use mainly on the descent.  However, when I came across a good in-situ piton just before what appeared to be the last steep bulge of ice, I decided to give myself a quick self-belay.   In spite of the poor quality of the ice, I was soon on the steep snow slope above, getting ready to pull my rope up behind me.  I dropped one end and began to pull: smoothly at first until suddenly – nothing.  It wouldn’t budge.  I was in a mildly precarious position on a steep and not particularly well-consolidated slope and the remaining rope wouldn’t reach to any potential anchors.  I am very strongly against leaving garbage in the mountains (even if this wouldn’t be the first “fixed” rope on the West Lion) but the prospect of down-climbing to free it was highly unappealing and ultimately my sense of self-preservation won out (if I can’t convince someone to do the route and “booty” it, I will try to go back soon and get it myself).

Unfortunately, after dropping the rope I was not home free.  There remained one difficult section barring access to the summit.  Climbing directly up the gulley appeared to involve loose rock and delaminating ice so I initially attempted to climb out left through some shrubbery.  Not being particularly excited by the prospect of testing the tensile strength of frozen twigs, I retreated and went to have a look out right.  At first this proved encouraging as the snow and ice were firmer and more secure.  I was nearly onto easier ground when I was blocked by a short overhang formed by a mushroom of rime ice.  There was a tiny ledge under the bulge and I sat there for a moment and wished I was bouldering.

Tony McLane on This Monkey's Gone to Heaven, taken the day before.

I hacked away at the rime to eventually expose some sturdy tree branches (in spite of the rime, I clearly wasn’t in Patagonia).  The moves didn’t look difficult, but the tug of the East Face, hidden in cloud and dropping steeply beneath my heels, was enough to give me pause.  It was while wishing that I still had my rope that I remembered that I had five meters of cord in my pack.  I tied it to the highest, sturdiest branch I could excavate, clipped myself to it, and made a series of mantles through the ice-encrusted bushes.   I arrived at the summit perhaps not in the best mood to fully appreciate the beauty of the fact that the summit was an island just barely poking out above an ocean of clouds.

Climbing is so much fun!

I was reassured to know that I had down-climbed the standard route the previous winter. Thankfully, this time around the snow conditions were superb.  Unfortunately, I was inside of a cloud, and with the summer trail and fixed ropes buried under snow, there weren’t exactly a plethora of identifiable landmarks to aid me in finding the easiest route down.

Patience is an alpine climbing virtue of which I am in short supply.  Every time that I down-climbed into a dead-end, I had to remind myself that there was no rush and that I would get down eventually so long as I didn’t do anything foolish.  As it turned out, I had to remind myself this at least a dozen times before I managed to piece together the route down into the notch.

The hike out was comparatively uneventful.  Just as I was beginning to question whether or not I was on track, I broke out below the clouds and could see exactly where to go.

New haircut, courtesy of Karina.

Hiking down to my car, I felt a little upset with myself for having made a number of mistakes throughout the day.  I like things to go as smoothly as possible in the mountains.  I like a minimum of uncertainty.  In retrospect, I realize that getting the rope stuck was partly an inherent risk of the system I was using and partly just bad luck; I had kept it very neat and kink-free and there wasn’t anything obvious for it to get hung-up on. With the rope, the rest of the climb and the descent would have been much smoother.  I was never in a particularly dangerous position and I even made it back to the car before dark.  Ultimately, if I really wanted to minimize the uncertainty in climbing, I should have slept in and gone bouldering.

 

Paul Backhouse climbing ice beneath the North Face of the West Lion in Dec. 09. This was the leftmost of the longer routes on the wall. It was 150 meters long and maybe WI4ish. Possibly the route "Advertising Agents in Space" but who knows; there's a lot of ice up there in the right conditions.

Top 10 Coastal Ice Moderates, Part 1.

Legendary Canadian Rockies climber Barry Blanchard recently published his list of the top 10 Rockies ice climbs WI4+ and easier.  I’m a sucker for these sorts of lists (and also a decidedly moderate ice climber) so I thought I’d try to come up with something similar for South-West British Columbia.  Like Barry’s list, my choices are highly subjective. However, whereas there are few people more qualified to write about Rockies ice climbing than Barry, there are few people less qualified to write about West Coast ice than myself (I’ve actually climbed a lot more ice in the Rockies than on the Coast).  I’m posting this in two parts since there are a couple of routes that probably ought to be included but which I have yet to climb.

A Scottish Tale (WI3, 420M)

Hidden behind the Chief in a chasm splitting the large wall above Oleson Creek, A Scottish Tale seems to form with slightly more regularity than most of the ice climbs around Squamish.  Unfortunately it’s a bit hard to scope; either hike to the north peak of the Chief or consider making a reconnaissance of the approach (many people seem to have a hard time finding the route).

Rich So had only ever climbed a couple pitches of ice in his life before we climbed A Scottish Tale this past november.  Luckily, he’s a natural climber and the ice was so thin that not knowing how to swing an ice tool may have actually been an advantage.  The route is never steep but it’s very continuous with virtually no walking between pitches.  When it’s thin, a small rock rack is useful (and the climbing may be pushing the upper end of what most people would consider “moderate”).

Beautiful yellow ice on the Upper two pitches of A Scottish Tale
A short thin section on pitch 4 of A Scottish Tale. Photo: Rich So

Entropy (WI3, 120M)

Entropy is a prominent and appealing route plastered to the Soo Bluffs, halfway between Whistler and Pemberton.  It’s similar in difficulty and appearance to the upper pitches of Cascade Falls near Banff although sadly it’s a bit farther from the road.

Wet ice generally makes for easy climbing but strenuous belaying as the ropes become coated in ice.  Correspondingly, on the day that four of us climbed Entropy I recall belaying but I don’t remember much about the climbing.  Paul, Magda, Sarah and I climbed the wide flow of ice as two parallel teams.  It was nice to have company while forcing the frozen ropes through my belay device on a day that, although not truly miserable, was wet, cold and snowy enough to make me wonder what the hell I was doing there (as the name of this blog implies, it doesn’t take much).

Closet Secrets (WI4, 80M)

During the years that I was I going to school in the Vancouver, Stefan was living in his van, treeplanting and climbing all over North America.  In the winter he’d be out in the Rockies and I used to occasionally skip a few classes and catch the overnight Greyhound to Canmore where we would bash our way up various classic ice routes.  Times change, and now I’m the underemployed climbing bum (albeit with a philosophy degree) while Stefan has transformed into a remarkably diligent student.  He’s far too responsible to skip classes, but this last december he had a few days free after his exams so we made a short trip to Lillooet.  There weren’t exactly a plethora of routes in condition and after climbing the usual suspects (Icy BC and the Rambles), we decided to gamble on the glimpse of ice we could see on Closet Secrets.  At the base, it was clear that a previous party had backed off (had I known at the time that it was a very well respected local climber I probably would have done the same thing) but, encouraged by a couple of pitons that Stefan was smart enough to keep stashed in the bottom of his ice climbing pack, I sketched my way through the thin and delaminating ice.  On the second pitch, I climbed into a chimney between the ice and rock which provided some very unique but awkward climbing.  Don Serl writes in West Coast Ice that Closet Secrets is an “exciting climb … in awe inspiring surroundings” and I wholeheartedly agree.

 

Starting the first pitch of Closet Secrets in deceptively thin conditions. Photo: Stefan Albrecher.

Rambles Centre (WI3, 110M)

That Alanna Theoret ever became an ice climber is a testament to her remarkable toughness (although some might see it as evidence that she has either a poor memory or sense of self-preservation).  Her first ice climbing experience was during a balmy spring day on Vancouver Island.  While leading the second pitch of the route, her partner fell and ripped out a number of screws from the slushy ice.  As he fell past her, he gashed her leg with his crampons and his impact onto the anchor ripped out everything except for a v-thread.  The climb was reasonably remote and it also happened to be one of Alanna’s first times on skis; in short, the whole ordeal would have been enough to deter most people from ice climbing ever again.

Thankfully Alanna is not easily deterred from anything and in January of 2005 we left Campbell River for a short road trip to Lillooet.  The final route of our trip was Rambles Centre which is a lovely, and deservedly popular route.  It’s the most self-contained of the Rambles but still gives you the option of numerous lines on the upper tier.

The right side of the Upper Tier of Rambles Centre. Photo: Alanna Theoret.
There's also excellent climbing elsewhere in the Rambles. This is the Peterson-Smaridge Dihedral which on this day was formed to the top of the wall. Photo: Stefan Albrecher.

Synchronicity (WI4, 300M)

Great things can be accomplished by climbing partnerships that are based on mutual, but completely unfounded confidence in the abilities of the other person.  Years later while discussing this route, Stefan told me: “It was one of my first ice climbs, but I assumed that you knew what you were doing.”  Perhaps disturbingly, I had been assuming the same thing about him.  From this inauspicious start, we went on to climb together extensively including two expeditions to Alaska and a trip to Europe.

Synchronicity would be a classic moderate ice route anywhere.  It’s prominent, appealing, long, and sustained without ever being particularly difficult.

Stefan Albrecher on Synchronicity

The SW Face of Asperity Mountain

The following trip report was published here but I thought that it would benefit from the addition of a few photos.  It’s an account of a new route that Tony McLane and I climbed in the Waddington Range this past summer.

Mt. Waddington and the Tiedemann Glacier

 

Immediate reactions to near death experiences rarely consist of the somber contemplation of the fragility of our continued existence that such events deserve.  In fact they generally involve an asinine statement of the obvious, a great deal of profanity, and some nervous giggling.

Such was the case in the moments following the ‘thud’ made by the large rock that had nearly beaned me on its way to imbedding itself in the already isothermal snow.  In retrospect, I’d like to have said something like the following:

The boast of snowy peaks, the pomp of towers,

And all that granite, all that ice e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour: –

The climbs of glory lead but to the grave.

Admittedly that would have been a little over the top (and macabre).  It’s an effective survival strategy to make light of close calls and instead save the introspective navel-gazing for post-climb writings such as this.  Herein, the application of a little structure transforms the chaos of the mountains into a coherent narrative celebrating adventure and achievement.

The Plummer Hut is perched above the great trench of the Tiedemann Glacier.  It was with a sense of unreality at being so suddenly deposited in such a place that Tony McLane and I stood amid a large pile of gear and watched the helicopter disappear (the boos from the self-propelled puritans drowned out by the sound of the rotors).  As we unpacked our gear and prepared for our attempt on the unclimbed southwest face of Asperity Mountain, our eyes flickered constantly upwards to where calving seracs on the north faces of Mt. Munday and Mt. Waddington provided a reminder of the huge scale and heavy glaciation of the range.

Tony lounging at Sunny Knob

In the darkness just before dawn you can sense the outlines of the peaks above and it’s hard not to feel a little uncertain of your purpose as you trudge within your headlamp’s cone of light.  It’s inevitable to ponder your puniness and insignificance in the face of the cosmic whatever (maybe a little humility is a positive side-effect of this otherwise generally pointless pursuit).  The glacier below the face turned out to be as straightforward as could be expected.  A single crevasse spanning the width of the glacier was fortuitously jammed with ice blocks that led directly to the single weakness in its otherwise overhanging upper wall.  Some mixed climbing around a bergshrund then allowed us easy access to the toe of the buttress that forms the first third of Asperity’s southwest face.

Tony negotiating a troublesome crevasse

Tony started up the face, weaving up blocky and compact rock.  I took over the lead after three pitches, just as the climbing got steeper and the rock became featured with more continuous crack systems.  Squamish climbers at heart, we were in our element: jamming and laybacking on beautiful granite.

Tony following on the lower buttress with the glacier we'd ascended that morning visible below.

My block of pitches ended with a strenuous move over a small roof on cupped hand jams.  Above loomed a sixty-meter corner split by a continuous four-inch crack.  Tony grabbed our single four-inch cam and set off.  His seasons spent eluding the park rangers and climbing wide cracks in Yosemite paid off as near the end of the pitch with only a few pieces of gear between him and the belay, he slid the tipped out number four cam in front of him and arm-barred up the gently overhanging offwidth without even bothering to hang his pack.  When I arrived at Tony’s anchor (hyperventilating and oozing blood from both ankles and a knee) I felt oddly optimistic about our progress.

Tony sets off up the rope stretching pitch offwidth climbing.

Above, the angle of the face relented and after one more short belayed pitch, we switched back into our boots and began to climb un-roped up intermittent snow couloirs separated by easy rock steps.  Kicking and plunging up steep snow isn’t a very exhilarating form of climbing, but in spite of the exertion we were buoyed by our progress.  The snow couloirs ended as the face steepened below the summit.  We had hoped to climb a ramp that led directly through this upper rock buttress but found that access to it was barred by a frigid waterfall.  Instead we traversed left to a neighboring ramp system where decomposing rock caused us to rope up again.  The summit felt close and when the ramp ended on the northwest ridge I continued climbing, knowing that Tony was moving simultaneously below me on the other end of the rope.

The summit ridge.

Asperity is a mountain that supports the old aphorism that the summit is only halfway (unlike for example the Chief in Squamish).  We weren’t entirely ignorant of the challenges that lay ahead on the descent and so we kept our self-congratulatory summit lounging to a minimum.  As we began down-climbing the east face towards the col with Serra Five, the snow became increasingly icy.  We had shown a small amount of foresight by bringing an ice screw, but we quickly discovered that “icy enough to be nerve-racking to down-climb with a single lightweight axe” does not necessarily mean “icy enough for solid v-thread rappel anchors”.  As a result, we continued down climbing until the slope changed from being disconcertingly firm to a mildly terrifying gleaming blue.  A large serac cuts across the bottom of the east face but the prospect of traversing around it on more fifty degree ice was rather unappealing.  With burning calves and a tight grip on my axe I started making a v-thread rappel anchor.  I reassured Tony that I’d made hundreds of them and then proceeded to misalign the holes amidst what I’d like to believe was an uncharacteristic flurry of profanity.  Eventually I was hanging at the lip of the serac, looking down to see the ends of our two sixty meter ropes were dangling well shy of solid ground.  Tony was not particularly overjoyed with the situation and the ensuing traverse did little to improve his outlook.  One particular incident, the result of his creative attempt at chopping steps in the ice, nearly ended in disaster and would have been enough to end the climbing career of any more sensible person.

Rappelling the serac above the Serra V - Asperity Col.

All of this took more time than perhaps it should have and when we eventually gained the col after a few diagonal rappels, it was clear that we would be sleeping there for the night.  After a quick meal, I busied myself moving rocks around in an attempt to create a somewhat flat and sheltered bivy spot.  Meanwhile, Tony adopted a different approach and simply curled up in a semi-seated position amidst some jagged-looking boulders (again, he’d trained for this in Yosemite when, with the rangers in hot pursuit, he’d attempted a nighttime barefooted solo of Swan Slab and become benighted on cramped ledge in only a t-shirt).

Cramming your feet into frozen boots first thing in the morning is not a pleasant sensation.  However, as the sky began to brighten, frozen toes seemed like only a minor sacrifice in order to be moving again.  The couloir that drops from the col towards the Tiedemann was not only a bit icy, but as soon as the first rays of sun touched the upper southeast face of Asperity it began to live up to its reputation as a bowling alley.  Having had enough of the ice, we traversed to a rib of rubble that ran to the parallel the couloir.  At least on the rib the majority of the rock-fall was self-induced.  When the rib petered out, we made a rope-stretching rappel over the monstrous bergshrund and it was while pulling the ropes that a lone rock sailed alarmingly near to my head.

Choss!

A haze of smoke from nearby forest fires did little to filter the sun’s rays as we traversed tediously on increasingly slushy steep snow.  The final section of the descent was down a feature called Carl’s Couloir and right at its entrance we found a nice ledge where we sat and admired the jumbled glaciers and jutting granite buttresses that surrounded us.  My impatience to get off the mountain began to dissipate and after a quick snack we started down the couloir feeling much better about things.  To our pleasant surprise, the snow in the couloir turned out to be both softer and lower angled than we had expected and for once we were able to down-climb facing out from the slope.   Once again, a sixty meter free-hanging rappel was required to cross the bergshrund (I was becoming increasingly indebted to Tony for having vetoed my suggestion that we not bring the six millimeter tag line on the climb).  A section of down-climbing on exposed glacial ice led to the Tiedemann and a slightly circuitous slog to Sunny Knob.

With our camp and its helicopter-borne amenities so close, we pressed on up the long slopes that lead from the Tiedemann Glacier to the Plummer Hut.  All of our food and a great deal of our energy was depleted by this time, and our final push for the Hut was at the kind of pace normally reserved for summit pushes on Everest (thankfully there are far fewer climbers in the Waddington Range than on Everest so we were spared the indignity of having anyone witness our suffering).

We returned to camp with a renewed appreciation of food and sleep.  It was not until after a big meal and a sound sleep that the chaos of big mountains became a smug memory of a successful adventure.