Updated: May 19
Since I was a little boy the high alpine has been my happy place. Bounding, skipping, and laughing along meandering alpine ridges in the Robson Valley consumed a large chunk of my childhood. I am very fortunate to say the least. My mother also had me rock climbing at a young age. It is something that I have always took part in but never made my main focus.
Near the end of my high school years I started feeling some pull towards Ice climbing and winter alpine climbing. My mother and her partner Pierre began taking myself and Pierre's son Kai out on classic mountaineering objectives such as Mount garibaldi, Sky Pilot, Wedgemount, etc.. Needless to say I was hooked. Near graduation I met Nick Elson. I had been inspired reading about Nicks ventures in the alpine. Both in Fast and Light style and technical rock climbing and alpinism. Nick has been a patient mentor and solid friend. He has taught me a great deal about moving through the mountains with efficiency. Here is a somewhat lengthy and potentially boring (because of my mediocre writing) summary of our climbs together this past winter season.
November can be an excellent time for scrappy alpine climbing on the coast or it can be downright miserable. Well this season was the latter. Coastal BC was nailed with torrential downpour and devastating flooding. Needless to say the fall alpine missions were not plentiful. With a brief weather window in the forecast Nick and I brainstormed ideas for climbing where the strong rain had not washed all the snow or ice away. we decided to check out the East Ridge of Habrich. This moderate climb that seldom sees traffic could be a pleasant way to get some mileage in a cool spot. We spent the first half of the outing approaching the base of the ridge from the rugged Fluffy Kitten wall trail. from here we soloed through a couple easy mixed steps and pulled the rope out for the crux. The crux was brief but slightly insecure and slabby. Thankfully the rock is excellent and the protection is great. After the crux we 'simuled' the rest of the snowy ridge passing through brief sections of easy mixed climbing and a cool tunnel under a chalkstone. We had some snacks at the summit, enjoyed the views, then started down. We down simul climbed until the crux where we made a couple short rappels to the base of the route. We then rambled back down to the valley floor through the beautiful frozen jungle.
Early in the winter I was eager to get some more time on my tools. Nick agreed it would be fun to get out in the Alpine. On December 4th Nick and I went to go for a faster climb up the North ridge of Sky Pilot. We both used our light weight boots and weren't super psyched about having to climb a pitch of steeper ice in them. We bailed and scoped out the North Face instead.
Our interest peaked when we spotted a party in the Left Gulley route. In mid winter this gulley in filled with 3 ish meters of snow but in these early conditions it looked great with some interesting looking moderate ice steps. We returned the following day. The snow depth was low and a firm crust was present in most places making for decent travel. I belayed Nick on the first pitch of enjoyable alpine ice tucked away into a corner. I enjoyed a good round of the screaming barfies before we climbed quickly up steep snow to another comfortable belay. Nick then took off towards the crux: an interesting vertical ice step that required some stemming on snow mushrooms. Nick moved through it fairly quickly since it was only around 15 meters in length. I followed and enjoyed fun climbing in a cool position before taking over the lead and moving quickly up through steep snow to the top of the left gulley. From here I made a 30 meter traverse on some low angled water ice before climbing up another 30 meters on some more Wi 2. When the rope came taught we 'simuled' for a couple hundred meters over steep snow and some near vertical bush with the odd bit of ice to place screws. I belayed Nick off a tree at the top of the North face where we traversed right and continued to simul up the traditional North face finish. From here were simul climbed along the beautiful and aesthetic North ridge to the summit. Without much time or day light he hastily made our descent of the west ridge. One short rappel and a bunch of easier down climbing brought us back to the stadium glacier. We stuffed our gear in our packs and commenced a somewhat frantic run down in an effort to make the last download at 5 PM. We arrived fairly tired with half an hour to spare. In total our loop took us around 7.5 hours from the gondola to the gondola. Not bad for a five minute drive from home..
Mid Winter Deep Freeze
Later in December the temperatures started dropping rapidly in the Sea To Sky -15 in the valley with loads of new snow. with temps plummeting to - 30 in the alpine motivation to ski was low and valley ice was starting to form quite well. On the 27th Nick and I made plans to climb whatever looked good from the road. Diedre looked unpleasant so we quickly skipped that idea and made way to the bullet heads which looked intriguing. After rambling around a little bit we found the base of "Rocky Horror Pitch or so" Wi 3 R. I lead the first pitch of Wi 3 through a beautiful wide chimney. Short screws but perfect sticks. We then walked up to the 2nd pitch which was climbable but also unprotected for 15 meters. It was an easy decision to walk over to some more interesting and likely unclimbed ice that looked fatter.. I belayed Nick up a low angled but awkward goulette feature with "snice" and rock. This brought us to the base of a beautiful 25 meter pitch of Wi 4 that was pouring out of a horizontal crack. We climbed the pitch and left some cord around a shrub to rappel. We assume this was a FA but then again you never know I suppose. A quick warm up in the sun was had and then we rambled over to the top of "Rainy Day Woman" Wi 4 R. We rappeled into the last pitch. This pitch is one of the most beautiful pitches of Ice I have climbed in Squamish. 30 meters of continuous climbing in a corner with steep walls of granite on either side and the ocean far below. Spectacular! We started descending to the base of the bullet heads but since pitch two of "Rainy Day Woman" looked good we would do a quick lap. When the ice is there and you have time it makes sense to climb it.. Back at the car I couldn’t help but smile about a pretty special day close to home.
This cold snap was proving to be a good one. Ice was forming in places that have not seen climbable ice in decades. The next day on December 28th Nick and I drove around Valley Cliff with our curiosity pointed towards the Slahanay. Through binoculars "You're a Sick Puppy Charlie Brown" 5.8 A1 Wi 4 looked enticing. After waffling we decided to give it a go and call up Paul McCsorley to see if he wanted in. Paul was home for a couple days between work shifts over seas and as per usual was psyched about the idea of getting out. When Bruce Kay made the FA in 1993 he climbed a 5.8 slab and then used a tension traverse to get back to the corner system. By doing this Bruce by passed an ugly 10 meter off width. Our plan was to try and figure out the direct start.
Nick set off on the first pitch. Low angled but insecure mixed climbing brought us to a small tree belay below the off width. Paul then took over for the most insecure climbing on the route. To bypass the off width Paul climbed and traversed up over thin veneers of ice, slabs, and snow. Protection was slightly funky. Paul used a Spectre and an assortment of stoppers and cams. Watching Paul unlock the direct start was impressive to me and really showed his years of experience. Not physically "hard" climbing but very tedious and insecure. Nick and I followed enjoying engaging climbing right above town. Nick grabbed the rack and took off on the next pitch. Nick danced his way up over eggshell ice, mixed terrain, thin ice, and even a bomber hand crack. I found this pitch very enjoyable and interesting. Paul and I joined Nick at a small slightly awkward belay stance. Paul took over on a gorgeous but brittle rope length of Wi 3. Quite a spectacular position above Valleycliff. Paul belayed us into a very comfortable alcove with an old growth cedar for an anchor. Next up was the Ice Chimney, the gem of this route. A steep chimney filled with surreal jellyfish looking blobs of ice, that stood far over head. This felt like a pretty special place to be with good people. Nick left the belay. Climbing through the wild features placing mediocre screws and gently swinging his tools. Eventually Nick popped out of the chimney but had some trepidation on what to do. His options were to swing onto a short but free hanging unprotected Wi 6 curtain over mediocre screws or climb a 5 meter ice free slab into the bushes. With half an hour of daylight Nick made the wise call to bail. We made three 60 meter rappels straight to the forest floor and rambled down to car by headlamp. Watching Nick and Paul use their intuition and years of climbing experience was a huge learning experience for me. Looks like we'll have to try again next winter with a little bit more freeze.
The freeze continued. I enjoyed a couple mellow days of climbing sea level ice smears with Kai and other friends. Seeing that warm weather was not to far off Nick and I made plans for another special outing. There was rumour that Echo Magic was in climbable shape. It was a no brainer to further investigate.
We canoed across the Squamish river breaking through thin ice in the calm of the morning. After awkwardly lifting the canoe up over the ice we excitedly rambled through the forest to the base of Monmouth Falls. "Echo Magic" (Wi 4 450 meters) was climbed in 1993 by local cragsman John Harvey and Danny Jackson. As far as I know the falls had not formed in climbable shape since. We donned our crampons and soloed our way up several tiers of Wi2 and 3. We then roped up for two pitches of Wi 3 and passed a party of three. As we climbed you could hear strong pulses of water below. The river was very much still alive. That said we felt fairly safe since the ice was thick and strong. Nick and I continued un-roped over some more Wi 2 and three ice steps. Winding through deep cavities in the mountain. It felt like entering another world. Eventually we arrived at the arch. A geologically magnificent rock tunnel where the waterfall cascades down a 30 meter natural water slide. I have spent many hot summer days cliff jumping into the deep pools of crystal clear water. It looked even more spectacular coated in ice. I led through the arch listening to the echoes. From here we climbed roped and soloed a couple hundred more meters of Wi 2 and 3 steps before reaching the first tall Wi 4 pitch. Nick took the lead climbing hastily through featured ice with the sound of rushing water a few meters to the right. I took the next mushroomed Wi 3 pitch to a stunning rock amphitheater. Here lay the final Wi 4 step. A 10 meter vertical pillar with water running inside. Nick made quick work of this. I climbed the ice quickly while trying to enjoy the wild position. We enjoyed some tea and high fives before a pleasant hike back down to the boat. Fortunately John is a family friend of ours which allowed me the chance to 'shoot the shit' with him at a new years eve fire later that evening.
Just like that warm weather blew into the valley and the sea level ice began to fall apart. Towards the end of January Nick and I were keen to get another day on the tools. With a low/low/low avalanche forecast and mediocre ski conditions we opted for a day up North Joffre Creek (NJC).
We parked the car and began our ski approach in the morning sun. I was entertained trying to figure out what type of foot prints we were following. Definitely some Bobcat and potentially some Wolf or Cougar tracks. NJC does not see tons of traffic keeping the wildlife corridor alive and well. Upon arrival we decided to climb the classic "Schneidelwurz" 200m Wi 4. Neither of us had climbed "Schneidelwurz" but it was easy to access and supposedly one of the better lines in the valley. I led the first pitch which primarily followed snow and low angled ice until the last 20 meter where I delicately stemmed and hooked my way up a step of steeper poor quality ice. Not to my surprise upon reaching the belay I realized I made a poor route finding mistake and could have followed a different and safer gulley of ice. Oh well, a good learning experience. Thankfully after this the climbing improved minus some eggshell textured ice in spots. Nick cruised up the next interesting Wi 4 pitch while getting a face full of spindrift. The last tier included high quality climbing in a beautiful position above the valley. It was quite enjoyable even with some slightly funky ice conditions. We made three 60m rappels down followed by an awkward ski and skate back to the car. NJC blew my mind with the abundance of waterfall ice. I will surely be back multiple times in the future. I would also love to take a crack and the Bruce Kay and Chris Christie test piece "Rhapsody and Floyd" but that will have to wait until I have gained some further experience on my tools. All things considered a 1.5 hour approach on skis is pretty civilized for the coast.
February - Good Climbing, longer approaches
While riding the gondola Nick and I noticed what looked like several pitches of thick waterfall ice on one of the bigger north facing cliffs on goat ridge. Later on I was at my computer desk at home and realized I could see the flow if ice clearly with binoculars. Unfortunately it seemed as if there was a cornice guarding the exit of the route. During a spell of bad skiing we decided to go for a ski up goat ridge to take a look. The route looked to be quite good and it seemed like there would likely be a way around the cornice. We waited a little bit for some colder weather before returning with climbing equipment. Once again we were subject to the Sea to Sky gondola's hours of operation. We spent an hour and a half approaching on skis to the base of the route. We started off rambling up a low angled snow gulley before reaching a comfortable belay on a unique shark fin shaped gendarme. Nick led the first pitch. A pleasant 50 meter Wi 3 brought us to the base of the crux pitch a steep 30 - 40 meter tier of beautiful featured ice. Nick set off gingerly climbing his way up steep and slightly brittle ice with mediocre screws. Had we climbed directly up the centre of the flow the climbing would have been more sustained. Maybe more in the Wi 6 range. I followed stemming, hooking, swinging, and taking brief rest's on my tools. I started up the next the next pitch. I was pleasantly surprised to find easy climbing in a tight gulley filled with Ice. I climbed around 60 meters until I ran out of screws and made a quick anchor. Nick continued past the belay over another 20 meters of interesting ice. Nick found a small ramp to the left that he used to access the snow slope neat ridge top. A couple minutes of wallowing and knocking tons of spindrift on my head Nick surmounted the small end of the cornice and belayed me off a small tree. Due to the rope cutting into the cornice I was forced to make a couple entertaining moves to haul myself over a slightly larger section. We topped out in beautiful afternoon light high above town. Thanks to our previous reconnaissance mission we knew to walk a couple hundred meters down the ridge to where we could descend an easy couloir back to the base. We decided to call our new route Noise Pollution (Wi4+ 200 meters) because of the loud penetrating sound of big steel rods being driven into the estuary floor for the new ocean front development. I can only imagine if we could hear the pile driver at 1900 meters in the alpine the poor sea life must have been suffering. As I write this in early April I am peering out the window at Noise pollution which from afar seems to be in good shape still. That said the cornice would be more of a hazard at this time of year. If you try the route from the gondola watch the time since the window is somewhat narrow and the walk down to the base is a long slog.
With warmer weather but the Ice still hanging on further from Squamish it seemed like a good time to make our way to the East side of the Duffey Lake Road. We left Squamish at a reasonable time and cruised the long highway drive to the confluence of Downton Creek and Cayoosh Creek. Our plan for the day was to climb "Last Call Wi4 M5" a 1999 Jia Condon, Sean Millar, and Rich Prohaska route. Our outing started with a Tyrollean traverse across Cayoosh Creek. Upon reaching the Tyrollean Nick could not find the pulleys and accepted that he would have to sacrifice one of his carabiners. Five minutes later I looked up and saw both pulleys clipped in a hard to see spot. one of those "face in palm" moments Ha Ha! Despite the longer drive the East Duffey lake Road provides some ideal conditions for ice climbing with a number of roadside routes. We tromped our way up the short, firm and steep hillside to the base. I lead the first pitch of 'plastic' Wi3 and built a belay in a wild cave feature. The first ascent party climbed a 'chossy' gear protected squeeze chimney then tunnelled through a small hole to reach the upper amphitheater. Nick and opted for relatively new M5 bolt protected variation that climbed small edges and a couple drilled pockets on the slab out right. After I huffed and puffed my way through a short flaring crack feature I scampered up to the belay below the money pitch. Nick set out climbing efficiently up the beautiful 60 meter pitch of mushroomed Wi4. I followed enjoying the wild climbing while dealing with a painful round of the 'Barfies'. I set out on another full rope length of easy and wet rambling ice and belayed in an awkward position in some bushes. Nick continued up the last pitch of rambling Wi3 to a big tree belay in the dry forest above. We proceeded to make four full 60 meter rappels back to the base. 20 minutes of forest rambling and an awkward tyrollean traverse we arrived back at our car ready for food and water. Another excellent day spent exploring my backyard.
End of Season
The ice season seemed to be winding down on the coast in March. Certainly there was still climbable ice in the Sea to Sky corridor but maybe not worth the slog. Besides I had to make sure I was in decent shape for some upcoming races.. At the end of March Nick, Kat, and I headed to the rockies for six races. Nick and I were hoping to get out on some ice a couple times during the five days in between races. After the first round of racing we headed towards Canmore. Despite some unseasonably warm temperatures we stopped for a quick pit stop in Field. With the warm temperatures we figured it would be wise to stay away from the bigger gullies so we opted for a climb of the classic Guinness Gulley which I had not climbed. We made quick work of the three excellent ice steps. The sticks were very good but the screws maybe a little bit less so. I was looking forward to the "Otter Slide" descent which sounds like a lot of fun and a way faster way back to the car. Unfortunately there was not much Otter sliding involved but it is hard to complain about a two-ish hour round trip with three high quality tiers of Canadian Rockies ice.
After waking up to warm temperatures and sore bodies from three hard days of racing we made an easy decision to go cragging at Haffner Creek. I had never climbed at Haffner before and found the deep crampon slots carved into the rock to be fairly interesting and fun to climb on. Not to mention ice climbing in T-Shirt weather is also a treat from time to time.. I would love to spend another day cragging at Haffner without worry of the ice delaminating. It is certainly seems like a good way to get strong early in the season and get used to scratching around on steeper terrain.
The following day we made way onto highway 93 North in hopes of finding better conditions on high north facing walls. We settled on climbing the rockies classic Murchison Falls. Although Nick had already climbed Murchison a couple times he still seemed keen which I appreciated. We wandered through beautiful sub alpine forest of Lodgepole pine, Spruce, and Sub-alpine Fir. Eventually we arrived at the base of Murchison Falls. I must say it is quite a spectacular setting. Fierce thousand meter walls of dark and vertical rock tower around both sides of the climb with an expansive view of Saskatchewan Crossing far below.
We geared up and soloed up the first step of low angled ice to the base of the variation "My Daddy's a Psycho Wi5" which we considered climbing but the shower of dripping water did not look all that inspiring. I wasn't super psyched on the quality of the ice so I said yes when Nick offered to lead the first pitch of Wi3. I followed Nick finishing the pitch by traversing over to a stunning ice cave. Nick set out on pitch two out of sight swinging and kicking repeatedly to sink solid sticks. I watched as large dinner plates of ice torpedoed to the base exploding into vapour. I arrived at the belay on a large lower angled ledge feeling somewhat gripped despite the fairly 'easy' climbing grades. Nick the lead a angular pitch to the base of the final steeper headwall. As nick focused on moving efficiently I watched a beautiful and curious raven catch thermals just meters away from the belay. One of those short but surreal moments that the mountains provide. I climbed quickly to the belay. I sat slumped in my harness at the awkward slightly hanging three screw belay while Nick proceeded to casually climb a steeper traversing pitch of brittle and sun effected ice. He made it look so easy it can't be that hard right..? Once again I was wrong. Though the grade was not difficult the mediocre ice made the traverse awkward and somewhat insecure. I guess I need to work on my technique. Soon enough I was cruising up the last section of Wi3 in an outrageous position with the 'Barfies'. I joined Nick at the windy top and shook out my hands while he joined our ropes. We rappelled back down to the back packs and enjoyed a pleasant descent back to the highway.
Although I did not really want to accept it it seemed like Murchsion might be one of my last ice climbs of the season since temperatures looked like they were going to stay warm and we soon had to return home. Fast forward to May the spring has been cold and wet so who knows maybe with some melt freeze there will still be an opportunity for some alpine mixed climbing on the coast. That said I am somewhat skeptical..
I feel like my winter alpine and ice climbing progressed a great deal this winter maybe mostly due to gaining more confidence and mileage. I am very grateful for all of Nick's patience and willingness to teach me countless lessons in the vertical world. Admittedly I am somewhat hooked and can't wait for next season but for now I look forward to finding the rhythm of summer adventures with friends and family.