From our tent I heard two loud crashes of thunder and found myself trying to grab Anne’s hand as she scrambled out of the tent to get below the boulder. She tore away, her better instincts telling her the thunder I had heard was actually something – big – falling off the cliff. Once out of the tent, it was obvious we were really in some weather. The tropical storm that had been forming as we headed north almost a week before had apparently turned into something. The tarp was flying high like a single wing, then crashing down, rain was blowing everywhere and we soon discovered that the “thunder” I had heard had almost crushed three of my best friends.
My wife Anne and I rolled north, across the border, with Sam Bendroth packed into the jump seat in the back of my pick-up. It was freshly retrofitted with a cap that didn’t fit, a 2×4 canoe rack and a silicon slathered and re-riveted plex-iglas back window. Sarah Garlick and Jim Surette were a couple of days behind us, canoe lashed to the roof of their Matrix. The weather was beautiful. It was the end of my summer guiding season and Anne had taken a break from her busy schedule so we could celebrate out 1st anniversary together – just us, and three of our friends.
After a relatively easy drive, a few minor language issues and a good sleep we got our first load in the canoe at the Bay Eterinite boat launch – about three hours north of Quebec city and in a peaceful bay carved into the mountains which line the Saguenay Fjord – around noon. We were rolling heavy, it was our anniversary after all, and after a couple of trips all the kit was in place at a our bivi site below the stunning 800’+ Grand Galets on Cap Trinite.
The first couple of days were slow. We had all been working a lot and this adventure, was as for me, as much vacation as climbing trip.
After a warm-up pitch that first afternoon, a rain day allowed us to paddle back and get provisioned for a week; fresh ice for the cooler, more beer, that kind of thing. The forecast for the next few days was good, a chance of rain a few days out, so we figured we would just get hunkered in and climb. As we paddled our loaded canoe back to the Cap though, the Fjord gave us our first little taste of it’s constantly changing conditions. It started with the occasional gust we would watch travel across the otherwise glassy bay, one gust plucking up the flat water for spray. Further out, from the back of the canoe, I could just make out what looked like a wall of white caps out in the main channel. As we approached the bigger water below the cliff we could see clearly it was a wall of waves headed our way. We made a dash for it, but pretty soon we were being blown backwards; the gunnels of our provision laden canoe just inches above the water line.
Still barely out ahead of the changing conditions we managed to get our boat unloaded and up onto a rocky beach just before the real wind – and waves – hit. From the shore we watched a defined line of rough water overtake the calm surface we had paddled out in.
The coastline here is lined with ledge and boulders, the steep spruce and fir forest comes right down to the high tide line in an amazingly abrupt and continuous line. I scrambled down the little cliffs lining the coast, out of site of Anne, ecstatically relishing the isolation, the grey water’s calming surface – and the taste of Molsen’s Export. After a 1/2 hour conditions had mellowed, and we got it all loaded back up and Anne and I paddled back to camp, singing, in a soaking rain.
Sarah and Jim arrived in the sunny afternoon of our third day, with a beautiful breeze blowing, while Sam and I were in the shade enjoying our second pitch of the trip; the first lead of Maree Houte. It is a beautiful piece of rugged architecture: a 100m section of overhanging rock that comes right down to just above the high tide line – where this section of cliff meets an accessible ledge which is only partly submerged at the highest tides. If there was ever a place to dry out after a rain day, this was it. Maree’s gorgeous and steep 5.12a first pitch is variety pack of good climbing and good rock; it has a hard bolt protected boulder problem, a great finger crack in a corner and a splitter little off-width.
The lowest sections of steep rock seem to be weathered by the tide and waves, but after about a pitch the protected (overhanging) sections of granite are covered in a persistent flaky chunder; and the 5 pitch 5.12b, Maree Haute, was no exception. Luckily, my climbing partner Sam Bendroth and I are no strangers to choss farming after spending much of the past decade developing the cliffs of the bastard Notch of the White Mountains. While Sarah and Jim got right to work on a long and dirty 5.11+ called La Vire du cure Dallaire, Sam layed into the second pitch of Maree, pulling through here and there, sending down small flakes and generally getting it done on a scary lead. We fixed a rope to facilitate cleaning and photography, and retreated for a team briefing.
After a morning spent cleaning the second pitch we were finally ready to try a little free climbing. Sam headed up the 1st 12a pitch of Maree, and crushed it. I followed and headed out on the second lead, making fairly quick work of the less steep stemming and liebacking of the gently overhanging lower half – gear still in from the previous day’s effort and the morning’s cleaning. Then it got hard. It’s steepening stemming ends in with a powerful and crumbly move followed by a crumbly traverse out to the lip of a roof; all protected by small gear in the flaky cracks. It is a head-game that made for a careful attempt with many takes. The final jug haul up to the belay is a classic and exposed bit of glory climbing. The gear is hidden below the roof, the jugs are all on the same hollow sounding, but solid, flake and it is right out over the high tide line 50m below. Sam followed the lead, arriving at the belay in full freak out mode after tearing through the crux first go, only one hang before the business, excitedly spurting between breaths about how hard it was. Funny, from the belay he made it seem easy. What a crusher.
He made his way up the next pitch, more chunder raining down on the belay, finger jamming, off-widthing and taking up the steep wet crack. A burly little roof move and we were up to what would turn out to be our highpoint; a little hole of a stance half way up the route. I kept telling Sam the rock would get better as we got higher – being more exposed to rain and weather – but after three pitches, apparently, we still weren’t high enough. Above was an off-width lined with more of those loose flakes, but at least it was overhanging.
We headed down from there, after all it was the day before my anniversary and Anne is a lot more attractive that Sammy.
On our anniversary, Sarah, Jim and Sam started up the straight-out-of-the-water, 3 pitch and wide Beluga Belly (5.11+), at low tide, while Anne and I took a quiet rest day together. By the time they finished and rapped the route the access ledge was partially underwater – no problem; through careful planning they had packed a 6 pack “bivy kit” giving Anne and I some more high tide enforced quality time together. While they sat marooned, the clouds that had been building all day finally started a steady rain and the increasing wind began to pick up white capped chop on the bay.
Just an hour or two after they polished off their kit, Sarah, Jim and Sam were able to make it back across the traverse ledge in good Bandaloop style, rigging a high anchor and using two different ropes to get across the incredibly slippery, rain soaked black rock.
That night we all had dinner together sheltered below a camo tarp strung between our tent and a boulder (a spot we would later become all too familiar with). After Sarah and Jim went to bed, Anne, Sam and I hopped in our tent for one last beer and a game of the classic southern NH card game, 45’s. Now it was pouring. Sammy won and got up to walk back to his tent, the wind had just started to really blow. A few minutes later he was almost crushed by a tree ending it’s 850′ free fall just a few feet away from him. All we heard was two loud thundering crashes, and Anne was out the tent door to get shelter below the boulder.
Stay tuned for part II…