I thought I’d take an opportunity on a rest day here in Canmore to get back to this website’s roots, and put together a few pictures and a few words about winter climbing – and rest days.
It’s been a good trip into the unknown for me here in the Canadian Rockies, less in to the unknown for my partner Nick Bullock, and definitely least of all for our local ringer, Raphael Slawinski. Although, even Raphael seems happy with having done three routes he hadn’t done before.
For our “warm up”, and the day before meeting up with Raphael, Nick and I did the classic WI 6, Nemesis. I had unfinished business, on an earlier attempt, ca. 2003,my partner and I were forced to retreat after two pitches by a quarter-sized hemorrhoid hitching a ride behind the man who will remain anonymous. Nick had history with the route too, before this trip he had done it three times! So when I offered to clean the final 30’ pitch on rappel so he didn’t have do it, he agreed. After all, I’d put as many screws into that little number as he had in the 150’ of WI 6 below.
The Sound and the Fury
I’ve done a lot of fly fishing this year, and while there may be some similarities between casting a fly rod and swinging an ice axe, you might be surprised to find out that fishing isn’t great training for winter climbing. Nonetheless, on our second day we were back on the Stanley Headwall. The rarely formed Sound and the Fury was the objective and it looked amazing and somewhat familiar – reminiscent of Poke-O’s Endangered Species, Cathedral’s Remission Direct or some other engineering-project-of-a-climb you’d find on the South Face of Frankenstein. Nick wrote a funny piece about it, find it here.
Grab the Cupcakes
Nick and I tend tend to be in agreement about a few vital things, one of which is the idea that a good climbing trip is more about quality than quantity. This perspective allows us the freedom to stack up rest days. With a couple of well-rationalized and precious days off behind us were we back in the rental car with Raphael driving west on the Trans-Canada Highway, towards Castle Mountain and the Protection Valley.
The Protection Valley seems like a somewhat obscure climbing area enjoying a brief moment of popularity. Most of the climbing that has gone on up there was accompanied by a bivi, but the word this November was of a good approach track and barely any snow making it doable in only three hours. The word really was out because there were three other cars already parked when we arrived in the last of the night’s darkness, just before 7am.
The plan for the day was an ingenious ruse meant to lure Raphael into doing the second ascent of an interesting line that had been the topic of discussion all week. Being on vacation, both Nick and I lost little motivation when told that Raphael’s line had just been climbed by local guides Kris Irwin and Jay Mills (Grab the Cupcakes, M6 WI 4+, you can read about it here.) Raphael however began to offer up other alternatives. Undeterred, we reconnoitered a parallel route on an internet photo to gain a different icefall. Nick quickly drew in the proposed line and sent it to Raphael as if we were applying for the Slawinski Grant. It worked, putting us ostensibly back under the banner of exploration and adventure.
After almost three hours of walking we were happily ensconced in the beautiful Protection Valley below the parallel objectives, one real and one imagined. Nick very diplomatically, and I less so, pushed for the 2nd ascent option. Raphael agreed and with a quiet wink we racked up.
Worn down, even after another rest day, but hiking again, Nick, Raphael and I entered a beautiful soft wood forest as we wandered our way towards Storm Creek, which drains a quiet valley next door to the popular Stanley Headwall. We were en route to try and repeat the Silmarillian Indirect, a route that was just done the previous week by the local Jon Walsh and the visiting Scotsman Greg McInnes. I racked up in the deep snow and started up the low angle, and snow covered first pitch.. only to have my crampon come loose! Not trusting my footwear, and being an expert in knowing when I’m not up to the challenge, I passed the sharp end off to Nick who dragged the double ropes up behind. Closer inspection a pitch up, and out of the deep powder at the base, revealed that one crampon had gotten rearranged, probably while sharpening, and was sized too big – oh the early season!
The final pitch that Raphael led to the base of a WI 5 ice flow was a memorable rising traverse of true mixed climbing.
The Alpine Club of Canada Hostel
By CMG Guide Alexa Siegel
‘Standard Route’ is the classic Grade 3 ice climb at Frankenstein Cliffs in Crawford Notch. On a typical Saturday you have to get there early or wait in line as hoards of people scramble up every which way. To most North Conway locals, Standard is as casual as a summertime dip in the Saco. This was my second season ice climbing and my partner Hanna and I picked Standard Route as our goal for the season. We were quickly running out of time and this would be the most difficult thing either of us had climbed.
We rolled up in Hanna’s little blue Volkswagen “olf” (the G fell off some time ago) and booted up. As we approached the trestle, a man jumped in front of us leaving his two partners contemplating how to fasten their gators.
“What are you climbing?” the man eagerly asked over his shoulder.
“Just Standard” Hanna said as I struggled to hear from the back of the group.
“Ohh….us too”, he said “Just the other day, I saw someone put their partner on Standard for his first lead. I mean can you imagine that as your first lead?”
Hanna looked back at me and I gave her a nervous wide-eyed stare. He proceeded to lecture us about “putting in your time”. Doubt bubbled to the surface as we listened to his rant.
My boyfriend’s lecture the night before about taking ice climbing more seriously started to make me question our preparedness. “Ice climbing is not like rock climbing Alexa, you can’t fall and you need to be focused,” he droned. When Hanna and I climb together the giggles can often fool onlookers, but these ladies still mean business.
At the base the man started racking up but he remained partnerless. Hanna and I were ready, so we decided to start up. We collected ourselves. Calm, confident Hanna took the first lead. Now it was my turn. Stepping cautiously out of the cave, I felt a rush of nerves, but I shut it out and focused on making each swing stick. A sense of relief soon overcame me. We topped out, reveling in our accomplishment, descending into the New Hampshire evening with thoughts of hot whiskey drinks and a toasty wood stove.
Standard Route was not the most technical or the hardest thing I’ve done, yet the memory remains vivid. Roping up to ice climb with another woman for the first time was an experience that remains crucial to me as a winter climber. Women are outnumbered in the outdoors in general, but this is especially true in the wintertime. This is one of the many reasons I love being a part of Ladies Only Workshops.
My regular climbing partners, both male and female, inspire, encourage, and make me laugh until my stomach aches. However, for me it’s a pretty rare opportunity that I get to climb in groups made up solely of women. Ladies Only Clinics create a platform for women to learn from one another and also meet new partners in a supportive environment. Our Ladies Only Workshops promote the development of women as strong, self-reliant climbers with the skills to do it all!