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Canadian Rockies - trip report by Julian Smith  

Canadian Rockies - trip report

Sun, 15 Aug 1999

This is a longish trip report from the Canadian Rockies during late July and early August 1999. Included are a summary of the north face of Mt. Temple in Lake Louise, Alberta, the north ridge of Mt. Stephen in Field, British Columbia, and the west face of the Roche Miette to the east of Jasper, Alberta. Enjoy.

The staccato drum against hood, helmet, and head reminded me of a heavy rain. No longer caring about the climb, I was moments away from wanting to bag the whole affair anyway. Standing at the base of the Roche Miette, covered head to toe in shell gear, I was sweltering in the heat of dawn on a perfectly still August day. As bait, I had volunteered to belay on the first pitch. Tim would need some relief to be able to climb. At least the drumming sound wasnít rocks bouncing off my head. Not like last time. Once, I thought rockfall was the worst imaginable affliction on a climb. Imagining a forced bivy or lightning on a peak brings waves of nausea too. The mosquitoes, though, can be much, much worse.

Stepping out of the car at sunrise, the mosquitoes fell upon us. A desperate forced march uphill seemed like an option. Maybe we could outrun the little bastards. An hour later, overdressed and drenched with sweat, we emerged from the tree line. The mosquitoes ascended slopes of talus with us.

On the last climb of a successful trip, the mosquitoes were a message. Even on a cool down, donít deny the mountain. You canít deny the mountain. Welcome to the Canadian Rockies.

Tim Fisher and myself, Julian Smith, gather as often as we can in western Canada to sample the local fare of alpine and ice climbing. 1999 was looking to be a pretty good year. Already we had spent a week ice climbing in February. Now, we had two weeks to climb during the summer.

Our appetites have grown over the years. One day we keep thinking about biting off something major to chew on. Was this to be the summer for that elusive grade V? Sadly, not. Late snows, a never ending winter really, had most of the alpine faces covered with box car sized, booby trapped blocks of snow. "Is that one way up there ready to go? Iím not going to go find out." In our rush to start climbing, we forgot to notice this. It didnít take very long to find out.

Our first effort was to be the Grenwood/Locke on the North Face of Mt. Temple. Given a paltry rating of IV 5.8 A2 by Sean Doughertyís Suspected Sandbags in the Canadian Rockies, we thought this would make a good warm-up. "From a bivy at Lake Annette, the route can be climbed comfortably in a day with a pre dawn start." July 26th, up at 3:30am, we were determined to give it the college try.

"After a relatively tame start in the dolphin, the climbing on the spur becomes sustained, but is well protected, and on good quality limestone." The dolphin goes for an awfully long ways, but is mostly easy scrambling. The technical climbing starts at the top of an ice field with an awkward chimney. However, with exposure to objective hazards, the dolphin would be a grim place to descend.

Our arrival at the top of the icefield timed perfectly with the first bombardment of stone. "Where could those have come from?" Up to now, the whole face had been quiet as a mouse. The snow beneath its feet white and pure.

12 noon, Tim had shelter beneath an overhang. I gazed up into an icy, overhanging crack, wondering when the next volley of stone would come. The awkward chimney (5.8) finally succumbed to a dose of aiders and a tension traverse. I brought Tim up to a solitary bolt, found while I was wandering in a steep field of snow. The mountain cleared its throat. Stones rattled off to our side.

Tim led the next pitch. Another bolt beneath an overhang provided refuge on a snowy ledge. We had arrived at the traverse. The traverse would take us directly beneath the rockfall. I eyeballed the traverse. Too bad it was mine. The guide book describes the traverse as being very loose and with no gear worth speaking of. True to its reputation, the traverse yielded only one bad piton. I was only thankful for the generous covering of snow keeping all the rubble in place. We use a 60 meter rope and every bit was gone by the time a stance appeared on the spur. Tim followed safely across. Though it never ceased, the rockfall spared us during the traverse. Above was a groove. It was Timís turn to lead. The snow and rock yielded progress slowly. Screams from above told me the rock fall had found its way home. After cursing for a bit, Tim told me his hand had been hit pretty bad. While he finished the pitch, I took stock of our situation and my stance. Better him to get hit than me.

My world suddenly exploded into stars and pain. Through a ringing sound, I heard myself curse. There was a message. You canít deny the mountain. I had taken my rockfall in the side of the head. For the moment, I didnít bother to mess with the blood beneath my pile cap, helmet, and hood. "Off belay", floated down. I climbed up to Tim.

Showing off his mangled hand, he commented on being able to see tendon things on the inside. "Routes all yours, buddy. Get us to the top." Tim has always been very much my senior in climbing. He always has to take up my slack. With nothing else to be said, I took the sharp end of the rope. Climb up the crack, with snow on one side, rock on the other. Thankfully, a few fixed pins appeared. Up and up, past a ledge and onto the spur. The gear faded. The rockfall quieted. The climbing felt good. This is the zone.

Time and distance blurred. How far had we climbed. At the only nice ledge we had seen all day, I pondered that we had not gone far enough. Tim climbed the last few feet to the ledge with light from my headlamp. It was 11:00pm.

The ledge was a clean, picnic table sized affair, with a protective roof overhead. We could go on or stay put. Laziness set in and it was time for a snack and a smoke. Good thing we stayed. That was the only nice ledge till we got the top, six pitches later, at noon the next day! Bundling up as best as we could, the night passed quickly enough with a few shivers and some cold feet.

Mornings light revealed a crack. The top revealed the source of yesterdays rockfall circus. Next to the spur, a patch of dirt and stone was glued impossibly on an overhanging wall. Evidently, impossible was correct. Every few seconds, some dirt and a few rocks would somersault into space, free falling onto our route below. Perhaps, in the preceding days, some great flake had come loose from the face. Leaving behind its bogus mortar to shed upon the unsuspecting. However, we were making progress. More climbing. We were getting higher.

"The crux of the route is near the top." So the guide book says, and it is right. In a dihedral, with no gear, you come face to face with the move. A real move, to do with boots and a pack on. Go up on the move. You canít deny the mountain. Fingers hold on a wet edge as the other hand struggles with getting gear. The boots really held. At last some sanity, and a belay below the final ledge traverse. The end was in sight.

Tim, thinking he wasnít doing his share, volunteered to do the next pitch. Boy did that backfire. The ledge was steep, covered in snow, and utterly without gear. Finally, fixed pins and a sling revealed themselves from behind the far end of a snow bank. Above us loomed only giant cornices, seeming to block our exit from the face.

The last pitch was the icing on the cake. A quick lower into a gully. Climb a stack of blocks out the other side. From atop the blocks, a move or two, up a face of un-mortared bricks, leads to a chimney behind the cornice. My pack was left on a peg below. Crampons shriek on rock, but are welcome in snow. At last I roll onto the top.

A stiff wind greeted me on top. Communication with Tim below the cornice was impossible. In those cases, the rope gets pulled on until a head comes into view. Tim struggled with my pack and how to get it through the cornice. That just goes to show what his avoidance of futile aid climbing has earned him.

Side by side, in the snow, we stood on top. 1:30pm, July 27th. With barely a pause to acknowledge our escape from the face, we reached for sunglasses and lip goo. While standing around, above, and on my pack, I searched through the lid. "Man, did you feel that gust of wind?" I looked down as Tim spoke. "Where was my pack?" Sadly, the mountain took my pack from me in that moment. We both stared in disbelief at the edge of the void. I spied my tools in the snow, thankful they and my crampons werenít with the pack. With nothing else to be done, I coiled the rope and slung it over my shoulders. We headed down.

On many big mountains, the descent can be a gut check. Mt. Temple fits this description well. Snow fields, scree, and talus. Down, down, onward and down. The feet and knees swear revenge.

We reached the tent at 6:00pm. With only one pack, there was no use in packing the tent. Leaving some gear, and promising to return in the morning, we headed to the car. 8:00pm.

My wife, Lisa, was having conniptions when we returned to camp in Lake Louise and quickly boiled over when related the story of the falling rocks. Lantern light revealed an earful of dried blood on my head. Tim drank a beer and headed out to have his hand patched up. In the morning, Lisa graciously volunteered to hike back up to Annette Lake with me to retrieve the rest of our gear. There were great number of people on the trail. So, it was quite a surprise to find a sign from the wardens closing the trail to parties of less than six upon our return. Grizzly bear trouble the sign read.

A couple days rest, a repair to the hot springs, had us ready to go. One look at Howse Peak stopped us in our tracks. "Totally out of condition. Without question." The weather forecast had us pretty bummed out too. Four days of bad weather. In Canada, been there, done that.

An intriguing aspect of alpine climbing is the cycle of doubt, hesitation, commitment, acceptance, and success. Follow through is key. Stop at any one point and your motivation to climb is gone. My emotions run the whole gamut on any given climb.

Our campsite wrestled with this debate. Should we stay or go? Where would we go? Ultimately, sanity prevailed with a unanimous vote to stay and climb anyway. Charlie Porter said something about waiting on mother nature and never climbing anything.

Early the next morning, we shouldered our packs along the side of the railroad tracks in Field, BC. 5:00am, July 31st. Above us, the north ridge of Mt. Stephen rose over 6000í vertical feet. In my version of Doughertyís bible, 1991, he describes the north ridge as a III 5.7 that "a party of two can complete comfortably in a day."

Preferring to take the alternate start and thinking to save some time, Tim and I made our way up a crescent shaped moraine east of the ridge. Quickly, the side of the moraine fell away into steep scree to a runoff swollen stream. "Ugh, the guide book shows the route starting over there." A point in that direction showed a way we would never go. Down the side of the moraine.

The moraine tops out against a headwall beneath the glacier on the north side of Mt. Stephen. A sizable waterfall cleaves it in half. Traversing beneath the waterfall is out of the question. Not even Spiderman could stick that kind of choss. To the left of the waterfall, a rusty cable snakes its way down through a cleft. How convenient. A present from miners?

Hands on cable, scramble on rock. Keeping to the right, mostly on ledges, and a hop over the creek got us most of the way up the alternate start. The object being to gain a wide plateau that marks the real start of the mountain.

Three pitches of the most awful X-rated climbing on vertical choss finally had us on the plateau. Somehow, Tim got the first two pitches. This left me thinking I was going to get away free. Not so. Tim handed me the sharp end of rope for 40 feet of no gear on a 90 degree wall with the final move lay-backing on a stack of loose blocks. Tim says, "Iím right below you." I reply, "I love you Tim. I want you to know that if I kill you." A few more feet of scrambling had us on the plateau. Turning, we slogged our way up. The ridge proper starts out nicely with the cleanest rock on the whole route. Quickly it deteriorates into a slugfest. Grovel here. Plunge up steep snow and grapple with shallow ice over rock there. The pitches ran together.

On the upper ridge, scrambling mingles with technical climbing and route finding. Lost, tired, and wandering somewhere beneath the summit a realization dawned upon us. The college try was not going to get us off the mountain tonight. 11:00pm. Tim expressed his displeasure at our efforts to get up the mountain. "I donít want to spend the night on a mountain again." His curses grew ever greater as I withdrew a down jacket and bivy sack from my pack. "I canít believe you didnít tell me you were bringing that." I felt as if I were cheating on him. It began to lightly snow. Searching in my pockets, I came out with a space blanket I had borrowed from my sonís Boy Scout stuff. A truce was at hand. We each withdrew to separate corners of our rubble ledge and settled in for the night. With morning, our resolve to summit, descend, and to be done grew ever greater. The thought of it drove us from our bivy at first light. The summit succumbed easily enough after snaking our way over and around a few more pinnacles and patches of snow. There wasnít much attraction to staying on top. The weather started to close in. The light snow was actually starting to stick.

From up close, the most obvious features on a mountain can be very confusing. "Exactly which way down do we go on that ridge?" The descent described in the guidebook seemed straightforward enough. Looking at the ridge was another story. Gingerly we made our way over jumbles of loose rock and snow. Every once in awhile, what looked to be a tent pole would be stuck in a pile of rocks. A prominent ledge with tent stakes driven into it was next to a deep gully on the north side. Steps had been kicked into the snow in the gully. All the tent stakes appeared to be bent in the direction of the gully. That thought left me shuddering. Instead of a tent stake rappel, we down climbed into the gully and drafted the steps, face into the snow till we were deposited into talus below. Bless your soul whoever kicked those steps.

After an endless amount of bushwhacking down the valley and walking down the fossil bed trail, we finally reached Field at 10:30am August 1st. Some time for a grade III.

Lisa wasnít as flustered upon our return this time. Staying on the route a day longer than we swore it would take is becoming old hat now. She was out with our son shopping. I got drunk and crashed in the tent. Being superstitious, we lounged in the hot springs and ate well for the next two days. "What worked last time should be lucky again." Early in the morning, we packed the truck and said goodbye to Lake Louise. Jasper and the Roche Miette were next on the agenda. For spite, we had a picnic lunch in the icefields, glassing Mt. Kitchner and wringing our hands. Conditions looked good. "Too bad we donít have enough time left for a serious try on the Grand Central Couloir." To myself, I thought what a relief we wonít have to find out.

Jasper was hot, but the bugs were quiet. Changing into shorts and sipping cold Canadian beer, we went through the rituals of gearing up for another climb. What to take, what to leave out. The new rock guide for the Jasper area describes the west face of the Roche Miette as a III 5.10. The old rating was IV 5.9 A2. Go figure. Honestly, this one seemed to be within the reaches of mere mortals. With only eight pitches of technical climbing, surely we could do this one in a day. However, the down jacket still went in my pack.

At our appointed time of 5:30 am, we met with our partners, the mosquitoes at the trailhead. The race was on. The approach is not the most straight forward affair. Vague directions in both guide books had us traversing hideous, ball-bearing slopes, above cliffs beneath the west face. Once on the ledge where the route starts, hundreds of goat paths reveal themselves in the talus below. Probably, whichever way you go above tree line, expect some fierce groveling to get to the climb. Fortunately, the mosquitoes lost interest in climbing past the second pitch. The sun was out, and we were climbing in shirt sleeves. The climbing was on solid limestone with only the occasional stack of rubble thrown in to keep things interesting. The second pitch is fantastic. It surmounts an improbable overhang and finishes up a sustained dihedral for almost a full rope length. Four pitches to a fine ledge make up the lower half of the route.

Above the ledge, a face with a lingering run-out presents the technical crux of the route. With solid edges and endless friction possibilities on the good limestone, it wasnít hard to imagine climbing back home at Shelf Road. Still, I was glad Tim got the sharp end. Three more pitches of moderate crack and chimney led to the top. I got the summit pitch. Struggling through the last loose blocks, I mantled into a meadow of grass at 4:30 pm. Wandering away from the edge as far as the rope would allow, I sat down and gave Tim a belay. Inviting as the summit plateau was, a brewing thunderhead in the west dulled our ambition to stay and admire the view. I was determined to avoid training with lightning on this trip. Hastily, we scrambled over the summit and began our way down the northeast side of the mountain. Lightning struck the next summit to the south. The descent is well marked, worn, and reasonably easy to find. The storm seemed to be in agreement with our departure and turned away to the south.

Making our way ever down, we limped through talus and scree back to the tree line. Our arrival was marked with an ambush of mosquitoes. We ran the last bit of trail to the car. Ever few steps I had to slap my calves to chase away the guys drafting on my tights. With relief in sight, we jumped in the car, turned on the ac, and killed any of the unlucky ones that got in too. That night, we toasted the success of our trip. Over wine in a Greek restaurant in Jasper, talk turned to the future. "Canada again? This winter? You bet."

I used to think of myself as an aspiring alpinist. Now, I can safely say a budding alpinist. I have been warned about taking the plunge. Nibbling on something a little harder each time. It can bite back and whack you at a seconds notice. I have taken the plunge. Having moved from North Carolina to Colorado, I train in the mountains. Skiing, climbing, groveling, living. Itís all good training.

© 1999 Julian Smith All rights reserved