by Greg McKee.
Howard Hemingson, Adrien Hounjet, and I had a great day out on February 21st. We drove to Field, B.C., and Climbed Carlsberg Column, on Mount Dennis, about a kilometer west of the town centre. When we’d finished the climb we rappelled down and hung a top rope over Cascade Kronenberg and ran a couple of laps on the hard (WI6) and featured upper pitch.
We had climbed Carlsberg two days earlier, but Adrien wasn’t quite satisfied. Carlsberg is a local classic. It is close to the road, always comes in, and it’s a WI5 graded climb. For those who aren’t intimate with ice climbing, WI5 is the initiation into hard, scary ice climbing. Certainly I’ve been scared witless on WI4, probably even WI3 in the beginning, but once you have a few years under your belt, WI5 often becomes the dream. That day was to be Adrien’s first crack at a WI5 lead.
So on the 19th, he took off in measured style. After a half hour or so, he was 2/3 of the way up the column and had finished leading the hardest part. But he realized he was getting too fatigued to continue without the fear of his hands opening up, and falling—a total no-no when ice climbing. So we tag-teamed the lead, and finished the Column. Howard lead the second pitch, which is a WI4. It was his first WI4 lead, and he did it in Howard style–answering every one of our jokes, which Adrien and I were sending up at his expense. It was a good day, but Adrien probably wasn’t completely satisfied.
On the 21st, we had intended on another climb on the Icefield Parkway, which is somewhat subject to avalanche conditions. In the morning when we checked the avalanche conditions, we saw that they were remaining just high enough that we didn’t want to risk losing several of the Saskatchewan Section’s leaders on one star-crossed day. We changed plans, and went back to Carlsberg. I think Howard said that the three of us had been subsidized on a rescue course the year previous, by the ACC, and it would be a total waste of $500 if we were all swept away, and Ivan Hitchings would be very upset at that.
I had been hearing from Howard and Adrien how they’d been skunked several days earlier at Tangle Falls by a car with Washington state plates, and just how many Washington cars were in the parking lots of the climbs they’d been to. On this day we had an early start, but when we got to the parking lot there was a car there with Washington plates, with the climbers sort of lounging in the front seat. One might have been brushing his teeth. There seems to be a universal rule, in my universe at least, that says no matter how early I get to a climb, there is always somebody else who shows up within minutes, and it becomes a race to the base of the first pitch. Consequently I have developed the habit of putting my boots on before we get to the climb so I can jump and go. On this morning I jumped and went, heading up the slope. One of the climbers came over to talk to Howard and Adrien.
In my defence I wasn’t really trying to skunk them. There are two distinct lines on Carlsberg that are climbable. Adrien had not quite succeeded on the right line earlier, and we had a plan for him to go at the left line. I only wanted to make sure we got the left line. But the guys from Washington didn’t want to share a climb, so they took off to Guinness gully, and we had Carlsberg to ourselves all day long. Pretty rare and very nice. Too bad for Washington.
Howard lead the approach pitch. At one point he said, “This is really vertical here,” and he stopped answering our jokes. Adrien lead the Column, and he sent it this time, and let out a big “Whoop” once he reached the belay cave. Carlsberg on this day was in quite technical, unconsolidated condition. It was a good lead.
Adrien climbs methodically. I can’t believe how long he can hang onto his tools. Howard timed him at 45 minutes on that lead. That means he was hanging on near vertical ice for the better part of an hour.
As you may see in the images—look for the tiny specks alongside the river—that we spent the day watching a herd of either directionally challenged, or very bored, elk. They would stand in the river for an hour, walk to one side, with the entire herd watching in the same direction, then cross to the other side, and watch, in unison, at some amazing thing in the trees. For hours. Seems silly till you realize we watched them for just as long.
Howard lead the WI4 section again, this time on the left side. I gotta say, it’s always intimidating when you have to lean out of a cave, trusting your tool placements totally, and start up vertical ice. Howard didn’t hesitate.
I got to lead the upper WI4 pitch, which was near virgin ice, wet and sticky on the surface, near vertical. I found it pumpy. Near the top I couldn’t clip the rope through Adrien’s floppy quickdraw with the fat glove I was using–so I took my glove off, and threw it up above me, trying to get it to hook in the shrub on the ledge way above me. If I lost it I may never have seen it again. It didn’t hook, and came whipping back at me on the ice, and I caught it. I tried again–same thing. Howard was giving me a hard time, and it was an easy joke to make, because I’m pretty sure it looked ridiculous. It worked the next time. I hesitate to write this because I don’t want Howard to think his jokes at my expense raise my game.
We had lots of daylight left, and nobody was on our part of the mountain, so we continued up and eventually found ourselves directly over Cascade Kronenberg. We wanted to see what it felt like to climb the ice, so we rapped down to the top of it, set up an anchor, and ran one or two laps each on the upper, WI6 pitch. Quite exciting. We all agreed we’d love to get up it, from bottom up, if we ever feel we can do it safely and in good Saskatchewan style.
That evening we ate at Saint James Gate in Banff, and toasted the successful day with three bottles of Carlsberg. We didn’t note the month of the beer, but it was a good one.
A week later Adrien and I took a crack at Weeping Wall, aiming for the right hand, WI5 side. The conditions were sun-affected and difficult. There was a skin of ice, over an inch or two of snow, then the ice. It makes for hard going on lead since you don’t trust your placements and feet unless they are buried. I lead the second pitch, and threw in a belay before reaching a good spot. My calves had flamed out. Adrien came up and he didn’t feel up to leading from the lousy spot I’d left us in. I didn’t blame him. We bailed.
The ice year was drawing to a close but after a couple of day’s rest Adrien and I were burning to get up a couple more hard climbs. We headed for Super Bock, at Field, B.C. and saw from the road it was not in to our liking. So we headed for Pilsener Pillar, which is rated at Wi6. But I had scouted it a few days earlier and I knew the hardest part, the Pillar itself, was not in. The curtain we would climb was more like WI5+. Just enough easier for us to have a crack.
I lead the first part of the curtain to the chains, and Adrien lead the second part. Some people rappel from there, but there were more pitches of ice above. The next two pitches were Wi4 and WI4+, to my best guess. The last pitch was a rambly WI3 that I swear goes on for ever. My calves were burnt out cinders by this time. I know Adrien is methodical. He’s one of those guys who always like to touch both hands at the top of a top rope route, etc, etc. I wanted to get going down, so I started talking about things like dinner and beer. “Hmmm, getting a bit dark I guess.” Stuff like that, hoping something would take. Nope, he wanted to climb some more of that miserable pitch. We did one more rope length, to the point my calves went past the point of hurting because they simply wouldn’t work anymore. From that point the remainder of the pitch looked even longer than it had at the bottom, at least 2 more rope lengths. I wouldn’t have quit if Adrien hadn’t already thought the same thing
After rapping the route I was packing my bag and beginning to congratulate myself when Adrien starting swearing like the contractor he is. The rope was stuck. It was dark enough to turn on headlamps by now. He said he would climb back up, and I encouraged him in this (since they were his ropes-)) but one more tug got it down.
It was the end of the year and we had accumulated just enough time on ice that we were getting stronger and developing a feel for the ice. We went to Haffner, and Adrien lead an M6 and M7 successfully for the first time. This was good, because I was jonesing to get back to Cascade Kronenberg. 90metre M6 WI6. My plan was to goad Adrien into climbing the first pitch which as I understand is thin ice and a few bolts of M6 climbing. Well, he’d lead one in Haffner so why not? Then I was going to take a stab at the Wi6 Pillar. I don’t know if he would have agreed to this but I can be pretty convincing, and he’s a gamer. If he had failed I would have tried the first pitch. If I had failed on the second pitch he could have tried and the whole thing would be no worse than a glorious Saskatchewan Section failure.
BUT. It melted out and we never had the chance to try.
However, the ice is looming again. The 2015/16 winter season is nearly on us. I haven’t heard of anything that has formed just yet, but it’s minus 10 in Lake Louise at nights so the ice is forming now. It’s time to get excited, and if you have ice tools start hanging on them and getting your hands in shape at home. It helps a lot when you get to the ice out west.
P.S. Check out the one picture that looks like Adrien is a tiny climber stuffed into the top of Howard’s backpack—my favourite.