The Plum

The Plum  WI6 M7, 120m, first ascent: Marc-Andre Leclerc and Jon Walsh Nov. 8, 2014
A new traditional mixed route with no bolts, at the Storm Creek Headwall, Kootenay National Park B.C.

Marc on the approach, with the route marked in red, the belays in green, and the snowslope approach in thick red.

On Saterday November 8th, Marc-Andre and I completed the first ascent of The Plum, a line that’s been in the back in the mind, and in my dreams for the past decade.  It follows a slender flow of ice that drips down the nose of a steep butress, creating funky mushrooms, daggers and pillars, that are a real treat to climb on.    I had attempted it approximately ten years ago with my ice mentor Rich Marshall.  After climbing a pitch of steep ice out of the big cave which eventually became the first pitch of The Peach, another fine addition to Rockies trad mixed by Raphael Slawinski, Rich proceeded to lead what was the wildest pitch he had ever led - he later confessed, as well as one on the craziest leads I’d ever witnessed.  Committed after climbing through a couple of M6 overhangs, he continued up for 25m of vertical ice that averaged about 2cm thick, with only 2 knifeblades below him, and no opportunity for further protection!  With laser-like focus, he slowly tapped and tested his picks in the verglas (which he thought would be little thicker), shook out his pump, and forged on.  Fortunately thin ice was his specialty and despite the x-rating and extreme intensity, he was in his element.  I honestly don’t think many others could have pulled off such a lead, and following it, I often found myself hanging just from the first tooth of my picks.  I led a short pitch above his anchor, but with darkness closing in and another wild and committing bit of climbing above, I had to build an anchor and lower off, ending our attempt.  

Rich Marshall attemping the route circa 2004

That day entrenched itself in my memorey.  I’ve been back to that part of the Storm Creek headwall a few times over the years since, always interested to see what that sector of the wasll was looking like, but never saw the buttress ice up enough to look inviting again.  Cold snaps likely cause the early season ice to delaminate and then it just doesn't reform, hence, this is really a late fall to early winter route, and perhaps one that only occationaly comes in.  One wseek ago, however, Michelle and I were hoping to climb something in the area, but unseasonally warm temperatures made being below any steep or thin ice too dangerous, so our day turned out to be nothing more than hiking and scoping.  We ventured far enough up valley to see that more ice was dripping down the dream line than I had ever imagined, and upon returning to the valley, it dominated my thoughts for the following week.  Luckily Marc-Andre Leclerc was heading to the Rockies for the first time and was keen to get out, and I figured it would be great first route for us to climb together, as well as perfect intro to the Rockies for him, as he is known to have a solid head for intense climbing, and power to spare.   And I say luckily because the Banff Film festival was responsible for tying up most of my other partners who I would normally try to recruit for such an outing.

Upon getting to the base of the route, Marc immediately arranged rock rack on his harness, so instead of the usual rock paper scissors for first lead, I offered it to him as he seamed so keen.  Two options presented themselves and he chose the left one, a shallow right facing corner with a bit of ice dripping down it and small icicles decorating the wall around it dangling like christmas tree ornaments.  The climbing was steep and thin, and long technical moves were common.  The protection was tricky too, and Marc moved slowly but confidently, and made steady upward progress, never knowing where the next hold or piece of protection would appear.  A cruxy pull over the roof on 1-2 cm thick ice followed by a fun iced up handcrack and a good ledge to belay at.  It was definitely the best first lead in the Rockies I’ve ever witnessed!  Three out of the 4 pitons he placed were left fixed.

Marc near the beginning of the first pitch

Marc setting up to pull the roof on the first pitch

Here Marc is trying to get his tools established in ice that mostly falls apart when weighted

The next pitch was pure fun, and I was psyched to get this one as this type of climbing is always special to me - steep, thin ice climbing with most of the gear in the rock!  I was surprised to pass the old anchor from ten years ago that I had built, as I thought we might have been further right, but it gave me a good boost of inspiration to have joined out original line, and I felt determined to finish the business.   From a stance at the top of strange fin like pillar of rock, an anemic ice pillar guarded the crux and the weakness through the overhanging wall.  I climbed delicately to its front, and pounded a knifeblade into a seam to its left, preparing mentally for some very engaging climbing above.   But then I noticed an suspicious, yet inviting foot-hold to my left, right on the crest of the arete.  I stepped over to it, and saw a I could turn the corner, and traverse into some ice runnels of better, less fragile and more protectable terrain that led to the same place.  Once in the runnels, my pace picked up and I made it to a perfect belay ledge with good cracks for an anchor, just as I ran out of rope.  As Marc neared the station, he asked if all climbing in the Rockies was this good, and I had to apologize for spoiling him on his first route, as this was about as good as it gets!   

Me, on some very fun ice climbing near the start of the second pitch. Photo by Marc-Andre Leclerc

Marc nearing the top of pitch 2.  This bit reminded of some of the climbing I did in Scotland last February.

He easily dispatched the last pitch of grade 4 ice, and we were soon on our way to down, stoked, and talking about more possibilities in the upcoming weeks.  Although the difficulties of this route weren’t too hard on top rope for the seconder, leading the first two pitches and following them were completely different things, and the intensity and seriousness far exceeded the technical levels of the climbing.  

Marc leading pitch 3 as it begins to snow lightly.

For me personally, it was awesome to have shared Marc’s first experience in the Rockies in this way, and to have finished an old project - one I dreampt about for so many years.  It was also an amazing feeling to have walked up to a line such as this, and to have completed it first try without placing any bolts.  We did carry a bolt kit in the pack, but fortunately that was where it stayed.  I think it’s pretty obvious from what’s written here, that this line comes highly recommended to those who like the style of proper traditional mixed, in a wild setting :)

Approach notes:  It took us 3 hours to hike from the Stanley Headwall parking lot in ankle-deep snow, that became knee-deep closer to the route.  The climb is about halfway along the Storm Creek headwall and just right of The Peach, which is the route up big hanging icicles in the photo.  We used an exposed snow ramp that came in from the right to get to the start of the first pitch, and reversed it after two long rappels from the top of the climb.  Do not consider going here in times of high avalanche hazard!

Pitch 1:  40m M7.  Traverse easily left from the belay, then make steep moves to gain a shallow right facing corner that leads to a roof.  We left two peckers and a knifeblade fixed in the corner.  Move left through the roof to gain a good crack that trends back right to a belay ledge with many good anchor options.  The gear on this pitch is a little bit un-obvious but seemed adequate.  Having the three fixed pieces should help…

Pitch 2: 60m WI6.  Work through ice blobs and mushrooms, past an old anchor (we used this for rappelling), to stance below an overhang.  Delicate moves up and left past some delicate ice, then around the arete on good holds, gain ice filled grooves  that lead to an excellent ledge with a good cracks for an anchor a few meters left of the main ice flow.  Most of the protection was in the rock, although I did place 6 ice screws as well.  This pitch was 90% ice, and 10% rock moves, although we felt like just an ice-grade was more appropriate.  The WI6 grade is a definitely more for the technical difficulties then the pump, and harder than your average pitch of “fat” WI6…

Pitch 3.  20m WI4.  Vertical for a bit, then easier.  This pitch could vary in difficulty depending on the thickness of the ice.  A fixed rock anchor of two stoppers is just beyond the end of the ice.

Rack beta:  We had a double set of cams from tips to #2 camelot, one #3, and one #4 camelot.  Doubles from tips to .75 camelot was nice, but singles from #1 to #4 would suffice.  A few pitons, nuts, and a half-dozen screws in the 10-13 cm range would be enough in the same conditions.  14 quick draws wasn’t quite enough for the long second pitch and I was wishing I had a couple more…