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…

Blue Jeans

Tags: Posted on September 14, 2014

Josh Wharton and I must've used up our luck and good weather on his last two highly productive visits, because we just got pretty much shut down on all things alpine we were interested in.  During the exact same dates as a year ago, we enjoyed a successful and rare repeat of the North Twin's Tower, while freezing levels remanied close to 4000m, and valley temps crested the 30 degree mark.  This year, four out of the 7.5 days we just spent together were full winter days with relatively large amounts of snowfall, all the way to the valley, that firmly slammed the door on everything we hoped to do.  We still drove many hundreds of kilometers trying to stay optimistic and psyched, but in the end, we had to settle for a warm-up day at Acephale (our favorite Bow Valley crag) before the apocolyptic weather began, and two days on Yamnuska working a 5.13 multi-pitch sport climb called Blue Jeans.  It's not that there wasn't alpine objectives that would've been doable and perhaps enjoyable, we're just picky and like to stay focused on harder technical routes whenever possible.

Blue Jeans has only had one proper repeat (by Vikki Weldon) since it's first ascent four years ago (by Derek Galloway), and Josh was psyched to make the third.  The highly technical climbing made quick redpointing a difficult propositon though, and it turned out that a mere two days wouldn't be enough to figure out the beta, and then link all the moves of the two crux pitches.  Anyways, it was fun trying and a bit more effort next year will be needed for success. 

Perhaps the most memorable part of the Blue Jeans adventure was the amount of snow we had to plough through just to get to it - thigh deep at times!!!   Normally it would take an hour of hiking, although with all the fresh snow, it took over two hours on our first try, and it was -9 degrees Celcius at the car park when we left!  Then in full sun, it was so hot on the rock that it felt hard to stick to the steep limestone.  A couple days later, our apprach time was cut in half thanks to the trail being in, and some cloud cover greatly improved the friction.  The first three pitches cruised by, but the fourth was the end of the redpoint attempt.  Josh came close, but in the end we retreated.  Here's a few pics:

On the approach trail.  Had someone not hiked three quarters of the way the day before, we wouldn't have made it

Josh following the first pitch

Josh onsighting the second pitch  

Josh starting the third pitch

Josh on the fourth pitch



East Creek

Tags: Posted on August 13, 2014

Michelle Kadatz, Paul Bride and I flew in a heli into East Creek (the West side of the Bugaboos) for a few days last week.  Paul was psyched to shoot landscape photos while Michelle and I checked out some of the incredible rock in the Pigeon feathers.  Although there are quite a few routes here described in the guidebook, the Pigeon Feathers remain a slightly more obscure corner of the Bugs, despite their amazing quality, and proximity to a great camp.  Upon landing, we hiked around until we found something that was really inspiring - some unclimbed splitters on Wide Awake Tower, slightly right of the original Wide Awake route.  

Wide Awake Tower.  Our route starts part way up the snow gully.  photo: Paul Bride

On our first climbing day under stormy skies, we made it nearly three quarters of the way up before the skies started unleashing thunder and lightning.  Going down was the only option.  While pulling the ropes after the first rappel, a toaster sized block popped off and landed right in the pile of rope that was stacking itself in front of us as it fell.  The result was both lead and tag lines were chopped in the middle!  The storm intensified and we had no choice but to hunker down in a chimney, while rain, hail, and a lot of very close thunder and lightning came down all around us.  Backs against the wall and all the metal off the harnesses, we slowly got colder and wetter.  Multiple rounds of this continued until finally it passed and we made it down to the glacier safely.  By the time we were walking back to camp, it was nice and sunny so we lapped the first three pitches of the classic Solitary Confinement.  It was great to get back on this one again as it had been 8 or 9 years since I had climbed it, and it was one Michelle wanted to do too.   Our thirty-five meter rope was exactly what it took to get to the first anchor of this amazing 5.11 continuous crack that gradually expanded from tips to off-width over three pitches.  With only two #4 camelots, the even wider 4th pitch wasn’t really an option, which was fine by me.  Three 4's, and three 5's would be considerated adequate for it...


Michelle on Pitch 3 of Solitary Confinement.  

The following day we hiked to Applebee where it was possible to get two more ropes, which took the better part of the day via the Bugaboo Glacier.  On day 3 we got back to work on what we were now calling Electric Funeral, obviously a reference to a Black Sabbath song, and our experience on it the first day.  Paul and I are both huge Black Sabbath fans and when we get together, Sabbath becomes our theme.  Michelle didn’t know the song, but liked the name!  The climbing went well, although seventh pitch took getting dead-ended on two other option before I finally figured out what to do.  Not comfortable with the run-out traverse to a grassy crack, I pendulummed across the face to the seam, then went into aid / cleaning mode with a nut tool and wire brush.  By the time I got to the next ledge, I was so psyched to come back to send the pitch, as well as the amazing looking splitter above that bee-lined for the summit.  It was cold, windy and getting late so we decided to save it for the next day.

Playing with fire at camp. Wide awake is the rightmost tower in the background  photo: Paul Bride

On Day 4 the weather was looking pretty bad, and confidence of being able to complete the project was low.  However, we were back, and for the first time we brought the power drill and enough bolts to set up some stations.  We were psyched to have gone through the process a couple of times without bolts, and felt like the route was worthy of setting up to attract more climber to enjoy its quality.  Fortunately the weather held and even got pretty nice, although quite windy in the afternoon.  On pitch 7, I led out to a small foot ledge and placed the only protection bolt as high above my head as I could, then lowered the drill back to the belay and continured sending the pitch, which was delightfully sustained and interesting to climb.  It was more like face climbing with a thin crack for protection, than the typical crack climbing that’s far more common in the area.  The crux came right off the belay on the pitch 8 while laybacking off amazing chicken heads to pull a small roof!  Trending right, beautiful cracks and transfer moves continued, and the rope was nearly used up before finally reaching a good stance.  

Michelle following the 7th pitch  photo Paul Bride

JW on pich 8, gunning for the top  photo Paul Bride

Sweet views from the summit and a smooth rappel had us celebrating back in camp before long.  Our time was up and we had the heavy, half-day slog / half-day drive home to look forward to the next day.  It had been a fun process exploring this obscure conner of the Bugs and I know I’ll be back again.  The crack system immediately left - aka Wide Awake, looked amazing!  

Almost at the belay at the top of pitch 5.  It's the triangular ledge a body length to my right.  Photo Paul Bride

Michelle bringing me accross the traverse of Pitch 4.  Photo Paul Bride

Michelle on pitch 6. 

Michelle leading pitch 3 

Michelle following pitch 7

JW starting up pitch 8, photo Michelle Kadatz

JW passing some perched flakes and the chimney on the way to the summit.  Photo Michelle Kadatz


Electric Funeral, 300m, 5.11+,  FA: Michelle Kadatz and Jon Walsh, August 7th 2014

A fun route on great rock, highly recommended, and it’s easily scoped from nearby snow slopes.  Pitches 7 and 8 are nothing short of spectacular!  The route is straightforward to rappel, or to walk off.  

Rack: 1 full set of stoppers.  10 - 12 draws.  Double set of cams from purple C3 or red X4 to #3 camelot. One #4 camelot and one #5 camelot are nice for the short wide sections of pitches 2 and 3.  If the plan is to rappel, the #4 and 5 came lots can be left at the top of pitch 3.  

Approach: Start up a the snowgully to the right of the tower's "nose" and ascend snow for about 80 meters.  Look for a distint left facing corner that leads to a righ faceing corner that make up pitches 2 nd 3.  We climbed a body length of 5.7 and then a 5 meter traverse left of easy 5th class to get a good belay ledge where you can dump your packs and get organised.  This is directly below the changing corners of pitches 2 and 3.  We left a cairn here...

P1:  5.10-, 30 meters; climb through bulge from belay and trend left to a left facing corner.  A couple of balance moves to gets you to a crack that leads back right to a left facing corner with two wide cracks in it, and a two bolt belay station.

P2: 5.10, 20 meters; Climb the obvious wide cracks above up the left facing corner to a good ledge, and a gear belay (takes camelots .5, .75, 1)

P3: 5.10, 20 meters;  A few off-width moves give way to nice hand-jamming.  Belay at a good ledge with a huge, easily slung horn for the belay.  

P4: 5.9, 50 meters; climb a short bulge above the belay and make a rising traverse to the right, until a short down climb becomes necessary.  Climb down a few meters, then back up to a good belay ledge.

P5: 5.10+, 50 meters; Great hand and finger cracks head up and slightly left.  Belay at a small but comfortable ledge below an overlap. A very nice pitch.

P6: 5.10+, 15 meters.  Pull through the overlap and up a short groove.  Rather than continue up the dirt right facing corner, make face moves out left onto the exposed / featured / golden face and up to a two bolt belay at a small ledge.

P7: 5.11-, 30 meters; Face climb up and left past a bolt, to gain a thin crack that leads straight up towards a roof.  Two bolt belay below roof at small ledge.

P8: 5.11+ 50 meters; A crux roof sequence leads to spectacular crack climbing that trends rightwards towards the summit, sometimes transferring from crack-to-crack, one of such transfers providing a second, slightly easier crux!   A two bolt belay at a good stance comes after 50 meters

P9: 5.9, 20 meters;  A short straightforward pitch passes a chimney, and gets you to the summit.  

Rappel notes: easy down-climbing about 5-meters off the summit to a slung block is required to get back to the last belay.  A 25-meter rappel straight down from there (the last bolted station) gets you to another bolted station on a ledge that wasn’t part of the route.  It would be possible to climb over to this on pitch 8, although this wasn’t done on the first ascent.  A 50-meter rappel from here gets you to the bolted belay between pitch 6 and 7.  Then 50-meters to a slung horn you passed near the start of P5.  Two single rope rappels on slung horns throughout the owed angle traverse section, get you to the top of pitch 3.  Then a double rope rappel easily makes the top of P1…