Rain, Snow, and Adventure Climbing: Tales from a week making it work in the Canadian Rockies

The following is a guest post from Chicks alumna Sarah Goldman (featured this week on the front page of Chicks!) who has spent the last couple of months climbing all the epic rock she can get her hands on. She’s graciously allowed us to re-post her blog on a week of climbing (well, what ended up being 3 days of climbing) in Canmore, Alberta here. So continue reading to learn all about the Canadian adventures of this super woman following her alpine dreams!

For the past six days I’ve been calling Canmore, Alberta home. In fact, for most of the week prior while I was basking in the sun of interior BC, I would actually tell people, when asked, that I was from Canmore when I felt like having fun and/or wasn’t up to the longer truer answer that used to be simple but for now remains complicated. Canmore sprawls along the Bow River in the Bow Valley just outside of Banff National Park.

I pretty much fell in love with Canmore on my first visit here last summer. The Rocky Mountains stand on either side of this valley, they loom really, like extremely proud teenagers. They aren’t old and green like the Appalachians that welcome you and make you feel at home. Quite the contrary, these mountains almost dare you to enter them. When I first saw them last year I had only one thought, “I need to climb better.” It’s easy to quickly feel outclassed in these hills. But still, these mountains more then any other I have encountered, compel me to enter them. I want to learn and train and develop the skills necessary to earn their respect so that they may grant me safe passage. To me, these mountains present a challenge from which I simply cannot walk away.

To that end, I came to Canmore to work with my favorite guide and mentor, a Canmore local and Canadian Rockies superhero Sarah Hueniken. She doesn’t wear a cape, or have knee high boots and blue tights…that I know of anyway….but her professionalism, proficiency and stymieing ability are nothing short of super powers. This is not a love fest of smoke blowing, but a truly honest assessment that if these mountains outclass most mere mortals, then Sarah and her group of peers that guide here, are truly a cut above.

– The Bow Valley finds some sun. The Three Sisters on the left.

My goals for this week weren’t especially outrageous. I mean, after all, I just started climbing again after a year off. I am though at a point in my climbing where there is still much to learn, but I’m also not interested in necessarily just going after an objective and being lead around all day. Ive been fortunate to work with Sarah before and know her commitment to helping folks increase their self sufficiency so when I emailed her and said, “I want to hire you for a week, but I want to lead most of it,” I knew she would be keen.

The story this week was the weather. To quote, “this is the worst f#*&@ing weather we have ever had.” Our first day, Monday, was a total washout and turned into a rest day for me which was probably a good thing given I had just spent five days clipping bolts and getting pumped in Skaha. Sarah and I agreed to remain optimistic about Tuesday even though the forecast was poor. We decided to check in with each other in the morning and after a short delay we finally met up and headed out on Tuesday around 8 a.m. …in the rain. We spent two hours driving around the entire area trying really just to see some routes through the low gray clouds. We struck out completely, and in an effort to salvage the day we headed back to Canmore and the local crag Grassi Lakes.

Grassi is a sport crag full of pocketed overhanging walls with friendly bolts. Knowing that I was interested in getting on the sharp end, Sarah offered up the first lead to me. Given conditions and my general insecurities that creep in when climbing around amazing climbers, whether they are your guide or not, it was actually a surprisingly bold move on my part that I accepted the rope and jumped on the route. It was an overhanging 5.8 or 9 with a million bolts that I managed to climb cleanly. When I was back safely on the ground, Sarah offered up some much desired, and apparently needed, advice on my form and movement. First words out of her mouth, “Ok, this isn’t ice climbing.” You wouldn’t know it given the temps, but her point was that my movements weren’t dynamic. Hands, hands, feet, feet, more like climbing a ladder rather than actually being dynamic and utilizing the features of the rock in the most beneficial way. We talked about twist locks, using both sides of my feet, extending my reach, and using the most appropriate part of a hold even if its not the most positive or intuitive feeling.

These are pretty basic concepts, but Ill admit, I hadn’t really thought about it in the ways she had described, nor had I really been on routes tough enough that it demanded that solid of technique. We spent part of the day climbing routes just above my grade so I could apply the lessons of my first climb and when I was thoroughly pumped we switch into some rescue technique reviews and quizzes. All in all a shitty weather day but we made it work.

Wednesday turned out to be one of our best weather days of the week but given the snow in high elevations, chilly temps, and threat of afternoon rain we decided on an objective right in town, the East Ridge of Lady Macdonald. Lady Mac is one of those proud mountains that looms over town so I was definitely keen to get on the climb. In what turned out to be on of the nicest surprises and addition to this week, Sarah’s friend Claire joined us for the day. The plan was to let me have a go at leading the route with Claire as my second. This allowed Sarah to solo around on the easier bits and provide coaching for both of us. This is a wickedly awesome opportunity not often dealt out by a guide and really priceless in terms of developing climbers. After a tough 2 hour approach requiring multiple stream crossings and a steep scramble we roped up and headed towards the ridge.

This was my re-introduction to the crumbling rock of the Canadian Rockies and climbing in mountaineering boots and while it got my attention I felt pretty comfortable. Its most likely because Sarah was normally just a few feet in front of me giving me what she called “a false sense of security.” When we got to the business pitch of the trip, I changed into my climbing shoes and Sarah tied into the rope. Pretty good compromises I think. Sarah offered to take my pack, but in my continued random acts of boldness I kept it on and headed off. I brought them both up and we continued on to the ridge and short pitching and short pitching and short pitching.

– Getting down to business on the East Ridge of Lady Mac. A quick pitch to gain the ridge proper.  Mad kudos to Sarah H., my Fairy Guide Mother, for a sweet photo!

In my limited experience short pitching along a ridge seems to equal: Take up coils, climb for 15 meters, maybe put in one piece of pro along the way, find something remotely resembling an anchor, straddle some rock and bring up or over your second. Repeat. Repeat and repeat. While at times it became tedious the experience of doing it over and over again actually really just reinforced the lesson of what we were doing. It was a great learning experience. All along the way Sarah was dropping hints, I mean, educating me, about ways to be more efficient because speed is safety in mountains…and we were cold and the skies were looking ugly. Good bits of wisdom like when you are bringing up your second, look ahead to the next pitch, if you are going to transition modes do what you can while they are climbing to be ready for that…ergo…if you have the full rope out and are switching to short pitches, start taking up coils while you are belaying. At the time, the thought of doing that pretty much blew my mind, I had enough to manage, but I look forward to continue practicing that and the other things we covered. We topped out on Lady Mac and after a brief stop at an abandoned tea house where we finally were allowed to eat, drink, and pee and laugh, we headed down the hikers walk off in the rain. Claire was a super trooper, a patient climber and an absolute joy to have along. Awesome day.

– Working the 5.5 ridge.

Thursday turned out to be a full on weather day and we elected to go to our corners stay dry and rest up for another big day on Friday. I got a good gym workout in the hotel fitness center and felt pleased that my body wasn’t wrecked from the 10 hour effort the day before. Sweet, all that time in the gym in Iraq paid off.

Fridays weather was tenuous. Big kudos for Sarah and her part time work as a meteorologist. Constantly checking all of the websites and webcams to find the warmest and driest routes for us to get on. Basically just trying to find a way to make it work. On Friday we were joined by Laurie, aka Zippy, one of my favorite people to get out with, and we headed to Takkakaw Falls optimistic that the snow line would be above us and that we might by chance get some afternoon sun. It wasn’t actively raining and we were all in good spirits so we set off to what rockclimbing.com calls “the worst rock climbing in North America in the most amazing setting in North America.”

The plan was for Zippy and I to swing leads on the 10 pitches of traversing and 5.6 climbing. When we got to the base of the quartzite route the first pitch was dripping wet with puddles in the positive holds. Sarah decided it was best for her to jump out front so we could get used to the wet rock, climbing with gloves, and socks in our climbing shoes. A pretty good idea given the mind fuck that wet rock can cause. After the first pitch we did swing leads and had a great time wondering up the large face alongside a gigantic waterfall.

We got to one of the more difficult pitches and it was my lead. Just before I left the anchor Sarah mentioned that there is a move on this pitch that always gets her attention. Even though it was protected by a bolt I could probably have done without that level of honesty from her whereas I climbed up to the crux and completely unfocused took a short whipper. Bummed but not pissed that I didn’t climb the route cleanly I did jump back on, work through it and finish the pitch complete with a crappy .75 placement that it’s probably good I didn’t fall on. I brought up those two gals and Sarah linked up the rest of the pitches which ultimately dead ended in a 60 meter belly crawl through a cave! Wtf! Awesome adventure climbing. We stripped everything off our harnesses, donned our plastic pants (rain paints) and headed into the abyss. I love caving, always have, and the best part is always the accompanying soundtrack of laughter, grunting and most often when it involves adults, an exceptional amount of cussing. This was no exception.

The tunnel opened up to the very top of the falls. We were tucked away where none of the myriads of binocular touting tourists could see us. We sat and enjoyed the view and had a very serious, all be it bizarre and troubling conversation about how we would jump across the falls to the rock on the other side if for some reason our lives depended on it. Thankfully we were safe that day and didn’t have to test any of our theories. We ducked back in the cave, repeated the string of grunting and expletives, and set off on reversing the route through a series of rappels and traverses.

– Zippy and I pondering how we would make the leap across.

As we finished the route blue skies were nearly everywhere and the bright sunshine warmed our very chilly bodies. Rockclimbing.com’s description of the route was really only half true, the climbing was fun and not terrible but it just might have been one of the most beautiful places in North America. We ended the day with beers and dinner at the Post in Lake Louise satisfied from a great day. As usual we were probably a bit rowdy with laughter for the Post, but it was awesome nonetheless.

Two girls and their guide on the summit. No Jumping allowed.

So what was initially planned to be five full days of climbing turned into three weather driven and differently challenging days.  I can already tell that I am a better and more confident climber than I was a week ago.  I’ve identified some weaknesses, one in particular that could really fuck me some day, and got some really positive feedback about the things I’m doing well.  Under really difficult circumstances Sarah pulled together some very educational and fun days.

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