Ok so I’ve been in Canada for a week now, and its been, well… SNOWY. The day after I arrived it dumped with something like half a meter of snow overnight. This made for interesting mountain conditions. We attempted to put a trail into the base of a route we wanted to try later in the week, but got stopped by the avalanche gate, as they were bombing the slopes around where we wanted to go to protect the road and vehicles below. So it was time for plan B, off to “The Cave”. I met up with Raf Andronowski at the new training wall that he, and a bunch of other locals have pulled together and built as an awesome little training facility for bouldering and the odd tolling session. It was a fun afternoon tooling/route setting with Raf and Sarah Hueniken, and it was awesome to get moving about on the tools again after nearly 6 weeks due to being away with work on the ship.
That evening we watched avalanches tear down the line of the route we had wanted to put a trail into earlier that day, and after reading that the road would reopen that night, we got ready to go for the route the following day.
Long story short, we had a go on the route but came away empty handed after the lack of ice in the “Groove” barred access to the upper walls. We were also getting pummelled by wind and spindrift, so we decided to head off and set our sights on something else later in the week. After chatting to some local boys out here, it turns out I was trying to climb the wrong “Groove”, and we were not in the correct place for the routes intended groove. So hopefully we’ll have another go later in the trip.
That night I got a message from Jen Olson with a picture of ‘The Real Big Drip”, which is a breath-taking mixed line located in a steep cirque in the Ghost River area. I showed the pic to Nick and it was instantly official, we were going to the Ghost!
We headed off in the afternoon the following day, and as soon as you turn off the main road to start the 16km drive on snowy forestry type roads into the wilderness, it instantly become apparent that Canada doesn’t fuck about! With Nick telling me stories of the last time he came into the Ghost and had watched a grey wolf pad alongside the road, I was getting excited and a little apprehensive about what this mystical area could potentially throw at us.
We continued along the undulating road and as we came round one snowy corner, my eyes fixed straight onto the left hand skyline. “WHAT is that? I think that’s it, yeah that is it!”. The Real Big Drip was obvious and visible, looming out of the windy spindrift high up in the cirque on the other side of the huge open river bed. I got the usual uncontrollable butterflies of excitement in my stomach and after a couple of quick pictures, we continued to the top of The Big Hill.
The Big Hill is a section of the road that is described in the guidebook and all the locals know of this hill. Nick wasn’t too psyched to truck straight on down the hill in our Micky Mouse 4×4 hire jeep (Betty), so we parked at the top and took a walk down the hill and across the dry (very snowy) riverbed for 3km to reach the actual parking area described in the guidebook. Our thoughts swiftly turned to, no fricken way are we driving Betty down here. So after scoping where we would continue our walk-in the following day, we ambled back to the Big Hill and sorted our stuff for an early start the following morning.
After a reasonably comfy night in the back end of Betty, we awoke frosty and ready for our breakfast of muffins and pastries, mmmmm. This was close to being one of the best parts of the day, they were good muffins!
As the wind howled and shook the jeep, I wasn’t too psyched to exit the comfort of my sleeping bag, but eventually we got ready and headed off towards the route.
I don’t usually do the whole in your face gear promotion thing, but my Suunto Abit 3 Peak watch was awesome for the approach. The GPS and compass facilities came in very handy with following the guide book approach distances and we found our way through the dense forest in the pitch dark without any real hitches. When the guidebook says, “After 1km (10mins), turn south off the trail and bushwack to the creek” and its pitch dark, you kinda want a second opinion on your sense of direction, as the left turn as described was pretty god damn un-travelled and branchy! OK gear plug over, (sorry).
We reached the route which was, impressive and very drippy! The wind was still in full force and the hanging ice above seamed to shudder with every powerful gust that ripped around the cirque. But we geared up and got ready for battle all the same. I took a look at the first pitch and after a lot of time going up and down/left and right trying to find a way through the very blank section that lead to the obvious roof, I decided to down climb back to the base and Nick decided to have a go. We knew that a large flake and ledge had been ripped off on a previous ascent and it was obvious from the rock scar that it was this new blank section that had got me stumped.
Nick moved up to my high point, but having just been belaying me for a while and getting straight on the wall with no warm up, the Hot Aches took control of his composed demeanour and it was time to “Take”. Once the pain had subsided in his tingling fingers, he moved up the wall checking out the thin moves between the bolts to just above the roof, then lowered down.
Now that I knew roughly were the thin and tiny hooks where, I had another go. I raced up the wall and swiftly found myself above my previous high point and below the roof that needed passed to gain access to ground above that lead to the ice. Getting more pumped by the second, I pulled hard and yarded over the roof and after a flurry of thin and snappy hooks later I was happy to find a good hold. I was on new territory again and got a little flustered trying to find the next hooks, not wanting to blow it this high up the pitch. I then remember that there was a massive piece of ice hanging down behind me. “I’m going to try and bridge out” I yelled down to Nick. He replied with “I probably would have done that ten minutes ago instead of getting pumped out on the rock”.
I put my right front-point on a tiny edge and reached out with my left foot, gently placing it on the brittle hanging dagger, ahhhhhhhhh, thank god for that. The weight was off my arms and after a quick shake to relive the pump, I moved up the wall and the fragile Ice to reach the safety of the belay. What an an amazing pitch! This pitch was originally graded Canadian M7 but is now thought to be more around the M9 mark due to all the rock fall and holds breaking off.
Nick seconded up and reached the belay, then moved off up the steep ice above. The route was showering us in torrents of cold water as we swung left onto the fang, and by the time we were both on the next belay, most of our gear was frozen and covered in a bullet hard glazing of smooth ice. But I suppose that’s the joys of winter climbing!
I did another short and steep Ice pitch to gain a belay position at the left side of a large ledge type feature below a steep wall and another huge hanging ice fang. The guidebook describes a bolt belay further right on the ledge, but as the fang above was pissing water down onto that end of the ledge, I opted for a slightly drier position with a semi hanging belay out left.
Nick came up and sorted the frozen gear onto his harness, then moved on up the thin and technical wall on the next pitch. The wind was at its strongest now and the gusts were threatening to literally force Nick from his teetering position as he tried to forge his way upwards. I was keeping one eye on his progress and the other on the thin icicles that were getting snapped off of the large fang above. As I watched Nick pull through the small roof and make the strenuous moves, the biggest gust of the day ripped into my left side and made me shield my eyes away from the ice needles that rode the icy wind, I heard a yell from Nick and in that split second I was certain the wind hard plucked him from the wall. As I looked up and got ready for my harness to get pulled tight, I realised Nick was still attached to the wall, but the huge fang that loomed above wasn’t! I watched it crash down into the exact place that I had decided not to use for my belay, despite the guidebooks recommendation and then topple off the ledge to the ground below.
“Holly Shit, Holly Shit, that was mental! Holly Shit!” I yelled upwards.
I have a lot of respect for Nick being able to keep his head together and continue to the belay after all the crazy wind and ice fall was going on around him. But I’m also glad he did as this pitch was the last hurdle on our way to bagging this unbelievable route. I seconded up the pitch by head-torch light and the rest of the ice was climbed by the warm glow of our head-lamp beams.
After some terrifying abseiling past hanging daggers that were still jingling in the wind we eventually reach the base and back to our bags. We sorted our gear and headed back downhill through the dense forest and back to the open river bed. 3km later we reached Betty at the top of the big hill and we were both super psyched to have climbed such an awesome route and also ready to sit in the warm car for the journey home. We jumped in the car and after 10 minuets of driving back towards the main road, in the middle of nowhere at 10pm at night, it was obvious that we weren’t going anywhere fast! There were huge snow drifts blocking our path and poor wee Betty couldn’t cope with the amount of snow. We spend the next 2.5/3 hours digging through drift after drift until we we could get off the plateau and back into the woods, where the road was clearer of deep snow.
An exhausted drive back to Canmore and I eventually climbed into my bed at 3am, totally drained but still very psyched after another full on adventure in the Canadian mountains!