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Early Season Canadian Rockies Route Explosion by Swiss Team

As reported in the recent November 7, 2007 NewsWire, the Canadian Rockies have undergone extensive early-season development, including Polarity (V WI5+, 800m), the thin, white, right-facing, vertical ice flow shown here. The route saw its first and second ascents over one week in mid-October. [Photo] Courtesty of Ueli Steck

The Canandian Rockies comprise an area of land comparable to a medium-sized European nation. Its vast amount of climbing coupled with an abundance of local hardmen make new routing almost constant. Many Canadian Rockies routes blur the definition of alpine and waterfall ice climbing; the most extreme create new definitions of what is possible.

In October the Swiss team of Ueli Steck and Simon Anthamatten traveled to these Rockies and tested their limits on a whirlwind of new routes and difficult repeats. Here, Steck shares with Alpinist the stories of their short, but adventure-packed, trip.

Steck and Anthamatten left Switzerland on October 15 with the intention of focusing their energies on big alpine routes in the Canadian Rockies, many of which had yet to see a second ascent. Steck relayed that their goals were flexible, except one: “not sitting around!” Four days later they were napping on Will Gadd’s couch.

“Don’t worry, it’s not that bad. Today I am happy to sit. We are back from a really good climb!”

On October 14, Cory Richards, Dana Ruddy and Ian Welsted established a wild, serac-threatened line, Polarity (V WI5+, 800m) on the north face of Snow Dome, around the corner from the famed Slipstream (VI WI4+, 925m). The highly dangerous overhanging seracs at the top Richards compared to the Rackliff-Twight testpiece, The Reality Bath (VII WI6+ X, 600m), an unrepeated climb “so dangerous as to be of little value except to those suicidally inclined,” said Albi Sole, Canadian Rockies guidebook author.

Five days later Steck and Anthamatten attempted the climb after “[The Canadian team] shared some pictures about the route and about the last pitch,” Steck said. “Simon and I were straight away fascinated. I have never climbed such a long ice route. Yesterday we left the car at 6:30 a.m. We didn’t bring any bivy gear; we decided to be fast or not to finish the route. But not finishing the route was definitely not an option!”

Anthamatten in the midst of the team’s repeat of Polarity (V WI5+, 800m) on the north face of Snow Dome, around the corner from the famed Slipstream (VI WI4+, 925m). The line was established five days earlier by Cory Richards, Dana Ruddy and Ian Welsted. [Photo] Courtesty of Ueli Steck

The Swiss team blasted the route in day, adding a hazardous 50-meter pitch to the top but leaving the summit still untouched, also finding conditions too dangerous to continue: a nasty overhanging cornice preventing them from climbing the last 10 meters.

Ueli Steck pulling through the overhanging seracs on the last 50 meters of Polarity (VI WI5+, 800m). Steck and Anthamatten added this last pitch to the route two weeks after Richards, Ruddy and Welsted made the first ascent of the lower section. The north face of Snow Dome has yet to see a complete ascent to the top. A nasty cornice prevented Steck and Anthamatten from summiting. [Photo] Simon Anthamatten

The next day the pair made a repeat of the classic Riptide (VI WI6/7, 225m) on Mt. Patterson. “The weather is still Canadian, snow and wind… But anyway we were still motivated and we went to Riptide. A good, hard ice climb. The climb is just like the description written in the guidebook: ‘The route is more psychologically than technically difficult. Long sections of snow covered, hollow and thin ice is normal.'” They also experienced heavy spindrift.

Steck seconding a pitch on the team’s new route, Rocketbaby (VI M8+ WI5+ X). Steck recommends that, in addition to the ten to twelve short ice screws, you bring ?a strong head.? [Photo] Courtesty of Ueli Steck

“Tomorrow we will go back; we have seen today a great mixed line to the right of Rocketman (M7+ WI5+, 350m),” Steck said. “We’ll go have a look [to see] if we can open a new, nice mixed route.”

Rocketbaby (VI M8+ WI5+ X), on Mt. Patterson. [Photo] Courtesty of Ueli Steck

The two began climbing their proposed new line on October 21, climbing only three pitches in eleven hours. “So we have done all the work, and the next time we have to free climb the whole route.”

Deciding that their repeat of Polarity was not “alpine” enough, the Swiss duo traveled to Howse Peak (3295m), the highest peak in the Waputik range, to attempt a new line. The peak features some of the most difficult routes in the area, including M16 (VI WI7+ A2, 1000m, Backes-Blanchard-House, 1999), which was the first ascent of the east face, and Howse of Cards (VI M7- WI6 X, 1065m, Gadd-Mahoney-Semple, 2002), featured in Alpinist 3.

After being shut down that Friday by bad weather and serious avalanches, the pair returned the next day “to the project at Mt. Paterson. This time it was time to free climb the new route we opened last week.

Steck on Not Flying is Not Trying (M8 WI6). The route is traditionally protected. [Photo] Courtesty of Ueli Steck

“We were not sure what we wanted to do. The second pitch is the hardest one. So if we fall on the second pitch, should we keep going and climb all the upper pitches, or should we try until we’ve free climbed the second pitch? We hiked up very early so that we would have enough time. At 8:30 a.m. we were at the start of the route. The first pitch went fast. Easy, only M5. Then I started for the second pitch. The climbing is not that hard but very unstable. The hooks are small and slippery… The first part of the pitch goes over a roof. After the roof you are awake. And then the real unstable climbing begins. It took a long time on that pitch to find the hooks, but I found them. After forty minutes the crux pitch was done. Very motivated, we kept going. [The route has] several pitches where you shouldn’t fall.

“After Pitch 3 there is a WI 5+ X pitch. This pitch is 59 meters long and there is no real protection. [You have to] just keep climbing and trust your ice tools… We topped out around 5 p.m., and we finished a perfect day at 7:30 p.m. in Lake Louise [by] having a coffee. Another great day in the Canadian Rockies.”

The new route joins Rocketman after four pitches for a new route titled Rocketbaby (VI M8+ WI5+ X). Steck recommends that, in addition to the ten to twelve short ice screws, you bring “a strong head.”

Two days later, the two returned yet again to Howse Peak. “Yesterday we had again an early start to Howse Peak. 3:30 a.m.: When we arrived at the parking lot, there were already 20 centimeters of fresh snow. So it must have snowed quite hard the day before. We knew from last time… that under these conditions there is no way to go to the face. So we slept for another two hours in the car, just to get daylight and see the face from the car. And we began to think about big avalanches up there. So, no climbing on Howse Peak… We drove back to Canmore, quite depressed. The weather was just too good. Since our arrival in Canada it was the first day with blue sky…”

The duo, half the day gone, drove to Banff, dashed what is normally a two-and-a-half-hour hike to Mt. Rundle in forty-five minutes, and proceeded to repeat Sea of Vapors (WI5/6, 165m) in what they described as WI7 conditions. “The short ice screws were mostly too long. And the protection was just not nice. But we climbed the route, and we were back in Canmore, and it was still daylight.”

Approaching Crowfoot Mountain in the early morning light. [Photo] Courtesty of Ueli Steck

After weather yet again prevented an ascent of Howse Peak, the Swiss climbed Sacre Bleu (WI5+) and Ten Years After (WI5+ M5), which Steck decided to solo. “I was very much motivated to climb the route once more, but without rope. I had a pretty hard time since my accident at Annapurna, and I had some problems getting focused again. I felt it was time to climb this route again and get back my strong head. It took me about half an hour to get focused before I started the climb once more without rope. I am very happy, because it worked out really nice. I enjoyed the whole climb and I was really sure about it.”

On November 3, the duo was back at it on Mt. Rundle, repeating Razor Blade (WI4+ R, 125m), which Daniel Dulac, Eric Dumerac and Steve Holeczi had climbed the day prior, adding four pitches through the icy rock band above to create the new Leviathan (WI5+).

Next, Steck and Anthamatten put up another new route, Not Flying is Not Trying (M8 WI6) on all natural gear.

“The first pitch was 60 meters, WI5+. The second pitch took us a long time to get the gear in. But there are no bolts on this route. Simon did all the gearing.”

“Afterwards it was my turn to free the pitch. I climbed up on all this scary gear. I climbed all the way up to the crux and just before you can clip the good angle-pin, I broke the hook, and I went for a ride… I remember that I realized that the knifeblade was ripping off. The fall was stopped by a sling that was around a small ice icicle of maybe 10 centimeters of diameter… but it held. After this I finished the pitch and Simon lowered me down.

Approaching the new route on Crowfoot Mountain. [Photo] Courtesty of Ueli Steck

Anthamatten enjoying some fine Austrian energy beverage on his and Steck’s new route on Crowfoot Mountain, Canadian Rockies. [Photo] Courtesty of Ueli Steck

“On the way down I tried to fix the protection. Then it was Simon’s turn to climb the pitch, and then it was my turn again. It took us some time but we freed both pitches.” Naturally protected mixed lines of this difficulty are scarce anywhere, including the Rockies.

Steck, working on “The Big Pitch” on Cockfight (M9+ WI5+), Crowfoot Mountain, Canadian Rockies. [Photo] Courtesty of Ueli Steck

The pair put up a final new route on Crowfoot Mountain, home to Crowfoot Falls (V WI5, 150m) and Political World (III WI5+ R, 170m), before ending their trip. They had been watching the face for their entire stay in Canada, waiting for conditions to improve. Finally, with three days remaining before a flight back to Europe, the face had iced up enough to give it a try. The pair attempted the route with their light Howse Peak rack, resulting in a retreat. “We climbed the first two pitches to the big overhang. I started the “Big Pitch,” but we didn’t have a power drill–of course, we had the rack for Howse Peak. I ended up [having] to give up very fast; the first part of the pitch has few features and [nowhere to place] natural protection…

“Wednesday we were up again. With the right equipment. The equipment we had from Will [Gadd’s] impressive garage… [perhaps it’s better to call it a] retail store. We finished in the dark. The pitch took us the whole day to put up. So we were pretty happy. But we had only one day left, and the climbing was hard.”

Steck and Anthamatten descend their final new route, Cockfight (M9+ WI5+), in the dark on their last day. [Photo] Courtesty of Ueli Steck

Returning to their new line, they climbed the first two pitches as quickly as possible, knowing that the third pitch would be the crux. The 45-meter section overhangs 20 meters, and without the few bolts installed by the Swiss, the route would be largely unprotectable. After hours of effort, Steck and Anthamatten both freed the pitch on lead, then proceeded to climb the last pitch of the route, a free-standing pillar of vertical ice, to the summit in the dark. They named the new route Cockfight (M9+ WI5+).”We had a perfect finish yesterday. OK, Howse Peak didn’t work out, but that’s the game.”

Steck and Anthamatten on the top of Rocketbaby (VI M8+ WI5+ X). [Photo] Courtesty of Ueli Steck