Brette Harrington and Rose Pearson completed a new route on Mt. Blane–Life Compass (IV 5.10a M4+ 80 degrees, TD+, 980m)–in Alberta, Canada, in a 21.5-hour car-to-car push on April 25. A report on Gripped.com hailed the accomplishment as “one of the few climbs of this size and grade ever established in the Canadian Rockies by an all-women team.”
Harrington had spotted the potential line from the road a few days earlier while her friend Brandon Pullan (editor-in-chief of Gripped) was showing her around Canada. She wrote in an email:
I had never been through Kananasksis Country, so on our way back from sport climbing, Brandon…and I decided to take the scenic route to check it out. He is from the area, and he thought I would appreciate it. I had never heard of Mt. Blane before then, nor seen a photo.
We stopped many times along the way because I was scoping for ski lines. We ended up stopping twice to get look at Mt. Blane from different perspectives. It caught my eye right away because it is so big, and even from afar the rock looked really solid. It was a light bluish-colored limestone, but all seemingly even in shade. The mountain has big features that I could distinguish from the road, so I mapped out what looked to be a probable alpine climb by linking up snow and cornered rock systems.
Harrington hadn’t met Pearson until about this same time.
“[Pearson had flown] to Canada from New Zealand to meet up with Gemma Wilson,” Harrington said. “They had planned on going to Alaska to climb, but Gemma hurt her thumb and cancelled. So Rose was hanging out in Canmore climbing with whomever she found. When I came to Canmore, I messaged Gemma to see if she was interested in climbing, and she directed me to Rose. Things just aligned for us…. We were fast, efficient and observant, and we got along well.”
Harrington and Pearson romped up the Slawinski/Takeda route (M5+, 5 pitches) on Mt. Athabasca two days before tackling the line that became Life Compass.
“Climbing with Brette was great. Everything fell into place even though both times we only [made] our plans after 5 p.m. the night before,” Pearson said. “I didn’t know Brette before Marc’s passing, but it was humbling to be able to spend some time with her as she used alpinism to make sense of the devastating turn that her life has just taken.”
Harrington’s boyfriend and climbing partner Marc-Andre Leclerc disappeared with Ryan Johnson while descending Alaska’s Main Mendenhall Tower on March 5. (A memorial for Leclerc is scheduled for tomorrow, May 12.)
“We have named [the route] Life Compass for a number of reasons,” Harrington wrote in an Instagram post after the climb. “Primarily because my life has taken such a sudden 180-degree turn since the loss of Marc…and alpine climbing has been my guide.”
She elaborated for Alpinist in an email:
Since the time I left Alaska in mid March, all I have wanted to do is be in the alpine. Marc and I spent most of our time in the mountains, so that is where I want to go. Skiing is the easiest way to be in and move around in the alpine, so I was backcountry skiing a few times a week. Soon the weather in BC turned too warm and wet for skiing, so I drove out to the Rockies for alpine climbing. Alpine climbing has been a metaphorical compass directing my life since March.
I know Marc would be very proud of us for climbing this. He was an alpine mentor to me for years, as well as my partner. So in that regard, Marc has been the metaphorical compass for having shown me direction in climbing.
The name is suited well for Rose as well [because of how her original climbing plans fell through]….
Finally, Mt. Blane is quite complex and you need to navigate the features well by finding the correct links without getting lost.
Pearson said one of the most memorable moments for her was “following Brette on the second-to-last pitch and popping over the little cruxy step after a traverse to see a clear weakness to the summit. Up till then I’d been unsure if we’d manage to summit in a timely manner.”
Harrington described the nature of the climb in her Instagram post:
The climbing included lots of steep snow and precarious rock and mixed. We summited at around 8:30 p.m. then spent the next few hours navigating the knife-edge ridge with hefty cornices [which she told Alpinist were “very technical,” requiring delicate attention and a constant belay, placing gear at “every chance.”]. The nightly winds were strong so it took us quite a while to get off the ridge, eventually making three long 70-meter rappels into a nearby gully where we then progressed into hours of front pointing and down climbing on spring snow.
“The snow conditions were horrible,” she told Alpinist. “We broke through the crust and fell to our waist consistently. It was no better on the way out. We ended up scooting along on our bums to try and disperse our weight over the surface. Even so we fell through regularly.”
“The last of the descent took an age,” Pearson said.
They reached their car at 4 a.m. after leaving the vehicle at 6:30 a.m. the previous day.
The recommended rack for the route is two 70-meter ropes, three angle pitons, small beaks, knifeblade pitons and a single rack to 4 inches, with doubles of 1-inch sizes and a set of small nuts.
“The features of the mountain are really big so you have to know how to read and navigate a mountain,” Harrington said when asked if she had any advice for future ascensionists. “You should be comfortable on loose terrain with long runouts.”