Mt. Stephen, Yoho National Park, British Columbia
Had you driven 20 kilometers east of Lake Louise, Alberta, along the Trans-Canada Highway last month, you would have found yourself staring up at nearly 1000 meters of banded and streaked Rockies limestone and quartzite that had never been climbed. For decades, the so-nicknamed “Great Wall of China” on the precipitous east side of Mt. Stephen (3199m) was talked about and attempted but never summited–that is until August 7, when a pair from nearby Golden, B.C., finally claimed its first ascent and ignited, they hope, a new era of alpine climbing in the Canadian Rockies.
Though several ice routes exist on Stephen’s north face, including the massive Great Western (V WI5R M7, 2000m) put up by Rob Owens and Scott Semple in 2003, the peak is a dearth of technical rock routes, and The Great Wall itself has only seen a few attempts. Jonny Simms, who authored the route of first ascent over three days earlier this month with Chris Brazeau, credits the lack of activity to a number of factors: its intimidating steepness and size; complexity of the approach slabs and its very short, four- to five-week rock climbing season. “If the big loose slopes above the wall are holding snow (from the previous winter), it is a shooting gallery of rocks,” he told Alpinist.
Around a decade ago a pair of climbers, both named Dave (Edgar and Marra), made an attempt to aid The Great Wall. Less than halfway up, Edgar was leading out on RURPs and consecutive hook moves when the hook blew and he fell, cutting his knee to the bone. Parks Canada made a well-executed rescue of the climber.
Last summer, Tommy Caldwell and Sonnie Trotter carried in enough gear for three days on the wall, including bolts and a portaledge. When a rock nearly hit the climbers at the base, they left without attempting their planned route.
Over the course of 20 pitches this summer, Brazeau and Simms stair-stepped through rockbands on the vaguely defined northern half of the face that the duo called “The Apocalyptic Wall.” Loose and low-angle rock at the base brought them to steep and solid 5.11+ rock above. At the transition between the layers of bad rock and good, they spent half a day working through their eighth pitch. “We climbed and drilled a bunch of protection bolts off the ground not really knowing if the rock was going to get better,” Simms said. He placed four bolts that he thought would be enough to run it out to a fissured roof above without risking a ledge fall. “In the end, this was the start of the great climbing on this climb,” he said. “Our persistence paid off.” They gave their route, The Accomplice, a commitment grade of VI. In 1100 meters of climbing, they placed 18 bolts, all hand-drilled on lead.
The climbers’ own principles informed their strict ground-up ethic on The Accomplice, but that ethic also served as a statement to the wider Banff-area climbing community, Simms says. “There is quite a heated dispute going on around the Bow Valley, AB, in regards to the use of the power drill on existing routes. Climbers [are retro-bolting] multipitch rock climbs and mountain routes…. As a passionate first ascentionist, I find this a little offensive. Do what you want to your own route, but leave other first ascentionists’ routes alone. Or at least have a public discussion with climbing peers in the area about what needs to be retro-ed.”
Next summer, Simms and Brazeau are carving out a month for new-routing on The Apocalyptic Wall. Their first success on the face this month taught them much about the wall’s particular challenges and has given them a “feel for what’s to come here,” Simms says. “This wall is the future of Canadian alpine rock climbing.” And he plans on being a part of it, from the ground up.
[With reporting help from Shey Kiester.–Ed.]