Sun, 15 Aug 1999
This is a longish trip report from the Canadian Rockies during late July and
early August 1999. Included are a summary of the north face of Mt. Temple
in Lake Louise, Alberta, the north ridge of Mt. Stephen in Field, British
Columbia, and the west face of the Roche Miette to the east of Jasper,
The staccato drum against hood, helmet, and head reminded me of a heavy
rain. No longer caring about the climb, I was moments away from wanting to
bag the whole affair anyway. Standing at the base of the Roche Miette,
covered head to toe in shell gear, I was sweltering in the heat of dawn on a
perfectly still August day. As bait, I had volunteered to belay on the
first pitch. Tim would need some relief to be able to climb. At least the
drumming sound wasnít rocks bouncing off my head. Not like last time.
Once, I thought rockfall was the worst imaginable affliction on a climb.
Imagining a forced bivy or lightning on a peak brings waves of nausea too.
The mosquitoes, though, can be much, much worse.
Stepping out of the car at sunrise, the mosquitoes fell upon us. A
desperate forced march uphill seemed like an option. Maybe we could outrun
the little bastards. An hour later, overdressed and drenched with sweat, we
emerged from the tree line. The mosquitoes ascended slopes of talus with
On the last climb of a successful trip, the mosquitoes were a message. Even
on a cool down, donít deny the mountain. You canít deny the mountain.
Welcome to the Canadian Rockies.
Tim Fisher and myself, Julian Smith, gather as often as we can in western
Canada to sample the local fare of alpine and ice climbing. 1999 was
looking to be a pretty good year. Already we had spent a week ice climbing
in February. Now, we had two weeks to climb during the summer.
Our appetites have grown over the years. One day we keep thinking about
biting off something major to chew on. Was this to be the summer for that
elusive grade V? Sadly, not. Late snows, a never ending winter really, had
most of the alpine faces covered with box car sized, booby trapped blocks of
snow. "Is that one way up there ready to go? Iím not going to go find
out." In our rush to start climbing, we forgot to notice this. It didnít
take very long to find out.
Our first effort was to be the Grenwood/Locke on the North Face of Mt.
Temple. Given a paltry rating of IV 5.8 A2 by Sean Doughertyís Suspected
Sandbags in the Canadian Rockies, we thought this would make a good warm-up.
"From a bivy at Lake Annette, the route can be climbed comfortably in a day
with a pre dawn start." July 26th, up at 3:30am, we were determined to give
it the college try.
"After a relatively tame start in the dolphin, the climbing on the spur
becomes sustained, but is well protected, and on good quality limestone."
The dolphin goes for an awfully long ways, but is mostly easy scrambling.
The technical climbing starts at the top of an ice field with an awkward
chimney. However, with exposure to objective hazards, the dolphin would be
a grim place to descend.
Our arrival at the top of the icefield timed perfectly with the first
bombardment of stone. "Where could those have come from?" Up to now, the
whole face had been quiet as a mouse. The snow beneath its feet white and
12 noon, Tim had shelter beneath an overhang. I gazed up into an icy,
overhanging crack, wondering when the next volley of stone would come. The
awkward chimney (5.8) finally succumbed to a dose of aiders and a tension
traverse. I brought Tim up to a solitary bolt, found while I was wandering
in a steep field of snow. The mountain cleared its throat. Stones rattled
off to our side.
Tim led the next pitch. Another bolt beneath an overhang provided refuge on
a snowy ledge. We had arrived at the traverse. The traverse would take us
directly beneath the rockfall. I eyeballed the traverse. Too bad it was
mine. The guide book describes the traverse as being very loose and with no
gear worth speaking of. True to its reputation, the traverse yielded only
one bad piton. I was only thankful for the generous covering of snow
keeping all the rubble in place. We use a 60 meter rope and every bit was
gone by the time a stance appeared on the spur. Tim followed safely across.
Though it never ceased, the rockfall spared us during the traverse.
Above was a groove. It was Timís turn to lead. The snow and rock yielded
progress slowly. Screams from above told me the rock fall had found its way
home. After cursing for a bit, Tim told me his hand had been hit pretty
bad. While he finished the pitch, I took stock of our situation and my
stance. Better him to get hit than me.
My world suddenly exploded into stars and pain. Through a ringing sound, I
heard myself curse. There was a message. You canít deny the mountain. I
had taken my rockfall in the side of the head. For the moment, I didnít
bother to mess with the blood beneath my pile cap, helmet, and hood. "Off
belay", floated down. I climbed up to Tim.
Showing off his mangled hand, he commented on being able to see tendon
things on the inside. "Routes all yours, buddy. Get us to the top." Tim
has always been very much my senior in climbing. He always has to take up
my slack. With nothing else to be said, I took the sharp end of the rope.
Climb up the crack, with snow on one side, rock on the other. Thankfully, a
few fixed pins appeared. Up and up, past a ledge and onto the spur. The
gear faded. The rockfall quieted. The climbing felt good. This is the
Time and distance blurred. How far had we climbed. At the only nice ledge
we had seen all day, I pondered that we had not gone far enough. Tim
climbed the last few feet to the ledge with light from my headlamp. It was
The ledge was a clean, picnic table sized affair, with a protective roof
overhead. We could go on or stay put. Laziness set in and it was time for
a snack and a smoke. Good thing we stayed. That was the only nice ledge
till we got the top, six pitches later, at noon the next day! Bundling up
as best as we could, the night passed quickly enough with a few shivers and
some cold feet.
Mornings light revealed a crack. The top revealed the source of yesterdays
rockfall circus. Next to the spur, a patch of dirt and stone was glued
impossibly on an overhanging wall. Evidently, impossible was correct.
Every few seconds, some dirt and a few rocks would somersault into space,
free falling onto our route below. Perhaps, in the preceding days, some
great flake had come loose from the face. Leaving behind its bogus mortar
to shed upon the unsuspecting. However, we were making progress. More
climbing. We were getting higher.
"The crux of the route is near the top." So the guide book says, and it is
right. In a dihedral, with no gear, you come face to face with the move. A
real move, to do with boots and a pack on. Go up on the move. You canít
deny the mountain. Fingers hold on a wet edge as the other hand struggles
with getting gear. The boots really held. At last some sanity, and a belay
below the final ledge traverse. The end was in sight.
Tim, thinking he wasnít doing his share, volunteered to do the next pitch.
Boy did that backfire. The ledge was steep, covered in snow, and utterly
without gear. Finally, fixed pins and a sling revealed themselves from
behind the far end of a snow bank. Above us loomed only giant cornices,
seeming to block our exit from the face.
The last pitch was the icing on the cake. A quick lower into a gully.
Climb a stack of blocks out the other side. From atop the blocks, a move or
two, up a face of un-mortared bricks, leads to a chimney behind the cornice.
My pack was left on a peg below. Crampons shriek on rock, but are welcome
in snow. At last I roll onto the top.
A stiff wind greeted me on top. Communication with Tim below the cornice
was impossible. In those cases, the rope gets pulled on until a head comes
into view. Tim struggled with my pack and how to get it through the
cornice. That just goes to show what his avoidance of futile aid climbing
has earned him.
Side by side, in the snow, we stood on top. 1:30pm, July 27th. With barely
a pause to acknowledge our escape from the face, we reached for sunglasses
and lip goo. While standing around, above, and on my pack, I searched
through the lid. "Man, did you feel that gust of wind?" I looked down as
Tim spoke. "Where was my pack?" Sadly, the mountain took my pack from me
in that moment. We both stared in disbelief at the edge of the void. I
spied my tools in the snow, thankful they and my crampons werenít with the
pack. With nothing else to be done, I coiled the rope and slung it over my
shoulders. We headed down.
On many big mountains, the descent can be a gut check. Mt. Temple fits this
description well. Snow fields, scree, and talus. Down, down, onward and
down. The feet and knees swear revenge.
We reached the tent at 6:00pm. With only one pack, there was no use in
packing the tent. Leaving some gear, and promising to return in the
morning, we headed to the car. 8:00pm.
My wife, Lisa, was having conniptions when we returned to camp in Lake
Louise and quickly boiled over when related the story of the falling rocks.
Lantern light revealed an earful of dried blood on my head. Tim drank a
beer and headed out to have his hand patched up.
In the morning, Lisa graciously volunteered to hike back up to Annette Lake
with me to retrieve the rest of our gear. There were great number of people
on the trail. So, it was quite a surprise to find a sign from the wardens
closing the trail to parties of less than six upon our return. Grizzly bear
trouble the sign read.
A couple days rest, a repair to the hot springs, had us ready to go. One
look at Howse Peak stopped us in our tracks. "Totally out of condition.
Without question." The weather forecast had us pretty bummed out too. Four
days of bad weather. In Canada, been there, done that.
An intriguing aspect of alpine climbing is the cycle of doubt, hesitation,
commitment, acceptance, and success. Follow through is key. Stop at any
one point and your motivation to climb is gone. My emotions run the whole
gamut on any given climb.
Our campsite wrestled with this debate. Should we stay or go? Where would
we go? Ultimately, sanity prevailed with a unanimous vote to stay and climb
anyway. Charlie Porter said something about waiting on mother nature and
never climbing anything.
Early the next morning, we shouldered our packs along the side of the
railroad tracks in Field, BC. 5:00am, July 31st. Above us, the north ridge
of Mt. Stephen rose over 6000í vertical feet. In my version of Doughertyís
bible, 1991, he describes the north ridge as a III 5.7 that "a party of two
can complete comfortably in a day."
Preferring to take the alternate start and thinking to save some time, Tim
and I made our way up a crescent shaped moraine east of the ridge. Quickly,
the side of the moraine fell away into steep scree to a runoff swollen
stream. "Ugh, the guide book shows the route starting over there." A point
in that direction showed a way we would never go. Down the side of the
The moraine tops out against a headwall beneath the glacier on the north
side of Mt. Stephen. A sizable waterfall cleaves it in half. Traversing
beneath the waterfall is out of the question. Not even Spiderman could
stick that kind of choss. To the left of the waterfall, a rusty cable
snakes its way down through a cleft. How convenient. A present from
Hands on cable, scramble on rock. Keeping to the right, mostly on ledges,
and a hop over the creek got us most of the way up the alternate start. The
object being to gain a wide plateau that marks the real start of the
Three pitches of the most awful X-rated climbing on vertical choss finally
had us on the plateau. Somehow, Tim got the first two pitches. This left
me thinking I was going to get away free. Not so. Tim handed me the sharp
end of rope for 40 feet of no gear on a 90 degree wall with the final move
lay-backing on a stack of loose blocks. Tim says, "Iím right below you." I
reply, "I love you Tim. I want you to know that if I kill you." A few more
feet of scrambling had us on the plateau. Turning, we slogged our way up.
The ridge proper starts out nicely with the cleanest rock on the whole
route. Quickly it deteriorates into a slugfest. Grovel here. Plunge up
steep snow and grapple with shallow ice over rock there. The pitches ran
On the upper ridge, scrambling mingles with technical climbing and route
finding. Lost, tired, and wandering somewhere beneath the summit a
realization dawned upon us. The college try was not going to get us off the
mountain tonight. 11:00pm. Tim expressed his displeasure at our efforts to
get up the mountain. "I donít want to spend the night on a mountain again."
His curses grew ever greater as I withdrew a down jacket and bivy sack from
my pack. "I canít believe you didnít tell me you were bringing that." I
felt as if I were cheating on him. It began to lightly snow.
Searching in my pockets, I came out with a space blanket I had borrowed from
my sonís Boy Scout stuff. A truce was at hand. We each withdrew to
separate corners of our rubble ledge and settled in for the night.
With morning, our resolve to summit, descend, and to be done grew ever
greater. The thought of it drove us from our bivy at first light.
The summit succumbed easily enough after snaking our way over and around a
few more pinnacles and patches of snow. There wasnít much attraction to
staying on top. The weather started to close in. The light snow was
actually starting to stick.
From up close, the most obvious features on a mountain can be very
confusing. "Exactly which way down do we go on that ridge?" The descent
described in the guidebook seemed straightforward enough. Looking at the
ridge was another story. Gingerly we made our way over jumbles of loose
rock and snow. Every once in awhile, what looked to be a tent pole would be
stuck in a pile of rocks. A prominent ledge with tent stakes driven into it
was next to a deep gully on the north side. Steps had been kicked into the
snow in the gully. All the tent stakes appeared to be bent in the direction
of the gully. That thought left me shuddering. Instead of a tent stake
rappel, we down climbed into the gully and drafted the steps, face into the
snow till we were deposited into talus below. Bless your soul whoever
kicked those steps.
After an endless amount of bushwhacking down the valley and walking down the
fossil bed trail, we finally reached Field at 10:30am August 1st. Some time
for a grade III.
Lisa wasnít as flustered upon our return this time. Staying on the route a
day longer than we swore it would take is becoming old hat now. She was out
with our son shopping. I got drunk and crashed in the tent.
Being superstitious, we lounged in the hot springs and ate well for the next
two days. "What worked last time should be lucky again." Early in the
morning, we packed the truck and said goodbye to Lake Louise. Jasper and
the Roche Miette were next on the agenda. For spite, we had a picnic lunch
in the icefields, glassing Mt. Kitchner and wringing our hands. Conditions
looked good. "Too bad we donít have enough time left for a serious try on
the Grand Central Couloir." To myself, I thought what a relief we wonít
have to find out.
Jasper was hot, but the bugs were quiet. Changing into shorts and sipping
cold Canadian beer, we went through the rituals of gearing up for another
climb. What to take, what to leave out. The new rock guide for the Jasper
area describes the west face of the Roche Miette as a III 5.10. The old
rating was IV 5.9 A2. Go figure. Honestly, this one seemed to be within
the reaches of mere mortals. With only eight pitches of technical climbing,
surely we could do this one in a day. However, the down jacket still went
in my pack.
At our appointed time of 5:30 am, we met with our partners, the mosquitoes
at the trailhead. The race was on. The approach is not the most straight
forward affair. Vague directions in both guide books had us traversing
hideous, ball-bearing slopes, above cliffs beneath the west face. Once on
the ledge where the route starts, hundreds of goat paths reveal themselves
in the talus below. Probably, whichever way you go above tree line, expect
some fierce groveling to get to the climb.
Fortunately, the mosquitoes lost interest in climbing past the second pitch.
The sun was out, and we were climbing in shirt sleeves. The climbing was on
solid limestone with only the occasional stack of rubble thrown in to keep
things interesting. The second pitch is fantastic. It surmounts an
improbable overhang and finishes up a sustained dihedral for almost a full
rope length. Four pitches to a fine ledge make up the lower half of the
Above the ledge, a face with a lingering run-out presents the technical crux
of the route. With solid edges and endless friction possibilities on the
good limestone, it wasnít hard to imagine climbing back home at Shelf Road.
Still, I was glad Tim got the sharp end. Three more pitches of moderate
crack and chimney led to the top.
I got the summit pitch. Struggling through the last loose blocks, I mantled
into a meadow of grass at 4:30 pm. Wandering away from the edge as far as
the rope would allow, I sat down and gave Tim a belay. Inviting as the
summit plateau was, a brewing thunderhead in the west dulled our ambition to
stay and admire the view. I was determined to avoid training with lightning
on this trip. Hastily, we scrambled over the summit and began our way down
the northeast side of the mountain. Lightning struck the next summit to the
south. The descent is well marked, worn, and reasonably easy to find. The
storm seemed to be in agreement with our departure and turned away to the
Making our way ever down, we limped through talus and scree back to the tree
line. Our arrival was marked with an ambush of mosquitoes. We ran the last
bit of trail to the car. Ever few steps I had to slap my calves to chase
away the guys drafting on my tights. With relief in sight, we jumped in the
car, turned on the ac, and killed any of the unlucky ones that got in too.
That night, we toasted the success of our trip. Over wine in a Greek
restaurant in Jasper, talk turned to the future. "Canada again? This
winter? You bet."
I used to think of myself as an aspiring alpinist. Now, I can safely say a
budding alpinist. I have been warned about taking the plunge. Nibbling on
something a little harder each time. It can bite back and whack you at a
seconds notice. I have taken the plunge. Having moved from North Carolina
to Colorado, I train in the mountains. Skiing, climbing, groveling, living.
Itís all good training.
© 1999 Julian Smith firstname.lastname@example.org All rights reserved