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Canada, feb 1996, a trip report

By Wayne Trzyna & copy 1996

In spite of trying to squeeze in one final climb and consequently missing my plane, I'm back from ice-climbing, skiing, and post-holing in the Canadian Rockies. George Bell and I flew out from Colorado to Calgary where we met Larry Thurman, from Las Vegas and later, Quang-Tuan Luong from California, originally from France. Most of us met in the rec.climbing usenet group on the internet. Larry has no net access but the other names are probably painfully familiar to rec.climbing readers. We also ran into Robert Cordery-Cotter, who also has no net access but at least has a big 3/4 ton truck capable of getting in and out of the Ghost River drainage.

Generally speaking, conditions were fat and plastic. We ticked off the following routes:

Several of these climbs stand out as memorable.

During the approach to Sorcerer, Larry and I decided that George must have a Moose as an ancestor somewhere in his family tree. Our party was the first to climb it since the previous week's storms, and it took four hours of difficult knee-or-deeper post-holing to reach the base of the route. George led almost the entire approach, claiming that it was to keep me fresh for leading the ice. I let him live with that misconception, knowing the real reason was that Larry and I simply couldn't keep up, having no moose in our lineage. Upon reaching the ice, we flowed up the climb with a satisfying teamwork, three of us finishing the four full-length pitches in five and a half hours. Several more hours of post-holing deposited us, exhausted, back at the rental-car at around 10:30pm. The drive in had been quite tricky, and we were worried about getting stuck or lost driving out in the dark. Get really stuck, and it is a day's walk out. The last thing we wanted to do in our tired, hungry, exhausted state, after 14 hours of climbing and hiking, was to spend several hours shoveling our 4-wheel-drive GMC out of the snow. The ghost is a maze of two-track ruts and snow-drifts. Driving there requires understanding both direction and momentum; hesitate, and you are stuck. But this strategy becomes counterproductive on taking a wrong turn, which is what we did at one point. The conversation went something like this:

"Go right!"
"Oh shit, this isn't it."
"We're hosed."
"Don't stop!"
"There're no track's here."
"We're hosed."
"Keep going! We're committed now."
"Oh crap!"
"That's it; we're stuck."
Then, after a pause, "Well, let's get out and shovel."

The night wore on like this and we finally reached the Big Hill, where the road becomes more well-defined, at about midnight. Just as we were settling into a state of contented repose and thought we had things cooked, an enormous cow moose jumped in front of the car. You really cannot appreciate how huge, yet agile, these creatures are until you've had one darting about like a jack-rabbit in the headlights of your speeding vehicle, about two millimeters from your front bumper. First the moose and I swerved left; then the moose and I swerved right. The anti-lock brakes scraped and ground. After what seemed like a prolonged realization of inevitable disaster, the car finally stuck in the ditch while the moose darted off. It was so close we had to get out and look at the front of the car to convince ourselves we hadn't hit it. More shoveling, and we were on our way again.

Several days later, George and I had a smooth, efficient climb on Polar Circus, notwithstanding a bad start wandering around in the dark looking for a non-existent approach trail. Apparently, as with the Sorcerer, this route had not been climbed since the big storm. We finished the climb in 12 hours car to car, without any sort of break, wanting to get off the thing as quickly as possible, given the dubious avalanche situation. Everywhere was untenable hoar snow and evidence of wet avalanches, for which we coined the term slushalanches. We arrived back down to the road just as it was getting dark. Since Larry and Tuan hadn't yet returned from Kitty-Hawk to pick us up, we hitched a ride back to the hostel in the back of a pickup truck. We huddled down behind the cab, tired, wet, and hungry, while 100 kilometer per hour back-wash gales blew into our collars. Full conditions!" I shouted at George over the howl of the road.

Tuan and I had a marvelous early morning climb of Weeping Wall Right Hand. Tuan and George both had planes to catch in Calgary that afternoon, so we promised the disbelieving others we'd be back at the hostel by 11:00am. I planned to lead, since fast leading is my specialty. I had several motives for engaging in this game of make-your-partners-miss-their-planes speed-climbing. For one, I get a very deep satisfaction out of doing long routes fast and efficiently. This is my favorite form of climbing, and I knew we could do it. But the bigger reason was that Tuan was feeling blue. Having arrived late in the week, when the rest of us were burning out, he was having trouble finding willing partners. Also, our group was rather large and had a disparate range of motives and abilities. On one end was Tuan, who shuns long approaches, sleep, and even taking the time to eat a meal, as demons out to steal time he'd rather spend on hard, scary WI6 pitches. At the other end of the spectrum was Dr Thurman, who was happy just to be out in the wilderness where his patients and Residents couldn't bother him at 2:00am, and who appreciates a long approach in a beautiful setting as much as the climb, and emphatically more than the climb as the climbing gets vertical and beyond. Finally, conditions were warming such that sun-facing routes were becoming quite dangerous. All these factors conspired to keep Tuan from his goals, leaving him a glum, frustrated fellow. During his final evening at the hostel, he wore a long face, which he couldn't disguise. Feeling sympathetic, I offered to get up, yet again, at 4:00am to do the route with him.

It turned out a memorable morning, alpine and remote in flavor, not like you'd expect on a popular route like the Weeping Wall. Perhaps it was soloing the first pitch in the dark by head lamp, side by side without conversation, or the heavy snow which fell throughout the climb, or the complete lack of other climbers or even a passing car at this hour on the road below -- whatever the reason, it felt like wilderness climbing. As we finished rappeling at about 11:00am a crash and a shout of "ICE!!!" from a party on the first pitch of the Left Hand route alerted us that the Wall's daily hordes had begun their arrival. Nobody missed their plane that day, though a short avalanche closure on the road back to the hostel had George and Larry sweating, waiting for us to pick them up.

Tuan will probably post his story of his and Bobs remarkable climb of Sea of Vapors. But there are several sub-plots worth telling. After dropping Tuan and George at the airport and returning to our vehicle we found a note. On it was scribbled:

	Please wait for me.
We stood around for a while, wondering what on earth might be up. Did he leave something in the car? Did he miss his plane? Eventually Tuan showed up with an excited, anxious grin and announced in his understated French accent, "I have decided to stay and climb Sea of Vapors with Bob." "But Tuan, don't you have to work tomorrow?" "I think it is a holiday tomorrow, so they will only miss me on Tuesday. One day won't matter. I am trying to change my ticket now. Please wait." "Where are your bags?" "I had already checked them, but they think they can get them back before the plane leaves." Larry responds, "That's really something! You're something else, Tuan. Willing to cast fate to the wind, and do the climb. I like you!"

Later that night, too late given their intended 4:00am start, Bob and Tuan were sorting their rack. Bob finally went upstairs to bed. A few minutes later I knocked on his door and was greeted with a a contemptuous "What?" I stood there with a single piton in my hand and said, "Here. Take this." Bob looked quizzically at me and the Piton for moment, grabbed it, said "OK", and went back to bed.

About 36 hours later when I next saw Bob he greeted me with a big smile saying, "That piton you gave me caught a big fall!" I thought for a moment and replied, "I saved your life! Just remember, you owe me." "Yeah, you did. I owe you some beers anyway. What made you give me that piton?" I confessed I'd talked to one of the Brits who'd done the route the day before, and he'd pointed to that particular pin on my rack, and suggested it would come in handy.

Hearing Bob and Tuan's stories of various aspects of the climb, we were all left with some doubt as to which aspects of the climb posed the greatest difficulties. Was it the scary rotten rock traverse pitch led by Bob, the thin ice pitches led by Tuan, the tricky descent in the dark with a head-lamp burnt out, or...? Well, having spent four hours riding in and out of the Ghost with Bob, listening to Country and Western music and Bob's colorful, non-stop monologue, "The World According to Bob", both at excessive volume, I've got my own opinion on this: It was the drive.

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