Home/Mountaineering/Cold Mountain information

Another week in the Canadian Rockies

By Q.-Tuan Luong © 1996


A personal trip report about a week of ice-climbing in the Canadian Rockies in February 1996, ending with the 4th repeat of the Sea of Vapors.

I met my ``net friends'' George Bell, Larry Thurman, and Wayne Trzyna at the Calgary airport on Tuesday evening. During the ride back to Canmore, they told me about the good conditions and the great climbs they had been doing in the last few days. They mentioned that the well known Alex Lowe, had even pulled off the first repetition of the Sea of Vapors (V-7+). Climbed in 1993 by Joe Josephson and Bruce Hendricks, this line is the only one in the Rockies that has received a rating of WI 7+, because of the sustained thin ice. The technical and psychological difficulties make it one of the hardest ice climbs anywhere. The discussion in the car centered on whether the second ascent party would downgrade the climb, which they thought was ``easy'' (but which is nevertheless still one of the most difficult in Canada). I didn't feel very concerned by all this, since I had decided that I would be happy with this trip if I could just do the Weeping Pillar (V-6). But apparently everyone had heard of the repeat. Upon entering entering the lounge at the Clubhouse, I saw Pete Takeda, the famous big wall expert, whom I recognized because I had attended one of his slide shows in Berkeley. He and his partner Bob Cordery-Cotter greeted me and asked immediately whether I would join them for an attempt on the Sea of Vapors. I thought that they were joking, especially since I knew that Pete was not a very experienced ice climber, but nevertheless I said that I would think about it the next day, depending on how my climbing felt. It sounded a bit strange to me that now that the climb has been said by someone to be thick, everyone would want to get on it, since the very reason why it had acquired such an aura was that it was extremely thin. Before going to sleep, I had an interesting conversation with Pete about the social structures in California and his former life as a climbing bum, the kind of life that has been always somewhat of a temptation for me. I was trying to make sense of climbing as a means to find a purpose in life.

On Wednesday, Wayne and I went to Field. On the way, Wayne showed me the Sea of Vapors; I didn't even know where the line was. Four pitches high, it looked distant and tiny from the Trans-Canadian highway. I thought a bit about Bob and Pete's offer. Pete had mentioned that Bob would be willing to lead the crux pitch. I felt tempted, because it would for sure look like an achievement, which seemed to be the thing I was after. Wayne put me on belay and I started up Pilsner Pillar (II-6). The line that I picked turned out to be technical and strenuous. I wasn't too happy with the fact that it took me an hour and a half to lead the pitch. Worse, I had the feeling that, because I hadn't done any real training this year, I was playing the dangerous game of substituting mental control for physical strength. To conserve energy, I placed only three screws on the pitch, whereas in prior years I had stuck with the simple rule ``technical degree equals number of screws''. But having less pro made me even more cautious and less trusting of my tool placements. I overdrove my picks, then froze up, not daring to pull on them. I decided that I would have to mention all this to Pete and Bob, and see if they still wanted me to join them. I also wanted to see what my own group thought about all this. Wayne had the feeling that Pete, Bob, and I would do the long and strenuous hike then retreat at the crux. But since he and the others wanted to take a rest day it would be fine with them. We picked up George and Larry at the Professor (III-4), and headed for dinner in Banff, hanging out there for what seemed like forever. When we got back to the Clubhouse, Pete and Bob were already asleep. I bedded down near them, but didn't sleep well, since I didn't want to miss them in the morning. When Pete got up at 4:30, I asked him what the plan was, and as he replied that they were going back to try the Sorcerer, I concluded that they were not really serious about the Sea of Vapors. That made perfect sense to me. So I forgot about the route which I would not even have thought about normally, and went back to sleep.

Since nobody in the group felt like climbing on Thursday, I asked to be dropped at The Professor. It was a fine day, and I began to feel more at peace with myself and my climbing because I was just there for the sheer pleasure of climbing, not to scare myself or to play the numbers game. Moreover, I felt good that I had managed to complete the approach, the climb, the descent, and the walk-out exactly within the five hours they had allocated to me, without rushing myself. We drove to the Rampart Creek Hostel. Wayne was quite psyched upon seeing The Weeping Wall, but in the kitchen other climbers who had been climbing in the warm afternoon told stories of mushy ice and truck-size blocks of ice falling from the Upper Wall. So Wayne decided to go on Polar Circus (V-5) instead with George. He had turned back from the base of the last pitch, fifteen years ago, so this was an important project for him.

On Friday, I would climb the shorter Kitty Hawk (IV-5) with Larry, placing only one screw per pitch because I was expecting to have to solo again if I was to get more climbing done. Larry is really a cool and understanding person who tried to be very nice to me, and so I felt sorry that I was not able to hide my disappointment from him. I was not too happy that Wayne had opted against the Weeping Pillar. When he and George arrived at the hostel before us. I couldn't help compare their performance, done despite trail-breaking in very deep snow with my experience two years before on the same route. My partner Jim and I had returned to the hostel quite late at night.

Nonetheless, Wayne and George had had a long day, and didn't want to get up early the next morning. So on Saturday morning, I got up at 6, with the intention to climb the Weeping Wall (III-5) by myself, which helped me find some peace and sleep better that night. Although I liked the company of the group, I had the feeling I was not getting enough climbing done, and it seemed that it was more important for me to try to accomplish something than to just hang out with friends. We were not very well synchronized, since I arrived latter than the rest of the group, and therefore I had more energy and desire to climb left. I wondered if others have the same feeling when they climb just for fun, rather than for self-actualization.

Since it was cloudy, there was no need to start early, and therefore I went back to bed with the hope of talking the group into going later to Curtain Call (IV-6), trading an easier objective against a bigger one with more uncertainty. Indeed, very cooperatively, Wayne and George agreed to come along with me and did most of the difficult trail-breaking. But because of a long breakfast and the deep snow, it was clear by the time I started that I wouldn't have enough time to do the last pitch, exactly like my experience two years ago. I regretted not having chosen a shorter climb like Ice Nine or Oh le Tabernacle , because I knew that a new failure would hurt me. But at the same time, I wondered about how strange the climber's logic is. If I had done Oh le Tabernacle, I would have called it a day, whereas doing only the two first pitches of Curtain Call would leave me unsatisfied. However, the two first pitches of Curtain Call are a longer and more difficult climb than Oh le Tabernacle. Although the 60-meter-long lead took me almost two hours, I felt quite confident, because my placements where far more solid than the placements of two years ago and because I never felt pumped. When I did the same pitch two years before, it was rated WI-5 in the guidebook by Albi Sole, and the ice was very fragile. I was scared, and as a result I thought then that I was not good enough to try the Weeping Pillar. I wouldn't have tried to return and complete Curtain Call this year if the guidebook by Joe Josephson had not upgraded it to WI-6, moreover describing it as one of the scariest-looking climbs around.

That evening, upon hearing my plans to go again by myself on the Weeping Wall, Wayne agreed to climb with me, provided that he lead everything and that we climb fast, since two of us had to be Calgary that afternoon to catch planes, and Wayne is a fast leader. We got up early on Sunday. The ice was perfect. We also worked perfectly as a team, climbing fast so even following was a pure joy. In addition, a snow storm had moved in, so the frigid landscape gave the climb a severe atmosphere that you would not suspect from one of the most accessible walls in the Rockies. We finished the lower wall at 10, and could have easily done the upper wall in excellent conditions. But since I and George were to fly out from Calgary that afternoon, we rapped down the Snivelling Gully. I was eventually quite happy with the finish of those five days.

We stopped at the Clubhouse in Canmore to retrieve gear and to repack. Bob was hanging out there. I told him that if they had gone to the Sea of Vapors, I would have joined them. He said that I should have awakened him, and that now I should stay. But in my mind the trip was finished. Also I remembered that when I wanted to change a plane ticket last week, to be able to stop over in Vancouver and possibly finish the Project, the airline quoted me a totally outrageous fee. I checked my luggage at the airport. My plane was due to leave in half an hour. But the idea of the Sea of Vapors had again found its way in my mind. It was maybe an opportunity that would not reappear. It would project a totally different meaning on the whole trip. Now I wanted to climb it, just for the hell of it. I rushed over to the ticketing desk to ask how much they would charge me for the change. It was a small amount of money. I rushed to leave a message to Wayne to wait for me. I rushed to try to get my luggage out of the plane. The clerk said he was not sure he would be able to, leaving me in 15 minutes of suspense. Eventually I called the Clubhouse. ``This is a message for Bob from Tuan. I will climb the Sea of Vapors with you tomorrow''. Before heading back to Canmore with Larry and Wayne, we had dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Calgary's Chinatown. I began to realize that I had nothing to eat or drink all day, and that I had not been resting at all that week, getting up quite early each day. I had to take better care of myself. I was grateful to Larry and Wayne for putting up with me, and driving back while I tried to take a nap in the rear of the new rental car. When we got back at the Clubhouse, I found Bob in an animated discussion with Terry, one of the Brits who had done the route the same day. Terry said that the day before, after they ferried their gear to the base of the climb, they saw in action the party which had made the fourth ascent. The leader took a huge fall at the crux, ending below the belayer. Then they gave a very precise description of the moves that their leader Keith Haberl, a local climber who was on the first ascent of extreme climbs like the Replicant and the Drip in the Center of the Universe, had managed to cruise. I was latter informed by email that the third ascent was done by David Thomson and Karen McNeil in good style the day after Alex Lowe did it. Dave and Karen had been up to try it the previous week but it was too windy. In the words of Dave, "I'm an aesthete. I don't climb when it's windy." Bob asked me whether I wanted to take a rest day, but I declined. I wanted to climb then, and besides, I was already pushing my vacation time. I tried to dry my clothing, which I packed very wet from the climb of that morning in full conditions, using a drying machine and the sauna. It was 10:30 by the time I had sorted my gear. Going to bed, I thought about the description of the crux traverse, and also about the 700 meter high circuitous approach. Would I be strong enough to do all that ? I regretted not having tried to stay in good shape this winter and thought a bit about the suffering it would be.

On Monday morning, the doubts seemed to have vanished, leaving only the desire to climb. We were feeling very motivated. During the short drive, Bob and I talked about our respective climbing experiences. He had never met me before, and had just heard from Wayne that I was a good ice-climber who lead the Fang in Vail in quite difficult conditions. I had never heard of him before, but I had faith in him, since I could see his passion for what was entirely his project of which he said he would lead the crux pitch. It is only latter that I learned that he is actually quite famous in Canadian climbing. We discovered that we had a lot of similar experiences. We had both climbed the Shroud on Grandes Jorasses solo, and we both have climbed the Ginat (so called Jackson) route on Les Droites in surprisingly similar circumstances, starting at about the same time, finishing in a storm and having to bivy at the summit ``breche'' because of a white-out after the same 20-hour climb. Feeling that we were in some ways peers contributed the euphoria during the beginning of the approach. Before we noticed it, we arrived near the base of The Professor's falls. This meant that we had gone too far, and missed The Terminator's approach trail. We thought that it would be obvious, as the Brits said, since three parties had hiked up and down the trail during the last week, but after one hour of looking for it back and forth, the doubts began to invade me. Bob suggested that maybe we should try again the next day. I didn't want to, because I thought that if we were not smart enough to find the approach, we did not belong on the climb. I began to be critical, to reproach him for not havinb taken the guidebook, to reproach to myself for having trusted him too much (he had checked this approach on a previous day), to reproach to the Brits for not having given us enough details about how to find the trail. It was now 7, and the day was starting. And then, we bumped into the trail. We began to reassure ourselves by saying that we had lost only one hour. Indeed, thanks to the trail, we arrived at the base of the climb three hours later, and were able to start to climb at 10:30.

After an easy pitch, the climb begins with a WI-5 pillar called Postcriptum. It was said by Bruce Hendricks to be really hard for its grade, but didn't appear so to me. Now our success is going to depend on Bob, who starts the crux pitch. While I am freezing at the belay, I am wondering if he is over doing it, when he placed four pitons in the first ten meters, especially when he takes a short fall trying to place a fifth piton. After a first attempt, he eventually traverses right, doing some rock moves, before again grabbing a tool and trying to get placements on ice that looks thin. During the whole traverse, he keeps saying ``watch me'', and I keep shouting back ``I got you well''. By then, the going looks a bit easier, and two hours later, it is my turn to follow. I begin to realize that this was a beautiful and very bold lead. Where Bob was able to pound in pitons, I can barely keep my balance, and ask to clean later, on rappel. A move during which I have to match my left hand to a right tool hook begins to take my energy away. The traverse has a couple of rock moves which are strenuous and exposed. At the end of it, the ice is almost vertical, and so thin that you can get only the first tooth of your pick to bite. I can barely follow without falling, and I am very impressed that someone could lead such a thing, understanding now what WI-7 is about. The second half of the pitch is easier, but when I arrive at the belay, I am nevertheless so pumped that I wonder if I will be able to lead the next pitch. Then Bob tells me that I will be just fine, and that the more I can lead, the better. I leave the hanging belay, set in the middle of the ice stream. Bob uses the pack to shelter himself against the chunks of ice that I detach. The ice is very good and looks thick, but I still want to place a screw as soon as possible. I chose a long one, 22 centimeters. To my surprise, it bottoms against the underlying rock, and I have to use a short 17 centimeter tied-off screw. This fact would repeat all over again on the remaining portion of the climb. The pitch is steep, and feels long to me, but the idea that it will be my last lead of the day keeps me going. However, when Bob arrives at the belay, he tells me that he is tired, and that he would prefer that I lead again. I don't mind. We are working in good synchronicity. Bob had been training on boulders with crampons, and was ready for the difficult pitch. I can do the ice. The previous pitch, although it felt long, was in excellent ice and therefore looked almost as easy as a WI 5 pitch (despite the original WI-6+ rating given in thinner conditions). But it is half past five, and I know that I will have to finish the last pitch in the dark, especially because I pop off my right crampon five meters above the belay and have to hang precariously to replace it. In the middle of the pitch, I turn my dim headlamp on and keep on going, fearing that it will die before I reach the belay. I am eagerly looking for the fixed Abalakov anchors that the previous party must have left. One part of me feels tired, and would just like to stop, set up a belay, and rap down. But another part of me is inspired to climb, and like in a dream, I move smoothly up the final pitch free of the doubts which had plagued my climbing at the beginning of the week. My last screw placed halfway up the pitch in the fading light, totally focussed on each move, I do not even notice that the pitch, which would take three-quarters of an hour for Bob to follow, is mostly vertical. Because of the night, the fatigue, and my emotional state, everything feels irreal. The wind begins to blow harder, while I was belaying Bob, but now I feel very warm inside.

Acknowledgements: Eric Hirst, Lee Purvis, Wayne Trzyna, Marcus Cole, and Vin made corrections and suggestions which helped improve this report.

Home/Mountaineering/Cold Mountain information