Destiny Defied

Recently we have been stuck in some wonderful high pressure which has led to some summery temperatures. Last week the crags were dry, bone dry! I heard even Chee Dale was doable; bizarre for this time of year. 

Drew on Right Unconquerable HVS


Drew on Right Unconquerable HVS

Thursday and Friday last week were interesting. Drew and I headed to the Plantation as I had a route in mind. Quickly we realised it was too hot for any hard climbing and the grit was greasy and piping hot: this is March, right? We still had a cracking day including classics such as Left (E1) and Right Unconquerable (HVS), Namelos (E1), and Calvary (E4) alongside the overlooked Vanquished (E5 6B) and a few other very gritty unpopular affairs. 

The next day I headed back to the crag as the temperature had dropped and I got straight on my main objective, Defying Destiny (E6, 6b) with a belay from Tom Ripley. The route had a bold write up in the guide with poor flared cams being the only protection for the crux. My friend Dan had done it the week before and fallen, proving that they hold!

I had to try, but took the decision to ab the route first to check the cams. I decided they should be fine so went straight for the lead. I took my time and thought safety in numbers was key and placed 5 or 6 cams to be sure, but the Totem cams are so good in flared cracks I was happy. In the end they weren’t needed and all went well. Happy man! This would be a totally different ball game for the short.

We carried on ticking more classics but the wind chill made it feel about 20 degrees different from the day before and we ended earlier than normal. A great couple of days and let’s hope a good omen for a dry summer!

James works at Outside in Hathersage

By James Turnbull

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Last Night

Well, Spring is here... except it feels more like Summer! And we all know what Summer means. Long evenings, and after work climbing sessions, so obviously we chose to embrace the good weather with a quick hit of after work soloing at Stanage.

Beautiful evening skies over Stanage

Arriving at the Popular carpark at 5.45 Stanage was already bathed in a golden glow. We only had maybe 45 minutes to an hour, so we ran up the hill and just started wherever it looked easy. All told between myself and James we probably climbed about a thirty or so routes including Crack and Corner, Mantlepiece Buttress Direct, Heather Wall, and Manchester Buttress.


There was also a bit of time for clowning around on the top of Chimp's Corner. Well it's all a bit of fun isn't it?

Drew works at Outside in Hathersage

By Drew Withey
Footwear Sales

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Canada Ice

Having climbed lots of steep ice in Europe we decided to make the pilgrimage to one of the great ice climbing centres of the world – Canmore in Canada and the Jasper-Banff highway.

We arrived just as the temperatures were dropping after an unseasonal warm, dry spell. This meant low avalanche risk which is critical to getting onto lots of routes. Great!

We stayed at the Alpine Club of Canada clubhouse/hostel in Canmore, 1 hours drive west from Calgary. This is a good base to get going as it is cheap, comfortable and welcoming and full of climbers who can bring you up-to-speed on local conditions.

Our first choice was Johnston Canyon. A short walk (2k) up a tourist walkway through the canyon leads to an icy headwall with plenty of interesting short, single pitch climbs of different steepness. Pete (an anchorite of 70 years!) led me up a beautiful little WI2 gulley above an icy plunge pool. A good intro to Canadian ice; essential for getting ‘into it’ and remembering all those mantras (keep your heels low, strike high and firmly etc) as well as sorting out the incredible tangle of gear that seems to characterise modern ice climbing. 

Johnson Canyon

While we were climbing another member of our group managed to slip on the approach to their climb and rupture his Achilles tendon. What a start to our holiday! Poor Bill definitely got the ‘short straw’ as his trip was over before he’d even started. The next 24 hours were spent getting him back to Canmore (he managed to hobble the 2k back to the trailhead with help, a really brave effort) and arranging through his BMC insurance to get him to Calgary and home. The BMC guys were really helpful and got him on a flight the next day: business class, so he could prop his poor ankle up safely.

So 24 hours later, and climbing as a 3, we headed off for the afternoon to another local mini-crag at the inappropriately named Junk Yard. Again, several easily accessible short routes were great for a bit of practise.

Then we were ready for something a bit more ‘coq-sportif!’ Our choice was Moonlight 100m WI4. A three pitch route, it has a 3.5k approach along a frozen river through the ubiquitous pine trees which gave a real feeling of being surrounded by a vast wilderness probably inhabited by cougars, elk and wolves! The route was hard! A long 50m WI3 pitch led up to a cosy cave and solid bolted belay. Nick led and Pete and I followed ‘arrow-head’ style. Canadian WI3 is actually pretty hard and it was cold! We were taken aback by how cold our hands got seconding (Pete was nearly in tears with the hot-aches when he got to the cave stance. Just a hint of what was to come!) The long 60m top pitch was steep! If this is WI4 then we were in trouble! The ice was hard with only some ‘hooking’ from previous ascents but the screws went in OK. These Canadian grades were definitely a step up from Europe! By the time I got up I knew that I had done a ‘proper’ route.

Walking into Moonlight Moonlight

Our next stop was the most visible route in the area – Cascade 300m WI3 right above the Canmore/Banff road. This route is very prone to avalanche as it faces S and has a huge bowl of snow that occasionally vents right down the route. We hit the conditions just right – a cloudy day obscuring the sun and the previous mild spell had consolidated the meagre snow-pack. Perfect. The climb starts with about 180m of ice-scrambling up easy-ish angled ice (the most dangerous angle?) to bolts at the base of a definite steepening. 2 pitches of good steep-ish ice lead pleasantly to a short walking pitch before the final short wall at the top. A really pleasant route. We decided to take the walking descent, which made the whole day out really interesting as we swung down through trees and short, awkward rock walls back to the car.

Next we had to do a route we had actually heard of! The Professor Falls 210m WI4 is one of the ‘must-do’ routes in the area. Named after a professor who (nearly) fell off it racing for the 1st ascent, the route starts with a long 4.2k trudge down the private road to the Banff sewage works, before a further 2.5k along a riverside trail to a thrash up through the trees and the starting icefall. (The trick is to start walking at the time the employees from the sewage works are going to work in the morning. Pete and I got a lift immediately but Nick, who was 5 minutes behind us, had to walk most of it!) The route is a stately procession of fine steep pitches up a canyon-like watercourse, mainly WI3-4, with a 200m walk to reach the final steep 50m pitch. This was in great, aesthetic condition and led to a tree festooned with abseil slings. More abs and we were back on the trail out with only the road to hobble down. As luck would have it we hit the road just as a convoy of Ranger trucks loaded down with bits of elk from a day’s ‘culling’ pulled up to give us a lift back to the car. Brilliant!

A day off was called for as we were all fairly knackered. Next day Nick and I decided to go for a more mountainous setting. So we chose Kidd Falls 55m WI4, a short, steep, spectacular route set in the back country but only a 1.5k walk-in. What we didn’t pick up on was the 500m ascent in 1.5k! 2 hours after we left the car we heaved ourselves up to the bottom of the route after a knackering thrash through woods, rock bands and long snow plods. Could 2 pitches be worth all this? Yes! My first 30m WI4 pitch was steep and pumpy in a great exposed position, followed by Nick’s lead up a 20m pillar of sculptured ice to a belay far back. 3 abs later and it was all downhill back to the car. 

Kidd Falls Kidd Falls

Time to move our base again, from a hostel in Banff to Rampart Creek hostel, 150k north up the Jasper-Banff Parkway. We were psyched to step up a grade and do Polar Circus. This 800m WI5 route is the ‘do-able’ classic of the area. (The other classic is Sea of Vapours but this is WI5-7 and starts 600m up the mountainside – a bit out of our reach!) We had heard that it was in good nick and the potential avalanche danger was low, so now was as good a time to do it as we would ever get.

Rampart Creek is a great hostel stuck in the snow with freezing outside loos and no water for body washing! It is run by Ken Wood, a really enthusiastic warden, and only gets a few users in mid-week due to it being so remote. By now it was getting seriously cold! Minus 30C was the everyday temperature. With no wind it was just bearable but imparted a frisson of danger - make one mistake and it could get really serious.

We started our visit with the Weeping Wall RH 160m WI 5. The Weeping Wall is a massive sheet of ice draped over a vertical 160m band of limestone. Its southerly aspect gives it a sunny, friendly appearance but it’s steep and for us – cold! The 1st pitch (WI4) is long and elegant, up a right-leaning gangway to a nicely protected belay ledge complete with bolts. The 60m (WI5) second pitch was probably the most elegant pitch we did in our visit to Canada. Nick had the honour of leading this lovely sinuous groove of sculptured ice to belay at the rope’s end on screws. Pete and I got cold even in the sunshine which just reinforced how cold it was becoming. I was offered the final steep (WI5) pitch to the abseil tree and was half way up it when I realised that I had broken a front point on my new-ish Lynx crampons!* I quickly realised there was little point in worrying as there was nothing I could do about it anyway. 

Weeping Wall

Weeping Wall was a great morale booster for our plans for Polar Circus 800m WI5. All I needed was another pair of crampons or new front points. In desperation I asked Ken at the hostel who’s instant and generous reply was, ‘Sure, I’ve got some BD rigids that will fit your boot size.’ 10 minutes later I had the necessary points fitted and ready to go. 

Next morning we were up at 5am, dressed in ALL our warm clothes, out at 5.30 and walking by 6am. The car thermometer read -32C and the snow beneath our feet squeaked too loud for us to hear each other unless we stopped. It took us an hour to stomp up the deep-ish snow to the base of the route where Nick stepped up and volunteered to set off up the first (WI4) vertical pitch. The route follows a succession of slightly easier (WI3/4) pitches until a hanging ice boss that occasionally forms a dramatic pillar called the Pencil. Luckily for us it hadn’t formed that year so we followed the big rightwards traverse line diagonally up until an exposed snow slope led us back into the vertical heart of the route. 

Polar Circus Polar Circus

Polar Circus

Nick led up the first 60m pitch (WI4) up a great tongue of ice cascading from a narrowing high above. He belayed on screws and our first ‘Abalakov’ ice thread whilst we came up arrowhead and I led on to the bolts beneath the final 3 pitches. I led the first pitch (WI4) up deceptively steep ice to a small bowl tucked beneath the final 100m vertical cascade pouring out from the huge snow bowl above. ‘Up and at it’ was my credo as the 50m pitch (WI5) seemed endlessly steep.

Polar Circus Polar Circus

It was getting on in the day by now and the sun was on us but none of us felt the heat. Nick had checked his fingers earlier and had a real shock to see the tips white and lifeless. We panicked thinking the worst and I gave him my final spare set of heat pads** which seemed to save the day and his fingers! Once we were all assembled on the final belay ledge Nick set off up the shorter but still vertical pillar to finish. After 6-7m of cruddy ice complete with dripping water (how does that happen in -30C?) he faltered and discretion overcame his valour! We were all tired but these young chaps (Nick is 43) just don’t have the stamina these days!! I swung up to his high point, put my head down and battered my way to the top.

Nearing the top of Polar Circus

Elation! We had done it. All I had to do was get across the top icy platform and clip the final bolts and bring them both up. As I stepped across the ice broke under me and a gusher of freezing water spouted knee high up my leg and cascaded down the ice in a great wave. I stood appalled. It flowed over the top of the pitch and more importantly all over the ropes! We had heard that people had had some trouble with jammed ropes form the top belay and now I could see why. I immediately shouted to the others not to come up as we had to get down NOW before everything froze completely solid. I clipped the ropes in and started down. It’s lucky that I weigh a lot! The ropes were solid tubes of ice and I had to hammer them through my belay brake using my weight to shred the ice from the rigid ropes. I stripped all the screws and eventually reached the others and instantly we set about pulling the ropes down.

Nothing. No movement. Desperation burst through as the prospect of a forced bivi in less than -30C was something we couldn’t contemplate. I jumped and pulled using my weight again. Nick literally said ‘pull the other one!’ and set up a see-saw motion which magically seemed to free the ropes and gave us hope. Then it was free – after a fashion – and down it came. Never was there a more relieved team than us 3 on that belay. Laughter broke out, albeit only briefly, as time was flying and we had 800m to go.

By 6pm we were at the bottom. Climbing as a three is fairly efficient in ascent but adds a lot of time when abbing despite using bolts apart from our previously placed ‘Abalakov’. The last ab is always a breeze as you really don’t care about the ropes jamming as you know you’re down! There followed an hour floundering down the snow in the cold and dark and into the car by 7pm - 14 hours round trip. Not bad for a rope of 3 with a combined age of around 175!

We had earned a day off. Our drive south down the Parkway to the Lake Louise hostel started with our car thermometer registering -38C! This 150k drive is a ‘must-do’ trip in winter. I had done it in the summer but the pine fringed mountains without a covering of snow look more like giant rubble heaps. In winter they look magnificent and the drive becomes a fabulous journey through an archetypal mountain landscape with tantalising ice lines on every peak.

The Parkway

Pete decided to rest on his laurels after his efforts on Polar Circus. His right thumb was slightly frost nipped and he maintained that being 70 was a good enough excuse for anyone. Nick and I decided that we had one more route in us despite being a bit jaded after 2 weeks of steep ice. Our first aim was to do Carlsberg Column WI5 but I was back on my broken crampon again so we opted for the easier Guinness Gully 160m WI4 just outside the small village of Field. 

After doing what the guidebook*** said you couldn’t do – getting lost in Field – we set off up the trench to the route with more of a sense of duty than desire. Nick led all the steeper pitches which now seemed fairly routine, especially as the route was well travelled (such were the ‘hooks’ and steps that I could have done the first WI3-4 pitch without any points on my crampon!) It was a good route but we had had enough. Home beckoned but we still had one thing to do.

Guiness Gully

Next day we travelled back to Canmore to see our friends, re-organise and pack for the flight home. The other ‘must-do’ was a trip to the Banff Hot Springs baths to swim in the hot springs outdoor pool! It was great – lying in 40C water with your hair freezing on your head in -20C air temp is a bizarre experience especially as you gaze up onto snow clad peaks surrounding the pool.

Hot Springs in Banff

What a perfect way to end a fantastic trip. 

*(Luckily I was using twin front points or I would have been in big trouble. I use twin points on steep ice as my experience of using mono-points on chandeliered ice is that you can’t always get your front points to reach into the grooves formed by the corrugations. For mixed ground, mono-points rule! Petzl have since upgraded the front points of the early Lynx crampons as they did have a small incidence of breakage.)

** Heat pads or hand warmers (Hothands) are potential finger savers in extreme conditions. I climbed most of Polar Circus with one in each glove and I still got cold fingers especially when seconding. One of the party who climbed the route on the next day got bad frostbite in his thumb – he didn’t have any heat pads!

*** The new selected climbs guidebook to the area – Icelines - is a welcome arrival as the old guide book is long out of print and reputedly worth 250 US$ on the internet!

You can often find Dick Turnbull in Outside in Hathersage, strutting around like he owns the place. I guess that's because he does!

By Dick Turnbull
Owner of Outside

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