The Spring Training “Trilogy:” Atha B North Face, Polar Circus, Yam (Directessima).
Will Gadd and Raphael Slawinski with vision and a re-supply from Kim Csizmazia, March 28 2004.
This time of year it's always hard to decide what to do in the Rockies: Spring Rock, big ice, alpine? The options are endless and as varied as the usual chaotic weather. A few evenings ago Kim Csizmazia and a few friends and I were sitting around and, while the wind whipped snow then rain then snow onto the windows, started to discuss the ultimate spring day in the Rockies After a few drinks it was obvious to Kim: The North Face of Athabasca, (THE classic alpine route,) Polar Circus (THE classic big ice rig) and Directessima on Yam, the classic rock route. "Classic" means it typifies its genre, and is a good day out on its own. None of these routes are cutting edge in difficulty, but all are respectable routes, the sort one could date and feel good about. I filed the idea under "Cool stuff to do one day, maybe soon" and left it at that as Raphael and I had plans to try a new alpine line on the Icefields Parkway. I was also trying to redpoint The Game without spurs or tool trickery (The Game continues to evolve), but my body was too destroyed to handle another foray into the depths of the Cineplex. An “alpine rest climb,” meaning anything that didn’t beat on my shoulder sockets, seemed perfect.
On Saturday Raphael Slawinski and I drove up the Parkway about noon with the intention of skiing into our alpine line (top secret, dead obvious, yeah, that one) for a pre-dawn start the next day, but we were shut down by the apparent avi hazard, despite the "moderate" listed on the avalanche report. Our suspicious were confirmed when we saw a healthy slide rake down a wall with the same aspect and angle we were considering climbing upon. Discouraged we sat in the car until I remembered Kim's link. Raph and I had talked about it, and we had all the gear except rock shoes, so why not? Kim's hip is injured so she's out of commission, but she was glad to help when I called from the Icefields, and she volunteered to meet us on the Yam parking with rock shoes should we get that far (not likely, but hey, trying would be fun!). We pitched the Bibler tent (serious gear overkill) at the Hilda lot and slept until 11:30 in the evening, then drove in the 1/4 moonlight to the Atha B parking lot.
Athabasca North Face, 12:15 a.m.
At 12:15 a.m. we crushed the "wake up" cans of go juice, strapped on the packs and skis and headed up the morraine. We were both missing our friend Margo's birthday party and imagined all the people drinking and carousing at the same time we battled a very cold wind in the middle of the night. We joked about how much more fun they were having, but it was cool to be just starting out on a huge adventure--as always, I wondered if we could do it. I had drawn up a rough schedule in the car the night before, but everything had to go smoothly for the plan to work... Big linkups generally take planning, we hadn't really done any but off to the races!
The skiing was a bit slow—lots of new snow, and our pace slowed down even more after we left our skis at the base of the Silverhorn and postholed in the dark to the base of the north face. Our first doubts came as we huddled in the bergschrund while a frigid wind ripped snow across us; it was the darkest hour of the night and the conditions were just about too much to handle. If the rest of the face was experiencing the same wind it wasn't going to be fun. Strapping on crampons and digging out ice gear just sucked; our fingers froze, and we both felt tired after sleeping for only an hour or two. Later, Raph and I both admitted we were close to calling it a day before the sun was even up, it was pretty miserable--and this was supposed to be spring!
The moon was gone so it was totally black as we started soloing up. It was surreal to be climbing by headlight up the endless ice in the middle of the night, the only noises the whack/crack of tools on ice and the cold wind ripping at us. The entire face was pure ice except for about 10 feet of rock, I have never seen the face with so much ice, which made for an insane calf burn as the ice flowed into our headlamps and then away behind us for over an hour. I almost started campusing at one point to take the weight off my burning calves. We belayed the rock bit for safety, it's a bit weird but there's a fair amount of fixed gear. We could see headlights on the morraine below from a party just starting up; we wondered if they could see our lights and what they thought--probably, "What the hell are those nutters doing up there at this time?"
At around 5:30 we pulled onto the summit just as the sun started rising on the high peaks around us, a beautiful sight despite the savage wind. Raph froze his nose a bit, spring was NOT in effect up here! The sun was out and bouncing off the ice below the Silverhorn and around the mountains as we walked down having made the summit earlier than I normally wake up. Memories of the cold night faded as the sun rose, funny how that works. After an adventurous ski (hey, these bindings really do release!) we were back at the car at 7:30, more Red Bull, CALORIES, and at the base of Polar Circus by about 8:15ish. A little behind schedule, but pretty close!
Polar Circus: 8:15 a.m.
Polar Circus looked to be in good shape, but we were both tired as we soloed up the lower sun-baked pitches. Raph and I kept a step of snow between us to avoid knocking ice down on each other as we soloed. I was a step ahead of Raph, and everytime I pulled the top of a step I would look back and there would be Raph, seemingly urging me to get a move on. Later he said he thought I was just waltzing along while he was desperately fighting to move upward in slow motion. I laughed because to me it had seemed just the opposite, that I was getting chased up the climb by Raph! Perception is everything, but in reality we were moving well although the lower pitches were sun-baked. We soloed to the base of the headwall, then roped up and used a few speedy tactics to stay fast through there, back at the car at 12:30.
We both felt lethargic from being up all night, but pounded more water, Red Bull (drink of the gods for mortals), and drove to Lake Louise where we raided the gas station convenience store like locusts (leave no calorie behind!) and busted a move back toward Yam, calling Kim en-route to let her know we were early enough to still try Yam. I always know I'm getting dehydrated when colors start to "fade" a bit, even though Raph and I had drank at least five liters of water each...Knowing that we possibly had time for Yam was sort of inspirational, but in a hazy, "Yep, sure be great to do that..." way. Kim met us at Yam with rock shoes, more water and food, and warm-weather clothes after the driving/hydration session.
Yamnuska Parking Lot, 3:15 p.m.
It was bizzare to be dressed in T-shirts in the Yam parking lot at after freezing in full conditions on Atha B; dark, cold windy, then ice climbing, now it's summer. We started walking at 3:15 and both felt tired on the walk up--constant motion is not perpetual motion. We answered a few, "Bit late for a route isn't it? questions with, "Yes." Raph kept slowing to stop and talk to friends coming down, but we were on a mission. All day we had been cutting our transition times as tight as possible; with so much climbing, five or ten minutes wasted here or there would add up to hours we didn't have. Besides, Raph’s pale winter skin was blinding people as he walked sans shirt...
The face was already in shadow and starting to cool, but compared to Atha B it was still tropical--why then were we cold again? Perception, we had just been warm, now cold, our bodies protested. At 4:20 Raph left the ground for his block, and at 7:00 I pulled the over the top after mine. I'd never done Directessima, the final "5.8" pitch seemed stout for 5.8, but perhaps I was tired. Even though it was chilly in the shade I was happy to be on such a classic rock route, made all the sweeter by day's earlier events. The wind was cold and the snow starting to re-freeze as we cruised back down to the car under headlmap power, tired, sore but happy to have had a full spring day of it.
Finish: Yam Parking lot, 8:00 p.m., a good 20 hours on the go.
The parking lot was empty and quiet as we sorted a huge stack of gear into two piles, but we kept smiling in the dark. It was a perfect spring day! Thanks to Raph and Kim for the experience, it takes a certain kind of mind to both conceive of this and then pull it off, Kim and Raph did that respectively. Under perfect conditions (harder snow, snow instead of ice on the North Face of Atha B, fitter humans) this could of course be done in less time, but that's beside the point. What the point is seems rather vague, but it truly was a perfect spring “day.” We were helped by Raph's high fitness level (although a Canadian climbing magazine once called him an “Alpine Hobbyist” he's done two Temple north face routes and a fair amount of other climbing in the last few weeks) and Kim's re-supply at the Yam lot. Raph was a solid partner (not that many people would even want to try this, much less stay motivated after the initial setback of not going up a new route!). I'll bet he enjoyed teaching classes today. I enjoyed watching the snow fall again, a sign of typical spring weather in the Rockies.