There are two obvious compelling lines on the North Face of Little Sister. Both are visible from Canmore; if these lines were in Colorado, there would be a stack of climbers on them every day, or at least attempting them.. I've seen them for a month now, watched them grow and shrink with the various weather cycles this balmy fall. A couple of days ago the temperature finally dropped below freezing for real, and I spent an hour glassing them from various vantage points including my front deck. The left line had a wild-looking hourglass of ice at the top, with a few good mixed pitches below. The right line also looked good, but it was lower-angled. Saturday night I called around for partners, eventually hooking up with Sean Isaac. Sean and I have been dry fooling a lot at Grassi, along with everyone else thawed out of the mountains by unseasonable warmth. Last Saturday there were 25 people dry tooling the choss. Times are changing.
Sunday morning, when the rest of the world was rightfully asleep, Sean and I did battle with the developers turning the area under the Three Sisters into their own personal development haven. There are a myriad of old logging and mining roads, but the developers have put gates across them. I had to use 4WD low at one point, but the gates were missed, as were the numerous, "No trespassing, no parking, no doing nothing but ripping the hell out of the earth for another golf course/condo project." Big Brother is alive and well. They talk about wildlife corridors for the grizzly bears and other animals, but any animal wanting to use this area had better bring his cheque book and golf clubs. The old roads were slowly fading into nothing, especially compared to the clear-cutting going on for the new golf course. Eventually we parked at the base of the drainage, about a K after the "No parking or we'll tow your vehicle" sign. This was the crux of the route and source of much deep psychic conflict while we climbed: Would our truck be there when we returned?
Three hours of pleasant walking, most of it with a decent trail up the creek and then hard snow up the avalanche gully, brought us to the base of the steeper rock and ice runnels. We soloed a few easy steps, then roped up for a nasty groove filled with shaving-cream colored ice. I got the lead, went up to the ice and retreated 'cause the gear sucked, then and went up a nice crack that turned out not to be, then tried the ice again, then the buttress to the right before returning to the ice. I didn't want to climb it without gear as every time I swung with more than a chip shot I hit rock. The best way to get placements was to lightly place your tool, then pull down until it stopped ripping through the veneer. A couple of decent pins finally made me bold enough to run it out, but it was real. Sean followed with speed, only stopping once to scream as his fingers warmed up. The next pitch looked easy, and Sean casually placed a long screw into a harder than usual piece of puff ice before discovering that the climbing wasn't easy. He retreated, a decision I respite. I'd much rather climb with a solid partner who knows when it's not his day and retreats then a yahoo who goes for it. So I went for it, but managed to find some gear and piece it together to a belay in a small cave under the hourglass. I whacked shallow pins, pounded in a nut, then sunk my Cobras in for a backup. I knew the belay would hold a second's downward fall, but it wasn't great. Sean cruised the pitch, looked at my belay, then went for his special super-light bolt kit. I'm a bit twisted up about bolting, I tend to either put in a minimum of three inches of stainless or not bother, but Sean was wise and had brought the Canadian Rockies Kit. At least we had an anchor we could rap off of, and a self-drive bolt probably isn't visible from the golf course.
It was getting later, but Sean was psyched to keep climbing even if got dark. I like that in a partner, as I learned to climb in caves and haven't ever really gotten over it. Some of my partners seem to think they will turn into pumpkins at the stroke of dusk, but that's why we have headlamps. With a good belay anchor, I felt OK about getting on the Hourglass, about 50 meters of very thin vertical ice. I pounded a couple of nuts into the rock to the right of the ice, then started up the line. I love climbing like this, where you're pretty sure that you'll be rappelling quite soon but the line keeps going. After a couple of lousy stubby screws in aerated, sublimating ice, I reached the small pillar that forms the narrow part of the hour glass. I wasn't willing to get on it unless I could get some real gear, so I spent about 15 minutes hunting under the ice for a crack. Fortunately this wasn't too hard, the ice peeled like an old onion without much effort. My first few attempts to get cams to stick in the cracks were disappointing; they just slid on the icy munge no matter how carefully I cleaned it. I wanted a two-inch angle so bad I would have even carried it all the way up there, and was about to start down climbing when I remember that I had a couple of tri cams. A few whacks with the persuasion end of the Cobra and they were in there. Sean looked happier, and offered encouragement from the belay. This meant a lot; rope drag can end many a climb. The pillar was soon behind us, and as the full moon bathed the mountains Sean and I were on top of a very cool line. It's not stupid hard technically, but is engaging and now I don't have to look up at it with guilt every time I go to the post office. We left four good rap stations, and Big Brother had failed to find the truck while we were gone.
Take a good selection of pins and some nuts you don't mind pounding on. We left some fixed nuts and pins, generally on the right side of the line. The rap stations follow the route, but may be under snow soon. The avalanche gully at the base of this route is world class. We took three hours to start the real climbing, then another four for the three harder pitches out of the five total. The rest of the hours were consumed somehow like they always are. You could mountain bike to the drainage base if Big Brother builds more gates.
Big Brother Rating: Long day, alpine mixed, WI 5 R, (vertical, thin, technical gear but it's there if you hunt like a four-year old on Easter Morning).