The last two weekends running, I have been in the mountains. Last weekend was at Hidden Valley near Jasper, where I accompanied a few members of the Alpine Club of Canada on a traditional multi-pitch rock climbing trip with an instructional bent.
This weekend past was to “scramble” up Grotto Mountain and Middle Sister Mountain, near Canmore, again as part of an ACC trip.
The beauty of Hidden Valley is the scramble from the road up and around the corner of a mountain to a beautiful secluded place ideal for rock climbing. The approach takes just under an hour, and actually deters many sport climbers who would rather pull off the side of the road and start climbing right away. So for the amazing quality of rock at Hidden Valley, there are surprisingly few climbers on any given day. In fact more often than not, you don’t see anybody at all. It’s like a private paradise.
Traditional multi-pitch climbing involves a few key elements: “Traditional” refers to, well, traditional climbing styles! Ie: you don’t always have a nice bolt that has been attached to the rock by a previous climber for you to clip your rope into (known as sport climbing). Instead, you are required to find the ideal route as you climb, and lay anchors in nooks, around horns, and in cracks as you see them. It adds an entirely new element to the climb, as you need to be able to multi-task and think on your toes. Or on the rock as it may be.
Multi-pitch refers to the fact that the wall you wish to climb is higher than the rope you have, so you have to climb the wall with numerous “pitches” of the rope. In a team of two climbers, the first would climb to a place where they can set up an anchor and belay station, then they tie themselves off and the second climber follows as the first climber belays from above and takes up the slack in the rope. The process gets repeated until you reach the top.
Some of the challenges I experienced that I didn’t even think about until I was there, is that you generally climb with all your gear on your back and mountaineering shoes on. Typical climbing shoes that sport climbers don are small, tightly-fitted, rubber-covered, sticky shoes, meant to stick to anything, so you can use little more than your toes to gain purchase and climb. Mountaineering boots tend to be big, bulky, and meant for hiking, not sticking to a wall. And climbing with a big pack on your back and gear slung around your neck presents a whole different challenge in terms of balance and weight management.
Another challenge is the limestone of the Rockies. In Ontario, the rock found outdoors and ideal for climbing is Granite. It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s solid. It has nice hand holds, and is gentle on the hands.
Limestone by contrast, falls apart if you look at it the wrong way, and it’s like sandpaper and razors on the hands. As you climb, you have to test every hand and foot hold before you use it because there’s a good chance it could flake away. And the rock is so sharp at times, I finished off the weekend with a a few layers of skin left on the rock, many cuts on my hands and knees, and a torn jacket and pants. But that’s okay – I like to call them “war wounds”!
What struck me the most about learning and practicing this style of climbing is how the world of mountaineering opened right up to me in the course of two days. Once you know how to climb traditionally (and have all the gear – and there’s lots of it – at your disposal), you can accomplish anything. If you are trying to scramble (or hike) up a mountain and find yourself in front of a cliff band, you can rope up and climb over it instead of turning back or trying to find another route. It is true mountaineering at its best.
The weekend was enlightening and exhilarating. Luc and Lars were our fearless leaders, and there were only two participants including myself, so it had a really intimate feel to the trip which is fabulous in this sort of scenario. After two days of camping and climbing and a stop in the Miette Hot Springs in between to nurse sore muscles, we felt invigorated. Driving away from the mountains on Sunday evening was a sad event, as the reality of the 4 hour return home and another week without the mountains set in.
It only serves to get us back into the mountains, though! Stay posted for The Gritty Grotto Adventure…..