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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Stanley Peak

John Harlin and I were super-keen to climb a peak during our visit to Banff, and fortunately the autumn snows had been light and the weather on Saturday was excellent. While UIAA delegates argued over the future of the organization in a Banff conference room and AAC board members headed to cliffs around Canmore for some cragging, John and I got up in the dark to head to Stanley Peak, about half an hour away from Banff. We didn't exactly get an alpine start, leaving the trailhead at 7:45 a.m., but we figured we could finish a route on Stanley's north face and still get back to Banff for the Alpine Club of Canada's centennial festivities. The sun rose as we hiked past the Stanley Headwall, its notorious ice climbs only showing smidges of ice, and after a couple of hours we reached the base of the glacier, which had iron-hard, centuries-old ice at the base but a healthy covering of snow above.

Living in Colorado, I have easy access to abundant and diverse climbing, but the one thing that's missing is glacial mountaineering, so it was great fun for me just to get the chance to rope up and zig-zag through some crevasses, leaping the odd snow bridge. Guides' reports on the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides site had commented on the abundance and size of new crevasses on Rockies glaciers, and though we had no basis for comparison we found the Stanley Glacier to be surprisingly complex. The schrund on our chosen route, the Waterman Couloir, was big but pretty easy to pass on the right. Above, it looked like a short, simple snow gully, but the couloir was at least 1,000 feet long and took us more than two hours to climb, even though we moved together. The snow covering was thin, and the ice underneath was glassy, brittle, and super-hard, and it was filled with hidden shards of limestone and shale. I smacked my picks dozens of times on hidden rocks, and later discovered that I had bent the tip of one of them, which I'd like to think is an explanation for why my left hand was getting so tired near the top.

(By the way, Black Diamond sells three versions of its picks for the Viper tools I use: Don't buy the Laser pick, which is sold for "pure ice," because almost no ice climb is that "pure." You'll end up hitting rock sooner or later, and I bent the tips of two Lasesr picks in a single season. OK, maybe I overswing a bit, but I'll only buy the tougher Fusion or Titan picks from now on.)

John amazes me with his fitness. He has spent most of the last year in Mexico, working on a book, with almost no opportunities to get into the mountains. Yet he kicked my ass on this 5,000-vertical-foot day, and he seemed unfazed by 1,000 feet of ice climbing. Some of it is due to sheer enthusiasm—he relishes each of his limited days in the hills—but he also stays honed by making daily life a workout. He says escalators are a "pet peeve" and never uses them; he takes the stairs if he has less than seven flights to go up or down. In the airport on the way home, I watched him work his calves at the counter by our gate, rocking up onto his toes over and over, and doing curls with his 20-pound briefcase as we waited in line for security. Whatever he's doing, it seems to work.

Stanely is a decent-sized Rockies peak at 3,155 meters (10,351 feet), and from the top we could see Assiniboine, Temple, and thousands of other peaks—I've got to get back here! The descent was long and complicated. We hadn't brought the guidebook, but I'm not sure it would have helped anway. The descent to the east, down a snow gully adjacent to an icefall, now appears choked with crevasses and ice walls. We ended up downclimbing a gully farther east that could easily have been a climb. Two routes in one day! It was a 12-hour round trip to the car, and we were sure we'd missed the Alpine Club of Canada's centennial dinner, but such events apparently start later in Canada than at home: We sat down at 9 p.m., just in time for the first course. John stayed up dancing and carousing until after 3 a.m. I went to bed at midnight, hoping it would rain the next day so we wouldn't have to climb again. But it was just good enough to go to Yamnuska.

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