The Weekend Thing

By Raphael Slawinski, Canada

An account of the sixth ascent of The Wild Thing (VI M7 WI5) on the northeast face of Mt. Chephren (3,266m), Canadian Rockies, by Dana Ruddy, Raphael Slawinski, and Eamonn Walsh. It was also the first ascent via the direct start, and the first continuous push ascent of a Canadian Rockies grade VI in winter.

The northeast face of Mt. Chephren, showing The Wild Thing with the direct start (red) and the original start (green; Arbic-Blanchard-Robinson, 1987), and The Dogleg Couloir (blue; Darbellay-Slawinski, 2008).  Pierre Darbellay

The northeast face of Mt. Chephren, showing The Wild Thing with the direct start (red) and the original start (green; Arbic-Blanchard-Robinson, 1987), and The Dogleg Couloir (blue; Darbellay-Slawinski, 2008). Pierre Darbellay

Hour 0 (2:30 a.m. on Saturday, February 21): Realize alarm is about to go off. Get out of bed.

I never sleep well before big climbs, and this was no exception. We had been planning a standard three-day ascent but work got in the way, and we were left with only a two-day weekend. But the weather and snow stability were too good to pass up. I was too excited to relax, and checked my watch every hour during the night.

Hour 1.5 (4:00 a.m.): Pick up Eamonn in Canmore. Stop by 24-hour Tim Horton’s. Eamonn get Boston creme, me get apple fritter.

The trick to forcing down breakfast at an ungodly hour is to do it while still half asleep. The deep-fried pastries slid down easily while we sped along the dark, empty Trans-Canada Highway.

Hour 4 (6:30 a.m.): Start skiing toward face.

We met Dana, who drove down from Jasper, and a quick packing session went more quickly since we were not bringing bivy gear. Then we were on our way.

Hour 6 (8:30 a.m.): Start up first pitch.

We booted up the giant cone below the middle gully, a silent reminder of the avalanches that sweep down at the first hint of bad weather. We had all been caught on the face in a storm before, but this time the weather was perfect, and soon we were swinging at green ice and styrofoam snow. Taking the direct start meant slower ice climbing instead of faster snow slogging on the original start, but we came to climb, not hike.

Hour 16 (6:30 p.m.): Put on headlamp. Start up crux pitch.

The day had gone smoothly, aesthetic ice pitches alternating with spindrift-pounded snow gullies. Daylight faded fast as we stood at a small stance below the notorious crux pitch, but the way ahead was obvious, even by headlamp. An awkward squeeze chimney led to a delicate traverse across a smooth slab, then a corner headed to a roof guarded by a large snow mushroom. A thin crack on the left-hand wall bypassed the ‘shroom, and offered perfect pick and pin placements. Another easier pitch and we were through the crux rock band.

Hour 21.5 (11:00 p.m.): Dig out ledge. Sit on pack. Wait for Eamonn to make veggie freeze-dried meal.

I was afraid of losing our momentum, but Eamonn wisely insisted we stop and rehydrate. While I shivered and Dana dozed slumped against me, Eamonn melted snow and produced litre after litre of wonderfully hot liquid.

Hour 23.5 (1:00 a.m. on Sunday): Stand up. Realize I am cold and miserable. Start up next pitch.

Getting going again was harder than sitting and shivering, at least to begin with. The next pitch, while not overly difficult, was loose and demanded concentration—a bit too much to ask just then.

Hour 28 (6:30 a.m.): Fall asleep standing at belay. Tie-in keeps me from falling over.

Sometime before dawn I ran out of steam, and gratefully handed over the sharp end to Eamonn. My body insisted that the early morning hours are better spent sleeping than climbing, and I gave in at the belays. Dana picked up the slack and belayed, unlike the previous year on Mt. Wilson, where I found myself falling asleep while belaying Jon. But that is another story.

Hour 33 (11:30 a.m.): Top out on cool ice runnel 10m below summit. Be very happy.

It was funny how, when the sun rose once again over the valley far below, I felt as if I had woken from a restful sleep. I eagerly led the last couple of pitches, a vein of gray alpine ice tucked in the back of a near-vertical gully. The next thing I knew I stood blinking at the bright noonday sun on a windswept scree slope. Soon my friends joined me, and we walked the last few meters to the top.

Hour 37.5 (4:00 p.m.): Posthole back to road.

We broke through to the ground with each step in the deep, rotten snow on the valley bottom. We staggered the last few hundred meters to our parked cars, tourists whizzing past, and we looked up at the huge face that had so recently engulfed us.

Hour 39 (5:30 p.m.): Have Eamonn buy me latte in Lake Louise.

The rumble strips on the road pulled double duty, Eamonn passed out on the seat next to me, and I tried hard to suck enough energy from Iggy Pop to stay awake. We pulled into Lake Louise for a serious dose of caffeine.

Hour 41.5 (8:00 p.m.): Arrive back home.

A shower, a quick bite, and I collapsed into bed. When I woke in the morning, the entire weekend seemed like one big hazy dream—which I suppose it was.

Previous Near:
January 2009
December 2008