Canada 5: Late night special on Asteroid Alley

Colin Simon leading on Asteroid Alley on Mt Andromeda. Photo by Steve Swenson.
Colin Simon leading on Asteroid Alley on Mt Andromeda. Photo by Steve Swenson.

Asteroid Alley

 by Colin Simon

 

The same day Buster, Steve House and Steven left to climb The Silver Lining, Marianne, Steve Swenson and I had a small epic on Asteroid Alley on Mount Andromeda.We leave our hostel along the Icefields Parkway and are hiking by 8am. We cross the small glacier and spend half an hour breaking up the large snow cone that wind into the gullies that form Asteroid Alley and Shooting Gallery.

 

Marianne leads the first roped pitches through a progressively harder gully, to the base of a long chimney. I take the lead and enter a chimney. I hip scum past a chockstone and follow a long runnel of ice in the back of the chimney – it seems brilliant: the chimney is not a squeeze, and has smooth, continuously steep ice in the back. It would be pumpy, but the sides of the chimney allow me to rest when needed. I follow the ice for another thirty meters to the base of an intimidating pair of chockstones that choke the top of the chimney. The outer chockstone is far out on the outside of the chimney, and the inner chockstone is a jagged triangle just outside the ice runnel I am climbing, looking straight down on me like an enormous tooth. There is just enough space to squeeze between the two chockstones.

 

I place my last ice screw in ice behind the tooth, stem my feet on the sides of the chimney, and lean back to undercling the tooth with both hands – my soaked gloves instantly gecko to the cold, rough, dark brown Canadian limestone, pinning my hands. I kick my shiny new Grivel crampons into a smear of ice, and rip my gloves off the tooth, leaving small shreds of fabric on the frozen rock. I pluck my ice tools from the ice and find positive hooks above the chockstone. As I chimney higher and begin to “beach the whale” onto the ledge, a shock cord on my pack catches on a small edge of the outer chockstone, preventing me from climbing higher. Unable to cut it, I lower myself from my ice tools to release my pack before completing the Alpine Whale Maneuver on top of the chockstone ledge, covered in snow and loose rocks. Now that feels like mixed climbing!


 

Marianne looking down. Photo by Marianne van der Steen.
Marianne looking down. Photo by Marianne van der Steen.

While in the chimney, I was breathing and moving constantly; my activity kept me warm despite my lead taking a long time. Marianne and Steve Swenson had been shivering at the belay for a while – I could tell how cold they were when they followed the pitch wearing their puffy jackets. Even after reaching the belay and leading another short couple of pitches, we weren’t warm, so Steve started leading. His pitch was also unfortunately not straightforward, so he exited the gully and had to aid climb. The three of us reached the final belay right as night fell – we put our headlamps on, and immediately proceeded to get our ropes horribly stuck. It was really great to have a mentor with us at this point – Steve quickly decided to re-lead by headlamp, to retrieve our ropes. Marianne felt her legs radiating her bodyheat away, so she fashioned a skirt out of her emergency blanket. Apparently it made a large difference – not a bad item to bring on an alpine climb! A few more rappels through darkness put us onto the ledge at the bottom of the route, but we descend the snow cone the wrong way and set up more rappels, costing us more time. We finally downclimb the base of the snowcone onto the glacier, cross the crevassed section and take our harnesses off at 3:15am.


I felt solid during our mini-epic rappelling into the dark; I saved my last two GU packets for the descent, allowing me energy and caffeine so I would be unlikely to bonk and make a simple rappelling error.


We found out our friends had less solid feelings about our little adventure – on the way back to the car we met a very anxious Steve, Buster, and Steven racing up the approach to meet us! After an alpine start, climbing and descending The Silver Lining, they drove back to Canmore, and eventually got so worried about our late return that they drove two hours back up the Icefields Parkway, fully prepared to come rescue us if need be. Steve had a tremendous, relaxed look of relief when he found us all unscathed. I felt an odd mix of guilt and comfort – guilt that our friends had put in such an effort when we didn’t need help, and comfort that if we did had an accident, there were people imminently coming to get us. After trading driving shifts down the Icefields Parkway for two hours, we got back to our place in Canmore and finally got to some sweet sleep at dawn.

 

 

Colin almost at the top of the Slawinski-Takeda route.
Colin almost at the top of the Slawinski-Takeda route.

Oh, Canada!


On my two previous trips to the Canadian Rockies, I watched friends have accidents, I struggled to find alpine routes with acceptable levels of avalanche danger, and I even failed not on approaches, but on the drive. One day in 2011, Kurt Ross and I neglected to fill up the gas tank the night before our climb. At 3am we discovered all of the nearby gas stations were closed. We drove around, unable to find gas, returning to our place in Canmore at dawn. The next year, one morning my decrepit, two wheel drive car with bald tires simply couldn’t get up a snowy hill, with an hour of driving still to go to the parking lot. When avalanche conditions became serious, my partners and I were at a lack of knowledge of safer, if less ideal routes. I was unable to get off the ground on real alpine climbs.

 

This time, I showed up with some of the most experienced alpinists in the world, who have climbed extensively in the Canadian Rockies. We found good conditions, and got on some really great routes, on a couple of which I struggled with risk acceptance. You can have one of the strongest alpinists in the world belaying you, but that doesn’t make blocks any less loose, ice any more continuous, or snow more consolidated. I come away with a greater understanding that you don’t have to take an expedition to 8000 meters at the end of the earth to find a very “real” mountain. You just have to drive to Canada!