Chasing Spring

I always imagined spring time in the Rockies would be a wonderful time. New life, birdsong, wonderous colour appearing even brighter after months of a landscape dominated by brown cliffs and white snow. The sun creeping ever higher into the sky providing warmth and allowing the light of day to stretch further into the evening hours.

Speaking to several locals my mental imagery of spring time appears to be closely matched to reality. However, it has been a long winter here in Canada and my visualisation will remain true only to my mind’s eye. 

Ice season really ought to be over by the end of April and many of the locals have been praying for warmer days and for the snow to melt for several weeks. Though I had enjoyed a long and prosperous winter, I too was keen on warmer days. To witness the magical spring transformation I had heard so much about yet witnessed only fleeting glimpses of and to sample some rock climbing here in the Rockies.

At the top of my list was climbing Mt Yamnuska, the premier traditional climbing destination in Canada. ‘Yamnuska’ means ‘wall of stone’ in the native Stoney Nakoda language and that is exactly the impression you are left with when you stare up at its magnificent face. The mountain is so sheer that snow only clings to a tiny portion of the face throughout the entire winter. It is known for difficult route finding, varied rock quality and fickle weather. An adventure climbers dream.

Jaz Morris, Rose Pearson and myself decided on climbing the Kahl Wall (320m, 5.10a/18). The forecast was for partly cloudy and we were excited to finally touch Yamnuska stone. Our day didn't start as planned when Jaz’s newly acquired van suffered a flat tyre, causing us to divert to procure a replacement, delaying our start by about an hour and a half.

Jaz and Rose are both members of the New Zealand Alpine Team (NZAT). I met them through connections here in Canada and Jaz and I have been climbing for about a month, Rose about two weeks. Mostly on ice. The NZAT was formed to help promote the next generation of aspiring alpinists in New Zealand. They are not professional climbers but enjoy the support of sponsors and the older generation of kiwi climbers who help develop their skills through a formal mentoring program. It is an amazing initiative and having now climbed with several members, I can certainly see it baring rich fruit.  

The climb was adventurous as promised. Fun, varied climbing on textured limestone with route finding proving difficult at times. Throughout the day, light snow added to the atmosphere of being on such an adventurous face. The snow was actually floating upwards, towards the heavens rather than towards earth as one would expect. It was a beautiful visual spectacle and an indication of the influence that large mountains have on air flow.

 Looking back down the route Kahl Wall on Mt Yamnuska. The sheer rock face forces the air upwards resulting in the snow floating up past us rather than falling towards earth. Pretty cool stuff. Photo by Jaz Morris.

Looking back down the route Kahl Wall on Mt Yamnuska. The sheer rock face forces the air upwards resulting in the snow floating up past us rather than falling towards earth. Pretty cool stuff. Photo by Jaz Morris.

 Me leading out on Kahl Wall on Mt Yamnuska.

Me leading out on Kahl Wall on Mt Yamnuska.

Towards the top of the climb, a chimney feature was rather wet and still contained ice in places. It made the climbing significantly more difficult and we all had to be on our A-game to get through it cleanly. We managed to top out around 7:30pm, later than we would have hoped however the longer spring hours meant we were able to make the one-hour descent back to the car just before head torches were required. Even if we were running for most of it!

Our first climb on Yamnuska certainly delivered adventure! Though Jaz won’t be able to join us, Rose and I started planning another climb for the following weekend, a couple of days before I fly onto Peru. Hopefully with a little less snow and ice!

The climb on 'Yam' had left us with an even greater desire to seek out a warm, sunny location. Somewhere that held a closer resemblance to springtime in Canada. After some deliberation we decided to pack our bags into a couple of vans and drive eight hours south-west to the town of Penticton. Home of the Skaha Bluffs.

Skaha is a Provincial Park of British Columbia covering 489 hectares of lakeside terrain containing Big Horn sheep, Rattlesnakes, Chipmunks, Sreeching Owls and hundreds of rock climbs. We saw most of these animals however the Chipmunks in particular provided much entertainment. We were impressed with their bold, mischievous behaviour at the base of the climbs as the sought out food left unguarded.

We camped at Banbury Green campground which was an idyllic park located on the edge of the lake opposite the Bluffs. For $10 a night we were treated to a site with a campfire, green grass and the luxury of hot showers. Not bad! I was stoked to roll out the sleeping mat and tent. I forgot how much I loved sleeping in a tent and waking up to an immediate view of the outdoors. Soul food.

 The camp spot near the climbing is beautiful, clean and cheap!

The camp spot near the climbing is beautiful, clean and cheap!

The climbing at Skaha is fantastic. With over fifty different areas we were spoilt for choice, however we managed to get some local advice and were soon on our way. By far the majority of climbing is long endurance sport climbs, over 35m in length. The movement is mostly over sharp edges, however there is also very steep, difficult climbing in caves, slab climbing and beautiful traditional crack climbing to be found. We sampled it all. Well, except for the super difficult cave climbing. Not really our thing.

Given we only had a couple of days to climb we didn’t work on anything too hard. We focused more on trying to ‘onsight’ climbs in the 5.10 – 5.11 range (Australian 18 – 24). Meaning climbing the routes without falling with no prior knowledge of the route itself. I really enjoy this style of climbing as it involves a lot of conscious effort, trying to unlock the next sequence of moves while managing your fatigue levels.

In particular I thoroughly enjoyed a traditional climb called Grassy Glades (5.10a/18). It is a proud discontinuous crack up a beautiful orange face. The movement is secure and enjoyable with a slightly overhanging section in the middle presenting the crux of the climb. 

 Jaz on his onsight attempt of a climb called 'Falling into Blackness' (5.10d/21) in the Doctors Wall sector.

Jaz on his onsight attempt of a climb called 'Falling into Blackness' (5.10d/21) in the Doctors Wall sector.

 I love onsight climbing. Here I am on Grassy Glades, a 5.10a/18 climb protected using natural protection in the prominent crack system.

I love onsight climbing. Here I am on Grassy Glades, a 5.10a/18 climb protected using natural protection in the prominent crack system.

It may sound funny however it was fantastic to spend a few days just relaxing among the bluffs. Though the climbing was quite physical, mentally it was a total breeze. No need to worry about avalanche danger, extreme cold, long approaches or objective hazard. Just focus on the movement. This type of climbing is just as much a social activity as a physical one. Kind of like hanging out with your mates at the park for a BBQ. Low stress.

Before we knew it our couple of days in the springtime had come to an end and it was time for us to return to Canmore. Jaz however would be continuing onto the U.S. to meet up with a friend for a few days.

Jaz has a theory that the most efficient way to pass through U.S. border control is by wearing some kind of loud republican propaganda shirt. He and a few other kiwi climbers have tested this theory several times and all with great success. Past selections included a ‘Bush – Cheney 2004’ campaign shirt and a Trump supporter tee. This time it was the iconic picture of a proud bald eagle with the word “Freedom” printed underneath in the stars and stripes he picked up from Walmart for $5. A sure winner.

The snow-capped peaks welcomed us home to Canmore just after midnight. In the days I have left here, Rose and I plan on completing another classic route on Mt Yanmuska and I can’t wait. Though I never got to see my spring vision here in Canada, my experience has been no less wondrous, no less varied and definitely no less powerful.