Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Bears, Cougars, Seracs and Afternoon naps

About two months ago I moved to the Canadian Rockies. The last few weeks have mostly been spent finding a job, drinking a bit too much and going cycling in the sun, with the occasional bit of sport cragging, ‘hiking’ and one easy alpine route thrown in for good measure. After a winter spent in Chamonix I felt like a change of pace and put big adventures on the back burner for a while, but last week while sitting in the sun after work that annoying little itch started again, by the weekend I had come up with a slightly ridiculous plan. I had known of three major faces before arriving here; the Emperor, the North Face of Twins Tower, and the North Face of Temple. Without a partner and without a car Temple was the only realistic option, so I booked a Greyhound for 10.45pm and then promptly fell asleep and almost missed it.

top class sport climbing 40 minuites from my house

Temple is about two hours from Calgary and has a really short approach which makes it perfect for a one day (or night!) hit. It’s described as the ‘Eiger of the Rockies’,  due to the accessibility of its 1000 meter north face which bears a striking resemblance to its more illustrious cousin across the Atlantic.  As the face was almost definitely still going to be in winter condition the only route that was within my ability was on the far left of the face, unfortunately this would put me directly in the firing line of some very large seracs so I decided it would be safest to climb most of the route at night and hopefully time it so I would reach the crux pitches at day break.

The upper portion of Temples north face from the Highway

‘My name is Trevor and I’ll be your operator tonight’

In the overheated bus I was already sweating, I fiddled with my stiff laces, eventually freeing my feet. I grinned at the bus driver’s seemingly unbounding optimism, even when faced with an overnight drive to Vancouver, with a bus full of drunks he still sounded like it was his birthday. The pneumatic brakes hissed and the archaic Greyhound began to stutter and stammer across the flat plains surrounding Calgary, and onwards to the Rockies.

 I stepped off the bus at Lake Louise and after a bit of bumbling around in the dark, found the road I wanted and began the walk to the trail head. Beginning to get cold, I briefly stopped to put my thermals back on, and in typically comedic timing just as my trousers were round my ankles, a cop car rolled up beside me. Its driver had a particularly bemused look on his face, although thankfully after a slightly awkward explanation as to what I was doing with my trousers round my ankles at 2am in the woods he offered me a lift to the trail head. What was slightly less welcoming was the information that a Grizzly Bear with a cub had been spotted in the area, although the cop thought that she would be at a lower elevation due to the cold temperatres, it still made my crash course in bear safety earlier that evening seem somewhat inadequate.

Bear safety tip #1 Bears are not aggressive unless startled suddenly, so make your presence as obvious as possible.

-          Typically this would involve walking in large group and talking loudly. As I had nae friends it involved playing music from my phone and feeling a bit like a 14 year old ned on the bus. I also made up a ‘don’t eat me’ chant and sang this until I got bored of the sound of my own voice.

 I wound my way snail like through the forest along the narrow path. I crossed aged winter snow drifts which still lingered in the darker corners, and climbed over fallen trees, all the while the music playing from my phone jarred incongruously with my surrounding. The bright moon occasionally flickered through the trees to illuminate the path ahead and sometimes when my imagination got the better of me,  my pace slowed, and my torch beam swung through the dense forest either side of me. I half expected to see some demonic Baskerville-esque hound staring back. The valley opened out and behind the roaring river, glinting in the early morning moonlight sat Temple. Ahead of me, in that funny half colour of night I could see a short steepening which would bring me to Lake Annette and the bottom of the face.

Bear safety tip #2 As a last line of defence carry bear spray, bear bangers, and/or bear flares.
-          I had decided that bangers and flares were a silly idea and, in the spirit of adventure, I had completely forgotten to borrow my flat mates bear spray, which was now sitting uselessly in our house.

I had just crossed the river and the forest had once more closed in around me when two big, yellow orbs of light stalked into the beam of my head torch. Frozen to the spot I re-started my somewhat pathetic sounding chant and began clacking my walking poles together. Those yellow orbs were about 8 meters away. I had a brief glimpse at the dark outline of its frame as the yellow eyes stared back at me. It's head was turned towards me while it traced a path parallel to my own but in the opposite direction, those yellow eyes still staring at me. After a few moments the head turned away, the eyes disappeared and I only caught another brief glimpse of its shadowy outline before it disappeared back into the forest. I stood there continuing on with my chant and pole clacking. It seemed to have moved off, and as I figured I was only a few minutes walk from the edge of the forest, It seemed best to carry on, rather than spend hours stuck in the forest retracing my steps, so I tentatively started on my way again.

From doing a small amount of research after this, as far as I can work it out it was most likely a cougar. It looked too close to the ground to be a bear, but distance can be deceptive at night. I’ve come across deer at night many times before and never seen them move or act like that. Maybe it was just a bob cat (which are fairly harmless) but it looked too big, and was acting too bold to be a bobcat as far as I can make out. Whatever it was, it was pretty spooky!

Temples north face on the way down, my highpoint was the top of the central icefield.

I made it out of the forest just before dawn, the North Face of Temple visible above me in the pre-dawn glow. After my slow, stumbling pace in the darkness of the forest it was great to be bounding up the bullet hard snow slopes towards the fin of the ‘dolphin’, (the ice field which makes up the lower half of the face has a bit of a resemblance to a dolphin). The sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon as I cramponed up the easy angled colouir of the dolphin’s tail. In the centre of the couloir sat a deep trench scoured from snow and other debris from the face above. In the cool of the early morning the face was quiet but it was obvious by the depth of the trench and debris littered around that it would awake in a serious sort of way at some point.  The far right of the face was beginning to catch the sun and by this point I knew I was seriously behind schedule. I had planned to be about 500 meters higher on the face by this point, and was keeping a fervent eye on the seracs above. I was safe from their line of fire for the time being, but as I gained height on the face I would be drawn further left until I was directly under them. Before I left Calgary I had known that they wouldn’t exactly be inconsequential, but now I was under them they looked monstrous, squatting suicidal like on the edge of the face.

a fore-shortened view from the bottom of the dolphin, the route sneaks up and left under those monsterous seracs!

I climbed as far as I could up the dolphin, but my mind had already been made up as soon as I had seen the sunrise.  I had taken less than five steps under the seracs when I turned around, already day dreaming about a nap in the sun and some sport climbing. Easy down climbing with only one dodgy encounter with a small spindrift avalanche took me down and out from under the shadow of temple, and in under two hours I was napping in the morning sun on a nice flat rock.

 It’s amazing how daylight can change a place, seeing the forest in the day light, the typically overly sentimental Canadian name of paradise valley was seeming somewhat justified, although I still had music playing from my phone and stole the occasional nervous glance around.

 I arrived back in Lake Louise with plenty of time to spare so decided to hitch hike home rather than pay for another bus, so wandered over to the highway and stuck my thumb out. After the usual middle aged suspects in empty SUV’s blowing by me at 130km/h, a beat up old pickup truck pulled onto the hard shoulder. An hour of excellent conversation later and the local mountain guide who had picked me up left me in Canmore.  It was another short wait before I was picked up by a young Quebecois guy, and after a slightly dodgy detour to go meet his ‘friend’ at the side of the highway, he left me standing by the first nations reserve in kananaskis country. One of the stark and slightly disturbing reminders of how Canada has dealt with its aboriginal people and their culture. One last wait and I got picked up by three oil workers who by coincidence seemed to be avid Frightened Rabbit fans and were heading to my neighbourhood.

another 3 star 7b in kanaskis country

This week it’s been decidedly dreek, and I’ve been feeling at home in the clouds and rain. When it dries up, I’ll probably be going rock climbing again, but with the news that a friend may be coming out to visit at the end of the summer I might just go back to day dreaming about big objectives too.

The Emperor Face on Mount Robson, the object of my desire.

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