Mixed Up in the Canadian Rockies

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Dave Brown - 20/04/2005

When I finally got the sack I rang Fiona and we dashed home and danced around the house, a pair of kids, ecstatic. Next day she quit her job. At last we can do what we wanted to do. Time is the most precious commodity to a climber, and at last we had it in abundance.

We were just back from a ten day trip ice and mixed climbing in Canada. And all we wanted to do was go back, go back now. Unfortunately we had an endless summer to endure first, so we consoled ourselves by bumming around France, climbing in the sun and cycling the mountain passes, getting stronger and browner. It was tough

Autumn eventually arrived and we returned to Scotland to get ready for winter. A month of heavy training getting the right muscles strong and we were ready enough. At the start of December we arrived in the old mining town of Canmore, the "Chamonix" of the Rockies, but without the crowds. We rented a cheap house, bought an old car and were sorted.

"Hey, aren't you guys in that Scottish film?" Being recognised all the time was a strange and slightly disturbing experience. Fools With Tools had screened in front of 1200 out here just the month before. Still, at least it was a film about crap climbers, so no-one expected us to be any good, just to fall off a lot. And over the months of course we both duly obliged.

The climbing community here is a strange one, refreshingly so. The mountains are vast, but all the climbers live in Canmore. Everyone knows everyone else, and in a valley where everyone seems to be able to climb WI6 (Scottish winter VII) there seems to be no space for big egos. There are a huge number of full time climbers, guides, sponsored athletes, writers and photographers. And they welcomed us into their community despite our ineptitude, (if only they'd stop suggesting ridiculously hard routes for us to do all the time).

The early days on ice did not go well. "Duck, don't look up". Every day my face would bleed, smacked by splinters of ice. Then one day the ice turned crimson. I'd deflected a descending dinner plate with the crown of my nose leaving a horizontal trench of sliced skin. That'll scar for sure. As I puffed the blood splattered onto the ice in front of my face. Cold and fear shut out any pain. I continued my lead. "Remember to duck next time".

The early season ice was brittle as we hacked our way up many of the easier classics. The mixed climbing was fortunately going a bit better. We ticked our way through loads of easier routes and had a ball. Mileage is good. Getting familiar with the rock type, learning to use the tiniest of holds, getting confident at pulling on to delicate free hanging icicles. This was fun.

Canada is a country of extremes. Everything is big. Mountains, houses, cars, everything. When an avalanche cut loose a thousand metres above us on Mount Rundle you definitely assume it's going to be big. We were in a gully right in it's path, ironically the Welcome to Canada Gully below Trophy Wall. Fiona saw it first and yelled a warning. I looked round at the billowing cloud, mesmerised for a moment, then we scurried like scared mice, dwarfed by the scale of our surroundings. No crampons on or axes to hand. We tried to get up the side of the gully. "Don't rush, stay calm" I told myself as we tried to clamber out, two steps forward, one step back. Can't slip and slide back down the gully. A quick glance back and the cloud was now enormous. Shit, shit, shit. Time moved in slow motion. I got to the tree I had targeted, tucked behind a rock band. I grabbed Fiona's hand as she arrived and we clung to the tree waiting. After an eternity a light dust of gentle sparkling ice particles drifted gently by. That was it, nothing. It hadn't reached us. Shaken and definitely stirred.

The climbing settled into a pattern. On cold days we would climb ice. Warmer days we would climb mixed. You gradually learn your thresholds. -10c is about as cold as you can stand for mixed cragging. -20c is fine when you've got full gore-tex on for ice climbing. At -30c it's best to pick a long easy route and solo, just keep moving all the time. Then we had a spell of -40c. After two days in the house cabin fever set in, so we picked out a short ice route. We broke trail for 2.5 hours and geared up with body temperatures plummeting. An exchange of glances. No way. And we were out of there fast.

Two days later it was +13c. It rained. The roads were closed for five days as avalanches consumed the valleys.

In January we decided to up the ante. Oscar is probably the best line at Haffner Creek, and at M9- has had few ascents. For Fiona this would be a big step up in grade. I'd climbed this grade before on a short bouldery route, but Oscar was full on power and endurance. My first lead went superbly. All this climbing had given me endurance I'd never experienced before. As I pulled the rope up to clip the penultimate draw I just nudged my axe ever so slightly. Instantaneously I plummeted halfway back down the route and smashed into the rock knees first. Bruised and bleeding, but no damage done, I made no such mistake second go.

Oscar was to be one of those make or break routes for Fiona. It's about as hard as anything climbed by British women before (we are told). Lucy Creamer put up Mighty Aphrodite in Colorado a couple of years ago. Given M9 it is now rated M8+. Arlie Anderson has also climbed this grade. Oscar is hard, a couple of isolated moves absolutely at her limit are connected by unrelenting, pumpy, technical sections.

After plenty of top roping Fiona finally plucked up the courage to lead it. If it were to all go terribly wrong and she were to fall or fail badly then that would have been it. Too hard for her. Just stick to easier routes. But the lead went brilliantly. Every move perfect. Nearing the top she found a shake out that she'd never found on top rope. And it was over. A few beers were drunk that night.

We then turned our attention to the Hoarhouse Cave and a different type of climbing altogether, horizontal roofs. Caveman at M10- is an absolute classic, and 5 years ago was one of the hardest routes in the world. A friend Toshi showed me a sequence on it. Helpful yes, as I clocked where all the holds were, but being unable to perform the splits I had to discover a sequence that would work for me. I sent it quickly "comp style" (heelspurs used on holds only - not on axes), then as Fiona worked it I took off my spurs and climbed it "bareback" a couple of times. Great fun.

Learning to climb upside down was a whole new experience for Fiona, and several visits to the cave were needed. Unusual also was the need to work such routes on the lead. You can't top rope when the route is literally horizontal. As Fiona worked Caveman I turned my attention to Neolithic, a superb desperate route that had received just two ascents. Hard M11 or M11+. Will Gadd quickly got the third ascent, but all the others trying it were struggling. I had a couple of plays and found it surprisingly amenable. Big burley moves hit you again and again at an angle that invites 100% commitment, with nothing to hit if you fall off. The climbing is powerful for sure, and it would be easy for people to assume that power is all that this type of climbing is about. The reality is that there are just as many subtleties and technicalities as there are with rock climbing; different ways of positioning your hands feet and body to do not just one move, but to link them all together. After a few plays I went for the lead, and came within an ounce of energy from reaching the toe hook shake out near the top. Next visit and I sent it first go.

In our days at the cave Fiona received a lot of coaching from the locals. Will Gadd, Joe Buzowski and others all taught Fiona how to get her weight onto her feet (above her head), how to grab sneaky shake outs, and even how to breath (ie. remember to breath). And so for both of us our climbing strategy evolved. Until now we simply got the moves wired, sprinted fast, and then breathed when we get to the end. Fiona sent Caveman. In hindsight it was inevitable. Her progress was steady, and despite breaking a hold on the crux which made it even burlier, it was only going to be a matter of time.

Flo Babolat came out from Edinburgh to visit. A hoot. Fiona gave her a whirlwind induction to ice and mixed and Flo dived in headfirst. She lead her first ever ice routes, including a beautiful multi-pitch line at Weeping Wall. Onto harder stuff and Flo just managed to send the Austin Powers inspired Shagadelic at M7. Just managed, as the climbing was a bit touch and go, and also the thin verglass ice was depleting rapidly in the sun. On her last day Flo oh so nearly sent Swank M8-, a superb mixture of burley and technical moves. But a week is too short, and after a while the body won't do burly anymore.

In early march Canmore hosts an ice climbing festival, and many of the best climbers from around the world congregate to compete. After much self doubt Fiona decided to enter. First out in the qualifying round she flashed all four routes giving her a huge lead. But the scores were wiped out for the final. Waiting in isolation she had no idea how the others were doing, but she came out last and cruised past the highest point, eventually getting two holds further. Hilarious. She didn't realise at first that she'd won, despite the crowd going mental. In the men's competition Evgeny Krivosheitsev beat Harry Berger and Will Gadd. Unfortunately this year the world's best females such as Ines Papert didn't come over. But it was still a strong field.

The weather was now warming up and we moved our focus to the Cineplex, about 120 miles north of Canmore. This superb venue hosts several of the world's hardest routes. Fiona's project was Orgasmo M10, a big roof leading to a big ice pillar and a great climb. I sent this then turned my attention to Musashi and Rocky Horror, both now about M12. The moves on Musashi were easy, but it is so, so long and unrelenting. I chose not to heel-spur my axes to gain rests. There are many "styles", and you chose the one you are comfortable with. Well I just could not keep going long enough. Even if I got a sequence totally wired this season I could not have sent it. Rocky Horror however was more promising. A hard crux is responsible in part for the big grade, but here I found a way of bypassing the crux, choking high on a fig4 I could reach 8 inches past the crux hold to another, then take a big release onto one arm. The rest of the route is steadier and a hands free rest at halfway precedes a juggy sprint to the ice dagger. But the crack in the middle defeated me. It is usually choked with ice, but this year it was bare. Next time for sure. Meanwhile Fiona had made fast progress on Orgasmo, but the crux at the end was defeating her every time. In dramatic fashion she left it to her last go on the last day to pull it out of the bag. I have never been so nervous belaying in my life. All this effort invested, and she just had to do it this time.

An amazing winter season. Living in a community rather than visiting briefly is such a different experience. We had made so many friends and were sad to leave for sure. We are inspired by all types of winter climbing it was interesting to find that we both gravitated towards the harder "technical" challenge of mixed climbing rather than the big classic ice routes. Next season will be split between traditional, Scottish Winter and sport mixed trips to European venues.

My climbing achievements are not significant by world standards, and even from Britain several male climbers are achieving the same or better. Surprisingly though there are very few women climbing at the level Fiona attained; this year there were perhaps none amongst the Canadian and Americans. Certainly these are the hardest (bolted mixed) ascents by a British woman (unless of course there are other publicity shy women quietly doing their own thing?)

Dave Brown and Fiona Murray are not sponsored and received no grants.

A movie following the season of Fiona and Flo will released this autumn by Hot Aches Productions.

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