The East face of Snowpatch, the gift that keeps on giving

Tags: Posted on August 04, 2015

Over the last decade or so, the 500-meter high East face of Snowpatch Spire has been transforming into one of the finest alpine rock faces in North America.  What used to be a face known primarily as an aid climbing venue, is now covered in free-climbing lines, although mostly difficult ones, usually reqiuring at least a couple pitches of 5.12.  But perhaps the most amazing thing about it is that almost every pitch is good!  I don't think there's another mountain in western Canada that can boast that!  Like a big crag offering pure rock climbing in the alpine, it offers an easy approach from the nearby campground, belays on most routes are mostly bolted, there are no "approach" pitches, and there's no tedious summit ridge.   The climbing is almost entirely traditionally protected, although most routes have a few protection bolts where cracks need to be conected by face moves, and face holds are plentiful.    It has been one of my favorite zones for over ten years now.

Last season, Michelle Kadatz and I investigated the sector in the Bugaboo guidebook where the great flake fell off the lower middle section of Snowpatch Spire, taking the first three pitches of several routes including Les Bruines Es Pentinen, Deus Ex Machina, and the original Sunshine Wall with it.  The obvious scoop at the bottom went ok, but the next 80 meters required extreme care to remove the left over debris from the major rockfall.  Once it was gone, it didn't take much to buff it into a nice free climb and a fairly moderate one by East face of Bugaboo standards.  After five pitches, we had established Minotaur Direct, which seemed like a better start than the original version that climbed the lower pitches of Labyrinth and traversed over.  We returned this year, adding stations and continuing up the amazing middle section of Minotaur, a route I put up several years ago with Colin Moorhead.  We gave this a good clean up too as this section of the wall is becoming a popular option amongst both Bugaboo regulars and visiting climbers.  People seem psyched to have good pitches within a close proxitimity to Applebee and often set out to climb only half the face.  

Alik Berg and I teamed up in mid July to venture out left from Minotaur into the obvious corner system that splits the big roof in the middle of the face where the Deus Ex Machina goes.  We were blown away by the quality of the climbing and the softest pitch gradewise out of all the routes to go through this continuous roof system that runs the width of the face.  Above it we ventured into new terrain but a couple of mossy cracks slowed progress about ten pitches up.  We cleaned them out and rappeled.  Two weeks later we were back with plans to finish the line.  On the first day we climbed the first four pitches and fixed our two ropes.  This allowed a bit of head start for a bigger day the next day.  It was nice to sleep in the evening after hiking up, and fun to have Taran Ortlieb join us for this.  The next day, we ascended the two lines, then made the continuous free ascent to the summit, adding four more pitches above our previous high point and sending every pitch first try!  A very satisfying day, on a fun route with a lot of varied climmbing.          

The East face of Snowpatch Spire with the line of ascent.

Taran Ortlieb joined us as we fixed two ropes on the first four pitches.  Here he is crossing the moat between edge of the glacier and the face.  Exactly four weeks earlier, it was easy to step across the gap and be standing on the ledge his left hand is at.  As the summer goes on, and the snow melts back from the rock, the first pitch can get 5-10 meters longer and a grade or two harder!  

Taran a few meters higher on the first pitch, now enjowing perfect hand jams on perfect granite.

Alik leading off on the second pitch of 5.10 tips.  

Having Taran join us to climb the first four pitches and fix our ropes, allowed me to lead the fourth pitch, and then take photos of Alik leading it.  It's got four 5.11 sections to it over 45 meters and is delightful to climb!     

Another from the fourth pitch - Some face moves protected by a bolt connect two corner systems.

Alik hiking last crux of the fourth pitch with a combination of chimneying, steming, and edge pulling. 

Alik climbing the splitter flake at the start of the 6th pitch.

JW in the first of four cruxy sections on the 7th pitch - the roof pitch of Deus Ex Machina, previously A3.  It's the only one that we think shared any terrain with any of the old aid routes.

Alik nearing the top of the 55-meter 9th pitch.  

Alik starting up the 10th pitch.

Some fine heel work high on Snowpach, with magical jugs in the all the right places; Alik getting starting on pitch 12. 

Alik on pitch 12

  Another from pitch 12 

On the North Summit of Snowpatch with the summit ornament, and views of the Howsers.


Welcome to the Machine
5.11+, 13 pitches
First ascent:  Pitches 1-5 - Michelle Kadatz and Jon Walsh;  Pitches 6-13: Alik Berg and Jon Walsh
August 2nd, 2015

p1 - 30 meters 5.10-; step across the moat which gets harder as the season goes on.  Climb double cracks / flake for about 10 meters until you’re able trend right, and easily up the big scoop.  Make a gear anchor before it steepens where you can find some good foot ledges.

p2 - 30 meters 5.10+; continue up the scoop via a thin corner crack, to a belay bolted belay a good stance. 

p3 - 30 meters 5.10+;  climb the corner above and pull through a small overhang to a stance. Step left and head up a shallow left facing corner, until an easy ramp leads back right.  Follow this, hand traversing flakes until a bolted station below a long left facing corner.  

p4 - 45 meters 5.11+;  A thin tips corner gains a section of cool stemming.  When you get to a bolt clip it and face climb left to the arete.  Don’t move it up to the bolted station up and right or you’ll have to down-climb 3 meters to continue sending! from the stance on the arete, move up and right back into the left facing corner, and follow past one more tips crux to the bolted station on a good ledge.

p5 - 50 meters 5.10 ; After a couple body lengths of fist crack, pull a small overhang.  A #5 camelot is useful here for the crux move.  Rather than continue up the obvious corner, look up and you’ll see a bolt.  Climb up to it, and move left into the next corner system which is much better.  It leads to a fourth class ledge, which needs to traversed up and left.  A bolt below a groove is the start of Minotaur.  Continue past it for five more meters to a two bolt station bellow a nice looking flake.

p6 - 35 meters 5.10;  Climb the flake up, then hand traverse it left.  It turns into a walkable ledge.  At it’s end, move up and left though small overlaps, then face climb left, and then back right to a bolted station.

p7 - 45 meters 5.11+; This is the roof pitch of Deus Ex Machina.  Move left off the belay, and then climb up a small right facing corner on face holds.  Move left into the main left corner and follow it though a series of small roofs to a bolted anchor.

p8 - 60 meters 5.10;  Climb the right hand crack for five meters to a ledge, Move left into a corner which is wide but easy.  Follow this to a good ledge.  Continue up another short right facing corner with couple of tricky moves and make a gear belay another good ledge, with some very nice looking corners up to the left.  This pitch might be better to split into two as rope drag is a factor.  Either way, a gear station needs to be made.

p9 - 55 meters 5.11;  An amazing pitch! Start by climbing double cracks, with a mix of gear and bolts for protection (3 protection bolts total).  At a small stance there’s a fixed wire and a bolt for an optional belay, however the FA team linked the next 30 meters of sustained 5.10 to a great ledge and bolted belay.

p10 - 40m meters 5.11-;  climb the nice finger crack up and right.  After a section of fist crack, two bolts on your left traverse to a ledge system, and a two bolt anchor at the far left of it. 

p11 - 50 meters 5.10-;  A clean corner above goes from hands to fists to off-width.  After it gets too wide for a # 5 camelot, two body lengths of easy lay-backing passes it and gets you to easier terrain with small gear options.  Continue up the groove above to a two bolt station below some black overhangs. 

p.12 - 25 meters 5.11+;  The last two pitches were nearly linked on the first ascent with 68m rope, but this is not recommended.  Start by climbing through some overhangs with some great and unlikely moves.  Belay at a good ledge. 

p.13 - 45 meters 5.11 ; Follow the crack up and left, until a big ledge is reached.  This pitch is a bit dirty but will clean up with a more ascents. 

A scramble for a couple of ropelengths up and left gets you to the North Summit.  You will pass the top station of Sendero Norte on the way which is probably the cleanest descent option.  Of course if you don't know it, it might be more difficult.

The other decent option is as follows:

At the big ledge at the top of the last pitch, a sling around a pinch between boulders was used for the first rappel, to get back to the top of pitch 11.  From here, rappel to a nut station about 10 meters climbers right of the station at the top of pitch ten.  Careful of the rope eating crack below.  Best to just rappel to the top of pitch 9 from here to keep the rope out of the crack.  Then rappel to the obvious bivy ledge, on skiers left.  On the far side of this ledge, rappel down Minataur on bolted stations.  The first one is 55m.  The second one is 30 m and it’s best to clip a bolt on the way down as a directional.  Another 55m steep rappel gets you back to the big ledge at the top of pitch 5.  Continue down the pitches you’ve already climbed.  From the top of pitch 4, it's about a 65 meter rappel to the top of pitch 2, so if you have 60 meter ropes, it's best to place a directional or two to get into the optional station on pitch 4, and then rap to the top of pitch 2 from there.  One more 50-55 rappel puts you on the glacier. 

Recommended rack:
2 x 60m ropes
Double set of cams from tips to #3 camelot.
Triple set from tight fingers to loose fingers (#.3, #.4, #.5 camelots)
1 #4 camelot, 1 #5 camelot
One set of nuts
12-15 quick draws (half of them should be extendable)


KAHVEOLOGY - (The science of coffee)
160m, M8 WI5  First ascent by Jon Simms and Jon Walsh, Jan 23rd, 2015


Simms on the approach

Jonny “the Simmulator” Simms and I had a good Man Yoga practice at the Storm Creek Headwall, in Kootenay National Park.  Despite much thinner that usual ice-conditions this year, the end result was Kahveology, a new 4-pitch mixed route, that’s essentially the direct start to final ice pillar of Check Your Head, another route I co-authored a couple years ago with Jason Kruk and Joshua Lavigne.   Kahveology means the Science of coffee, and it’s a also a company in Portland that named one of their coffee blends Man Yoga, after the route on the Stanley Headwall that Simms and I authored, and Joshua Lavigne made an entertaining video of.  We were so honoured they named the main blend served in their shop after us, we named our latest route after them, to complete the circle, as well as a thank you for sending some of their crucial beans our way!  Being the serious coffee fiend that I am, I would definitely drink it all the time if it was closer to home.  

Crucial coffee in necessary for Man Yoga

Anyways, while descending from Check Your Head by headlamp, straight down, rather than reversing a couple traverses we had made, I couldn’t help but notice the immaculate, featured, overhanging limestone that directly lead to a tongue of ice that slithered halfway down it, flowing from the pillar.  What particularly caught my eye was the abundance of natural protection, somewhat rare for a steeper-than-vertical angle, and I immediately planned to come back someday to attempt it.  

Through the crux of the first pitch

That finally came a week ago, as Michelle and I skied up there on a cold day.   I did get on it, but unfortunately, couldn’t make it go bolt free, like I’d been dreaming about.   The route starts with about ten meters of easy stuff to get to the back of a cave.  Unsurprisingly, the back of the cave was chossy, and I had to place two bolts just to get into the steep climbing.  Then two more bolts got placed as I blew my gear and tools out on body weight placements.  With four bolts placed through the steepest and hardest pulls, I got to a nice crack which marked the beginning of what’s probably the best stretch of limestone I’ve ever dry tooled on.  Eventually, I placed two more bolts, perhaps unnecessary ones (although I was pretty psyched to clip them on the redpoint burn a week later), before getting to a fixed-nut rappel anchor left from a couple years ago, which marked the end of the day.   Many thanks to Michelle for enduring a long cold belay.  

Higher on the first pitch but still 15 meters to go

Six days later, the stars aligned for us.   It was much milder making for perfect conditions, the track was still good, and Simms and I made it to the base in 2 hours at a casual pace.  With the route prepped, I was able to get the redpoint, and was even egged on to make it a “mega-pitch” and keep climbing all the way to a small ledge, just above the bottom of the ice.  Definitely one of the best pitches I’ve done in the Rockies.  After a few steep pulls out the cave, the angle eases to vertical to slightly overhanging for about 30-meters, with numerous bulges to negotiate.  Perfect torquing cracks and incut holds, made for really fun sustained climbing, with enough stances to shake out from, although never a hands free position until the belay.  

A raw unfiltered video of on the second pitch

And on on the fourth

The second pitch was also new and of similar quality, although it followed a fragile strip of ice that on average was an inch thick and a foot wide.  By the time we were done it, the snow was falling so we had to hurry as a 2000’ couloir was above the route.  Sure enough, it wasn’t long before huge sloughs started coming down at frequent intervals.  We split the last 60-meters of ice into two pitches as there was a good belay spot on the right below a rock overhang and we only had a 50-meter rope.  We had also brought the drill and installed bolted anchors the whole way right to the top, with hopes it will entice others to get out and try this incredibly high quality route.  

starting pitch 2


Higher on pitch 2

Simms on pitch 3

me following it

pitch 4 as the storm intensifies

rappelling from the top.  We had a lot of snow come down on us and around us over the course of four rappels 

The Beta:
Approach: Park at the Stanley Headwall.  Walk or ski for two to three hours depending on conditions.  It is one of the closest to the road on the Storm creek headwall, and you can see the upper ice from the highway.  I believe it’s probably climbable most years.  
-2 ropes, 50-meters will suffice if you have them and want to carry less weight.
-12-14 quick draws, which should include a few long ones
-6 screws, mostly 10-13 cms
-stoppers from 4-11
-Pitons: optional….I placed one #3 Pecker and left it fixed on the second pitch
-I had a double rack of cams up to #3 camelot, and 1 #4.  I didn’t need much in the really small sizes.  I did place two #3’s on the fist pitch, but would probably have been ok with a single set in the hand crack sizes.   Definitely double up in the .3, .4, and .5 camelot sizes, and maybe a bit more.  

There is a sheltered spot below a small overhang about 20 meters down and lookers right of the route to gear up, and leave your skis and packs.

THe route as seen from the approach

Pitch 1:  45m M8 - From the highest point of snow below the ice, trend slight right up easy, scrappy, mixed snow ice and rock.  A fist crack provides protection for a steep bodylength to the chossy back of the cave.  Follow 4 bolts up and left requiring a few honest pulls, to get to a nice crack.  Follow that up.  It soon passes two more bolts and a fixed nut from the old rappel anchor.  After those, trend right, then back left to a bulge below the ice which is used to gain a small ledge and a bolted anchor on the right.  Be sure to put a runner on the first bolt, a medium length draw on the second bolt, and extend other cams etc. where necessary to reduce rope drag.

Pitch 2: 50m M6 R - This might be much easier on fatter years.  An 80-degree ice goulotte, with occasional rock pro for 15-meters, leads to average 60-degree terrain.  It was a very consistent 3 cm thick the entire way for us, and was unprotectable for 30 meters after the angle kicked back.  A fall would be serious.  Fortunately, the ice we had was of excellent quality making it a reasonable endeavour.  The bolted anchor is about 5 meters right of the pillar.

Pitch 3: 30m WI5 - Steep ice, thin and hard to protect at the first, but it does improve.  A bolted anchor is on the right below a rock roof.

Pitch 4:  25m WI4 - Straight forward ice climbing.  The bolted anchor is about 3-4 meters above the top of the ice in some rock.

The Plum

The Plum  WI6 M7, 120m, first ascent: Marc-Andre Leclerc and Jon Walsh Nov. 8, 2014
A new traditional mixed route with no bolts, at the Storm Creek Headwall, Kootenay National Park B.C.

Marc on the approach, with the route marked in red, the belays in green, and the snowslope approach in thick red.

On Saterday November 8th, Marc-Andre and I completed the first ascent of The Plum, a line that’s been in the back in the mind, and in my dreams for the past decade.  It follows a slender flow of ice that drips down the nose of a steep butress, creating funky mushrooms, daggers and pillars, that are a real treat to climb on.    I had attempted it approximately ten years ago with my ice mentor Rich Marshall.  After climbing a pitch of steep ice out of the big cave which eventually became the first pitch of The Peach, another fine addition to Rockies trad mixed by Raphael Slawinski, Rich proceeded to lead what was the wildest pitch he had ever led - he later confessed, as well as one on the craziest leads I’d ever witnessed.  Committed after climbing through a couple of M6 overhangs, he continued up for 25m of vertical ice that averaged about 2cm thick, with only 2 knifeblades below him, and no opportunity for further protection!  With laser-like focus, he slowly tapped and tested his picks in the verglas (which he thought would be little thicker), shook out his pump, and forged on.  Fortunately thin ice was his specialty and despite the x-rating and extreme intensity, he was in his element.  I honestly don’t think many others could have pulled off such a lead, and following it, I often found myself hanging just from the first tooth of my picks.  I led a short pitch above his anchor, but with darkness closing in and another wild and committing bit of climbing above, I had to build an anchor and lower off, ending our attempt.  

Rich Marshall attemping the route circa 2004

That day entrenched itself in my memorey.  I’ve been back to that part of the Storm Creek headwall a few times over the years since, always interested to see what that sector of the wasll was looking like, but never saw the buttress ice up enough to look inviting again.  Cold snaps likely cause the early season ice to delaminate and then it just doesn't reform, hence, this is really a late fall to early winter route, and perhaps one that only occationaly comes in.  One wseek ago, however, Michelle and I were hoping to climb something in the area, but unseasonally warm temperatures made being below any steep or thin ice too dangerous, so our day turned out to be nothing more than hiking and scoping.  We ventured far enough up valley to see that more ice was dripping down the dream line than I had ever imagined, and upon returning to the valley, it dominated my thoughts for the following week.  Luckily Marc-Andre Leclerc was heading to the Rockies for the first time and was keen to get out, and I figured it would be great first route for us to climb together, as well as perfect intro to the Rockies for him, as he is known to have a solid head for intense climbing, and power to spare.   And I say luckily because the Banff Film festival was responsible for tying up most of my other partners who I would normally try to recruit for such an outing.

Upon getting to the base of the route, Marc immediately arranged rock rack on his harness, so instead of the usual rock paper scissors for first lead, I offered it to him as he seamed so keen.  Two options presented themselves and he chose the left one, a shallow right facing corner with a bit of ice dripping down it and small icicles decorating the wall around it dangling like christmas tree ornaments.  The climbing was steep and thin, and long technical moves were common.  The protection was tricky too, and Marc moved slowly but confidently, and made steady upward progress, never knowing where the next hold or piece of protection would appear.  A cruxy pull over the roof on 1-2 cm thick ice followed by a fun iced up handcrack and a good ledge to belay at.  It was definitely the best first lead in the Rockies I’ve ever witnessed!  Three out of the 4 pitons he placed were left fixed.

Marc near the beginning of the first pitch

Marc setting up to pull the roof on the first pitch

Here Marc is trying to get his tools established in ice that mostly falls apart when weighted

The next pitch was pure fun, and I was psyched to get this one as this type of climbing is always special to me - steep, thin ice climbing with most of the gear in the rock!  I was surprised to pass the old anchor from ten years ago that I had built, as I thought we might have been further right, but it gave me a good boost of inspiration to have joined out original line, and I felt determined to finish the business.   From a stance at the top of strange fin like pillar of rock, an anemic ice pillar guarded the crux and the weakness through the overhanging wall.  I climbed delicately to its front, and pounded a knifeblade into a seam to its left, preparing mentally for some very engaging climbing above.   But then I noticed an suspicious, yet inviting foot-hold to my left, right on the crest of the arete.  I stepped over to it, and saw a I could turn the corner, and traverse into some ice runnels of better, less fragile and more protectable terrain that led to the same place.  Once in the runnels, my pace picked up and I made it to a perfect belay ledge with good cracks for an anchor, just as I ran out of rope.  As Marc neared the station, he asked if all climbing in the Rockies was this good, and I had to apologize for spoiling him on his first route, as this was about as good as it gets!   

Me, on some very fun ice climbing near the start of the second pitch. Photo by Marc-Andre Leclerc

Marc nearing the top of pitch 2.  This bit reminded of some of the climbing I did in Scotland last February.

He easily dispatched the last pitch of grade 4 ice, and we were soon on our way to down, stoked, and talking about more possibilities in the upcoming weeks.  Although the difficulties of this route weren’t too hard on top rope for the seconder, leading the first two pitches and following them were completely different things, and the intensity and seriousness far exceeded the technical levels of the climbing.  

Marc leading pitch 3 as it begins to snow lightly.

For me personally, it was awesome to have shared Marc’s first experience in the Rockies in this way, and to have finished an old project - one I dreampt about for so many years.  It was also an amazing feeling to have walked up to a line such as this, and to have completed it first try without placing any bolts.  We did carry a bolt kit in the pack, but fortunately that was where it stayed.  I think it’s pretty obvious from what’s written here, that this line comes highly recommended to those who like the style of proper traditional mixed, in a wild setting :)

Approach notes:  It took us 3 hours to hike from the Stanley Headwall parking lot in ankle-deep snow, that became knee-deep closer to the route.  The climb is about halfway along the Storm Creek headwall and just right of The Peach, which is the route up big hanging icicles in the photo.  We used an exposed snow ramp that came in from the right to get to the start of the first pitch, and reversed it after two long rappels from the top of the climb.  Do not consider going here in times of high avalanche hazard!

Pitch 1:  40m M7.  Traverse easily left from the belay, then make steep moves to gain a shallow right facing corner that leads to a roof.  We left two peckers and a knifeblade fixed in the corner.  Move left through the roof to gain a good crack that trends back right to a belay ledge with many good anchor options.  The gear on this pitch is a little bit un-obvious but seemed adequate.  Having the three fixed pieces should help…

Pitch 2: 60m WI6.  Work through ice blobs and mushrooms, past an old anchor (we used this for rappelling), to stance below an overhang.  Delicate moves up and left past some delicate ice, then around the arete on good holds, gain ice filled grooves  that lead to an excellent ledge with a good cracks for an anchor a few meters left of the main ice flow.  Most of the protection was in the rock, although I did place 6 ice screws as well.  This pitch was 90% ice, and 10% rock moves, although we felt like just an ice-grade was more appropriate.  The WI6 grade is a definitely more for the technical difficulties then the pump, and harder than your average pitch of “fat” WI6…

Pitch 3.  20m WI4.  Vertical for a bit, then easier.  This pitch could vary in difficulty depending on the thickness of the ice.  A fixed rock anchor of two stoppers is just beyond the end of the ice.

Rack beta:  We had a double set of cams from tips to #2 camelot, one #3, and one #4 camelot.  Doubles from tips to .75 camelot was nice, but singles from #1 to #4 would suffice.  A few pitons, nuts, and a half-dozen screws in the 10-13 cm range would be enough in the same conditions.  14 quick draws wasn’t quite enough for the long second pitch and I was wishing I had a couple more…