West Shoulder Direct
The West Shoulder Direct on Mt Andromeda

Nearly every summer, between 1985 and 1992, I would, with various friends, travel to Alberta, Canada to climb. These mountains, I believed, were the real  Rockies. The Canadian Rockies.  I had spent a fair amount of time stomping around what most American’s think of when they think Rockies, the Colorado Rockies, but to me, since these peaks did not have glaciers adorning them, they seemed fraudulent. I remember going to a slide show at the now defunct Alpine West climbing shop in Sacramento, and hearing the prolific Dave Nettles speak about the Canadian Rockies for the first time around 1984. Dave’s list of remarkable ascents during those years really fired me up and I looked up to him immensely. He spoke of the Rockies as if it was the Chamonix of North America; an easy two day drive from California, with world class alpine mountaineering almost always within a day’s hike from the road; in fact some of these routes were actually right next to the road. After my first trip there in ’85, I was hooked.

That first trip consisted of Ron Alexander and myself. We drove his old ’79 Datsun hatchback in a non stop frenzy all the way from Sacramento to Lake Louis in seemingly record time. The first time I laid eyes on these peaks, these glaciers, my eyeballs nearly burst. We hung around Banff for a day or so getting our bearings together and looking at maps and talking to local climbers; trying to get a handle on the magnitude of this place. After a spell, we decided that the place to be was at the Columbia Icefields. The Icefield is a massive mother glacier to many smaller, but still sizeable valley glaciers that flow from it’s womb, with some of the Rockie’s biggest, baddest routes gracing it’s flanks. We spent the afternoon at our camp in the Icefields Campground, sharpening tools and crampons, eating food, and gawking at the north face of Mt Athabasca, clearly visible from most anywhere in the area. The standard North Face route on this peak is a classic trial of alpine ice climbing consisting of an easy approach via it’s heavilly crevassed glacier, and after crossing the berghshrund, twelve or thirteen pitches of ice up to about 70 degrees or so, including a mixed pitch with steeper angles busting through the rock band nearing the summit. We figured this would be a good warm up, and the following morning at 2 am, we head off. By 6 am, we were crossing the ‘shrund and cruising the pitches above. Conditions varied greatly from styrofoam to hard blue ice to rotton honeycomb, to trecherous snow. There was a party above us, so we attempted to stay off to the side of the face as much as possible. For safety’s sake, we decided to belay in a traditional manner, each and every pitch on this route, which ultimately we would pay for in the length of time it took to climb this sucker. After passing through the crux gully near the top, it was a cruise to the summit and we were happily descending the NW ridge at dusk. Once it got dark, progress slowed and we found ourselves blindly stumbling around open crevasses all the way to the moraine. Finally, at midnight, we reach camp and collapse in our bags for a sleep of the dead. Our “warm up” took us 18 hours. We decide to drive up to Jasper the following day, just for grins really. After lunch at a diner in Jasper, with the North Face of Mt Edith Cavell clearly visible from our table, we reluctantly head back to California, climbing, on the way a couple more routes. It wasn’t till august of ’86 that we returned to up the ante a bit.

Later that fall, I spent most of my time free climbing in the Valley, mixing it up with the occasional wall route. About this time, the gully ice in the Sierra begins to form up nicely, and a trip to the East Side provides some relief from the monotony that the Valley can produce. After climbing the V-Notch on Mt. Sill, the North Couloir on North Peak, The Dana Couloir, and finally, the Gully on Mt Gilbert, I began to really crave getting back to the peaks of the Columbia Icefields. So that next August, we were on our way once again to Alberta. The question was: what to climb. There were so many… North Face of Mt Fay? The Scottish Gullies on Mt Columbia? The Supercouloir on Deltaform? The mighty Grand Central Couloir on Kitchener? I wanted to climb them all. After a botched attemp on Mt Fay, due to poor routefinding on the approach, which put us in the wrong gully (the gully in question turned into an 8 pitch route climbed with headlamps; topping out near sunrise, at the base of Mt Fay. So tired, we bailed), we decided on a route that Jeff Lowe had soloed the first ascent of back in 1971: The West Shoulder Direct on Mt Andromeda. At grade III 5.8 AI4, this climb is considered a moderate technical route by modern standards, and sits to the right of many other, harder routes, including the difficult Andromeda Strain. To it’s right, lie the Skyladder, a short snow/ice face of around 45 degrees. The West Shoulder Direct, as the name implies, climbs directly up the faint buttress on the northwest face of the western shoulder of the peak, and ending directly at the more northerly, false summit. It certainly looked appealing enough; it appeared to be several pitches of steepish ice, climbing up the flutings of the face, interupted by what looked like a pitch or three of mixed, followed by steepening ice all the way to the summit cornice. We arrived at the icefields late that night, and got a short night’s sleep, waking up early to scope out conditions and get organized. A light rack seemed in order and that is what we compiled: 3 ice screws, 2 KB’s, a LA, a Baby Angle, 3 wired nuts, and three camming units, plus the usual sling assortment and a picket for good measure.

Hitting the hay early, I dreamt that night of terrible avalanches and rockfall; at one point I awoke to the sound of seracs cascading down Kitchener’s north face, only a couple of miles up the road. I realized at that moment how the Grand Central Couloir got it’s name. At 2 am we were up and gulping down nuts and granola as we hoofed it down the access road to the toe of the glacier, which would allow us access to the Andromeda Glacier stuated directly above. By headlamp, a mundane scramble up the seemingly endless scree of the moraine finally gave way to the ice, and away we trudged, aiming directly for the berghshrund at the foot of the route. Ron and I stopped at the ‘shrund, and had another bite to eat. Looking up, we could now see that merely getting across would involve some effort: a five foot gap and the upper wall overhanging somewhat significantly, capped by a lip forming a ceiling. What a way to start the climb, I thought. We rope up, and taking the first lead, I climb as high up the lower wall of the ‘shrund as I can, and standing on the most protruding ice I can find, allow myself to fall inward. If I timed it perfectly, I hoped to plant my tools into the overhang above. If I failed, into the chasm I would go. As I fell against the face of Andromeda, I could tell immediately that she was going to cooperate, and my ice hammer sunk deeply into solid alpine styrofoam. A quick front point up and throught he ceiling, and we were established on the route. I continue upward for a full rope length of 55 degree ice, stopping once or twice to place a screw. Ron and I swung leads like this for three or four more pitches until things got a bit harder. Ron belayed me up from a solid Lost Arrow and a nut, perched on a perfect limestone platform just big enough for the two of us to stand. Above, a chimney filled with ice in it’s recess seemed to lead to a strange looking arrangement of smooth ice. It appeared, at least from a hundred feet away, to have bits of rock, barely penetrating it’s surface. I hoped it was not what I thought it was: bare rock covered with verglass. Struggling up the narrow chimney, and occasionally getting a tool into the shallow ice of it’s innards, I could finally see the strange features not far above me. It wasn’t verglass, but perhaps 2 inches of rotten alpine ice over some of the shattered rock that the Rockies are famous for. At the top of the chimny, I sent home a truck stop of a Baby Angle, and fearfully planted a tool into the sugary choss above. Stemming my feet on the arete of the chimney, I was able to move upward, until I suddenely found myself completely planted on the face above. This was dicey shit. With emphasis on “shit”. I tried carefully to not disturb the loose, shattered gravel beneath the ice; allowing myself only the shallow tool placements of the honeycombed ice. With positively no protection to be had for the next 60 feet, I had to either commit, or retreat to the bar at the Icefields Interpretive Center. So up I went, into it’s harrowing arena, gingerly placing each tool, each crampon, one after the other, until the 70 degree “Wall of Shit” was sent. At it’s top, I manage to get in a decent ice screw, and step to the right for a belay on a small ice fluting. I chop a stance in the ice and bring up Ron, who grins at me as he reaches the belay, saying that he’s glad he had not lead the pitch. If he had, he would have chosen the Icefields Bar, he said.

Another pitch of mixed climbing up a fairly solid corner, lead to fine alpine ice once again. Here, on the face, great flutings began to appear on either side of us, and the route continued, up between them, in a straight forward fashion. Four more pitches of this dreamy climbing gains us a small stance, of which above, the final section to the false summit could be seen. The ice is steep here, nearly 80 degrees, and overhanging at the top where a great cornice protrudes like a giant’s chapeau. The final pitch was 85 degree ice, steepening to past verticalat at the cornice. Soon, I can climb no more as the cornice blocks the way; I punch through the beast with my axe and see the alpenglow on the other side. I cut the hole bigger still, and wiggle my way through for a belly flop onto the flat false summit. Soon, Ron and I are practically running to the main summit; the sun is setting. We are happy that we are not climbing in the dark, but the descent is notoriously treacherous, and doing it in the dark will provide challenging, to say the least.  We have two choices really; downclimb the Skyladder, or downclimb the regular route. The Skyladder seems out of the question to me, at least in the dark. We both agree that the standard route, while not as straightforward as the Skyladder, should be less technical. It is dark by now, so we begin descending the East Ridge; traversing this way and that way, around gendarmes and outcrops of colapsing limestone. Skirting gullys and downclimbing choss, we arrive at a rappel. Down we go; 120 feet or more. More downclimbing. We get suckered, by way of darkness, into a dead end gulley that drops magnificently to the glacier below; this could be the top of the Andromeda Strain for all we know. Eventually we find the correct gully and descend into it’s bowels. This dead ends into  flat shelf that must be trversed to the north to re gain the ridge. We are going off of memory from what a Banff local had told us a couple of days earlier. After gaining the ridge proper again, more downclimbing ensues till a col is reached; below the col, a 50 degree ice slope of around three pitches lead to the Andromeda Glacier below.

Ron never told me just how blind he is. He wears glasses, but I never knew the extent to which his eyesight suffered. His night vision, he says, is real bad. I downclimb the 400 feet of blue ice all the way to the berghshrund and wait for Ron. It takes him considerable time, and I, sitting in the gaping crevasse, am getting quite cold. He finally arrives; he too is cold and looks wiped out. We rope up for the heavily crevassed section of the glacier below, and start weaving the needle; in, out, and around the gaping holes of the beast. There is always a danger of falling into a crevasse when there is a thin snow bridge covering it’s chasm. It had snowed a few days prior, and it being late August, put our current location just above the firn line, where the most dangerous snow bridges can occur. We are descending at a steady pace when suddenly I am jerked backwards with a violent tug. I am pulled to the deck immediately and manage to get my axe in and get my weight on top of it. Ron was no where in sight; somewhere, at there in the dark, Ron was dangling from the rope inside of a crevasse. I yell out to him and he replies that he is hanging in space and bleeding. Once, the year before, Ron and I were descending the North West Face of Mt Stanley after a successful climb, near the bottom of the glacier and tired, Ron had slipped on the 40 degree ice and I had caught the scene out of the corner of my eye and managed to catch his fall in the nick of time. We had been downclimbing simultaneously and putting in ice screws every so often. Ron would put them in and upon reaching them, I would pull them out. After pulling the last one, I was so fatigued I forget to tell Ron, so when he fell, there was only what I like to call the “Whymper Method” in place; The deadly and ridiculous technique of simul-climbing with a rope btween the two of you and no gear or protection in. If one of you go, both of you go. Not cool. 

  After setting up an anchor consisting of both my ice tools and the snow picket, I threw down another length of rope for Ron to prussik. In another half hour, Ron was out, shivering, bleeding from his lip, and eyes as wide as silver dollars. We took a break to re group and sip some water; it was now 1 am. Thankfully, the renainder of the descent went smoothly, and we finally reached the road. The worst part now, was walking the 2 miles back to camp in our plastic boots., but it seemed like managable suffering to me. Finally, 22 hours after we left camp, we returned and downed a couple of victory beers and quickly fell asleep. It had been a fine adventure for Ron and I, but somehow, over the next couple of years, Ron and I rarely spoke. I had moved to Moab, and Ron had essentially quit climbing, focusing soley on gaining his Master’s Degree in music. In 1990, I was heading to the Valley for the summer, and decided to give Ron a call. His Mother answered the phone and informed me that Ron had been hit by a car on his bicycle and had been killed. Ron was one of my early climbing partners, a friend, and a good man. I think of Ron often, still to this day, and he is missed.


Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell

As a teenager, gripped in the throes of the beginnings of a long love affair with rock climbing and mountaineering, I, like many young neophytes of the time, was drawn to such books as Yvon Chouinard’s Climbing Ice, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, and Jeff Lowe’s The Ice Experience. These books taught me about the things I hadn’t yet done, and the places I hadn’t yet seen. The black and white photographs and haunting wordsmanship regarding miserable conditions, long approaches, and terrifying climbing escalated the already intense imagery in my eager and unspoiled mind. From the early forays to the Rocklin Quarry in California, at age 15, to my first real route ever at lovers leap, which I swung leads with my partner Seamus, and also taking my first ever lead fall, to the V-Notch Couloir in the Palisades just a year following, I had built up a thirst for wanting to expand the horizons of climbing locations to include farther away places and to up the ante in difficulty. Another book of the time that had fired my imagination and spawned a sensible and healthy desire for the great routes was Steve Roper’s 50 Classic Climbs of North America. Now, grant you, this book became, in a short time, to be regarded by some as a joke. Eventually it became not so lovingly known as “50 Crowded Climbs”.  It included some routes that were incredibly obscure, some that were not so good, and one route that hadn’t even seen a second ascent. Nonetheless, it had purpose and the result was profound on me. One of the routes in the book was the North Face of Mt Edith Cavell in the mighty Canadian Rockies. in 1988, after a couple of season’s climbing in the Rockies, I decided that it was time to do this thing. There were other routes in the Rockies that were more aesthetically pleasing, more remote, and possibly of better quality, but after all, it was in the 50 Classics book, right? It had the earmarks for a good outing I thought; The approach was short, the route moderate, and the descent reasonable. Why not? I also figured it would be a good warmup for Kitcheners’ Grand Central Couloir.

In the mid and late 80’s, often times, my climbing partner was the notorious Brian Knight, AKA “Mr Way”. Way had a talent for irritating people in a way few can do; his knack for debate and arguing was legendary. It is no wonder that years later he became a lawyer. He tended to piss a lot of folks off from time to time, but, in those days, he rarely got under my skin. That’s not to say it didn’t happen; one time, on a road trip to the East Side, I demanded that he pull over and I jumped out and hitchhiked far away from him. However, we managed to climb quite a lot together during those times and even managed to get up a few things. Way had an interest in Edith Cavell as well, and we both had been to the Rockies before and both cherished what it had to offer. So, in the fall of 1988, we set off, leaving from Tahoe and heading north in Way’s beater 1980 Subaru wagon.

We stopped in Bellingham to visit Way’s friend and spent the day water skiing in the Bellingham Sound, eating, sorting gear, and telling tales of past climbing forays. The next day, early in the morning, we took off, into Canada and across southern B.C., enroute to Alberta, and the Banff-Jasper Highway. As we approached the mountains from the B.C. side, a storm was starting to brew, and the climb to Vermillion Pass was obscured in clouds, as were the surrounding peaks. We descended the pass in near whiteout conditions, creeping the old Subaru down the snaking road, painfully slow. So slow, in fact that by the time we got down to the Icefields Parkway, there were a dozen trucks behind us, all furious, and seething to get around these absurd Americans who cannot drive in a snowstorm. The trucks passed, one by one; and after the last one disappeared into the storm ahead, we then saw the red and blue lights, an unfortunate and familiar sight for me in those days. As the cop approached we wondered what we had done to warrant this pullover. It seems, one of the impatient truck drivers had actually called the cops on us; the fuzz had stopped us for going too slow! This was a first, for sure. Next, the RMCP asks for our registration, driver’s license, and last but not least, proof of insurance. “Uh, how ’bout two outta three, man?” Way replies. No good. After running our records, the cop calls a tow truck and soon our little Subaru was loaded up and driven to the impound yard in Banff, until we could provide proof of insurance, which was going to be difficult, since we didn’t have any. The cop drove us to Banff, and allowed us to gather what we could carry from the car. So there we were, Way and I, standing there, in Banff, dressed in full mountaineering suits, complete with double boots on and full packs to boot. It started to snow again.

Back in those days, I rarely had more than two nickels to rub together and another rogue trip to the Canadian Rockies was no exception.

We heard there was a hostel there, so we trudged, through the woods and the freshly fallen snow, towards salvation. Except that we certainly could not afford to stay there. However, we did in fact stay there, we just did not pay. We snuck in and we snuck out. In fact, the whole trip had been pulled off with just a couple hundred bucks between us; in order to conserve money, we pulled off a series of “dine and dashes” across Oregon and Washington. Once, in Spokane, after an especially filling all you can eat breakfast buffet, Way and I decide that it is time to split. You go that way, I’ll go this way. After casually exiting the restaurant, and circling the block in opposite directions, we meet up again a block down. We begin strolling down towards the car in a care-free fashion, when suddenly we hear the shouts. “Come back here you punks!” We spin around to see the chef of the fine establishment we had duped, chasing after us, at a full run, complete with Chef’s hat and butcher knife in hand. We ran. Hard. Back in opposite directions and down a back alley to meet at car and a fast peel out towards the freeway. Onward… That was the last dine and dash of my career.

After we left the Hostel, we decided not to go back and set up camp in the woods near town, grabbed some clean duds, and headed for the bar. Maybe we could find a ride up to Edith Cavell, a three hour drive by car. As luck would have it, we meet Alex, a local climber, who not only agrees to give us a ride the next day, but lets us crash at his house to boot.

A late start the following morning puts the three of us on the road by 11:00, and soon we are flying past the Icefields, and soon after, cranking up the side road leading to Edith Cavell. Way and I hop out, grab packs, say goodbye and thanks, and start hoofing it towards the base of the Route. The North Face of Edith Cavell consists of 4000 feet of Ice and Limestone, with the bottom portion of the route a glacier and it’s tongue, flowing downward at an angle of about 55 degrees, and higher up, still below the main face, 2 or 3 sections of icefall and crevasses that must be negotiated in order to gain the “real” climbing. We hike in, with the wall above us staring us down, and find a bivy directly below the first ice pitch. We awake, at 4 am and realize that we are actually getting a late start, but decide to go for it anyway. A 2 am start would have been desirable in order to climb the 4000 foot route in a day, without a bivy. The Initial ice pitches flew by with ease, and soon we were hauling ass up the low angle glacier above. Crossing the ‘shrunk, we spy a ramp leading left to a narrow ice gully, which ended, it appeared, at a blank looking limestone wall, maybe 500 feet up. Again, the pitches flew past and soon we were climbing good quality 5.8 limestone in crampons, Canadian Rockies style. After a couple of rock pitches, another ice pitch leads to a big horizontal icefield that splits the face. At the ice field, it starts to snow. Heavily. Within minutes, we are engulfed in whiteout conditions. Before the storm hit, we though that a quick traverse to the left was in order, in hopes to gain a chimney/corner system that we thought was the key to gaining the upper face. However, here, now, in this storm, everything began to look as though we had never laid eyes above before. A horizontal pitch of snow and ice to the left, and all we could see were massive overhangs above us. These looked nearly unclimbable, and at the least, would require the use of aid. Mind you, the route is rated IV 5.8 AI3, which meant we were clearly off route. We could not see more than a few feet in the storm, and after a full hearted attempt at finding a way through the ceilings above, I lowered off and traversed to the right again; this time over an arete, my hands gone totally numb, crampons scraping the limestone in desperation. I gain a small ledge and bring up Way. After he scrapes up this last pitch, we sit there, bewildered, not knowing where to climb. Above us, more big overhangs; more desperate looking than the last ones. We knew we were sunk. It was 2 pm and we figured we had just enough gear to rappel what we had climbed. If we were lucky.

So down we went. Rappels, one after the other, snowing hard now, wind coming in on the face; rime ice is beginning to plaster every feature, including us. Soon, it is quite obvious that we will not have enough gear to rappel from as we have brought a meager rack: 2 camming units, 4 stoppers, 1 Lost Arrow, 1 Baby Angle, 1 KB, and 3 Ice Screws. We figure there is just enough gear for us to rap the route utilizing single anchors, which meant that the first person to go down got 2 anchors, and the second  guy pulls the backup. Dicey. In fact, the anchors were not great to begin with. The possibility of dying on this face were very real. The rock was extraordinarily compact, and finding suitable cracks was difficult. After about 10 raps, some long some short, some off of slings on natural features, we finally reached the Glacier having left all of our rock gear on the face; it couldn’t have been more perfect, really.  We still had to descend the Glacier and then rap/down climb the tongue. Fatigue, dehydration and cold were taking their toll, and soon it was dark. We did not know how far down it was to the base, and with only 1 ice screw left, and downclimbing in the dark out of the question, we find a ledge the size of a love seat, and decide to bivy. The temperature seemed to be dropping even further, and the snow, coming down harder. We donned all of our clothing, put our feet in our packs, and weaved the rope over us like spaghetti. After a couple of miserable hours, we realize that it is far too cold to merely sit, so we get up and jam the ice screw into a crumbling rock crack, tie in, and proceed to run in place off and on for the remainder of the night. With all of this going on on such a small ledge, it is no wonder that somehow, we managed to kick off my ice hammer, and my helmet. It was along night indeed. At one point, agonized by the misery of this bivouac, Way even threatened to pitch himself off the face to end the suffering. I encouraged him so that I might have peace and quiet; alas he feared death more than he feared the cold and heinous night, so pitch himself he did not. Just before dawn, we belayed off the shitty ice screw rock anchor, and I down climbed a half pitch of chose to find 45 degree blue ice of which made for quick front pointing down. After a short while, we could see the bottom of the tongue, and the ice steepened significantly. We thread the rope through some ice tunnels made with the ice screw and made a couple rappels to the bottom, where we pulled the rope hastily and bee lined it for the world. Luckily, the hike out was without incident and we even managed a quick hitchhike back to Banff, all in pretty poor weather. It was early November now, and this signified the end of the fall season; soon, these kinds of routes would be “out of condition” so to speak. It was time to leave Canada.

Way managed to secure some wired funds for a quick getaway which included a temporary insurance policy and some gas money; just enough to get us to Salt Lake City, where we though perhaps it would be a decent place to spend the winter; skiing, climbing, and making money for the next adventure. About an hour north of Ogden, the mighty Subaru blew it’s lid, and there we were again, on the side of the road, with a mound of gear and a dead car. A tow truck came to retrieve us, and took us to a service station, but we had to give the tow operator the car as payment! What’s the point I ask?

In the end, I wound up hopping a bus to California, got my old job back at the ski shop in Sacramento, and Way, having hitch hiked to SLC, spent the winter in the Wasatch.