Sky Pilot North Face – West coast alpine climbing

17th April 2022: Unlike the Rockies, where the ice season lasts long and well into late spring, third week of April is not the best time for hunting ice in Coastal BC. However, after being bogged down by a wet March, I felt we still had to go and check out the face at least. After a streak of bright, sunny and precipitation-free days, with good weather and low avalanche forecasts, I thought we had a narrow window before the low pressure moved in.

However, the forecasts in these neck of the woods can be a bit fickle, and fickle it was this time as well. Just a couple of days before our trip, it snowed and while skiers delighted, the snowshoer in me didn’t. Jesse, Shashi, Ankit and myself did take a closer look at the weather and then decided to give it a go anyhow.

Pic by Shashi – View of Habrich from across the valley

We all synced up at the Apron parking lot at 1.45am and then drove along the Shannon creek FSR till the gate. By the time we packed up and started hiking, it was 2.45am. The FSR was completely snow-free, but given how warm it was we had very little hopes of finding any climbable ice. We all agreed that it might very well turn out to be a snowshoeing day in the hills, albeit one with packs heavier than what is needed for a snowshoe jaunt! Not skiing in was something that Jesse and Shashi rued, as they reluctantly strapped on their snowshoes in lieu of their skis for the gumby in me. I don’t ski, yet, and after this trip I did realize that I need to take it up very quickly if I am to make any decent attempt at getting up any early season alpine routes on the Coast, and probably Rockies as well.

It was a full moon night with mostly clear skies, and the landscape illuminated in mellow moonlight looked serene. We all ambled at a leisurely pace on the well groomed trail until the Habrich turn off, after which the fresh powder started to make its presence felt. The steeps felt steeper and soon the snowshoes were out. I fiddled around with my snowshoe bindings a couple of times before getting a good fit.

It was 7.15am by the time we were below Gunsight couloir, 4.5 hours for approx. 8kms and 850m of elevations gain. Seems standard fare, but with 40 lbs pack and some sinking even with Snowshoes, it was a tiring slog.

Pic by Shashi – Myself and Jesse looking at the line
Pic by Shashi – And now, not looking at anything!
Pic by Shashi – And wondering where we actually are!

We could see the line clearly from this point, however, there was too much snow on the route. Anyhow, seeing some ice, we were stoked to get on the route and give it a try.

Shashi had a fall while skiing in sub-optimal/icy conditions just a few days back and was feeling the hurt in his ribs on this long slog. And Ankit’s thigh was hurting as well since the past few days. So they both decided to turn back at this point. We quickly exchanged the needed gear and they both graciously offered to carry the unwanted gear/weight down with them.

Jesse and myself decided to press on. At this point, we were probably around 500 meters away form the base of the wall and we estimated another 30 minutes to get there and have some swings. We were terribly wrong. We were not oblivious to the thick clouds rolling in from behind Ledge peak, but did not expect it to engulf everything so quickly. Visibility was reduced to a few meters and we could not see a thing. The last 500 meters took us additional 90 minutes and deep post-holing in 40-60 degree snow ramp leading up to the base of first ice pitch.

We took a jab at each other for being pathetically slow and arduous while breaking trail in an effort to make light of the sufferfest we were enduring, post-holing thigh deep with each step.

What’s the matter bud, age catching up with you, eh?

My thighs were burning and calves screaming by the time we racked up and were ready.

Jesse took the first pitch and I am glad he did. He was slow, but careful and methodical hacking away at rotten crumbly ice to find some decent ice to let the 13cm screws bite-in. We definitely needed longer ones in this ice, but 13s formed the bulk of our rack today. 3-inches deep, Jesse quipped later in the day, that how much rotten ice I had to clear for each placement.

The climb itself was not hard, but combined with tiresome approach, rotten ice, poor visibility and intermittent spindrifts plummeting from above, it made for a slow and heady lead. He ran out almost the entire length of the 60m rope, save a couple of meters and then came to a stand still. Nothing for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, eventually an hour and longer. And then huge chunks of ice came falling down. I tried to dodge a lot, but caught a few on my helmet and then one decent one on my shin. It hurt bad. It was almost 90 minutes since Jesse started the lead and I could not see or hear him. I was cold and just wanted to start climbing. Finally I did hear from him, and started climbing, almost 2 hours and 15 minutes after Jesse started leading. That’s the longest I have been on belay. That amount of time may be a commonplace in Scottish conditions, but for me it was an aeon.

I didn’t need to hack away 3 inches of ice for each placement and it took me mere 15 minutes to get to the top. Later I learnt that it took him an hour or slightly more to find any decent ice to build an anchor. None of the screws could be trusted. He dug deep to find some rock underneath and found a suspect #1 camalot placement to back up some suspect screws.

Jesse felt bad and apologized for taking so long and offered me the next pitch. Which was non-sense! I was actually happy and relieved that he took the first pitch as it allowed my calves a much needed rest to recover from the burn! I would have taken longer, probably, and was indeed thankful for him taking the sharp end on this one.

It was past 12.00pm now, with lots of terrain above us, unknown ice quality and heavy snow. Plus the forecast later in the day wasn’t looking good and the west ridge descent could have been tricky given poor conditions. Given everything, I said that we must head down. While I would have loved to do the next pitch and more, it wouldn’t have been a good choice. The next pitch on the next climb we get out together would be mine, but not on this one.

So we took some time to build v-thread that we could trust and off we went. Jesse being the heavier, rapped off first backed up with the anchor and then I followed gingerly trusting the v-thread.

A couple of rappels and we started boot packing down the steep slopes. We saw two skiers enjoying the fresh powder in the basin below. Jesse missed being on skis, but well, that’s what you get for choosing a non-skiing gumby as a partner. I need to level up by next season. And honestly, to be able to access and approach most of the winter stuff around here, you should be able to ski, if not for oneself, but for your partners anyway!

It took us 3 hours to get back to the Gondola and we were down by 4.45pm, which could have been probably half the time or even less if we would have been on skis. Back in the parking lot, Shashi and Ankit came to pick give us a ride back.

We did feel a bit underserved with the conditions and rued that we got only 200 feet of ice climbing done. But 14 hours back when we started from the car park, we were approaching free from the burden of any expectations of finding any climbable ice. The snow dump on the slopes made it evidently clear that it was going to be an ordeal. We persisted nonetheless and got a few swings in return. Learnt a few things on this one, a character building experience as they say.

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