Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Long Day on Mount Brock

This last weekend we headed out to the Rockies. On our first day of climbing we decided to tackle the South-East Pillar of the West Rib of Mount Brock (map), as described in Selected Alpine Climbs by Sean Dougherty.

The route goes up the left hand pillar on the edge of the sun and shade.

We got up at 5am in the dark and were on the trail by 6am, headed up King Creek. It's a nice canyon, but the trail criss-crosses back and forth across the creek on makeshift log bridges so it's a little slow.

In typical guidebook speak we were to follow the north fork past five gully systems until below a prominent drainage. We counted and recounted gullies and I think in the end we went up the right one.

The gully below the climb was still full of steep snow and we were in approach shoes without ice axes. The snow was just soft enough to kick steps. It would have been a long slide if we'd slipped.

We reached the bottom of the pillar about 9 am - 3 hours and the guidebook said 3 -4 hours so we were doing ok. We probably should have started a bit further up the gully but we'd had enough of the snow.

The climbing was reasonable, loose in places but that's to be expected in the Rockies. Some sections were nice and solid. According to the route description there should have been a ledge cutting across the face after two or three pitches where we figured the normal start would join up with us. We never found anything that fit the description.

That's Shelley highlighted, heading for the sun.

We were moving way too slow, mostly because of searching for protection and belay anchors. The rock tended to be either solid, but no cracks, or loose mounds of rubble. Neither are very amenable to placing protection.

According to the guidebook after about 6 pitches we should have reached easier 3rd class climbing. After 8 pitches, it had eased a bit but it still wasn't 3rd class scrambling. We started to wonder if we were on the right pillar. There'd been some signs of other climbers lower down but nothing after the first few pitches. And what we did see were signs of people rappelling off in retreat. Was that because they realized they were on the wrong pillar?

9 pitches took us six hours. It was 3 pm. The top still seemed a long way away. And it wasn't clear how we'd get to the descent ridge, which was supposed to be "easy downclimbing", but who knows what that meant. We had to make a decision whether to go for the top and hope for an easier descent, or cut our losses and try to descend the way we'd come up. At the speed we were going, either way we'd be lucky to get off by dark.

We decided to retreat. On the way up I'd been thinking I was glad we weren't going to have to come down this way. So much for that idea.

10 rappels later we reached the ground at 9 pm. Again, way too slow. Again, mostly because of searching for anchors. And, of course, trying to find the way down, keeping a clear line to pull the rope without snagging it. It meant leaving gear behind. A few spots we were able to loop horns. We rapped off single anchors more than I'd like. Not to save money, but to save enough gear for the rest of the descent. We always backed them up for the first person, but it's still riskier than I'd like.

After 12 hours of climbing on loose crap without either of us getting nailed, Shelley got hit in the leg by a rock I knocked off trying to straighten the ropes on the very last rappel. Luckily it wasn't bad enough to stop her walking out.

Damage from falling rock.

We made it down the steep snow and headed downhill to the creek in increasing darkness. Surprisingly, and thankfully, we found an easier route down than we'd taken on the ascent. I think there were a lot of nice wildflowers but it was hard to tell in the dark. And we actually found a path down the north fork of the creek that we'd missed on the way up.

By the time we reached the car it was almost 1 am - close to 19 hours since we'd set out. We hadn't taken more than a five minute break the whole day so we were pretty bagged. Amazingly, we'd had perfect weather all day. A bit windy in the afternoon, and a few high clouds, but nothing threatening. It would have been a miserable descent in the rain.

Looking at the mountain the next day, I think we were on the right route. It was hard to tell how high we reached. It might have been quicker to continue up and over the top, but I think we made the right choice. At least descending we knew the route.

In the end it all worked out ok, other than not reaching the top. We underestimated the length of the climb, and weren't in practice to move quickly enough. And I should have done a little more research, for example this report rates it 5.8 not 5.6 and they ended up having to bivy (didn't make it in a day). At least we avoided a cold bivy.


  1. Hmmm - nice - nothing like a mini epic!

  2. Did you leave a hex with red tape on it? :)

  3. Yeah, that was one of our rap anchors.

  4. A friend and I had our own epic which involved a cold bivi. We do have your hex if you're ever through Calgary. lukedotdixonatyahoodotca