Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Scrambling Hints For Waterton

If you are planning on doing some scrambling in the Park, here are a few general hits that may help you plan your routes.

There are two main bands of rock that determine the feasibility of any route - the grey fossil algae band and the black purcell band.

Fossil Algae
-This is the remnants of an old coral reef. The rock is very textured and is generally pretty solid. While there are usually weakeness through this band you may have to do a bit of traversing to find them. When you are descending, this band of rock is often tricky to negotiate. This is because overhangs near the base of the band are common near. Water worn gullies are usually the weakest point through this band. These gullies tend to have eroded bases which produce the described overhangs.

Beside active gullies there are usually one or two older channels nearby that don't have undercuts.  They also tend to not to be as steep. Rock climbing at the upper tier of Drywood is a good way to get a feel for this type of rock. The rock is sharp, featured and, until you get used to it, holds are hard to read. If a rope is needed, tri-cams and friends generally work well. Most of the peaks north of Red Rock have a prominent band of fossil algae that must be broken through.

The fossil algae band as typically encountered (Dungarvan's southern ribs)

Sometimes finding a way through this band can be challenging (upper tier at North Drywood)

Black Purcell
-This is a volcanic rock that is only present among the taller routes in the park. This band of rock can hang you up. When consolidated it can be quite challenging. When fractured it makes for good scrambling among large detached blocks which, thankfully, tend to be solidly emplaced. Chimneys tend to be the main, but not only, way through this band.

A nicely broken up section of Purcell on Anderson

Red Argillite
- There are a number of bands of red argillite running through the park. Rusted iron deposits in the old inland sea are responsible for the fabulous colors. The rock tends to be crumbly. Don't trust holds, and ensure you climb smoothly with three points of contact. Because argillite weathers so easily, you are usually better doing some traversing to find one of the many weaknesses which occur along these bands. Red argillite with steep exposed 3rd class ledges make me nervous and probably will make for some thought provoking re-assessments. If the face you are climbing is not close to vertical, generally the red argillite won't present too many insurmountable problems (unless you route finding skills are weak).

Near Kootenai Brown Peak

An easy weakness through a band of red argillite

Green Argillite
-There are very few places in the park when the green argillite presents any challenges. In those few places where it sits on a steep, exposed slope you will get a chance to enjoy the full looseness of Waterton Rock. This rock is typically super crumbly and dip sloped. Footings are never solid. Add moss and dirt to this recipe and even old time locals have been known to call things "interesting" and vow never to return.

In general the rock in the park is much loser than that found elsewhere in the rockies. You should be comfortable pulling on lose blocks and knowing how to distribute your weight. Sliding around on talus above 3rd class ledges is an art that takes lots of practice. Being able to read the depth of shale over bedrock is a good trick to know for any descent.

There really aren't any easy to learn secrets for sliding around on talus in 3rd class terrain. If you have some safe ground on which to practice, one trick is being able to keep your momentum going. If you have built up a skill set, it is often easier to glide over loose footings than it is to try and take slow methodical steps. Looking for, and trying to kick in firm footing can sometimes be a challenge in Waterton's loose talus. The ground will just keep sliding out from under you. If things are safe, you can often just skip over the loose stuff for a pace or two in order to skim to better rock. The danger with this is that speed and instabilities grow as the amount of skimming increases. Generally you don't want to do this for more than two or three steps. As the ground gets more exposed, the fewer steps in a row you skim the better. Being able to skim a step or two is actually pretty useful for getting around the talus covered 3rd class ledges in the park. It makes traversing around for weaknesses much more appealing and efficient in terms of overall time spent on a peak.

In the park, you are usually much better running ridge crests than descending down into valley bottoms. There tends to be a lot of deadwood down the steep sided valleys. This can make for tiring going. The other thing to remember is that even though intermediate peaks may look like long hard climbs, they typically go much quicker than one would expect. In the Park linking ridges between neighboring peaks will give you the most bang for your buck. From my perspective peak bagging is much less fun than ridge running.

Game Trails
If you have the right feel for the mountains you will run into a lot of game trails. I have come to find out what may be an obvious trail for one person may be totally invisible for another. Game trails typically are hard to follow if you are worrying about being on the perfect route. They tend to wander to weaknesses in bush up ahead more so than what is easiest at any given moment. If you look for the best path a few meters in front of where you are at when a trail disappears, you will usually miss the right path. Similarly if you are looking too far ahead, you will wander off route. The ideal distance changes with tree cover, slope steepness and deadfall. Once you get a sense of how far ahead game plot their points, following trails becomes easy. On established game trails always try predicting where the trail will go and then test your predictions. Another very good learning trick is to continually look back on you game trail. This gives you a sense of what signs are important for following the trail the "wrong way". Often trails are much easier to pick up in one direction than another. Is the trail you are following mainly formed by game going down or up the valley? The subtitles of the path change as a result.

My strategy is not to fret things, keep moving fast and head towards what seems like the easiest ground. Almost as a rule game trails are easy to find on the way down than on the way up. For some reason human trails are just the opposite.

Getting Started
If you don't happen to live in the Park or spend a lot of time here it can be hard to just pick up line up a peak. Scrambling guides like those by Allen Kane and Andrew Nugara have definitely increased the traffic on the mountains. This means some peaks have routes that are actually pretty easy to follow (Galway, Crandel, Alderson, Forum, Vimy). Trip reports readily available on the internet have also broken down a lot of barriers. If you are new to scrambling in the park a good start may be to try one of the longer established hikes like Carthew-Alderson or Avion Ridge. If time or fitness is an issue, Goat Lake and Crypt Lake give a good feel for what the terrain is like.

Figuring out what first peaks to run will obviously be a matter of taste and experience. The classic scrambles, from easiest to hardest, might include

Mostly a trail
1. Lineham peak from Rowe lake trail
2. Vimy via the trail

Little to no route finding
3. Alderson from Carthew Lakes
4. Blakiston form the Lineham creek trail

More technical terrain without too much route finding
5. Sofa via the NE buttress
6. Galwey

Advanced scrambles
7. Crandell's knife edged ridge (south ridge) from Bear's Hump
8. Dungarvan

If you want to go to an area that requires more exploration, route finding and undocumented adventure, try heading in to the Starvation area around the Akamina-Kishenina Provincial Park in BC (just past Wall Lake). Long Knife Ridge and other peaks (including Kinnerly and Kinta on the US side) stretch the definition of scrambling and really should be considered moderate Alpine routes. Access has to be earned and routes appropriately sized up and plotted.

This is pretty much a personal preference. I don't like hauling up ropes on terrain whose cruxes are easy to avoid with some side-hilling and extra elevation gain/loss. Most crux rock bands are short and usually have a weakness. From my perspective, the gear on scrambling routes in the park is usually poor and hard enough to find that a cord may not be worth it. (This certainly isn't true once one steps out onto the steep faces and alpine rock routes around here - say North face of Anderson, East ridge of Alderson, or East face of Mt. Victoria).

If you want to bring a cord for 4th class terrain, consider just bringing 20 or so meters of 8.5mm and a rack made up of something like a #4, #7, #10 stopper and a red and blue tri cam (knife blades are great, but hammers are heavy). Bring the thin spectra slings with some ultralight biners, and think about bowlines on a bight instead of harnesses. A few extra pieces of full sized webbing can also be knotted and jammed into cracks for protection and used as rappel anchors or slinging horns.

Gri-gris are a no-no for alpine terrain. Old school belay techniques and proper selection and setting of stances are good tricks to learn. Body belays are also nice for saving time and keeping the cord on longer. One reason people often rope up on 4th class terrain is so when a hard spot in encountered while climbing/scrambling, you don't have to worry about gearing up in an impossible spot. (Being tied together without gear does tend to make one more picky about partners though!) Mike Barter's youtube videos are great for learning/reviewing some old school and alpine techniques.

Finding suitable rappel anchors above crux bands of rock will be challenging, so remember even though you got up it - you might not be able to get down it so easily - even with a rope. With shale laying over some of the ledges, gear sometimes can't be placed until you get over the lip.

Also, when simul-climbing, cords can dislodge rocks. Long distances between climbers means these rocks can end up violently ricocheting down gullies. When simul-climbing the stronger climber may go second (no pulling the leader off, no dragging the other climber into terrain that is too hard, and fewer unseen pauses which produce frustrated yanking on the cord). However if you need any of this climbing advice, you probably shouldn't be using second hand descriptions. You really need context. Black and white rules tend to eschew the judgements and common sense needed to make the mountains safe - especially when rock is bad and time is valuable.

Rating Disclaimer
Ratings, and what laymen expect from them, have been evolving for quite some time. As scrambles get bigger and terrain gets more technical, many factors complexly interact to keep grading from becoming cut and dry. The tension between consistency of difficulty and sheer technical difficulty is one such balance.

Modern rock climbing grades don't always match up with their old alpine counterparts. In some ways this is similar to the way indoor grades don't really match up with outdoor grades. Pushing near your limit or comfort level in the mountains is never a good idea. Being solid is much more important than reaching a certain standard.

Ratings for technical climbs in the park tend to be a bit stiffer than other areas. The rock quality is often thought of as a big factor for this. Loose rock creates a pucker factor that can make difficulties grow exponentially, even if "nothing" has changed technically. Edwards old guide to Glacier Park is a very good reference for getting a sense of Class 2,3,4 climbing. In the future I'll probably try to systemitize and cohere the scrambling grading a bit more, but for now consider my descriptions "rough".

I tend to view ratings as what someone who is well used to the area would describe things as. Because scrambling lies in the middle ground between hiking and climbing, it is also pretty important to know the background and traditions from which the person writing descriptions comes from. For instance I come at things more from a climbing perspective than hiking perspective. Add to that the fact 4 generations of my family have been scrambling the local mountains here, plus the fact we tend to be a bit understated about things, and that I've gone up most of these peaks for the first time before I was much of a teenager and you'll get quite a different perspective about some of my route descriptions than you otherwise would have. This doesn't mean I am good at anything, but it probably does color what I considered normal and the things I assume as being common sense.

Similarly, like many people who spend lots of time out in the mountains, a full day to me may mean something quite different from others. To me a full day isn't 6-8 hours. A friend who had just ran a marathon commented that a short 17km hike felt harder than his 26 mile run. The comfort level I tend to go by in my descriptions may take some time to figure out. We all have different strengths, weaknesses and blind spots. Increased precision of description isn't a silver bullet solution. It just leads to another type of problem.

To me the precision, or lack of it, in route descriptions should match the expected accuracy of interpretation. Thus if a route is likely to have lots of variations in how it is experienced, a highly precise description is more misleading than helpful. This is also true of short technical bands. How does one ensure readers hit just the right crack and edges? If one can't assume this, then why give precise details that may encourage those who are not well equipped to deal with the unexpected?

What does all this mean in relation to the route descriptions I have been posting? Get a feel for things on a objective well below your comfort level. Always be prepared for grades and descriptions to be about a class of difficulty off - either up or down. Never push through something if you feel uncomfortable. In terms of exertion, if you have difficulty pushing through exhaustion, then make sure not to tackle something that will leave you hanging things out.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

Email me