Roger Strong The Shadow Reflection
A story by Roger Strong
After recently becoming a father, I've found that my time management for work, trying stay fit, and balance the challenges of parenthood demands a lot more planning and patience than anything else I've experienced in my life. A couple months after my wife Merridy gave birth to Maya (she's now almost 8 months) I found myself in pathetic physical shape. Merridy was overly motivated to crack the whip and get back at it, but keeping up with the J.O.B. and learning to be a parent forced us to hit the gym. We don't have the time to take extended dirt-bag climbing trips so thankfully, one of the local gyms, Stone Gardens, has an outdoor dry-tool area with 8 routes to train on.
My biggest obsession in life is winter climbing in any form, especially when the desired objective has big question marks all over it. I love getting the artful image of a route to play tricks with my psyche, taunting my infatuation of getting hammered, forecasting weather, putting together the right rack, and questioning if can it be done in a push, etc. Admittedly, I don't always like being guaranteed that success is waiting at the top of every peak or route. If we knew the answer every time we went into the mountains, wouldn't that take a bit of the magic, focus and level of commitment out of it?
The place that I always go back to relive this random magic is the beloved Canadian Rockies…it's easily the world's foremost arena for every facet of winter climbing at any level. Whether it's pure ice, mixed, alpine, sport or trad climbing, the Rockies are a magical place you can choose as mellow as you want it, or bite off more than you can chew. For some reason, each trip I wind up following the latter.
Half the time I can blame (and thank) my dear friend Rob Owens for inspiring many of these adventures. Rob, a Canmore, Alberta local, understated and easily one of Canada's top all-rounder's, is the penultimate partner on any big mountain or cragging mission. Rob's deep appreciation of the mountains is only upstaged by his easy demeanor, fierce drive for getting the job done, devotion to wife, family and friends, and great taste in music.
When figuring out if we were able make time for a big route together this season and what we should shoot for, he kept mentioning the possibility of repeating Jon Walsh and Caroline George's route The Shadow on the N. Face of Mt. Patterson on the Icefields Parkway. This route put such a huge grin on my face 5 years ago when they had the vision and tenacity to put it up over 2 days of hard work. My stomach churned a bit when he sent me an image that Jon had taken a week prior when attempting the very steep Riptide, just right of the Shadow. Jon and his partner had wisely turned around at the famed 350m avalanche prone slope that guards the approach to the headwall displaying both routes. Rob, who's also an IFMGA guide and meticulous about conditions felt the snow had settled and would yield a safe approach in its current state.
4:30 a.m. alarm, Tim Hortons 24hr service to help start the 2 hr drive, we are at the trail head skinning by headlamp in a very calm, partly cloudy, cold morning. Rob was correct in the approach conditions and made for pleasant skinning…this slope can be a show stopper, we were relieved to have it bonded well. Whether we send this rig or not, it's going to be a really nice ski off this throne. After stashing the skis, we donned the alpine armor and soloed the first 400 meters of 55/60 degree well consolidated snow to the base of the business. It's quite light out by this time and looming above us are both objectives. Our goal is to link up both routes in a day if the Shadow allows us a relatively steady passage. It's hard not to start with Riptide since there is beautiful ice linking all of it's 5 long pitches. Originally graded at WI7, it looks a tad easier standing next to the looming Shadow to its left.
Rob and I are both lead hogs and have to Ro, Sham, Bo for the 1st pitch…deep down inside, I wouldn't mind if he would have won the draw… this route is making me squirm. I convince myself that once I get going, get in the rhythm of swing, kick/kick, clean snow, scratch around rock, look for protection, sink a good pick, I'll be right at home in the moment…but right now, I'm thinking about Merridy and Maya, and making sure that all my choices on this route are the right ones. The beauty of climbing with Rob, is I could look at him and know he gets it and feels the same way…he's got my back.
It's so hard to rate pitches in mountains when the ice is really thin and you have to spend more time looking for gear, where the route goes, belay, etc. The 1st technical pitch took a little over an hour, the next 3 took successively longer each rope length.
Bringing up Rob was a relief, because the start of the next pitch looked hard and runout…he didn't hesitate and methodically worked the crux leaving the belay, sans gear for about 10 meters. After his first piece, I was able to relax and take in the exposure and enjoy the incredible views that the Parkway always presents. This pitch took a bit longer than the last, and the next few pitches looked steeper and more sustained. I'm thoroughly enjoying following this pitch. Rob had to clean a lot of overhanging snow to get to any decent holds, ice and protection, I thanked him for all the work as it made it pleasant for me to second. Pretty solid M7 with decent gear right when he needed it. I'm looking up at the next pitch, deeply psyched but knowing it's going to take a lot of work. It's an open corner that lended to incredible movement and reasonable protection. A tricky traverse for a couple moves halfway up the pitch allowed us to move out from under a couple of large, concerning snow mushrooms. The corner just kept on going. Two more pitches of even more sustained dry-tooling through roofs, delicate snow mushrooms, and REALLY thin ice took every bit of energy to pull off without aiding. What was most compelling about each pitch is that we couldn't have aided through any of the hard moves since the rock didn't allow any protection in those sections. Each of these pitches took over an hour and a half on lead and finally gained us the top of the route as dark was approaching. At this rate, we're going to have to ‘settle' for the 2nd ascent and not the link up with Riptide…fine by me, I'm thoroughly worked and looking forward to the long ski out! The link up awaits!