Mt. Edith Cavell East Ridge
Aug. 31, 2002
Climbers: Rene Mueller, Ken Chow
Trip Report by Ken Chow

if you want to spend 10 min. reading a trip report I've attached my TR from last summer's Edith Cavell East Ridge climb.  It's considered a classic (the climb, not my TR), and there have been fatalities and epics on the route but we managed to escape to climb another day.  It includes a couple of photos giving a sample view of the vertical free climbing that we did (and the type of terrain where I had my little "episode" and where I go to do my photography). 

 

To photograph a mountain … you go to it.

 

Regards, Ken



Flash back to 2 years earlier when Rene and another partner were climbing
this route.  Into the start of the class 5 climbing, Rene slipped and fell
about 10-15 ft., landing on his back.  (For the benefit of those not
familiar with climbing, class 5 means vertical).   His pack cushioned the
fall but the immediate complication was that he was sliding on his back head
first towards the precipice!  Frantic digging-in with hands and feet
resulted in being stopped with his head hanging over the edge - many many
hundreds of metres down!  Careful maneuvering got him safely up the slope
but he feared some bodily damage from the fall as well as from intimate
contact with his ice ax.  Rene was game to continue on but only if they
roped up, which his partner didn't want to do.  That plus potential body
damage was enough to end the adventure, and the climbers went back down.
The good news is there was no serious injury, however the summit goal would
need to wait for another day.

Forward to spring of 2002
Rene to Ken: "Hey you want to do Edith Cavell via the East Ridge this
summer?"
Ken: "Sounds like a fair bit of technical skill and experience is required,
I dunno.."
Rene: "You can do that no problem, you were on that course with me."
Ken: "Hmmm, we *will* rope up for the class 5 climbing sections, right?"
Rene: "Of course"
Ken: "Um, well OK..."


Aug. 31, 2002
The previous morning it had rained steadily but we were hopeful that the
weather would indeed clear up per the forecast.  Sure enough, when the alarm
went off at 3:30 a.m. Sat. the sky was clear and the stars were out.  After
a quick breakfast and a drive up the long winding road to the Cavell parking
lot, we began the approach at 5:00 a.m.

The approach starts at the parking lot and follows the tourist path at the
bottom of the trees towards Cavell Meadows but where the trail heads towards
the trees, we head for the snow slope to the right.   We noticed another
party approaching from the other side of the moraine and I took a slow
handheld photo of the pre-dawn scene.

At that point we put our crampons on and made our way up the snow to the
saddle at the base of the ridge.  As this slope was 50-60 degrees, crampons
and ice ax were essential.  Near the top of the slope my right crampon came
loose, repeating the problem experienced on Mt. Athabasca 3 weeks earlier.
Fortunately the snow section was almost done and with crampon in hand and
muttering curses I made it up to the saddle without further incident.  That
crampon situation will have to be dealt with once back to civilization.

The climbing was relatively easy going at first and it was mostly low angle
blocky quartzite, big holds and steps, all nice and solid.  It was a
beautiful clear morning and the sun was starting to come up as we arrived at
the big long shoulder.  Careful but easy climbing up the initial part
allowed us some photo ops including a nice vantage point to catch the sun
rise.  Seeing the sun light bathe the upper parts of the mountains was well
worth the effort so far.  Mountain Man Rene however urged us onward before
long, as it was still a long way to the top and we needed to factor in the
descent time.  Plus despite the mostly clear skies, the weather can change
very quickly on the mountain.  I of course trusted Rene's experience, put
the camera away and we continued on.

We resumed climbing the shoulder which took a fair amount of sustained work
as this was a long section.  I noticed that the climbing was getting
steeper, and that at this point even before reaching the base of the final
ridge, it was class 5 rock.

Ken: "Say, when are we going to reach that point where you fell?"
Rene: "We passed it already, I didn't remember exactly where it was."
Ken: "Oh"

We had yet to take the rope out.  Well no problem, it hasn't been that
difficult technically, though the exposure was at times significant.  (To
those unfamiliar with the term, "exposure" in the climbing context means
"you *really* don't want to fall, it's a long way down and there's nothing
to stop you except the ground at the bottom - expect to reach terminal
velocity")

Once we got to the base of the final ridge, Rene unpacked the rope (to my
relief) and proceeded to lead up one of only 3 pitches where it was used.
It was simply too time consuming to rope up for every pitch, as there was so
much climbing to be done.  This was a good place to use the rope however, as
the route went up a shallow chimney that Rene skillfully maneuvered through.
Due to a larger pack (and less skill) I got a bit wedged in the chimney but
with a bit of twisting and cursing was able to clear it without incident and
didn't have to test Rene's anchor by falling.  I thank the yoga practice for
that (the twisting, not cursing).

Reference break:
Experienced alpinists can skip this part.
Depending on whom you talk to or what guide book you read, the difficulty
level of rock climbing involved on this route is in the 5.3 to 5.6 range.
For someone climbing at the gym or at the local crags, this is easy going
when on a rope and with climbing shoes on.  However in this alpine
environment, we were wearing heavy mountaineering boots, had loaded
backpacks, in most cases were not on a rope, and of course there was all
that exposure.  The sum of the situation needs to be taken very seriously.

Which is why by this time, the cameras have been put away and we are now
fully concentrating on climbing and getting to the top.


Rene led another pitch, doing a commendable job as I had to pause to puzzle
out a move just before removing the first piece of protection he placed.
After this point we were free climbing (no rope) as we got higher up the
mountain.  Things were moving smoothly, I was staying a bit behind Rene to
avoid rock-fall, and also simply because it's hard to keep up with "Express
Train" Rene.

However, 1 pitch almost got the best of me as I didn't see which way Rene
went up.  The route on the right was icy and didn’t seem to provide very good traction.  The route on the left had the best holds, but the exposure was just too scary…a slip would mean a trip hundreds of metres down.  It seemed like the best way was straight up the center, so that’s where I went but part way up I couldn't commit to making a needed move because it seemed too sketchy and the consequences of falling were not pretty.  

 Those of you who climb are familiar with the term "gripped".  It means your position on the rock is so precarious that you're afraid to make the next move up, and
afraid to make the move back down.  The next phenomenon at that stage would
be the dreaded "sewing machine leg" where due to a combination of fatigue
and fear, your leg(s) shake uncontrollably.  There are then only 2 outcomes:
you either get yourself together and make a move, or you fall.  I was able
to move back down to a more stable position and decided to try the route on
the right, ice be damned.

Big mistake.  Two moves up, my foot slipped and I found myself sliding on my
stomach very quickly down the slope.  Frantic digging-in got me stopped
after about 30 ft.  Carefully I looked behind me to see that another 2 ft.
and it would have been all she wrote.  Yep, the dreaded precipice.  I don't
even want to guess at the distance down, the attached photo should provide a
sample of the environment.


As I was a bit gripped before, you can imagine where my headspace was at
that point.  After a few moments to get my composure I yelled at Rene and
told him that I had fallen and was OK but needed the rope to get up this
pitch.  We couldn't see each other, but moments later I saw the rope come
down..way over to the right and way too high.  The wind was too strong and
there was no way it way that rope was going to reach me.

Great, now what?  At this point, giving up wasn't an easy option for
practical reasons - we would have to down climb all that vertical stuff we
came up.   Climbers will understand that down climbing is harder technically
than going up, not a fun thing in my mental state at that moment.   I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to Rene's experience 2 years earlier
and really wanted us to succeed, not at a stupidly high cost of course but
the best option at this moment would not have been to down climb, at least
in my judgment at that moment.

It took perhaps 10 min. for me to get my head together, and I decided that
the only way up was via the route on the left, exposure be damned.  It had
the best holds, and as long as I was careful and solid with foot and hand
placement, it should be fine.  I did not look down.  Clamp down on the
mental noise and just concentrate.. the first move was the hardest, then the
second one provided 2 points of stability.  Five good moves and I was over
the hard part!

At this point Rene and I were able to see each other, I told him we can
proceed as before.  He's no doubt relieved to see me and for the next little
while we have this shouted conversation (we're separated by distance and
there's a strong wind):

Rene: "Are you hanging in there?"
Ken: "My head's f****d but I'm moving up carefully!"

So I got past that, and was able to control my head enough to continue.  The
reward: 2 more hours of same.  By this time we were into the infamous
"rotten Rockies" limestone rock..it's loose and can fall out in big chunks
if you touch it.  A couple of seemingly solid big holds came out on me over
the next few pitches, further adding to my headspace challenges.  That plus
a short traverse along an exposed icy snow patch (like what I earlier slipped on)
provided me plenty of opportunity to practice mental control.  After that
though, it was steady, careful climbing as we got closer and closer to the
summit ridge.

However we were now seeing how the weather can change in the mountains.
What started out as a sunny day was now cloudy, windy and cold.  I hadn't
been keeping close track of the time, but we'd been going for about 11 hours
by this point.  We finally got to the summit ridge where the rock became
hard icy snow.  The wind was now howling and snow was hitting us at an
angle, so down climbing the way we came was not a viable option.  We weren't
at the summit yet, it was about 300 m to the true summit.  Rene told me he
was going ahead to scout out the way down from there.

Meanwhile I was fighting to banish the last of my mental demons.  Making the
transition from the rock to onto the icy snow on the ridge meant I had to
trust my foot placement on the frozen crap again, and a slip meant a slide.
The transition point was at knee level so it wasn't simply a matter of
walking off the rock and onto the ice.   I used my ax to reinforce the steps
that were already chopped into the ice and finally made it onto the ridge.
A short walk got me to the true summit where fortunately Rene met a couple
of climbers who came up the normal route (West Ridge) and knew the way down.
We stopped for a quick lunch and took a few photos of the snow storm (i.e.
no spectacular views) and began to head down.

Unlike the route we took, the West Ridge is a long scramble that does not
involve rock climbing.  However, it's made up of what another writer termed
"a long miserable stretch of terrible unstable talus".  I couldn't have said
it better.  Infinitely better than down climbing the East Ridge, but not
much fun at all.
  No epics here, just energy draining, miserable sliding
down miles and miles of this crap.


Once out of the loose talus, there were still hours of trudging through a
long trail through the forest and along a horse path before arriving at the
Cavell Hostel.  I won't bore you with that, except to say that Rene moved
ahead to get out before dark and get a hold of friend Trevor who was
probably frantic by now since we weren't back yet.  He did not have a
headlamp while I had my trusty Petzl so the dark wasn't a problem for me.
Just the bears... which fortunately I did not encounter.  I eventually got
met on the trail by the hostel manager and her friend about 20 min. from the
end.  Once Rene got to the end of the long trail, he found his way to the
hostel and told them I was behind him so they mounted a rescue bid.
Fortunately I didn't need rescuing, but some tea at the hostel hit the spot.
It was 10:30 pm and we had been at it for almost 18 hours.   I distinctly
remember Rene mumbling something about "ball buster",  and friend Chic would
say that we got "good value".

Even before agreeing to this adventure, I warned Rene that I would be "slow
and steady", and it seems I lived up to that promise.  Nevertheless we made
the summit and in the process did a complete traverse of the mountain.   Now
if only the view at the summit had been better.

The next morning:
Rene: "Well we sure had to work hard for that summit!"
Ken: "Yeah, but we did it, and there's no reason to climb it again now, is
there?"
Rene: " But we didn't see anything at the top......"

Thanks for reading.  Happy climbing!


Ken