I met Jeff Vargen in El Cap meadow this summer. I was well into my $11 5l box of wine, and slowly waking up from an afternoon nap with my book in the sunshine (Yosemite really is paradise, you know?!) when I heard Jeff giving tourists some directions. We stuck up a subsequent conversation, and proceeded to hang out for the next three days.
This interview was recorded on the El Cap bridge, and I don’t remember being nearly as articulate as they have edited me to be. ;)) Thanks!
Jeff and David will be coming to India in 2016, and we’re really excited to have them along.
I first met Alison when she and her partner, Amy, were interested in renting a room in my house. This was probably over a year ago.
After I returned from Baffin, Ali and I committed to dreaming up an adventure that would combine our very idfferent skillsets. The clear choice was the Himalaya. One mega enduro alpine athlete and one mildly competent technical climber. We picked an objective and began to write our first grant proposal as I left to return to Yosemite for the fall season, stopping in every Denny’s and Starbucks along the way for free wifi.
We learnt the good news about the John Lauchlan Award, one evening while I was deeply involved in a crossword puzzle. My phone rang, and Jim Elzinga, Barry Blanchard, James Blench, Brian Webster and Larry Stanier gave me the good news. After that came a flurry of activity as Alison and I scrambled to find enough funding to round out the trip budget.
We are humbled, horrified and grateful to be the 2016 recipients of the Mugs Stump Award in addition to the John Lauchlan Memorial Award. We hope to make both committees proud of their decisions.
I am over the moon to be planning my next adventure with a woman as capable, driven and funny as Alison.
It’s real. It does exist. I had made no plans for ‘life after Baffin’, but here it is.
Michelle and I arrived in Calgary to be met by her boyfriend and my mother. Yes, I know. One of us has grown up and the other one still thinks her mom is the bizznizzle.
I turned around after a couple of days at home and drove to Jasper with a new friend, Cian Brinker. Though I knew him very little, Cian came with a reputation of being a pretty mega alpinist. I was intimidated, but it seems that these days, I always am. One day, I’ll have the sense to lapse into normalcy and stop doing scary things with talented people..
We packed our bags and headed in for a reconnaissance / gear drop. Cian has been in this area previously and this is definitely his project. I’m excited to have been invited, since I’m just hoping to hold my own here. The walk in is spectacular, especially as we wander up and over the pass, through alpine meadows and trees. There’s even a caribou! By the time we reach camp, I’m ready for it. The cache from Cian’s previous season is still in good order and we lay claim to camp materials, food and all sorts of goodies. There is rock furniture (two recliners, a patio and a couch) which remains from the last time he was here. We prep everything and then wander over to look at our proposed objectives.
I knew this. I know I knew that it was big. But sometimes, knowing and seeing are two different things. I’m intimidated all over again.
We identify a couple of classy lines (you’ve got to keep it classy, you know?), and sit down to watch the face. Soon, rockfall so intense we’re hiding behind a glacial erratic is all around us. So that way is a no-go. Yikes!! We find another way to access the upper face (call it plan B or plan A1), and move back to camp in the failing light.
Now, Cian appears to have packed his cache in a way very similar to the way in which I would have packed my own. Armed with a bottle of gin, lemonade crystals and a Fairshare mug, we set out to get to know each other a bit better. And since this will actually mark the first time we’ve ever tied in together, it’s probably a great idea to get really drunk first.
We walk out, gear drop and reconnaissance accomplished, with one pack between us, as we’ve left as much in there as we can in preparation for go time. We make many jokes about the ‘girlfriend’ pack, as I follow Cian, unburdened by any weight. Unfortunately for me, he appears to be an equality subscriber and I receive the pack at the halfway mark. Darn it.
We part ways in Lake Louise and I head west to Golden. I’m heading in to the Bugaboos the following morning at 5am, and it’s already 10pm.. Gah.
My partner for the next adventure is a man I’ve known for a few years now, and I’ve got a lot of space and respect for him. I’ve come to realise that he’ll always have my back. He’ll do it in his own weird way, but he’ll always be there if I really need him. Jonny is a high end alpinist, athlete, guide and an immensely talented individual. He’s been around for a lot of growth in my abilities, and I do enjoy each of our outings.
It’s never a boring day out with Jonny.
We’ve been working on a line he’d seen years ago on the East Face of Snowpatch Spire. There are many incredible things about this wall, not least of which is that a late morning start is almost advantageous. We sit at Applebee Dome, drinking coffee with Will Stanhope and Matt Segal, waiting for the morning sun to start to encroach on our line. Pretty civilized, really.
The route, which Jonny has dubbed ‘Ego Death’ starts with a 5.10 pitch, and leads into a 55m 5.12, with no single move under .11+. The third pitch is .12b, and it’s Jonny’s goal to send this today. He’s done it clean on toprope previously, and feels pretty confident of his success. That’s the thing about Jonny – he’s a pretty confident dude. The gear proves to be awkward through the crux, and the send eludes Jonny today. The following pitch is mine and it takes us up to what has been dubbed the ‘Halfway Ledge’. This is our high point for the day, and it’s there that I receive my crash course in hand drilling bolts.
‘It shouldn’t take you more than seven minutes a bolt’, says Jonny.
I’m to learn later that this is a dubious time estimate at best. I think Simms has placed a few more bolts than I have. We rappel in the dark.
I walk out of the Bugaboos the next afternoon, leaving Jonny to his own devices and to his upcoming birthday. I scramble around in Golden, acquiring food and booze for the next Tonquin mission. Not only am I organized when I arrive in Lake Louise to meet Cian, I’m fucking EARLY. This never happens.
We walk in to the Tonquin the next morning, at a really reasonable hour. There are a couple of days of doubtful weather which we’re going to have to wait out, but the company is good, and there’s more than enough food and booze so I’m not stressed about it.
The awaited day eventually arrives, and we leave camp at 3am. Before I know it, we’re most of the way up our little ‘work around’ on the lower portion of the face. Then the climbing really starts to get enjoyable. I’ve been climbing granite since April, so this quartzite business is a bit foreign, but I’m still having a blast. The higher up we go, the better it’s going to get, too. We’re both having fun, swinging block leads. The second pack is a bit much for me, though, as I think it’s the heaviest thing I’ve ever tried to climb with, and I really do struggle to climb at any great pace with it.
We reach what seems to be an amazing spot for the night – away from any form of rockfall and pretty flat. There’s even a patch of snow, from which we obtain much needed water. After dinner and sunset, we crawl in to sleeping bags, only to hear the sound of a single rodent dragging away the bag of our dehydrated meal. He’s gone before I can reach out from the tent to remove our refuse from his grasp. In his defence, it’s probably the tastiest thing he’s ever found up here.
The rain starts in the early night and continues until 9am. The First Light tent is soaking, as are both of our sleeping bags. We debate our options. The face will continue to be wet for hours yet, and we will make zero progress today, as there don’t seem to be many options for another close by sleeping spot. We are also without a reliable forecast (it wasn’t supposed to rain when it did), and maybe things have significantly changed. Our bailiure becomes more difficult from the upper reaches of the face.
Cian begins the process of leading our rappel down the lower face. On the way, we spy a better way up for the next attempt. This new access will add lots of great moderate quartzite pitches to what promises to be one of the longer and bolder new alpine routes in a few years in the Canadian Rockies.
I’m excited about the potential of both of these projects, and feel lucky that I get to have adventures and experiences with partners of this caliber. Jonny and Cian are remarkable athletes and remarkable people. I’m grateful.
On July 9, Michelle Kadatz and I boarded a flight to Ottawa to begin our surreal adventure on Baffin Island. Our arrival was delayed several times by inclement weather, forcing flight cancellations.
I guess everyone needs a northern travel story, right?
With the onerous voyage complete, we made our way deep into the heart of Auyuittuq National Park. The treeless landscape is Sisyphean in scale, making distance calculations treacherous at best. Summit Lake became our haven for a few stormy days, both before and after our weather window. It was from there that we launched our sieges on Asgard and Loki. Travel was something that we were quite calculated about, as the glaciers promised better or worse travel conditions depending wholly on time of day. Postholing to my waist quickly made its way to the top of the list of activities I despise, and was not always avoidable. We did our best to work around it, however, and were largely successful.
Asgard loomed high above our initial camp on the central moraine along the Caribou Glacier, snow clinging to it upper flanks. This snow deterred us on our original attempt, but we were prepared for the second round. I, at least, was prepared for siege warfare, and I know Michelle has always had a deep capacity for stubbornness and suffering. We were not looking for failure another time.
The route was everything it had been advertised as, from granite splitters which made me giggle as I climbed to wet chimneys (just one of those, thank god..). We reclined on the summit plateau after shedding all our gear onto a dry rock, and tried not to think about the descent for just a minute. That descent proved to be almost as worthy as the route. Not only was our tolerance for rusty pins stretched, but we witnessed nearby avalanches while making our way down a seemingly interminable snow slope.
Asgard, home of the norse gods, was telling us go back to our own home. Our welcome had expired. Or maybe I was just hungry.
We then set our sights on Loki, the ‘Matterhorn’ of Baffin. When I first saw that gorgeous thing, I knew I needed to experience it. Loki is as iconic a peak as I have ever seen, launching up in a perfect triangular shape from the horizon of the Turner Glacier.
Access to the South Buttress was guarded by a small (but mighty!) crevasse field. We belayed and crawled and generally had a blast navigating this section of terrain. Once we found our way to the correct system, continuous and sustained climbing took us up and up and up and up.. and up. We even had the pleasure of re-climbing several pitches to collect stuck ropes on rappel. Thankfully, the storm that threatened never quite arrived, but I did move pretty quickly back to the tent.
The Loki of Norse mythology is known as the trickster, and I don’t think this Loki disappointed in any sense. From navigation of crevasses, to finding the correct route, to consistently incorrect approximations of remaining pitches, to a storm that never quite arrived – Loki kept us on our toes.
We returned to Summit Lake after sleeping for a day on the moraine. Just in time, too, as our weather window ended as abruptly as it began. The wind wailed at apocalyptic speeds and the rain came down in sideways torrents, while Michelle designed half hour exercise regimes to keep herself sane.
I occupied myself rolling cigarettes.
The weather was never again quite as cooperative as it had been for our Asgard and Loki and we had a couple of unsuccessful bids along the way back to civilization. Our packs were horrific in size and weight, and I now sincerely regret not giving mine a name at an appropriate time. I mostly just whispered profanities as I battled to stand up underneath it.
There’s a lot left in Baffin to explore and enjoy, and I hope to go back for more adventures after a bit of time allows the memories to settle. It’s without a doubt one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever seen, and will likely haunt my dreams for some time. I’m supremely grateful to have shared this opportunity with Michelle; she is a talented and driven young woman, and we really wouldn’t have made it through without her determination and her capacity for suffering. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner on this adventure.
Our trip was made possible by the Jen Higgins Memorial Fund through the Alpine Club of Canada and the Expedition Support Fund through Mountain Equipment Co-op.