The Last Climb - March 22-24, 2019

Trip Report Author:  Jessica Ambler

Participants: Rob Denson (Leader), Gord Matthies, Jessica Ambler

All was good. Rob and I (Jessica) had just arrived in Red Deer and switched from my vehicle into Gord’s. It was Friday, early-evening and we were heading into the mountains for another weekend of adventures. Life was bliss.

We’d been on the road for a few minutes; however, when my stomach dropped. It wasn’t a nagging question, a rogue doubt that maybe I might have forgotten something. It was a fact, a certainty that I definitely did not have… my helmet or … my harness (cringe). I’m sure that this has happened to most climbers at some point - on a rushed Friday, trying to get out of the city as quickly and unscathed by rush hour traffic as possible. Not that I’m making excuses for myself. And it was some kind of misplaced miracle that I realized it when I did. Rob and Gord were incredible sports about it. What ensued was a gear scavenger hunt, of sorts. Gord was immediately on the phone to an assembly of climbing friends who had gear that I might be able to borrow. With some effort and a bit of luck, we had secured a gently aged harness and bike helmet and were back on the road again. Unfortunately, this would mean getting into Beauty Creek around midnight.

Being safe on Sunwapta Left Hand with the borrowed gear

Being safe on Sunwapta Left Hand with the borrowed gear

Saturday morning brought a more leisurely start than a typical Rob trip would – finally getting into the car around 7:30 rather than the typical 7:00 am sharp. Upon arriving at the Shades of Beauty/Sunwapta pull-out, we discovered a Yamnuska van already there. Fortunately for us, we had woken a dozing hiker who instructed us that they had, indeed, headed to Shades. Strapped with AVI gear that I had dutifully learned how to use that morning, we began the approach up to Sunwapta Falls. Snow shoes are also not a thing I’ve made a habit out of using in the past. There might have been a slight learning curve.

A very soggy Sunwapta Left Hand

A very soggy Sunwapta Left Hand

We came upon the right hand of the falls first. Looking a little wet, we decided to evaluate the left before committing to a course of action. Soggy entertainment followed. Sunwapta Left Hand, at this point, appeared to be more water than ice. Something resembling a fire hose stream of water was rushing down the left side. After attempting to lead it, Rob committed to top roping around the back of the pillar to avoid getting soaked outright. The right hand was less flood, more ice and was just coming into the sun as we were starting the down climb out.

Rob leading Sunwapta Right Hand

Rob leading Sunwapta Right Hand

A veritable feast awaited us back at Beauty Creek. As has been typical on passed trips with Rob and Gord, the meal was a marathon. I literally could have just eaten the appetizer of beet soup and pastries for dinner. But the food didn’t stop there, the main course, breakfast for dinner, was comprised of a mountain of hash browns, sausage, and the piece de resistance, crepes with strawberries, Nutella and whipped cream. We collectively agreed to save the ginger snaps I had brought for the drive back on Sunday.

Dinner Marathon

Dinner Marathon

The sustenance would come in handy the following day with the exploration up Diadem Creek to the Winston Churchill Traverse. Rob had ski toured in the weekend before, breaking a trail the majority of the way to our target, the Diadem Creek Headwall.

About 15 minutes in, we stopped. The snow pack did not seem to be holding our weight 100 per cent of the time and with the amount of snow in warming temperatures, there was some concern that getting out at the end of the day might not be a foregone conclusion. The poll put to the group: continue on, understanding that we may not climb or throw in the towel here and find something that was more of a sure thing. With Rob and Gord relatively apathetic, I resorted to my default: stubborn and curious, and made the call to continue into the woods. Feeling more acclimatized to the snowshoes (as acclimatized as one can be to foreign objects strapped to one’s feet) and genuinely thankful that they appeared to be doing their job… most of the time, I led the pack up the winding riverbed of Diadem Creek. After some talk the night before about the benefits of being tall in relation to climbing, we decided that, conversely, one of the best things about being small is how much more effective it tends to make snowshoes. Gord, the largest of the group, definitely got more of a workout on the 5 hour round-trip journey.

We got pretty close to the climbs, not quite spitting distance, but close enough to see the awesome 6 or 7 pitches of ice we could have been in for. Unfortunately, anything off the beaten path had us sinking waist deep or further into the snow. Such is life. Following conversation about returning another weekend with better laid plans of camping at the base of the route, we turned our backs and started the march back. Back at the car by around 12 pm, we headed out with hopes of finding something else to climb before returning to the city.

Diadem Creek Headwall – us and the climbs

With the majority of the easy-access routes too sun-affected to consider, we headed to Owen Creek on a whim. We were not disappointed. There were at least three lines of climbable ice in the canyon, hidden away from the sun. Bonus: the ice was still frozen enough to walk on at the bottom. We got our last laps in for the day, maybe for the season and got back on the road.

Laps at Owen Creek

Laps at Owen Creek