My quest was to climb fifty different routes on Yamnuska, the bastion of traditional multi-pitch rock climbing in the Canadian Rockies. The kicker was that I wanted this little project to be completed during my 50th year on the planet. How hard could it be to tick 50 Yam routes in a year? I had been climbing on this impressive wall for nearly 35 years. It was on her rippled flanks that I was first introduced to rock climbing, back in 1975 on the East End. I learned to lead and expand my skills on the varied routes and styles offered on this great cliff. I even got to give back to the climbing community by helping to establish 37 of the 130 climbs that ascend her sprawling shoulders of grey and gold-coloured stone and writing the latest guidebook to the rock climbs of Yamnuska. What better goal could I set to celebrate surviving 50 years as a human being and my life as a climber?
The Yam houses some scary, bold climbing. In fact, I’d been rescued off the mountain by helicopter twice after nasty falls, luckily getting away with only broken bones. Did I really want to subject my aging body and brain to that much serious strain and punishment? With my vast experience and knowledge base I figured it would be no problem, but then again, maybe I figured wrong.
I mentioned my plan to my friend Urs Kallen, an old Yamnuska pioneer, in the spring of 2009. My fiftieth birthday was approaching in a couple of weeks. Urs, along with Billy Davidson, had helped establish two landmark climbs on the mountain in the 1970s. These legendary climbs, CMC Wall and Yellow Edge, brought the big wall genre and tactics to the mountain. Like Brian Greenwood, Don Vockeroth and others from the golden age of development on Yam, Urs was a Rockies climbing legend. Urs wrote the first guides to the climbing on the mountain, revealing the possibilities and adventures to be explored by a young and impressionable climber. Ten years back, we became close friends. Today we climb together regularly despite our 15-year age difference. His energy and tenacity inspire me as a person and a climber. I hope to be half as able at his age.
We were having a beer at The Den, a local campus bar, following one of our Monday night crack sessions at the University of Calgary climbing gym. When I divulged my plan, Urs and his Swiss logic kicked in and he started applying rules and criteria to my vision quest. He stated, “First off you can’t repeat any of the routes. They all have to be different. All the climbs have to be at least three pitches. Basically you have to climb ‘Real Routes.'” A discussion ensued as to whether all the climbs had to be completed in a single climbing season, or simply during my fiftieth year. I asked Urs, if it was his project or mine, but he retorted, “You have to have rules or what’s the point.”
I was still trying to come to grips with being 50. The lyrics from a Garth Brooks song, “I’m much too young to feel this dam old!” churned through my brain. I suffered from several old injuries, from a life lived a little too hard and somewhat recklessly in my younger days. I still have bits of metal holding my creaking body together. I made old man noises when getting up in the morning. Despite all this, I decided to embrace life and not accept the benchmarks of age. To accomplish this lofty goal I set a task for myself that might be insurmountable or at least should be considered so by someone half my age. Completing fifty rock climbs, on the “Crown Jewel of the Canadian Rockies” in a year. At my age, what was I thinking?
Was I looking for some kind of salvation on this golden cathedral of stone? Maybe I needed to repent for my sins. I had helped bring the modern era of mixed bolted traditional climbing to the cliff and crossed swords with some of Yam’s old guard in the process. Maybe I needed to get back to my Old School traditional climbing roots, climb the classics of yesteryear, and re-experience the values held dear for so many years. Mostly for me, however, my pilgrimage was to be about climbing with good friends and doing good routes on this historical venue.
My birthday is at the end of April. I was chomping at the bit to get started but the weather was mostly miserable. I managed to sneak a mid-week day out with Urs on the ultra-classic Redshirt, a moderate longer climb on the south face. Its popularity with beginners has left some rock severely polished. It was cold and snowy during the previous ten days but now it was eight degrees and sunny. It was great to finally be out. Urs, the crafty old fox, took the first pitch so I got the greasiest crux on the climb, the dreaded second pitch. There have been several 5.11 climbers reduced to quivering messes on this interesting bit of 5.8. Despite some hesitation at seeing my image reflected back in the polished rock and my cold fingers, I made the move. The first route on my personal odyssey was great fun. I hadn’t climbed this line in more than twenty years, so it was good to be back and a bonus to share the climb with a living legend like Urs.
On May 23, I was working a night shift as a Lieutenant on 4 Rescue for the Calgary Fire Department. Our truck pounded through nearly metre-high snowdrifts along with horizontal blowing snow driven by 60 km/hour winds, responding from accident scene to accident scene to sort out the vehicular carnage. Along the way we also ended up working a couple of building fires.
I asked my driver, “Is it January or is it really late May?”
In the end spring never really did show up. It was mid-June before I completed my second climb, the classic Kahl Wall. I wormed my way into the plans of Steve Birch, a regular partner, and his buddy Jessie. It was a pleasant outing and the first time I’d climbed with Jessie. We each led a couple of long pitches with the two seconds simul-climbing to help make good time. This configuration also gave us a chance for good conversations and allowed a more relaxed pace. It was what I had hoped this little venture would be all about: sharing stories of past adventures, enjoying life, embracing the day, and doing some good climbing. Two climbs down, only 48 more to go.
By the end of July, I’d completed 11 climbs. I was getting worried. I thought I’d have twice that many by then. I had just spent a week of great weather climbing fantastic granite in the Selkirks with my friend Ruedi Beglinger, but back in the Rockies, August started out wet and got wetter. I was desperate to get out. Arranging for partners has always been hard, partially due to my erratic work schedule. Another factor is that most of my climbing friends are my age or older and many have suffered injuries as they move from youth and exuberance towards old age and treachery. What were they thinking by mountain biking, hiking, climbing, waterskiing, windsurfing and walking at their age. Others have busy lives and careers, while several simply don’t climb anymore and sadly, some have died or been killed in the mountains.
Yearning to get out I resorted to rope soloing. This meant I got to carry all the gear and ropes normally shared by two people and climb in the rain. The first few times out I humped up the dreaded 1700-foot scree slope with my seventy-pound pack only to be met by a downpour of rain at the base. The third time up, throwing caution to the wind, I went climbing despite the conditions and ticked off two routes on the West End.
First off, I climbed Broken Wing, a steady 5.10 named after the ankles I fractured attempting the first ascent rope solo. I didn’t repeat that performance. The second climb was easier, but the polished yet crumbly chimney/corner of Unnamed 5.6, kept me paying attention. This route is from the Golden Age of Yam, which ascends to the great orange pumpkin painted on the wall by the final belay. My mind drifted back to my first routes and partners on the mountain. Man, it was good to be back, even if I was soaked to the bone.
In a sick kind of way I was really enjoying the experience. Nobody was around so it was my old friend Yam and I getting up close and personal. Because I was rope soloing, I needed to climb all the pitches twice. Thus, my tidy little pitch-count in the rain for the day was 28, but the effort only counted as two routes. By day’s end my hands were like wrinkled prunes but the friction for the shoes had been surprisingly good.
On August 15, I was at the West End to rope solo another of my routes called Direct Mail. I was on holidays for the next four weeks and hoped to put a big dent in my Yam project. Arriving, something was strangely wrong. Trees were uprooted and a new debris field spanned out from the wall over two metres deep, 15 m across, and 200 m long. Gravity, along with the recent rain caused a 30 m pillar to cascade off the fourth pitch of the classic climb Missionary’s Crack. The falling mass obliterated the starts of several climbs. I freaked out and chose to climb another objective far from from the massive destruction and hope no one was pulverized under the pile.
Two day later Tim Friesen and I arrived below the Suicide Wall to attempt another of my routes called Mixed Emotions. This unique climb combines pitches from two distinct eras 30 years apart, and is a unique creation on the mountain. More on Tim’s mind, however, was the fact that the clouds had dropped low down on the mountain and were blacker and more threatening by the minute. He asked what I thought about the gloomy weather.
“Don’t worry. It should burn off later, we will be fine,” I said. I wish I had the conviction to match my words.
I needed to get Tim climbing before he changed his mind. I was simply glad to have a partner for the day. I wasn’t about to have a little rain scare him away. I was leading the sustained crimpy crux on the fourth pitch when the floodgates broke wide open. An onslaught of heavy rain was followed by river of pea-sized hail. I was bridged out in the shallow corner on 10c crimpers with no feeling in my hands.
Tim yelled up, “Andy what do think, you want to head down?”
“No,” I answered, “it’s just a little shower, we should be OK in a minute.” Unfortunately, my clothing was acting more like a drain spout with water running in the higher sleeve and exiting my trousers. I needed to get moving before hypothermia set in. I unclenched my frigid fingers and gingerly placed them onto the next hold. At the top of the wall a couple of hours later, the clouds did actually burn off.
The time to complete my project was in short supply. Routes were getting climbed but at a painstakingly slow pace. To make matters worse I had decided to make an attempt to free climb General Pain. I asked Ross Suchy, a talented young local and his friend Simon Mies to come along for the attempt to free up this old aid route that bold climbing star from the 80s, Jeff Marshall and I put up back in 1988. To my knowledge, over the past 21 years, the climb had never received a second ascent. I figured there might be an alternative option to free climb the third pitch over the big roof. This crux and a small section of aid on the fourth pitch were all that stood in our way. I had free climbed the upper half of the route several years earlier as part of a linkup with CMC wall. I intended these young dudes to be my hired guns. I would sit back and let the youth and new talent show the way. Free climbing this route as part of my “50 at 50″ would be a real bonus.
The day didn’t start out so well. I wanted to retro-bolt some belays but at the first bolt I found out that the battery hadn’t charged. The lads drew straws for who was going to run down to the parking lot to fetch the spare battery. As the old guy, I wasn’t in on this game. Ross lost the draw but made remarkable time getting back with the spare battery. Simon and I had only climbed the long first pitch when he returned.
We straightened out the original second pitch and install new bolted belays. All of a sudden it’s me who gets voted to lead the new pitch through the big roof. Twenty-one years before I had helped hand drill the original line 10 m to my left. The nightmares were all coming back; the death block threatening the belay, dicey hook moves, most of all the fear and exposure. Dismissing these omens, I headed up an overhanging crack to gain a steeply tilted slab below the big roof. I worked my way rightward to reach a shallow dihedral that allowed me to wiggle through the massive overhangs. The climbing was intense and I was a little out of practice for that shit. Packing the power drill, bolts and a rack was bad enough, but then there was the required “limestone touch” as I tried to employ skill and experience to address the quality of the stone. Hopefully I wouldn’t dump a big chunk of crap onto my cringing partners at the belay. There was a three-metre long flake that would make for great holds but a small tug sent it hurtling harmlessly through space. The big roof was almost sorted. I only needed to balance up into the upper corner and place a final bolt to rejoin the original line. I had a small flake clasped in my right hand. I knew it was marginal but as I shifted my weight slightly there was a loud crack, instantly the flake and I both went sailing off over the roof.
I assessed myself after my thirty-foot ripper. Everything was as it should be and I shouted down. “I’m fine but I’m done. Anybody else want a go?”
I had been on lead for over an hour and a half, employing a mixture of aid and free climbing to work out and clean the line. I was ready for a beer. Ross had a go and led the new pitch, demonstrating some fine acrobatic movement to my high point then drilled a bolt from aid. The weather had cooled off dramatically and Ross too, had had enough. On the last rappel, the rope pulled some shattered blocks onto my helmet. I was OK but it was one more insult to my wounded pride. This painful project would have to wait. After all, I had fifty routes to climb. This just wasn’t going to be one of them.
My holidays through August and September were productive. The weather finally settled and I climbed 36 routes in just over a month to bring the total to 47. What had slowly dawned on me is that fifty routes on Yam was a lot of climbing and work. The bonus was that I’d gotten into good physical condition for the first time in a few years. My climbing brain was well-honed and ready to take on the limestone challenges offered by the Canadian Rockies.
My wife Carolyn and I headed out to the East Coast for a ten-day holiday to listen to great music. Once there, I planned to eat my way through a mountain of seafood and drain a few pints of beer to keep up my hydration. Unfortunately, after a great trip we arrived back in Calgary just as winter arrived. On October 13, it was -30. There were still several months before I turned 51. I’d climbed on the mountain in every month of the year in the past. I was confident there would be some opportunities to get my final three climbs done.
Winter went by in a blur and suddenly it was April and my 51st birthday was only ten days away. I’d spent much of my free time doing home renovations and training in the climbing gym. The warm Chinook winds were all but absent. I had to work on the few marginal climbing days. I still hadn’t ticked off any of the final three climbs. There was a little window of good weather coming up. A final desperate push was in order.
I did two routes that weekend. The first linked pitches from Kahl Wall and Bringers of the Dawn. Combined, they made for a stellar but stout 5.10 offering. The best part of my day was getting out with Peter Gatzsch. Peter was hurt the previous season and couldn’t climb. Over the last few years he and I have pushed several good big routes together. Peter is one of the “good guys” as Urs likes to call climbers who share our passion for establishing multi-pitch climbs. Sharing another adventure made for a great day.
With Steve Birch the next day I snagged Jazz Beat on the West End. This climb was a more traditional-flavoured 5.9 that I had never climbed. It was a little stiff for the grade but very good. It had exposure, route-finding and several slightly run out sections to keep the old traditionalist in me honest.
There was only one route to go, but the weather looked to be total crap for a few days.
On Monday there was a brief opportunity. I lined up Steve again to attempt Direct Mail on the West End, but the weather forced us to consider a shorter route. After trying to climb this line three times in the past year and getting skunked, it seemed like the perfect way to end my pilgrimage. We completed the climb just as conditions deteriorated. Winter was back but I was done. Fifty routes climbed on Yam in my fiftieth year with two days to spare!
Not bad for an old fat guy, but who’s counting or cares? Age is just a number. How you choose to accept the label and what you do with that number is what counts.
Andy Genereux has been a traditional Rockies climber since the spring of 1975, where his first climbing adventure was to follow Ben Gadd up “Ben’s Route” 5.6 on the East End of Yamnuska. After this inagural experience, he fell head over heels for the sport. Since then he has gone on to established over a thousand pitches of new rock climbing in the Canadian Rockies and many of the classic lines of the modern era of development on Yamnuska are due to his efforts. The mountain continues to be one of his favourite places to appease his adrenaline deficiency.