My hands are starting to slip, I am gripped out of my mind and looking down all I see is a swirling pool of death. The base of the waterfall, 10 feet from my current position, was full of ice berg-like chunks of ice that were tossing and turning. I’m fixed in a figure-four position, only a couple more moves to go and I’m at the chains. Looking at my pick, I see it’s starting to break through the ice. No time, gotta move. Figure four, figure-nine, and repeat. I’m trying to breathe as my arms start to chicken wing. Step, step, swing – I’m holding on for dear life and scrambling onto the top of the ice dagger. It’s over, finally and I victoriously clip the chains. What a mind-blowing route.
Sometimes routes leave an imprint-because of the relationship gained from working it to sending it or from creating it to completing it. When you establish a route you pour your energy into every attempt. You remain awake at night, visualizing how it’s going to come to fruition, where the protection goes, the beta, clipping the chains. Routes that you establish tend to sit high on your list of favorites because they are yours – you built them and you climbed them first. The time spent working the route and sorting through the movement creates a relationship. This is why such routes aren’t forgotten easily.
Many such great routes exist in the world of mixed climbing – whether on the side of a mountain, deep in a cave, in a slot canyon or just off the side of the highway. It’s interesting to see the diversity in such a sport; between the climbers and the style of routes in existence. Some prefer the cragging style of mixed climbing while other prefer horizontally-hucking there meat across the roof of a scooped out piece of rock. And of course, some seek epic adventures on the side of a mountain. Perhaps this is why it’s so difficult to create a top-ten list. Especially in the Canadian Rockies where there are so many top-notch climbs. The only way this list can be created is if we start to define the qualities that make a top mixed route.
“To be a top-10 route it has to form somewhat regularly, at least have been repeated, and be very, very cool. The horizontal stuff is interesting, but it’s not really representative of Rockies mixed climbing,” say Canadian mixed climbing legend Will Gadd.
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Mixed climbing is a sport that has seen growth in waves. It started back in the days of Jeff Lowe, progressed with the likes of Will Gadd and now being pushed forward by new climbers that share the same passion. But what’s interesting is that a lot of the top mixed climbs are routes that were established many years ago. Routes like French Reality, Mixed Master, the ground breaking Musashi and of course Nightmare on Wolf Street.
“Generally, my favourite climb is the one I am on at the time but if I had to choose I would say Nightmare on Wolf Street. It has good moderate dry tooling sections with insanely steep, serious, and challenging ice in between,” says Rob Owen. “It’s a really good challenging line where the mixed sections give access to some of the best ice climbing imaginable.”
I once had a discussion with Joe Josephson, a pioneer of ice climbing in the Rockies, about manufactured routes being the future in mixed climbing. I had suggested that perhaps hard mixed climbs don’t exist without manufacturing, fixated on the fact that to be a top-notch route, it had to be high on the difficulty scale. In Europe, a lot of the hardest lines have been manufactured – a practice that’s widely accepted. These routes could be accepted as top-ten worthy in Europe. But manufactured routes seem less desirable in North America and specifically in the Rockies.
But do routes that have been manufactured or “helped along” deserve to be on a top 10 list? Some of the groundbreaking lines in the Rockies, that have been manufactured, have won awards and have required creativity, energy and commitment. Should they be excluded from this list? There is no easy answer.
And what about routes that are condition dependent? Some great climbs rarely form or come in shape much differently than during the first ascent. When I climbed Cryophobia in the ghost, my partner and I used an unusual variation. Does that change its legacy or worth? Certainly not.
After talking with Will Gadd, Raphael Slawinski and Rob Owens it became clear that they all shared some common ideas about what made a classic mixed route – the climb had to somehow leave an imprint on their adventurous souls regardless of the grade, style or conditions.
Raphael Slawinski has established and climbed some of the most amazing Rockies mixed lines, but his top-10 list was not filled with grade-pushing routes. Instead, it consisted of climbs that represented different climbing styles: Real Big Drip, Mixed Master, French Reality, Nightmare on Wolf Street, Musashi M12. These routes force you to think, to climb, to risk, to endure adventure and to breathe under pressure.
“I also like routes that come in reasonably often. I would not want to include a once-every-10-years gem,” says Slawinski.
It’s becoming obvious that a top-10 list is not all about horizontal roofs and maxing out the hardest grades. Maybe it should also include climbs that are easily accessible and just fun; with minimal risk and low commitment. Not everyone is up for traveling to remote areas, suffering cold temps in dark, gloomy caves or surviving multiple pitches of difficult run-out terrain. When I was asked what my top-10 picks were, I naturally thought of all the routes I had done that involved big roofs with a lot of figure-four’s and nine’s. Routes like Musashi or The Game, El Matador, or Piltdown Man. I love horizontal roofs; the feeling of crawling along like Spiderman.
But then I remembered the route I climbed this last winter in the Bull River Canyon, located just shy of Cranbrook, B.C. It was a Scottish gully-style route (developed by Pat Delaney) and was one of the most entertaining lines I’ve ever climbed. Graded at M6- this route was an absolute blast from the moment I left the ground.
This climbed proved that hard grades are not necessary for a great route. Instead it’s the route quality, consistency and what you feel after climbing the route that determines whether climb is worthy of a top-10 list.
The Canadian Rockies offer so much climbing it’s hard to comprehend. For mixed climbing, there’s enough to keep anyone busy for a lifetime. And whether something is in its original state, rarely forms, comes in all the time, has been manufactured, is M6 or M14, you should climb what you want, decide what you want and create your list of favorites. In the end, only you can decide what routes had an impact, left a mark and put the biggest smile on your face – that’s what a top ten list is made of.
Collaborating with Slawinski, Gadd, and Owens and a group of Canadian Rockies adventure seekers, I created a top-10 mixed climbing route list. This list was put together to give some sort of direction; a guide to where you might find a climb that will leave you with shivers up your spine, grinning from ear -to-ear and hopefully psyched for more.
1. Musashi M12 – An incredibly fun route from start to finish. It has horizontal climbing, dynamic movement and finishes off on a sporty curtain of ice.
2. Real Big Drip WI6 M7+ 200m – A beautiful line in the on an astonishing setting. Fantastic climbing on bolts and sections of sporty ice. A must-do route in the Rockies.
3. Nightmare on Wolf Street WI6+ M7+ 175m – Like Rob Owens said, “It has good moderate dry tooling sections with insanely steep, serious, and challenging ice in-between. A really good challenging line where the mixed sections give access to some of the best ice climbing imaginable.”
4. Mixed Master IV 5.8 WI5 300m – The original classic mixed route with six pitches of climbing just off the highway. This line was cutting edge in the early 90s and set the standard for a sport.
5. Cryophobia WI5+ M8, 225m – A multi-pitch route just to the right of Hydrophobia WI5+ that has six pitches of hard and sustained drytooling and mixed climbing.
6. Rocket Man WI5+ M7+ 350m – Located to the right of Snowbird Glacier on Mount Patterson, this climb is one of the longest waterfall-style mixed routes in the Rockies. Nine entertaining pitches of smears and drips.
7. French Reality V 5.8, WI6+ 150m – Awesome mixed climbing at the Stanley Head Wall consisting of thin ice, mushroomed pillars and technical mixed climbing.
8. EL Matador M12 – This route offers steep climbing, gymnastic movement, technical terrain and ice that pushes physical and mental limits.
9. Caveman M10 – A Classic test-piece that starts off on a horizontal roof and climbs through a pumpy set of moves. Always fun.
10. Slaughterhouse M8+ 30m -Start in the steep amphitheater behind the first pitch of Ice Nine. Climb superb dry-tooling on excellent steep rock past nine bolts in the roof, pull the lip and continue up front of the curtain.
Gord McArthur is one of Canada’s top mixed climbers.