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Always Chasing Dragons, Mount Aye North Face Direct

Excellent alpine conditions lead to a new route near Mount Assiniboine by Jim Elzinga, Ian Welsted and Brandon Pullan to the top of a potentially virgin summit

When Jim Elzinga showed me a photo of a snowy alpine peak capped with a cornice, he knew I would be interested. Five days later, with Ian Welsted, we drove up Settlers Road in BC, towards Mount Assinibione. Elzinga had hiked into the South Face of Assiniboine a few days earlier to scout for an ice route.

Elzinga has always been keen to find new routes. Two years ago we did the The Mentor, WI4, on the north side of Cirrus Mountain in October, it was a first ascent. Last year he climbed a new route on the north face of King George, in October, with Welsted.

Aye West, 3,050 m, Always Chasing Dragons is the obvious line that begins right of the peak
Aye West, 3,050 m, Always Chasing Dragons is the obvious line that begins right of the summit

For Elzinga, climbing a new route is old news. He climbed many notable first ascents in the Rockies during the 70s and 80s, such as Slip Stream, WI4, 1,000 m, with John Lauchlan. He has also pioneered routes in the Andes and Himalayas, including the 1986 Canadian new route on Everest.

Welsted is no stranger to searching out the unknown, he recently returned from the first ascent of the northwest face of K6 West, 7,100 m, in the Charakusa Valley of Pakistan, with Raphael Slawinski.

We hiked for five hours to our bivy beneath the face that was in the photo Elzinga showed me. Below us was a lush valley, free of snow, and above us were alpine walls, smeared with ice and covered in snow. As night fell and the full moon illuminated the mountains it was Assinibione that dominated the skyline.

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Looking up at Welsted on the first pitch Photo Jim Elzinga
Looking up at Welsted on the first pitch Photo Jim Elzinga

Early in the morning we suited up and post-holed for less than an hour, towards an unclimbed north face, until Welsted was on the sharp-end, getting the first swings of the season. Under a starry sky he managed to stem and pick his way up the first crux of the route.

After another ice pitch we entered easier snow and couloir ice. A number of rope-lengths later we reached a dog-leg in the route, beyond which we could not see from the ground the previous day, it was a complete unknown what was ahead. Welsted looked back and said, “It looks good, there’s ice.”

Brandon Pullan on the second pitch Photo Ian Welsted
Brandon Pullan on the second pitch Photo Ian Welsted

A thin ice pitch with a gnarly top-out brought us to the exit slopes and eventually the summit at 3,050 m. We stood on the summit at 2:30 p.m. in a small snow squall, then rappelled the route in 13 60-metre raps. We were back at the bivy at dusk for an electric sunset.

Returning home, we discovered the mountain we climbed is a sub-peak of Mount Aye, 3,236 m, and had not been climbed. Aye is on the BC/Alberta border and has had three ascents. We named our summit Aye West.

Starting up the coulior after the ice Photo Jim Elzinga
Starting up the couloir after the ice Photo Jim Elzinga

The word Aye is Scottish for yes, Ay is Scottish for Always, and on the route Elzinga was talking about all of the routes he has chased over the years and said it was like he has been chasing dragons his whole life. We named the route Always Chasing Dragons. On top of the mountain Elzinga said, “Thanks boys, I said this is my last one and it just might be it.”

On the descent below tree-line he looked back up at the mountain and said, “My knees hurt, my back hurts, but I don’t think that was my last one, chasing the dragon!” We graded the route, IV, WI4, with 650 m of elevation gain.

Welsted leading up the middle coulior Photo Jim Elzinga
Welsted leading up the middle couloir Photo Jim Elzinga
Ian Welsted on the last ice crux Photo Jim Elzinga
Ian Welsted on the last ice crux Photo Jim Elzinga
Welsted above the last ice crux
Welsted above the last ice crux
Jim Elzinga exiting the final ice pitch Photo Ian Welsted
Jim Elzinga exiting the final ice pitch Photo Ian Welsted
Brandon Pullan heading up the final rock bands to the summit with Welsted below Photo Jim Elzinga
Brandon Pullan heading up the final rock bands to the summit with Welsted below Photo Jim Elzinga
Pullan, Elzinga and Welsted on the top of Aye West for its first ascent Photo Ian Welsted
Pullan, Elzinga and Welsted on the top of Aye West for its first ascent Photo Ian Welsted
Looking up after our ascent, with soft sunset light, at Always Chasing Dragons
Looking up after our ascent, with soft sunset light, at Always Chasing Dragons