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The East Face of Assiniboine, a remote Rockies alpine wall, gets a rare repeat

"We climbed a 30-metre water ice pitch before the headwall that provided us with an M5 and M6 pitch"

Mount Assiniboine is one of Canada’s most famous mountains, located southwest of Calgary near the border of Alberta and B.C. The most difficult route on the mountain is the East Face, first climbed in the early 1980s by South Africans Dave Cheesmond and Tony Dick.

The over 1,000-metre-tall wall has only one known repeat since the FA, and that was solo by Frank Jourdan in the summer of 2004. Jourdan was on the face for 21 hours.

Despite the aesthetic nature of the face, few climbers have attempted to repeat it, likely due to the unpredictable and often dangerous conditions, and its remoteness.

Last week, Dylan Cunningham and Ryan Richardson, who both have extensive experience on difficult ice and alpine terrain in Canada, made a rare repeat of the East Face. We touched base with Cunningham after their descent.

Had you climbed Assiniboine before? Once. I did the classic North Ridge with my girlfriend last year. It was such a wet and cold summer. We basically had fall conditions and mixed climbed nearly the entire ridge. Now that I think of it, I probably swung into ice just as many times on that ascent as this recent one.

What line did you climb? Ryan and I climbed the 1982 Cheesmond-Dick route on the East Face. Based on what we can make of their line, we took gully to the right up the lower third. We also went more directly through the headwall – probably easier than their line when the rock is snowy, and you’re using modern mixed techniques. The upper third, we likely followed right in their footsteps.

Had you climbed with Ryan on anything this big before? No. We have climbed with many of the same partners, so we had a sense of each other’s competency. It certainly adds a dimension to climbing when you are still building a partnership, though.

What was the rock like? Quite compact and high quality. The face has a reputation for rockfall, but I think that is largely due to the conditions and weather of previous ascents rather than the rock being particularly bad. Perhaps all the chossy loose stuff was buried in snow or frozen in place, though. Moral of the story…if you think The Rockies are loose, then follow the advice I have heard Barry Blanchard’s give: “wait until it’s all frozen together!”

What were the conditions like? Perfect as one can hope with respect to travel and overhead hazard. This time of year, the face still gets a lot of sun. It worked to our advantage in helping the face clean itself up. We went with a forecast of cooler temps with a bit of cloud cover. Fortunately that is how it played out, and the face had little it could shed while we were on it. All that said, you’re climbing in a gully feature that funnels a tremendous amount of real estate above you. If snow or rock is falling anywhere from the upper face, there is a very good chance you’re going to meet it in a less than pleasant way. With respect to water ice it’s a bit of a different story though. We had less than an ideal amount and quality of it, and I think our hot, dry summer is a likely culprit. Still enough ice, but certainly less than on the original ascent.

How hard was the mixed/ice sections? The face is mainly steep snow and low angle, albeit ‘interesting’, ice with the odd steep but relatively easy mixed step. The main challenge with most of it is moving efficiently. You can’t rush it because the medium can be insecure or unpredictable. It’s a challenge I really enjoy. There is still some real climbing, though. We climbed a 30-metre water ice pitch before the headwall that provided us with an M5 and M6 pitch. Then there was a short section of M5 on the final pitch of the face. I should mention that the M6 pitch is up for debate. I did all the moves, but I also went for a small flight while hanging on my tools to place some pro and deal with the screaming barfies. My legs are definitely stronger than my forearms right now. Ryan seconded the pitch clean and left the pin that was hardest to place, but thought it was more like M7.

How many bivies, where and was anything unexpected about them? We bivied just below the col between the NE and E Glaciers then once again high up on the face, maybe 200 metres below the summit. Ryan and I were set up to stretch our food and fuel for the second night if needed, but were hopeful that we could approach then go up and over in one day. As for why it took us two days on the face, mainly comes down to not moving efficiently enough. We reflected on it and found plenty of learning there for us individually and as a partnership. Perhaps lessons worth sharing at some point.

What was the descent like? Quite lovely for the eyes and good for the legs. The views towards Mt Eon and Mt Aye as well as out towards the Purcells are a nice distraction while you head down. Then, despite it being about 10k and 2,000 metres of elevation to kill en route to the parking lot there was a bit of snow to romp down near the top, a healthy bit of plunging down scree in the middle, and some comfy moss surfing as you went through the subalpine and into the forest. I guess some down-scrambling was a bit downslopey and snow covered, but that fades from memory as you make your way home. As for going up that way, I don’t think I would recommend it, too much of a talus and scree treadmill. Would be an epic ski descent!

Did you see anyone else during the trip? Not a soul. But we did see car’s driving the spray lake road and the glow of Calgary in the distance to remind us we weren’t far from civilization. On a related note, I was kicking myself for not carrying a radio as our emergency communication device. Assiniboine Lodge is visible for most of the ascent, and they had kindly taken some photos of the face for us before we went in. It would have been awesome to say hi while up there and help them find us with the big scope they have. Always cool to share the excitement.

Would you climb it again? Certainly. It’s only about eight hours to approach and can be climbed and descended in a day if you do it right. I would be waiting for the face to be similarly quiet before returning, though. You don’t want to be there otherwise. I would also probably wait for a time I think it would have more water ice too. It would probably feel pretty cruisy if you were lucky enough to line all that up.

The East Face of Assiniboine. Photo by Tony Dick