A Newb Trip Report

Originally posted on rockclimbing.com
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Who, What, Where and Why
It’s only been a year. After taking a course at our local gym and “graduation” trip down to Nordegg, my partner and I spent last summer at just three spots in the David Thompson Country using a locally produced, photocopied guide book and mostly climbing slab. By the end of summer I was leading (onsighting actually, since I’m the only one leading) 5.9s (and two 5.10a’s!) and Leslie was happy on 5.8s and we had only ever run into two or three other parties at the most. I also spent the year enjoying the to and fro of RC.com, learning a little and mostly wondering what the hell you guys are talking about.

Thus my partner and I went down to Canmore to climb last week. It was our first big trip to an new area and I thought I’d remind some of you of what it was like to be a newb or maybe illuminate for any newb climbers just how a few of the things you may be reading here on RC.com might actually play out.

The Guide Book
I had a late start this season due to a torn meniscus in my knee but after a few weeks in the gym and some hiking we decided I was ready. Last week we packed up and headed to Canmore to try out my spanking new Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies. After carefully perusing the pages we decide to start at Grassi Lakes. It had a short approach, was close by, had one wall with a bunch of 5s (Golf Course) and another with some 9s (Gardeners Wall)…perfect.

Obviously the first thing was to find it. Now this may seem old hat to the more experienced climbers but deciphering the beta in the book wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed. After checking out the area the night before putting on a few more miles than was strictly necessary, we found the upper parking lot and determined it might be less stressful on my knee not to descend down the steep approach from the top as suggested but just hike in from the bottom which was the alternative route—after all the climbs we wanted were at the bottom and it would save us the hike back up at the end of the day. Unfortunately for my old, out-of-shape ass, the 2 km hike with the 300m elevation gain, was probably the wrong choice.

Of course it wasn’t helped by the fact that when deciding what to bring my first choice was…everything. My 10.5 duodess, an extra 60m rope, two complete anchors, 50m of webbing, 25 draws, a set of cams and nuts I don’t even know how to use yet, a pair of sandals, 2 harnesses, 2 pairs of climbing shoes, helmets, 3 litres of water, two bottles of Gatorade, camera, rain gear, hats, two knives, guide book, trekking poles… all except the duodess crammed in my lovely new pack. Of course there is also what we didn’t pack: “Should I bring the sandwiches?” I inquired. “No” she replied. “Alright” I said putting the sandwiches, trail mix, granola bars and anything else remotely edible back in the truck. About 4 hours later I decided this was the bonehead move of the day.

So off we went, me proudly loaded down ready to take on Everest and Leslie with the rope bag and small pack. About 500m up the road at our first stop to take off a few layers I remarked how out of shape I was after the surgery. About another 250m on the next break I was too out of breath to talk. During the increasingly frequent stops as the overweight tourists and elementary school kids continued to pass us I started to wonder if perhaps maybe the descent might have been a better choice or maybe taking up parachuting—that was more of down thing…right?

On the Wall
As you might expect, after many, many excuses and self-justifications, we eventually arrived. As you approach from the bottom there are a few walls easily identified (just look for the bolts!) on one side of the lake and we quickly ascertained that the easy stuff was just up the scree behind this roped off area. It became obvious that the people maintaining this area (Tabvar I assume) wanted me to go around to the right to avoid deteriorating the slope any further so we obliged them. After much huffing and puffing and a quick rest we were ready to go. I picked a random 5 (Elk Don’t Like Golf) and up I went. Leslie gave it a try right after and we smacked ourselves on the backs for successfully assaulting and conquering our first climb.

What’s Missing Here?
Next we shuffled down to the 7 and got ready to go. As I gazed up I couldn’t find the first bolt. After looking up a bit more I noticed one about 20 ft up… and oh, there was also that broken one about 8 feet off the deck. Broken bolt? That wasn’t in the guide book. I don’t remember anything about broken bolts in the class. Was I supposed to fix it? Maybe I should phone someone? I eventually realized a tiny shelf ran up at about a 40 degree angle that would put me reasonably safely in reach of the first actual bolt, so away I went. As I approach the bolt I notice something odd. There was no “bolt.” Just this ring of metal that looked like it was glued into the wall…wait, wait, … I remember someone on RC.com talking about a “glue-in” A-ha, I’m really feelin’ like an expert now!

The next climb was the 6. It starts just to the right of the last belay box on top of a small boulder. The first bolt was about 10 feet above the belay station. Due to the slope, after stepping out onto the boulder, this unfortunately put it about 25 feet above the very uneven and rocky ground. Leslie and I looked into each others eyes and wonder how the hell that was a 6, seemed more like an 11 or maybe a 12 to climb those first few feet…Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Upon returning home, I eventually read the introduction page to Grassi Lakes (which I had previously skipped) and it mentioned many of the climbs were designed for stick-clipping the first bolt…oh.

Bottom of the belay boxes on Golf Course

The Neighbours
Meanwhile as we worked our way down the slope on the above mentioned climbs we were joined by an assortment of interesting climbers. The first couple were Spanish or Portuguese: young, beautiful and utterly foreign in their habits. It became apparent that the guy was a great climber and the girl was learning to lead. She would carefully make her way up the climbs while her partner shout encouragements and instructions. It was also apparent from the length and volume of the discussion she didn’t know how to switch over to rappel. Meanwhile he was sitting on the ground about 5 feet from the wall with a gri-gri and about 6 feet of slack trying to teach her from the ground. My instructor had said I was going to meet a lot of people doing things in a lot of different ways and I should just mind my own climbing…so I did. After she made it down he decided to climb up and clean the draws. As he hit about the third draw I noticed his partner was just then hooking the gri gri onto her belay loop. “It’s okay,” I muttered to myself. “It’s only a 5.” Then I noticed this guy was only clipping into every second or third draw. “It’s only a 5” I repeated dragging my eyes away.

As Leslie and I were taking a break three young rapper types stepped over the ropes below us and proceeded to scramble up the scree. “Sigh, the ignorance of youth” I remarked. As they passed by I mentioned that it was likely the ropes were there to get them to go around and they looked at me blankly and then nodded. About 10 minutes later three hikers in their 30s stepped over the ropes and started up the scree. Again I mentioned that the ropes might have been there for a reason and the look of wide-eyed innocence I received started to make me doubt the overall intelligence of the hiking community.

The fence seems pretty clear…but maybe its just me

All in all about 5 groups climbed up the scree, another 3 started up the right trail and then veered off onto the scree rather than use the rocks that were put there as stairs, but my very favorite was the 60-ish lady who came up the far side of the ravine on the muddy soft bank that was roped off and used the rope as her personal railing to haul herself up and then got to the top and looked confused when she found her path blocked by the very same rope. This same lady loudly and repeatedly asked “where were the petroglyphs?” and on her downward journey was heard to mumble something like “those were pretty stupid.” 10,000 year-old drawings and she was apparently expecting Van Gogh. Many threads on RC.com about hikers and spectators became a little clearer.

The next group of climbers turned out to be the three rapper types I mentioned before. They eventually figured out that these were the baby climbs of the area and sat down and watched for a while. I overheard one mention to another group of climbers that this was his first lead climb and then heard him giving instructions to his mates on what they should do and what he was going to do. I said to myself they couldn’t possibly be that inexperienced, and hmm maybe we should just move on to the next wall. As I was packing up, the same fellow wandered up to me and asked what kind of anchors were at the top because they’d only brought one belay device and by the way, this was his first lead climb. With vision of litigious lawyers dancing in my head I hesitantly pointed out that one of them had rap rings and I supposed he could lower off of those rather than rapping if he had to and then I quickly scurried away. When I remembered to look back a while later they had left so I don’t know if he ever got to do his first lead or not… maybe it would turn out to be a sort of weekly event: heading up to the mountains and not doing his first lead again and again because he hadn’t quite figured it all out yet.

The Gardeners Wall
We moved over to the Gardeners Wall that had a bunch of 9s with the first three or four routes bolted about every 4 feet for beginners to learn to lead on. There was already a couple there climbing: an obviously experienced climber teaching a lady friend as they went along. The first surprise on this wall was at the top of the first climb the anchors consisted of two hooks with gates on top. I reached back in my memory and recalled a discussion of Cold Shuts, which were bad, and the other ones (Super Shuts) which were good. I hooked my rope over the two hooks and yelled “take.” For the next 4 minutes or so I tried to remember if I just lowered off or if there was some weird anchor I’d forgotten or if I was just doomed to hang there for the rest of the week. Eventually I settled for lowering down and nonchalantly moving to a different climb in case I’d made the wrong choice.

Right about now I thought to grab a snack-oops!

The next climb put me right next to the learning couple and she was just starting her first ever lead with instruction and encouragement being liberally doled out as she went. Actually she was slowly and competently making her way up the 9 in a fashion that put my first few lead climbs to shame. As I approached the top of my anchor she was just clipping the last draw at the anchors and was shouting down asking what to do next. I glanced over and noticed that due to the close spacing of the bolts she had managed to z-clip. So after she was secure, I mentioned it to her and tried to explain what she had done wrong. Her belayer/instructor abashedly and belatedly mentioned that yeah, she had to be careful to take the rope from the knot at her harness to avoid z-clipping.

I’m starting to think that learning by doing isn’t as appropriate in rock climbing as it might be in fingerpainting.

Well after a few more climbs ended our first day and we packed up and hiked back to the truck. The downward journey was easier on the lungs but way harder on the knee. About half way down I really started to regret the stupidity of leaving all the food behind. Immediately upon reaching the truck we gulped down a pack of licorice left over from the drive up while digging out some very warm and very soggy ham sandwiches and savoring them like they were our last meal.

Use your Feet!
You may of noticed I stopped mention the climbs that Leslie did. Well after the 3 or 4 climbs she started to complain about her feet. We eventually figured out that her choice of anklet socks in her hiking boots had made a not so wee blister on the back of her ankle and oh, maybe she should have worn her brand new climbing shoes once or twice before trying to wear them all day on the side of a mountain. Needless to say, her feet hurt and I was the only one climbing by the end of the day: there’s a lesson about attention to details here somewhere.

Day Two: Heart Creek
As I started to (un)pack up for our second day, leaving behind about half of my gear, we decided to try out the first area at Heart Creek which had some interesting stuff in the 6 to 9 range. A short journey down the highway had Leslie yelling “There’s the parking lot!” and me rapidly decelerating on a 4 lane highway and moving over into the ditch to start our adventure.

This time the hike in was a pleasant stroll with the main climbing area easily recognizable beside the third bridge. We then hiked up a small hill to the base of Heart & Sole where a tiny slab had a 7, a couple of 9s and a 10 on two shared anchors: perfect for warming up and getting to toprope the 10 with little worry about having to bail. So we geared up and I started to climb. As I mentioned we spent a lot of time on slab the previous summer, so while I had great respect for the consequences of a fall, I also had great confidence in my ability to smear my way up on tiny footholds. That’s when another previously arcane RC.com concept clicked in my head. I’d always wondered what everyone meant when they said the rock was getting polished and as my shoe literally slid down the rock I got a jarring example of just what it meant. This stuff was worse than glass-reminded me of polished soapstone. With this new-gained knowledge in hand I continued up the 7 and made an anchor. Leslie put on her shoes, took off her shoes, wrapped her blisters in tape, put on her shoes, took off her shoes, put on more take, put on her shoes, made it about 2 feet off the ground and then took off her shoes. “I’m belaying today” she declared.

So I tried the 9 on toprope and between the polished rock and my shaken confidence on slab, I slowly made my way up. In the end, it was a fun little climb but I must say I would be hesitant to try it on lead until I get a lot better: climbing polished rock is like cat trying to get out of a wet bathtub.

I’d had it with slab for the day so we moved back down to the main area called First Rock. I scooted up a short 8 and then moved over to another 8 with 2 pitches. The first pitch was only about 20 feet so I suggested to Leslie she could climb in her hiking boots and hangdog all she liked. As she was slowly making her way up I noticed that about 4 feet to the right the ledge widened out and, hmmm, wasn’t that a path leading up from the bottom? As Les made it over the small roof a few feet from the top, less than enamored with my suggestion she climb in her boots, I helpfully pointed out she could hike up if she wanted. She waited until she stood up on the ledge to tell me no thank you.

Climb First, Ask Questions Later
As we were setting up for the next pitch another couple were a few routes over climbing the 7. The more experienced girl was belaying and her apparently new boyfriend was reaching the anchors and suggesting that she had better climb because they were going to have to walk off. Now I had studied the topo pretty closely and I was sure that the only route that had a walk off was a 6 about four climbs down… well pretty sure anyway. Besides there was no way for them to continue past the anchors if they weren’t supposed to walk off…right?

Meanwhile I was paying too much attention to them and not enough attention to my route and suddenly I ran out of bolts. They was a moss filled crack above me that I could follow with what might be a ledge above that or a bolt about 6 feet to my right which was directly in line with the 10 that paralleled my route. Should I go for what I could see or take a chance and see what was around the corner? A few minutes of dithering decided me on the safer of two evils and I traversed over to the bolt and then up to the anchors for the 10. After we got down I scooted over to the guide book and sure enough I had remembered exactly what was going on the other climbers route(s) and completely forgot that mine shared the anchors with the 10 and that if I had of kept going up I would have been runout about 20 feet with nowhere to go.


After rapping down to the ledge, I suggested we just hike down on the trail I had found and I soon learned why climbing shoes are not hiking shoes…OW! This one was voted the second dumbest move of the trip. Not to mention the fact that the next climb was next to impossible until I go the dirt and mud off my shoes.

We switched places with the other group (another new experience) And I watched them get set up on the ledge. We had belayed from the anchors to the 10 so that Leslie could stand on solid ground and they seemed to be making the same choice. It was odd though that they chose to clip the first bold of the 10. Uh, why wasn’t she moving over to the right yet? “Excuse me,” I shouted. “You do know you are climbing the10 right?” “Oh,” she replied. “That’s why it …” I’m starting to think the guide book and Santa’s list a few a few things in common…especially the checking it twice part.

No Pain, No Gain
So we tried the 7 but this time Leslie was determined to climb in her climbing shoes. It seems that I was having too much fun and damned if she was going to let excruciating pain get in her way. The bottom pitch was a 6 with a really polished first few moves under a small roof and for about 6 minutes I could hear her climbing but she didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Turns out she was trying to climb one-footed and that, combined with the polished nature of the footholds, generally resulted in retrograde climbing movement. Eventually she made it past the smooth stuff and winced her way to the ledge where she thoughtfully donned a flipflop on the sore foot. I finished off the second pitch, and watched with a smile on my face as she rapped to the ground in her mismatched footgear

Leslie displays her style and fashion sense

That pretty much ended our day and we finished off the climbing portion of our trip with some hikes in The Icefield Parkway and Jasper before heading home. One little side adventure involved an extended hike trying to find the climbing area at Maligne Canyon based on a verbal description I got over a year ago. At least it was a pleasant hike and we saw an elk – bet he could climb 5.8…

All in all it was a great trip, I feel a little less like a newb, certainly superior to a few of the people we ran into and I guess the point of all this is you can learn an awful lot from a website but it takes a trip to rock for it all to start making sense.