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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Deltaform's Super Couloir

Mt. Deltaform N. E. Face - Lowe/Jones aka "Super Couloir"

Deltaform from the summit of Temple. I decided on that trip I must do the two Deltaform ice routes while descending from Temple. Little did I know at the time that Super Couloir had yet to be climbed.

By the body count, two of the most deadly climbs in the Canadian Rockies are Super Couloir on Deltaform and Slipstream on Snow Dome. The British alpinist, Dick Renshaw said of Super Couloir, "in foul weather it is more dangerous than the Eiger". The first three parties in the gully all had minor epics of their own, all in marginal weather or snow conditions.

Below: Deltaform in Sept of 2007 with dry conditions.

Ken Glover photo

Below: The snowy and wet conditions of the 2nd ascent in July '76

Below:  James climbing off the snow arete between couloirs.

Below: This photo is crossing over from the lower gully into the upper gully.  Lowe and Jones bivied on a flat stance chopped from the snow arete here.  Gwain and I chopped off the arete as well and had a brew here in 1976 before the rain really started.  In the dry conditions of 2007 it was a mixed traverse.

Below: Ken's photo in the hour glass of the upper gully in the dry fall of 2007.  A dry Fall and the effects of global warming. 

Below: James in almost the same position as the previous picture of Ken.  The same location I was in after just having set a screw when the upper right cornice came thundering off.  I was covered in snow and shaken but thankfully protected by the rock above my head.   Same rock directly behind James' red pack in the picture.  30 seconds and 3 steps later and I'd been blown off and dangling from that screw.  Gwain, thankfully, was belaying on the lower rib just out of the direct line of fire in the gully.

Below: Looking down the upper right hand ice gully from just below the crux chimney/corner system in '80. Perfect hard ice conditions. At this point it started raining....hard...on us.

Below: Ken's more current photo taken from just a bit higher up and in the left hand gully with drier conditions.

Below:  Ken in 2007 on the more typical, and easier traverse out to the left,  a  "new" exit pitch.

Below: And looking down the last pitch (the left variation) after the traverse at the top of the ice.

Not pictured for some reason is the original finish start.  It is however really obvious.  You just continue up the ice until it ends and a rock chimney begins.  Easy to identify as there will likely be a huge snow mushroom stuck in it early season.   Late season you'll recognise it by the rock fall coming down the funnel.   This gash in the head wall is bisected by a small ledge and alcove on the left at half height.  The first bit of over hanging chimney is fairly tight with good stemming and offers a small rock stance off to the left.  The second bit is the pitch that exits stage right and finally goes through the ridge cornice, shown below.

Below:   The second short pitch of the original Super Couloir finish, which Lowe/Jones originally rated 5.9. Tim Friesen climbing in what appears to be "dry" conditions.

Dave Cheesemond photo

July 1976

By the time we got to the chimney that forms the first pitch of the head wall it had been raining for some time and we'd been soaked most of the day. The corner was now a full blown water fall. I climbed up into the corner, got even wetter if that is possible, colder and worse yet, pretty darn scared from the continuous rock fall in there and the snow mushroom coming down, nearly knocking me off. (some how I had been able to forget that small detail until now) We were loosing light quickly and it seemed like we were way, way out there. Even though I had just done the new route on the N. faceTemple the week before. This seemed really serious and BIG step up from Temple. Avalanches, rock fall (that was increasing with the rain) and now a long, wet, miserable night out. We chopped out a good bivy ledge 14 feet long and 2 feet wide at the base of the rocks, out of the water fall and rain. We are wet and miserable but it was a decent bivy which sorted a lot out. Thinking the water volume would be less in the morning, it was not, Gwain offered to lead. An alcove off to the left, high in the chimney, made a good belay spot. Pins for the anchor, 2 Leppers that should have been tied off and were not. Gwain stemmed his way up the first pitch without crampons through the water fall and then scratched his way up the second with crampons on through some really bad rock, a mixed bowl, some ice and finally bottomless wet snow over and through what was left of the cornice. The second pitch scared me, no pro, tricky, lots of snow. Gwain later lost some skin on his hands to cold injuries from those leads.

We'd been wringing out our Dachsteins at every belay for two days with water running over the ice.

I don't think I have ever been so relieved emotionally to get off a climb before or since.

We had done it all before, just in more controlled circumstances, when getting off Deltaform's north glacier route the year before.

But the rap (leaving our entire rock rack and some screws pounded into rock as the ropes hung up), the 2nd bivy and the long walk (25K) out of Marble canyon, now in heavy rain, was epic for us at the time. When we hit Highway 93 by Mt. Stanley and hitched back into the park I had blood running down my thighs from my wool knickers and we hadn't eaten in 48 hrs. Looking back it was a grand adventure (almost too grand) and a small price to pay.

I had written a story BITD describing the climb, calling it "Trout Fishing in Canada". That should give you an idea of the conditions we had. Felt like we were swimming up stream the entire climb.

Jim Elzinga and Gerry Rogan had been caught in a storm the previous season, (we didn't know, nor were we counting) spent a few extra days out and been forced on a more direct (and much harder) line above the 1st gully to keep from being flushed off the route. They were eventually picked up by helicopter on the descent. Which we were told checking back in, gave us the 2nd ascent of the Lowe and Jone line.

A bit more info from my memory and a recent conversation on the Elzinga/Rogan ascent.

"Rogan's and Elzinga's ascent on Deltaform is just one example of the obvious confusion with the early history of these climbs. What did they really climb? 2nd ascent, new route or rescued while rapping off the route? I read about the "rescue" in the local (Lake Louise) news paper. I distinctly remember having something to eat in Lake Louise, looking at Gwain in amazement and saying..."they didn't actually do the climb but were rescued by a helicopter!" But that was only the local (Banff/LK Louise) news paper, like any news paper, the question remained.  What did they REALLY climb? Sounded like a new route up and right of the upper gully to me. The article said 'rescued" by the helicopter. While rapping off? What side of the mtn south or north? While still on the climb coming down or after the climb while descending or picked up on the actual ridge? Mtn #48 reported their climb as the 2nd ascent. Park Warden told us after our ascent we did the 2nd, a full year after Elzinga and Rogan had been on the climb. Who do you believe? More importantly what was the real story behind that climb? I'd bet what they actually did was forced a new variation (unrepeated for obvious reasons) of the route off to the right of the upper gully and then slung off the ridge crest by the rescue effort"

The following is from a conversation with Jim Elzinga in 2009.   Elzinga and Rogan did do a significant variation of the Super Couloir by climbing straight up from the traverse between the upper and lower couloir in 1975.   Rating? Typical Rockies 5.9 A2 all done in a 2 day storm over 3 days of climbing. They were pulled off the ridge by the Tim Auger and the Park's helicopter. This climb really started Elzinga's serious alpine career although he had done a bunch of "serious" things in most climber's minds back though the winter of '71/'72. Gerry Rogan had enough after Deltaform and while he continued to climb, Deltaform was the end of the serious stuff by Elzinga's account.

With  this trip down memory lane I've been searching around for my old journals and things I'd written BITD. "Trout Fishing in Canada" was an interesting read last night, some 35 years later. Never trust the comments of youth while they are basking in the simple glory of survival.

Gwain's comments on his recollections via email 12/22/10

"Looking at those pictures made me real nervous again. The hubris of dumb youth. Most of the climb is a blank to me except for a couple real specific moments that I guess are engraved in my memory for whatever reason.

I remember we bivied off to the left of the chimney, we were going to do the last 2 pitches the next day. It seems like the bivy was a good ledge, wide enough to sleep lying down and it was semi protected. What I remember from the bivy site was watching a dump truck load of rock come tumbling down right through the base of the chimney where we were standing 30 minutes ago. That was unsettling.

The next day we started up because we couldn't go back and were more or less committed. Crummy or no protection, wet Canadian limestone, stemming. Great sense of relief making it to the ledge on the left.

Belay setup wasn't exactly ideal. Fiddled around with stoppers or anything else I thought would work with not much success. I tried several cracks with the Leppers and they kept bottoming out after an inch or two at best and that was that. Clipped in. I debated tying off but I don't think I had any webbing or anything to use.

Hauling the packs was interesting. Didn't even come close to the face. Free swinging the entire way up. The belay anchors were not that good to hold a fall. I did the best I could to keep a really tight rope and was relieved when you got there. The pins would bend when any kind of weight was put on them.

Chouinard made a mini hand axe. (The Chouinard Climax, which I had previously teased Gwain about how worthless it was!) It was about the size of a wall hammer and had an ice axe head in miniature. I bought that just before this climb and glad I did (it is now lost). I think under better conditions (dry, warm) the last pitch wouldn't have been that horrendous. What I remember is verglas and crampons, no protection, clearing ice for my hands and feet with that Chouinard tool, Millar mitts, not having cold fingers and thinking, 'don't make a mistake'. After the verglas then being faced with some clumsy borrowing through the snow band on top. Just like Lowe/Jones, nothing to anchor to for a belay so I dug a pit and plopped my butt into it. You looked relieved when you got to the top."

Relieved?  I had tears freely rolling down my face after pulling the cornice.  Gwain gave me a fatherly hug and said, "it's OK".  I was shattered just following.
A short bit from "Trout Fishing in Canada" a short story written in the summer of 1976 about our ascent of Deltaform.

"June 1975...half way up the North Glacier route of Deltaform

Gwain, "You will never catch me on that route, it looks more like a bowling alley than an ice climb."

July 1976.. sitting on the Wenkchemna glacier directly under the Super Couloir.

"Gwian, do you remember your comment last year?"


"What am I doing here anyway"

"The upper gully looks pretty steep"

"They say it isn't over 60"

Finally, after four years of waiting, we were committed. I thought the Lowe/Jones route on Deltaform the most beautiful ice climb in Canada. (and I still do)

Memories of my other attempts and the one success on this face brought back butterflies.

Both of us were procrastinating. We were scared. We both know soon we won't be able to go down as easily as we can go up. Problem is Super Couloir gets harder the higher you get.

We cross the first of the avalanche troughs. I slip! I almost fall off! Gwain doesn't notice. Climbing together. I've got to be more careful. I'm still not sure I want to be here.

We make another traverse across a fair size runnel of water. The amount of water coming down is amazing. We can not hear each other because of the amount of running water beside us. This is a strange mixture of elements. It sounds like a bubbling trout stream.

The route forces us back out to the edge of the water. It is cold! Our mittens get wrung out at every belay. It can not be this wet all the way up. Finally, we are off the first section of ice and a couple more rope lengths lead to the snow arete.

The view is incredible! The slope is 55 degrees on either side. We chop platforms, brew up and have lunch. We'll easily be up and off long before it gets dark.

The upper couloir does indeed look steep. Gwain gets the first lead. You have to be joking! The upper couloir is ice with a couple of inches of water running down it. That makes the climbing easy but not too enjoyable. The couloir narrows at half height. I put in a screw. Then it happens! With a ear shattering BOOOOOM, the summit cornice breaks off! I scream and count seconds as I try to tie Gwain off before the avalanche hits. In moments it is over. I am covered in snow, my are hands cramped........

Nothing to do but climb."

I put in a second screw and bring Gwain up.  Short pitch.  Short on nerves at this point.

Funny reading this now, experiencing those same long buried emotions.  Bit and pieces of memory coming back as I write and reread every one's experiences.  Better still to have another 30 years of climbing and seeing all the obvious rookie mistakes :)

Super Couloir isn't hard by today's standards or even the standards of the 1st ascent party. We found it challenging in less than stellar conditions for our limited abilities. It is however, one of the classic alpine ice climbs in North America.

More from Gregg Cronn about his early ascent of Super Couloir:

Gregg's comments and story:

"I gave a nervous chuckle when you mentioned it being one of the most dangerous climbs in the Rockies. I had one of the most hair raising epics of my life on that climb. Here is the story...

The summer of 1980 was extremely wet. I wet and cold Spring led to a similar June which led to an extremely wet July. I was working for Yamnuska Mountain School at the time and we had 18 days of rain out of a 21 day trip. Not only did it rain, the high peaks got blasted with snow. It didn't stop snowing and raining until the second week of August. Even then there was no long spell of clear weather that summer. I heard somewhere that St. Helen's blowing its' top contributed to the unusual weather that year. After teaching all summer James Blench and I had some time in early September to do a climb together. The two 'merrycans' working for Yam decided on the Super Coulior of Deltaform. After a four day late August storm, and the summer weather, the mountains were just pasted with ice and snow. That may partially account for the fat appearance of the ice in the photos from 1980.

We started up the lower gully at midnight and soloed all the way to the traverse to the upper gully-which we reached in a glorious sun rise. All the mountains were bathed in pink--a blue haired Mary Kay Saleslady's wet dream. The climbing was the best alpine ice I have ever experienced. We both had Axes and north wall tools (Chouinard zero for me) which penetrated solid Styrofoam ice to the hilt with an easy swing. We swung six wonderful leads of ice climbing up to the head wall which we reached at noon. James belayed me to a stubby Chouinard screw and I launched on to the mixed pitch, excited at the prospect of reaching the sun and tagging the summit after the two short pitches remaining. This was also going to be my first big Rockies test piece and I was psyched to have it nearly in the bag. Twelve hours later I rolled over the ridge cornice, in the dark, so tired, hungry and dehydrated that I was hallucinating wildly and talking to my ice hammer ("please Ms. Mjillnar stay in that ice for me"), completely numb to anything but an overpowering urge to sleep.

The fun started when I fell, 70 feet out right at the crux. I don't remember what caused the fall because my mind immediately went blank. Faced with my soon to be demise at the young age of 20, my brain core decided it was best if my conscious part of my being wasn't witness to what was going to happen when I splatted like an overfilled waterballon on the 60 degree ice below the overhanging crux. Poor James had to watch, like a catcher following a foul ball heading to the stands behind him, as I ripped all the protection and sailed over and behind the belay. I came back to life at the end of 140 feet of rope without a scratch on me and all my ripped protection tingling together in front of me. Dwayne Congdon's borrowed friend, lovingly placed in a bomber crack below the crux, is bent and the cams on one side destroyed.. God truly does love the foolhardy.

You build up quite a lot of speed when you travel through the air for 100 plus feet and my brand new Edelrid showes it. The kern sports a 15 foot long melted metal on plastic burn that Jame's dynamic body belay allowed to run through the screw carabiner as I slowed down. Having checked out for the air show I am in surprisingly good spirits. I have lost my glasses in the fall, so I can now add 20/200 vision to my issues but I am confident that we can still get up the thing. James, however, is totally freaked. He wants to start rapping the route. I convince him to give it, the pitch that I just logged some considerable air time off of and for some reason beyond both of our capacities to understand at the time survived, a shot. Now James is a fantastic climber, one of the best I have ever seen move in the mountains, but after fifty feet he wants no part of the iced up, down sloping, hard to protect Rockies shit show that awaits him over the next 30 feet of overhanging hell. He lowers off. Now what?

Not aware of Carlos's easier variant (the willy bastard took one look at the crux on a cold Feb. morning and immediately headed left), climbed during his winter ascent a few years ago, I am pissed and want off the climb so I set off up pitch again with Jame's top rope speeding my climb to the crux. It took me nearly three hours to climb the crux. It was iced up and hard to protect and, not surprisingly, I didn't want to fall. When I get to the belay, 15 feet below the ridge, I place 7 pieces of protection to build a decent belay. Dwayne's friend gets pounded into a crack like a cheap french pin. Jame's climbs carefully and slowly up, not liking the the sound of my "don't fall" and lets me lead over the cornice when he reaches me. I hacked away for an hour before I could flop my sorry ass over the other side at midnight.

The next morning we start down quickly and slurp water at some drips and head down into the valley on the south of Deltaform, easily reached in a few hours. It takes us all day to walk the 12 miles to the road. My calf's are two balls of cramps from standing on my front points so I have to comically walk backwards up any up hills. When we reach the highway, James stands in the middle of the road with his bandanna flying in an outstretched arm and forces the first car by to stop. I didn't wrap my hands around a rope for nine months. I think it is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Shows you how bad it gets when it is going so well. If the crux on Deltaform is 5.9 then the crux on Grand Central Coulior is 5.6. Easily the most terrifying piece of ground I ever had to climb in the Rockies!!!



Ken Glover's recollections of his and Colin's climb in 2007:

"Drove with Colin Wooldridge to Moraine Lake parking lot on Sept 15, 2007 at 4am. Reached the bergschrund at dawn, inch of recent snow, minus 3 C. Bergschrund required about 100 meters 4th class scrambling on the left. The main couloir was fortunately silent with no rockfall through the early sunlight hours and the air temperature didn't get above freezing. Great neve conditions eventually gave way to ice as we neared the "cross-over rib" at 2/3 height. We crossed to the lefthand gully over a slabby rock rib, about 5

meters of easy but careful and exposed mixed traversing. The position from this point onwards had great exposure. This upper gully soon split into two and we followed the less-icy more-neve left hand branch, still undecided about whether to attempt the original chimney exit or the easier left-hand finish. At the top of the gully, at the base of the upper headwall, it was obvious that we were too far up and left to get to the base of the original exit without rappelling. This, combined with our anxiety over the nasty reputation of the original exit made us rope up for an exposed leftwards traverse pitch. Colin led this to the base of the first left-facing corner system we encountered. The position was now even more exposed and invigorating. Colin found a decent belay here and I climbed a loose but reasonably well-protected pitch to the ridge, nothing like the stories we'd heard about the original exit. Climbing was on snow-covered incut edges, large enough to climb with hands and thin gloves. I think I took my crampons off for this.

The scramble to the summit was sunny. We spent several hours trying to descend by the 1908 Kaufmann route down the S SW bowl, hoping to find a "shortcut" back to Wenkchemna Pass. Ultimately we reascended to the E ridge and down climbed/rappelled to the Deltaform-Tuzo col where it got dark.

Here we turned our backs on the civilisation of Lake Louise and staggered down into the BC wilderness. We trudged for 10 frosty hours through the bush, with many shivering 3 minute naps, curled up in the bush still wearing our packs to stay warmer. Marble Canyon and Hwy 93 was a welcome sight at dawn. After we hitch-hiked back to our car we raced home, I cleaned up and drove into Calgary. I was making mindless comments in a meeting by 11am while Colin slept in his car at a truck stop. We were psyched for a while

after this one, but it was the last alpine route I climbed with Colin before his tragic death in the mountains later that Fall.


ps. Great shot by Dave Cheesmond of Tim Friesen. It looks great. From the
security of my chair, I kind of wish we'd taken the original exit."

And finally the 1st ascent account by George Lowe

Deltaform North East Face, first ascent account

George Lowe CAJ 57, 1974

“By evening we were under the face.

The face was obviously not in condition. It was plastered with snow and avalanching continuously. Exhaustion and fear kept us from starting in the morning. By midday no big avalanches were coming down so we rationalized our way into starting at 5pm. With winter snow still covering the ice we climbed unroped until the last few pitches before the end of the lower part of the couloir. There we bivouaced, a 5 star site cut into a narrow snow arete flanked by 55 degree slopes.

Morning found us front-pointing up the upper couloir….thin ice over rock, bulges over 60.…always with a good screw or two for protection. Only small chucks of ice came down ass the sun hit the face.

About 12 leads and seven hours later, we were under the top rock band….100 yards below an enormous section of cornice cracked off and disappeared down the couloir where we had been an hour earlier. Another lead and we were under and overhanging chimney seated on a hummock of ice. Off came the summit cornice, crashing out over our heads. Five minutes later down came a large rock fall. Our thoughts could be read in our eyes. Thank God we hadn’t procrastinated another half hour in getting started!

Chris stemmed up loose flakes in the chimney getting bits of manky protection here and there. We had no haul line, so he cut the pitch off at 25 meters. Then I took my turn. The pitch started with some very difficult but good over hanging rock. Then came a groove, not very steep, 65, but with only bits and pieces of protection. Meters of chopping holds, balancing carefully….so carefully….between them. Hours passed in tense concentration until the rope ran out, just as I heaved over the cornice on the ridge. It was the most horrible pitch of my life.

Chris followed on prussik as I anchored the rope with my body, shivering in the wind, wondering if I could hold out until he made it. Then I had to go back down after my pack.

Finally we were (both) on top (of the ridge) at 6:30PM. It had required eight hours to climb two pitches.

By dark we were on the summit.

The next day we raced to get off the mountain before the helicopter came looking for us. We spotted it in the afternoon as we were starting the last rappel off Neptuak. “our bodies are OK” we waved. It is our minds that are bruised. IV (?) F8 or F9. Chris Jones and George Lowe July 8/9 1973 "

as a reference for those interested in such things:
G. Lowe and J. Glidden did Alberta in 1972
G. Lowe and C. Jones did Deltaform in 1973
G. Lowe and C. Jones did North Twin in 1974

Gear Notes:
Gear for steep alpine ice and some moderate rock in boots (5.8 or 5.9) depending on how you decide to finish the gully. A little sketchy for pro via the original rock finish. If you have made it that far it shouldn't be missed IMO. Why bother with second best? Good, cold conditions and weather!

Climb is easily done now in a day...getting off and back to the car may be a good bit longer.

Approach Notes:
A few km up the trail from Moraine lake parking lot.

Descent is complicated and depending on which way you go it can be a really long hike out.

*I know the ice has been soloed several times up and down since 1980 but to date I don't know of anyone soloing the original rock finish.*

My thanks to Ken Glover and Gregg Cronn for help on this blog piece.  


Thomas Kimbrell said...

Jeep Gaskin and I climbed the original route and finish in a terrific storm in 1981. Before starting the route, we checked in with the Park, and they mentioned having performed a major rescue at the top of the route a week or so prior to our ascent. When we did arrive at the crux pitch, it was littered with ropes and gear from the previous party. We climbed through the last pitch in a driving thunderstorm, summiting with metal buzzing and in tremendous conditions. As I had unfortunately lost my right boot in a forced bivy at the start of the final gully, I had to improvise a boot with ensolite foam and an extra sock in order to attach my crampons.....needless to say this made the climbing all the more difficult. We summited and proceeded to rapell down the back side of the mountain through the night. Unfortunately, we should have traversed around and descended the other side of the cirque, however that didn't happen. The next morning as we were staring down the final 500 ft of descent to where we could start hiking out, a helicopter piloted by Jim Davies eventually found us. We waved him off with thumbs up. He left to return a half hour later with a ranger strung below. The ranger, whose name I forget, was dropped off next to us, and inquired if we wanted a lift out. We took his offer, and admittedly that ride strung below the chopper was unforgettable. I will submit a more detailed accounting later. Cheers! Tom Kimbrell

Dane said...

Hey Tom, good to hear from you here! Great story about you and Jeep. I had forgotten the lost boot. Deltaform? The climb that just loves to give something to remember her by :)