Every three years Philippe Batoux, high mountain guide and professor at ENSA (France's elite guide school), trains five young aspiring mountaineers in every alpine discipline: free and aid climbing, ice climbing, snow and mixed routes. An expedition always caps off the series of training clinics. This year, Maël Baguet, Kevin Peyre, Yoan Foulon, Eric Jamet, and Dimitry Munoz traveled with him to Canada.
Expedition report by Philippe Batoux...
The most recent trips took us to Indian Creek to focus on crack climbing, to Yosemite to perfect aid technique, and to the Mont Blanc Range for multi-pitch routes. This year, the focus of the clinic was on ice and mixed climbing.
A meager season in France, a great season in North America
The ice climbing this past winter in France can only be described as mediocre at best, whereas a polar vortex covered the East Coast of the United States in ice. An extremely rare phenomenon, even Niagara Falls froze! Winter never really arrived in the Alps. Only a few high mountain valleys in Italy, like Val di Cogne, had good conditions.
Western North America missed the cold wave, and the month of January proved unseasonably warm with little snow. Temperatures dropped significantly in February, and the highs never surpassed -20°C, with lows often plunging to -35°C in the morning in Canmore. Most routes formed.
However, an unstable snowpack had us worried: a thick layer of surface hoar formed during the month of -30°C temperatures and very little snowfall. At the beginning of March snowstorms with high winds loaded this weak layer of snow, making for extremely dangerous conditions. The avalanche risk rose to 4 at all altitudes on all aspects! Not such a dangerous predicament in the end, since with such high risk we chose to remain on flat terrain…
Ghost Valley, a dream come true
For what seems like forever, I have dreamed of climbing in Ghost Valley. Located between Calgary and Banff, the approach requires driving up a long, poorly maintained, extremely uneven road. There are some pretty wild rumors about this road. Legend has it that snowstorms have buried four-wheelers in the past and that climbers were only able to retrieve their vehicles in the spring once the snow had melted…
We had no idea what would come of our day, especially since it had just snowed. Fortunately two 4x4s with studded tires had already driven up the road, which we never would have found without their tracks.
Ghost Valley lived up to its reputation. All of the routes we climbed were well worth the effort. The fragile Fearful Symmetry, Rainbow Serpent's sculpted column, the amazingly delicate and tenuous mixed climbing on Real Big Drip…
Snow conditions did not improve, so we decided not to climb the legendary and classic route, Polar Circus. Really too bad since the ribbon of ice, which rarely forms, appeared to be in great condition.
Trophy Wall, climbing three historic lines: Terminator, Replicant, and Sea of Vapours.
Terminator was the first WI7 in history, and Sea of Vapours the first WI7+. This line was established in 1993 by Joe Josephson and Bruce Hendricks. The duo climbed the second pitch up ice never more than 5cm thick, and then set an anchor with a single poorly placed cam… The other climbs were much less desperate. In 1997 Guy Lacelle took advantage of great conditions to solo all three in a day.
This year the routes were thin, and only Sea of Vapours was climbable. The approach ascends steep snowfields separated by cliff bands, where conditions were not necessarily encouraging.
In order to reach the base of Sea of Vapours, Maël and I found a way through the cliffs where the avalanche risk appeared acceptable. This thin and elusive line is superb: the classic first pitch leads to a four-meter traverse of poorly protected mixed climbing linking to the upper section of ice of variable thickness. The entire team successfully climbed this magical and historic route.
Our initial goal was to climb one of the major summits in the Canadian Rockies, Howse Peak, where Steve House and Will Gadd put up two magnificent lines. Since the avalanche risk had not changed and the face was plastered in snow, including several cornices, our hopes of climbing both routes stopped at the planning phase…
The Grand Teton to finish our expedition in style
Further south it had snowed much less, so we decided to head to Wyoming to climb the Grand Teton. This beautiful 4200 meter peak looms high above Jackson Hole. We showed up right in the middle of the world snowmobiling championships. A different world, different people, and a completely different style: baseball caps, leather jumpsuits, and gigantic 4x4s next to which a Q5 looks like a small economy car. Quite the culture shock!
The United States is so incredibly vast that we never saw a single snowmobile. We identified a fantastic line of waterfall ice on the Grand Teton's south face, which Renaud, Yoan, and I climbed. Several sunny, mind-blowing pitches capped off our amazing trip.
A twelve-hour drive back to Calgary, a fourteen-hour flight, and a 30°C rise en temperatures thrust us full speed into the spring season.