Words and photos by Paul Nelson
“Whoa, now I get summers off!” These were the first thoughts in my head as I thought about life, climbing, and the future after quitting the campground manager job that I’d held for the past three seasons at the New River Gorge.
Running the NRG campground for the American Alpine Club had been great: a free place to stay, beautiful wooded environment, constant contact with the climbing scene, but the job had run its course. My microcabin was getting cramped, I was falling into a teaching job, and the AAC was upping my managerial responsibilities. So, this past spring, I respectfully submitted my resignation, turned in my badge and gun, and walked away from campground that I’d helped get off the ground.
I was now faced with the overwhelming prospect of having weekends off, as well as a whole summer free of almost all responsibilities. Time for a road trip!
Since I already live at the best crag on earth, single-pitch cragging was not a high priority for a summer trip. Besides, to be honest, my fitness was not the best following a spring of working both at the campground and at a loal high school; hard climbing was not in the forecast. Instead I decided to go big– alpine granite in the mountains. Although I’ve climbed quite a bit of big stuff in the desert, my experience in mountains was quite limited: a lot of peak bagging and scrambling when I was younger, but no glacier travel, no experience setting up base camps in the wilderness,none of that.
Regardless, there was one place on my mind: the Bugaboos, a remote wonderland of granite spires jutting out of glaciers in the Canadian Rockies. I got the guidebook, poured over topos for classic routes like the Beckey-Chouinard, Sunshine Crack, and Solitary Confinement, bought some crampons and a piolet, and most importantly secured a partner for the adventure.
Matt Carpenter is another local Fayetteville climber and teacher like me, though ten years younger. Though I’d not climbed much with him beyond cragging, he was solid, with an extensive resume of big mountain routes out West, including one trip to the Buggs already. On July 5th, following a raucous Independence Day party at Matt’s house that raged until past dawn, we piled into my rusted out 2002 Tacoma, fired up System of a Down, and pointed West for nearly three weeks of awesomeness. I didn’t notice who did it, but some local yahoo stuck this on my truck; I didn’t notice it until South Dakota!
Three days, 2,000+ miles, two near-tornado force storms, and way too many podcasts later, we were crossing into Canada. Unfortunately, we got some bad news as we glanced at the weather forecast for the Buggs. Steady snow, rain, and highs in the 30s for the next week! Damn it! It did not look worth it to make the hike into basecamp there just yet.
Rather, Matt looked around at nearby areas, and found a really cool backup plan for us to do while we waited for the weather to get better:
This is Mt. Assiniboine (or, as we started calling it, Mt. Cinnabon), just outside Canmore, Alberta, and one mountain range to the east of the Bugaboos. The right ridge is a few thousand feet of scrambling with a few moves of 5.4 here and there. We convinced each other that it would be a really fun adventure to blast the 18 miles in to the mountain’s base, camp, then climb it and hike out the next day.
After three days in the car, at 4pm, we geared up and began the long hike into Cinnabon. By luck, I even found a pair of trekking poles leaning against the trash dumpster at the trailhead; these turned out to be literal life-savers! We arrived at a beautiful lakeside basecamp full of backpacking Canadians around 10pm; it was still very light. Most looked at us strangely when we mentioned we were going to climb the mountain; the massive amounts of snow still on it indicated that it was still a bit early in the climbing season.
The next morning, we were up at 5am and began the three mile approach to the actual route. The approach itself picked its way through about 1000 feet of vertical choss, and had a few sections of easy 5th class climbing and LOTS of steep snowfields to cross. Not gonna lie– after begin stuck in a car for three days, then a fast 20 mile hike the day before, the unroped scrambling was a bit unnerving. The climbing was not hard, of course, but I felt exhausted, was awkward with my ice axe, and constantly aware that any slip on the two hour approach definitely meant a slide down off of hundreds of feet of Canadian limestone.
We got to the saddle at the base of the Cinnabon by 8:30am, and then… a storm rolled in. Fortunately, the Canadian Alpine Club has an actual hut all the way up there. We ducked in for a cold nap, hoping that the weather would break. Unfortunately, it never did; by 11am we could not even see the mountain, let alone its summit. We tucked tail and retreated back down the chossy-death approach.
Getting back to camp, my feet were aching from the past day’s scrambling and long hike, but we nonetheless packed our bags and hiked back the 18 miles to my truck. We were both limping and in pain by the end of the hike; the beers and poutine in Canmore tasted especially good.
The next day, we looked at the forecast again for the Buggs. Still no improvement; it looked like the Bugaboos were not in the forecast for this trip. We were bummed, but opted to head south for a place we’d never climbed before– the Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho.
Elephants Perch, the most popular formation in the Sawtooths (or would it be Sawteeth?) turned out to be a gem in the Gem State. The approach was not too bad– a five mile boat ride, 2 miles of flat walking up a canyon, and then a final 1.5 miles of steep hiking up to a beautiful alpine lake. Still, I’d not yet recovered from the long hike into Mt. Cinnabon, and my overloaded haulbag turned out to be WAY too heavy.
However, the next day, nearly a week after we’d left on the roadtrip, we FINALLY got our first actual roped climbing in! Elephants Perch has amazing granite; not a lot of consistent splitters, but a lot of corners, flakes, and more face features (including pockets!) than your typical granite has. The routes were mostly around 9 or 10 pitches, and an easy 15 minute hike from basecamp, so there was no need to super early alpine starts. Definitely “Alpine Lite” climbing, and it was spectacular.
We did three routes at The Perch: the super-popular “Mountaineer’s Route,” a shorter 5.9 that has some fun variations; Astro-Elephant, a 9 pitch 5.10a, and Fine Line, which follows some amazing 5.10 fingercracks, with a HARD bolted 5.11+ first pitch.
We also got really bored at base camp on occasion.
The routes and environment of the Sawtooths were amazing. There aren’t a whole bunch of routes on the Perch, but they are all super high quality. I can’t wait to get back to climb some of the others that we didn’t get a chance to do, like the Direct Beckey and Myopia (both 5.11, ten-ish pitches).
After the Sawtooths, we were both quite exhausted, not so much from the climbing, but just from the mass amounts of hiking and scrambling that we’d done. Matt was set to fly out of Salt Lake City soon, with my girlfriend Miranda flying in for her own vacation.
We had maybe three days of climbing left after the Sawtooths. A couple fun days were spend cragging on the frictiony dumby domes of City of Rocks, ID, where we kept the approaches under one minute:
Finally, for the last day, we opted to completely trash ourselves at a place I’d never been, despite having grown up less than 2 hrs. away.
Lone Peak is a spectacular peak in the Wasatch that straddles Salt Lake and Utah Counties, and flanking its summit is a cirque of beautiful west-facing cliffs, around 500 feet high. I’d heard stories about it being some of the best granite in the area, as well as horror stories about the grueling approach– 7.5 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation gain! Well, we were in better cardio shape than we’d been for a while, so why not?
We hiked in at 6:30am, hoping to gain most of the elevation before SLC’s forecast high of 100 degrees hit. Despite accidentally getting off route on the approach, doing an extra mile, and winding up at the TOP of Lone Peak, we were still racking up by 11am.
The routes were short– only about three pitches. We managed to get two classics in: a linkup of “Vertical Smile” and the “Triple Overhangs” (both 5.10), and a really fun romp up the “Lowe Route,” which ended on a 3rd pitch jug-flanked crack that is easily the best easy pitch I’ve climbed, ever. Three summit tags, one knee-straining hike back down to the car, and we were drinking margaritas by 9pm.
The summer road trip did not turn out like expected. I still hope to get to the Bugaboos next year, but this excursion was nonetheless a welcome break from the cragging-oriented climbing that I usually do. It was just plain fun to go big, trashing our legs and lungs more than our forearms, and at the end of the day look up at some gargantuan monolith and say, “yeah, we climbed THAT today.”
As I look at another school year starting, another summer drawing to a close, and pressures of training for hard single-pitch (hopefully), the prospect of coming back to the mountains is always going to be not too far in the back of my mind.