We were on a roll.
Bathing in the ice-cold rush of the Chilliwack River and breathing in the alpine air of the Bugaboos had done amazing things to our climbing psyche. Barely a week into our August 2017 outing to British Columbia, Nick and I (Erik) were high off ascents of Mt. Slesse and the Beckey-Chouinard route on South Howser Tower… and we were eager for more. In just a few days our trip would be over. Nick would start grad school; I would be continuing my own studies. But all that meant nothing if we could just fit in one more climb.
Thanks to our climbing friends Robert Jong and Andrew “Toba” Osnatch, we had seen images of the striking prow of Mt. Gimli’s South Ridge. It rises high among the peaks in Valhalla Provincial Park, a small alpine paradise in the splendid Kootenays of interior British Columbia. If an image is worth a thousand words, then an image of a featured mountain in the crystal alpine air of the Rockies is, to a climber, worth a thousand daydreams.
“My God… it’s beautiful… we should climb it… what’s the grade? Can I see the topo? Damn... look at it. What’s the approach like? What’s the recommended rack? How cold is it up there? Let’s go!!”
The Dog Days
But at this particular moment, Nick and I had no time to languish in the brilliant sun of Castlegar. We were once again staring at the image of Mt. Gimli, this time in Toba’s Kootenays Rock Climbing guide book. And so it had been decided: we’d leave from Castlegar airport the next day in a rental car, bound for the trailhead of Mt. Gimli. From there we’d travel quickly, summit Mt. Gimli, and return to Toba’s backyard base camp in time to pop the cork in celebration of Erik’s champagne birthday (27 on the 27th).
We're going on a picnic.
“What are you doing in Valhalla Provincial Park?” Asked the young lady working the Budget rental car kiosk. She had just informed us that the rental car was absolutely not allowed on dirt roads or mountain service roads. “We’re going on a picnic,” I said, a little too forcefully.
She returned a cute smile. Nick was carrying a pack with a rope strewn across it. Climbing shoes were strapped to the outside of mine. We stood helplessly awaiting our fate from the rental car lady. With a coy flick of her hair a set of keys was handed to us.
A few hours later, having bottomed out not a few times on the hefty mountain road, our dust-covered rental reached the trailhead, emitting a burnt plastic smell of overheated engine block, a result of poorly paced elevation gain in a low gear on a hot summer day.
From the trailhead you could see Gimli like it was cut into the sky by some twisted effort of the clouds.
We set off at a light jog. We had tacitly agreed to go as fast as we could. The alpine air became cooler as the trail climbed toward the base of Gimli. Despite the lower temperature, we were doused in sweat, our hearts in a healthy aerobic zone right up until we were under the shadow of the mountain. The trail had gained 700 m elevation over 2.5 km, and we had completed it in just less than 1 hour.
The South Ridge of Mt. Gimli via ‘Lichen It’
We had spotted a slow party on the second pitch of the South Ridge Route (Grade III, 5.9) and so we decided to take an alternative route: a three-pitch 5.10c variation called Lichen It, which gains the ‘Lunch Ledge’ (top of pitch 4) on the South Ridge, where we’d have ample space to pass the slower parties. The guidebook describes the variation as a “not-as-bad-as-it-looks overhanging off-width crack,” followed by a “large, yellow, lichen-stained chimney.” Against common sense, we rerouted for the climb with light hearts. Nick prepared for the first lead, and as he glanced up a look of perplexity came over his face. The issue was, it seemed, that he was looking up a mosaic of overhanging off-widths and lichen-covered rock. Which route is the correct one? With a heave he launched into a clean-looking line, but one that landed us among some of the chossiest terrain we’ve ever encountered. To this day we’re not sure what we climbed. Possibly, it was a first ascent, and if so, an apt name might be ‘The Lichen It Variation Variation,’ should anyone ever have the poor judgment or misfortune to repeat it.
Having gained Lunch Ledge, we quickly scarfed down a snack while I racked up to take the simul-lead. I sailed up exposed and exhilarating terrain, relishing sustained 5.8 moves on miraculously featured gneiss right up to the base of the 5.10a mini-crux of the route. Here I placed a progress-capture device, as per our simul-climbing system, and scurried on up until I could see the summit. Having climbed over 100 m (330 ft) in a single lead (passing three parties along the way), I belayed Nick up for the final scramble to the summit together. We had climbed 300 m (1,000 ft) from the base and were at a humble 2,800 m (9,200 ft) above sea level.
We took in the sweeping Valhallas and signed the summit log in peppy shorthand. Two climbers had arrived to the summit just before us, and now that we were all within several metres of one another it was clear one of these men was well into his seventies. I admire older athletes more than any other, and perhaps for this reason I proffered a toothy 'Hello!'
First ascentionist Peter Rowat had the bent back of an old geezer but the lackadaisical stride of a young man and the impish smile of a teenager.
Turns out the old man had been there before. It was none other than Peter Rowat, one of the first ascentionists of the route. Famous for ‘colossally sandbagging’ (a direct quote from the guidebook) the second pitch at 5.7 (it’s now graded by consensus on Mountain Project as stiff 5.10a), Peter Rowat had returned with a local mountain guide to relive his glory days atop the South Ridge, which he was among the first to climb more than four decades prior. Now a distinguished professor of biology, his days of mountain adventure were far behind him. Or were they? I watched him from the corner of my eye as he adroitly hopped from boulder to boulder on the descent, with the bent back of an old geezer but the lackadaisical stride of a young man and the impish smile of a teenager.
The descent of Mt. Gimli looks intimidating at first due to the grade of the slope, but turns out to be a straightforward Class III stroll down a well-cairned trail. About halfway down, we took a shortcut across an open scree slope, heading towards a stunted cliff band. From here a little forlorn tree heralded the start of a faint goat path. We down-climbed a 7m rock face (where rappel anchors are drilled for more cautious parties) and regained the well-trodden path that had led us to the base of Lichen It.
Soon we were back at the base of the South Ridge. The slow party we had spotted early in the morning could still be seen on the upper reaches, oozing up the prow no swifter than chilled molasses. Now at a trail running pace, we loped down the dusty trail toward the tree line, where the trail softens underfoot, whizzing past overburdened hikers and past the stream that marks the start of the trailhead. Car-to-car we clocked in at 5.5 hours for the Gimli South Ridge ascent - not bad for a total of 1,000 m (3,300 ft) elevation gain.
It was possible.
We were back at Toba’s almost too early to pop the cork on my (Erik’s) promised champagne bottle. Thankfully, though, we had returned to the summer dog days, where drinking before the sun went down was not just welcomed, it was encouraged.
Nick and I were also toasting something else. The ascent of Gimli marked the final of three classic climbs we had accomplished together in two short weeks. Without having trained together in months, without our own vehicle, and with the purchasing power of two graduate students (with expensive tastes in sports), we had ticked several outstanding climbs in four distinct parts of the province during a vacation from the real world. That’s what we really toasted, grinning at each other like two guys sharing a secret: it was possible.
Written by Erik Veitch in February, 2018
We are Daniel, David, Nick & Erik.
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