"Mixed climbing is climbing on both ice and rock, either in quick succession or actually at the same time."
-Yvon Chouinard, "Climbing Ice" (1978).
The Canadian Rockies are the Mecca of mixed climbing. With so much terrain and such a long season, it is no wonder that routes and climbers here are at the cutting edge of the modern mixed game. Early mountaineers used mixed climbing as a means to an end. They would often be forced to scratch up snowy rock or thin ice on alpine routes to reach easier ground in order to gain a summit. Like rock climbing, mixed climbing eventually evolved into a sport unto its own pursued for its movement and technical difficulties. The past 10 years have seen increased interest and growth in the sport and the mixed game has been elevated to vogue status in this explosion of popularity.
Why would someone want to mixed climb? It is a cold and sometimes dangerous activity. However, there are people like Abby Watkins, who moved from her native Australia to Canada just for this peculiar winter dance.
"Sometimes when I am scratching around on rock with sharp implements
strapped to my hands and feet in the freezing cold, I think to myself 'What on earth am I doing? How is this related to climbing?'" she questions, but she continues, "There is nothing more satisfying than following a tenuous weakness in the rock to the gift of a smear of ice and somehow putting it all together. Mixed climbing engages all of my senses and skills and allows my eye to expand to the most unlikely lines of ascent."
In the early 1980s, ice climbers were already getting bored with the tediousness of vertical ice and craved something more dynamic in winter climbing. The logical progression was to seek thinner and thinner ice routes until sections of rock were used to link these discontinuous smears. This was already occurring on big Canadian Rockies' north face routes like Andromeda Strain, Grand Central Couloir and Humble Horse, but it wasn't until the late 1980s that people started practicing it on smaller cliffs.
Mixed climbing really caught on in 1991 with the now classic Mixed Master (IV 5.8 WI5, 300m) receiving the most attention. Because it's located only 10 minutes from the highway, right beside the very popular Weeping Wall (IV WI4-6, 300m), veteran ice climbers could not believe that they had never seen this gem. It wasn't because the route wasn't there before; it was because they simply weren't looking for that sort of thing. Almost instantly, eyes opened and winter climbers were discovering the potential of using ice tools and crampons on rock putting steel to stone. WI5 bashing became stale while thin ice and rock was fresh and new.
Armed with the mottoes "less is more" and "it doesn't have to be formed to be formed," Jeff Everett and Glen Reisenhofer offered a glance into the future with their 1991 first ascent of Suffer Machine (V 5.6 A2 WI5, 200m) on the Stanley Headwall. This massive waterfall had never formed completely, always ending as an unformed icicle hanging over a cave. That year it came tantalizingly close to the ground so the duo humped an extension ladder up the two-hour approach with the intention of using it to reach the ice. Of course, the ladder was too short so they returned armed with a full aid rack and bolt kit and proceeded to climb the rock out the steep wall to the ice.
By the mid- to late 90s, sport-style mixed climbing was in full swing in the Rockies. Bolted lines meant good protection for the steep rock sections, but the ice was still your regular old hard-to-protect WI5/6 shake-fest. Big falls were still happening despite the bolts as Raphael Slawinski demonstrated while attempting the second ascent of Teddy Bear's Picnic (V M8 WI6, 200m). He managed to on-sight the overhanging limestone but snapped the hanging curtain near the end of the pitch sending him for a 30m whipper that he miraculously walked away from.
For these modern mixed routes, climbers began using the M grade system to rate the difficulty. M grades were introduced by Jeff Lowe (the originator of WI grades as well) in the mid-90s to combine rock and ice grades into one simple number that defines the crux of a mixed route. The M system is open ended, presently ranging from M1 to M10 with +s and -s added. Unlike rock climbing, one can not split hairs over mixed grades. Mixed routes are much more dynamic: a hold may break, a dagger might snap off, thin ice could melt, moss might get scrapped off, all of which making subsequent ascents harder. The following chart will give a general idea of how strenuous a certain M grade may feel.
Many of the routes from the early 90s used aid, but as dry tooling skills improved, the aid on old lines disappeared and new routes were being put up free. Climbs like Burning in Water, Drowning by Flame (III M7+ R, 30m), The Day After les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (V M7 R WI6, 270m) and Home Brew (IV 5.10 R WI5, 80m) were originally completed with aid but subsequent ascents eliminated it creating bold traditional routes.
The past couple years have seen the "anything is possible" attitude taken to the huge ice-smeared limestone walls, producing cutting edge monstrosities like The Real Big Drip (V M7+ WI6+, 200m), Nightmare on Wolf Street (V M7+ WI6+, 175m) and Rocketman (VI M7+ WI5+, 350m). These are the epitome of big Canadian Rockies mixed climbs and illustrate the huge potential for the long, hard multi-pitch routes the area holds. Rocketman in particular embodies everything modern mixed climbing represents through its long, hazardous approach, committing position, 350 meters of technical mixed climbing, both bolted and traditional protection and, to polish off the difficulties, an unprotected M6+ as the final pitch.
At present, many mixed climbers are embracing the new "sport" philosophy, focusing on pushing the standards on single pitch sport-style routes. New "sport areas" like Haffner Creek, The Gulag and Waterfowl Gullies are being developed at a rapid pace. Simultaneously, the overall technical level of the community is soaring with M8s being on-sighted regularly and a handful of M9s being established. Steep cave climbs like Thriller (M9-), Svoboda (M9), Power to Burn (M9), Caveman (M9+) and Animal Farm (M9+/M10-) are among the hardest in the world. "Locals around here are getting really good, really fast," points out World Cup ice climbing champion Will Gadd.
Hard but not that hard, these routes are only the beginning. The next few years will definitely see M10s and M11s established as on-sights of increasingly harder routes. However, the future of Canadian Rockies' mixed climbing is not short cragging routes. The future is once again changing the perception of what is possible: multi-pitch M10s, traditional M9s, serious run-out M8s. When interrogated about the huge potential these mountains contain for mixed climbing, Gadd instinctively lies to protect the secret, "The Rockies are cold, inhospitable and have no good climbing. Stay away!"
Local mixed maestro Raphael Slawinski sums it up best by saying, "Think of how many fat waterfalls there are out there. Now think many walls of snowed-up rock with the occasional drip hanging off..." The Canadian Rockies have unlimited possibilities for those with vision. The future is only limited by one's own imagination.
Sean Isaac, MountainZone.com Correspondent