Labour & Love – An Ascent of Mt. Sir Donald – NW Route (5.4)
I awoke, or more, opened my eyes. The sounds of burners hissing, water boiling, and climbing gear gently clinking together overwhelmed all my senses. Pressing the lowest button on my watch revealed an ultra-bright 4:00am. I took one long, full breath. Soaking in the stillness and trying to enjoy the last remnants of comfort, or what was close to it (my air mattress had a steady leak that I would replenish every couple hours throughout the night). Unzipping my tent, I poked my head out and gleamed upwards. It was perfectly clear, with a grand display of stars blanketing the night sky, bright enough to reveal slight contours and a gleaming silhouette of our objective, Mt. Sir Donald.
Slowly, I began to go through a routine that’d become natural. Put the water on boil, tear the tops off the instant coffee and oatmeal packets, drink whatever water I could stomach. I looked over to find Jon rhythmically going through a similar routine. We exchanged a few pleasantries and then quickly began talking about the objective. Weather, gear check, energy levels, how much water to bring, food choices etc. We both had been surveying our scene. Up near the Col (the lowest point of a ridge or saddle between two peaks) I spotted two distinct headlight beams, and perhaps 300m below that, another group of 2 slowly making their way up the scree field to the start of the technical ascent. We knew for sure that there were 3 guided parties that had started earlier than us, and one solo dude.
We filled our water bladders to their max (2 Litres for myself – with an unfortunate slow leak), had a final gear check, packed up our gear and began the 30-minute hike up the scree field to the col between Mt. Sir Donald and Uto. We moved quickly as our breath condensed and dissipated in the beams of our headlamps. Fortunately, their moon was mostly full and we quickly realized that we had no more need for headlamps.
We arrived at the col as the same time as the 3rd guided party that had taken off ahead of us. It was time to harness up, rack our alpine climbing gear, and rope up. Our plan was to simul-climb the entire ridgeline, placing gear whenever we felt difficulty or exposure warranted. Simul-climbing differs from the conventional style of ‘pitching it out’ since both members move together at the same time – versus having one person belay as the other climbs and places gear. This style has obvious efficiencies of keeping a consistent flow, however, a natural risk with not being on a direct delay. I had never simul-climbed before (or climbed any mountain for that matter) so I felt a bit green learning how to coil the rope properly around myself and set up a safe rope system between ourselves. However, my experience in climbing in general lent itself to understanding rope management systems.
Jon racked up first and we set off from the col, marking the official beginning of the climb. We quickly recognized the efficiency of the simul-climbing method as we skipped past the first party in about 10 minutes. Soon enough, the sun broke free on the glowing horizon and we found ourselves gently warmed from its ever-growing mass.
The climbing was magnificent. Solid and blocky quartzite rock is easily protectable and confidence inspiring as you literally stay directly on the ridgeline. Veering off the Northwest ridge even slightly almost immediately gets you into more difficult terrain – while still enjoyable, it’s easiest to stick true to the ridgeline. Time went into a vacuum as we continued to propel our bodies using our hands and feet up the rock monolith. We swapped leads every 15 minutes or so, depending on how long the rack of protection would last.
We’d brought roughly a single rack of cams (.4 – 3’s) and a 1/2 set of nuts, as well as 6 or 7 long (120-240cm) slings. Due to the blocky nature of the quartzite, often the most bomber protection was just wrapping a sling around some solid blocks, however, we found many solid cam placements as well. Since the climbing was well within our comfort level we found many sections (3rd and 4th class) we simply left unprotected, climbing them with the rope between us weaving through some blocks as a safety measure. Typically, on the 5th class pitches placing 1-2 pieces of protection within the 15m of rope felt plenty secure.
A third of the way along the ridge you’ll hit the rappel stations. It’s a good idea to take a mental note of where they’re located and familiarize yourself with the surrounding area so you don’t miss them on your descent (it took us roughly 1-hour to reach the rappel station from the col). The entire ridgeline is about 800m of 4th class climbing, with a small handful of 5th class moves – the summit tower being one of the most consistent 5th class climbing and definitely one of the most enjoyable parts of the climb. The climb lent itself to a natural rhythm. Placing gear periodically, and moving our bodies consistently. Each swap of leads provided us time to reassess our progress, relish in some enjoyable moves, and discuss more important things such as; how much water we had left, what flavor of Clif Bar we brought, or our Catan colour preference (Orange of course). As we climbed further and further along the ridge we found ourselves surprised when we realized we were about to surmount the summit tower.
Under a perfectly clear blue sky we reached the summit proper (3284m), being the first party to do so that day (We’d past the other 3 parties before the rappel stations). Settling in to a meal of granola bars and dried fruit we took our time to enjoy the Selkirks Range to the West, the Purcell range to the East, and the saturating feeling of enjoyment that comes from reaching a goal with a good friend.
However, Sir Donald, like any mountain, is far from over once you’ve reached the summit. The mountain features 2 main descent options. One, simply down-climb the ridgeline. Two, take the West face bypass. We decided to opt for the ‘devil you know strategy’ – which meant dow-climbing 2/3rds of the ridgeline until reaching the rappel stations. For us, the exposure of the climb hadn’t been much of an issue, but down-climbing certainly makes you aware of the sheer drop on either side of the ridgeline. Again, we remained roped up for the descent placing probably a handful of pieces of pro along the way and belaying on two different steps. Truthfully, having not done a lot of down-climbing I felt more unnerved than my upward progress. But like anything, you fall into a steady rhythm and pace and it becomes a sort of moving meditation that is likely the most sought-after feeling of alpine climbing, or climbing in general.
Reaching the rappel slabs marks the end of the 3rd-5th class climbing. The rappels are well labelled with yellow placards; however, we did have trouble finding the 5th station along the wall as it was tucked to the left of a large bulge. This small detail had use billy-goating along the slab left and right for about 30-minutes with another soloist until we eventually located it down and lookers left of the 4th rappel. Reaching the scree field marked the final 20-minute push to the tents, and more importantly, a large lunch and cup of tea.
We sat, drank, ate, and laughed looking up towards the NW ridgeline we’d just climbed. Already slightly nostalgic for the experience it was, we packed up our tent and climbing gear, shouldered our packs and began the 2-hour descent down from the moraine, across many small creeks and toward the parking lot. Beginning in the rocky alpine, every 20-minutes brought another wave of growth, from small shrubs, to larger plants and grasses, and eventually the flourishing cedar-hemlock rainforest and the return of the soft earthen trail.
So strange, how we enjoy the labour and exultation of climbing these rock giants. How we spend our time to train, to educate, and to plan these grandiose adventures – often becoming of more importance to us personally that many other aspects of our lives. Perhaps it is because it’s a break from the mundane, from our normal routine. Perhaps it’s because the duration of the experience requires so much focus and our attention, something in this world of small captions and mass stimuli we are lacking. We find ourselves in a pleasant state of purpose, feeling the capability of our bodies and our focus in our minds only thinking of the task at hand. Perhaps because there’s no inherent reward other than the rewarding experience we it provides ourselves – a meaning we have placed on a rock that cares not whether we do or do not succeed. The feelings of exultation from deciding something is meaningful to you, and following through in your quest to relish that meaning.
Regardless of the reasons, all I know is that after it was all said and done, my mind and body were in a subtle harmony, saying the same thing,
“Give me beer, and give me pizza”.