Twilight on the Rundlehorn

At 7:00 pm Tuesday evening I looked at Dave and said “Well that’s fine, I’ll leave tomorrow.” He rebuked “No! You don’t have to go, I just have to be at work Thursday morning.. early!” The game continued; “What do you want to do?” I asked. He responded with “You have never been to the gym at the Banff center have you?” I responded “No.” The ideas bounced back and forth a couple more times, “Where could we hike?” was someones question. Then I said, “Rundlehorn, you know it well don’t you, let’s do it in the twilight.” Dave immediately beamed, and from his lips sprang an emphatic “Yes! Lets do the Rundlehorn!” Then I said “We should do it in our mountaineering boots.” Dave replied “That’s a great idea, you should put your rock shoes in your pack just in case though.” I countered with “Yeah dude, and we can wear packs to make it feel as real as possible.”

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Mt Rundle appearing small in the distance behind Tunnel Mountain

And, with that, Dave descended into his gear room. We quickly settled on a gear allocation: he would bring the draws, I would bring the ropes. After some debate, he agreed to use double ropes, my 60m half ropes. Initially though, he suggested a single. I don’t recall how many draws we had in total, but it was about fifteen.

The route itself isn’t really a classic, but it is in a classic location. It ascends the northwestern ridgeline of Mount Rundle. The line ascends directly away from Tunnel Mountain, gaining altitude and a spectacular view of the Banff Springs Golf course, Tunnel Mountain, and only at night, the subtle lights of downtown Banff set in the valley of surrounding mountains.

The outing promised to be precisely what I needed. If only I wasn’t feeling the ill effects of a serious head cold that had been brought upon by prior weeks working in the Alberta tar sands, it would be perfect. Long hours, disrupted schedules, and the stress of uncertainty as I unexpectedly was scheduled time off, conspired to push my immune system past the breaking point. The clear thin mucous flowing freely from my nose, the itchy eyes, and the scratching throat all were solid evidence of the mistreatment my body was retaliating against.

I parked in the lot at the Banff Center a half hour before Dave was done work. His delayed text response indicated he would be unable to leave early. I finished packing my bag while I waited, insuring that my harness had my personal gear on it, and that I wasn’t carrying any useless redundant weight, as I am often apt to do. When Dave arrived at 5:40 pm, his bag went in the back of the pickup, and we were off to park along the Banff Springs golf course.

The time was 6:02 pm when I pressed the start button on my Suunto Ambit 3. I was timing the event, and keeping a gps trail, because I like to do track and evaluate my performances later. It’s also a useful tool for sharing your tracks with various social media and helping to remember details about past events.

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Dave waving and smiling as he starts up pitch one of the Rundlehorn

The approach was perhaps steeper than I anticipated. It may also have been the cold that was kicking my ass more harshly than I would admit. Earlier in the day, I recorded a resting heart rate over 100 beats per minute. This was after ingesting some Tylenol sinus medication. This is over double my normal resting rate, and a clear indication that my body was suffering.

Since Dave had racked up the draws on his harness, it made sense that he would lead first. He ascended the first pitch, clipped a draw at the station, and moved into the second pitch. At the second station, he asked how much rope he had left. I responded “eight to ten meters.” Then I added “If you run out, I’ll just start to climb!” He yelled back down “Ok.”

Before he got to the third station, he did indeed run out of rope. I began walking up the first pitch. The climbing was easy in boots. Maybe even especially in boots. The La Sportiva Trango I was wearing edges very well with it’s near rock hard corners along its sole. On the dry textured rock, the sole also smears very well, though that was almost never required on the 5.5 yds average graded rock. The first pitches most certainly falling lower in grade than this number. The boots were comfortable to wear. So comfortable in fact, that I forgot to tighten my laces before beginning to climb.

Dave made an anchor at the third station. The stations were typically an upper bolt connected to a lower ring by a taut chain and mallions. They provided a solid steel ring to rappel from, attached to the rock via two bolts. I joined him at the anchor after cleaning up the draws he had placed on his ascent.

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Typical Rundlehorn anchor station

It was easy to lose track of how many pitches were going by. Only by looking at this climbing topo on mountainproject.com, was I able to be sure it was the sixth station where I set up an anchor to bring Dave up past the fourth class traverse. The climbing became interesting at this point, going almost straight up a couple moves past the sixth anchor which was located conveniently at chest height.

Dave suggested I stop at the seventh station, fearing we would get separated by terrain and lose visual contact. Despite his concern, I continued past the anchor and made my way to the eighth. Dusk was in full swing, the temperature was dropping, and a every extra transition came with a significant time penalty. No matter how efficient one is, tying an anchor, setting a belay and lap coiling the rope takes more time than climbing through.

With only three stations remaining, Dave and I added a layer and sipped from our water bottles at the spacious plateau of the eighth station. Without knowing the exact length of the pitches, Dave conservatively stopped at the tenth. Well, there was also a huge rope drag that all but arrested his progress. When he walked past the ninth station, he clipped the anchor. The ninth station is set up for a comfortable erect belay from a vertical face slightly off the line of the climb. When Dave clipped the anchor and proceeded past, a huge Z formed in the rope and put a nearly insurmountable amount of friction into the system. He found it very difficult to proceed to the tenth and later found it nearly impossible to pull up the rope as I followed. If one is to link these pitches, its necessary to downclimb and unclip from the anchor station when climbing through.

As luck had it, I was allowed the glory of the final eleventh pitch. It was fun and the rock quality reminded me of Aftenroe. Sculpted hard limestone with good friction that continued upwards near vertically at first, but then folded down into a more gentle and broken bouldering finish. The light of day had waned completely as I crested the route. Summit is a word that doesn’t belong, as there is so much more climbing to be had above the arbitrary conclusion. The  summit of Mt Rundle looms ominously in the distand background, an uncertain distance away.

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Dave’s headlamp and face topping out with the lights of Banff in the background

I needed the assistance of my headlamp to insure I tied my anchor correctly. Then, it was an attempt to capture the joy of the solitary darkness as Dave crested the final steps with headlamp blazing. Though my new Samsung phone takes great pictures in low lighting conditions, I found it difficult to compose and capture the moment satisfactorily. After several attempts to get Tunnel Mountain, the subdued lighting of night-time Banff, and Dave with his headlamp all exposed satisfactorily, I gave up.

I had insisted on the double half ropes to speed our descent. Initially, this worked out very well. From the top eleventh station, we readied our rappel and tossed down the ropes. Dave was certain we would need to stop at the plateau above the eighth station. On the descent, it became clear I could reach the platform of the eighth. This was despite a blank horizon of darkness, limited by the lumens piercing through the blackness from the rechargeable lamp on the front of my head.

As the terrain flattened out somewhat, rope management became painful. The frustration began at the fourth class traverse below the sixth station. From there down, using two ropes became a greater compromise than benefit. It was difficult to get the ropes down the slope. Though the terrain was easy, it was dark and the edge of the traverse is an abrupt drop off of several rope lengths. A stumble could be tragic if unroped. Below the fifth station, the terrain is so easy however, that it became tempting to disconnect from the rope and simply downclimb, despite the hazzard of a slip and long abrasive fall. The desire to avoid the hassle of setting another station lured me past the second anchor as I attempted to link three pitches together. Seven meters from the third station, I ran out of rope and had to begin climbing back up. There would be no time savings from this gamble!

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Dave rapping in the dark, approaching the eighth station

Dave descended behind, after yelling down expletives inquiring what was taking me so long. When he arrived at the anchor, we would experience another setback. Pulling on the ropes yielded no give. The ropes were stuck! I switched my extended ATC into ascent mode by clipping it directly into my harness, and once again proceeded to climb the two pitches again. The ATC provided a self belay as I climbed up. Every few moves, I would pull a the slack rope through the device. This provided security from falling unchecked down the slope. If I slipped however, it would provide an exciting descent of several meters until the rope came taut.

I was completely bewildered by the spun ropes when I arrived high enough to see the anchor. Somehow, the two strands of rope had become wrapped round one another dozens of times, forming a single twisted filament, much like cheap yellow poly rope one finds in the local hardware store. It was no surprise why these ropes were locked in position so firmly. Had we realized what had happened however, we could have solved the problem without ascending. Clearly, the darkness made this sort of troubleshooting impossible visually.

The solution was to detach my rappel device, untwist the rope, and clip back in with no twists between myself and the anchor. I remain puzzled as to how the twists came about in the first place. I accused Dave of walking down the fourth class section to clip in, but he denied this. The mystery will go unsolved forever perhaps? In any event, the rope ran smoothly from this point on, and no additional twists appeared.

The grade of the terrain remained gentle for the final rappel. As I struggled to sort the rope out on the rock, and work my way down to the base of the climb, I was tempted to leave the rope for Dave, and simply downclimb the remaining thirty or forty meters. The abundant length of our rappel rope made getting it all stretched out downhill very challenging. When tossing the rope, it would go a short distance and  pile up as it  stopped upon the velcro like rock. Even the most brief contact brought about an instant arrest of downhill motion. Eventually however, with many jokes, swears, smiles and curses, we found ourselves back where the climbing started.

Despite a struggle to pull ropes downhill, we had a fantastic outing. Huge smiles spread across our faces as we returned to the truck. As we descended the approach, we talked about how ideal the route would also be for placing gear. There are many opportunities to protect the climb with gear, and the presence of bolts make for excellent bail opportunities if one felt overwhelmed at any point. We agreed a trad ascent would be an excellent next adventure. The darkness added a surreal feeling of solitude and peace, despite being so close to the large center of Banff. Climbing in boots went very well.  In the dark, the adventure was totally three stars!

 

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