It all started with the Washington State University Alpine club scholarship fund. The club was cash-rich from running learn to climb schools twice a year. Mark approached me with a plan to convert some of that cash to our pockets. We presented the summer 1978 Canadian Climbing trip with three goals: “the Chouinard route on the North Face of Mt. Fay, The North Face of Mt. Robson, and The West Ridge of South Howser Tower in the Bugaboos. All three routes were prestige routes, but well within our abilities. I had already attempted Mt. Fay & South Howser Tower (twice), but had failed due to horrible weather. At the time I even thought of the routes as: relatively safe sure-bets.
Our scholarship grant request was most ambitious, but we were slighted with the offer of $50.00 gas money for Mark & a warning that it was not to be used to buy liquor.
In August we were off to the Canadian Rockies. Mt. Fay, 10610 ft / 3234 m, was to be the warm-up for the following big climbs. Weather was good, a rarity in that range. “After all, where do you think all the glaciers come from anyway?”
I knew we had to register with the Banff National Park rangers because of the problem a previous W.S.U. Alpine Club party suffered. In the early 1970’s they attempted a winter ascent of Mt Victoria and failed to register. Three days later, concerned rangers followed the climbers ski trail from the parking lot at Lake Louise up under Mt. Victoria in a helicopter.
After a noisy helicopter search the rangers finally spotted the climbers tent high on the Victoria glacier. As the rangers flew low over the climber’s tent, to see if they were safe: all three climbers bare-assed the helicopter. The pilot later confessed that a R.C.M.P. officer (Mountie) aboard, had to be physically restrained from shooting at the climbers. The helicopter flew off down the valley. However, when the climbers finally returned to their VW van; they were arrested, fined, and darkly warned never-ever to return to Canada.
(I should mention: one of the convicted-felons has disputed this part of the story. In dealing with climbing history: I always believe the most damning memories I can dredge up.)
We, of course, registered with the rangers for our Mt. Fay climb. Unfortunately, we optimistically predicted we would return in two days from our adventure.
The North Face of Mt. Fay is climbed in two stages. With a start at Moraine Lake, climbers must first get past the complex lower cliffs, icefalls, and surrounding small peaks that defend Mt. Fay. Then a plateau under the upper North Face gives easy access to the esthetically pleasing and steep North Face routes.
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North face of Mt. Fay in center of picture. Chouinard route is left-most high ice face. The Prow is prominent rock formation at top right of picture. 3-4 Couloir is out of picture to right. Cooper Hut is just out of picture at top right.
There are various ways to approach the plateau under the upper North Face of Mt. Fay, but most of them end at the Cooper Hut. The hut is a small aluminum shelter that sets at the top of two couloirs that provide the most obvious access to Fay’s North face. I had been up and down the most popular approach route, 3-4 Couloir, in very bad conditions the previous year (I was attempting to prove that you could do ice climbs in nasty weather). Having survived 3-4 Couloir’s rock-fall once: I could hardly wait to share it with Mark.
3-4 Couloir was first climbed in the 1890’s and is a class 4 scramble. Like a few other venerable Canadian routes: it is one loose, steep, dangerous, long, scary, bitch of a scramble. It turns out the hut is named for a climber killed in 3-4 Couloir by rock-fall. The hut journal contained many mentions of rock-fall injuries in 3-4 Couloir. A photo near the start, that Mark took, shows me running across rock littered snow.
Since Mark didn’t know yet, he yelled at me; “Hey: what’s the hurry?” When the first rock screamed by his head a minute later: Mark quickly got the idea.
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After 3-4 Couloir steepened and narrowed; the rock fall diminished, but never ceased entirely. Somewhere along the way, Mark insisted on roping up in case one of us was cold-cocked by a rock.
(Mark hadn’t done enough Canadian climbing to be at ease on wet, loose, steep limestone swept by rock-fall.
Somehow the romance of it all, just didn’t seize his imagination in a positive way.)
Near the top of 3-4 Couloir: the loose, wet limestone blocks finally gave way to a high angle scree slope. At the end of my last lead I suggested un-roping, but without comment Mark continued past me roped-up. Halfway up his scree lead he pounded a piton into a Cadillac-size rock buried in the now gravel like surrounding rock. Fifty feet higher, Mark just flopped down in the gravel and told me, “on belay.”
When I got to Mark’s piton, I removed it. Rather than slog through the steep gravel around the Cadillac-sized rock, I simply stepped up onto the rock. As I stood on the rock, arms akimbo, catching my breath; it suddenly rolled out from under me! I jumped into the air: landing on my feet in the scree, as Mark pulled me up tight with the rope.
Let me repeat myself: the Cadillac-size chunk of rock that we had both assumed was bedrock, or at least damned solid, rolled out from under me like a log in water, when I stood on it!
To make a classic understatement: I’m still glad I removed Mark’s piton, before I climbed up on the rock it was in.
I was so rattled by the near fatal event, I didn’t even enjoy the noise the Cadillac rock made clearing out debris in 3-4 Couloir.
Good thing no one was below us.
We found our way up the next few hundred feet and arrived at Cooper Hut without further incident.
On the way, I was amused at seeing a trilobite-a four hundred million year old marine fossil: at 9,000 feet.
Cooper Hut was basic. Eight bunks, bedding, and cooking implements. We dropped our packs, then hiked over to the gently rolling glacier under Fay’s North Face to look at the Chouinard route. The route was wonderful: steep 60 to 70 degree hard snow and ice leading to a vertical ice cliff at the top. Everything looked solid and straightforward: best of all no rocks were in sight on our route on the face. Thus, there was no loose rock to climb or to roll down on us.
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Upper North Face, Mt. Fay. Chouinard route is left-most ice sheet with sunlight on bulge.
We made an alpine start the next morning, since we had to climb Fay and descend to the Ranger Station by nightfall. The Fay Glacier up close to the North Face was not badly crevassed, so we reached our route fairly easily. Once on the steep snow and ice slope we made good time, only occasionally placing ice screws for protection. The conditions were perfect with hard snow just a few inches deep over blue-water ice. We’d belay every 150 feet and swap leads. Mostly front-pointing with our crampons we climbed quickly up the uniformly steep (60 – 70 degrees) snow and ice.
Under the ice bulge at the top of the face, we encountered blue-water ice on the surface with some hollow sounding areas that were scary. Mark started to put in an ice screw at one belay, then discovered the whole ice sheet bulging outward as he turned in the screw. He retreated down fifteen feet to more stable ice. The vertical to slightly overhanging ice bulge was skirted to the left, and two more leads got us to the wildly overhanging summit cornice.
Mark led the last steep, slightly un-solid lead up around the dripping, sagging, summit cornice. We popped out on the summit in early afternoon. Our ascent of the Chouinard Route had been nine leads of great ice climbing.
The next day we were told by Park Rangers that the cornice fell off in late afternoon, the day of our climb!
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Mark leading the bergschrund.
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Mark on 70 degree ice below the ice bulge
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Mark under dripping, overhanging summit cornice.
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The descent plan was: go back down to Cooper Hut, pick up the rest of our non-climbing overnight gear, then head back down to Moraine Lake and the Ranger Station. However, we were a long time descending Mt. Fay. We ended up going off the lower angled south side of Fay and had a stiff uphill walk back to Cooper Hut. By the time we reached Cooper Hut we were whipped and the day was late. It was agreed we would do the descent to Moraine Lake the following early morning.
A more experienced climbing party, we met at Cooper Hut, told us about a much safer route off the Mt. Fay plateau. The route went out the Fay Glacier under our North Face route to a prominent rock formation called “The Prow”. From The Prow, one rappel put you on ledges you could down climb un-roped to easier terrain. (Currently this is the recommended route for getting to the North Face of Fay).
Very early morning found us on the Fay Glacier and we soon reached The Prow,
The descent route was now clear, since we could see Moraine Lake. We hurried off the route, but Fay is a huge mountain and time flew by. Moving as quickly as possible, we climbed down a long series of ledges toward easier terrain.
We were nearing the end of Moraine Lake and had finally reached a trail, when we heard a helicopter. To our dismay it appeared, then headed right up toward Mt. Fay: without a doubt looking for Mark and Fritz. Mark took off running for the Ranger hut, still one mile away. I sped up, but trotted along fatalistically. After all, I knew we would get an ass-chewing whenever we both appeared. Mark was able to stop a second search helicopter from getting in the air.
We were asked to appear at the main Ranger Station. The rangers were stern, but pleasant. They let us off with a minor lecture on climbers’ responsibility.
Then one ranger shocked us by explaining the early morning rescue helicopters were due to their fears that we had been injured or killed when the summit cornice fell off the afternoon of our climb. There was silence ---- while the fact sunk in that the annoyingly drippy summit-cornice, we had both spent too-much time under, had fallen off right after we summited.
We were both embarrassed and apologetic. Mark and I swore ourselves to secrecy about our overdue return. Then we reassessed our Canadian climbing goals.
Copyright Dec. 2001
2011 Thoughts: Since I wrote this story in 2001, posted it on ST in 2009, and then revised it, I keep thinking about the close calls on the climb.
I still worry about what might have happened if Mark, after driving the piton into the Cadillac-sized rock in 3-4 Couloir, had climbed onto it: instead of slogging around it.
Would I have been quick enough to drop the belay, and untie from the rope, while dodging the rock?
I can't imagine that I could have stopped that boulder after it rolled 100 ft.
It doesn't play well in my mind.
I shared these thoughts with a friend who gave up "dangerous climbing" after he had a rappel fail during a thunderstorm retreat. He fell 20 or so feet until the rappel rope jammed in a flake. He hit the next ledge down just hard enough to severly sprain an ankle. Then, the party had to re-unite and extract the jammed rope while the storm raged. After extracting the jammed rope he got to finish the retreat, in the storm, with the severely sprained ankle.
His analysis of my chances in the rolling rock with belay rope attached scenario.
"You were toast!"