Memories of warm sunny skies and the sharp, tangy scent of autumn fill my senses when I think back four years ago to a day in the Red River Gorge. A lounging rest day was taking place in the sprawling fields of Lago Linda’s Hideaway. Nick Rochacewich, a Canmore-based climber with endless psych and the coolest dog on the planet, was excitedly describing a route he was in the process of bolting back home. Tales of long, hard pitches up the face of Mt. Yamnuska, with possibilities of grades upwards of 5.13+, made my ears tingle and my imagination swirl. The bolting was not complete, nor any of the pitches climbed, but Nick had already dubbed the project, “Blue Jeans” due to the two long faint blue streaks of limestone that mark the area within which the route exists. The route itself climbs up through the “right pant leg”. A great name. The name, and the dream of one day climbing the route, stuck with me for the next three years. Nursing school took over my life. Other less time consuming projects were worked on and completed. Blue Jeans took up residence in the far reaches of my mind, popping up every so often to the front line to make sure I hadn’t forgotten.
Last year, the opportunity arose to try Blue Jeans for the first time. I was spending the summer in Canmore, working as a student nurse in the local hospital. Derek Galloway, a local Bow Valley hardman and author of the recent sport climbing guidebook, had made the first successful ascent of Blue Jeans the summer before. Throughout the year, I had continually bugged him with questions: How hard is it? How many pitches? How many draws do you need? What length of rope? Is it easy to rap? What’s the style? What’s the rock quality? Tell me tell me tell me!
Lucky for me, Derek has an endless amount of stoke and patience. Despite having already completed the route (in only 5 days) the year before, Derek agreed to partner up with me. After one day of trying the route with a good friend, Jamie Chong, and getting completely shut down at the beginning of the 4th pitch, I headed up four more days that summer with Derek. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. A complete newb in the ways of multi-pitching in general (rope management you are the bane of my existence!), Derek patiently guided me through the entire process. He pushed me to lead every pitch, every time. He spent hours each day repeatedly catching me as I fell multiple times on each pitch. He endured my multiple personalities: frustrated Vikki, scared Vikki, psyched Vikki, weird Vikki. On one particular day, I had made some wonderful progress on the 4th pitch (the first of two 5.13 crux pitches) and was making my way to the anchors, my mind in the clouds. With the anchor in my face, I stepped up onto a band of rock, not paying attention to the quality of the rock. Now anyone who has climbed on Yam can tell you that the rock is the epitome of choss. In my mind, however, we were on a sport route. The rock was solid, and I could step on and grab anything. So the Yamnuska gods decided to teach me a lesson. The section of rock that I stood on gave way beneath my feet, pitching me into the air. I have a distinct memory of grasping frantically at the ever lengthening loop of slack in front of my face while letting out a blood-curdling scream. I came screaming into the rock after falling 20-30 feet. I fought back tears by yelling and kicking the rock as adrenaline rocked through my body. Completely shaken, yet unharmed, I refused to get back on the sharp end that day. Derek patiently took the lead. The lesson was learned. Despite the bolts, Yam rock is still yam rock. This project was a completely different animal, and I had to accept and respect that.
Summer ended and school pulled me back to the coast. I had only managed five days on the route all summer, but some progress had been made. I had completed the first three pitches (5.12b, 5.12d, 5.12d) and one hung the fourth pitch (5.13a – *Please note these are Derek’s grades. I will share my opinion of the grading of each pitch below). But the fifth pitch (5.13b) remained a mystery to me, with single moves feeling absolutely heinous.
Fast forward a year. Tom and I made our way from Utah to Canmore at the beginning of August to start the last leg of our glorious six month road trip. My singular goal for the rest of the summer was Blue Jeans.
My goal was to attempt the route from the ground-up each time. Besides one day last summer when Derek and I had fixed a line to the top of the second pitch to jug and worked the upper pitches, I had always started from the ground. I preferred this approach for two main reasons. As I previously mentioned, I am a multi-pitch newb. These tactics of fixing lines, jugging, and rapping in from the top to work pitches are all very new to me. As a sport climber, I am used to starting a project from the beginning each time. It’s etched in my being. It didn’t sit right with me to be skipping pitches. I just didn’t like it, and I felt that on this particular route it was not necessary. Which leads me to the second reason; in order to be successful on the two crux pitches (4 & 5), I had to climb pitches 1-3 flawlessly, without getting tired. Which means I needed them completely dialed. The best way to do that was to climb them every time I tried the route. This meant in the beginning that I would get to the crux pitches absolutely exhausted, but after a while, I started to build up the endurance necessary to complete the business above.
(Apologies for no pictures of Pitch 3. I truly disliked this pitch. Nick suggested we name it the Ugly Little Sister Pitch (5.12d). No one wants to see a picture of that.)
After seven days working the route throughout August, I finally felt ready to give my first real redpoint attempt. I still had not sent either crux pitch, but I was narrowing in on the 4th pitch, and had worked out all the intricate moves on the 5th pitch on the previous day. I headed up with Josh Muller, another local crusher, hoping against hope. I gave all the effort my heart and soul could give. Pitch 4 went down, with the help of some unlady-like growls and power screams. Yet Pitch 5 remained out of reach.
The fifth pitch (or the K-Rux Pitch) is the last hard pitch before the grades and angle of the rock mellows out. Despite being quite short (8 bolts before you mantle the bulge to chossy 5.11 climbing), this route has it all. Compression, heinous crimps, a perfect deadpoint crux, a corner press, and a bulge mantel. It’s sequencial, complex and cruel. My skin took an intense beating with each attempt, until I eventually tore a hole in my left ring finger. That pitch now sports quite a bit of my blood.
Two more redpoint attempts ensued. Despite a 30 degree weather forecast that came true, I convinced Lev Pinter to head up with me (Lev was one of my steady partners on this route. He always kept things light hearted and safe. Thanks Lev!). Feeling ready for a nap after Pitch 2, I managed to rally and make it once again to Pitch 5. Climbing through the deadpoint crux, I was in shock. Sewing machine legs, and a racing heart, I thought to myself, “It’s in the bag. I’m going to do this!” My first mistake. Moving toward the last hard moves, I felt lactic acid surge through my forearms. I stepped on a rotten foothold. My second mistake. The foot crumbled, and I rushed the next move. My third and final mistake. Off I sailed, kicking and screaming before I even regained contact with the rock. Thwarted! Heart breaker! Crap balls! So much effort, so much climbing, to make such stupid mistakes. Back at the belay, I notice some lovely white core exposed on my rope. Time to head down.
Rest. Regrow skin. Try again. With Josh this time, we head up in glorious blue bird weather. Much cooler this time. As soon as we reach the bottom of the route it starts to rain. Of course. We rally and head up anyways. The weather clears. It’s in the bag! The K-Rux pitch looms ahead. I get to the final rest before the final hard moves. My finger is bleeding buckets. I’m rattled, looking west to dark, scary clouds. It starts to rain. I leave the rest, not wanting the sloper guarding the mantle to be wet. I’m pumped. One move higher, two moves. No blood left in the brain. I forget to match feet. I’m off. Blood curdling, animal-esque screams erupt from a place within me that I never knew existed. I have the wobbler of all wobblers. It’s so bad that Josh is laughing. It’s so heart breaking it’s comical. I pull on a draw to get back on, and the entire draw explodes off the wall, hanger attached. A loose nut. I’m pushed over the emotional verge and start sobbing. Josh lowers me. Gives me a hug. We head down. I’m dejected, and completely empty.
Throughout this road trip, I have thought a lot about the process we all go through when projecting hard routes at our limits. The initial excitement, the progression, the regression, the one hang syndrome, the wobblers, the essential step of unconsciously letting go, and finally the completion. Now apply that to a hard, sustained multi-pitch, and all of those steps are amplified. They all mean so much more. More physical effort, more time, more emotions, more skin. Hanging on the rope on my latest failed redpoint attempt, staring in despair at the last few moves that guard the mantle and mark the end of the battle, I feel a sense of desperation. Rapping down the wall that day with Josh, I am reminded of how much effort I had put in to this route each and every day. This route has meant the world to me. It was all consuming. I wasn’t sleeping well, waking up in the middle of the night to thoughts of sequences, specific holds, resting positions. Something akin to anxiety would come over me, and I would start to think of worst case scenarios. Ropes snapping, gear ripping, anchors popping out. Nightmares. I would come home from each attempt completely and utterly spent; both physically and emotionally. Trying so hard is physically taxing. Being incredibly high and exposed, with the awareness of how many metres of air exists between yourself and the rock below, is emotionally taxing. God help me if I ever start trying hard trad.
The next day, I force myself to think of a scenario in which I do not finish this project. Despite my best efforts to imagine the world imploding on itself, I know it won’t. In fact, absolutely nothing will happen. I will still be me. I will still have my friends and family. I will still love this sport. Nothing will change. It’s not that big of a deal, I force myself to think, even though my consciousness is screaming, Yes it is! Yes it is! This was my way of trying to force the “letting go” step of projecting.
Thursday, September 19th. Josh texts me to tell me he’s sick: food poisoning. Tom, being the wonderful man he is, notes the despair in my voice as I tell him I’m partnerless, and offers to belay and jug for me. Tom had been up on the route with me before, and never truly enjoyed the Yam experience. I snapped up his offer before he could come to his senses and change his mind.
The day was perfect, blue skies, steady temps and a cool breeze. I was jittery and nervous on the hike up, and I attempted to mellow out by joking with Tom, “Today’s theme is What would Barbara and Nina do?” My two superheroes in the world of hard multipitch climbing would be my sources of inspiration today. Pitches 1-3 went as smooth as butter. Pitch 4 finally felt as easy as it was ever going to feel. With Tom jugging and hauling for me, all I had to do at each anchors was keep warm and rest. We arrived at Pitch 5. The sun was still high in the sky. I felt surprisingly fresh, happy, and most of all, calm. Waiting for Tom to jug, I remember sitting in my harness with the sun on my face. All of a sudden, like a breeze passing through, a small, happy, confident thought entered my mind, I’m going to send this today. It wasn’t a conscious thought. As soon as it entered my mind, it was gone, as was my awareness of it. Tom arrived. We had a snack, drank some water, and joked around. The wind had picked up, and it was getting chilly. I geared up, while Tom gave me a solid pep-talk. I felt happy, up high on a mountain with the love of my life, getting ready to try a really hard, really cool pitch. Then I started to climb. Solid and smooth. First crux. Rest. Corner press. Rest. Rest. Rest. The lyrics of Vampire Weekend’s, “Diane Young” playing over in my mind.. Nobody knows what the future holds..
Into the final crux. Each move that had been rehearsed over and over in my head at night was executed with precision. The last move, rocking over on a high left foot, reaching blindly for the jug over the bulge. Reaching. Reaching. Where is it?! A moment of panic, followed by a moment of complete euphoria as my hand clasped over that wonderful piece of rock. A whoop explodes from my chest. Followed by a whoop from Tom below. “I’M SO PSYCHED!” I scream into the air, as I make the final few moves to the anchors. “I DID IT!!” Whooping and hollering, I let myself bask in the ecstatic realization that I had just completed the hardest, most daunting, most challenging project of my life. Tom quickly joined me at the belay, and we celebrated, smiles breaking across our faces. Only two more pitches to go: 5.12a and 5.10. Topping out on the final pitch at 6:05pm, the sun gave me a final treat by bathing me in warmth as I belayed Tom. Such a feeling I cannot describe.
An incredible thank you to Tom for coming up with me on this momentous day, even though I knew you really would have rather gone to The Lookout. And a huge thank you to my many partners on this journey: Lev, Josh, Derek and Jamie. You guys have no idea how grateful I am that you came up with me day after day to belay and give support. You are the heroes of the climbing world and the reason why I love the climbing community. Also, a huge thanks to Wiktor Skupinski for making the superman effort of hauling fixed lines up to the top of Yam to rap in and photograph my attempts. You rock! Finally, an especially heart felt thank you to Nick Rochacewich. Without your vision, I never would have completed such a beautiful, perfect route.
As the summer in Canmore comes to a close, as does our roadtrip. This weekend, we say goodbye to this gorgeous mountain town and head back west to Squamish, a new home, new jobs and new lives. What a perfect trip. What a perfect ending. Life couldn’t get any better. Yahoo!
Blue Jeans: The Beta
You need: A 70m rope, 20 quickdraws, tag line, haul bag, helmet
Blue Jeans is very easy to find. Access can be from either the hikers or climbers trail. The route begins just up the hill and left of East End Boys (5.12). A large detached tower of rock stands in front of the route.
Pitch Breakdown (Note: I gave all the pitches names for fun, they are not official! Also, I never actually counted all of the bolts on each pitch. Apologies for the estimations! You will be fine with 20 draws)
Pitch 1: The Midget Wrestler (5.12b). A short 6-7 bolt pitch with a thin, compression crux at the third bolt. One final big move to a jug guards the anchors. Fun once you get the moves figured out!
Pitch 2: The Primo Pitch (5.12d). Best pitch on the route, in my opinion. Long, sustained and fun. 19-20 bolts. Bring at least one extender draw.
Pitch 3: The Ugly Little Sister (5.12d). Worst pitch in my opinion. A shorter pitch (8ish bolts). Low percentage moves, poor footholds and heinously sharp holds at the top. Blah.
Pitch 4: The Ice Queen Pitch (5.13b). Derek called this 13a. In my opinion, it’s a hard 13b. Try it for yourself and decide what you think! Thin and extremely technical, this is the mother of all pitches! Sustained, with an in your face crux right off the belay. Another hard crux guards the anchors. 12-13 bolts.
Pitch 5: The K-Rux Pitch (5.13b). Derek called this 13a/b. Again, in my opinion, a hard 13b. Cool compression moves leads to a funky tick-tack sequence into a deadpoint crux. Shake out on the slanted rail before pressing into the corner to a better rest. Get recovered because the moves guarding the mantel mean business! 12-13 bolts.
Note: Here, you have two options. Above the mantel, there is an anchor. It was put in place for working the route and rapping. Above this anchor, there is a complete no hands rest to 3 bolts of 5.11. Pitching out this pitch does not change the grade of the route, but normally does not make sense. However, on my successful ascent, I did pitch it out due to safety concerns. Tom was jugging, therefore I was fixing the rope. If I had completed the entire pitch (as Derek did on his FA), it would mean the rope would be running over a bulge and the final belay ledge. A dynamic rope rubbing on sharp limestone croslies. In my mind, a recipe for disaster. I made the decision with my partner to pitch it out after speaking before hand with Derek to ensure he (as the first ascentionist) didn’t mind, and confirming with him my opinion that it did not change the difficulty of the route.
Pitch 6: (5.12a). Chossy, 5.10 climbing leads to a cool, hard crux to substantially easier climbing to the chains. 15-16 bolts.
Pitch 7: The ‘When in Doubt Go Right’ Pitch. (5.10). Run out. Short. Get it over with so you can send!
Descent: Walk off the backside, back through the corridor leading back to the front side of Yam.
Rapping: You can rap off the route at any time below Pitch 6 with a single 70m rope. From the top of Pitch 2, you rap to the ground. After Pitch 6, you are committed. Or, if you have a tag line that you can use to rap, you can rap with double ropes.
A final note: I did rip off a hanger on the 5th pitch that I forgot to replace. The bolt is still intact in the rock, it just needs the hanger and a new nut. I put the hanger in a stashed bucket that is ‘hidden’ in the trees just as you leave the trail and walk up the slope to the route. Apologies to future climbers for the inconvenience. It is the bolt just after the corner press.