Mt. Gimli, South Ridge

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: August 12, 2001

Photo: Gary Clark

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A Secret No More

This story really begins in 1998. I got an e-mail from a NAC web site visitor that said, in effect "You really should have the South Ridge of Mt. Gimli in your collection. It is the best 5.8 route I've ever done!" Hmmm . . . Gimli - isn't that some kind of martini? "Yes, waiter, I'll have a Gimli, very dry, with a twist of lime . . . ." But, the fact that I've never heard of a climb doesn't necessarily mean it isn't outstanding. It was supposed to be in the Valhallas, and I'd only barely heard of even that range. I added the e-mail to the "Route Nominations" folder on my computer, and vowed to ask around next time I was in Canada.

The next time was 1999. We were in the Lake Louise Visitor Center to inquire about route conditions to the north before committing to the drive. We were pleased to find on duty a climbing warden we had encountered before, and knew to be very knowledgeable. First I asked about Mt. Diadem, and wasn't surprised to learn it was still out of condition. The upper couloir hasn't formed in several seasons. Global warming might mean the extinction of that route. Then I said "We've heard about a route in the Valhallas on Mt. Gimli - are you familiar with that?" His expression changed, and he nodded his head. "Yeah, it's a great route, but we're trying not to advertise it. It's still uncrowded in there, which is just the way we like it." It was clear I had just asked about someone's secret fishing hole. Out of politeness and sense of duty he couldn't deny knowledge of it, but wasn't comfortable discussing it. We went on our way to the north towards other objectives, confirmed in the knowledge that this was a route worth climbing, if not publicizing.

August, 2001: We had just come out of the Bugaboos, and had time for one more climb before jobs and other obligations demanded our presence far to the south. "Let's ask these guys about Gimli," I said to Lynn as we entered Mountain Magic, the climbing shop in Banff. At the climbing counter was a friendly lad who immediately volunteered that although he hadn't done it yet, he and his buddy were going there next month. He also said "You know it's the featured climb in the latest "Gripped", eh?" This was the first time I had seen a copy of "Gripped", subtitled as "Canada's Climbing Magazine." Sure enough, right there on page 44 was a full-page article by Sean Isaac, one of Canada's currently hot climbers. Isaac's name is usually seen associated with some desperate mixed test piece, but here he was raving about a 7-pitch 5.8 route! As I read the article, I knew two things: first, it wasn't a secret anymore, and second, we'd be going there post haste. It was also conveniently located to the south, so an added advantage was that we'd be making progress toward home.

The Isaac article made it seem like the dirt approach road might be the crux of the trip, but it was mellow by Colorado standards. We arrived very late in the day, fully planning to sleep in the back of the pickup at the trailhead. We pulled into the parking area and got out, first noting the peak towering conspicuously a short distance to the North, then noting that we were going to be eaten alive by horseflies if we hung around taking any more pictures of it. We could either spend the next four hours sitting in the cab of the pickup with the windows rolled up, or change plans to include an overnight camp at the base of the route. It was an easy decision, and we soon had sleeping bags and a tent on our backs and were headed up the trail. By keeping moving, the horseflies, easily one of my least favorite forms of fauna on the planet, were rendered impotent.

Isaac's article described the new trail as "nothing more than a leisurely hike." I had already concluded that my pickup was tougher than his, but I quickly realized that his legs must be tougher than mine. The trail is level for the first couple of kilometers, but once you cross the creek on a log bridge, it climbs steeply and relentlessly the rest of the way to camp. We had done the approach to the Kain Hut in the Bugaboos twice in the past few weeks, and I thought this hike was comparable (although without the cables and ladders.) In about an hour and a half we arrived at the meadows, which wasn't quite what we had expected. The trail climbed steeply up a sandy slope to arrive at a small saddle, the geomorphic continuation of the South Ridge. The saddle was the kind of clean rough sand that one associates with weathering granite. Right off the trail were indeed some meadows, but they were small, sloping, and not the kind of place you'd want to camp because of their delicate nature. There were already several tents set up on the saddle and slightly below to the west. We greeted the residents, and inquired about their plans, since I was concerned that everyone here might be planning on doing the route tomorrow. We were in luck - they were just bagging peaks in the area, and although they had climbed Gimli before, it was by the West Ridge. I indicated we were planning on the South Ridge, and one of them said, "Wow, I'd like to do that some day, but someone else would have to lead!"

We set up camp and found the water source, a mere trickle below some small snow banks. I wondered how much longer that source could last, but didn't think about the fact that the trickle would be reduced to a mere drip in the morning when it was colder. As we crawled in the bags, Lynn asked "When should I set the alarm for?" In one of my typical lapses of logic, I said "Let's let the sun wake us up - nobody else will be on the route anyway, and it's only seven pitches. We should be back to the car by mid-afternoon."

Sunday the 12th:

By the time I was willing to get up, the sun was almost on the tent. I did the last minute sorting of the rack as Lynn went for water, then realized the folly of my reasoning as I saw first one, then another pair of climbers coming up the trail. There was no way we could get to the base before they would, so I just exchanged greetings with them as they passed on their way to the base. Lynn was fit to be tied with impatience as she tried to get two liters of water from a mere drip. The group ahead separated by gender; two of each, and I watched the males scamper ahead to the base, then the women climb well up the wrong trail before recognizing their mistake and making a long detour to rejoin their male friends. Finally we were ready to go, and made a beeline to the base. When we reached it, to my surprise nobody from the party was ready to go yet, in spite of at least a 30-minute head start. I looked at the party carefully, and decided based on what I saw to risk a question.

"Are all of you experienced?"

"Well, we are," said one of the males, "but they are pretty much beginners," nodding toward the women. I had already guessed this, since neither of them were contributing in the least to preparing for the climb, a pretty sure sign they hadn't done this sort of thing before.

"Are you both experienced?" one said.

"Well, we have about 60 years of climbing between us."

"Maybe you should go first", he responded - pure music to my ears.

In about 5 minutes I had the shoes and rack on, and started up the climb before Lynn could arrange the belay, answering her protest with the fact that it wouldn't matter until I got the first piece in, anyway.

I always climb best and fastest when others are waiting on me. They had only asked if we were experienced, not if we were any good, and my response gave no indication of whether the first pitch would be a hike or a serious challenge to me. I was determined that it wouldn't be the latter, and so as I set the occasional piece of protection in the perfect crack arching up a clean dihedral, I didn't pause to chalk or reflect on the next move - I just moved. This was just the impetus I needed to turn it into a superb climbing experience, with a feeling closer to soloing than to leading with the impedimenta of rope and rack. Within a minute of reaching the belay I had Lynn on belay, signaling that fact with three tugs. I felt good about the fact that, after they had been gracious enough to offer us the lead, we only delayed them the time I spent leading the pitch; perhaps 10 minutes. Now we just had to establish a little buffer zone, so I quickly gathered the gear and started up the next pitch, which was considerably easier and less continuous.

As we progressed, I occasionally glanced down to monitor the progress of our friends below. I saw the first leader reach the belay, but nothing much else happened until, from very high on the route, we saw them heading down the trail. It turned out that neither of the beginners could climb the first pitch, so they wisely decided not to continue with the route by pulling them up it. 5.8 might be considered a moderate rating by modern standards, but that doesn't imply it is appropriate for a climber with only a little experience pulling down on plastic holds in the gym.

The climb unfolded as expected for the next several pitches. For the most part we stayed very close to the ridge crest. Often there were several route-finding choices, all of which looked to be about the same in difficulty, so I didn't waste time looking for absolutely the easiest line. Pitch 5 sticks in my mind - an absolutely perfect crack in a small dihedral almost directly on the ridge crest. The crest was narrow and sharp at this point, so the exposure added to the effect. When Lynn arrived, I said "I think that's the best 5.6 pitch I've ever climbed!" Soon we were at the base of the final obstacle, the famous ceiling pitch, and it did look intimidating. I was pretty confident from the description of "giant buckets" above the ceiling, though, because this is the type of climbing I'm most comfortable with. Give me a steep juggy pitch any day to a featureless slab. And so, I went quickly and confidently up an easy crack to the base of the ceiling, expecting to see an obvious way to reach those buckets and yard on up, Sylvester Stallone style. I reached the ceiling, noticed lots of chalk, stuck in a cam, stuck in another cam, realized I'd have to traverse left, noticed there were no footholds whatsoever, chalked up and tried a few things, chalked up again and tried something else, called down to Lynn "This isn't all that obvious, watch me!" and launched into a finger traverse to the left, feet insecurely smeared on a vertical slick face. I fully expected to reach up to a class-A certified Metolius ceiling hold, just like in my local climbing gym. What I got was a weird sloping sloper that did little to inspire confidence. I hung a few seconds while exploring with my hand for the bucket that must be there, but finally realized I had the best hold available. Grunting and swearing, I drug myself awkwardly to the left onto a sloping platform, trying desperately to keep my sweating palms from betraying me. Watching me pull this set of moves would have destroyed any illusions in the mind of the viewer that I had any experience whatsoever at this game.

I had extended my protection under the ceiling with double 24" slings in realization of the fact that rope drag could become a serious problem above. Now I could see that even that wasn't going to be adequate - it's a big ceiling! - and so I searched in vain for a belay anchor rather than continue. The cracks were not up to the task, so I finally gave up and hoped for the best as I began a traverse upward and right toward a good crack. As I committed to some 5.7 moves directly above the roof, I realized I was in deep yogurt. The rope drag was pathological even with doubled extension slings. OK, I've been here before - just yard up enough rope with a free arm to make the next few moves, climb the slack out, and repeat. The next 30 feet were not fun. The moves were continuous, there were no cracks, and it was all I could do to pull the rope with one hand. Letting go with the other was not an option. Besides that, I was directly over the roof, so the edge of the world seemed just below my feet. I was very worried about running out of slack in the middle of a hard move, and being pulled backwards into a 40-foot free fall over the roof before the eyes of my startled belayer. She could only guess at the drama unfolding above as I struggled and swore I'd only climb sport routes in the future if I just survived this one pitch. Clearly I should have worked harder at establishing a belay below. Clearly I should have done a better job of setting my protection. Clearly I was off route above the roof - it wasn't supposed to be this hard!

Finally the angle began to relent, just after I pulled over some rounded lumps on rock thick with lichen - another clue that I was off route. I got in a good cam, began to believe I'd live to climb again another day, and pulled up a final 10 feet of slack, adequate to make it to a decent ledge. As I set the belay, I wondered how Lynn would fare on the crux moves I had struggled with so pitifully. You already know the answer - the rope came in with barely a pause, and as she came into view I said "How'd you do that?" "Oh, she said, I just used those little holds on the face for my feet and walked across." I realized that the holds she used were my handholds, which couldn't have been more than 3 feet below the ceiling. There is no way I could have done that, but she is 5' 2" and incredibly flexible, so she just compressed into a ball so as to have some footholds, then reached easily over the roof to better holds from her higher vantage point. When she complains about my long reach now, I remind her of this pitch.

There was one more good pitch, and then it was essentially over. We drug the rope along for a while simul-climbing, then I got tired of worrying about it dragging rocks off, so we unroped and hiked to the top. We were back at the trailhead by mid-afternoon, and almost made the U.S. border by nightfall. A suitable ending to another excellent Canada trip.