Trip Report: Shivering In the Cold and Dark On Mt. Louis

The Gmoser Route on Mt. Louis is an ultra classic 5.9 trad route in Banff National Park, and I recommend it to anyone looking for an awesome adventure in the region. Mt. Louis is also home to the renowned Diamond Face, where Tommy Caldwell and Sonnie Trotter set the 5.13+ testpiece “The Shining”.

Spending an unplanned night at the top however… you might want to take a miss on that part.

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The valley below seen from the base of the Perren Crack.

Last week my climbing partner Syd and I went up the Gmoser route on Mt. Louis. A long 15 pitch day takes a more or less direct and aesthetic line up to the the top. There is the option to finish the climb with a great 5.7 crack called the “Perren variation”, which is highly recommended. To descend the route, scramble across the top for about 30 meters to find rappel anchors, and then have a miserable time untangling your ropes as you rappel mostly low angle scree filled gullies. Bring candy for this part of the trip to keep team moral high. Once you touch down on ground, scramble down the shoulder and hit back onto the exit trail. Expected trip time seems to average around 15-18 hours.

Or, you know, get lost on route, summit around 10:00 pm, and spend the night out shivering in the cold on top of the thing. Whatever works for you.

Syd and I climb with fairly similar speed, and by local standards we are pretty middling. On bolts we climb about mid 5.11, and on gear top out around  5.10a (provided the route is graded by modern standards, not a 1971 5.9 A2 rating, which in the Rockies generally means you should bring a spare pair of underpants and leave an updated Last Will and Testament). Neither of us are particularly fast alpine trad climbers, so recognizing this we thought to leave early-ish and give ourselves plenty time for routefinding.

Our day began at 4:00am, throwing the final few bits of gear in our bag, grabbing some coffee and breakfast, and we were at the trail head by 5:30am. The hike in was accompanied by a sunrise, and 2 and a half hours later we stood at the base of the unmistakeable folds of Mt. Louis.

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Life is Good weather on the hike in.

We had a slow start. I climbed past the anchors on Pitch 1, and then compounded my mistake by spending time looking for a place to build an anchor because I didn’t want to downclimb slab to get back to the bolts. This was unsuccessful and I had to down climb anyways, thus wasting time and leaving us no further ahead. After the start though, the climbing more or less went smoothly for the next few hours. The “crux” pitch was very fun, a 5.9 corner crack that takes lots of great gear, and then the Gmoser route connected on to the Kain route for easy climbing all the way to the top.

We hit the second snag of the trip at the Kain transition. I spent far too long trying to find the proper way around to get on to the Kain route (and judging by the chalk marks and foot prints on the way I took, so have alot of other people), but this added at least another hour on to our already delayed climb. This meant that rather than topping out around 7 or 8 pm, we were now topping out at about 9:30/10:00.

As we pulled up to the summit the last light was fading in a distant valley and at this point Syd was in pretty rough shape. She had slept quite poorly the night before and fatigue was now hitting with full force. This combined with an already very long day meant that as the sun sunk low and finally disappeared, so too went what little was left of her morale.

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As the last light faded the decision was made in my mind that we had to stay the night.

Syd expressed in no uncertain terms that she wanted off this mountain. She was cold, tired, and just wanted to be home safe and warm in bed. Courage and Morale are fickle mistresses, because this is the same girl who just yesterday talked a very freaked out me through an extremely loose, scary, exposed step of a downclimb as she led the way across an alpine ridge while scrambling. But at the top of Mt. Louis in the dark she had the glassy look of exhaustion, so I said I would take 10 minutes to evaluate our options. We got her set up with some water and food to get her core systems up and running again and I scrambled over to the summit cross to evaluate what our descent was going to look like.

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Skittles played a prominent role on this climb, as seen here at the top of Pitch 7.

We were faced with two options. Option 1: try to find the rappel anchors in the dark (we had the topo, but the actual location of the anchors was unknown to both of us as we had never been there before), and then try to make at least six or seven 60 meter rappels through unknown terrain in the dark to get to the bottom. Even with that, we would still then be looking at least a 2 hour hike in the dark back to our car or sleep at the base.

Option 2: Stack some rocks to build a wind shelter, and no doubt be absolutely miserable for the next 7 hours shivering in the dark, but then head down with the safety of morning light helping us.

Both of us have done quite a bit of multipitch trad climbing, and know how very easily things can go wrong on long, involved rappels. As I scoped the summit cross for the rappel start I thought through each of the potential hazards of starting the rappel down at this point in time. Even when at full energy and presence of mind things like tangles, stuck ropes, rock fall, and getting lost can always present dangers. And we were both absolutely beat, so any frustrating situation like a knotted rappel rope would now be two or three times magnified because we simply didn’t have the brainpower and energy to deal with it.

And what if the rope got stuck as we pulled it? Or what if one of us was hit by a rock? (which is a real concern on that rap). We would either be dealing with a very serious emergency situation when totally physically and emotionally exhausted, or be stuck out on an unknown belay ledge somewhere for the night, with no control over our surroundings. At least at the top it was flat, we could stack rocks and jump around if we got too cold (which we did lots of). We could lay out the ropes to lie on and try to hunker out of the wind. We had food, water, rain jackets, down jackets, candy, and headlamps. The skies looked cloud free, and I had checked the weather forecast for the next morning and there was supposed to be almost no chance of rain. We had forgotten our little siltarp, although normally we have that with us as well.

I also had a SPOT beacon, so if absolutely worst case scenario happened and hypothermia became a serious issue, a helicopter would at least be able to get us far more easily at the top than I could get them to come get us at a rappel ledge.

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Our home for the evening. We piled the ropes against the ground to provide some thermal benefit.

I thought the decision was a no-brainer from a safety perspective and went back to talk it through with Syd. She agreed with my safety analysis, but still took the news that we wouldn’t be getting off the mountain tonight pretty hard. Again, she is one tough dame, so I took the emotional reaction as a pretty good indicator of how deeply fatigue had taken a hit out of her psyche.

Throughout my years in the mountains I have found that when a companion is at their lowest, we somehow internally can summon the resources to be at our highest. When I froze up on the ridge yesterday, too scared to move, Syd cooly and calmly walked me through hand and feet placements during the downclimb, just telling me to follow her and do what she did.

That same energy came here, and I somehow was hyper alert and surprisingly cheerful. As we stacked rocks to build up the wind shelter, I made bad jokes that generally revolved around the theme of sharing body heat, a lack of potential spectators this high up, and not wasting life’s opportunities. The water and food must have kicked in around this time as well (or my amazing jokes and charm) because Syd’s mood perked up considerably. With the rock shelter stacked, we laid out the ropes to form a mat on the ground to give us some protection from the cold rock, and at about 11:30 we lay down, huddling together. We lay there in silence, watching the stars come out overhead. I thought to myself “hey, this really isn’t so bad… maybe we’ll get through this in style.”

Then the wind picked up.

The problem with summer hiking is that you have no desire to wear big warm socks, instead choosing little silly ankle athletic socks that we couldn’t tuck our pant cuffs into. Both Syd and I were ferociously regretting that decision as the wind bit at our ankles and sent chills up our legs. Shivering became powerful and constant. After about an hour we finally got smart enough to take our boots off and put our feet in the backpack (which we had been using as a pillow). This wasn’t exactly warm, but it felt worlds better.

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Our foot sleeping bag seen here in warmer times.

We kept a cycle of about 20-30 minutes lying down, and then the shivering got so bad that we had to get up and move around for about 20 minutes to warm back up. Syd went with dancing as her warmth movement of choice. I favoured jumping jacks and pushups. I joked that if nothing else at least I was going to be super ripped by the time we got off the mountain.

At about 2:30 in the morning we were joined by a pack rat friend who came scavenging for treats. Also at one point in the night a mouse jumped on my head.

At about 3:00am we were in another “too cold to lie down” cycle, but also really bored of our interval exercises, so we set ourselves the task of building up our wind shelter as big as we could make it. The rocks didn’t really seem to help against the wind, but stacking as many of them as we could not only warmed us up, it also gave us something to do. Boredom made time pass slower.

By 4:45am the sun started to rise, and we started to have enough light to rack up for the rappel. We stowed our stuff, scrambled across the ridge past the summit cross, and Syd found the anchors. The descent was more or less uneventful, although multiple times while we were untangling ropes, hiding from rockfall and pulling ropes hoping they wouldn’t get stuck, I just shook my head and thought “Holy mother of God I am glad we didn’t try doing this last night.” We reached the ground in a couple hours, and after a couple more hours hike we were back at the car and drove home. After demolishing some food and much needed showers, we went to bed at about 2 pm and slept until 8 am the next day.

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Syd clearing one of the final rappels.

I am not sharing this story to try and create some false illusion that we are “hardcore” or “extreme”. This was by all accounts a relatively mundane benightment. It happens to lots of climbers. Heck, living in the Rockies you are surrounded by people who have epic tales of harrowing survival and near misses on a fairly regular basis. Our experience was certainly not one of those. Granted, we had to sit in the cold and dark for several hours and I did more jumping jacks than I ever care to do again, but we had down jackets and skittles. We didn’t get rained on. We got to rap down safely and then head home with no injuries.

I have learned alot from our mini-epic on Mt. Louis. Bringing a warm jacket made all the difference in the world. Having a rain jacket kept the wind at bay for the most part and would have been a real survival factor if it had rained. Knowing what the weather was supposed to do (never a guarantee) helped give some comfort that we were making the right decision. Having a SPOT gave us a much comforting margin of safety.

But more than anything what was reinforced to me is that it isn’t so much what you bring, but the decisions that you make that keep you safe. The fact that my two route finding errors cost us valuable time on a huge alpine climbing day, and recognizing that the price of that might be a night shivering in the cold was hard for me to admit. But when it mattered we re-assessed and made sure our decisions were not based on ego. All the down jackets and bravado in the world wouldn’t have done us a damn bit of good had we started rappelling in the dark and misrigged a rappel due to total physical and emotional exhaustion.

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Morning light touches the descent as we hiked back down to the Valley of the Gargoyles

I’m heading back to climb Mt. Louis again next week with a another partner who wants to take advantage of the fact that I now know the way up the Gmoser route, and I am really excited to go back. Although I’ll definitely be bringing our small tarp, a warm pair of socks, and a reinforced respect that mountains are very big, and we are very tiny.

 

GEAR USED:

2 60 meter ropes (mammut 8.5 mil GENESIS)

Cam rack from .5 to 4 inches (we used the number 3 and number 4 on almost every pitch)

Set of stoppers and set of offset nuts

15 alpine draws

Deuter PACE 36 pack (review coming later on The Alpine Start)

5 thoughts on “Trip Report: Shivering In the Cold and Dark On Mt. Louis

  1. Jonny says:

    Great story Raf! Remind me to hit you up for some “save 3 hours” beta before I try this one.

  2. Nick says:

    Glad to hear you and your partner made it through the climb safely. It sounds like an awesome climb, and probably an amazing long day out!

    I know nobody plans on spending unplanned nights on top of mountains, but I”m super stoked to hear that you guys had mostly proper gear with you. Climbers tend to be more prepared than hikers, but it always kills me seeing people out hiking with such little or no gear. Hopefully your story, encourages just one person to be okay carry that jacket and bag of skittles on their next trip out, no matter the length or destination.

    Keep the trips coming and best of luck on your next trip up!

  3. Sandy says:

    Thanks for sharing! Your story brought back reminders of our night on Louis (moved way too slow [pitched out the bottom] on the Kain route). We were lucky to only be a bit chilly and not get rain or lightning. And that descent would be dangeruos in the dark. Keep the stories coming!

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