Once the World’s Hardest Ice Route
A Lap of Gimme Shelter
I looked up at the curtain of ice, shook my head and swore. It was overhanging for about eight metres, thin, full of holes and just a few centimetres thick. Five pitches up Gimme Shelter, I feared it could shut us down.
The day before, Jon Jugenheimer and I skied 17 kilometres from Lake Louise to Consolation Lakes. After digging out one metre of snow, we pitched our tent, shoved our pads and bags inside and skied off to Mount Quadra to check out the route. From below, it didn’t look that good. White and grey ice, with only a little blue at the top. The approach slope appeared to be stable and there was no evidence of serac collapse; I was optimistic.
The curtain was three-dimensional and chandeliered, so there were no big swings into the ice, as it would just shatter. Kicking in front points was out of the question. Standing at the base, I punched a pick all the way through and listened to shards of ice fall behind the curtain. Pulling up, I bashed the other tool through and paused, contemplating the ice above. It was fierce, overhanging for at least another seven metres. I raised my left foot as high as I could, leaned on the front points and pulled up. They dug in, so I stemmed out right, pulled up a bit more and punched the other pick through. As I weighted my feet, the ice on the right crumbled and then both feet were off. I found myself hanging fully extended, both legs peddling, trying to find a foothold. I pulled up, leaned right and scratched away at a bump of ice until my front points stuck and then down-climbed to an ice mushroom. Vibrating from the adrenaline surge, I stood there for a long time.
The anchor at the top of the second pitch was two bottomed-out 16 cm screws in the same blob of snice and a stubbie in a runnel of clear ice. After just two pitches and still a long way to go, doubt was beginning to creep in. We talked about heading for the car. Maybe we had taken the route too lightly. First climbed in 1983 by Kevin Doyle and Tim Friesen, Gimme Shelter stood for 10 years as the world’s hardest ice climb. Combine its reputation for poor ice, remote location and close calls from serac collapse and the route can go years without an ascent. We were on it because we wanted to do a big route, but high avalanche hazard was limiting our options. When Jugenheimer said, “Let’s check out Gimme Shelter,” the seed was planted.
We decided against retreating and the third pitch had better ice and pro, but it left us below the first of many thinner spots. Clear veneer went left and a thin, dead vertical curtain was to the right. Going left looked easier and safer, but from the start, even stubbies bottomed out. So back to the curtain, which was chandeliered and thin. Starting up, I punched a pick all the way through but it promptly ripped out. I bashed it higher and left and it held. Heel-hooking the curtain, I pulled up, punched the other pick through, placed my feet and continued for about five metres where I reached thicker ice, a good screw and finally a big ledge.
As I started up the fifth pitch, I was feeling pretty good about our chances, but then I came to the second curtain, the crux of the route. The adrenaline was subsiding, but I was disappointed and disheartened, not sure if I should, or even could go up. I rehearsed the moves a couple times and then stood awhile longer, planning a line through the holes and bumps. Finally, with some fear and trepidation, I started up. It got serious. No choice but to reach higher, punch a pick through, shake out and repeat. After several more metres, the ice eased to vertical, thickened enough to get sticks and finally I sunk a screw. I breathed a sigh of relief and climbed to the belay. “That was WI7,” he said with a grin as he clipped the anchor.
I can’t say enough about Jugenheimer as a partner. Despite telling me his arms were dead a pitch or two earlier, he just kept on going. It comes from his tenacity and his passion for climbing. As we geared up, we talked about the grade of the previous pitch. We settled on WI7-R. It was sketchy, difficult climbing with a big runout and high fall consequence. The last pitch had the best ice on the route, but we were done in more ways than one when we found ourselves at the top of the route staring at the hanging glacier above, pondering how such beauty could pose such danger. We didn’t hang around, we started the rappels right away.
The first rappels were easy, we found good ice for v-threads, but then the ice crapped out. When making threads for the last three rappels, the screw would go through a dozen centimetres of ice, but then we could just push it the rest of the way. Nevertheless, we hit the ground eight hours after we started climbing. An epic day on an audacious route. 40