Alone: The Life of Ken Wal­la­tor

KEN WAL­LA­TOR WAS A LEAD­ING JASPER ALPIN­IST

Gripped - - CONTENTS - by Bran­don Pul­lan

I never met Ken Wal­la­tor, one of the best Cana­dian alpin­ists of his gen­er­a­tion, but I tried. By the time he died by sui­cide, we had sent each other many “let’s meet up” mes­sages over the In­ter­net, start­ing a decade ago. I wanted to write a story about his mon­u­men­tal ef­forts in the moun­tains. In 2019, I asked him again if

I could doc­u­ment his as­cents in a story. He told me, “Maybe, but I re­ally think you should give the younger gen­er­a­tion the space.”

I fol­lowed Wal­la­tor on­line, where he’d often talk about his work and most re­cent climbs. I never ex­pected to see such a recluse and ru­moured-to-be­tough man from the north­ern Cana­dian Rock­ies have such a big on­line pres­ence. He seemed to en­joy con­nect­ing with climbers, es­pe­cially younger ones, through so­cial me­dia. In 2019, his on­line posts started to take dark tone. He seemed to be hint­ing that one day, he might wan­der into the moun­tains and never re­turn. Near the end, he didn’t have a lot of money or any­where to live, ex­cept for his some­times-trusty pickup truck. As the nights grew longer and the tem­per­a­tures dropped well below freez­ing, it was clear that it was go­ing to be a long win­ter for Wal­la­tor. Friends reached out on­line and tried to help; I of­fered him my couch at the start of De­cem­ber, 2019. He thanked me, but never took me up on the of­fer.

On Dec. 14, Wal­la­tor posted an alarm­ing mes­sage on Face­book that read: “This is it, all that I have done, built, climbed has come to this. So much stolen from me. Yes, this is a sui­cide post. I can’t take it any­more, hate it pain of home­less­ness, tired, cold lonely. Fuck­ing greedy, self­ish world, sorry to only three friends that helped me. Life sucks, so cold.”

Some­time be­tween that post and Dec. 21, Wal­la­tor took his own life. His body was dis­cov­ered by the rcmp by the sand dunes near Brule, Alta. His com­mu­nity of friends and fam­ily had tried to help, but the dark­ness of his de­pres­sion over­shad­owed any light. I found out, shortly be­fore his death, that he’d been suf­fer­ing with men­tal health is­sues for decades. He came from a gen­er­a­tion of men that didn’t reach out for help; they were ex­pected to “tough it out.” Climbers will mourn the loss of one of their own and see in Wal­la­tor a man who strug­gled with de­pres­sion, but nonethe­less pos­sessed a rare bold­ness, vi­sion and cre­ativ­ity that he ex­pressed in a num­ber of his­toric as­cents, and many more that went un­recorded.

Wal­la­tor was burly, ad­ven­tur­ous and could take a beat­ing in the moun­tains. He had broad shoul­ders, treetrunk thighs and often a bushy beard. He would sit on jagged boul­ders puff­ing his pipe and watch­ing ser­acs and cor­nices col­lapse. He knew more about some of the val­leys and moun­tains in the Rock­ies than any other climber. He had a list of un­climbed ice and alpine routes on walls that have only been seen by a few.

He grew up with­out a fa­ther, but his neigh­bours, Ben and Cia Gadd, helped look af­ter him. They would in­vite Wal­la­tor to join them and their sons, Toby and Will, on moun­tain ad­ven­tures. Wal­la­tor also had a brother, Calvin, and a sis­ter, Carol Hen­der­son, who spent time out­doors with him when they were young. In 1977 on a trip to Jac­ques Lake, nine-year-old Wal­la­tor made his first overnight trip in the back­coun­try. His back­coun­try trips soon led to a pas­sion for the ver­ti­cal world and he soon started climb­ing.

It wasn’t long be­fore he was re­peat­ing clas­sic alpine climbs that were con­sid­ered cut­ting edge at the time. In the spring of 1987, Wal­la­tor and Bruce Atkins re­peated The Elzinga/miller on the north face of Mount Tem­ple. In May, Wal­la­tor, Atkins and Rick Costea re­peated The Beckey Route on the north face of Ben­ning­ton in the Ton­quin Valley. Then in June, Wal­la­tor, Atkins and Kevin Durstakos climbed Su­per Couloir on the north face of Deltaform. In July, Wal­la­tor met Colorado climber Tom Thomas and the climbed An­dromeda Strain on Mount An­dromeda, one of the most se­ri­ous routes at the time. They then teamed up for a quick as­cent of The Chouinard Route to the East Sum­mit on the north face of Edith Cavell.

In the win­ter of 1987–88, Wal­la­tor re­ally started to stand out as a climber. He be­gan with a solo of the East Ridge of Edith Cavell. He then teamed up with Thomas for a Jan­uary as­cent of the Beckey Route on the north face of Mount Hooker. In Fe­bru­ary, they were joined by Gil Mccormick for a multi-week ad­ven­ture. They skied around 75 kilo­me­tres into Mount Cle­menceau and made a first as­cent up the north face be­fore ski­ing out. In to­tal, they spent 16 days in the moun­tains with no air sup­port or food drops. Thomas and Wal­la­tor then climbed As­ter­oid

Al­ley, a dif­fi­cult mixed route on Mount An­dromeda, in March be­fore at­tempt­ing a new route up the north face of Snow Dome. They got close to the top, but avalanches forced them off.

Among some of Wal­la­tor’s most im­pres­sive early climbs was the first as­cent of the north­east face of Storm Moun­tain in Banff Na­tional Park with Tom Thomas in March 1988. Wal­la­tor later fa­mously of­fered a free rope to any­one who could make the sec­ond as­cent. By the time of his death, no­body had man­aged to re­peat the grade V 5.9 A2. The multi-day win­ter as­cent, un­der fall­ing snow with sleep­less nights in cold bivies, caught the Cana­dian climb­ing scene’s at­ten­tion.

That sum­mer, Wal­la­tor joined Tim Friesen and Chic Scott for a first as­cent on

Mcarthur Peak in Alaska. Wal­la­tor and Friesen then re­peated the East Ridge of Mount Lo­gan in six days, which was con­sid­ered a fast as­cent. Scott wrote about the climb in the 1990 Amer­i­can Alpine Jour­nal,

and said: “Friesen, Wal­la­tor and I climbed a new line on a very prominent spur on the south face of Mcarthur Peak. The 7,000-foot route of­fered ex­cel­lent climb­ing on steep snow and ice and rea­son­ably solid gran­ite.” Wal­la­tor and Friesen then climbed the East Ridge of Mount Lo­gan in a re­mark­able six-day ef­fort.

On Dec. 11, 1988, tragedy struck. Wal­la­tor and his girl­friend, Heidi Schae­fer, were climb­ing Mount Belanger, a 3,060-me­tre

peak south of Jasper, when they stopped to take some photos. They were above the tech­ni­cal climb­ing when the cor­nice they were stand­ing on col­lapsed. Schae­fer fell 480 me­tres down the side of the moun­tain. Wal­la­tor climbed down to her, but she died in his arms while he car­ried her through heavy snow­fall to­ward a hut.

Wal­la­tor con­tin­ued climb­ing, de­spite the tragedy. The fol­low­ing fall, he made the first as­cent of Echo Mad­ness with Ken Purcell, a 250-me­tre WI4. He re­turned to solo it and was swept off in an avalanche, but sur­vived with mi­nor in­juries. In the sum­mer of 1990, with Rick Costea and Al Munroe, he climbed a new route on Mount Roseta. That win­ter, Wal­la­tor and Costea climbed the north face of Edith Cavell. Wal­la­tor then teamed up with leg­endary alpin­ist Barry Blan­chard, who had made first as­cents of many of the most dif­fi­cult routes in the Rock­ies. From the hut on a cold win­ter day, they climbed to the sum­mit of Mount Assini­boine and then skied to the car in a day.

In 1991, Wal­la­tor made the first as­cent of a route on the eight-pitch-high Roche Mi­ette that would go on to be­come a clas­sic. How­ever, when es­tab­lish­ing a route on Cir­rus Moun­tain’s Weep­ing Wall area that sum­mer, he fell on to a ledge and broke his back. He was alone and had no way of reach­ing any­one. He climbed back up to an an­chor and rap­pelled to the ground be­fore crawl­ing back to his car. He drove to a nearby camp­ground and used a pay­phone to get help. He wrote this story for the Cana­dian Alpine Jour­nal in 1992 about Roche Mi­ette:

Days off rolled around. Kevin Chris­takos and I had climbed a new route on Throne Peak and, hav­ing three more days, we de­cided to have a go at the west face of Roche Mi­ette – a route Rick Costea and I had climbed three years ago. The idea this time was to free the route. The first time Rick and I came here a beau­ti­ful golden ea­gle ca­reened about us at the base of the face. Be­ing very su­per­sti­tious, I took this to be a good omen. This time, it was a herd of sheep search­ing around the alpine plants for their daily food. I know why I live in Jasper – the un­touched wilder­ness and an­i­mal spir­its that dwell in this place left alone by man’s greed for tim­ber and min­eral rights for eco­nomic growth.

The wind was blow­ing strong and it took a while to mo­ti­vate our­selves to get climb­ing, but af­ter a good rest we got it to­gether. Kevin leads off on the first pitch. It’s 5.8, but loose blocks make it grip­ping. That’s why we’re here though, to get gripped. Next lead is a lot eas­ier, feels good to move fast and free. Third pitch goes fast, putting us into a steep left-fac­ing cor­ner. I psych up at the be­lay to lead what turns out to be a full 50 me­tres of 5.10a. Climb­ing the pitch goes smoothly and I’m grooved up now. We’re go­ing

to get up this wall.

We’re now at the half­way ledge on the face and from here thin, bulging seams lead up to­ward a ledge about 25 me­tres away. Last time I was here it was -10 C and the pitch went at 5.7/A2. It’s Kevin’s lead and he care­fully pieces the pitch to­gether at 5.10b. We’re over the crux now and I’m happy this route will go free. The next three pitches to the top go by with no prob­lems. Roche Mi­ette has let us into its realm one more time.

In 1992, Wal­la­tor teamed up with Mar­itime climber Margo Tal­bot. They spent a few win­ters liv­ing in Tal­bot’s Ford Ranger. They climbed dozens of bold win­ter routes. Tal­bot later wrote a book called All That Glit­ters: A Climber’s Jour­ney through Ad­dic­tion and De­pres­sion. Af­ter Wal­la­tor’s death, Tal­bot said that he was “plagued by dark demons” and that “al­though he was at peace in the moun­tains, de­spair lurked around ev­ery cor­ner.” Tal­bot also said that “Wal­la­tor joined the Hells An­gels in the early 2000s. He would visit peo­ple and en­force the pay-your-debt-or-get-beat-up pol­icy. He was known as ‘the en­forcer.’”

The de­tails about those years are only known to those clos­est to him, but Wal­la­tor’s time with the biker gang didn’t last long. Af­ter be­ing caught, he was sen­tenced to house ar­rest by a judge. Tal­bot said Wal­la­tor was proud of who he was and that how she re­mem­bers him was very dif­fer­ent than how oth­ers re­mem­ber him. Some climbers close to Wal­la­tor said that he wouldn’t ap­pre­ci­ate his “dark years” be­ing men­tioned, and that af­ter his house ar­rest, he climbed so much that he wore out ice tools. By the 2010s, Wal­la­tor was back to climb­ing and work­ing full­time.

Dana Ruddy, a Jasper climber with many im­pres­sive climbs to his name, was one of Wal­la­tor’s part­ners. Ruddy told the Jasper Lo­cal, “He was the guy that said F-you, I’m do­ing it my way. I think peo­ple were jeal­ous of his ac­com­plish­ments, that he was far ex­ceed­ing theirs.” Wal­la­tor’s child­hood friend Will Gadd said, “He was as good or bet­ter than any­body and I think one of the tragedies is that we’re never go­ing to know how many routes he re­ally climbed.”

Al­though Wal­la­tor re­turned to climb­ing and even went on to es­tab­lish routes in the past few years, such as Lucky Star WI4 with Sean El­liot, he mostly stuck to solo pur­suits. He would, how­ever, al­most al­ways have his dog, Jesse the Moun­tain Dog, with him. Wal­la­tor even brought Jesse to the top of Mount Edith Cavell. He spent his post­work hours solo­ing moder­ate ice routes. In sum­mer, he would take his row­boat to a Jasper-area lake to go fish­ing. He would post about his com­pan­ion­less ex­cur­sions on so­cial me­dia, show­ing off his most re­cent catch or selfie from the top of a climb.

At the start of 2020, Wal­la­tor lost his home in Hin­ton and said, “I am bro­ken, just like scratched-up read­ing glasses with one arm. Try­ing to get mo­ti­vated to go climb some­thing. Didn’t climb at all last win­ter, some­thing I only told a few about be­cause I had a stroke last win­ter. I fell out my chair and I hit the floor. I couldn’t move for two days. Feel­ing strong phys­i­cally. It’s the soul part.”

Wal­la­tor soon left the Jasper area and spent his last few months work­ing in the Bow Valley. He would post im­ages of him­self solo­ing on Goat Moun­tain or hav­ing a camp­fire by his truck. “I spent three week climb­ing a cou­ple 600-me­tre routes in the Exshaw/yam area,” said Wal­la­tor. “Ropesoloed what I think was the Grass­man route on the Goat Slabs and then spent a cou­ple of weeks climb­ing what I think is new route, but hard to tell be­cause all of the cracks were dirty. No fixed pitons or bolts or pin scars, lots of nail­ing. Any­ways, the ranger kicked me out of the area. Such is the life of a climb­ing bum.”

In the fall, he and Will Gadd went ice climb­ing on Amadeus in Kananaskis Coun­try. Af­ter their climb, Wal­la­tor said, “I got some much-needed mind and soul floss climb­ing Amadeus. It was good to rope up with Will Gadd af­ter 30 years. This is what I truly love about ice climb­ing.” A few weeks later, Wal­la­tor posted his de­spair­ing mes­sage on so­cial me­dia about sui­cide.

Wal­la­tor was a cre­ative wood­worker, im­mensely tal­ented climber and knowl­edge­able Rock­ies lo­cal. He also had an unattrac­tive and per­haps vi­o­lent pe­riod in his life; he didn’t like author­ity. His skills took him up still-un­re­peated climbs and helped push the limit in the 1980s. He suf­fered from loss and closed him­self off to friends and fam­ily. He took his fate into his own hands, de­spite pleas from loved ones to con­sider op­tions. Wal­la­tor will be re­mem­bered as one hell of a tough guy and gen­er­a­tions will won­der at his vi­sion­ary climbs. Bran­don Pul­lan is the author of The Bold and Cold: A His­tory of 25 Clas­sic Climbs in the Cana­dian Rock­ies and co-author of North­ern Stone: Canada’s Best Rock Climbs. He lives and climbs in Can­more.

Ken Wal­la­tor on Mount Columbia in the late 1980s

Below: Ken Wal­la­tor at the Colin Hut in Jasper Na­tional Park in the 1980s and right and op­po­site bot­tom: more re­cently

Ken Wal­la­tor do­ing log work in the 1980s

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