Alone: The Life of Ken Wallator
KEN WALLATOR WAS A LEADING JASPER ALPINIST
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