Climbers have a tendency to define themselves around their sport. It becomes an obsession and it all other aspects of life are planned around it. In the winter of 2016 that was definitely me. I had been living in a house full of ice climbers, in a basement room with a broken window, for only $250 a month. I was working part time as a lift operator and would eat the old food out of my friends refrigerators. I was not 100% dirtbag though as I did have a girlfriend (who is my wife now). Julia was visiting from France and WWOOFing on a bison ranch 90 minutes outside of Bozeman.
Julia is from Paris, France. She studied fashion and has worked in haute couture and the french film industry as a costume designer. We had (and still have actually) very different interests and views on hygiene. She is an everyday shower person, I’m not… After leaving the bison ranch Julia moved in with me to my small bedroom with the missing window. She had to start showering in the morning instead of at night because her hair would freeze and tangle overnight. I made sure to cut one full day of climbing a week out of my schedule to spend with her.
Dating someone from another country is not easy as we soon found when her visa expired and she had to leave the US for six months at the end of february. We stayed together doing the long distance skype thing but we missed each other. Meanwhile the ice climbs around Bozeman were melting out faster than usual and early march seemed like a good time to go north to the Canadian rockies. So I called two climbing partners, Keenan Waeschle and Ryan Edwards and started planning a last minute trip to Alberta. Later, while on the phone with Julia I mentioned that I was planning on heading up to canada for a week with some friends to climb. “Perfect, maybe I can come too?” was her reply.
Canada would be my only opportunity to see Julia for the next couple of months because she wasn’t allowed in the US, she also flies for free to Calgary because her dad is an Air France pilot. I really missed Julia, but this was supposed to be a climbing trip. We were going to sleep in our cars, in the canadian rockies in winter, which is even colder than my bedroom. Bringing a girlfriend who doesn’t climb along on this sort of trip is not only a bad idea for her, but kind of a dick thing to do to my partners. Rather than decide between the two I spend all day convincing myself that both could work. I would pick her up in Calgary and spend the night in a hotel there and then we would leave and meet up with Ryan and Keenan and I’d do some climbing and she would… paint maybe… take photos… try and stay warm.
I met up with Julia for a night at a Hotel and the next day we went to a small mixed crag on the border of alberta and BC and did some pumpy dry tooling. We were in the sun all day and things were great. A high avalanche danger prevented us from getting on any of the big routes and we did not come to canada for cragging so we made the decision to go to the Ghost River Wilderness, where the routes are huge and there is not enough snow to avalanche. So we hit a grocery store and caravanned out towards the ghost using directions that Keenan had gotten from a guy he knew in Canmore.
The paved section of the drive was going well, so was the trip on a whole. Julia was happy and actually somewhat excited about her first real camping experience, and Ryan and Keenan were stoked that we were going to climb some rad stuff. Keenan’s directions told us to turn left onto a rough dirt road at around 23km (i’m making that number up i can’t remember) up a back road. Just as the sun went down we turned onto a steep rocky hill that went down towards a small frozen pond, which we idiots drove across. Our four wheel drive trucks struggled on the next uphill which was steep and eroded. After that came a seeming endless mud bog through the woods. For hours we crushed the most intense 4×4 terrain any of us had ever driven through. Bottomless mud threatened to consume our vehicles and steep side hills threatened to roll us. Julia was sitting in my passenger seat, white knuckling the “Oh shit” handle on the side of the door. She was getting afraid. Rightfully so, as we had passed the point of no return and had gone up something that we could not get back down. Ryan and Keenan’s ford F-150 got stuck and I pulled it out using an old climbing rope. Things were getting desperate. We realized long ago that we were completely lost and not on the approach for the ghost. With no cell reception and no map things were starting to look pretty grim. I didn’t let Julia know any of that though because I didn’t want to alarm her. I just kept telling her that it was right around the corner, she stopped believing me after the first hour. We reached a clearing and a bit of an intersection where it looked like a more travelled road could lead us out of the woods. It was about 1am now and our goal had become to just get out of the woods without destroying a vehicle. As we drove down this road a light started flickering in the distance. We got closer and realized it was a huge fire. Next to the fire was a large windowless trailer, a generator, a floodlight, two trucks and two guys drinking beer.
Now a trailer and a generator in the middle of nowhere in the Canadian rockies raises all kinds of questions like “What the hell are these guys doing out here?” and “are they cooking meth?” We pulled up cautiously and they got up and walked over to greet us. They asked where we were from and we chit chatted about how we got lost. The two guys were father and son and both pretty drunk. They spoke in heavy canadian accents, with the Dad being almost impossible to understand. He came over to my car window and started to talking to me about my truck. I know almost nothing about cars so the conversation was a little one sided, he kept talking about classic mustangs until I used the term “rotary engine” incorrectly. He stopped talking to me after that. Julia was getting nervous, this was the furthest from civilization she had ever been and she was tugging at my sleeve telling me to go. Ryan and Keenan decided the get out of their cars and join these dudes by the fire. I was still pretty sure they were meth cooks so I stayed in my vehicle with Julia. We watched as my friends sat down with these very friendly possible meth cooks and were offered beers and hooka. Julia and I sat in my truck cautiously peering out the window at them. We just starting to feel more at ease when the younger canadian disappeared into the trailer and came out holding a big ass axe and started walking away from the wood pile towards Keenan and Ryan.
I put my truck into drive and stared out the window thinking I was about to see my friends get chopped up all texas chainsaw massacre style. Julia gripped my knee and watched. The big guy with the axe lumbered over to where Keenan and Ryan were sitting. They looked up at him and thats when he extended his arms and presented them with the large axe.
“You gotta check this thing out buddy, It’s a Fiskars. Best axe you can get”
And so we watched as Keenan and Ryan took turns chopping wood with the genuine fiskars axe. They confirmed it was in fact pretty sweet. Soon we were back in our vehicles, with fresh directions out of the woods and new info on how to find the climbs we were looking for.
The next day we drove into the ghost and set up camp. The drive to the ghost has destroyed many cars but after our night spent on a 4×4 trail for lifted Jeeps we thought it was actually pretty easy. Julia found the scenery to be beautiful and was actually enjoying camping in the unseasonably warm weather. We left the next day to climb sorcerer, a steep 3 pitch climb and left Julia at camp to paint and read. While we were gone she opened all the car doors and blasted music to “keep the bears away”.
The next day we packed up camp and set off for “Real Big Drip” an M7 WI6 test piece. After a long big breakfast we left Julia at the cars and approached the route. I’ve never been so intimidated by a piece of ice before. It dripped away from the overhanging face, thousands of pounds of hanging ice held on by nothing but hydrogen bonds. There was a party on it ahead of us so we waited as they finished pitch 2 and rappelled. I started up the first pitch with Keenan belaying me from bolts 20 feet up the wall as the base was severely threatened by the hanging daggers above. After sketching my way past the thin bolt protected rock I transitioned onto the hanging ice daggers, which felt relatively secure given how baked out it looked from below. I finished the pitch, built an anchor, and belayed my partners up. We bailed as a storm came in and it began to snow.
That night the temperatures fell back to normal Canadian winter temps (really really cold). Julia and I were sleeping in the bed of my truck and her hair froze to the window. She had dealt with everything amazingly well (considering it was her first time really camping) but now she was starting to complain about the cold. I realized we hadn’t stopped at a bathroom since we left the hotel, and that was about 5 days ago at this point. And while Ryan and Keenan and myself were perfectly happy with shitting in the woods, Julia was raised to be a bit more proper than that. So I explained to Keenan and Ryan that I would be leaving them and heading back out the city to get a hotel room with Julia.
And that was it for climbing in the Canadian rockies for me. The rest of the trip was very enjoyable though, Julia and I drove through Banff and up to Jasper looking at mountains; Keenan and Ryan kept climbing without me. They forgave me for bailing on a climbing trip and Julia forgave me for the all night 4×4 expedition and for being abandoned during the day while I went climbing. The lesson here is that you have to make compromises and that Parisian girlfriends and Canadian winter camping don’t mix very well.