Crampons are a frame of metal spikes that, once attached to a boot, give the underside of a boot purchase to snow and ice. The metal spikes press into the snow and ice. Full crampons cover the whole underside of the boot; commonly in 12 points allowing the wearer to strike heel first and walk as close to normal as can be achieved on snow and ice. The more rigid the boot the less likely the crampon is to come off. The flex of say: a regular tennis shoe will give the crampon room to work its way loose. An instep crampon covers only the front half of the foot, cord wraps around the ankle to hold the crampon on the front half of the boot – or so it says in the user manual.
Email conversation reads:
- What about alpine boots, crampons and axe etc?
- Don't worry; Emma was here in a pair of approaches shoes!
- Brilliant. See you in two weeks!
As I handed over my visa debit card and paid for the $19.99 Adidas running spikes my inner monologue had only one line for me: 'You are an alpine climbing genius!' Light is right, according to the vast majority of modern alpine climbing heroes, and this certainly fit the adage. On top of being the lightest trainer I'd ever bought they were bright yellow. 'How could this possibly be a bad idea?' I had considered purchasing a set of spikes for them that I could screw directly into the soles, usually intended to give extra grip when sprinting on a running track, these could help out on ice and snow. 'Emma was up here in a pair of approach shoes!' I thought. The spikes just seemed like an extravagance considering that fact.
Hiking the 1300m of gain up to the Applebee flats campground was a total joy, feet so free and cool in the mountain air. Not the usual suffer-fest of sweating feet and heavy boots to approach in. Walking poles powered me uphill and in no time we had arrived. Appleby flats campground is typically where the snow line begins during the summer alpine climbing season in the Bugaboos, the hike up had been almost completely free of snow. My eyes strained amidst a sea of alpine boots. Some new, some worn in but defiantly all boots – No trainers. And certainly no bright yellow Adidas track running shoes. 'Where are all the people in approach shoes?'
Approaching our first route went well, and the snow had been so helpful and soft. Without the spikes going up was a little trickier but coming down was a total joy. Glissading down I went, past the crampon wearers. 'You Are A Genius!' I thought.
"Aren't your feet cold?"
"Err – No"
'Of course my feet are cold I'm wearing track running shoes in snow you maniac! Don't worry – light is still right and your still a genius! Plus think of all the money you've saved.' My inner monologue continued to be as unhelpfully enthusiastic as ever.
The weather remained stable so it seemed a good idea to get stuck into some meatier alpine routes.
"One ice axe and one nut key between us? The first person has the axe and second just sticks the nut key in the hole the first made..." I said.
"Well if were just taking one instep crampon each I think it would be safer with one axe each."
"Sod this – I'm just going to sit on my arse and slide down. I've dragged the ice axe all this way."
"Yea, you were right, not so bad – I hope it doesn't get too much steeper though." Said Kim.
"Yea – me too. You've packed the instep crampons right?"
"Err – Yea. They're in the bag."
The instep crampons were a last resort, we'd managed fine without them so far and between us didn't really have much faith in them staying on our fully flexible footwear. The terrain we were crossing was not steep and we were always moving downhill slightly allowing us the luxury of the 'controlled' bum slide. Nothing so far had created a need for concern.
Rounding the toe of a rock buttress revealed a 20° snow slope. We skirted along the rock as far as possible before confronting the obstacle we would have to face. This time it wouldn't be possible for gravity to, do its thing, and carry us downward, as we needed to go across. The bag opened and out came the instep crampons. One each.
My foot slid out of the instep crampon much more easily than I had hoped. My inner monologue had only one line for me: 'You are stupid!' As I pressed hard with my toes to control the loosening instep crampon I could feel my grip tighten on the ice axe. I was using the other hand to steady myself by poking one finger into the hole the ice axe pick had created in the snow. A familiar cold sweat ran up my back as I realised the seriousness in what seemed like such a silly situation. If I slipped and failed to arrest my fall with my axe I would fall, accelerating down the icy slope into serious trouble.
"This is epic!" I screamed out.
"Actually from here you look stupid because your so hunched over and the slope is really so gentle" Kim was across already.
I slowly weighted each foot after each step, clinging like mad to my ice axe and pressing my finger into the hard snow. The straps of the instep crampon loosened, again and again. After what felt like hours we were across. Looking back was embarrassing, such a small distance. For someone in a pair of boots and full crampons it would have been such an easy obstacle.
A short distance from here the abseils that would access the base of the North Howser Tower began.
"I hope we don't have to retreat" I said thinking about having to traverse back over the snow slope.
"Too late now, that last abseil is not reversible."
"Oh yea – how many more are there?"
As we continued past the pair, who had started up a different route, the enormity of the tower came into view. Heads tilted back and mouths ajar we found ourselves at the base. Changing into rock shoes was great; we'd now be wearing the correct footwear for the job until at least tomorrow.
The lower pitches went smoothly but for some route finding problems. Our main focus had been the bivouac. Ledges situated almost half way up the tower, and commonly just beneath a snow patch, are the normal bivouac site for parties climbing any route on the west face. The snow patch was there, to our relief, meaning we could re-hydrate and would have enough water for the following day.
"Ah – WATER!"
Shortly after we arrived so did the other party: two Canadians who were making things look easy. Their bags were tiny. They'd tried to start up a new route but instead had to retreat after three pitches and then had come up something else. They were making our efforts; to ascend the least difficult line up the face, look pitiful.
"How come your bags are so small, where's you bivi gear?" We enquired.
"Sleeping pills and ear plugs dude!"
They had no sleeping bags or bivi sacks, just some tarp cut big enough to shelter two people and some foam mat. The earplugs, I had assumed, were to stop you hearing the screams and whimpers of your partner freezing to death in the night so you could concentrate on your own slow icy demise.
"The earplugs just stop the noise of the tarp in the wind from waking me up"
Hard men we clearly were not.
The night passed uneventfully except for Kim deciding to wake me up and inform me he could hear rock falling and was convinced we were about to die. The other climbers' idea to bring earplugs just seemed even better now. The bivi ledge was barely big enough for the two of us so how: waking up when rocks are about to rain down on us would help the situation is still a mystery to me.
In the morning my thoughts were clear and focused: 'I bet neither of them woke up during the night with their sleeping pills and earplugs.' As Kim led off and I shouldered the bag for the first pitch the punishment set in. The bag felt heavy and my feet were freezing. As we carried on the temperature rose and the climbing became more enjoyable, the rock also steepened. The upper section of the North Howser tower is pristine solid granite. Pink dihedrals, cracks and faces stretch as far as your neck will crane. Pitch after pitch of steep granite.
As much as we read and re-read the photograph of the guidebook we'd borrowed the climbing we'd done would just not fit in with the pitch descriptions. The climbing was great, if you were leading without the bag, but there was just no way. After a long pitch up a corner with a two-inch crack in the back, we were convinced. There was no roof in sight and the topographic clearly said there would be a roof after three pitches of amazing corner climbing. We'd managed to climb past one of the most obvious features on the face. 'What is wrong with us?' I thought.
We continued, committed to the wrong way, then we passed an alien cam.
"Well someone's been here!" I said.
"I wonder if the someone who was here was a someone who went to the top or used this piece to retreat from?"
"Sod that, were going up"
Some more loose flakes, wet cracks and a final sopping chimney corner bought us to a series of proper ledges and terrain that eased.
"Now the topo fits!"
As I climbed up to the belay Kim had already spotted the two other climbers. We talked and shared congratulations. They'd just freed an old aid line that split the immense wall directly above the bivi ledges. They headed off first following the ridgeline that snaked its way to the top of the North Howser tower.
The ridgeline snaked on and on. It was fantastic alpine climbing. The difficulties were done with and the relief made the climbing so enjoyable, even if we were crossing rock covered with snow patches in running spikes. We'd been given some information from the party ahead regarding the abseils so finding the first one was no problem. I had to reach down to thread the ropes through the cord, which equalised and old hex and two nuts. Testing it wasn't straightforward and I had to creep over the edge to try and slowly weight the anchor. 'This will be easy.' I thought to myself. Unfortunately, on the snow my trainers were providing about as much traction as banana skins in a cartoon strip. I slipped and my load came onto the rope then through the anchors a little faster than I wanted. Next it was Kim's turn.
Kim weighs considerably more than me so we decided he should stand on my shoulders and climb down me as not to shock the anchor further. After breathing a sigh of relief, because both my collar bones had not snapped instantly under Kim's weight, I was reminded that we we're still idiots really. Kim slipped and I ended up wearing him like a large decorative hat. Fortunately my neck took the entire impact, cushioning his fall. Kim climbed down and we began to abseil towards the glacier. As you would suspect the last abseil got stuck meaning we had to jug back up the line. Two days worth of snow melt and grime on Kim's furry ropes meant there was too much friction. The route would just not let go.
Crossing the glacier went smoothly and all that lay ahead was a walk back to Appleby flats campground, a walk we'd done a few times before. We arrived back to our tent just before dark.
"That was amazing!" I said.
"Trainers and crampon thing wasn't that bad at all!"
"And so light!"