A Humbling Reminder on the Grand Sentinel

After climbing in sunny, warm weather the other weekend on Kid Goat, I'd been starting to think that maybe it was actually climbing season - which is sort of a shame because I kind of like shoulder season climbing. Variable weather and cold rock sort of adds to the sense of adventure if you ask me. 

Luckily, Katherine seems to feel the same way and Thursday night we found ourselves at the pub wondering what we could climb on Saturday that would have us feeling like we really accomplished something. Katherine thought a more alpine objective might fit the bill so we tossed around a few ideas before landing on the Grand Sentinel.

The Grand Sentinel is a giant 100+m gendarme between Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. It's one of the most iconic and recognizable objectives in the Canadian Rockies. It's sort of crazy looking.

The Grand Sentinel - it's rather recognizable and while it might not look that big - that's four pitches of climbing to the top.

Despite being sort of scary looking, there's a 5.8 trad line up one side of it that we figured should be pretty easy to bang out with Katherine playing rope gun, so we started making plans.

We drove out to Lake Louise late Friday night and slept in my car in the overflow parking lot. Saturday morning we were up at 6 and at Moraine Lake at 7. We dumped the car, hoisted slightly too heavy packs and started booting it down the trail. The first step in the approach was to hike to Sentinel Pass - about 6km and 700m of elevation gain. We figured it should take about an hour and a half, but rather significant snow coverage and stopping to take in epic views turned it into more of a two hour hike. 

Approaching Sentinel Pass

We'd expected cool temperatures in the morning, but the forecast was calling for increasing sun and warming temperatures so we were hoping for cool if not warm conditions.

From the top of the pass we figured it would be a quick descent to the Grand Sentinel. Instead we found a steep snow field strewn with boulders - and a solid overnight freeze and approach shoes meant that kicking steps would result in losing toe nails and take forever. So we slung a boulder, threw our harnesses on and quickly rapped down to a point where we could join a continuous scree rib down to the bowl before slogging back up to the route. 

Katherine rappelling down the snowy ramp (at least we weren't post holing)

Or at least that's how it should have gone. Instead the rope got stuck and I got to run back to the pass, free the rope and then just delicately worked my way down from rock to rock. So much for saving time...

From the scree rib, we descended to almost the bottom of the bowl so that we could traverse shallower snow and then hiked back up beside the Grand Sentinel.

Working our way through screen and frozen snow to the base of the Grand Sentinel

And then we basically shat ourselves in fear. 

It's a lot bigger when you're up close and personal to it. A lot steeper too. Oh and the rock hadn't warmed up so our fingers went numb the second we touched it. Luckily I hear that means it's 'sending temps'.

The Grand Sentinel - up close and personal and scary as hell. Our route followed the prominent corners before gaining the left skyline. 

Katherine and I decided we'd leave one pack at the bottom of the climb so she could focus on leading and I'd carry our other pack so that we had food, water, warm stuff and emergency stuff with us on route.

In retrospect, I wish we'd just left both packs at the bottom or I'd hauled the pack below me as it was a pain in the ass through the crux.

Katherine started up the first 5.6 pitch and it basically became immediately apparent that this was going to be an 'old school' 5.8. Gear placements were good, but the rock was seriously steep. I'm a slabby limestone kind of guy - I like low angle friction climbing. This 5.6 pitch was the steepest thing I've climbed all season. The holds were super positive, but climbing was a lot more gym-like than most of what I've done outdoor this year. Still, Katherine wasn't too stressed as looking down she realized if she'd taken a different fork in the route on the way up it would have been easier and the coming pitches followed nice distinct features so hopefully the 5.7 would be a bit friendlier.

It wasn't. In fact, it was overhanging for large chunks of it. Katherine still powered up, but it was becoming pretty obvious that the climbing was not catering to our strengths.

Standing at the bottom of the third pitch, Katherine looked stressed. Like more stressed than I've ever seen her and I've climbed a number of long routes up to 10d with her where she's basically just laughed the whole way.

Maybe it was the rock, maybe it was the cold, maybe it was the absolutely continuous rumble of avalanches across the valley, but things didn't feel fun and relaxed. Instead, we were in 'serious objective mode'. We were double and triple checking everything. Buddy checks were obsessive. Everything that could be backed up was. This wasn't a casual day out, it was a legitimate battle.

Katherine - not exactly looking stoked to lead up the next pitch

Katherine did what Katherine does and just made it work. A sustained, consistently overhanging 5.8 crux pitch ate her available big cams within the first couple of placements and left her looking for (and finding) smaller cam and nut placements outside of the main crack features. At the top of the open book corner, there's a pronounced roof and while the holds were good, pulling the roof with frozen fingers and arms tired after three pitches of steeper than usual climbing for us could not have been easy for her.

From the top of the third pitch we figured we were mostly home free with just the 5.5 left to go. While the climbing certainly was the easiest we'd seen that day - it's still pretty heady. From afar the Grand Sentinel looks vaguely solid. Up close you see it's riddled with cracks and fissures and in many places you can actually see right through it.

I don't like being able to see through the thing I'm trying to climb

The cracks make for great, fun climbing, but I spent basically the entire climb becoming increasingly worried the entire thing was going to fall down if I touched the wrong rock. Objectively I know that it's stood there for thousands of years and sees probably hundreds of ascents per year - but every move committing to a bar-fridge sized rock that didn't appear to actually be attached to anything was wearing on my fragile, terrified of heights psyche. The result was that by the time we topped out, all I wanted to do was get the hell down in one piece.

It's a long way down from the top

Sitting on top we were tired, cold (it never warmed up the way the forecast had called for and in fact started snowing a couple of times), hungry and just ready to get out of there. So, taking only enough time to snap a couple of lousy, lousy photos from the top (it's embarrassing how bad they are), we rigged rappels and started retreating. I think that's when I truly appreciated how steep the route was and that it wasn't just me being a pansy. Two of the rappels (which followed the route) had significant freehanging portions. 

Down at the bottom we quickly ate some food and then flailed and post-holed our way back up to Sentinel Pass before hauling ass back to the cars making for about an 11 hour day in the end.

Thinking back to the climb now, I see its appeal. It's a super cool route. I think before I go back I'll spend a bunch of days climbing at the Back of the Lake to remind myself how to climb steep quartzite first. I definitely underestimated the route, believing it to be 'only' a 5.8 and therefore trivial to climb. Instead of a casual jaunt up an easy route, we had a bit of a battle  due to unfamiliar rock, much colder than expected temperatures and a longer than expected day due to the approach not being totally in. 

It's nice to get your ass unexpectedly kicked once in a while - it's humbling, sure, but more importantly, it reminds you that even an 'easy' climb shouldn't be taken lightly.

Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.