I had seen the weather forecast; it called for relatively warm winter conditions (a daytime high of 3C). Mentally juggling my priorities, I paused, trying to determine how a day of mid-winter bouldering might fit into my weekend. "Sure." I said. "I'm in."
Two days, a few phone calls, and dozen texts later, I found myself in the backseat of a car belonging to Dave, another keen Lethbridge boulderer and a talented photographer. I had relinquished the roomier front passenger seat to Mark, who is a veritable giant at nearly six and and half feet. I was comfortably sequestered for the hour-and-a-half drive to Frank, nestled among a stack of bouldering mats; I sipped a cup of coffee and watched the winter prairie landscape roll by.
In Alberta, "rock climbing" and "winter time" are, for the most part, mutually exclusive phrases. Ice climbing, sure. Skiing, certainly. But rock climbing? Not really; it is generally far too cold. The lone exception to this rule is Frank Slide, which regularly experiences Chinook winds funneled through the Crowsnest Pass. As such, Frank Slide will often be 10 or 15C warmer than other climbing areas just a few hundred kilometers north.
During the drive, we discussed whether or not the temperatures over the past week had been sufficiently cold to freeze the Oldman River. If it was, we might be able to cross on the ice and climb on boulders on the far side of the river. The Oldman River runs right through the heart of Frank Slide, and in summer is dangerously difficult to cross. There are, however, several excellent problems on the far side, including Zombotron 7000 (V7) and Rising Tithes (V8). We were curious to see if winter had made these usually forbidden fruit accessible.
Arriving in Frank, we piled from the car and walked down to the river. It was frozen... partially. It looked thick enough to cross if we stuck mostly to the boulders protruding from the ice. We hauled mats from the car, and proceeded to warm up on the Teardrop Boulder before attempting to cross the Oldman River. We did the fun Bearhug (V2), The Teardrop (V3), and Teardrop Right (the problem immediately right of The Teardrop; it is a V0 in the book, but holds have clearly broken, rendering the line more like a V2). Packing up, we headed for the river.
We crossed on the ice without serious mishap. I DID almost plunge from a boulder into the icy rapids when the bouldering mat I was wearing started to slide sideways on my back, but in a few minutes we were up the slope checking out the V7 dyno Zombotron 7000. Mark attempted to flash it, but had to settle for a third- or fourth-try ascent. (I always imagine that dynamic moves MUST be easier for tall climbers, but I suspect that my jealously stems from my apparent inability to do dynos myself.) Nonetheless, I was making good progress too, almost sending the crux dyno. Dave was making good progress as well, getting closer to the lip with every attempt. Unexpectedly, on his next try, Dave went flying from the boulder. The starting hold of Zombotron had broken, leaving a still-decent but notably smaller edge. Zombotron had become harder (maybe a LOT harder), and now awaits a new 'first ascent'!
Mark crushing Zombotron 7000 (V7), shortly before it was literally crushed by Dave. (Photo: Dave Cassidy)
Looking for the next problem-of-the-day, we explored the adjacent boulders. We quickly did Cyril Sneer (V0 or V1), and I started cleaning a new line on the opposite side of the boulder. Dave and Mark headed off to look at the next boulder over. They soon came back with grins on their faces; they had found what looked like a fun new problem. Dragging the mats over, we queued up to try their new line, a great-looking compression problem up a blunt arete. Unusually for the Frank, the rock was light grey and incredibly compact, and the problem featured beautifully rounded slopers and sidepulls. It took a little time for us to unlock the sequence, but soon Mark had sent the line, naming it Squeeze Theorem (V5). I quickly sent it too, and agreed that it is a great addition to the area, a quality line!
I quickly added a new problem to the left, a very fun line on crisp edges and sidepulls, calling it Friction Factor (V2). However, the wind was picking up and the temperatures were dropping, so we headed over to try the testpiece of the area, Rising Tithes (V8). Rising Tithes is a stellar line, a right-to-left rising lip traverse. While it is very similar to the famous Squamish problem ATD (V7 or V8), Rising Tithes is about twice as long, and the crux is at the end. Mark made a valiant onsight attempt, flashing to the last three moves, while I slowly worked my way further and further along the arete with each attempt. Heel-hook trickery is vital to success on this problem, and although we were making good progress deciphering the necessary movement, the temperatures continued to drop, and we had to pack it in. We'll be back, though! It's a stellar line, likely one of the best at Frank Slide, and certainly worth the effort it takes to cross the river.
We packed the mats back in the car, but instead of heading back to Lethbridge, I convinced Dave and Mark to drive west a few more minutes to check out the wall at Emerald Lake. The wall at Emerald Lake is about 4 pitches high, and represents some of the most accessible compact limestone in the Crowsnest Pass. Braving the howling winter wind of the Pass, we spend a half-hour looking at potential routes. While it is not as steep as I would like, it still looks like a worthy summertime adventure!
Calling it a day, we headed to Subway. Fast food makes a surprisingly good way to end a day of wintertime bouldering. Until next time... cheers!