Ah, yes! 2020! The year that has been so widely reviled and debased! The broad spread of the coronavirus responsible for COVID19 resulted in a number of governmental responses (both in Canada and abroad) designed to limit the epidemic. These policies may have helped limit mortalities, but certainly put a damper on the travelling plans of climbers across the globe. For example, I was in Roy, New Mexico when the initial restrictions were announced, forcing me to return home (quite) prematurely.
For myself (and MANY other climbers), this trend continued throughout the year. Spring bouldering trips to the desert evaporated. My summertime pilgrimage to the Boulderfields in the Okanagan (home of the amazing Rock The Blocks climbing festival) didn't happen. Summer and fall trips to Montana and Idaho (home to some of the most amazing bouldering I've done in the USA) likewise fell apart.
Like any cloud, however, the COVID fog had a silver lining. Forced inactivity gave me time to work on the new Frank Slide Guidebook. My many solo trips to the Slide (to make notes and fact-check innumerable start holds, sequences, grades, and topouts) led me to explore the Slide more thoroughly than I had in a long time, which in turn made me realize that there were many undiscovered gems hidden among the blocks. 'First ascents' became my byword for 2020, and I had one of the most productive climbing years I've ever had.
Silver linings, indeed!
So, without any more delay, here are my climbing highlights for 2020!
(1) Without question, the biggest highlight of my year was the unbelievable number of new problems I discovered at Frank Slide! At the beginning of the year, Brayden B. (one of the talented routesetters at Coulee Climbing) and I semi-jokingly stated that we were going to shoot for 100 first ascents in 2020. We were, of course, anticipating many trips to the Boulder Batholith in Montana, which is a VAST area of granitic outcrops whose bouldering potential is largely unexplored. However, when the USA/Canada border closed, our dreams of FAs of granite blocks in the pine forests of Montana were dashed. For me, those dreams came back to life as I explored Frank Slide, and the number of first ascents I made there accumulated. As the months passed, and my days of climbing grew, so did my tick list. Eventually my FA list passed 100, and I was thrilled. As I passed 108 (my previous record for FAs in a year), I was astounded. I kept climbing, and kept finding new lines; I passed 200 FAs (a mind-boggling number of new lines) by midsummer, certain that my run would soon end. But then I found unclimbed clusters of blocks deep in the Gunwales, Hulkamaniac, and Lipsmacker sectors, and my total grew. By the end of the year, I had accumulated 309 FAs, a number that I would have thought impossible at the beginning of the year. All but one of these FAs was at Frank Slide, an area that I thought was more-or-less tapped out.
Mark D. checking out the final moves of Jolly Green Giant (V1X) this summer, on toprope before trying it with just a pad. Jolly Green Giant had a few ascents this year, but no one has fallen off the crux (right around where Mark is) just yet.
(2) Easy problems galore! Many of the new lines I climbed this year were quite easy (V0-V3), but the quality of the majority of these problems was fantastic. Some of these lines - like Son Of A Wanted Man (V1 in the Hulkamaniac Sector), Levitation (V2 in Spiderweb), Fistful Of Tombstones (V1 in Hulkamaniac), Forest Full Of Ghosts (V1 in Gunwales), Alter Ego (V2 in Lipsmacker), Doctor Spacetime (V2 in Lipsmacker), Road Warrior (V2 in Townsite), The Deathless (V3 or 4, on the Baba Yaga boulder deep in Lipsmacker), and Le Funk (V3 in Karst Valley) are some of the very best problems in their grades at The Slide.
Dan A. on the steep and juggy arete of Grizzly (V1) on the Bear Boulder. This was one of the new blocks that we climbed on this year; it yielded a very large handful of great easy lines, including the dyno Bear On A Bicycle (V3?4?) as well as the hard(ish) cave line Bear Down (V6).
(3) Mega moderates! One of the nice things about (COVID-enforced) solo climbing trips is that I can schedule my day in an efficient way. At The Slide, I like to warm up by shuffling rocks to build landings for new (or old) problems. This year, lots of days of climbing at The Slide equated to lots of warming up, which meant that the landings of the new problems I found got improved substantially. I found that in some sectors many excellent lines had been passed over because due to jagged blocks at their base, and with a little (well, a lot) of work some of these lines became amazing new lines. I was astounded at the quality of many of these moderates (V4-V5), and felt blessed as I built up the landings and unlocked the sequences of these problems. Among the top-notch new lines I climbed are Origami (a very cool V4 arete in Lipsmacker), The Unicorn (an unbelievably good and steep V3/4 in Hulkamaniac), Centipede (a rare V4 pure sloper problem in Hulkamaniac), The Wanted Man (V4, with a high, committing finish), Undertaker (a comp-styled V5 in House Sector), Vox Pop (V5, powerful and committing in Frictionary), The Dreaming (V4 or 5, one of the steepest lines at the Slide), and Traction (V5 in Karst Valley, very similar to the classic Aftermath).
The Unicorn (V3 or 4), in Hulkamaniac. This boulder is a lot steeper than it seems in the photo, and is one of the best lines at the grade in the Slide. A lot of solo climbing trips = lots of photos of rocks without anyone actually climbing in them.
(4) Brand-new boulders! Frank Slide continued to surprise me with that rarest of all commodities - brand new blocks that I hadn't really seen before. The biggest surprise of this category came in the form of a blurry (but strangely large) outline I'd seen on Google Maps, in the fringes of Gunwales (a sector not really known for good rock quality). Offhandedly, in a conversation with my friend Chris P., I suggested that he should go check it out - thinking that while it might turn out to be a wild-goose chase, it might also yield a few good lines. Intrepidly, he set off through the talus, discovering what would come to be known as The Witch House boulder, home to some of the best moderate problems in the Slide. A similar exploration had me searching through the trees west of the Slide, where I established a handful of new lines on the Memorial Boulder, including the world-class line The Dying Light (V4). In mid-summer, Dan A. and I had a blast putting up problems on a brand-new block that has come to be called the Bear Boulder (home of the amazing Grizzly (V1)). There is always something new to see at The Slide!
The amazing 'bouldering gym' face of The Witch House (Gunwales Sector), that has a great collection of V3-V6 problems.
(5) Hard(ish) new problems! The downside to my endless explorations was a lack of effort dedicated to individual hard projects. Nonetheless, I did succeed on a handful of hard(ish) lines, including Bicycle 808 (V7, originally a Dan A. project that I thought impossible), Aquaman (V7, an old project of mine that I had previously given up on), the funky Doctor Who Sit (V6 or V7), Bear Down (V6 on the Bear Boulder, with a very cool kneebar), and the unique Prismatic (V7ish, one of the best new lines that I did this year). I also managed to repeat Josh B.'s problem Little Trundle Of Joy (V6, though I think more like V7 personally), which is completely amazing. I didn't do anything harder than that this year, but maybe next year I'll focus on projects again!
Dan A. one of the new hard(ish) lines that we did this year, the fantastic Tenet (V6).
(6) Hard projects found! While I wasn't searching for hard projects, I certainly found a few. One of the more exciting projects I (re)discovered, The Teacup (maybe V8?), resisted my best efforts, unfortunately. As I hiked through the Slide, I kept a list of hard unopened projects; if I can manage to get in shape this winter perhaps I'll dedicate next spring to wrapping up some harder projects.
(7) A little bolting. For a few years, I've had my eye on a multi-pitch line on the Emerald Lake wall near the BC border. Though I didn't try to find a partner to climb the wall with (for obvious reasons), I nonetheless managed to get the first pitch bolted, and work a bit on the second pitch. Hopefully I'll get my act together enough to finish the route in 2021. It'll be a fun line, probably 7 or 8 pitches long.
This is me holding my camera over the lip of the Emerald Lake Wall, looking straight down 8 pitches at the access road below. Exciting!
(8) A little caving (in a little cave). On one of my many 'looking for new climbing potential' hikes, I explored a short bluff not far from Crowsnest Lake. To my surprise, I saw a small cave at the base of the wall; convinced it was just a shallow alcove, I looked into the knee-high grotto, only to see that it extended deep into the side of the mountain. As far as I know, this is a previously-unexplored cave! I returned with my son Rowan and my wife Shelley (and headlamps) and we crawled in about 25m; there, the low-ceilinged cave opens up into a tall chamber. It may continue further, but I'd need to do some subterranean climbing up a steep slab to explore further. Maybe this year?
The cave I crawled into for a little extracurricular excitement! The mouth is about 5 feet wide and 2 feet high, though it gets a bit bigger inside...
(9) New area! For many years, I've searched southern Alberta and southeastern BC for new climbing areas. In the last half-decade, I've managed to find a few decent areas (one decent-looking but small crag in the Crownest Pass, and a nice bouldering area plagued with access issues near Cranbrook), but never hit upon anything very spectacular. That changed this year. A friend of mine who lives in SE BC gave me a tip about a new sandstone area he'd walked through; intrigued (and not being able to travel very far) I drove across the border to check it out. I was amazed at the quality of the rock - it is some of the hardest sandstone/conglomerate I've ever seen. There isn't a huge amount of bouldering (maybe only 100-200 problems max), but there is room for probably 100-200 sport and trad routes. It could be a exciting area, though it'll take a fair bit of trail work and route development. I'm definitely looking forward to spending some time at the area next year!
A typical wall at the (potential) new sandstone area just over the border into BC. No routes yet, but I hope there will be soon!
(10) Still climbing! One of the things that I am (increasingly) thankful for is the fact that I'm still climbing (at all). My knees and elbows are a little worse for wear, but I'm still climbing well, and still having a lot of fun. I'm the head routesetter at Coulee Climbing, which gives me another creative outlet in my climbing life. Climbing is also an important driver of my explorations of this fantastic world we live in, and though my wanderings were curtailed in 2020 I'm hoping that they resume in 2021. So thanks to all my climbing friends - at the gym, at Frank Slide, The Boulderfields, and beyond - and here's looking forward to a new year of finding new lumps of rock to climb on!
The skull at The Witch House says 'Have a fantastic year of climbing in 2021!'