Nightmare on Wolf Street
by Carlos Buhler

As we ski up to the Stanley Headwall, it is hard to imagine a more perfect day to climb: 12 degrees F, no wind, blue skies. The sun doesn’t shine long on this NE wall, and we stop just short of reaching the base of Nightmare on Wolf Street to enjoy a brief morning sun’s warmth while we chow down on some snacks. The base of the Stanley Headwall is an impressive place. The limestone wall rises above in an almost sheer cliff of about 1000 feet. It is roughly half a mile wide. Because of the Stanley Glacier, and the porous nature of the limestone layers, this wall delivers some of the most beautiful ice and mixed routes in the Canadian Rockies. Nevertheless, below the rock is a menacing snow slope that drops quickly over a short cliff band before continuing downwards another 500 vertical feet to the base of the valley. Most climbers take this avalanche slope seriously in winter. We’ve approached from the north, as others have, hugging the base of the Headwall, where a series of bolts in the rock every 150 feet protect us as we traverse the scary snow slope.

My partner, Will Kahlert, takes on pitch one, a 20 meter, M7+ bolted “mixed” route, and is climbing well. He trends up and right in a steep, slanting corner and then traverses right, to avoid the overhang, before rising out of view. When I follow the pitch I realize he’s made it look easy. By the time I reach the belay, I’m thoroughly pumped.

I’ve been preparing mentally for the next pitch. My Spanish friends backed off the start of it on their first attempt of the route 2 weeks earlier. Though they returned to complete the climb, their description of it was that the belayer was directly beneath the leader, who, virtually unprotected, had to make a wide stem onto a delicate pillar of ice from the rock wall on the right. I take a look at this awkward and scary move from the belay and set off hoping it will pan out. Working up the rock on the right, I aim for a blob of ice where I can get my foot well planted before stemming wide to the pillar. For mental stability, I place a stubby into this blob of ice and awkwardly embed my front point in to it. From an off balance position, I look down at Will beneath me. He has tried to miniaturize himself beneath the pillar I must now hook out and on to. Hmmm. He will take it badly if I blow it, even with the stubby in place. Deep Breath. It seems solid enough and I stem out to the ice from the blob, and commit to the pillar. Breathe. Then I’m climbing fragile but familiar ice again, and the terrain isn’t too scary.

When I complete about 50 meters I reach a large ledge 2/5 of the way up the route. The 2nd mixed section, graded M7+ as well, looks less intimidating, but much more strenuous. It’s clear that the overhanging traverse left to the ice is going to push me. Will comes up quickly after the tricky stem to the pillar, and sets up his belay on two, solid anchor bolts. We’ve agreed that we each will deal with one of the two “mixed” sections. As I set off, I realize I’m not recovered from the pump on the first pitch. Sapping my confidence, my arms begin cramping by the time I’ve climbed 5 meters. Though I reach deep for strength, I hang from several bolts before gunning left to reach the ice again. I’m not without some disappointment for dogging the mixed, but this is not the time to wallow in self pity. I climb up delicate and awkward ice to reach a little ice cave. My arms are now spent. If I was at our local Vsion climbing gym, I’d wrap it up for the day and head home. But we’ve got a ways to go yet.

Will comes up with some similar maneuvers on the bolts and I’m secretly relieved. He concurs; it is very strenuous. His next ice pitch is complicated and very engaging. It is impossible to see clearly where to climb since the overhanging mushrooms loom so large above us. He winds out left when they block his upward progression and continues out of sight. I know the terrain must be dicey. Though not extremely strenuous, due to rests on the mushrooms, he never moves quickly. Every sequence requires thought and planning for a full 40 meters. When I follow the lead, I realize what has taken him so long. This is ice climbing at its best and wildest. Wow! Each pitch is a world in itself.

I find him at the base of another challenging pillar and take off with thoughts of pushing this through before the light is gone. It isn’t quite as complicated as Will’s pitch, but my strength is ebbing and I am forced to climb conservatively. In my concentration, I admire the atmosphere. The rock is dead vertical and this carrot of ice is one of the most spectacular features on the Headwall. Off to my right about 150 meters, I see French Reality, a fraction of its size in some years. To the left, the rock is steep, grey and impressive. It occurs to me that one’s position on this “carrot stick” is as impressive as any ice climb I’ve been on.

With my arms protesting from the effort I’ve demanded from them, I put in a belay behind the last pillar on a snowy platform. My arms really need the rest. A gaping, 10 foot diameter hole lies next to the wall, forming a well of darkness between the ice and the rock. I place an extra screw just because of this spooky void. When Will comes up, he asks me if I believe we should continue to the top. It’s 6:30 P.M. and we have only about 30 minutes of light. “Yes!” I say quickly. I don’t want to end this amazing day without the satisfaction.

When these 30 minutes have elapsed, we are huddled at the top and preparing to rappel. We set anchors cautiously until we reach the bolts at the top of pitch two. Here, we relax slightly and rappel the last two pitches in darkness. The solid, snowy ground feels particularly good. I devour a pesto and cheese sandwich, a gourmet dinner, before we begin reversing the lengthy traverse along the wall to our skis. I realize this day will end later than we had hoped. But the quality of this sensational climb will stick with us for a while.

Carlos Buhler needs little introduction. His ascents of Everest, Ama Dablam, Changabang, Kangchengjunga, K2, Nanga Parbat, Cho Oyu, Aconcagua, Cerro Torre and countless others have earned him legendary status. We are privileged to count him as our friend. Read more at www.carlosbuhler.com


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