The weekend of January 17th found me with a mountain itch. The last outing for me was on December 31, when I snow shoed up Rawson Lake Ridge in Kananaskis. A month is a long time between summits for me.
The usual suspects (i.e. Ben, Vern and Steven) were busy emailing trip ideas until Friday afternoon. Original plans for an ascent of Center Peak in the Livingstone Range were cancelled, thanks to wind warnings in the area. We settled on a rarely ascended peak in the Don Getty / Ghost River Wilderness Area instead - Phantom Crag also known as Devil’s Fang. We wanted to get some winter rock experience in preparation for some climbs we have planned in 2015.
Phantom Crag is best known for it's many vertical climbing walls, giving it a striking appearance when you drive into the Ghost River Area. There are many climbs up it's impressive walls, including some short, sweet bolted routes tucked away up the access creek that we took. I can't imagine these routes see a ton of traffic, considering they're off any beaten track with no cairns or ribbons or trails (that we could see anyway). The idea to scramble / climb Phantom Crag came from a trip Kerry Vizbar et al did in 2008. Kerry noted that his party scrambled the crux, which is pretty impressive. This is certainly beyond scrambling terrain - especially in winter with snow and ice and in mountaineering boots. The Rocky Mountain Ramblers also did this ascent in 2010 and used a 30m rope at the crux. They reference a comment in the register regarding the route as 'moderate scrambling', but I believe this was in reference to the non-climbing sections at the summit block itself - not the crux. We decided that since we'd be climbing in winter conditions we'd bring axes and a full 60m rope, just in case there was snow / ice on the crux. A good decision on hindsight...
We arrived a bit earlier than planned, witnessing a gorgeous sunrise on our short approach to the ascent drainage on the north side of Phantom Crag. I could have driven 1km further but in the dark I wasn't sure about the ice on the route ahead. The winter road down the big hill and towards Black Rock and Devil's Gap was in excellent condition. My 4x4 with all season tires did just fine. A few of the deeper snow drifts required a bit of a run to float through, but all-in-all an easy drive. The drainage was obvious and soon we were tramping up it on snow covered boulders, trying to maintain our balance with fairly heavy packs.
[Phantom Crag looms above our parking spot along the Ghost River]
[Gorgeous sunrise, looking back from our parking spot along the frozen riverbed. ++]
[Looking back as we start our approach, Blackrock on the extreme left. ++]
[Devil's Head with alpineglow.]
[Phantom Crag (Devil's Fang) lights up with morning sunshine. Our ascent drainage is on the extreme right side of this photo. ++]
[Getting closer to our ascent drainage which runs left of the buttress in the sun.]
[In the drainage]
Our first route decision was whether to continue up the main drainage or take an obvious branch to our left. Since the peak was to the left, we took that branch. Soon we were staring up at an imposing series of slabs covered in ice that I'm sure a pretty waterfall cascades down in the summer. There was no obvious route up this section, so we turned climber's right and hoped to find a path up cliffs on climber's right. We found a perfect trail up the base of the cliffs skirting the slabs and topped out neatly right above them.
[An excellent trail runs up along the cliff to climber's right of the headwall.]
[Looking back over our ascent drainage towards Blackrock Mountain from our exit on top of the headwall slab section.]
[Still have some terrain to get over before we're in the upper bowl. We ascended reasonable terrain head-on or detoured climber's right in the bush / scrub.]
[Vern tackles the lower crux, short but awkward. We jumped it on descent. (photo by Steven Song)]
[Slogging up in loose, unconsolidated crap]
From here it looked like we'd be at the crux cliff band within an hour or so. Kerry talks about a 4-5 hour round trip so we were expecting things to go pretty quickly. Small mountains have a way of biting back and Devil's Fang was no exception. Knee deep, unconsolidated snow, combined with moderate bushwhacking and very slick and hard slopes underneath conspired to slow us down and make us tired. It took almost 2 hours of dogged persistence before we found ourselves under the curtain wall of low cliffs guarding the summit block. We ended up right at the base of the section clearly referenced by the ramblers;
Two of the party had done the peak before, on separate trips, and neither remembered any major problems. On this day we, however, struggled to find a scramble route through the lower cliff band and in the end pulled out a 30m scrambling rope. There was a gully further east but Sim and Bill described it as "slimey" so maybe when things dry off it might be the way. We used a less steep break that had a double crack in the steepest part that wasn't too bad but, in my mind, was definitely SC7+.
[Finally above treeline and on frozen scree. Yeah! :)]
[Looking back over our ascent route, across the Ghost River at Devil's Head on the left and Blackrock on the right. ++]
[Approaching the curtain wall.]
From the bottom the "double crack break" didn't look too serious, so Ben attempted it free solo. He soon backed off (carefully) and declared that at the very least, he'd need an ax or two to free the route in it's present condition. Although it was pretty bare, and grippy rock, there was just enough spin drift and ice to make it extra spicy. Ben felt that with an ax or two, he'd be able to pull himself over the slick sections. I had noticed the "slimy" gully to the east already on ascent and felt we should attempt it before committing to this line. Ben and Steven waited while I checked it out. The slimy gully had a much shorter crux, thanks to piled snow, with less serious consequences. I thought we should try it. Ben tried to stem up, but small (no) holds and a flare towards the top, combined again with blowing snow and big mountaineering boots made it very awkward. Back to the double crack.
[Ben on attempt no. 1. It's harder than it looks... ]
[The "double crack" is visible on the right hand side of the photo. Note the snow.]
[Looking back from the bottom of the curtain wall. Gorgeous area. ++]
[Ben tries the "slimy" crack. Thanks to flaring and overhanging snow, it was much harder than it looked. We rapped this on descent.]
As Steven put on his rock shoes, Ben decided to attempt the double crack with his ax. It didn't look very easy as he grunted his way up but eventually he did make it. Thankfully we remembered to tie the rope to his harness so he could bring Steven and I up safely. Steven grumbled as he put his boots back on but it was nice to have a belay while we climbed the crux. Ben and I left our packs behind to make things easier. I found the crux to have good rock / holds, but thanks to the wind, blowing snow and small bits of ice and hands that were so cold I couldn't feel any of the holds (!!) it certainly felt harder than anything I climbed on Mount Fryatt. (Of course Fryatt's crux is much longer...) Kerry rated the crux at 5.4, I'm not sure it's quite that stiff, but it didn't feel nearly as easy as some of the 5.3 climbs I've done, so perhaps that rating is justified. I've decided to go with it for now. Remember, it's only around 6-7m high so it's not 'much' of a climb - just high enough to have some consequences if you slip.
[Ben on the upper part of the "double crack" crux.]
[Vern on the crux - it isn't high, but high enough. Photo by Steven Song.]
Once we topped the crux we still had some nice looking terrain on the summit block. The wind was gusting pretty fiercely as we tackled the bone dry rock. Careful route finding kept the scrambling at low-difficult. I wouldn't call it 'moderate', due to exposure and consequences of a fall - you really can't fall on some of the moves or you won't be coming back. The views from the summit were quite unique, including the far off summits of Girouard and Inglismaldie over Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park and the closer summits of Devil's Head and Black Rock to the north. We decided to keep our summit stay short, before we blew down to the Ghost River in one of the violent gusts.
[Above the crux, a nice looking summit block. Doesn't look easy though...]
[Not too easy - moderate to low-difficult scrambling.]
[Excellent summit pano down the Ghost River. Blackrock on the left. ++]
[Vern on the summit]
[Another great pano including from L to R, End, Peechee, Girouard, Inglismaldie, Lake Minnewanka, Costigan, Devil's Head. ++]
[Looking over Lake Minnewanka towards Peechee, Girouard and Inglismaldie. Apparently the lake was in great shape for ice skating here...]
[Devil's Head on the right]
We carefully descended back to the top of the crux. I have a new year's resolution for rappelling, which was making me a bit nervous about rapping off the anchor we used to climb the crux. My resolution is meant to safe guard against the most dangerous part of almost any climbing - the rappel. Many experienced and careful climbers have died due to rappelling accidents. This is too bad, because usually these are very preventable. My resolution states that I will only rap when I'm 100% confident that both anchor points are sufficient for the rap. I will rap off one anchor point only if I would hang my truck off it without any worries. (Obviously I understand that there are situations where I will be forced to rap off one manky pin or a less-than-stellar anchor, but I want to minimize this and save it for true emergencies.) In our case the rap anchor was a sling around a rock that looked only to be frozen into the slope rather than part of it. The rock was also fairly small, which wasn't inspiring. I wanted to either back it up with a pin, or search out a better anchor.
[Carefully down climbing the summit block]
[Ben and Vern down climbing the summit block - photo by Steven Song]
[The false summit of Devil's Fang is higher than the true summit and looks impressive from this side. It's a scramble from the other side.]
[Still on scrambling terrain]
We traversed above the slimy gully and searched for a better anchor - and found the perfect one. Steven noticed a beautiful hole in the cliff above the gully which allowed a perfect rap that would have held my truck, I'm sure. We rapped the gully with no issues and were soon sliding down the hard scree to the drainage below. There were no more difficulties to the truck, other than avoiding a twisted ankle on the slick snow covered rocks and trees. We found some very nice bolted routes in the drainage on exit - we'll be back to try these some day for sure.
[Steven on rappel]
[Ben raps the 'slimy' gully.]
[Back down the crud]
[On exposed terrain just before taking the trail beside the cliff, above the headwall slabs.]
[Back in the drainage]
[Both sides of the drainage have bolted routes]
[Back across the river.]
[Hence the name, "Devil's Fang" - view from the drive out.]
[One more view from the drive out - a very impressive looking peak.]
All-in-all this was a fantastic use of a warm winter day. We joked on the way home that we were a FRWA (first recorded winter ascent) for Phantom Crag, but in reality I'm sure someone has done this striking summit in winter before. We learned a bunch of things for our next climbing adventure and discovered the joys and hardships of roped climbing in windy and cool conditions.