No Ifs or Ands, only Butt’s (Buttresses, that is)
by Sandy Briggs and Andy Arts*
September 13/14, 2008
I have had my eye on the Centaur’s butt (north buttress of Centaur) for quite a few years. (There may be those who would say this helps to explain quite a lot.) In fact, in February 2005 I went to “have a look” at the Centaur buttress with two Heathen friends from Campbell River. The thing was very out of condition. And it’s a good thing it was — we might have done something stupid. We had perfect weather but we wallowed up to our waists in deep, dry powder snow, working very hard just to get a glimpse of the proposed route from below Redwall’s NW ridge. Centaur looked formidable. In retrospect it seems to have been a bad idea for me to have even considered trying it in winter. We satisfied ourselves at the time with climbing Mackenzie Peak, but I remained intrigued. I had seen this buttress in wintry conditions from the ridge of Cat’s Ears and it seemed to be a completely obvious line that somebody needed to climb.
This April photo shows the north buttress of Centaur and our route, with numbers indicating the starting points of the pitches.
It was therefore puzzling to me, but also satisfying, that of the several parties that had put up new rock-climbing routes on the north side of the Mackenzie Range in the last ten years or so, nobody had claimed to have done this gem. I can only assume that they were very good climbers and considered the Centaur Buttress to be either too easy or too bushy. Since I have seldom been intimidated by either of these objections, the route continued to be near the top of my list of ”projects that must someday be checked out”.
And so it was. In mid-September the weather forecast was fine, the stars lined up correctly — as did a few ducks — and I set off early one Saturday morning with Andy Arts, a new arrival from Canmore, to drive to the Mackenzie Range. We started hiking up the familiar climbers’ trail at about 11am. In a fit of altruism I had brought along a spray can of orange paint and we took turns improving the visibility of many of the metal tags that help mark the first third of the trail. I am pretty sure that I had mentioned to Andy that it wasn’t a chip trail, but he continued to show the same enthusiasm he had displayed earlier in the summer when I convinced him that we should bushwhack up the west ridge of El Capitan in the rain. Which is to say that he ate it up. But the weather was warm, and the major blow-down damage to the bottom third of the trail that had occurred in the preceding winter conspired with our loads and our trail-marking mission to slow us down, so that it took us about seven hours to reach a good bivy site at the saddle between Mackenzie Summit and Perez Lookout. The view out over Kennedy Lake to the Pacific was spectacular. Part way up the trail we had heard some helicopter activity and I had joked to Andy that likely someone was flying into the area to scoop our route. This proved to be half right.
There were some mosquitoes. (Andy comments: “I’d like to pipe in here. “Some mosquitoes” is not what I would have said. There were thousands of them; they were just taking turns sucking the blood from us. No matter where we ran to, the mozzies were hovering patiently for more blood.”) Fortunately we had had the good sense to bring head nets. (Andy continues: “Yes Sandy had mentioned to me that he had a head net for me. Well, I’ve never been anywhere where I needed a head net but I thought I should listen to him, I mean the man has a wealth of knowledge and experience. He pulled out this netting that looked like a pillow case. I started laughing really hard, then asked him if he was serious! Have you ever slept in a pillowcase made out of mosquito netting? Let me tell you it wasn’t fun.”)
We ate dinner while enjoying the sunset — except that I had forgotten to bring a spoon. So in order to enjoy my dinner I had to carve a spork from a bit of random wood. It worked fine. We lay down in the open and fell asleep with the night sky, and the almost-full moon, divided into many tiny squares.
Perhaps we should have planned to get up before six o’clock, but we didn’t. We got up a little after that, and set off about 7:30 to descend around the base of the NW ridge of Redwall to the “great Mackenzie ice sheet”. Upon reaching this snowfield Andy spotted human footprints, so we began to follow them. Then he spotted the tents and the people. Vikki and Matt had flown in by helicopter the previous afternoon as part of the provincial government’s ptarmigan survey. Vikki I had met before at a friend’s party; Matt is a former student of mine. After a brief chat Andy and I set off to begin our climb, spotting a ptarmigan right at its base, where we left our boots and changed to climbing shoes.
From this point in the report Andy and I offer a tag-team description of the climb:
First Pitch (about 9:00am)
Andy – I offer to take it partly because I want it. I haven’t been on the rock for a while and I need to put myself out there. And, to tell the truth, male ego comes to play. I’m climbing with Sandy Briggs and I want to prove that I can walk the talk. The climbing doesn’t look beyond my limit, but it’s definitely a run out. Sandy checks out an alternative start because he agrees that the availability of gear might be a bit sparse. But it doesn’t go and we start up as planned.
At first the climbing is easy, 5.6 or 5.7. About seven metres up there’s still no gear to be found. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about my family, asking myself, what am I doing? I know this feeling, it’s not really about my family, it’s just fear. I shake my head, find a place for a bomber nut, and I feel better. I move up farther and start to run it out again as it gets a little harder in grade. Shit, it’s tough to find pro. I stop at a ledge about six inches wide, take a comfortable stance. I look and look and finally see a spot for a piton. I yell down to Sandy, tell him it’s for psychological reasons that I’m clipping it. As I place it I laugh to myself knowing that the sound of the piton does not instil any faith, but it’ll have to do. I move up and in two metres I find a hex placement that I could hang a truck on. Finally, 20 metres up I feel happy: good pro does that to you. Wow, this is mentally challenging. It has definitely been a few months since I last climbed. I get to the first belay and set up a solid anchor with three good pieces of gear. Sandy comes up in good time and we look at each other and agree: “Huh, this is a bit run out.” We check out the next pitch and I ask Sandy if I can take it. I need to climb it to get rid of that fear that keeps knocking inside my head.
Sandy – I follow the first pitch admiring Andy’s tricky lead on minimal pro. Bits of it must be close to 5.9. I climb with a rock stuffed into my pocket. We have brought one hammer and Andy has it. I use the rock to remove the piton. I am glad I didn’t get this pitch to lead. I throw the rock away.
This picture shows the buttress on the day we climbed it.
Andy – I start off with a corner crack; get good placements in the crack on my left as I climb the face, which becomes a bit slabby. The gear is outstanding; especially the three tiny roots that I girth hitch and clip, thanks to Briggs’s suggestion. In my head I’m saying, OK, maybe not that piece, but the cam below is bomber. I look out to my right and see slab and no gear placements. Then I look out to the left and see that if I can get out on the buttress I can climb the face. That option looks better. I grab this huge jug as I swing out onto the face and look up. Yes, some gear! Awesome gear. The climbing gets harder but the gear is in abundance. I traverse left a little and find a spot for an anchor. Sandy arrives in record time wearing the pack. I’m glad I’m not wearing it on lead. “I’m fried,” I say, and offer the rack. “Shall we keep going?” Meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself, Say no. We can still get off this beast and I wouldn’t feel bad because we did try. “Yes, I think I should have a look,” he replies. OK, I say to myself, happy to give up the lead and rest a bit.
Sandy – I get to Andy’s belay thinking “Jeez. I hope this thing gets easier or I am not going to be much use in leading my share.”
Sandy – I traverse up and left a bit and find a place for a shallow piton before climbing up and into some mossy bits to a sturdy tree belay. The climbing is not too hard, fortunately, but the pro is not plentiful either. But once leading I kind of get into it and have some fun. These three rock pitches have actually been pretty nice (well, apart from the thin pro issue).
Andy – I follow Sandy’s lead wearing the pack. Huh, this is harder than it looks, I’m glad I’m not leading this. It was at this point that I realized that the mozzies where still hungry even after Sandy and I fed them well last night and early this morning. Climbing, I curse to myself that I didn’t bring any mosquito repellent.
Andy – I have a look at the pitch and ask Sandy if he wants it. He says, “I guess if I were a gentleman I’d say yes.” I grab the rack and tell him he hasn’t gotten to that level yet. We laugh. It’s good to laugh. That means things are all right. Hey, we’re likely the first people to climb this route. It wasn’t till then that I actually thought of it. This pitch is quite stimulating, especially when I arrive at a blank wall about 40 metres up. Huh, where to now? There’s this horizontal crack veering off to the right, with shrubs protruding out of its two-inch gap, and then what looks like a bonsai with a delicate two-inch stem holding it up. I have to traverse to the ledge, which is only two metres away, palming the rock face, weaving between the wall and foliage. I crawl to the ledge telling myself, ‘Don’t slip’. As I get to the ledge I use my fingers like ten little ice axes to dig into the moss, and scamper onto the ledge. Finally, I am on a solid ledge with lots of gear. Sandy comes up and traverses over to me as like he’s having a walk in the park.
Sandy – The start of this fourth pitch is up a large cleft/chimney that turns out to be harder than it looks. Andy soon reaches a bushy bulge and has to hunt for a good gear placement before stepping out left to a thin and exposed situation. When my turn comes I pause to be impressed by this move, then follow up a bit, and then leftward along some small blocks. Then up to the said blank wall that requires the bushy rightward traverse to the good ledge. Bushes attenuate the sense of exposure. Nice. Sometime around now the helicopter comes in and collects Vikki and Matt. Hmmm, what time is it getting to be anyway?
Andy – I climb over a 10-foot boulder, see no way through or up, come back down, and push through a huge tree as the branches scrape my back. I grab vines and roots, slip on moss, dislodge rocks, my feet struggling to find footholds, and finally find a place to set an anchor. Real Island climbing, as Briggs says later.
Sandy – We know from earlier observation that there is an upper headwall that could turn out to be the crux. This short pitch reaches that headwall, the bottom of a V-gully of bare and relatively featureless rock. My mind is grappling with doubts. But we are in a spectacular situation.
Andy – I start off going up this corner crack hoping to veer off to the left. The right is overhung and too hard for me. I get up about three meters and realize it will not go. Mark Twight’s words come to mind: “Don’t climb up anything you can’t down climb”. Uh oh, did I just do that? “Sandy, help me out here!” He guides me down. Then I’m off to the left on a gently rising traverse until I come to a break in the cliff. I set up an anchor and wait for Sandy. Before he has a chance to say anything I hand over the rack. I am pooched.
Sandy – I am not so sure I want the rack, but I do want to be a gentleman, and Andy has done most of the leading so far. It’s time to see if I can balance the workload a little. The pitch is definitely a kind of mixed climbing — Not the type that you would find in the Canadian Rockies, says Andy — luckily not wholly unfamiliar. The pro is just adequate, and includes hitches around vegetation. Finally I feel as if I am contributing something to the effort. The next belay is a sturdy tree. I think that we have reached the top of the upper headwall and that all the harder climbing is behind us. This turns out to be the case.
Andy – Sandy grabs the rack and I see this huge 6 foot 3 ox heading up the wall. He doesn’t find much until about five metres above the anchor and then a few more placements as he gets higher. He’s climbing a concave gully where he is able to stem to the sides a bit but the moss makes it difficult to trust the feet and the climbing is hard. It feels like old school 5.8 climbing right out of the Rockies. Then he arrives at the shrubs. What is he planning to do now? I see the bushes thrashing about while Sandy grabs and clutches those little twigs. Will they hold? All I see is this giant swinging side to side and then launching himself onto the face of the rock. I say to myself, that looks interesting. When I get to that spot I can’t figure it out. “Hey what did you do here,” I ask. “Oh, just grab the roots and Tarzan out on to the ledge.” I laugh, “No, really, what did you do?” Well, it went. As he hauls my ass up to the belay, I am so glad I didn’t lead this pitch. Climbing Vancouver Island style is new to me. I’m from the Rockies where we don’t run into moss, twigs, shrubs, roots, and slime that often, especially not on a rock route.
Sandy – I penetrate the tree band onto the Centaur’s back and into a nice wee meadow where there is a laden blueberry bush. A quick scramble puts me at a nice horn belay on the ridge proper, with a grand view across to Redwall.
Andy – I come to a point on the cliff where if I look over to my left it’s steep, real steep. I feel a touch of vertigo starting to take over. I direct my vision towards the tree I have to go under and around. When I come to a blueberry bush I gorge myself quickly.
Sandy – This is a casual hike up a small meadow but we run out the rope as a matter of convenience.
Andy – I see a stunning meadow with flowers still in bloom, bright yellow and orange petals all over. It is such a beautiful spot in such a harsh environment.
Sandy – There are a couple of easy moves over some very sharp-edged loose blocks to gain the regular route that comes up from the other side. We are at a point one pitch from the summit, but because it is after 5pm we can hear the clock ticking pretty loudly. Andy graciously professes not to care about the summit, so we immediately rappel the short pitch to the big south-facing ramp, where I set off to check out the descent while Andy coils the rope.
Andy – This is my apprenticeship to Vancouver Island climbing. If I had ever doubted it, I know now that there is life after the Canadian Rockies
And the rest of it.
We couldn’t reasonably descend by the normal route because we had to retrieve our boots from the base of the route. Therefore we rappelled to the notch east of the peak. A second rappel/handline got us over a snow patch and onto the east side of the gully on rock with good holds. It was then easy to scramble to the top of the east (right) fork of the lower gully, where a horn provided a good anchor for a third rap. In retrospect it might have been as easy in the end to descend the west (left) fork of the lower gully, but at the time I thought that the moat at the bottom looked harder to cross. We scrambled down and then did another quick rappel to within striking distance of the snowfield. As often happens on the Island, we were separated from it by a problematic moat. Andy belayed me on a descending traverse to a place where I could hack a footstep into the snow side of the moat. I then stepped across the gap with my left foot, planted the pick firmly, and heaved myself up onto the frozen snow. I had a brief “Yay!” moment, and then began contemplating the fact that I was on steep frozen snow in rock shoes. I belayed Andy to the crossing spot and slid the ice hammer down the rope to him. He planted the tool and made the same big step onto the snow. There was the same “Yay!” moment, and then came the thought that “Now there are two guys in rock shoes with one ice tool on steep frozen snow.”
Andy suggested snow bollards. I agreed but suggested hand-lining it rather than actual rappelling. It worked, except that my arms were so tired I could hardly chop the bollard in that icy late-summer north-side snow. We did this about four times. Tired, tired arms. I trod carefully down the sun-cups holding the nut-remover tool in case of a slip, leaving Andy to coil the rope. (Sheesh, again. I seemed to do this a lot.)
We finally scrambled down to our stash of boots. With the tension released, to use Tilman’s words, “I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it.” We changed footwear and slogged back up to our bivy site, arriving at 8:00pm. It had been quite a day.
But then we noticed that our weekend had run out of days, and we were in the inconvenient predicament of needing another one to get home. A quick mental calculation showed that indeed a useful third day could be found if searched for, so we set out on this search.
We started our descent at 8:25pm using headlamps from the start. At the first snowfield we crossed fresh cougar tracks on snow. The night was dark and we both quietly began thinking about cougars lurking in the bushes. We stopped briefly at a small stream to fill up with water and then continued groping our way down the sometimes-subtle trail. Several times we had to backtrack and cast around carefully in order to re-find the path. Giving up on the path and just bushwhacking downhill was not an option. Once we were into the forest the path became more well-defined, but the descent started to feel like some kind of masochistic triathlon. We were exhausted. A full moon rose over the ridge. Stars twinkled. An occasional pair of headlights snaked through the valley far below.
We arrived at the car at 3:30am, gulped a can of coke each, and began driving at 3:50. I took the first shift and we had to switch drivers four times on the way home. After dropping Andy off I arrived home at 7:45am. There was time for a shower and a bowl of cereal before I headed off to campus to give my ten o’clock lecture. I am pretty sure it wasn’t my best lecture ever, but it may not have been the worst. (One of Andy’s friends, who happened to be in my class, told him later that she knew that our trip had been eventful and successful because of the smile on my face.) I was a zombie for the rest of the day. I finally got to bed at 6:00pm, and arose at 6:00am the next morning – feeling very, very happy.
Sandy Briggs and Andy Arts*
* The reader may think that this piece comes across as something of a mutual admiration society. OK. But maybe that's not such an inaccurate representation of the flavour of our day.
Postscript: It's all kind of amusing when I think that there are numbers of people who would solo a route like this before breakfast, or at least could if they wanted to. But if we go with Alex Lowe's comment that "The best climber is the one having the most fun.", then I guess Andy and I did pretty well.