Rambler Peak – West Buttress

Rambler Peak – West Buttress trip report June 15, 2013

More years ago than I care to remember (well twenty three if you must know) I was walking back to camp on the Elk River trail with a group of 10 -12 year old summer campers spending two weeks at Strathcona Park Lodge where I was working, essentially in this case as camp counsellor. We were on our hiking camping trip, two nights on the Elk River trail, enough for a visit and swim at Landslide Lake. In the spirit of hanging out with 12 year olds we were singing and chatting and stuffing our faces with delicious blueberries along the trail. I remember well that I was covered in blueberry juice, sporting a tie-dye T and a fine pair of candy-stripe pants (this was 1990 after all).

Suddenly round the corner came a pair of burly, hairy, shirtless dudes. Strapping examples of manhood with packs heavily laden with ropes and all manner of gear, only outshone by their body and facial hair. I can’t remember if I had met Chris Barner and Paul Rydeen before, I expect I might have as they passed through the Lodge from one adventure or another. But what I do remember is that they had a few years on me, I definitely knew who they were and I was suddenly very aware of my blueberry spattered face and was at pains that they realized I’d be just as likely to heave a pack like theirs around as be singing camp songs with my charges!

We chatted briefly and they mentioned they were on their way to Rambler. I was a bit relieved as I had already to come to think of Colonel Foster as a bit of a personal project and the heat was off if they were eyeing other prizes. With that they were off up the valley and I back to my campers and berries.

A few days later I checked in the ‘new routes’ book that hung by the staff out trip board and read their entry ‘Surrealistic Pillar’ Rambler Peak west buttress…

Of course over the years I got to know Paul and Chris well but always remembered with a bit of a smile the day I had run into them on the ERT and I could never think of the West Buttress without thinking of blueberries and tie-dye.

But I never got to climb the route. Being a bit of a new router myself, gearing up for a climb like that typically had me looking for new lines, not repeating them. Over the years the Surrealistic Pillar gathered a reputation as a great climb. Moderate in difficulty but taking a very aesthetic line to one of the island’s highest summits.

So when my partner Renée announced that Rambler was rising up on her tick list and we needed to put a visit to the upper Elk River on our plans I figured it was high time to check out the pillar.

We planned our trip for mid-June reasoning that the route should be clear of snow but the approach up the Rambler canyon still choked with snow making both the approach and climb optimal. A long weekend should do it, with an optional fourth day if needed. I have to be honest with myself, I’m not as fast as I used to be, and besides it would be important for Renée to have a fun experience so it was good we had that fourth day up our sleeve. As it turned out even with heavy climbing packs we made it to the upper Elk Valley under Rambler’s west face in good time the first day. Along the way we had run into Mike Childs and group of his friends, a party of four, also vying for the same route… uh-oh traffic jam on the pillar!!

If it’s confession time, another confession I have to make is that I always push to the best camp. The upper Elk in mid-June is basically one huge bowl of snow. Which seems dramatic at 1 pm but by the time supper is cooking it can turn into a total ice box. So Renée and I pushed on closer to Elk Pass and found a beautiful camp ledge facing the sunset, well out of the snow and settled in there, with a good view back across the cirque to the west buttress.

Our camp tucked on the ridge overlooking Donner Lake

By the time camp was set, tea sipped and supper cooked the day was done so we watched the last of the clouds lift and the sky glow, promising a fine day for climbing.

We decided to depart camp at 7:30 am. No need for an alpine start I figured. If we started too early then the young guys would catch us up and we might cause a jam, so we’d give them time to get going and follow up with plenty of day light for our own ascent. It was just before 8 am that we were all packed and out of camp, dropping back down into the cirque and across it to the base of the pillar. As we gained a bit of height toward the base of the route we could see the lads still in camp – helmets on and getting ready, but we were in pole position.

Rambler Peak and the West Buttress angling from lower left rightward to the summit

The base of the west buttress is broad with a series of wide scree ledges layered with slimy rock slabs wet from the melting snow above, and bands of snow. We pushed through some slide alder and found an almost dry line up the first slab to get to a wide patch of snow. Right away I was worried we were going to be too slow. The slimy rock slabs took way more time than you’d hope for barely 3rd class. Still, we pushed on and crossed the wide snow patch rightwards toward the south side of the buttress where we had seen a series of angled, bushy gullies from our camp.

We roped up and started up a short snow-filled gully and then a another and then the leftward angle we had seen from camp started to take shape and the line gradually drew us across to the centre of the buttress. I tried to lead as quick as possible knowing that pitching the whole route out was going to take a lot of time but it was needed to keep us happy and safe!

The vegetation finally relented and we popped out onto a sort of a ledge shelf thing that ran right across the buttress. Now we could see a good sweep of rock above. WOW! It looked a bit intimidating! What were we getting into..? Wait – all the beta we had said 4th class with low 5th.. can’t be that bad. As with most long routes on big features you just have to be persistent I thought and follow your nose, looking for the weaknesses and the easy, faster ground will reveal itself. And so it did.

Snack time!

Basically the middle third of the route involved trending rightward on ledges to find gullies and ribs that led back left. The rock gradually got cleaner the higher up we went and the exposure terrific. Great views of Elkhorn and Mt Colonel Foster the whole way. And the mountains really drop away to the west from Rambler, from 7,000 ft summits to hills barely reaching 5,000 ft so the sense of getting high is pronounced.

We had a little beta with us – actually Chris Barner’s original first ascent account on my iPod. It mentioned a few 5th class pitches higher up. Especially an exposed traverse to find a chimney. Would we find it? the pillar looked massive. Still we kept climbing. I lost count of the pitches but it was a lot. We had lunch quickly at a good belay ledge. Below we could see Mike Childs and his team making their way up.

A few more pitches above lunch and we arrived on a sort of shoulder jutting out from the main buttress. Behind it is a huge steep gully dropping down to the south west snowfield and the Ramblers’ Route. the shoulder joined the main buttress at a thin part of it and above we could see a short but very steep headwall. Higher was a big ledge. Wondering where this exposed traverse was we headed up the thin ridge to the headwall and then it all became clear.

The narrowing of the buttress before the upper headwall

To the right and down at the base of the wall was a clear climbers’ track on a loose exposed ledge, just as described! Following it down it took us to the base of a chimney. Hmmm not bad, it didn’t look too bad at all. I headed up the first bit, more of a gully and then entered the narrow chimney. Wasn’t even all that dirty. I found a cam placement and then wriggled into the chimney. A good thread and then … the exit looked tricky. My ice axe on my pack was getting stuck as I tried to wriggle up the chimney. Ack! Looking out right the face looked thin but very clean. Bridging the chimney I felt out on the right wall, oh! A few good holds. Small but pretty positive. I decided to commit and stepped out onto the right wall. A few thin holds and I was up and back into the top of the gully above the chimney. Nice!

Renée exiting the chimney

The route character and rock quality took a nice leap up in standard now and the climbing exciting and enjoyable. Above the chimney was a narrow gully, almost a chimney. Looked okay from below but once in it I realized it was going to be better climbing on the outside left edge. Some fine exposure making more fun 5.5- 5.6 moves on super positive holds with fine exposure. It was great watching Renée follow that pitch from above, seeing her figure it out and enjoying the climbing.

Barner’s first ascent details mentioned 2 pitches of 5.6 up the ‘white rock’. Now we were below the white rock – well I’d call it more grey really. It’s that super clean, hard, almost polished grey basalt we get on the island. You love it because it’s solid but fear it because it isn’t weathered, it’s smooth and palmy to climb, usually with minimal protection! 2 pitches of that! Oh this was a long day.

Once Renée was settled in at the belay I got ready and looked up at the grey rock. A steep step on some loose blocks to get onto it and then a short but steep wall looked like it led to easier ground. Okay 2 pitches… I could see the holds were positive so I knew if I kept in balance it would come together. Up, toward a detached flake. I threaded a sling around a sort of solid rock jammed behind the flake, it moved! Dam! The flake was big but kinda loose, I looked out right more onto the wall. Sure! I made a delicate step past a loose rock and onto good footholds hoping there would be good handholds above on the easier ground… nope, shit! A what the hell, this is one of those times just have to go for it and I threw my foot up and made a quick high-step/mantle move and was over it in a heartbeat! Okay 2 pitches… and I just did part of one, up I go.. a few more moves.. Holy shit! there’s the Golden Hinde! I’m on the top.

Finishing up the crux 5.6 pitch

With a block belay I knew my mother would want me to have I brought Renée up. She tackled the thick flake with burly layback moves, which just goes to show there is more ways than one to skin a cat. We spent a few minutes on the top snacking and reading the register. Then off with the descent.

We rappelled off the summit to the north shoulder. This was all familiar terrain for me now which always takes a bit of the heat off. Renée went down the north east gully on the first half rope length rappel but shouted up she couldn’t reach the next anchor! Luckily she got onto a tiny ledge and I came down the rope to join her. The snow in the gully was slushy sloppy crap! It didn;t feel safe to be moving around unroped so I excavated a new sling horn and got us back on belay.

I went down the next half-rope rappel hoping for a smoother change-over. As I neared the end of the rope I could see a bergschrund opening up. Not another rappel! Please! The rope ends dangled so close to the schrund. Close enough I inched down to look. I was able to just drop over the schrund and land on a small snow ledge on its lower side and jam a perfect #2 cam in the rock beside me.

Renée came down and joined me. We quickly retrieved the rope and I belayed her as she downclimbed to the open glacier below. I was still concerned about another schrund at tehe gully base so I doubled up the rope around the bottom of the schrund on a horn, pulled my cam and lightly slid down to the glacier.

We passed the wild needle of Rambler Junior to the top of the lower south east gully. We could see boot tracks down the gully from the past weekend’s IAG group. The snow was even slushier here. But by now it was past 7 pm. We had to keep safe but speed was important too. We plunge stepped down the whole gully keeping an eye out for schrunds that were starting to open up.

Finally we exited the gully and made the easy traverse to the south shoulder and down to long snow chute on Rambler’s south west side and back to camp. Tired but thrilled with a great day out!

Happily back at camp

As it got dark we got a glimpse of headlamps way up on the route! Mike and his crew were still at it! ‘On Belay!’ we heard!!! We yelled out across the valley and laughed a bit when we heard hollering back at us! We watched them for a bit before passing out.

Next day we slept in and then broke camp. Had a chance to quickly chat with the guys who had made it back to camp early that morning. That and a long hike back to the ERT tralhead finished off a great long weekend trip to Rambler!!!

For the record we took:
a single 8mm 60m half-rope
3 cams .75, 1 and 2 camalots (only used #1 and #2)
5 stoppers DMM 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 (didn’t use them)
2 120cm slings (used them a LOT)
4 60 cm slings (used them too)
assorted biners, belay device
couple of lengths of webbing for rappels

1 general ice axe each
helmet, harness, regular mountain boots
no crampons