Life on the Bigwall

Words by: Quentin Lindfield Roberts

Photos by: John Price

Towards the end of last summer Quentin Roberts spent three weeks in East Creek. He tells tales and lessons from his time establishing and working on freeing ‘The Preacherman Project,’ an incipient crack that splits the 200m headwall of the Minaret on the South Howser tower. He was joined by Michele Pratt and John Price on his journey.

Sessioning one of the crux pitches on the headwall.

Although it is a long way from being complete, this project is without a doubt one of my favourite new routes to date. Which is great, because alpine bigwalling is always hard work and you need to be motivated to suffer through it. The reality of bigwall free climbing is that the actual free climbing is the reward and only part of the creation.  To earn it, most of the time is spent hauling, belaying, cleaning and waiting out storms. As the work progresses, the prize is more time free climbing big, beautiful, unclimbed lines.

Enjoying some downtime with the good company of Jon Walsh and Michelle Kadatz at the East Creek campsite.

The journey began with a helicopter ride into East Creek Basin. After years of schlepping many kilograms of gear into the mountains, it honestly felt a bit strange stepping out of the chopper after a half hour flight. The chopper dropped us off at East Creek under a perfect blue sky. I stepped onto the glacier in my flip-flops with a 24 of Kokanee in hand, an atypical alpine arrival — such luxury! Before long we were carrying our gear up to the base of the route.

Michele Pratt and I establishing camp high on the Minaret. 

We hauled three separate bags full of gear and realized quickly that it would have been much better to just bring one big haul bag. We also brought two portaledges, and one fly. The plan was that John would come and cuddle if it rained. It is a good idea to pre-rig your portaledge fly, so that you can unfurl it quickly should you get caught in a surprise storm. Another tip is to organize all your gear in colour coded stuff-sacks to minimize the amount of time you spend rummaging around the haul bags.

Michele works on the second hard pitch of the route. This one’s probably somewhere in the 5.13+ range.

It was great having John and Michele up there. We made for a great team! Not only did Price take wonderful photos, he sessioned tons of the pitches with us and hauled like Schwarzenegger. As usual, Michele was ever positive, and bone crushed the climbing. I’m nervous she’ll send the route first. Most importantly, the two of them are fantastic company and are great at staying entertained and positive during the long belays and the heavy hauling.

A room with a view! Michele and I take in the sunrise over breakfast. 

We aid climbed all of the hard pitches first. I rope-soloed a lot of them so that the others wouldn’t have to endure the painfully long belays. After establishing the pitch, I would session it and see where the gear would go or if it needed bolts. The laser thin crack made for hard A3/A4 aid climbing — there was a lot of leapfrogging beaks. Despite being scary leads, I didn’t want to place any bolts until I had sessioned the pitch first. That all changed after I took a giant rope-solo aid whipper and cracked a rib. I then began to add bolts in obvious places as I went up. Some might criticize this, but I’m sure if they head up there once its completed, they’ll still find the route spicy enough.

John Price tucks in for the night as the last light sets on the Purcells

Once the headwall cracks were ready to be worked, I went up there with Michele and John. We spent the first day establishing a wall camp. An important part of rigging a ledge in the mountains is anchoring it properly. Everybody wants to be a genie and every portaledge wants to be a flying carpet. Anchor the ledge before you set it up to prevent it from catching a draft and turning into a giant kite that could potentially hurt you. On the topic of updrafts, make sure you bring a pee bottle so you can pour your pee gently down the wall or in a crack. That way it doesn’t get blown all over your comrades.

Michele watches as I desperately try to stitch the crux moves together above.

Getting the wall-camp set up got things to slow down and we began to focus on the task at hand. It’s easy to get caught up and always important to take the time to appreciate your position on the wall. Generally, I find that people who don’t climb often struggle to grasp what climbing is really like, but I would say that they do have a correct sense of what it’s like to sleep on a portaledge. It is insane, but also spectacular. Now that you’ve put in all the work to have this wonderful magic carpet up there with you, make sure you take the time to appreciate it. Take in every sunset and sunrise and embrace the vertical world.

Free climbing in the morning sun high above camp.

If you’ve got a new ledge, make sure that you shoe-goo the hell out of the part that contacts the wall, especially if you’re planning on belaying on it and taking whippers. If you’re catching a fall off of a ledge, make sure you’re standing clear of the straps and that your leash isn’t tangled. Jump into the fall as you normally would on the ground. Nothing crazy should happen if your ledge is anchored properly.

You’ve put in all the work to get up there, so you might as well enjoy it!

Some other tips to consider about alpine walling is that it’s worth bringing hut booties or something similar, because they keep your feet warm and aren’t as hard on the ledge fabric as regular shoes. Bring thermarests, to stop the cold updrafts going straight to your bones and line your haul bag with them. You can even cut them to perfectly fit the bag. Have a clip-in point for everything and don’t leave loose stuff on the ledges unless you’re watching it like a hawk. I always have two daisy chains attached between the ledges master point, and its corners for this purpose.

Tying my laces in preparation for another attempt on ‘The Preacherman Project’

We sessioned the route for three days before weather forced us to retreat and call it a season. Now that we have all the logistics and beta figured out, we’re super excited to return and try to finish it off, but it’s not going to be easy. My best guess is that the headwall will have two 5.12+ pitches, two 5.13 pitches, and two 5.13+ pitches. That’s all stacked on top of the initial 5.11 and 5.12 pitches before the headwall begins, but putting aside all speculation, Michele and I are very psyched to return!