Ghost: Big Limestone in the Canadian Rockies

Big Limestone in the Canadian Rockies

 

Sam Lightner jamming on Wully Sport (5.11b), Wully Wall.
Imagine this: Sharp rock ripping flesh. War cries echoing off the walls. Blunt tools glancing off bone. Not a game — not like climbing. Howling warriors from two proud tribes racing at each other across the same shallow river that now swirls around my legs. I look down at my numb feet and try to imagine red clouds billowing in the water and between my toes. I quickly jump out of the river, not sure if the shivers running up my legs are from the cold or from ghosts in the water.
Looking back up the valley, I conjure in my mind the next part of the story. Moaning and gasps mix with the wind and gurgle of the water. Bloody bodies lie in the twilight and a few survivors look on — watching as spirits gather in the dusk. Ghostly apparitions walk among the dead. It is not told whether it was the Cree or the Stoney who won the battle fought at this site 200 years ago, only that many died, and that the sight of the specters walking among the dead gave the valley its name. The Ghost River Valley has been feared and revered ever since.
The bloody images disperse as I draw my lungs full of tobacco smoke, watching the wisps fly in the darkening sky, remembering that we learned to burn tobacco from North American natives. I am alone in the Ghost, scaring myself with imaginings — yet identifying with the warriors. I have my own “weapons” in my pack: a drill, a rack, hooks, and ropes. Today I succeeded in battling up three and a half pitches of another new route — not quite like hand-to-hand combat, but still dangerous and exhausting. I wonder what the valley spirits think of my climbing games. In my heart, I want them to admire my courage and know my reverence for the place. As if to validate my desires, the Northern Lights begin to flicker in the sky. I roll and smoke one more, thinking of scenes from my four seasons here.

 

Looking up the Ghost River Valley into Banff National Park. Wild West Wall is the large, central crag to the left of the shadowed hump on the skyline. Grey Ghost Wall is to the right, and the prominent cliff upvalley above the lake is Spectre Crag.

Good weather, perfect limestone — is this the Canadian Rockies, or Dreams of Verdon (5.12a)? Chad Shepard discovers they are one and the same.
Situated directly west of Calary and a few valleys north of the Canadian Rockies’ most famous crag, Yamnuska, the Ghost River Valley has drawn climbers since the 1960s. Exploration by members of the Calgary Mountain Club in the late 1960s and early 1970s brought back tales of endless limestone walls and better rock than in the better-known Bow Valley around Canmore — all easily accessible by vehicle. Soon, the CMC was hosting regular forays into the valley, and by 1975, the charge was on.
The seasons of 1976 and 1977 really lit the fire for new routes in the valley. Trevor Jones, Chris Perry, Jack Firth, and several other expatriate Brits were leading the way, climbing bold traditional lines on clean gear and pitons. Canadian climbers quickly joined in, and soon 5.10 was firmly established in the valley on multi-pitched routes such as Crack-a-Jack (5.10b) and Thor (5.10c R).
Bolts were shunned in the early days, but more and more began to appear in the 1980s as the obvious traditional lines were picked off. Trying to honor the original spirit of Ghost River climbing, climbers such as Jon Jones, Dave Morgan, and Andy Genereux at first only used bolts sparingly to connect features, always drilling on lead. By mid-1980s, Jones, Genereux, and others embraced rap-bolting, but still kept the routes spicy — lines like The Chimera (5.10c R), for example. But by the end of the decade, the Ghost’s solid limestone had become a major venue in Rockies climbing, producing lines in every style, from pure sport lines like Boy Wonder (5.11c) to run-out multi-pitch adventures like Creamed Cheese (5.11a/5.10 X). The Ghost currently boasts 400 routes from 5.7 to 5.12 and one visit to the valley will convince anyone several lifetimes of routes still await discovery.

 

Kim Csizmazia grabs for ... a ghost? Cowboy Poetry (5.12c), Wild West Wall.
My own infatuation with the valley began in 2000, on a trip from Colorado with Marco Cornacchione. Our original plan was to look for glory in the alpine arena, but the big Canadian Rockies routes reminded us repeatedly that we were no longer twenty years old and crazy. We still imagined ourselves pretty legit climbers, hardmen, but the enormity of the faces and their absurd looseness simply scared the crap out of us. We started casting around for a more reasonable adventure, something befitting two schoolteachers whose former rock-warrior days were beginning to acquire that warm glow of nostalgia.
Not long after Marco made his fifth call in two days to his new girlfriend (who would eventually become his wife), we found ourselves motoring down into the Ghost River valley, craning our necks to take in miles of austere gray walls. A familiar energy coursed through my veins. Nothing beats the rush of approaching a new climbing area. I imagined the feeling must be kin to the pre-battle euphoria those ancient warriors felt.
Not long after arriving, our own battles began. After sampling several short routes, we set off up Dreams of Verdon, a six-pitch 5.12a on the expansive, black-and-orange-streaked Wild West Wall. A cold Canadian wind threatened to blow us off the delicate first-pitch arête. Just thirty feet up and pumped silly from indecision over which side of the arête to tackle, I was already finding the line something more than the “sport climb” promised in the guidebook.
Soon my tips burned from bearing down on prickly crimps, but as we fought our way up the first couple pitches, we slowly got used to the precision climbing. We carefully tested the tiny, sharp holds — breaking none. The views of glacier-blue lakes and proud peaks seemed to mute our conversation. While belaying, I scanned what I could see of the quarter-mile-wide wall for other signs of routes, but saw nothing but untouched stone. Later, back on the ground, nursing raw fingertips, I couldn’t stop spraying about both the route and the wall’s untouched potential.
Dreams had been put up by the Ghost area’s guidebook author and most prolific developer, Andy Genereux. A week earlier we had run into him, racing up the trail on Yamnuska while we were wandering down. In our short conversation, he had raved about the Ghost and recommended several routes, including Dreams. It wasn’t until after he bounded up the hill with his load of bolts that we connected his name to our recently purchased Ghost guidebook.

 

Rats in the rigging: the damage done.
Genereux, I later learned, is a legend in the Alberta climbing community. Drop his name among local climbers and they first mention his unbelievable appetite for first ascents. He has climbed in the Ghost since 1980, and put up over half the area’s routes. He’ll clean it, bolt it, climb it, and build the trail to get to it, locals said. Some wondered openly if there was more than one Andy Genereux running around. He has also dominated climbing on Yamnuska and numerous other Rockies crags. Beyond his climbing, Genereux is a bit of a renaissance man, an entrepreneur, art photographer, and winemaker. But to me, on that first trip, he was still just a name and a reputation. I didn’t know it then, but my interest in the Ghost River Valley would become an obsession, and I would cross paths with Genereux again.
After our day on the Wild West Wall I was feeling grateful for the work Genereux had obviously put into the area. But as Marco and I took turns paging through his guide, we noticed a common guidebook-author syndrome: a large proportion of the three-star routes were Genereux’s. Lacking any other way to choose objectives, we decided to test the author’s bias by sampling his more fervently self-promoted routes.
We next tried Genereux’s Dirty Dancing, a five-pitch, 5.12a, mixed gear and bolt route — with three stars. The book speculated that the climb had not likely been on-sighted or even repeated cleanly since its first ascent in 1991, which added to our attraction.
We started early and in the shade. Cold fingers and a few warrior whoops barely pulled me up the first face-climbing pitch, and I happily karate-chopped into the start of the crack the guidebook had promised. Unfortunately, despite the features above, the crack climbing didn’t last long. Four dihedral pitches found us forcing fingers into thin pods, crimping like mad, and desperately stemming — sometimes all three techniques at once. Dirty Dancing delivered on its name, with some admittedly filthy sections, but even so, the three-star rating held.
Our last Genereux route was Windmills of the Mind, a seven-pitch 5.11b put up on lead with a power drill, sans hooks, a method Andy pioneered and refined throughout the 1990s. A small rack and the occasional bolt carried us up the awesome Grey Ghost Wall over a variety of features: slabs, steep faces, and the occasional crack. Again, the route measured up to its rave review, and imagining Genereux crimping in the middle of the 5.11 crux and firing in a bolt had me shaking my head.
By the trip’s end I was drunk on the views of miles of unexplored rock. I had spent a rest day inspecting line after line until my head hurt from squinting through binoculars. When Marco and I hit the road for home, I declared out loud that I would return to tackle the unclimbed faces. I couldn’t wait to throw myself at the walls next year.

 

Michelle Gerbard on Prize Fight, a spectacular 5.11 direct finish to the seven-pitch classic Consolation (5.8), Wully Wall. Although the author focused on unclimbed rock, numerous sub-5.10 adventure climbs await visitors to the Ghost.
Dreams had been put up by the Ghost area’s guidebook author and most prolific developer, Andy Genereux. A week earlier we had run into him, racing up the trail on Yamnuska while we were wandering down. In our short conversation, he had raved about the Ghost and recommended several routes, including Dreams. It wasn’t until after he bounded up the hill with his load of bolts that we connected his name to our recently purchased Ghost guidebook.
Genereux, I later learned, is a legend in the Alberta climbing community. Drop his name among local climbers and they first mention his unbelievable appetite for first ascents. He has climbed in the Ghost since 1980, and put up over half the area’s routes. He’ll clean it, bolt it, climb it, and build the trail to get to it, locals said. Some wondered openly if there was more than one Andy Genereux running around. He has also dominated climbing on Yamnuska and numerous other Rockies crags. Beyond his climbing, Genereux is a bit of a renaissance man, an entrepreneur, art photographer, and winemaker. But to me, on that first trip, he was still just a name and a reputation. I didn’t know it then, but my interest in the Ghost River Valley would become an obsession, and I would cross paths with Genereux again.
After our day on the Wild West Wall I was feeling grateful for the work Genereux had obviously put into the area. But as Marco and I took turns paging through his guide, we noticed a common guidebook-author syndrome: a large proportion of the three-star routes were Genereux’s. Lacking any other way to choose objectives, we decided to test the author’s bias by sampling his more fervently self-promoted routes.
We next tried Genereux’s Dirty Dancing, a five-pitch, 5.12a, mixed gear and bolt route — with three stars. The book speculated that the climb had not likely been on-sighted or even repeated cleanly since its first ascent in 1991, which added to our attraction.

 

Benoit Robitaille and Patrice Gagnon on Windmills of the Mind (5.11b), Grey Ghost Wall, established by Andy Genereux and Joe Josephson in 1995.
We started early and in the shade. Cold fingers and a few warrior whoops barely pulled me up the first face-climbing pitch, and I happily karate-chopped into the start of the crack the guidebook had promised. Unfortunately, despite the features above, the crack climbing didn’t last long. Four dihedral pitches found us forcing fingers into thin pods, crimping like mad, and desperately stemming — sometimes all three techniques at once. Dirty Dancing delivered on its name, with some admittedly filthy sections, but even so, the three-star rating held.
Our last Genereux route was Windmills of the Mind, a seven-pitch 5.11b put up on lead with a power drill, sans hooks, a method Andy pioneered and refined throughout the 1990s. A small rack and the occasional bolt carried us up the awesome Grey Ghost Wall over a variety of features: slabs, steep faces, and the occasional crack. Again, the route measured up to its rave review, and imagining Genereux crimping in the middle of the 5.11 crux and firing in a bolt had me shaking my head.
By the trip’s end I was drunk on the views of miles of unexplored rock. I had spent a rest day inspecting line after line until my head hurt from squinting through binoculars. When Marco and I hit the road for home, I declared out loud that I would return to tackle the unclimbed faces. I couldn’t wait to throw myself at the walls next year.

 

Andy Genereux, Ghost buster.
Alone now I sit on my pack, cigarette ember glowing in the dark. I think about my luck in finding such a wondrous place. In the four years since my first trip I’ve climbed most of the harder routes in the area, sampled many of the more moderate classics, and put up over twenty-five pitches, including the most difficult multi-pitch routes in the valley.
Above the sound of swift water, I hear voices and laughter on the breeze. Not ghosts this time; other climbers have rolled into the valley. They may be from Calgary, probably come to sample the more straightforward trad routes and moderate bolted lines. Folks from Canmore and Banff sometimes wander in, drawn away from their local sport routes in search of a more vibrant experience, but I’ve actually run into more climbers from abroad than Albertans in the Ghost.
A deer cautiously emerges in the dim, magical light, reminding me that climbers, myself included, are just visitors here. The Stoney tribe, descendants of the Great Plains Sioux, once roamed the Ghost valley to hunt. I imagine a shadowy Stoney hunter stalking the deer — and remember that I, too, have been stalked by death in this valley.
The story of my second trip to the Ghost is a darker one. Back in Colorado after that first visit, I sprayed all winter about the area and managed to convince a friend that, come summer, we should warm up the drill and get cracking! In August, Allan Porter and I headed north, quickly climbed Dreams of Verdon to the top, and hucked a rope off the lip farther out to the right, where the vertical stone gave way to an enormous overhanging bowl carved from the top half of the wall. The exposure made me pucker as I twirled in space, fifty feet out from the wall. There were no crack systems, but in my mind I connected corners and grooves up the tremendously steep wall and thought we had a route. Allan agreed.
The problem: we had only a vague idea of how to go about bolting such a steep and enormous wall. We decided the best way to equip the six-pitch line would be to work our way down, bolting just enough to get ropes fixed to the overhanging wall. Then we’d work out the details on the fixed lines, adding bolts. It seemed simple enough, and like most climbers who have never really thought much about how all those handy anchors get up there on a big, crackless wall, I figured the task would be straightforward.
The weather over our next ten days in the Ghost was poor, even serving up an August snowstorm in Calgary for the first time in anyone’s recent memory. The steepness of the wall allowed us to soldier on anyway, working, cleaning, and bolting through mist and snow. I pulled out the work ethic from my past big-wall days and set myself to the task, but the frustration with gear, bolt placement, and route-finding sapped Allan’s psyche from the get-go. The weather, jugging, and uphill approach with heavy batteries and bolts finished it off.
Several hard workdays into the project, Allan jugged past the fourth belay to put the finishing touches on the partially bolted final pitches. A few feet off the belay, while wrestling with some cruxy moves and worrying about where the pro should be, he decided he’d finally had it. Cold and annoyed, he rapped back down the fixed line, which ran up to an anchor that was still out of his sight. We both descended, leaving four pitches redpointed and two unfinished. The route was going to be magnificent, but our time was almost up. We needed to leave in just two days, and I, too, started to burn out.
The final day of the trip dawned warm and sunny. Allan emerged from his tent and said he wasn’t going back up. I was stunned. We argued for a few minutes, my ego taking some cheap shots at Allan. This was the sort of scene that should be played out in the Himalayas over some proposed suicide line — not over a sport route! Allan was usually a very motivated partner, but this morning a strong feeling was telling him not to push it any farther.

 

The author in action on the first ascent of Paranormal Activity (5.12a).
Finally, I conceded to his strangely adamant refusal, and angrily marched off to the cliff to rap in and clean our ropes and gear. Bitterly, I refused Allan’s offer to help.
As I gained the gully to the top, I sifted through what I had learned that trip. First, bolting a route this size is significantly more work than establishing a similar trad line. Second, it might be better as a one-man job. With a single drill, and with the rockfall caused by cleaning, there is little that two people can safely do at once. I organized all this information in my head as I humped to the top, already planning to return next summer, alone.
There was one more lesson to learn that day. As I rapped from our top anchor to the first belay, I noticed that one of the slings was in tatters. I knew the cause immediately: rats. The guidebook had warned us about the nighttime marauders, and we had taken pains to protect the gear we left at the base. Fortunately, this anchor point was only a backup, so the chewed sling had not been a serious threat to us yesterday when we worked on the route. Twenty feet further down, however, I sighted a length of rope that looked like a drag queen’s feather boa.
As I carefully slid down to inspect, a feeling of dread crept into my gut. The rope’s sheath had been shredded away, exposing about two feet of ghost-white core, and the nylon was flayed out like shag carpeting. Somewhere a rat was relaxing in a colorful synthetic nest. The core itself had four small strands left.
I thought about Allan — only yesterday he had dangled and rapped on this rope, out of sight of the damage. It was his bodyweight which had exposed the length of core, as friction from his rappel device tugged on the rope’s sheath. I tied off the sickening core shot and continued down, wondering if I should tell Allan at all. He certainly could live a long, happy life without contemplating the freefall to the talus he would have taken if the shredded rope had failed.
I cleaned our hardware, jugged out, and headed toward the decent gully. When I returned to camp, I couldn’t help pull out the rope and present it to him. “Welcome to the Ghost!” I said with a jack-o-lantern grin.
“Holy shit!” he said, eyes wide.
After thirty combined years on the rock, Allan and I had relearned climbing’s most important lesson: catastrophe always stalks the unwary climber.
“I knew it,” Allan said. “I just had this feeling this morning like I shouldn’t go up there.” Allan ran his fingers over the shredded rope, “Maybe it happened last night,” he said, in hopeful denial.
“Yeah, and the sheath just slipped down by itself,” I countered. “Face it, you just about took the ride!”I chopped the shredded chunk out of the cord and offered it to Allan, but he declined. I kept it myself as a reminder that life is indeed fragile.
We eventually named the route Premonition. Marco, on his honeymoon in the area a year later, in typical climber style, left his new wife waiting in the valley to join me for the first ascent of this amazingly steep and solid 5.12c line.
My argument with Allan had dissolved in nervous laughter by afternoon. As we packed up to head out, I silently promised the Ghost I would be back. I have a hard time leaving unfinished business. I had learned a lesson with the rodents, and our near fatal mistake had only made feel even more determined.

 

Chris Kalous having a Premonition.
The following July I crossed the border alone. I had called Andy Genereux over the winter and was headed for his place in Calgary. During the twenty-hour drive, I constructed an elaborate vision of my trip north as a pilgrimage to find some important knowledge. I could learn a ton from Genereux. Though he only vaguely remembered me from our meeting three years earlier below Yam, he welcomed me, and over breakfast we laid plans to climb in the Ghost.
On our first day out, I got an up-close view of Andy’s famed energy and efficient workmanship. We shouldered debilitating loads of ropes, drills, batteries, and bolts, and humped them three hours to the top of the Wild West Wall, up the trail Andy had built. From the clifftop, I rapped in to finish equipping the top of Premonition and Andy dropped down a new line.
I obsessed about every bolt placement on my route for hours, then finally joined Andy — who was already two pitches down and starting on a third. I watched as he rapped each pitch, casually, in his boson’s chair, occasionally brushing a hold or two, rapidly firing in well-spaced bolts as he descended. We’d burned through four batteries by the time we reached the ground.
Premonition had taken me over a week of work for six pitches, most of that time spent working with Allan in a team of two. In one day, Andy single-handedly finished the five top pitches to a two-pitch start he’d already established from the ground: Hired Gun (5.12b) was born. Andy’s accuracy and efficiency made me feel like a toad. I watched and learned over the next weeks as the dust flew on other new projects.

After ten glorious days of fine weather, Andy had to return to work as a fireman among the high-rises and warehouses of downtown Calgary. Alone in the valley again, I was ready to put my new knowledge to the test on a ground-up first ascent, Genereux style. I used Andy’s system, carrying the drill on a shoulder sling so it hung handle-out under my armpit, making me look like some sort of Uzi-toting thug. The system allowed quick one-handed drilling from free stances, requiring no unclipping of the drill, which hung high on my torso, rather than dangling and swaying from my harness. Genereux typically bolted and freed most of the pitches onsight, on the go —- an incredibly efficient method. Using this style, combined with other variations, Andy reckons that in the last ten years he has put up 500 pitches in the Ghost and Bow Valleys alone.
Genereux seldom used hooks and almost never carried aiders, but I decided both might provide a safety net if I couldn’t hang on to drill. Armed like this, I set out to solo bolt what looked to be a single-pitch 5.10 sport climb near the start of Hired Gun. The daring apprentice was breaking out on his own!
Right off the deck, my “free stances” experiment ended and I resorted to straight hooking on the deceptively difficult ground. Slowly, however, on the easier climbing between cruxes, I forced myself out of the aiders. I found myself gasping for air from the effort of drilling even from good stances. Climbing into unknown ground looking for a drill stance was an experience like no other — stepping off a hook, praying that holds appear, knowing that a miscalculation will send you pitching off onto the self-belay with the whirring drill still smoking. I managed to avoid this scenario, but played it in my mind every time I prepared to pull the trigger of the drill.
Scrapping my way up the steep limestone, I started to see firsthand how the rock dictated my technique. Each section was a balancing act between pushing my climbing, finding stances or hook placements — and not risking my life completely, since I was virtually alone in the valley. I wanted to create a fun and safe climb, not make a “statement” that would rust and fall down before anyone repeated it. I wanted people to climb my route and recommend it. Also, secretly, I wanted Andy to approve.
After two rigorous days I had established four pitches of climbing, two of 5.11 and two of 5.12. Remembering the rats, I avoided fixed lines and re-climbed the lower pitches each day — which quickly became tedious. I changed tactics, established the top pitches on rappel, and finally had Cowboy Poetry, a steep, seven-pitch 5.12c on excellent gray and orange limestone. I had learned more from the experience than I had in years of repeating routes. I knew that longer bolted routes twice as hard existed all over the world, but this baby was all mine.
Andy graciously agreed to help me redpoint the route. On that glorious day in the Ghost, he and I both climbed as well and as hard as we ever had. The master and the apprentice met eye to eye and ushered in a new era in the valley.
I pull the last drag from the rolled smoke and shoulder my pack to head back to camp. My fourth summer in the Ghost is drawing to a close. In April, Andy had pulled a block while new routing on Yam, fell, clipped a ledge, and broke an ankle and ruptured both Achilles tendons. Still, he hobbled up to the cliff with me a few days ago and we put up two new pitches, despite having to elevate his feet between redpoints.
Premonition was repeated just days ago with rave reviews. This year, I was privately delighted to find that my residency in the Ghost had been assimilated into the stories. More than once I had heard, “So you’re the guy from Colorado that was putting up routes in the Ghost last summer? I heard about you ... ” Drums from a nearby youth camp begin echoing off the walls — it is the Stoney Elders, teaching troubled kids from the reservation to use their heritage as a source of strength. The sound resonates in my imagination. The ghost warriors pass through my shadows as I head up river to camp. I believe that climbers are the modern version of those ancient warriors. I am proud to walk in their footsteps.

Chris Kalous, 33, teaches high-school English in Carbondale, Colorado. This is his first feature for Climbing.

 

Paranormal sky, Ghost River Valley.

 



Comments

Leave a Comment