A Tale of Two Rock Piles

In the world of rock climbing there are a few places that everyone has heard of and added to their rock climbing bucket list. Hueco Tanks in Texas is one of them, particularly if one is into bouldering. Located just outside El Paso, the park is named for the hollows formed in the rocks – some large, some just big enough to hook a finger in when climbing.


Fabio enjoying some easy climbing at the start of this hueco-pocked climb…

We headed there after a visit to Big Bend National and State Parks waaaaaaaaaaay down in the southern part of Texas hoping to spend a few days climbing and exploring. Alas, Hueco Tanks has fallen victim to its own popularity. Gazillions of visitors, some armed with spray paint and stupid enough to deface ancient cave paintings and others too lazy to haul out their trash created a big problem in this beautiful place… The desert environment is pretty sensitive to heavy traffic and the combination of people stomping all over the fragile flora, leaving their junk everywhere, and vandalism resulted in a major pendulum swing in the ‘we’d better protect this place’ direction.


I was pretty happy when we found this pair of cracks in the middle of hueco-land. 

Now, it’s tough to get in at all – only 75 people are allowed into the park at one time, permits are required, you certainly can’t take a dog in there, and activities are severely restricted. Access to 3/4 of the park is limited to visitors who come in with a guide. The result of all the hoops we had to jump through (including finding a local campground with a kennel where we could leave the dog for the day) meant we had a rather unproductive half day of climbing in the park. Granted, the climbing was fun (and, ironically, we were the only people rope climbing – the few others we saw were bouldering), but we wound up sprinting out with our packs at the end of the day to make sure we didn’t get locked inside when the gates closed at 6 pm sharp. The result was a stressful visit where we felt more like intruders rather than appreciative visitors.

We decided not to stick around for another day and headed instead west. Plan A was to make for Cochise Stronghold in Arizona – but along the way we stumbled across a State Park in New Mexico that sounded like it might be worth a look. City of Rocks was everything Hueco Tanks wasn’t.


Set up to welcome visitors, the campsites were roomy and private, nestled in among the boulders. The visitor’s centre was spotless with clean bathrooms (Hueco Tanks was having some plumbing problems when we were there…) and as long as we kept the dog on a leash and picked up after him, Tuulen was welcome. There were no places we were not allowed to go and our afternoon spent scrambling up a few boulders and poking around was pure pleasure.


Every time we turned around there was a convenient garbage can, excellent directional signage, and a bathroom or outhouse – which meant the park was spotless. It was also pretty much empty, at least on the side where they had the tent sites. Knowing what we know now, we would probably have skipped the Hueco visit and spent a couple of days in City of Rocks…


Bridging Practice


Fabio – tidying up a bit… 


One of the RV/Trailer sites – step out of your door and start climbing!


What a great tent site! Check out what’s hanging over your head while sitting at the picnic table! And how can you beat the view while eating your s’mores!

And then, there was ICE


When it gets cold in the mountains and your fingers start seizing up when you touch rock, it’s time to dig out the ice climbing tools. Having had a  bit of practice dry-tooling, we set off on a search for climbable ice. This led us to some interesting places – King’s Creek where the skies opened and we were soon hiking through ever-deeper snow in the first big snow dump of the season…

Though there was lots of snow, the ambient temperature was still quite mild, so the climbing wasn’t all that great… Though, the proportion of ice to flowing water was definitely higher than our first effort on Grotto Falls.

After the blizzard, the temperatures fell and things began to firm up. We climbed Cascade Falls – twice –

Fabio leading up one of the lower pitches Cascade

Fabio leading up one of the lower pitches Cascade

Cascade Falls, Banff National Park

Cascade Falls, Banff National Park


In terms of the view, it’s not a bad thing to be caught high on a mountain as the sun begins to set…

The first day we climbed all the lower pitches and ran out of light before we were able to climb the top pitch.

The next day we tried again and this time walked around the bottom three sections so we would have time to climb right to the top. The one small hitch in this plan was my total lack of experience and failing nerve right at the top. The ice was so thin up there it seemed like the water rushing underneath my feet was just as likely to suck the ice right off the rock and send it (and me) flying. In one place there was a huge hole in the ice and when I stood on the lip trying to collect my thoughts and convince myself going up was a good idea, my boot and leg got totally soaked by the waterfall rushing past and underneath me. My climbing companions for the day were totally unfazed by all this – apparently flowing water is just part of ice climbing – who knew?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWind, water, and chilly temperatures create wild ice sculptures at the top of Cascade Falls – Banff National Park

There was no disagreement about the beauty of the place. But right about where Fabio is (over on the right in the photo above) I had a total crisis of confidence and a complete failure in my minimal ice climbing skills and slithered off my precarious perch.


Help me…

I slipped and swung sideways, landing in a sort of cave of icicles. There I waited patiently for Dan, the third member of our team that day, to climb up to where Fabio was belaying from up top to tell him that I wasn’t going to make it up and over the final, flimsy bulge and that I needed to be lowered back down to the previous anchor. To say this was a tad disappointing would be a huge understatement. It was frustrating for everyone, I think – and I now need to go back and climb Cascade a third time in order to see what lies at the top.


This House of Sky

Our next expedition was to a climb called This House of Sky in the Ghost River Valley. This is rather an exciting destination even if you never climb anything as the approach involves a lengthy drive over a wilderness of snow drifts, rocky river bottom and then through the ice-choked river. Several times. The bottom part of the actual climb is not particularly difficult – it’s made up of a series of modest steps as the waterfall makes its way down a narrow canyon. It’s rather magical to make your way up through this secret passage, climbing ever upwards… The biggest problem was the warm weather – the lower pitches were absolutely soaking wet and crumbly. Delicate ice, is how Fabio puts it. He looks at stuff like this and salivates, relishing the challenge of climbing this type of thing gently. With finesse. Feeling you way up rather than bashing your ice tools into something remotely solid.


Haffner Creek is a popular destination for ice, rock, and mixed climbing. It was a great spot to go for a mixed climbing clinic.

Though I did manage to more or less keep up on the climb up and over the various small waterfalls, I wasn’t exactly feeling competent. So, I signed up for a mixed climbing course taught by Sean Isaac. Fabio headed off to climb something actually challenging and I spent the day learning some basic techniques and practicing using my tools on routes that combined rock and ice. The day flew past and I had lots of fun learning about body position, kicking techniques, and ice tool swinging strategies.


Getting to the top of a route in Haffner Creek

With my newfound skills (hah!) it was off to tackle Guinness Gulley. Managed to get up the bottom two pitches, though not without some issues. I had trouble negotiating the second one and slipped off when trying to retrieve one of the ice screws Fabio had put in on his way up. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a huge issue but I had parked one of my tools in the ice so I could unscrew more easily but when I fell I accidentally left one of my ice tools lodged firmly in the ice and well out of reach. People who actually know what they are doing don’t have much trouble climbing with one tool, but I was a bit flummoxed and determined not to have to be lowered down on another climb. I thrashed around getting ever more flustered, but managed to inch my way back up to where I was supposed to be in the first place. I suspect the initial problem was poor foot placement – both feet popped out when I was fiddling around with the ice screw – and as I crept up the ice with my remaining tool I realized just how poor my footwork still was.


Joe on the third pitch of Guinness Gulley

At that point, it was all mental – I totally lost my ‘I can do this’ attitude (which seems to be a bit elusive on the ice anyway) and by the time I got to the top and looked up what seemed like an endlessly long stretch of ice in the next pitch, I was done.


I sent Fabio and Joe on ahead and hunkered down against a rock to await their return. Quite honestly, I was thiiiiiiiis close to throwing in the towel and sticking to rock climbing, but then we decided to do a day of remedial ice. The fact this took place at one of the most gorgeous places on the planet (Johnson’s Canyon) did a lot to boost my flagging spirits.


The bottom part of the Upper Falls at Johnson’s Canyon

The hardest part was lowering myself off the little lookout platform (where a steady stream of hikers stopped to watch the crazy ice climbers throughout the day).


“Just lower yourself over the edge… Try to aim for the big rock.”

Coached by Fabio and Dan (relentlessly – neither of them really wants to wait days for me to fumble my way up stuff that really shouldn’t be that difficult…) I was drilled on kicking techniques, foot placement (and more foot placement), how best to orient the crampons to the ice, keeping heels low, moving beneath my tools, maintaining an ‘A’ shape with a single tool at the apex, feet wide and stable below, not moving on shaky tools, reading the ice for better tool placement, how best to swing, etc., etc., etc. until my head was spinning. However, climbing the same routes several times did a lot to build my shaky confidence back up and drill some basic techniques into me.


Practice, practice, practice… 

All of this came in very handy on our second trip to This House of Sky… but that will have to wait for another blog post as this is already way too long.


On Cascade Mountain


Fear of Drowning

Warm temperatures are usually good thing when one sets out to do some rock climbing. That's not the case when the objective is climbing ice...

Warm temperatures are usually good thing when one sets out to do some rock climbing. That’s not the case when the objective is climbing ice…

I never expected drowning could be a climbing-related hazard. Falling, yes. Being hit on the head by a chunk of rock, ok. Getting caught in a blizzard and being forced to dig a hole in a snowbank to make an ice cave – fair enough. But drowning?

I’m back in the Rockies and hanging out with people who are obsessed with waterfalls – though, not in their free-flowing gushing, exuberant moving state. This crowd of ice climbers can’t wait until it gets really cold and waterfalls become icefalls. And, these folks are eager beavers, so at the first sign of ice, off we went on an expedition to Grotto Falls near Canmore.

Grotto Falls near Canmore

Grotto Falls near Canmore

Needless to say, ice climbing requires some special tools. First off, lots of layers – it can be chilly standing around waiting for your turn to climb, so puffy jackets and thick gloves are the order of the day. Once moving, though, layers come off and, just like with any kind of climbing, one quickly heats up. Thinner gloves are in order once you get going (you still need to be able to feel what you are doing, even while trying to keep your digits from freezing).

Ice tools ready and waiting for... ice...

Ice tools ready and waiting for… ice… (note that bulky gloves get in the way of photos… yet another skill to master if one wishes to indulge in winter sports AND take photos)

Unlike climbing rock, you don’t generally grab onto the ice to help haul yourself up to the top. Instead, ice tools become extensions to your upper limbs and, instead of rock shoes, you wear heavy mountaineering boots designed to be worn with crampons. Crampons are the most awkward devices ever invented, bristling with spikes they are just as happy as to shred your trouser legs as bite into the ice.

Crampons - ready to strap them on the bottom of my boots...

Crampons – ready to be strapped onto the bottom of my boots…

Fortunately, for those of us who have no experience with crampons, ice tools, or climbing with a gazillion layers, there is a shoulder season sport known as dry-tooling. Those who simply cannot wait until the ice is ready (or, those who want to get those tool-hefting muscles into shape) head for certain crags where tool use is encouraged. There, crampon tips nudge gently into teeny weeny divots (you call that a toe-hold??) and ice tools balance on precarious lips of rock or wedge behind flakes and act like handles used to balance and pull up while one finds new, better, toe-holes for the blades strapped to your feet.

Dry-tooling at The Playground near Exshaw, Alberta

Dry-tooling at The Playground near Exshaw, Alberta

Occasionally, a tool gets so firmly wedged in a crack that it takes some effort (in this case on the part of both climber and dancing belayer) to extricate the serrated edge without snapping something.

A supportive belayer is worth his weight in gold...

An enthusiastic and supportive belayer is worth his weight in gold…

We went dry-tooling a couple of times at a place called the Playground (near Exshaw) so at least when we tackled Grotto Falls I had held ice tools before and had some idea of the theory behind ice climbing. I must confess I was a tad surprised when we got to Grotto Falls and found that they were still falling – gushing, actually. Yes, there was ice forming on either side and more ice higher up in the chute between the two rock faces where the water had cut its channel, but there was still plenty of water tumbling over the rocks. It was beautiful, no doubt, and probably the kind of thing sensible people might stop to photograph. We, however, decided to try our hand at climbing what turned out to be a bit of a vertical Slushie.

Early season ice climbing at Grotto Falls, Alberta

Early season ice climbing at Grotto Falls, Alberta

The ice was soft in places and not very thick, so I was told to softly place my tools more like I had been doing while dry-tooling (rather than taking a good hard swing as one would do when the ice is nice and thick). Nerve-wracking? Yes. It felt a bit like climbing up over a frosty mound of delicate eggs as I picked my way up the ice. Every time I jabbed at the ice with my crampons or placed my ice tools I was a bit worried the ice would dislodge and fall off the rock face. I have never climbed so gently! Often, water was visible beneath the ice, still roaring its way down toward the bottom. Where the rock chute narrowed and the water volume increased, there was a lot of spray and in a couple of places, no other option but to keep climbing what ice there was while being spritzed in the face with a decidedly chilly shower!

Halfway up, a pool that becomes a sturdy belay station in the depths of winter was, beneath a tempting ice crust, still very much a pool. A rather cold pool, which I discovered is about waist deep when one falls into it. My plunge into the icy water happened on my way down when I was being lowered and I slithered off the steep, slick walls of the bowl holding said pool. I must say it is a bit of a shock to find oneself paddling in bubbling water, ice blocks bumping into you, boots rapidly filling with water. Flailing about with my ice tools, trying to hook them on something solid enough to haul myself back out of the pool, I found myself pondering the likelihood of drowning while climbing.  At the same time I had to marvel at how effectively my waterproof over-pants were keeping me sort of dryish. Fortunately, I managed to scramble over the bottom lip of the pool and continue my descent unscathed, if a bit soggy.

Was it fun? (Which, really, is the only thing that matters…) I have to say it was actually most excellent, in a bizarre kind of way. It certainly whets my appetite for more ice climbing! For the first time in my life I find I am actually crossing my fingers for some colder temperatures to arrive!

Climb On

Turtle Island, Lake Louise

Turtle Island, Lake Louise

I don’t even know where to start with the past month or so of climbing adventures. Started on Vancouver Island with some local cragging (Fleming Beach and Mount Wells with various friends) before heading east… Squamish was stop number one – managed to squeeze in a bit of fun at the Smoke Bluffs and then tackled Deirdre, a multi-pitch on the apron of The Chief. Who knew there would be a queue at the start of this popular climb? Turns out it’s not only quite common to pick a number and wait your turn for popular climbs, it’s also very common to start chatting, swap contact info, and later send fellow climbers photos of each other. The climbing fraternity is a friendly one – small enough that everyone pretty well knows someone who knows someone – and large enough that on any given day one is likely to run into total strangers from halfway around the world and neighbours from back home.

Eli - met in Lake Louise and the next day climbed Gooseberry (the back side of Tunnel Mountain in Banff)

Eli – met in Lake Louise and the next day climbed Gooseberry (the back side of Tunnel Mountain in Banff) with him and Fabio – glorious afternoon – spectacular views, fun climbing – who could ask for more?

After Squamish it was off to Canmore (climbed Ha’Ling), the crags at Heart Creek and Cougar Creek, Banff (Black Band Crags and then the multi-pitch Gooseberry).

Freezing our backsides off at the top of Ha'Ling in Canmore

Freezing our backsides off at the top of Ha’Ling in Canmore

While up in the Rockies it was impossible not to also visit Lake Louise. Though winter kept threatening, the day we climbed was nothing short of glorious.

In Banff, met up with a friend from Australia and spent an afternoon playing about - can you beat that backdrop? (Black Band, Tunnel Mountain)

In Banff, met up with a friend from Australia and spent an afternoon playing about – can you beat that backdrop? (Black Band, Tunnel Mountain)

After three weeks of climbing nearly every day (the last couple of climbs in Cougar Creek near Canmore were finger-chillingly cold) it was time to pack up the tent and head west again – to Skaha, climbing mecca in the Okanagan Valley. Pulling into town it was a balmy 24 degrees and the next five days were just lovely. We climbed a mix of stuff – harder, steeper stuff with teeny ledges and crimpy finger holds that tested one’s nerves and balance, some cracks (including Assholes of August, which we climbed twice – the first time in the near dark, the second on a sunny afternoon). What was most exciting (at least for me) was starting to lead – both sport climbs and gear routes (where there are no pre-existing bolts in the rock).

Getting lowered after a slab climb at Heart Creek - a bizarre feeling to basically be holding on with friction when climbing some of these slabs.

Getting lowered after a slab climb at Heart Creek – a bizarre feeling to basically be holding on with friction when climbing some of these slabs.

Leading adds a whole other level of terror to the whole climbing experience. Unlike top-roping, the lead climber heads up first, clipping draws into secure bolts (and then the rope) along the way. After clipping, there is always a stretch of time (the distance between bolts varies and depends on the particular climb) and it’s during this bit of time after you have climbed beyond your last clipped in protection (increasing the possible distance you will fall if you come off the wall and before the rope catches you) that the mind starts playing tricks. And, once the mind panics, it’s a terrible feeling to be stranded above the safety of the clipped draw, frozen against the face of the rock, convinced upward movement is impossible, horrified at the thought of climbing back down again… That is exactly what happened on my first lead – complete mental meltdown. Incapacitating. I wound up coming back down, Fabio led the route, I top-roped it (and realized I could in fact climb past the tricky spot without much trouble) and then re-led it. Switched gears and climbed some other stuff and a couple of days later led a couple of climbs of the same wall without difficulty.

Not a super difficult climb, but my first successful sport lead so I was feeling pretty exhilarated at the top!

Not a super difficult climb, but my first successful sport lead so I was feeling pretty exhilarated at the top!

If clipping into bolts can get exciting, placing gear (nuts, cams, and other bits and pieces of climbing gear used when there are no bolts), then trad climbing is even better – or, worse, depending on whether you are inspired or horrified by adrenalin surges. I had my first couple of experiences leading on gear routes – easy enough climbing, but a whole different ballgame when you add in the strategy of where to stand (in a relatively balanced, comfortable spot) while choosing from the assorted gadgets dangling from one’s climbing harness, fiddling to wiggle nuts or cams or whatever into any available crack or corner, then clipping a draw to the protection and, finally, the rope into the draw. Though hugely stressful at times (I wound up bailing off a route as dusk was closing in and I completely lost my nerve – poor, patient Fabio had to climb up and rescue what gear I had managed to place), I think the trad climbing is the most interesting and compelling of what I have tried so far.

Location of my first gear climb - a modest crack when compared to something like Assholes of August - a climb located a little farther along and higher up the same crag

Location of my first gear climb – a modest crack when compared to something like Assholes of August – a climb located a little farther along and higher up the same crag

The additional mental puzzle of figuring out what’s available (both in terms of the rock and the gear) and then keeping a cool head while matching the two up makes the whole experience of getting up the wall all the more challenging. Starting to learn these new skills has also had the side benefit of taking some of the pressure off challenging myself to climb harder routes – the elbow brace is holding up remarkably well, but the injured arm is still injured, so I have to be careful not to overdo it, especially when climbing day after day. The easier grades mean the physical climbing is not so bad, but the leading those routes or starting to try my hand at gear placement keeps things… entertaining.

Assholes of August - we climbed this one twice - once as darkness was falling, the second time in daylight - lots of fun. Maybe next time I'm in Skaha I might be able to lead this one... It never hurts to have goals!

Assholes of August – we climbed this one twice – once as darkness was falling, the second time in daylight – lots of fun. Maybe next time I’m in Skaha I might be able to lead this one… It never hurts to have goals!

P9181184 Assholes of August 01

From a bit farther back – Assholes of August is the crack on the right…

All of this, of course, has taken me outside almost every day, hiking into some of the most beautiful places in the world and climbing some of the most spectacular rock anywhere. I wonder if one ever gets tired of the vistas one encounters as one  hauls oneself up and over the top of a cliff face. I hope not.

I do like these crack climbs...

I do like these crack climbs…

Lake Louise

Lake Louise

IMG_5859-PANO lake louise

View from up on a ledge somewhere on Outhouse Wall, Lake Louise

What’s That I See?

Hey – anybody out there have any idea how I could confirm who did the painting in the background of this photo of Elizabeth May and friends? (Taken in the House of Commons in Ottawa, 1987)

Nikki Tate

Could this be one of Dad's paintings? Could this be one of Dad’s paintings?

One of the new projects I’m working on is a collaboration with Sylvia Olsen and Jean Jordan. We are researching and writing a biography for children about Elizabeth May, Canada’s first Green Party MP in Ottawa. Elizabeth has a long history of activism and we’ve been reading and discussing which pieces of her story make sense to include in a book for children. As part of that research, I have been re-reading her book Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada. In the section in the middle with photos I came across this one that shows Elizabeth along with a number of others in Speaker’s Chambers in the House of Commons in Ottawa. The photo was taken in 1987 and it’s quite conceivable (there were a number of collectors back east who bought his work, including various on Parliament Hill) that…

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That Was Historical Fiction?

Am I really that old? Apparently…

Nikki Tate


Sometimes when I visit schools students ask me whether I ever read my own books. The thought horrifies me, actually – by the time a book has gone from idea to draft to draft to draft to draft #72 over the course of months or years,  after it has been hacked apart by members of my writing group, helpful friends and family members, an editor (sometimes more than one) and then picked apart and dissected by a copy editor and a proof reader (each iteration requiring me to re-read and sign off – or, rewrite as the case may be) trust me, the LAST thing I would consider reading for entertainment would be something I had written myself. This aversion to reading my own stuff is so deep I rarely read from my books even when I’m supposed to be at a book event where this sort of activity…

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More Audiobooks On Their Way

Originally posted over at my author blog…

Nikki Tate

Improvise! As long as I remember to unplug the freezers while I’m recording, the sound quality is remarkably good!

I was kind of horrified when I checked this blog/website (I’m much more likely to post over on my other blog, www.darkcreekfarm.com) to see what I still needed to do in terms of completing the transfer of the old content from my original author website to this location. Yikes! I knew there was still some tweaking to be done, but this place is a disaster! I would promise to immediately rectify the situation, but I have a growing stack of cool projects on my desk and the end of the summer to enjoy and a trip to the mountains in a couple of weeks, so I’m not quite sure when I’ll be able to push other things aside to finally, finally sit down and get this renovation done!

Meanwhile, I am…

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