Nophobia – Tom Ballard

Like many good things, my ascent of this multi-pitch drytooling testpiece came about largely by chance.

I was in the ice and mixed climbing mecca that is Alberta, Canada. After climbing various classic ice lines with some visiting Americans and a really good mixed line on the iconic Stanley Headwall with local under the radar hard climber Alik Berg, I was put in touch with an Australian doctor, Simon Parsons, living in Calgary, by part-time Canmore resident and Himalayan legend Steve Swenson (who I had first met this summer in Pakistan). Simon had been to try Cryophobia but had bailed when his partners failed to follow, so he was keen to go back (and retrieve his rope).

Simon picked me up and along the way we met up with young Grant Stewart. The roads gradually worsened as we got closer to the mountains. Eventually, we switched to Grant’s 4×4 ‘van’ for the extremely bumpy, rough and frozen track until the ‘trailhead’. We then headed into the ‘Ghost Wilderness’ on foot for around two hours. There was a pathetic amount of snow. Through the trees (Bear spray handy just in case) and across the open ‘marsh’ (until recently it was possible to drive until here) where we could see the impressive cave containing Nophobia. Our actual objective was the classic multi-pitch mixed line Cryophobia, which sits beside the huge ice formation of Hydrophobia. These routes are all in a really impressive ‘cirque’ which last summer saw attention from Marc Andre Leclerc.

It was really windy. We got ready to bivy in the trees as two climbers were bailing off Cryophobia (having not finished it due to falling ice). It was +8 at 10:30pm when I got into my sleeping bag. The relative warmth did mean a comfortable night though. During the night we heard lots of ice crashing down and when we woke at 8am the temperature was +6 so we decided it might be a better idea to try a safer route instead!

The route takes a fairly ‘natural’ line through the huge roof, heading leftwards towards a wee dribble of ice at the very top. Grant opted out of climbing and instead took some great photos. I lead off up the first pitch to the roof proper. Simon came up and got comfy in the in-situ belay seat. I set off across the main feature of the route, a twenty-meter crack/pod feature which looks cool and is even cooler to climb! But as I clipped the belay I wondered where the crux was? All the holds were well ‘ticked’ with chalk and all pretty solid. Sometimes everything just comes together.

An easier pitch followed. Which ended at one bolt and two studs! A hanger was dangling from a sling. A bit of jiggery pokkery got me clipped to enough bolts to bring Simon up.

Then a long traverse to a small roof. Here I just couldn’t see the next hold. Scratching around desperately to find something, anything. A very thin and shaky hook was all I could locate. I gambled all and pulled through to better holds above. (There was a good hold nearby which I missed completely). Falling on this pitch would have been a real bummer.

Instead of bringing Simon across and risking not getting down to the ground with our twin 70’s, I carried on. A few steep but straightforward moves to the last bolt where the angle kicks back to vertical. Here there should be a good amount of decent ice, but alas barely enough to fill a whisky tumbler!

I knew I couldn’t stop now, I was so close! The rock was dry. The last belay was out of sight. Ten meters?

Gulp, gulp, enough dithering. Time to get on with it. I climbed slowly and cautiously. Enviously passing numerous good-looking trad placements. Then, at last, I saw the belay. One swing into the thin ice (making it a proper mixed route) to enter the smooth runnel and the belay, baby! Oh yeah, that was a great feeling. To have on-sighted (and be the first person to on-sight every pitch) was an awesome feeling. Hanging around in damp caves this autumn must have done some good then!
Lowered down and awkwardly reversed the long traverse to get back to a cold looking Simon. We made a full seventy meter spectacular free hanging abseil to the ground. As we walked out we made plans to return to climb Cryophobia.

On a very cold and blustery day not long after the three of us climbed the excellent Cryophobia, we walked in and out in the deep winter darkness and the temperature never rose above -10 all day. But we had a great time climbing one of the best mixed routes in the Rockies, despite worryingly cracked ice near the top!

Words and Images by Tom Ballard

Nophobia 120m M10 (M9, M10, M7, M8, M6)

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