My forearms were quite pumped after a solid effort on the first of two crux pitches on my new multi-pitch project here in the Canadian Rockies. Fortunately, the chains were just a few easy moves away. My mind drifted away to thoughts of how well I did on the attempt as I stepped carelessly onto the band of rock leading to the anchor. The next second, I was literally shrieking down the wall, grasping in disbelief at the seemingly endless loop of rope flapping through the air in front of me. My heart nearly burst through my throat by the time I came screaming (again, quite literally) into the rock.
I crashed hard, with my hip bearing the brunt of impact.
After a quick assessment, I was rather surprised, if pleased, to discover that I was largely unharmed. The relief turned to fear, shock and frustration as I kicked my feet against the rock, releasing a loud and unabashed “FUCK!”
The band had crumbled beneath my feet. The Yamnuska gods had just put me in my place. Pride and carelessness do not belong on this mountain. I’d just been warned.
Of Rock Gods & Gumbies
The gods of Yam seem to have a particular disdain for the egos of climbers aspiring to quickly ascend their flanks, and they dish out those lessons with swift smackdowns. Yamnuska—officially named Mt. John Laurie, though its Nakoda name, meaning “Wall of Stone,” is preferred—is a 350-meter (1,200-foot) trad/sport/mixed cliff in the Bow Valley of Alberta, Canada, just outside Calgary and near Banff. The rock of the Canadian Rockies is limestone of generally solid quality, but the rock of Yamnuska can often bring a new meaning to the word ‘choss’.
My project here at Yam is a seven-pitch, 200-meter 5.13b called Blue Jeans. Nick Rochacewich had attempted, ground-up, to bolt this plumb line, which follows a pair of blue limestone streaks running like denim-clad legs down Yamnuska’s craggy face. After aiding approximately 10-15 feet up the first pitch, a piece ripped out of the wall and Nick fell, ripping out every piece of pro before taking a stunner of a ground fall. Luckily, Nick escaped serious injury, though the gods of Yam had succeeded in macerating his ego.
Post digger, Nick humbly hiked to the top of the mountain to begin bolting on rappel. After a few years of effort, Nick had created one of the hardest sport multi-pitches on Yamnuska. Although the dueling blue streaks help make Blue Jeans an already appropriate name, in reality Nick had named his route in an homage to Andrew Gallant, a local character and Canmore climber who is known for climbing everything, even alpine routes, in jeans. The neighboring routes Red Shirt and Brown Trousers only make the name more fitting.
While Nick had done the hard work of preparing the line, it still awaited a free ascent. In 2011, Derek Galloway swooped in to claim the FFA honors, unlocking the pitches at 5.12b, 5.12d, 5.12d, 5.13a, 5.13b, 5.12a, 5.10d.
At the time, it was Yamnuska’s hardest route, and when I first stood beneath it in 2012, I was hoping to make the second free ascent. It takes a certain amount of ego to bring yourself to believe that you might be capable of actually doing something like this. Unfortunately, as I’ve already stated, having an ego doesn’t get you far on Yam.
Growing up in Calgary, despite being a mere 45 minutes away from the Bow Valley and its wealth of climbing adventures, I began climbing as a full-blown gym rat. Along with my three siblings, Chris, Stacey, and Mike, I learned to climb on the walls of the Calgary Climbing Centre. I had no idea what real rock was until a coach took me to Grassi Lakes near Canmore. This cliff may as well be an outdoor gym, with the only real objective hazard being getting the pesky mountain goats that stand atop the wall and kick rocks off onto the climbers below. (Helmet is required).
After that first experience at Grassi, I embarrassingly remember thinking to myself afterwards, I think I’ll just stick with the gym …
Thankfully it wasn’t long before I smartened up and began frequenting the local Bow Valley crags with enthusiasm. My first real haunt became Acephale, a burly sport crag where I learned how to project, eventually ticking off my first 5.13a, b, c, and d. I was entirely focused on sport climbing, and continued to be for years. Back then, to me, an “adventure” was discovering new beta on the project.
Yamnuska is the first mountain you see when coming from Calgary, but in all those early trips past it, never once did I consider climbing it. Yam was for trad climbers, and a trad climber I was not.
Eventually, though, I bucked up and climbed Yam for the first time with visiting Squamish superstar, Will Stanhope. I was 18 and I’d never been up a multipitch before. We chose a route named The Bowl (5.10c). Will led every pitch and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Only when we got to the top did Will admit that he had been put off by the chossy rock and wacky route finding. This was no Squamish granite.
Years passed by. I moved to the coast. I tried to figure out what I was going to do with my life, other than sport climbing and bouldering. In 2009 I was accepted into nursing school, with an option to defer my acceptance until 2010. That left the fall wide open for a road trip. I wrangled my friends Zak and Regan into my sturdy ’89 Nissan Sentra and we drove clean across America to visit the fabled Red River Gorge.
Ironically, it was in Kentucky that I first met Nick Rochacewich. One morning on a lazy rest day, as the sun shone across the field at Lago Linda’s, Nick started telling me about his route Blue Jeans.
“It’s unbelievable!” he raved. “Perfect blue streaks, with these amazing pockets on clean rock. And it’s steep as shit! No choss at all, I swear!”
I was captivated by his excitement and passion for his creation, and even though I’d only ever climbed a handful of multi-pitches since that day on The Bowl with Will, it was right then and there that I vowed to try Nick’s route.
Blue Jean Baby
In 2012, I started working as a student nurse at the Canmore hospital, but I spent every spare second climbing, and dreaming about Blue Jeans, with Nick’s captivating description still fresh in my mind. I finally worked up the gumption to have a go at the route, and I convinced my good friend Jamie Chong to try with me.
The first three pitches—5.12b, 5.12d, and 5.12d—had us flailing.
“This is hard!” I whimpered after every little crux.
“This is sooo hard!” Jamie said.
By the time we reached the first crux pitch (5.13a), we were exhausted. The tricky moves on tiny holds completely shut us down. Jamie and I tucked our tails and rappelled.
It was a discouraging start.
Even though he had sent the route the year before, I convinced Derek to return to Blue Jeans with me. I needed beta, not to mention the fact that I needed someone to, quite literally, show me the ropes. Having virtually no multi-pitch experience before, my rope-management skills were atrocious!
I wrangled four more days out of Derek that summer, and he helped me decipher the beta on two of the most technical crux pitches. I made good progress, but the cruxes eluded me.
I had a good background in projecting single-pitch sport routes, but trying to bring that mentality up on a big, multi-pitch wall felt like a whole new game. I could normally send 5.13 within a few tries, but after four or five pitches, I quickly realized how much harder that would be.
Nick summed it up nicely one evening, saying, “You need to be a lot stronger than the route.”
I realized that I had to be climbing a lot harder than 5.13 if I was ever going to send this route.
By the summer of 2013, I’d completed nursing school, yet the climbing bug was something I just couldn’t shake. Instead of diving head first into my career as a registered nurse, I chose to buy a truck and camper with my boyfriend, Tom, and head out on the open road. We spent the next six months on the road, beginning in the Red River Gorge and finishing up in the Canadian Rockies. My main goals of the trip were to send a 5.14 and, with that newly acquired strength and fitness, come back to Blue Jeans and hopefully find myself “stronger than the route.”
After all that time spent in the Red and at other crags, I was in the best shape of my life. Then, just days before I was planning to return home to the Rockies, I managed to achieve my first goal, climbing Eulogy (5.14a) in Maple Canyon, Utah.
Climbing a 5.14 was extremely satisfying, but to be honest, it was no sooner than I clipped the chains that I was already dreaming and scheming about Blue Jeans.
Highs & Lows
Tom and I returned to Canmore at the beginning of August 2013, and I promptly hopped back on Blue Jeans. I spent a total of seven days working on the route before I felt ready to start making redpoint attempts. The crossly limestone was merciless, and I needed multiple days of rest between attempts, mainly to regrow skin.
My progress with this route felt so slow, and it was frustrating at times. Why couldn’t I just quickly swoop in and climb this route? It was only a 5.13, after all! I mean, I’d just done a 5.14!
I had to suppress my frustration at times, but there are those little breakthroughs in climbing that encourage you just enough to keep going.
On my first redpoint attempt, I finally sent the first crux pitch (5.13a), and made major progress on the second (5.13b). It was the first time I believed I could actually do this route. The second crux pitch was my last barrier, and a solid one at that. It had everything; compression, heinous crimps, a perfect dead point, a corner press, a bulge mantel, and exposure. It was sequential, complex and cruel. My skin took an intense beating with each attempt, until I eventually tore a hole in my left ring finger that never quite healed for the rest of the summer.
Getting someone, anyone to trudge uphill for over an hour to belay me as I thrashed around all day on a south-facing multi-pitch route blasting in the sun proved not to be all that easy. Obviously, there’s a lot more involved than simply heading out to some roadside single-pitch crag and getting a belay.
Originally Tom had been keen to be my main partner for the route after I had built it up during our trip as this incredible route with amazing rock. Unfortunately, I may have over exaggerated the rock quality and Tom was none too impressed during our first foray up the wall together. Although Tom did head up to belay me on the route on a few more days, he was psyched on other projects in the Bow Valley. I would have to find some other partners.
A few days after my mini breakthrough, I woke up to a blasting 30-degree day (that’s about 90 degrees, for you American folk). Yamnuska was probably going to be hotter than an iron skillet. Still, I was going climbing, and I convinced my good friend Lev Pinter to head up with me.
Lev is well known for his impressive sport climbing ticklist and he is a respected route developer. I also lovingly know him to be a complete gong show. I had learned from earlier days to always plan to meet an hour earlier than was needed so that Lev had time to arrive, pack his bag, forget if he packed his shoes, empty his bag, find his shoes at the bottom, and repack.
Once we were on the wall, though, Lev was the best partner I could ask for. Mellow, easy going, and supportive, he made it so that I could focus completely on my goal. After climbing the first three pitches in full sun, I was ready for a nap. Somehow, I rallied and made it once again to the Pitch 5, the 5.13b.
Despite the heat, I was climbing well, and actually made it through the deadpoint. I was in shock. With sewing-machine legs, and a racing heart, I thought to myself, “It’s in the bag. I’m going to do this!”
First mistake. These are thoughts the gods of Yam do not like.
Moving towards the last hard moves, I felt lactic acid surge through my forearms. I stepped on a rotten foothold. My second mistake. The foot crumbled and I rushed the next move. Off I sailed, kicking and screaming before I even regained contact with the rock. So much effort, so much climbing, to make such stupid mistakes. Back at the belay, I mutter about, debating whether I have the energy or the skin to try again.
“If I go again, I’ll have to tape,” I mumble, glaring at my wimpy skin, “But I hate tape.”
“Well, it’s like, it sucks to use condoms, but it’s better than not at all,” came Lev’s reply.
True. I couldn’t help but smile at that.
In the end, I noticed some lovely white core exposed on my rope, and was saved from the dreaded tape. Time to head down.
Rest. Regrow skin. Try again a few days later.
My friend Josh Muller, a local crusher I’ve known forever, once made the mistake of saying that he wanted to check out Blue Jeans. That off-hand comment came back into my head when I was scrolling through my phone, trying to find a keen belayer. I called Josh up, and lined him up for the next day.
We headed up in glorious, cool, bluebird weather. Yet as we got to the base, it began to rain. Classic Rockies with its bipolar weather patterns! We headed up anyways. The weather promptly cleared, showing that the weather’s bipolar tendencies swing both ways.
The final crux pitch loomed ahead. I started climbing, reaching a rest before the final hard moves. My ring finger was gushing buckets of blood from the sharp stone. I felt rattled looking west to a patch of dark, forbidding clouds. It started to rain again. Mother Nature went off her meds today. I tried to salvage the day by leaving the rest before I was fully recovered, as I didn’t want the sloper guarding the mantel move to be wet.
I rushed, forgetting to match feet. I was so ruthlessly pumped that I had no blood left in my brain. And … I’m off.
Blood curdling, animal-esque screams erupted from a place within me that I never knew existed. I have the wobbler of all wobblers. It’s so bad that the storm clouds that were approached turned the other way and ran.
Meanwhile, Josh is laughing. It’s so heartbreaking, it’s comical. I pulled on a draw to get back on, but the entire draw and hanger exploded off the wall.
Great, I’m so angry that I actually just pulled a bolt out of the wall!
I should’ve started laughing, but instead I start sobbing. Josh lowers me, gives me a hug, and we head down. I felt dejected and completely empty.
Mastering the Mistress
Blue Jeans had become more than just a project. It had consumed my life. It was my cruel mistress. Hanging on the rope after my latest failed redpoint attempt, staring in despair at the last few moves that guarded the mantel and marked the end of the battle, I had felt a real sense of desperation. I couldn’t just leave that up on the wall, either. I carried it down with me.
I wasn’t sleeping well. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to thoughts of sequences, specific holds, resting positions. My anxiety turned ridiculous as these horrific worst-case scenarios kept playing out: ropes snapping, gear ripping, anchors popping. Come to think of it, though, having ripped a hanger off the wall and having core shot my rope, maybe those anxieties weren’t so far-fetched.
Any day that I went to battle with Blue Jeans was a day that I returned completely and utterly spent, both physically and emotionally.
At this point, those hints of crisp fall weather were appearing all around me. On the one hand, I was encouraged by the emergence of good conditions, but on the other hand, I was nervous that the number of times that I would get to try Blue Jeans before the season ended was quickly dwindling. I’d just spent six months training for Blue Jeans, reaching the level of 5.14, all in preparation to that I could be “stronger than the route.” My job as a nurse would be beginning soon. And as ridiculous as it sounds, I felt as though if I didn’t do it soon, then I might not do it ever.
My rest days were wracked by this tornado of emotions and anxieties. Ironically, this mental turmoil isn’t very restful! To make matters worse, the forecast was less than ideal.
I readied myself for the possibility that I might have to walk away. Giving up isn’t something that comes easy to us climbers, and that prospect of throwing in the towel truly felt like a stab in the heart.
It’s not that big of a deal, I tried telling myself, while at the same time my mind was shouting, Yes it is! Yes it is!
September 19th. Josh texted me to tell me that he was sick with food poisoning and now has to bail. My boyfriend, Tom, noted the despair in my voice when I hung up the phone, bailed on his plans for a pleasant day at the crag to belay and jug for me.
I snapped up his offer before he could change his mind.
It was a perfect day. Blue skies, cool breeze, and the first hints of autumn revealing itself on the changing leaves in the white birch forest on the approach trail.
I felt full of nerves and stomach jitters, and babbled nonsense in Tom’s ear on the way up the trail. I switched into autopilot for the first three pitches, and all those nerves and anxieties quieted down to just a whisper in the back of my mind. Pitch 4 felt as easy as it was ever going to feel, and soon those nerves just disappeared.
With Tom jugging and hauling for me, all I had to do at each anchor was keep warm and rest. By mid-day, we arrived at Pitch 5. The sun was still high in the sky. I felt surprisingly fresh, happy, and most of all, calm. Waiting for Tom to jug, I remember sitting in my harness with the sun on my face. All of a sudden, like a breeze passing though, a small, confident thought entered my mind:
I am going to send today.
It wasn’t a conscious thought, nor was it full of the ego that I had been carrying during my past attempts. It wasn’t “I should send today,” or “I should’ve sent this last year.” It was just a simple, unadorned thought that visited me at that hanging belay. And as soon as it entered my mind, it was gone, as was my awareness of it.
Tom arrived. We had a snack, drank some water, and joked around. The wind picked up, and it was getting chilly. I geared up, while Tom gave me a solid pep-talk.
“You can do this, Vikki,” he said softly. “Just try hard and have fun.”
I felt happy, up high on a mountain with the love of my life, getting ready to try a really hard, really cool pitch.
I started to climb.
Solid and smooth.
First crux down.
Rest. Rest. Rest.
I launched into the final crux that had spit me off dozens of times before. With precision, I executed each move exactly as I had rehearsed over and over in my mind during those restless nights.
The last move. Don’t rush. Rock over a high left foot, and reach blind for a jug over a bulge. I stretched. Where is it? A moment of panic was followed by complete euphoria as my hand clasped over that wonderful piece of rock. A whoop exploded from my chest, followed by a whoop from Tom below.
I scrambled up to the anchor, quickly clipped in secure before allowing myself to bask in the ecstatic realization that I’d just completed the hardest, most daunting, most challenging project of my life. Tom quickly joined me at the belay, and we celebrated, smiles pasted to our faces. Only two more pitches to go: 5.12a and 5.10.
We topped out at 6:05 p.m., and the Yamnuska gods gifted me with a warm sunset that I’ll never forget. The day I sent Blue Jeans remains one of my proudest, but also one of my most humbling. Never have I worked so hard to reach a singular goal. It opened my eyes to what is possible when the ego is left behind, doubt is overcome, and simple passion is left to lead the way.
About the Author
Vikki Weldon (born October 24, 1988) was born into a family of climbers in Calgary. Her sister and brothers are all climbers, as well as her parents. She can also count herself among a contingent of really humble, badass, and well-rounded Canadian climbers. Her former youth career as a comp climber saw her to the podium as a seven-time Canadian Youth National Champion, and as a three-time Canadian Youth Bouldering Champion. In 2013, she became the second Canadian woman (after Ellen Powick) to send a 5.14 with her ascent of Eulogy, at Maple Canyon. Now she spends her time pursuing adventures outdoors on rocks both small and tall, when she’s not working as a pediatric nurse. Follow her adventures on Instagram.