The South Ridge of Gimli Peak; Ascent into History

on Jun 03, 2012

This is the story about the south ridge of Gimli as it will appear in the upcoming "Alpine Canada Book Project", a promising coffee table book highlighting some the best alpine climbing areas in Canada. It is the story of my first experience climbing this iconic peak which began my fascination and love of climbing alpine rock in the Valhalla’s. It is a fun story supplemented by some local climbing history, enjoy!

The South Ridge of Gimli Peak; Ascent into History

Article by David Lussier

The south ridge of Gimli Peak strikes vertically out of the landscape like an ancient ship’s bow.  Its wild geometry has captivated climbers since the early nineteen-sixties. The spine of the south ridge offers a unique eight pitch moderate alpine rock route. This completely traditional climb features steep cracks and grooves, friendly chicken heads with very solid rock along with an exciting exposed ambiance.  This article describes my first experience climbing this iconic peak which began my fascination and love of climbing alpine rock in the Valhalla’s.  The south ridge of Gimli Peak is one of the best alpine rock climbs in the West Kootenay region.

From a climbing history standpoint, Gimli peak and the Valhalla’s are late bloomers. Most of the climbing exploration in this part of the Selkirk Mountains started in the nineteen sixties. In those days, climbers accessed the alpine climbing paradise of Mulvey Basin via a burly five hour hike up Mulvey creek from near Slocan Lake.  Boasting several beautiful alpine lakes, the basin provided climbing exploration as it is surrounded by the aesthetic rock spires of Gimli, Asgard, Midguard, the Wolf’s Ears and Mt. Dag.  In 1973, Peter Koedt and James Hamelin made the first successful ascent of the South Ridge of Gimli from this base camp. 

My climbing partner for my first trip in 1994 was Keyes Lessard.  We accessed the route via Bannock creek forestry service road which in the late 80’s significantly improved the access to the south side of Gimli and newly form Valhalla Provincial Park.  After an hour’s highway drive from Nelson, we then followed a logging road to the trail head.  At first, the surrounding mountains were gently rounded, covered by a lush cedar and hemlock forests, but as we ascended the last kilometres of the road, the foreground became filled by the dramatic shear walls of Gimli and neighbouring peaks.  Thrilled by the sharp vertical relief, I felt the excitement of climbing such an aesthetic mountain.  A leisurely two hour hike brought us to base camp, an exposed and aesthetic site just below Gimli.

Next morning, we stared up at the route as we waited for the sun to warm up the atmosphere and the frigid rock.  The imposing massif, made of metamorphosed granite, boasts many vertical and horizontal crack systems. The steeper walls are covered by beautiful bright orange and green lichen.  Looking to the south across the tapering Selkirk Mountains, the air was still and there were no clouds to be seen. We could hear the humming of distant Bannock Creek, rushing several thousand feet below us.  For two young and passionate climbers, this was a perfect moment and certainly the beginning of a memorable day.

Back then, the only route information available for the Valhalla’s was the small black AAC climber’s guide which briefly described the “fairly sustained four star eight pitch route”. Originally rated 5.8, the south ridge of Gimli is now considered 5.10a by modern standards.  Packing our gear the night before, we decided to bring two ropes to speed up an unlikely retreat, one and a half set of camming devices along with 1 set of wired nuts.  Being a total traditional multi-pitch route on a steep narrow ridge crest, the route is not easily reversible. Once ascended, climbers must continue across lower angled terrain to the main summit to access the easy scramble down the East Face.

For a traditional purist and crack lover like me, this committing climb was a dream.  The first lead offered challenging crack climbing and stemming skills with a beautiful open book capped by a small roof. The perfect hand crack provided good protection while the climbing was physical and sustained. I was immediately impressed by the style of climbing and rock quality and wondered if it would continue to be this memorable! As it turned out, the route only got better. Swapping leads, we made good progress as we climbed through the enjoyable broad but steep lower ridge.  The protection was generally adequate throughout and the route straightforward with occasional interesting micro route options.  The climbing excelled in its variability with perfect layback flakes, well positioned chicken heads connecting face cracks and an ever increasing shear exposure on both sides of the ridge. 

By mid-morning, we were at the big ledge, half way up the route, and snacked on an early lunch as we weighed our options.  Looking across the western skies, we could see some distant cumulus cloud building.  From here it was still fairly easy to rappel down, continuing meant committing to complete the last four pitches, go over the main summit and descend the East Ridge.  We decided to carry on estimating that we could finish the route before thunderstorms would reach us.  The upper half of the route provided some of the most exposed and high quality climbing I had ever experienced. Right above the halfway ledge, the route followed a mix of vertical finger to hand size cracks on a narrowing ridge feature.  The exposure meter rising, we felt good in the warmth of the sun and were enjoying the commitment as we got closer to the crux roof.
Whether it was planed or pure luck, the challenging roof ended up being my lead.  From a comfortable ledge ten metres below, the roof looked intimidating.  The climbing up to it was via a couple of sweet hand cracks in a smooth near vertical corner. The pro was good until just below the two metre roof and then it vanished. The best possible pro seem to be in a two inch crack by my feet. With a long sling, to minimize rope drag, I contemplated doing the crux moves with a bomber piece at feet level; a far cry from a well placed bolt on a crux point at a crag!  This is what I love about alpine climbing right?  Realizing I could protect this next section no better, I carefully evaluated my options and committed to moving upward.  The right combination of crimping on thin face holds and smearing on the smooth wall with my feet did the trick and I was able to reach far left above the roof to a magic jug.  The exposure continued to increase but the climbing beyond the crux was not as steep.  Eventually we moved from climbing to scrambling terrain and plain walking across the summit plateau to reach the summit proper.

Standing alone on the summit of Gimli was another glorious moment.  Below us to the northeast, Mulvey creek was carving its way deeply towards Slocan Lake near the east end of the basin.  The splendour of Mulvey basin captivated me and I could not stop looking at the stunning rock spires surrounding the alpine lakes.  I imagined what it may have been like for Peters and James, sitting atop Gimli looking down into the beautiful basin and base camp.  Looking west beyond our tent site, the afternoon build-up was impressive as approaching cumulus clouds towered high into the atmosphere.  We shortened our summit break and started our decent down the East face. Descending was mainly a scramble but did require route finding skills to navigate around various options and some loose rock sections.

Climbers who had just hiked into camp greeted us enthusiastically.  We shared route information from our glorious day while eating dinner in the dimming light.  The weather however was now starting to look menacing as the towering clouds were approaching us from the west.  As we settled into bed, the sky darkened, the wind picked up considerably bringing the thunder clouds steadily toward us and they began to unleash their power.  In contrast to the events of the day, that moment was steeped in fear as we realized our exposure.  What came next was the most intense thunderstorm I have ever experienced.

The wind continued to accelerate as the frequency of lightning strikes increased, pounding one loud lightning crash after another within a stone’s throw of the tent.  One gust came so hard, the tent half lifted off the ground and had we not moved our body weight onto the lifted end we may have been blown right off the mountain.  The eye of the storm circled at the base of Gimli for nearly a half hour and we seriously contemplated which moment we were going to either get hit by lightning or whisked away.  Eventually, the storm slowly moved away leaving a mixture of light clouds, starry clear sky and two tired climbers.

Since then, I have endured other unexpected and apocalyptic thunderstorms here and appreciate the name behind this imposing peak.  “Gimli” from Norse mythology, refers to home of the blessed who in legend survived the day of doom when heaven and earth were destroyed. Interestingly, the next morning was just as glorious as the day before. There were already a few climbers on the route by the time we had breakfast and started our hike out.

Up until now, the South Ridge of Gimli remains completely free of bolts and climbers must protect themselves and build belays with traditional equipment.  The route is a unique and inspiring quality alpine rock climb that I return annually to share with friends and guests. Considering the nature of the climb and possible changing weather with risk of lightning storms and high winds, climbers must feel pretty confident about their skills before committing to the route.  Ascend with care and enjoy this aesthetic alpine adventure.

For more information on this area or guided ascent of Gimli Peak and other cool Alpine rock routes in Valhalla Provincial Park click here

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