An early season ascent of Phyllis’ Engine and a standard season ascent of The Guard
Dates: April 25 – 28, 2018
Participants: Duncan Pawson, Nick Hindley, Tobias Huxol
The trip planning started as all classics do, with a good bit of faff. The original plan was to do some rad ski mountaineering objectives in the Tantalus. However, this was subdued due to the obnoxiously warm temps and potential for the deep persistent layers in the snowpack to wake up and release ungodly carnage.
Plan B was discussed over a good many beers and it was decided that we would send it to the Rockies for some mellow 11,000ers and one real nice highway photo of Mt Robson. The following day, with seven hours to go time, we decided the Rockies are far and gas prices are high. That IG selfie/tinder profile pic of Robson would have to wait.
Plan C decided to take advantage of the warm weather (what!?) and involve some nice alpine climbing objectives in Sphinx Bay and maybe even further (Phyllis’ Engine, Sphinx North Ridge, Davidson, Isosceles, etc.). Nick, in true VOC style, reminded us that our trip planning involved far too little faff and decided to proceed with Plan D: a heinous bushwhack over to Athelney pass. It wouldn’t be the illusive Robson photo, but there would be a photo or two. Luckily Nick’s car was incapable for the send and the plan was quickly thwarted. Plan C was in!
Day 1: The approach
Pretty straight forward. We approached and then we arrived at Burton Hut. Our packs were heavy.
Nick and Tobias got hurt by the sun and wanted to power nap (Tobias indefinitely). I forgot my sleeping mat and so sleep was limited to a once-a-day activity for myself. Once Nick woke up and began unpacking, he casually pulled out a beautiful, blue box of 15 glorious hop-infused, alcoholic drinks (i.e beer). My meager half bottle of rum paled in comparison. It was a huge play. Naturally, I was eager to help him get started on reducing his pack weight for the eventual descent.
We had a few brews but then got distracted by some gnarly looking cliffs not far off. We didn’t really have a choice. It was 5pm, the sun was out, the snow was soft – it was tomahawk time.
Day 2: Phyllis’ Engine
The primary objective for this trip was to mount the Engine, so we picked the warmest day. Tobias, having been to the area before, imparted his geographical knowledge upon us as we cruised up the glacier. The approach took longer than expected (~4.5 hrs). This was in part due to picking mellow terrain and the intensity of the sun once it breached the glacier.
Our intent was to follow Kevin McLane’s described route up The Engine, however, after gazing upon the granite beauty we were distracted by the plethora of quality looking crack systems. We settled on the rightmost crack in a set of triplets near a corner along the south face. We half-heartedly justified that this is probably the route described in the topo, but in reality I don’t think anyone was convinced that was true. It didn’t matter, the route looked awesome. It looked as though there was a tricky bit of offwidth early on which would be difficult to protect given that we didn’t bring anything larger than a BD#3. Not to mention that sections of the rock were icy, wet, and covered in lichen – nothing a good ice axe couldn’t handle though. We were also a team of a three on a single rope, so we knew the going would be slow. Our only real worry with regard to time was the snowpack turning isothermal before our descent, however based off conditions the previous day and field observations, the snowpack seemed surprisingly stable. In any case, sticking to low angle slopes was easy enough – we weren’t too worried.
Nick gave a valiant attempt at leading the first pitch but was ultimately defeated by the offwidth 2m off the ground. … FAFF … Secretly I was happy, as I knew this would mean I would get to have the lead on at least two of the three pitches (assuming Nick and I swapped leads).
I racked up to battle the beast, occasionally chopping at his icy appendages with my axe whilst shoving my bloody, numb hands into his vitals and jamming the hell out of his scarred body, until at last I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside.
“Okay, I’m secure”
Nick was the next to come up followed by Tobias. Nick then led the next pitch which involved a burly first couple moves with a tricky section in the middle to avoid a choss-fest. He took one lead fall at this section (on gear placed before the choss), and then powered through immediately after. Tobias followed and then I followed the follower.
I got to lead the last short, but sweet, hand crack to the just before the summit block, where we found some tat around a comforting chalkstone that we knew would make for a doable rap. Tobias was next up, and then Nick. Finding this final pitch was actually quite challenging as most of the rock was covered in snow at this point and, although beautiful, it looked like the hand crack did not top out. However, convinced this was the jam crack to the summit McLane spoke of, we decided to follow it and hey, it worked.
Of course, we wanted to stand on the very top of The Engine and not just finish at the shaft so we belayed each other one by one up the summit block, which involved a surprisingly hard mantle onto a very snowy block. We each had a different beta for this summit move. Myself, using the ice axe to side pull up the rock, Tobias hand jamming the snow (just the snow, no rock), and Nick attempting the classic belly flop before reverting to the more civilized dynamic mantle.
The climb took us 5hrs, faff and all. This could easily be cut down if we had the followers on individual ropes or were a party two. Also cleaning the cracks and belay stations of ice, snow, and choss took time. It was definitely still early season.
We left some cordallette behind to back up the pre-existing summit tat and a bail biner to rap off. Nick took the lead, followed by Tobias, and then myself. The rap was pretty exciting involving an overhang off the get go and some free hanging fun. Our second rap was done off pre-exisiting tat (we left a bail biner) above our first belay station at the top of pitch 1. This rap was equally exciting and got us to the ground. We had a 70m rope but I heard it’s possible to rap the route with a 50m. Not sure if this means rapping off the same stations. I reckon a 60m is definitely doable and a 50m is likely.
The climb was rad. A bit dirty and wet, but that was to be expected. The rock was excellent and the jams were incredible. The first two pitches we had done were different than that described in Alpine Select which made for an adventurous outing. The last pitch was the same, however. Although I later confirmed that this was a not a new variation we had put up, the style feels as if it were a first ascent. That is, we followed the route that inspired us and with no beta we had to find our own way up. Not to mention that Phyllis’ Engine in general does not see many ascents due to the length of approach. Ascents like this are easy to come by but are often forgotten or put aside as “potential for failure”. In my opinion, quality routes should involve some adventure into wild places. It’s a nice feeling to stand on top of something that not many have, having taken a path you chose.
The route description is as follows:
Phyllis’ Engine – Variation (5.9)
There are three obvious cracks on the south wall under the highest smokestack. Climb the rightmost crack next to the corner. Begins with a few meters of hand jams and quickly widens into an offwidth. This continues for a couple meters before solid hand jams, ring locks, and finger locks can be found. Traverse right afterwards to follow the low angle hand crack up to a slanted ledge – first belay.
Second pitch goes straight up the vertical cracks to the ledge. Traverse right into a hand crack and continue straight up. Mostly low angle except for the start and a small section in the middle.
Traverse around the summit smokestack to the east side and follow the hand crack to the top.
Upon returning to our skis, Tobias and (especially) Nick had to experience the unfortunate truth that skins + (skis – wax) + hot sun = skin glue left on skis. Mine weren’t too bad as I left my skis laying horizontally, so that the skins stayed cool against the snow for this very reason. Perhaps I should have told them…
We skied back to the hut where we had the fortunate realization that we brought way too much food, there was beer, rum, and it was still sunny out. Many lethargical activities pursued, such as sitting, eating (a lot), rehydrating, and beer.
Day 3: The Guard
Unfortunately, not much other (established) rock routes looked in without being exceptionally gnarly. In light of this, we took to the next best option: scrambling. We were eyeing up the Guard the day prior as Tobias had already been up The Sphinx and the scramble up The Guard sounded/looked fun.
Morning arose and with it our modified alpine start. The sun was out, and its brutal strength was screaming sunburns. Luckily, we had sunscreen and were able to pick low angle terrain up to where the rock began.
The approach to the scramble took us maybe 2 hrs. During the final 30 m we spotted a mountain goat jacking our line. Alas, he was too agile and tricky for us to claim dibs and he scurried off as we approached… In reality, he just didn’t give a fuck and wanted to lick rocks in peace.
We left all of our gear by our skis, except an ice axe each for maximum sendability. The scramble was pretty fun, especially with the added bonus of doing it in ski boots. Snow was deep and isothermal, so we tried to avoid that garbage and stick to the chossy rocks instead. Gaining the summit involved some nice hands on moves culminating into a beauty little ridge traverse.
Of course, there was a second peak further along the ridge. In fear of it being microns taller, I had to bag this pseudo summit as well. I ventured on, along the ridge, making sure to stay well clear of the cornices. As I was scrambling up the final rocky bit to the potentially false summit, Nick yells, “That down climb might be sketchy eh”. I responded with “Nah, I can take that way” – gesturing to some small, vertical blocks. In the end it was fine, but it did include some involved climbing-esque ski boot maneuvers on finicky terrain. The photos turned out well at least.
Back at the probably-real-summit, we chilled and took in the immense beauty of Garibaldi Park. That was of course until Nick started a classic game of “Who can hit the rock over yonder with a snowball first”. Great game. After that was all said and done, we cruised on down to our skis, strapped ‘em on and enjoyed a nice mellow (but fast :D) descent down to the hut where we finished the last of the beer/rum. Then it was back to cliff hucking time.
Nick would be doing all the sends as my knee was quite sore at this point. Unfortunately for him, the snow was not quite as soft as it was on day 1, so he’d have to pass on the big boy terrain. No matter, he still sent it off some decent sized drops while I captured pics. I found it funny how he asked me for advice on landing as he repeatedly landed all of his drops, whereas I was a solid one for three. Of course, watching is not nearly as fun as doing, so as the sun was setting I decided to go for a huck. The drop was nothing to write home about, but Nick’s photography skills made up for it.
That night we watched as an eerie looking fog rolled its way down the Garibaldi Neve and across Garibaldi Lake in a perfect line, occasionally rising like a creature from the depths. It was sick!
Day 4: The descent
We awoke to a change in weather – foggy and rain sputters. In a sense we were happy that we wouldn’t roast. However, it made crossing the lake less than graceful.
We decided against skiing the barrier as the wet weather would only opt to make snow conditions worse. That decided, we skied the ever so fun switchbacks. Oh and were they fun. There was a great deal of left over post holes alongside fresh ones from the onslaught of Jerrys mistaking sun for summer. That, combined with heavy packs, really did a number to the knees. I was honestly happy when the snow ended and I could just walk down. That said, we of course still zoomed down the “snowy portion”. I mean if we’re going to ski it, might as well do it right.
Back at the car, stoked on life, we cruised off into the rain to find some grub (because the plethora of food we brought with us was obviously not satisfying enough).
All in all, this trip was awesome! Great crew, amazing weather, and some real fun alpine shenanigans. I’d love to get back there and put up some true FAs, and you know, huck some more cliffs.