He Really is Not Dead Yet! – Part 1
Sometimes when we flip through guidebooks we see routes that may intrigue us for its’ history or maybe for the impressive feat of getting up a big hunk of vertical, but we also may romanticize with the name attached to that ascent and generally the older the line, the names begin to become more forgotten as climbing is constantly changing and climbers also get older and move on in life. Sometimes they leave a piece of history behind and even a possible puzzle.
If you happen to own a copy of the Edmonton buildering guidebook ‘Safeways Tory Turtle Groat and Others’, then you are lucky to own one of only 25 copies ever made back in 1969 when Pete Charkiw self-published this obscure choice of climbing guidebook while he was still in grade 11.
Pete Charkiw is responsible for putting that forgotten relic into print, shortly after he had found the activity of ‘buildering’ in a mountain-less Edmonton. This all came together for Pete on the Grout Road Bridge where he and others met every week when they were not in the mountains – it was in-laid stone on the abutment. Pete wished he still had a copy of his Edmonton guidebook, but it was washed away in a house flood.
“It was hand-drawn so all 25 covers were not the same. I handed some out to the guys at the bridge and the same year that the Mountain Shop opened.” The only thing Pete will add is that there was a beautiful 65 foot arete on one page in that Edmonton guidebook.
Around this time is when Pete got offered by Jasper guide Hans Schwarz to go to the Rock Gardens near town, which was a great way for a young Pete Charkiw to simply submerge himself in the lore of local Rockies climbing.
“He told me about the history, the routes, the Alps – and I was just eating it all up.”
Born in Edmonton in 1952, Pete was already staring at cracks in the downtown city streets thinking he wanted to put his fingers in those frost-heaved cement joints and daydream climbing them to somewhere, anywhere. His mom could see this in him at an early age but his parents never wanted or promoted him to be a climber. Then at the age of 10, Pete had taken a day trip train ride to Jasper and when he saw the obvious orange-brown blocky face of Roche Miette he wanted to climb it. Pete grew up in an Ukranian family that had found themselves in Canada after WW2 and he himself didn’t even speak English upon entering grade school. At a young age Pete knew that 798.94 is where the climbing section is in any libraries Dewey Decimal System, and it was Gaston Rebuffat’s book Starlight and Storm that he read and which got him easily hooked.
“I looked at the pictures; the words didn’t register, and the five best faces in the Alps! When I saw that my fate was sealed.”
Realizing there was more to this climbing game, Pete took that course with Hans Schwarz in 1970 at the Rock Gardens and they did the classic Green Piton; then later he took a course from the Edmonton Mountain Shop near the Highlevel Bridge, but nobody showed up so it was just Pete and Hans off together to go explore more. Pete’s new found buildering gang of Pat Paul, Rob Kelly and Pete Ford later took Pete out to the mountains around Jasper often. A few years later in Jasper, Pete and his Edmonton partner Doug Pierson tried two pitches up the north face of Edith Cavell, but realized soon that going up it was way over their heads. Doug was Pete’s solid climbing partner from 1970-1978 and met him at the Highlevel Bridge who also had his own eccentric climbing gang to call upon to go to Jasper.
“It was like trying Green Piton then trying Cavell.”
His friends were solid on alpine and loved to slog-in; it took them three days to get into Mt.Hooker once. Kelly wanted to go back because of the history surrounding Hooker’s early century ascent and wanted to go back sometime to make an igloo, like a real expedition would.
“Rob Kelly and Pat Paul were my mentors.”
On his third time out roped up, Pete did the Gonda Traverse on the side of Banff’s Tunnel Mountain. He had done the route the day before but decided to return the next day to hunt for an accidentally dropped piton.
“I dropped a piece of gear, saw it land on a ledge and went the next day to get the fallen piton scrambling up 3rd class to retrieve it.” At the same time, a serious accident occurred above him and the end result was a fatality with Pete surviving this with pure luck – this opened his eyes to the seriousness of climbing. This tragic incident didn’t stop him, he knew the consequences.
In 1971 Pete discovered another aspect of climbing and this being the frozen waterfalls of the Rockies. He along with his committed partners Rob Kelly and Pat Paul, they wanted to add this new discipline to their climbing resumes. They had been on alpine ice before but this first day out at the Canmore Junkyards along with friend Pete Ford, ended with the reminder again that anything can happen in the mountains. For practice they did Grotto – with one axe being a Terrordactyl, they chopped steps and set up belays where they didn’t have to. and even made V-slots. They then chose to check out the Junkyards. A big blue frozen flow had formed down the approach trail and was even going over top of the guardrail at the bottom near the road. Part way up the hiking trail where it briefly steepens with tree roots and where the main falls come into full view, Pete tripped face-first while hiking. He was holding his axe in his left hand, then fell onto the icy trail and in an instant was shot out into the main waterfall flow and was taken off down the blue slope. His hand instantly shattered trying to stop himself using his one ice tool. Then he broke an ankle in the tumble down and crashed into the trees. He was knocked-out but had a hemet on luckily during the hike. Pete was coming to and was in shock. Pat and Rob rushed Pete to the Canmore hospital but they couldn’t fix his injuries so they had to go the Foothills in Calgary. They made the chilly drive in Rob’s VW Beetle until Pete said why bother with Calgary when they all live in Edmonton. So, four days later on a stretcher and many painkillers consumed, Pete left the Edmonton hospital with a cast on his hand and a cast on his foot.
Pete lived a few blocks off Jasper Avenue and it being the beginning of winter, he knew he would be out of commission so he enrolled in three classes at the Alberta College.
“Everyone wanted to know how I got busted up. There was lots of girls, and lots of partying at that college.”
One of his earliest first ascents is an obscure crack he and Rob Kelly found above the Big Bend curve along the Icefields Parkway; a rock route they slogged up to and named Dragonfly way back in 1971.
“The reason we did that, was because we were out doing alpine in the area like Silverhorn and the practice gullies, it started drizzling one day so when we drove past Big Bend I spotted what looked to be a crack feature. We wanted to go up a second pitch but it was looking very loose.”
During these young days of discovery, Pete tried his hand as a bridge worker living off the flatbed of a train that had rooms, showers and a kitchen. The crew slept on rail sidings and would head off in the mini rail carts to work – mainly jacking up train bridges and installing a fabric for shock absorption. From Prince Rupert then back to Brule he did this work, but in Brule Pete decided to quit the rail job because he wanted to stay in the mountains for good. But it didn’t pan out and Pete was back in Edmonton, hanging with Kelly buildering and going to Yamnuska when possible. When Kelly moved to Banff for a newly found teaching job, Kelly phoned Pete and he was sold and moved out of Edmonton in 1972 for the wild town of Banff.
In the early 1970s when Pete graduated from high school, the McMaster Caving Expedition casually met him in the pink-washed ‘Michel’ bar which once stood along a stretch of the highway near Sparwood. But before they made a stronger acquaintance, Pete headed out the very next day and went solo hiking where he found himself in the Ptolemy Plateau – he had heard of the caves he said, but never clued in they were actually up there.
“I was on a four day hike to go see that downed air craft and inadvertently walked onto the Ptomemy Plateau and the trail back then popped out kinda behind the bar; I was eating hot dogs and beer and I met that big caving group; the next day I was heading back up there with them.”
So they invited Pete to go back up and they surveyed Gargantua Cave for nine days. Soon into the trip, the group talked of well known British caver Mike Boone who would be coming their way to also do some exploring – one thing led to another and it was only newbie Pete – of this entire experienced university group – who had found himself off spelunking with this famous caver. Even though he knew Pete only had been caving for a total of 6 days, Mike was ok with him as his partner. With Mike Boone they descended into Yorkshire Pot and when they both got to as far as Mike wanted to push it they kept hearing a strange drip.
“We heard this drip, and we saw a crack in the cave ceiling, so I climbed it with Mike first giving me a boost, and then I fell through a hole and onto a beach – thus The Green Pool Series – and nobody had seen this before.”
He says Mike was ecstatic with this find and they knew that Yorkshire and Mendips would connect and basically followed its’ way to Mendips. When they eventually emerged they were shocked to see a raging forest fire upon them.
Pete stuck around the Crowsnest area for some time that year as he came to love the local hiking, scrambling up Crowsnest Mountain and enjoyed being in the southern Rockies in general. Then he was paired-up with Gary Pilkington, the only Calgary Mountain Club climber he ever found himself hanging out with then.
Pete was asked the next year in 1971 to go explore a cave in Guatemala with Gary Pilkington near the town of Lagos in the southern part of the country. The McMaster team said he would meet Gary and both of them would take a Greyhound bus to Guatemala so Pete went over to Calgary climber Brian Greenwood’s house to meet Gary where he also remembers being introduced to Bugs McKeith and Albi Sole.
“I always found the Calgary Mountain Club to be a pretty elite group and I was in awe. After I moved to Banff I eventually got to know more CMC members and had a good pool of partners to climb with.”
The next day he and Gary were on a bus for a week travelling to Guatemala where they found the cave they were looking for – Lagos de Montebello. Along the way, Pete got a case of the stomach ailment known to travellers as Montezuma’s Revenge and before long, Gary unexpectedly left and Pete never saw him again. But with Gary gone and Pete doubled over in stomach pain, he never even got into Montebello but knew it was dangerous and bat-infested, so he left these very eclectic word class divers to their fun. Pete then went into war torn Guatemala to find Lake Atitlan and then into equally troubled El Salvador.
“That was a hell of a great trip with Gary,” Pete remembers, “Gary was a hardcore British guy and died way too soon.”
He travelled for nearly a year fishing for black bass, hiking volcanoes and eventually finding his way to Zipolite, an infamous nudist beach tucked away in the lower reaches of Mexico, where Pete found his new home for the next nine months.
“I eventually just hitch-hiked back to Canada,” Pete smirks and adds that this trip with Gary is where his new nickname of Pedro emerged, which has stuck with him since upon returning to Canada.
In 1972 with Pete living in Banff, he found a job as a security guard at the School of Fine Arts and was doing his rounds one evening when he got a call over the radio that there was a disturbance in one of the dorms. He entered it to let the occupants know to quiet down when he noticed a climbing rope hanging on a chair, and that was how a long partnership with his new friends Andy Shepard and Don Rudic flowered. Andy and Don had come west from Ontario like so many young people then to work in Banff and pursue mountaineering. He and Andy would go practice aid climbing with the few known short practice aid lines, like an early ascent of the Mini-Gonda in about 1972/3 (see photo in slideshow below). Aside from doing EEOR and Eisenhower the trio would mostly gun for alpine objectives and once going into places like Lake O’Hara and Valley of the Ten Peaks – is where they really got to fully know what choss meant.
“I loved every minute with those two. I managed to drop both of their cameras into the void, from then on, it was don’t give Pete the camera he will just manage to drop it.”
However within the next decade Pete would have to deal with the loss of his two great friends who died – Andy on Mt.Stephen and Don on the 3/4 Coulior at Moraine Lake.
“Both were really well liked and good solid climbers, we truly had some great adventures. Like most summer folk who would head back east in the fall, they stayed. Their spirits roam the Rockies today.”
When thinking decades back to another close partner Pete had in 1972, he recalls fondly of his days roping up with a California professor named Allison Clough.
“She was something else. She heard I was a good bridge climber. She was an inspiration of mine.”
Pete met his future climbing partner Doug Pierson that same year in the Edmonton Mountain Shop along with Allison who was a professor at the university then – soon their friendship found them roping up at the base of the Jasper Rock Gardens, Mt.Colin and Yam.
“She really liked wine and I can see why she knew Warren Harding when she was living in California, “ says Pete who had himself spent long stretches of time over the years in Camp 4 Yosemite.
Allison left her mark in the Rockies mainly at the multi-pitch tilted grey wall known as Rainy Day Slabs, east of Jasper above Medicine Lake. There is a still unrecorded route that was discovered on the far east end of the wall that has rusty pitons and very well could be the outings of Allison and Pete long ago, this he believes is possible – “It is likely us, maybe.”
When the subdued browns and yellows of the 1970s departed and the more flashy colourful 1980s arrived, Pete found that the Back of the Lake was a great climbing destination and he plucked off many of the good natural crack lines there while his newer younger friends were on their own steeper Lake projects. From about 1980 to 1988, Pete found himself tied in with Bruce Howatt, Marc Dube, Shep Steiner and Josh Korman and once they drove out to climb Wyoming’s volcanic plug Devils Tower.
“Those guys were all great and were skateboarders. We had an incident in the bar nearby, where a cop was waiting at the bottom of a hill and gave us a warning for skateboarding down the road.”
Of this younger generation of climbing friends, it was Bruce Howatt who Pete had climbed with the longest, dating back to the 1970s.
“I climbed with him when he was just a kid. We did stuff on Yam, I watched him become a good fucking climber. His parents trusted me. It was right.”
“One of them used to call me Old School, “ Pete reflects as he brings up the emergence of the battery powered hammer drilling in places like Grotto Canyon. His younger mates were at the Back of the Lake top-roping and rehearsing moves on Air Voyage Wall while Pete was off on first ascents ground-up routes scattered along the lower sections of the cliff bands – with a load of hexentrics clanging about. Now popular gear routes like Automatic Writing, Dance with Me, Green Invasion, Manicure Crack, Nautilus and Imaginary Grace.
“This is actually where I saw the light in regards to their drill use and I eased off (on his comments) – when I was on Air Voyage Wall with all this over-hanging sport climbing.” However today when Pete looks at many new sport routes they all seem the same to him: steep, with no natural line leading to an overhang.
“I cleaned this awesome crack at the Lake called Exquisite Corpse. If they bolt it, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me anymore.” (ed. – nobody bolted it! )
Then there is this mysteriously named route in the Outhouse Area at the Lake called ‘The Peter Charkiw(but I am Not Dead Yet) Memorial Route’ – and Pete is equally confused how this route name came about.
“I am not dead yet! For whatever reason they added that, for what purpose, except maybe I was old school grinding it out with the newest sport climbers and the different technologies, I had life in me but it still mystifies me, but I am not dead yet!”
However, anyone who climbed regularly in the 1980s should be asked just one single question: Did you ever wear lycra?
“No. Never. Not a chance in hell. But my friends did.” says Pete with a sly smile mentioning that he only wore white painters pants like he had in 1970s Yosemite Valley – even wearing grey woollen knickers at times and almost every time he visited Yamnuska he sported this classic mountaineering look.
As far as memorable routes go, in the mid-1980s, Pete was on the 3rd ascent party of The Maker in the CMC Valley with Jennifer Kot and Bernie Mailhot. He had previously attempted it with Ward Robinson but a fall resulted in a interesting evacuate from the CMC Valley. At the close of the 1980’s Pete had soloed Polar Circus a few times, Curtain Call and Pilsner Pillar. Pete’s favourite routes are Red Shirt, Snow Creek Wall in Idaho, Slipstream and the Salathe Wall in Yosemite. For the much higher and challenging peaks like Mount Robson, Pete never summited but tried eight solid times on it. But every time he tried all through the 1970s and early 80s it was the weather that prevented them from the summit.
“I made it up the Kain Face with Pierre Desautels. In 1975 with one axe each, first on the Wishbone Arete and then The Great Couloir, and the route the Kinney party took up in the gargoyles, couple attempts on the Kain Face. But there was a time for ten years when nobody climbed it.”
Over the countless times Pete guided Athabasca, his dog Sahan (which means mischievous charade and messenger in Ukrainian) made it up Athabasca three times in one day and even leaped over the bergshrund. He did 53 separate summits before Sahan died: some pinnacles in the Starbirds with members of the cadet crew, Andromeda, Athabasca, Rogers, Cory, Bourgeau to name a few. Pete made a special harness for Sahan and had a hard point sewn in so his pooch could be pulled up or lowered when needed; Pete made a special set of panniers for Sahan to use like a backpack and even an area to put the rope. A seamstress sized Sahan up and made the harness and when he saw this new gear being pulled out at home, these are the times Sahan went crazy.
“Sahan did Grotto, Yam, Fable , lots of easy peaks for him.”
In 1986 Pete became a summer assistant guide and into the 1990s his life as a guide was always busy owing to a healthy clientele and as he streamlined his life, he was able to carry on his own personal climbing goals. He guided Athabasca lots, the easier routes on Yam, Lorette – but got out of guiding and climbing entirely in 1993 when he met a recent widow in a grocery store and was informed about a recent local accident.
As climbers we all seem to hold certain routes very dear to our hearts for personal reasons and we continue to reflect upon these dear routes moreso than other ascents. For Pete this most endearing rock climb is on the north face of Roche Miette in Jasper Park. Its a route he and the late Pat Paul found themselves on in 1980.
“After we did Death From Above, I questioned my nerve and potential even though I think it is a great route but has a left-trending nature.”
The last two pitches he and Pat Paul had finished in a snowstorm and were cold and frozen with very sustained climbing. They made it into an alcove and made it up 30feet and got stopped so they had to aid. Their friend Julie popped her head over the edge and with her headlamp barely illuminating the work below, Pete placed a piton. Pete knew that the pin had to be pounded in this thin crack very solid or it would have been catastrophic on the belay, as the previous pitons we’re dubious; he then used some long slings to make a foot loop to get over an awkward section and repeated this again higher up. He lowered off as he was totally exhausted and frozen so Pat went up and blasted it. Julie was on top with encouraging comments so Pat hauled up his weight like an animal and with Julie’s blonde hair blowing in the wind, simply made for the most beautiful finish to a climb. Julie then led them down to the car through the storm. They hunkered down at one point and they brewed tea and had Christmas cake Julie carried up, with torrential rain as their backdrop.
Pat and Pete never reported new routes except telling Edmonton climbers or the NW Mountaineers, but someone must have climbed the last three pitches before the alpine climbing guidebook came out as that is not how the route finishes. Pete had not seen the topo description for Death From Above since he vanished from climbing in 1993, but has since ordered the Rockies alpine guide off the internet. Recently this year Pete also picked up the current Jasper climbing guidebook and noticed that the last three pitches of Death From Above are actually the finish for the newer route Grey Streaks(11a).
“We sandbagged everything, we called everything 5.9 hard but its graded at 5.11a now.” the last pitch is where Pete and Paul found the alcove and pitch 8 is the same A0 finish the new route reports as.
“We only put in one bolt and that was on pitch 2 off the ground along a traverse.”
The first pitch is short Peter says like 70feet and he said he felt feeling cheated by that so he opted to lead pitch 2 away from Pat.
“The only reason I wanted to climb pitch 2 was so I could place a bolt.”
When they got to the junction where it shows Death From Above crossing over the new bolted 11a line, they decided to head for the obvious grey streaks as the rock directly above them was steep, scary and chossy looking, “ We headed to the grey streaks and ended up going up that way, as it looked evil above us, but someone must have gone up there at some point I guess?”
So is the original write-up wrong or did someone re-climb the route with a different finish between 1980 and 1991 that is described incorrectly in guidebooks?
“I wanted to leave a piton in place above the alcove and it was real stiff, so I lowered off to Pat and he took over. I wanted to leave a piton to say we were here, but I removed that piton on second before Pat said to me: “we don’t do that Pete.””
For those who are interested in what gear was used at the time for Death From Above, Pete says it consisted of 1-1.5 set of nuts, big hexes a nice selection of pitons and a bolt kit. And why is the route named this? Pete explains…
“It was my project, and when we got to the bivi, the evening had approached and we looked 800 feet up to those big roof systems – the rockfall was starting a bit – and I had just seen the movie Apocalypse Now and Death From Above was written on the side of one of the helicopter; we saw this ugly hanging rock stalactites up there too, and Pat then never disagreed with the name”
“For those interested there is a sea of potential from Wallator’s routes on the west face all the way over to the new route New Orleans is Sinking.”
On March 31 1986, Pete was coming home from a dart tournament from the Rose and Crown in Canmore and went into his house in what was known then as ‘Teepee Town’. The TV was left on in the loft upstairs and news of a major plane crash near Mexico City commanded the evening newsfeed, but Pete carried on with settling in from being out on the town. Soon after arriving, his friend Marc Dube called to tell him that their friends Pat Paul and Rob Kelly were on that plane. At 9:05am that morning the captain of the Boeing 727, Flight 940 had radioed Mexico City that there was a problem and by 9:09am they lost radio contact with the plane. The plane slammed into 9000ft El Carbon in the Sierra Madre Occidental and a chopper was needed to bring off the 167 people whom lost their lives.
“They climbed three big volcanoes in two weeks; Kelly was one tuff guy he had asthma even, went to Russia once to climb Pik Communism. He brought back titanium ice screws to the Rockies and gave me two. They were both true explorers and adventurers.”
Pete now calls home west of Edmonton, living off-the-grid most of the year, slowly clearing trees on his land for a par 3 private golf course, keeping the beautiful coat of his fluffy cat Benghazi in check, mapping the stars with various telescopes and having the best campfires going.
“At 70 I might be able to crank out a 10a on lead, and that is what I am going for now, the first place I am heading to next spring is this Shredders Reef cliff; those look like nice interesting rock routes and it will take me climbing back to Roche Miette.”
Unfortunately Pete was not able to find any photos from the ascent of Death From Above but below is a slideshow of some old gear of Pete’s and a few old photos from his collection. Pete said he never took pictures much at all and not on Roche Miette neither. When contacted for this interview he got in touch with Julie Bauer who was on the summit that day helping them back down, but she also was unable to locate any first ascent photos that may have been in her collection.
“I eventually got my own camera but it’s somewhere at the base of the Stanley north face, and that, was the final straw.”
Feel free to hunt Pete down in the springtime if you want to hear more about the wood piton seen in the slideshow below, further old school tales – he welcomes climbers dropping in for campfire stories!
In the next update we will have Part 2 to Pete’s climbing life which will focus on an early 1970s ascent of El Capitan, a big scare on Slipstream and his 1980s ski across Baffin Island with many photos he says will be found to accompany his reflections.
All photos in the slideshow are supplied courtesy of Pete Charkiw