Pete Charkiw Part 2
Yosemite, Old Fort Creek, and Slipstream
The Days of Old Fort Creek
“What a peaceful place,” says Pete of his 40 or so trips into Old Fort Creek beginning in 1987 and ending around 2000.
Pete and his friends however never climbed back in Old For Creek even once in all those decades of exploration as that is what they mainly went back there for – to explore the terrain , camp for long stints and have good times at night. He adds that solo winter camping was one of his most pleasant experiences back in there and never saw anyone either.
In 1987 after being addicted to the CMC Valley for many years, Pete and his friends wandered around into the very next valley to the north known as Old Fort Creek. They mostly wanted to catch a glimpse at most of a cougar back there – saw cougar tracks in the mud along the creek but in the end they spotted rare encounters with garter snakes and frogs.
“A few of us were coming up the hogsback of Yamnuska early one spring, the snow reflection was brilliant and 100 feet ahead of us two things came out of the shade, we couldn’t tell what it was until our eyes adjusted and it was two huge cougars. They took off though once we let out a yodel.”
“My friend Ron Shields believed and was convinced that Old Fort Creek was Grand Central Station for sasquatches. We never did see one. And I have never met a sasquatch hunter before.” However Pete notes that back then there was a rumour of a sasquatch sighting near the Old Fort Creek bridge along Hwy #1A.
“I did lean to Ron’s rapture after we were out there enough,” says Pete of the overbearing wilderness feel of the Old Fort Creek valley. But they saw no people ever except once they met a man on a horse, buried tin cans here and there and a small dump from the “hippie camp.”
“We heard n the 1960s that a bunch of hippies lived back there for a season. We found remnants of the camp up the first canyon (backside of Association Peak) up Old Fort Creek. Its a at a flat area and a good place to hang food. We would go and explore and do some ‘hippie things’.”
I guess you could say they did manage to climb up something which was Association Peak one day while hanging out camping in that narrow canyon; they continued north until they got to the stepped bowl to the west of the summit, followed up these stepped ledges until the ridge and strolled eastward to the summit. Another time that stands out for Pete of all those many Old Fort Creek expeditions, was hiking from there multi-day camp, slogging back to the head of the creek, and scrambling over peaks and valleys and ending up at Lake Minnewanka.
“Those were enjoyable days from the maddening crowds; Ron and I circumnavigated Yamnuska all the time via the CMC Valley and we’d head back up near Wakonda Buttress and there is one specific tree that over the years I put pennys and coins behind the open bark, and the sap and the bark would eventually grow over it. We called it the Money Tree.” said Pete with a reflective smile.
Pete really was a lover of Yamnuska rock so he really saw no need ever to drop down into the CMC Valley, yet heard from the Calgary climbers that the rock was not that bad, so in the early 1970s he made his first trip back there with Doug Pierson. They stayed in the CMC cabin a number of times and when it was eventually burned down it lessened the traffic and the vandals back there.
“The cabin had double-burner stove, a medical kit, a stretcher even and some cots. It was cozy. It even had some windows.”
One reccie that they partook in was hiking west along the rock walls to check out the Iron Suspender aid route.
“I had huge respect for Billy Davidson and we didn’t entertain it. It looked scary but what a cool route.”
Pete never attempted it but did complete the third ascent of The Maker in 1987 with Bernard Mailhot and Jennifer Kot.
“The last pitch is like 10b and has shabby pro. If you fall you are gonna whip, “ said Pete recalling a previous time before on this intimidating last pitch, which resulted in an accident and interesting self-evacuate from the CMC Valley.
Instead he said they chose to be chickens and do a new easier exit pitch off right now graded about 5.9 that they simply called 5.7 hard and remembers it being a flawless trip. But sticking with the choss of the CMC Valley, they did get up a number of easier less-looked-at routes like Knackered Cat combined with a perfect bivy in the boulders near the First Rune.
“I even enjoyed Knackered Cat. It was loose and not well-travelled choss.”
As one left the Yamnuska access road back then and at the junction of Hwy #1A, there was a dilapidated building that was a makeshift zoo Pete remembers for its purely obscure existence.
“They had caged animals and you could hear them sometimes at night while camping in the Yam meadows.”
But no Sasquatch!
Slipstream stands out as one of Pete’s favourite routes in the Rockies and that is partly due for when a heart stopping moment happened like he and his partner Bernard Mailhot had experienced hundreds of meters up this infamous ice coming off the summit serac.
In around 1985 Pete and his partner Bernie hiked to the base of Slipstream on Snowdome and they presumed that they were an hour behind the game if they looked up at what they had to climb and what time they were standing at the base, so they side-by-side soloed most of the route until they got 3/4 the way up and realized that there was a team of two above them that they met up with whom Pete recalls as Dave Cheesemond and Steve Langley. Pete stopped to tie the lace on his ice boot and Bernie continued soloing up a bit above here, as the other team was just a dozen or so meters to one side.
“Dave had just put in an ice screw, when a serac broke off of Aggressive Treatment. I literally flew across the snow ledge and grabbed on to their belay and hung on with just my axes in, and the spindrift kick back almost took us all off. Bernie didn’t think I would be there once the dust settled.”
Later Bernie found out from some wardens on the highway that they saw this all happen while looking through a spotting scope and they did not believe that four dots would be left as the immediate face was washed away.
After the dust settled Bernie led a pitch, then Pete, and Bernie finished it off by tunnelling through the short cornice. They had an hour before the sun went down, so near the summit, they dug a hole, spread out a duvet they brought and made a rope bench which they swapped laying on every few hours. They hoped for a crevasse to bivy in or make it down to the rap at the col on the Columbia Icefield but there was vanishing light and would be too dangerous to navigate in the dark so they stayed put and froze.
“There was so much condensation in the hole that our clothes and rope froze like armour. We staggered down. The other team came past us like it was a Sunday stroll,” Pete laughs from the comfort of his kitchen.
Like many climbers, Pete and his friend Doug Pierson wanted to get onto a bigwall, so in 1973 they went to Squamish to aid the Grand Wall and even ended up freeing parts of it. They were a bit below Bellygood Ledges and Pete slept in a tree and Doug hunkered below him.
It was their first aid route in the bag, so the next step was to head south to Yosemite Valley and try even bigger stone.
“Doug went back to Edmonton and I went on the bus to the Valley. I had climbed around Jasper and the Rockies with an American lady named Allison Clough and we planned to meet up in Yosemite. She introduced me to Camp 4. And she only had 5 days to climb,” Pete remembers fondly of his wonderful climbing partner stationed for a few years in Edmonton and who recently passed away in an automobile accident in the southern states.
The first few days together they made multiple trips up Glacier Point Apron, then the Nutcracker on Manure Pile Buttress. Allison then returned to Berkeley and Pete stayed and met other climbers and his partner here has slipped Pete’s memory to whom exactly he was with that second time on the route, as he and Allison had just completed Nutcracker the week prior.
“I was on the first pitch – 5.9 variation - only using nuts, and it started to drizzle out. Near the anchor I was laybacking up a crack and my foot slipped out because of the drizzle and I shot out. All my gear pulled. I hit a ledge, hurtled off and flew into a manzanilla bush and into the one sandy spot in front of my belayer. I had a tree branch through my arm and one through my back.”
They left the one branch in Pete’s arm alone and scurried to the First Aid office in the village. The responder asked Pete if he was Canadian and told him he was lucky to be alive. The medic pulled the stick straight out of his arm with little notice, gave him painkillers and said he would be sore for five days.
“No charge son, you are lucky to be alive,” Pete remembers his honesty with a belly laugh. His friend each day pulled Pete out of his tent and propped him up. They found a icy pool in the Merced River and he baked on the river rocks like a lizard. After three days of this painful suntanning, Pete was back to normal.
” I was back on the Apron six or so days later after just laying there hours a day listening to just water move.” Back in the game at one of his favourite Yosemite cliffs, Pete recalls the Apron as a place where falling is more than ending up dangling in mid-air since it is slab it also includes slides, uncontrolled tumbles and some road rash.
“I took some 30 foot whippers there but it was not all that bad.”
One weird incident he did witness at Apron one day was nail biting. He was at some belay and a guy nearby on a route was on a 40 foot runout and you could see how nervous this climber was, that when he placed a piece of gear and it did not fit well, he took the incorrect piece and simply tossed it off his rack into space. “He was in such a panic. We were going WTF? Tossing stoppers?” Luckily the unknown fellow did not fall, was able to secure a good nut in a crack and rapped off.
Pete ended up doing a half dozen trips to Yosemite in the 1970s and on that inaugural visit he and Doug wore what is seen as early century clothing like wool kickers and bright knee high socks, but after heading back to Canada it was only white cotton painters pants for Pete. He was hooked on the rock and the culture there, like the fun of being a spectacle for tourists when they pulled over the onto the Half Dome summit after completing the Snake Dike route and cruising down the ‘cables’ after loaded down with gear passing folks in floppy hats and bellbottom pants.
And in the winter of 1977 a plane carrying bales of illegal marijuana crashed into Lower Merced Pass Lake and froze that way until scavengers plodded up to the lake with chainsaws and axes to free the cargo onto the climbing folk of the Valley.
“I remember getting weed that smelled like jet fuel.”
Pete went back to Yosemite the following summer and noticed that specific weed was still floating around the circles of climbers.
“You could tell it was from the plane because it was cheap and had an obvious taste. I did not like it.’
The culture was mostly huddled around Camp 4 which our young Canadian Pete found to be exciting and dirty. The main cultural memories he has has not changed since: always hearing the sound of gear sorting, seeing pins on picnic tables, constant talk of the next trip and lots of people bouldering about the woods. Pete never had any run-ins with Park wardens like some can claim but he said the scarfers in the cafeteria getting in trouble likely has not changed. Another food thief - the resident black bears, have not changed its’ ways either over the decades with Yosemite’s mass amounts of visitors. “Nobody was very bear smart in the 1970s; raiding backpacks and tents,” states Pete.
Yet by Pete’s third Valley trip and seeing every imaginable character there, he grew tired of it and moved his climbing life to the Lower Pines Campground for the solitude he came to want down there.
Even though in 1975 he would finally get on his first bigwall in the Valley- Washington Column – and he would see before the end of the decade that his Yosemite climbing abilities significantly improved, finding himself on the NW Face of Half Dome in 1978 with Californian Malcolm Jolley and a week later on El Capitan’s Salathe Wall with Canadian Claude Berube.
For his 1975 trip up Washington Column Pete went out to Modesto to get a haul bag, a red one which he still has to this day and keeps many of his climbing momentos safe inside it. However the other main necessity on a wall – a portaledge – was an item they never thought to bring on any multi-day Yosemite climbs, nor hammocks, and just planned on hitting the big ledges at days end like Mammoth, Long Ledge and El Cap Spire.
“I used it (haulbag) on The Prow (Washington Column) and I felt confident after doing this route. It was eventful enough, I suppose,” he says of he and Doug Pierson’s vertical 2.5 day California staycation. “You could free two-thirds of it, not too hard, but that exposure….the approach was tenacious but ooh those beautiful splitter cracks.”
He met Malcolm in Camp 4, and together they got along great, so they decided to try their luck on Half Dome.
“I stopped smoking when we climbed,” says Pete without finishing the thought. When they stopped to bivy below the Zebra Flakes, Malcolm wanted to very much lead Thankgod Ledge, but says that once they eventually got to that famous pitch, his partner was so out of condition that he let Pete do it.
“I have never been so gripped on a climbing rope.”
Later this fear changed to joy as they pulled over the top to the crowd of tourists who treated he and Malcolm like stars- posing with the crazy climbers for photos, summing it all up as great fun.
“When I came up on second, there was all these people surrounding Malcolm. He was so animated and happy.”
Pete adds: “I am glad I got to do that route before the exfoliating slabs eventually fell off a few years ago.”
A week later Pete met another Canadian named Claude Berube from Quebec, who agreed to venture up El Capitan with him and his red haulbag. They did it in 4.5 days and desperately wanted to do it clean but Pete slammed in some blades below the Half Dollar pitch on the Freeblast section.
“Jon Krakauer took a photo of me pounding in two pitons here low down on the route.”
Originally the Canadian pair wanted to do the classic Nose route but there were two parties on it that morning, so they flipped over the single page they ripped out of a guidebook and it was the Salathe printed on the other side. They decided to just go for it. The day they came upon the headwall on day four, they had caught up to some Brits and Pete and Claude shared some water and food with them as they were clearly in need of fluids. Claude led the roof. They wished the Brits good luck noticing how fatigued they all were. Claude jugged up to Pete on a higher pitch and stated that the last pitch was his, and they got to Long Ledge leaving a rope dangling tied off to the belay for the Brits to use, which they had no problem using as an assist. The first guy jummared up to them and then the second cut loose from the belay and did a 80ft swing out from the wall.
“We all had a joyous party that night. We took pics by the ponderosa pine. Only after this, did I really start to climb with more Quebec climbers.”
“I never saw or climbed again with either Claude or Malcolm.”
“That Valley was so beautiful. I would love to be a ‘meadow watcher’ and have a lawnchair, snacks and a cooler,” Pete says enjoying that thought.
**ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF PETE CHARKIW**