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Life Compass – West Face of Mt Blane

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

First published in the AAJ – it has been reprinted here with their permission – The article was deftly edited by Chris Kalman

I met Brette Harrington at Gripped Magazine editor Brandon Pullan's house – a veritable couch-surfing operation for climbers hanging around Canmore – in mid March 2018, almost exactly five weeks after the death of her partner, Marc-Andre Leclerc. There was a rawness about her, but after a trip to the Stanley Headwall with Barry Blanchard and Ian Curran, she returned to Brandon's with a mountain glow. She regaled us with a few stories from earlier trips to the headwall with Marc before the veneer crumbled. She slipped out for a walk, and we sat helpless. That night was bad.

A few days later, Brette and I tied in for the first time together on the Slawinski-Takeda line on Mount Athabaska. The route was fun and engaging with a few little steps separated by rambling alpine terrain. We climbed well together and returned to the car with plenty of light.

Slawinski-Takeda line on Mount Athabaska

The next morning as Brandon and I romped up an easy route on Yamnuska, Brette's attention was fixed on Mount Blane. Mount Blane is a well known peak in the region. It even features in the classic Ansel Adams book, In the Canadian Rockies. Situated on the eastern edge of the frontal ranges to the west of Calgary, Mount Blane forms the heart of the Opal Range. Its west face is clearly visible from the Kananaskis trail highway rising 1000m above the trail in King Canyon to 2993m. It was first climbed in 1955 via its northwest buttress in an outing that ended in tragedy, with only three of the four ascensionist returning alive. Since then, the mountain has had a well-deserved reputation for sections of poor rock.

It was Blane's west face that caught Brette's attention when she and Brandon took the long way home after a day of cragging in Kananaskis country. With no route information available on-line, that evening, we studied photos scoured from the internet piecing together a possible route.

We awoke at 4:00 AM the next morning. In pre-dawn light, we creeped up a well trodden path through King Canyon. Where the drainage splits, we took the left branch, and then headed up the first gully towards the west face. We post-holed dispiritedly through spring slush until we reached a tongue of avalanche debris that took us to the toe of the wall. I had to work hard to keep pace with Brette. She had a fire burning deep in her belly.

We traversed the base of the wall past a steep broken corner to a narrow gully. By 10:00 AM, Brette was leading up sun-affected ice before traversing right-wards on rock above the belay. I heard a dismayed shout and looked up to see her axes clatter past. Brette’s leashes were missing with Marc in Alaska. Fortunately, both axes were retrievable. Soon the rope was inching out again. I followed as rapidly as I could, but I was slowed by steep terrain, shrinking holds and loose rock underfoot. I marvelled at Brette's delicate touch as I tucked my axes away, pulled off my right glove, and crimped hard while swinging my body left.

P1 Life Compass

A short while later I reached Brette's belay, rather warm from my exertions. We estimated the climbing on this pitch at 5.10a. I led the next few rope lengths of 70 to 80 degree snow slopes, which we simulclimbed to another rock band. Here, Brette made a short steep traverse out of sight to the right, and climbed a full rope length before making an anchor out of two beaks and a thread. I continued past her into the sun, where I was greeted with good rock, but sloughing spring snow. A steep layback corner brought us to the rightmost edge of the upper snow-slope. A cluster of dubious gear nestled in fracturing rock was the best I muster for the belay. Braced as strongly as I could, I belayed brete directly off my harness.

Brette took the lead again and several more rope lengths of simulclimbing took us left behind the false summit. Finally, we could see the summit raising bluntly ahead. We quested upwards on snow for several more rope lengths before an improbable traverse on ledges brought us to a final hidden snow slope, and a clear path to the summit. Brette took this last pitch, cresting the ridge only meters from the summit, which we reached at 8pm.

Rose and Brette at the summit of Mt Blane

We had hoped to downclimb the northwest ridge, but after a hundred metres of roped downclimbing, unconsolidated snow and darkness stymied our progress. The wind picked up and after some discussion we decided to try abseil the northwest face.

Descending the NW ridge of Mt Blane

An hour of digging provided only fractured rock, before Brette resorted to slinging a low angled bump on the ridge. It was 11pm before I heard a faint "off rope" from below. I gingerly lowered myself over the edge making sure to keep my weight low, so as not to pull the sling over our sloped bollard. We were pleased to find more secure anchors for our remaining two abseils, which took us to the upper snow slopes flanking Mount Blane's northwestern aspect.

It was a relief to pack the ropes away and continue our descent on foot. We suffered through several more hours of hard, avalanche-scoured snow, interspersed with spring snow with a firm crust that formed craters beneath us. After one more short abseil from a tree, we eventually staggered back onto the King Canyon trail we had walked up some twenty hours before. It would be 4:30am before we reached the car. We finally made the 1hr drive back to Canmore, each taking turns at the wheel. Such was the state of our exhaustion.

We named our climb Life Compass (980m, 5.10a M4+ 80 degrees TD+), in dedication to Marc, and the dramatic change Brette’s life has taken after his disappearance. I would like to further dedicate it to all those who are left behind, including Brette, when their loved one is lost in the mountains.

Historical note: At the time of our ascent it was reported at the first ascent of the West Face of Mt Blane. Although this was true to the best of our knowledge, this is not the case. Several summer ascents have been made of various lines up the west face. One of which, Heinz Kahl and Peter Schotten in Summer 1957, shares significant sections with Life Compass. Life Compass takes a harder direct start and deviates left at the top.

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