Friday the 13th! We pick the right date to climb "Rainbow Serpent", the most incredible free standing pillar we've ever seen. This pillar is not visible from the approach as it is tucked away in the Recital Hall, a small amphitheater high above the valley floor in the South Ghost. "Aquarius", a long and worthwhile WI4 pitch, guards the entrance to this unique place. "Rainbow Serpent" apparently does not always form, but had been reported to be in excellent conditions for the last few weeks.

That day, we're at the South Ghost early after an uneventful drive from Canmore. Once again, we get to enjoy a great Ghost sunrise and start the approach at first light. To approach "Aquarius", you can either hike up steep slopes just left of the drainage above the First Ghost Lake then traverse right to the base of the ice, or climb up the gully directly. We choose the quickest way and hike up the slopes. Once we reach the base of a large rock wall (the "Spectre Crag"), we traverse right, crossing snow slopes and finally drop back down into the gully just below the climb. From the approach, we get a good view of "Aquarius" and the Recital Hall (but not "Rainbow Serpent") in the early morning sunlight.

"Aquarius" is a long but gentle WI4 pitch. I'd like to lead it but Eric definitely needs a warm-up before tackling the much more demanding free-standing pillar of "Rainbow Serpent". We get ready at the base and Eric begins climbing. The first section is not very steep. Being in the sun most of the morning, the ice is soft and enjoyable to climb. Eric reaches a ledge, more than half-way up. He has not put in a screw yet. Above the ledge, the angle steepens and I urge him to place one before going any higher. He finally does and soon reaches the fixed belay station on the left just as he runs out of rope. He belays me up. I reach the belay anchor but keep climbing toward the "Recital Hall". I'm on easy terrain - snow and low angle ice - and clip a better anchor along the way (this beefy bolt anchor is just a few meters above the first one). I'm almost on flat ground when I look up toward the right corner of the "Recital Hall" where "Rainbow Serpent" is tucked in. I gasp in admiration and almost yell out loud. Eric, who still can't see the pillar, but who was anticipating my reaction asks me not to tell him anything. I know he's pretty nervous so I don't say a word. I use a small tree as an anchor and belay Eric up. We then have a snack and take a closer look at the climb. The bottom pitch looks quite technical with huge overhanging mushrooms to negotiate. Thankfully, the mushrooms should also provide good rests so it does not look that bad. We decide to go for it.

Eric goes up the low angle ice that leads to the base of the pillar and sets up a belay on the right by a small pinnacle. He then belays me up. Another look at that first pitch and he's ready to go. It's a hard pitch. Negotiating these overhanging mushrooms is pretty wild at times and involves a few gymnastic moves. Protection is a bit tricky, most of the ice being quite hollow and brittle. The climbing is fun though and very different from what we are used to on ice. Much more like rock climbing. Eric takes time to rest and place protection every opportunity he gets. After the overhanging mushroom section, one has to traverse right into a belay cave about half way up. The climbing is much more straightforward on this section - it's just very steep. The cave where Eric belays is great and comfortable. We both have a sip of water and take a break before finishing the climb. From the cave, I can only see Eric going up the first few meters above the belay. I'm worried about him having to lead another steep pitch after the demanding first pitch. He seems to move fast though so I stop worrying. I soon hear "off belay" and I'm relieved. As soon as I'm on belay, I get out of my little cave and start climbing. The second pitch is much easier than the first - very straightforward climbing; steep (WI5+), but on great plastic ice. I'm having a good time and quickly join Eric. From the top, we use existing Abalakov anchors to rap down to the cave we just left. A second rap from the cave brings us all the way down to the snow. Eric exchanges his impressions with a party that is about to start up the climb. Back in the "Recital Hall", we just hang out and watch the other party go up the first pitch. We take lots of pictures and admire the awesome pillar.

We finally have enough of it and prepare to rap "Aquarius" from the beefy bolted anchor. One long rap later, we're back at our packs. Not knowing what the drainage below "Aquarius" is like, we hike down the way we came. The weather is great and we take our time, snapping pictures and enjoying the scenery.

Once we reach the parking lot, we notice that there are only two cars there, our jeep and another truck. Two groups in the South Ghost, both on "Rainbow Serpent", what a coincidence! We had a great day - great climb in an incredible setting!

We make it to Canmore before nightfall but not in time for the Ashtanga primary series at The Yoga Lounge. Oh well, I'm tired enough - I'll go to yoga tomorrow...

Aquarius & Rainbow Serpent, S. Ghost

February 13, 2004 / WI4, 60m & WI6, 100m
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Sunrise at the South Ghost parking area.
 
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"Aquarius" and the Recital Hall as seen from Wicked Wanda (Rainbow Serpent is hidden behind the right-hand wall of the amphitheater).
 
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"Aquarius" (WI4), the gentle approach pitch into the Recital Hall.
 
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Getting ready at the base.
 
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Eric starting up "Aquarius".
 
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Setting a screw half-way up.
 
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In the steeper section near the top.
 
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"Rainbow Serpent" (WI6), a beautiful, 100m tall, free-standing pillar.
 
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Incredible overhanging mushrooms on the first (crux) pitch.
 
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Eric on the ice apron below the pillar.
 
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Getting to the base of "Rainbow Serpent"
 
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Eric starting up the crux pitch.
 
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With a little creativity, you can get nice rests!
 
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Higher up on the first pitch.
 
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Eric starting the second pitch - steep but straightforward (WI5+).
 
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Watching another party starting up the climb.
 
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Lead climber going over the large overhangs of the first pitch.
 
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Lucie in the recital Hall, the unique rock amphitheater where "Rainbow Serpent" is located.
 
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On the walk back to the car with "Aquarius" in the background.
 
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Views of the Ghost Lakes on the hike back.
 
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Crossing slopes below "Spectre Crag" with an improvised pole.
 
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The dry First Ghost Lake.
(high res. images are about 300KB)