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Canmore climber presents Cassin Ridge climb

photo594.jpgBefore she embarked on the three-day drive last June to Denali National Park in the Alaska Mountain Range, Rockies-based climber Nancy Hansen had two main goals. 

She hoped very much that the weather gods would grant her, her husband Doug Fulford, and Felix Camire the several days of clear, calm conditions they’d need to climb the 3,720-metre technically challenging Cassin Ridge route on Denali, known to non-native as Mt. Mckinley. And she hoped the temperatures would refrain from dropping to “ridiculously cold.”

For the most part, her wish was granted, as she and Camire, both Canmore residents, succeeded in climbing the fabled route, which involves 75-degree ice climbing, a 305-metre knife-edged ice traverse, 5.8 rock climbing moves and a 610-metre traverse along a steep ridge where a fall would be unquestionably fatal. 

After first completing an acclimatization climb to North America’s highest point, Denali’s 6194-metre summit via a combination of easier, more frequently travelled routes, Fulford, however, did not feel healthy enough to attempt the committing Cassin climb.

During the four days it took Hansen and Camire to ascend the Cassin, Fulford hung out at the populated camp at 4,330-metres from which dozens of climbers follow guides up the standard West Buttress route every season, and where the threesome based themselves for nearly a month. While initially Hansen thought she’d prefer to avoid “the circus”, she found the other climbers to be respectful and enjoyable company. 

“There are about a hundred people at that camp at any given time,” Hansen said. “It was an interesting community. People visit and find out more about each others’ cultures. We shared a camp with two guys from Spain and one from Argentina, so we got to practice our Spanish. And there were some Japanese climbers hanging fish to dry.” 

In the end, Hansen–who became the first woman and only sixth person to have climbed all 54 of the Canadian Rockies peaks above 11,000 feet (3,353 metres) in 2003—said the cold wasn’t as bad as she feared either. 

“We had one day of storm,” she said. “It was pretty intense, but totally manageable. We had to put our hoods up to prevent the deluge of spindrift from going down our clothing. We were really lucky with the cold, it was minus 15 to 20 C every night, but we were prepared for that. A couple of times we were climbing at the really cold part of the day in the shade and I hoped it wouldn’t go on for much longer because I didn’t want to lose any fingers or toes, but thankfully, it didn’t.”

Deciding to climb the route as a twosome, without Fulford’s contribution to the stress of leading pitches and the physical labour of breaking trail and sharing the weight of tent, stove and fuel, came with much sober deliberation, she said. 

“We had to ask ourselves some pretty serious questions, but we decided we were prepared,” she said. “In the end, Felix and I both thought the Cassin was very difficult, the hardest climb either one of us has ever done. The difficulty of the climbing was quite sustained. Once you’re on it, it would be quite scary to try and back off. Plus it’s hard enough climbing with a 40-pound pack in crampons with ice tools, but you couldn’t take your pack off when you were belaying. You could take it off to get a drink, but you always had to clip it to something or risk dropping it. It was very tiring.”

According to the Denali rangers, of the six to eight teams that attempt the Cassin each season, only half are successful. While fewer than 20 women have climbed the route, Hansen is the third from Canmore— Sharon Wood in 1983, and Karen McNeill in 2004. 

On the Cassin’s final section, she and Camire “nearly threw a party” when they discovered Americans Jesse Huey (whose parents live in Canmore), and Mark Westman had broken trail from where their much more difficult new route intersected the Cassin all the way to the summit.  

Back in the Rockies, Hansen, Fulford and Camire were surprised they’d been awarded the 2010 Denali Pro Award for helping rescue a stricken climber from 5,200 metres while they were at the 4,330-metre West Buttress camp, and also for Hansen and Camire’s efforts in assisting an exhausted Romanian solo climber who was “in trouble sometimes” on the Cassin.  

Awarded annually by the National Park Service and Pigeon Mountain Industries, the Denali Pro Award honours members of the climbing community for exhibiting high standards for safety, self-sufficiency, “Leave No Trace” ethics, and for assisting fellow mountaineers. Each received a Denali Pro lapel pin (the design changes every year), and their names have been added to the Denali Pro Award plaque on display at the Talkeetna Ranger Station. 

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