Canadian climber Sarah Hueniken got her start in the outdoors as a guide for Outward Bound. She soon found her passion for rock, initially in trad mecca Wyoming. After mountain-guiding in the Wind River ranges, Devils Tower, Red Rocks and elsewhere, she ended up back in the Canadian Rockies. Here she obtained her ACMG Rock and Alpine certifications (currently one of only 10 women to hold this level of certification in Canada). Today she runs Sarah Hueniken Guiding out of Canmore.
Hueniken was in the news recently as Will Gadd’s partner for the first ascent of Niagara Falls.
In 2013, she became the first North American woman to climb M12 after sending Musashi in the Cineplex Cave near Panther Falls, AB. Earlier this week, Hueniken shared a story with Outdoor Research Verticulture about her experiences climbing here. “Two years ago I was working a mixed route in the Cineplex and felt a horrible pain in my ribs,” she writes. “It turned out I tore my intercostals and had to give the tools a rest for at least a month. At this time, my good friends were taking advantage of great conditions to put up a cool new mixed route in the Waiporous. Envy and disappointment took over as I wished so much that I could join them.
The route they established was called Nophobia. 5 pitches, M10+. It’s a big overhanging traversing route that follows a cool weakness in a huge cave on suspect rock and ends on a little piece of ice. To get to it, though, requires two to three hours of 4WD with lots of potential for getting stuck.
I knew I wanted to get back to the route, but two of my most reliable partners had already climbed it (John and Will – two of the route setters). This route would take a new level of commitment. Step one was to buy a vehicle that would allow me to access the climb on my own, without waiting for a friend with a suitable 4WD vehicle to get motivated. It also required learning how to drive it. Last year, I drove in four times and got stuck three of them, spending the majority of the day digging through my frustrations. The one day I did get in, and finally got on the route, I seconded Raph Slawinski but had a crappy head day and just tried to second him quickly so he could get further on the route.
This year, the route was still on my list of things to do. I had my Xterra, now I needed a partner. But this route isn’t for everyone. The rock is quite loose, holds are small and the belays are not comfortable. Despite the good intentions and motivation of friends, it took me several drives in there to find someone willing to go past the 3rd pitch.
Lucky for me, Katie Bono was game. We went in one morning with our friend Renee Lavergne, who was psyched to take some video. The day was perfect and we cruised up to the end of the 3rd pitch. I was leading and hadn’t fallen, and was psyched. But I had never been on the next two pitches. I led the 4th pitch but had trouble finding the holds. I had to downclimb it to get back to the belay so that I could relead it cleanly. By the end of that redpoint, I was pretty tired. Katie followed and we looked up at the last pitch. Sadly it lacked ice completely, which would mean a slow and thoughtful lead on gear. We tucked in our tails and headed down.
My winter has been crazy, but great. And the day after an awesome trip to climb Niagara Falls, I was determined to have another go at Nophobia on the only day that Katie and Renee also had free. We had a nice early start, but it was puking snow and was quite cold. We deliberated a lot on the drive about whether we should push on, with fear of getting stuck and about whether we could even climb in the temps we were facing. But, of course, we kept going and soon were back at the base trying to keep warm.
‘Mixed climbing is often just a head game – your brain telling your body to hold on when it no longer wants to or feels like it can.’
This time, Renee stayed on the ground to speed things up, and Katie and I were off. Our original hopes were to link up Nophobia and Hydrophobia (a classic four-pitch WI 5+ in the same valley). As we progressed up the wall, we realized this might not happen as it was a lot colder and slower moving then the other attempt. By the time we got to the last ice-free pitch, I was still in sending mode, having led the 1st, 2nd and 4th pitches. I grabbed the rock rack that we brought and headed up. I didn’t realize how long this pitch was, and climbed most of it with my gloved hands to add security to the unknown with at least being able to feel what I was grasping. At the very top, a metre from the anchor, I tapped into a thin piece of ice on a slab to clip the chains…the one “mixed” ice swing on an otherwise five-pitch dry-tooling rock route this year.
Mixed climbing is often just a head game – your brain telling your body to hold on when it no longer wants to or feels like it can. Sometimes it’s the same with goals. I had a million excuses to give this route a rest: no vehicle, no 4WD experience, stress of the drive and getting stuck, finding partners willing and able, hanging belays, cold temps, wind and snow, fear of falling, fear of failing. But in the end, I decided it was worth it and kept hanging on. Just like the joy of discovering the next hold on a route, holding on to a goal and seeing it through opens the door for you to see the next step in your potential.”