WE ARE F-STOP: The Grand Sentinel with Eric Shiozaki

Eric is an adventure photographer based in Alberta, Canada. His origins are in board sports, but he has since expanded into other mountain-related activities such as climbing, biking, skiing, and more. He thrives on learning and acquiring new knowledge while simultaneously pushing himself beyond his comfort zone. Photography is a highly influential motivator for Eric that enables and inspires him to get outdoors.

 

Words and images by Eric Shiozaki

 

The Grand Sentinel is an iconic 400-foot obelisk quartzite rock tower located near the popular Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Of the two prominent climbing routes the Grand Sentinel features, we had chosen Cardiac Arête, which follows the south-facing edge of the spire. Our goal was to capture the first light on the tower as our team of climbers ascended the final pitch of the climb. Due to the nature of the tower, the climbing is extremely exposed and airy with high wind and sections of steep roofs and slabs with no wall visible below. Cardiac Arête is a high alpine climb that requires technical ability, perseverance, and a strong headspace. We attempted the climb on August 16th, 2020.????

This project was important to me because it challenged me logistically, mentally, and physically, and it required me to work with a tight-knit team. The approach to this climb is situated in the Larch Valley, a stunning valley in Banff National Park surrounded by towering peaks, larch trees, and glacier-fed lakes. I found the Grand Sentinel while hiking in the area for a specific shot I envisioned near one of the lakes on the approach. I attempted the hike six times over three years in an attempt to get a very specific photograph at the lake, but the conditions never worked out. One day, at the top of the pass before I even got into climbing, I noticed the incredible tower that is the Grand Sentinel and thought to myself, ‘it would be insane to climb it one day’. Since then, it has been a dream of mine to climb and document an ascent of the tower.

Our crew consisted of Levi Soprovich, a strong sport climber; Dylan McLean, a volunteer climbing instructor; Shehzadi Alejandra, a frequent marathoner; Tim Put, a passionate outdoors person; and my partner Jaimie. The climbing team consisted of Levi, Dylan, and myself. We planned to have Levi and Dylan climb, followed by myself and Dylan again. Our support crew consisted of Sheh, Tim, and Jaimie who helped schlep gear up the mountain, cook food, and keep the warm drinks coming. Lastly, I was running around photographing the adventure and organizing the trip.

CHALLENGES

Our biggest challenges throughout the adventure were weather, time, and ourselves. We had gambled everything on the weather being perfect for this day and the entire project could have been cancelled if the conditions were not right. The forecast ended up being ideal and so the next challenge we faced was time. We wanted to capture the first light on the tower which required a 2am start in the pitch black. Tensions were high in the morning due to stress, lack of sleep, and the high amounts of pressure placed on the trip. We had spent lots of time, money, and effort to prepare for the climb which placed significant pressure on everyone. To keep the crew safe and focused, they needed to operate in a strong headspace. Before we set out, I huddled the crew together and informed them that if anyone had any hesitations we could turn around, no questions asked, and cancel everything. High levels of pressure can cloud judgement and performance and I did not want to force anyone beyond their capabilities. The battle between fear and time was our biggest obstacle and something we planned for during our test run of the climb, but severely underestimated. The start at 2am was brutal; nobody slept the night before as we were all anxious and excited.

The first few kilometres of the hike were the most challenging, with constant elevation gain and 35 or more pounds in everyone’s pack. There were snow crossings and scree slopes, but the views are what pushed us through. We arrived slightly late to start the climb, but the crew made quick work of the first two pitches and caught up to our schedule. Since we were hoping to catch first light, the entire first half of the climb was in darkness and the climbers had to have hand warmers in their chalk bags to keep their fingers warm. Pitch 3 was the most challenging pitch and Levi and Dylan spent the most time there. Dylan had moments of anxiety where he didn’t think he could keep going, but Levi talked him through it and worked out the moves of the climb. To add to the tension, frequent avalanches and rockfall could be heard constantly throughout the valley. It sounded like thunder was rumbling throughout the climb. We even witnessed a major rock slide that completely washed out the scree slope that we used to approach the climb. The ambience in the valley was unsettling, to say the least.

On pitch 4, the final pitch of the climb and arguably the most technical section, Dylan veered slightly off route and in one of the most exposed and airy areas he lost his grip and fell. Dylan fell about six feet before hitting the end of the rope and bouncing with nothing underneath him. Our support crew was spectating from a cliff edge a few hundred metres away and all of our hearts sank into our stomachs. Luckily he was fine and immediately corrected himself and pushed through the crux of the pitch, joining back up with Levi at the top of the spire. There was so much wind on the tower and up breeze from the valley that their backpack straps were just floating next to them as they stood there. When I asked how it felt to stand up atop the spire, at the exact same time Levi said “It was good,” and Dylan said “TERRIFYING.” After adjusting to the exposure they looked around, enjoyed the panoramic views of the valley, chugged a well-earned RedBull, and sat back down.

FUN & SURPRISES

One of the best moments of the adventure was seeing Levi and Dylan standing up on the tower and howling back and forth in amazement from so far away. We were all so proud of them for making it up there and pushing themselves far beyond their comfort zones. We couldn’t believe they made it and how perfect the conditions turned out to be.

Some of the best “food” we had was undoubtedly the hot pour-over coffee Sheh brewed for us, although we also appreciated the warm meals prepared by our support crew. Because of our large crew size, we were able to afford a few luxuries that helped make the entire experience significantly more enjoyable. Thanks to Toaks Outdoors, we had four stoves running to keep a constant supply of warm food and beverages. Toaks ultra lightweight titanium cookware and stoves were essential to our safety and well-being. Not only did we have warm food, but we were also kept warm by the heat of the alcohol stove in our small rock fort at our basecamp near the tower. Having these additional amenities made the overall journey considerably more pleasurable.

TRICKS & TIPS

For anyone thinking about making this climb, my recommendation is that you leave room for a lot of flexibility in your plan. It’s highly unlikely everything will go according to plan and it helps reduce the stress if you’ve anticipated there will be some some problems along the way. You simply cannot plan for how long an anxiety attack or obsessive buddy checks on the wall will take. In our case, we had expected the climb to take two to three hours, but it ended up taking four hours.

I also think that giving everyone an “out”, without any judgement or question, was essential to the success of the project. Several sections of the hike are extremely dangerous and could have resulted in severe injury or death, so it’s important that everyone is feeling confident and committed before setting out.

WHAT’S NEXT

I am an adventure photographer & filmmaker based in Alberta, Canada. I surround my work with nature and enjoy capturing candid moments shared between friends. I thrive on pushing myself to the limit and engaging in new activities outside of my comfort zone. By sharing my experiences, I hope to encourage and inspire others to get outdoors and explore for themselves.

My next adventure will be a helicopter trip to Assiniboine Provincial Park to do some astrophotography and hopefully some time-lapse work. I also hope to follow this up with a remote sea plane trip up near the North West Territories! In the winter, I hope to venture deeper into ice climbing and explore some remote glaciers. More of my work can be found on my Website or my Instagram. Thank you so much for following along and reading; I hope you enjoyed!

Gear used during this story:

 

Website | Instagram

 

WHAT'S YOUR STORY?

"We Are f-stop" is for all f-stop users to share their stories from the field, from small daily adventures to epic travels. Contact us with your story on Facebook or drop us an email to [email protected] and let us know where your photography takes you and your f-stop pack! 

SIGN UP FOR F-STOP EMAILS

Get information regarding exclusive offers, events, stories and new gear!