When it gets cold in the mountains and your fingers start seizing up when you touch rock, it’s time to dig out the ice climbing tools. Having had a bit of practice dry-tooling, we set off on a search for climbable ice. This led us to some interesting places – King’s Creek where the skies opened and we were soon hiking through ever-deeper snow in the first big snow dump of the season…
Though there was lots of snow, the ambient temperature was still quite mild, so the climbing wasn’t all that great… Though, the proportion of ice to flowing water was definitely higher than our first effort on Grotto Falls.
After the blizzard, the temperatures fell and things began to firm up. We climbed Cascade Falls – twice –
The first day we climbed all the lower pitches and ran out of light before we were able to climb the top pitch.
The next day we tried again and this time walked around the bottom three sections so we would have time to climb right to the top. The one small hitch in this plan was my total lack of experience and failing nerve right at the top. The ice was so thin up there it seemed like the water rushing underneath my feet was just as likely to suck the ice right off the rock and send it (and me) flying. In one place there was a huge hole in the ice and when I stood on the lip trying to collect my thoughts and convince myself going up was a good idea, my boot and leg got totally soaked by the waterfall rushing past and underneath me. My climbing companions for the day were totally unfazed by all this – apparently flowing water is just part of ice climbing – who knew?
Wind, water, and chilly temperatures create wild ice sculptures at the top of Cascade Falls – Banff National Park
There was no disagreement about the beauty of the place. But right about where Fabio is (over on the right in the photo above) I had a total crisis of confidence and a complete failure in my minimal ice climbing skills and slithered off my precarious perch.
I slipped and swung sideways, landing in a sort of cave of icicles. There I waited patiently for Dan, the third member of our team that day, to climb up to where Fabio was belaying from up top to tell him that I wasn’t going to make it up and over the final, flimsy bulge and that I needed to be lowered back down to the previous anchor. To say this was a tad disappointing would be a huge understatement. It was frustrating for everyone, I think – and I now need to go back and climb Cascade a third time in order to see what lies at the top.
Our next expedition was to a climb called This House of Sky in the Ghost River Valley. This is rather an exciting destination even if you never climb anything as the approach involves a lengthy drive over a wilderness of snow drifts, rocky river bottom and then through the ice-choked river. Several times. The bottom part of the actual climb is not particularly difficult – it’s made up of a series of modest steps as the waterfall makes its way down a narrow canyon. It’s rather magical to make your way up through this secret passage, climbing ever upwards… The biggest problem was the warm weather – the lower pitches were absolutely soaking wet and crumbly. Delicate ice, is how Fabio puts it. He looks at stuff like this and salivates, relishing the challenge of climbing this type of thing gently. With finesse. Feeling you way up rather than bashing your ice tools into something remotely solid.
Though I did manage to more or less keep up on the climb up and over the various small waterfalls, I wasn’t exactly feeling competent. So, I signed up for a mixed climbing course taught by Sean Isaac. Fabio headed off to climb something actually challenging and I spent the day learning some basic techniques and practicing using my tools on routes that combined rock and ice. The day flew past and I had lots of fun learning about body position, kicking techniques, and ice tool swinging strategies.
With my newfound skills (hah!) it was off to tackle Guinness Gulley. Managed to get up the bottom two pitches, though not without some issues. I had trouble negotiating the second one and slipped off when trying to retrieve one of the ice screws Fabio had put in on his way up. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a huge issue but I had parked one of my tools in the ice so I could unscrew more easily but when I fell I accidentally left one of my ice tools lodged firmly in the ice and well out of reach. People who actually know what they are doing don’t have much trouble climbing with one tool, but I was a bit flummoxed and determined not to have to be lowered down on another climb. I thrashed around getting ever more flustered, but managed to inch my way back up to where I was supposed to be in the first place. I suspect the initial problem was poor foot placement – both feet popped out when I was fiddling around with the ice screw – and as I crept up the ice with my remaining tool I realized just how poor my footwork still was.
At that point, it was all mental – I totally lost my ‘I can do this’ attitude (which seems to be a bit elusive on the ice anyway) and by the time I got to the top and looked up what seemed like an endlessly long stretch of ice in the next pitch, I was done.
I sent Fabio and Joe on ahead and hunkered down against a rock to await their return. Quite honestly, I was thiiiiiiiis close to throwing in the towel and sticking to rock climbing, but then we decided to do a day of remedial ice. The fact this took place at one of the most gorgeous places on the planet (Johnson’s Canyon) did a lot to boost my flagging spirits.
The hardest part was lowering myself off the little lookout platform (where a steady stream of hikers stopped to watch the crazy ice climbers throughout the day).
Coached by Fabio and Dan (relentlessly – neither of them really wants to wait days for me to fumble my way up stuff that really shouldn’t be that difficult…) I was drilled on kicking techniques, foot placement (and more foot placement), how best to orient the crampons to the ice, keeping heels low, moving beneath my tools, maintaining an ‘A’ shape with a single tool at the apex, feet wide and stable below, not moving on shaky tools, reading the ice for better tool placement, how best to swing, etc., etc., etc. until my head was spinning. However, climbing the same routes several times did a lot to build my shaky confidence back up and drill some basic techniques into me.
All of this came in very handy on our second trip to This House of Sky… but that will have to wait for another blog post as this is already way too long.