The winter of 2021/2022 was a bit of a bummer. Although it was a break through year for skiing. It was the year I finally started carving smooth turns through deep, back-country powder down steep mountain runs. Although I have skied for many years at resorts, taken innumerable lessons on how to ski the groomed runs, I struggled to make the transition to the wild powdery slopes of the backcountry. That’s where the adventure lies. Like going from the swimming pool to the ocean.
But ice climbing was a complete bust. Dan and I took a week in November 2021 to stay at the Lake Louise campground in our new RV. That location is an excellent base for ice climbing and backcountry skiing and we hoped to do some of each during the week.
Our first ice climb was going to be a short, fairly easy climb called Step Right Up, near Banff. We had climbed it before so we thought it would be a good warm up climb. We planned to do multiple laps, getting the feel for the tools and the remembering the body movements that would take us up the ice. After a 20 minute hike through knee deep snow, we found the waterfall in the photo above.
Certainly not enough ice to climb here. It just hadn’t formed. On the drive out, we had noticed that a couple of climbs which would be visible from the highway if they formed, were not in. We retreated to the RV to make plans for another day.
The next time we went for ice, we brought our skis so the day would not be a bust if we couldn't climb. We drove up the Icefields Parkway to where the climb “2 O’Clock Falls” would be visible from the highway. We parked and got the binoculars out. It didn’t seem to be well formed either so we skipped the hike in and went skiing instead.
The rest of the winter seemed to be either too cold for ice climbing or life just got in the way. Dan was busy in the city with the imminent sale of his business and I didn’t want to climb with anyone but him.
Winter ended with no ice climbing. The first year I haven’t climbed ice since I learned to climb in 2014.
This year, we were determined to get out more for ice climbing. Our first day was extremely successful. We decided to go to a crag (multiple single pitch lines) so we could try some easier lines and work our way on to steeper stuff. We got up early and drove to King Creek, hoping to be the first to arrive at this popular spot. When we pulled up, there were already three vehicles parked at the trailhead, with four or five people dressed to climb pulling out their gear from one of them. Too busy. We would have a hard time getting a good spot to climb.
We decided to go for the Wedge Smears, where we climbed once before. We arrived to find lots of nice ice and not a soul around. Photo at the top of the page.
We knew we wouldn’t be alone for long so we set up our rope at the choicest line. It looked really intriguing with lots of good holds, good placements for ice screws and rest spots. But I wasn’t feeling like leading it. I knew I could do it but it would be a struggle for the first climb in almost two years. We didn’t know that at this crag, you can walk around through the trees to the top of the ice and set up your rope there. So Dan bravely agreed to lead it.
He wasn’t too far up when a group of three came up the trail. They asked if they could set up their rope beside ours and of course, I agreed. As Dan was finishing up the steepest part, a guided group came up the trail. There were two guides and about 10 clients doing a "learn to ice climb" course. It was starting to feel like a party atmosphere.
The guides were excellent at directing traffic, helping us find belay stances where we would be out of danger of falling ice while we all climbed together. I did a lap on the top rope Dan had set, just focusing on the techniques that help to move efficiently up the ice. Dan did another lap, on top rope so he could focus on the climbing instead of leading.
More people arrived as I did another lap on the top rope, the skills I learned returning quickly. The guides agreed to let us use their top rope and we let their clients use ours. The guides had put up a steep line on the right side of the ice and it was really fun and interesting to climb it.
I found my forearms were pumped and burning so I decided to try a thinner glove. Big bulky gloves keep my hands warm when its very cold out but they cause me to grip harder than I need to. With thinner gloves, its easier to feel the tools and relax my grip. It was a warm day and the thinner gloves worked really well.
I decided that four burns was enough climbing for me for the first day back. Dan also stopped at four, taking a burn on the guides’ top rope. I finished the day climbing our rope and taking down the anchor, rappelling back to the ground.
The day was so much fun, and I felt like my skills were all coming back. I remembered to gain elevation as much as possible with my legs, using my arms only for balance and support. No pull ups! I remembered where to place the tool picks and how to kick in the feet for maximum staying power and minimum effort.
A great start to the season and already more ice than we'd climbed the previous winter.
I used to think ice climbing was only for people who were a bit crazy or extremely hard core. It seemed so dangerous! How did I get started ice climbing?