One of the big reasons I came to Canada was to climb on ice, I have managed to do this but it is hasn't been as simple as I imagined and it took me longer than expected to get into.
I have some experience of winter climbing in Scotland, soloed grade 1 and 2 gullies, lead some grade 3 and seconded 4 and quite a bit more Alpine climbing in Europe including Chere Couloir, so with that experience I hoped that I would transition onto waterfall ice out here fairly easily. I found out on my first outing over here though that my head thought it was a very different ball game altogether.
Our first trip was to Tangle falls out on the Icefields Parkway, this is 3 hour drive from where we live in Golden. This was a great venue to start on, it's in a beautiful location, the walk in is non-existent and you could go up some easy lines to the top and then set up top ropes on slightly harder lines.
We were all super excited as not only was this our first day out this season but it was also out first opportunity to try our new DMM Apex axes.
Matt (Distpatch) lead the first route, he choose a fairly steady line up the ice and he made it look very easy, it filled me with confidence. Once he was down we pulled the rope because I decided I would lead the same route but leave his screws in, after all I was a little bit rusty but confident I could get up there with just as much style. It only took me to get to the first screw to realise what a mistake I had made.
Dispatch leading at Tangle falls
Any ice I have climbed in the past has been snow which has been through a lot of freeze/thaw cycles and has subsequently become ice. I've never struggled with the hardness of this type of ice, you swing your axe, kick your feet and in they go. Waterfall ice is much, much harder, I really struggled with how much force I had to put behind my axes, however I could watch those so I could see, as well as feel once they had gone in. My feet were a different matter altogether, I couldn't really see how well my front points were into the ice and I found it difficult to feel in. As a climber I was not used to feeling so disconnected from my feet, I rely on my toes and the grip of my shoes, I trust them a lot more than I trust my hands when I climb normally. So to be in this position where I felt my feet could pop any second and leave me hanging from ice axes really did not sit well with my thinking. Once I got to that first screw, I clipped in and immediately asked for a tight rope and to be lowered to the floor.
Once on the floor I felt relief, frustration, disappointment and bafflement. Relief that I was no longer up in that position any more, frustration because I was sure I was capable of climbing the route, disappointment at how quickly I had lost control of my mental game, my feet never slipped once and bafflement at how I was going to get around this disconnected feeling I had when climbing on the ice.
I decided I had just tried to lead too soon and that I just needed some time to get used to the ice, how to place my feet better, connect properly with the spikes I was using. I spent the rest of the day top roping and just enjoying climbing surrounded by beautiful mountains. I felt a lot more confident by the end of the day and I was looking forward to our next time on the ice.
Haffner creek was our next outing on ice and I was excited and apprehensive. This time there was a bit of a walk in but it was a stunning walk through a snow covered forest, pick our way over fallen trees and navigating part of the frozen river. Since Tangle Falls there had been a warming in the weather but we were hopeful with the recent drop in temperature that there would be some decent ice to climb.
It was an atmospheric place to be but sadly the amount of ice had been drastically affected by the recent warm weather, one lady we met there said that it was the least ice she had seen in the creek for 25 years. We were not put out though, there was still some ice and we found some short pillars that were still in good condition.
Again Dispatch lead up first, he tried a very steep looking line which we think went at grade 4. Although short it took him a while to complete as he too went through a head game battle. It was very impressive to watch as he yo-yo-ed above and then back to the last screw he placed. The next section of ice was obviously much steeper and he was getting pumped trying to get through it, several times he went up, attempted it, got pumped and then impressively down climbed to the lower screw.
The battle he was going through was evident on his face and in his breathing, I was edge the whole time belaying. The consequences of a fall on ice can be a lot worse than rock, all those spikes attached to your feet and weapons in your hands.
Dispatch hanging in there!
He persevered and got to the top of the climb with a woop of relief and set it up so Matt and I could top rope it. Remarkably he was frustrated with himself when he got to the floor and somewhat embarrassed about his performance on the climb. It was strange hearing him talk that way, how could he feel like that when the thought of trying to do what he had accomplished made me nervous and I was going to be on top rope. He was in the same boat as I was on our Tangle falls outing, not performing to the standard to which you think you are capable of.
We spent the day climbing on the smaller pillars of ice at Haffner creek and it was an enjoyable day. I did not try and lead again, I still did't feel ready and it almost seemed that as I felt more confident with how I was moving over the ice I became more the worse I felt about the idea of leading. Strange.
Photo by M.L.Kennedy
Matt looking like a badd ass
The next time we tried to go ice climbing was a bust, we set off from our house way too late, we were going to our closest venue yet, Johnston Canyon. It was again another beautiful walk in, made easy by the board walk and we were aware it was a popular group venue but it was a Tuesday how busy could it be?
There were about 20 people in total
It turns out very, very busy. You can't see all the climbers there in this photo, there are a lot more out of shot. So after deciding we weren't really up for trying to muscle our way in we walked out and passed another 3 pairs heading in. Nope, not for me.
One of our issues/wants this winter was to get some more ice screws, between Dispatch, Matt and I we had enough but Matt and I wanted enough for when Dispatch wasn’t there (also his screws were way better than ours and we were jealous). On Valentines day the local outdoors store had a 40% off sale, I didn’t expect them to stock any but I was pleasantly surprised to find out they had quite a few. We took them all, apart from 2 which we let Dispatch have. Who doesn’t like a shiny set of screws for Valentines day.
Our next trip on ice was back to Johnston Canyon but this time we left much earlier, in the car park before 9 am. It was the coldest drive I have ever had in my life though, found out that we had a coolant leak and the heating in the car had broken. It was -30 degrees outside, I will let you imagine what driving at 60 mph at that temperature for 2 hours is like. We ended up stopping to buy hand and feet warmers because we were that cold.
The walk into the ice only just warmed us up enough and if I'm honest had Matt said 'sod this lets go to Banff and have a coffee shop day', I would not have said no. Outwardly I just kept saying 'imagine how good the ice is going to be, this is going to be a great day'. At least it was likely to be a quiet day.
Walk into Johnston Canyon
Matt lead up some easy ice to set up a top rope, it was only his second lead of the season as Dispatch had done all the others, so he took his time and made sure he laced it with screws. I was a little frozen block by the time he got down.
Photo by M.L.Kennedy
Matt on his second lead of that day
I still wanted to climb though and so up I went, I hated most of it! My body was soo cold and my hands got what UK climbers call the 'hot aches', in Canada they call it the 'screaming barfies'. I got to the top, re-directed the top rope to a different climb and wanted to cry by the time I got to the floor. Matt insisted I go up again, so I did.
Photo by M.l.Kennedy
Overall it was a great day, I warmed up after the second climb, Dispatch arrived with a visiting friend so it was sociable but best of all was the sun eventually came around into the Canyon. In fact after a stop for lunch I felt like I was ready to lead one of the easy lines. I decided to do one more top rope and then I was going to go for it. It had started to get busier as the day had gone on and by the time it came to me doing my lead all the easier lines either had someone on or a top rope. I also started to get really nervous about leading again and I decided I was glad to have an excuse not to lead, next time.
People on some of the more challenging lines at Johnston
Our next adventure on ice was to a place near a village called Spillimacheen. It was our most local ice climbing and we were only just going there. The drive and the walk in would take 1.5 hours total or it would have if one of our group hadn't forgotten her boots and so we drove to Invermere to hire some because it was closer than going back. It was Sandrines’ first time on ice though and none of us had double checked before we left.
Photo Taken by Sandrine and edited by M.L.Kennedy
Dispatch leading the first line
It is my favourite place we have been to so far, it's hidden away and it takes a good 40 min uphill hike to get there. When we arrived there was no one else around and it stayed that way for the whole day. It was a very impressive and intimidating crag in a stunning location. I was convinced before we got there that I would do my first lead of the winter season. Once I saw the ice however my mind had different thoughts, I still wanted to lead but I was intimidated by the ice that stood before me.
Dispatch lead the first line while I talked Sandrine through how to belay. Then Matt set-up another line after and we spent the day top roping and resting the ropes. It was Sandrines’ first ever day ice climbing and she totally bossed it, Dispatch was coaching her and she got the hang of it really quickly. When the sun came around and warmed us all up it felt like the perfect day.
I finally started to feel totally solid while ice climbing, it was such a good feeling. Keeping my body in balance, feeling connected when I kicked in my crampons and not getting super pumped half way up the route, it was all coming together.
Matt on lead
We were having such a good time at this venue that we nearly forgot that Sandrine had to return her boots by 6pm to the store. At around 4pm Matt checked the time and a good thing too, we still had to retrieve ropes and ice screws and then pack up. We managed to leave the crag before 5pm and we absolutely boosted down the hill. We made it back to the store with minutes to spare.
The next time we went out was to the same venue but higher up the creek. Once again the weather had gotten warmer so the first ice crag we had been at was well and truely melting, with huge cracks and far more rock appearing.
The lower ice we had been on the week before
We had brought another friend with us again, Rosa, which meant we could climb in pairs. Today was to be the day that I finally got my first lead in. As we had gotten closer to the crag my apprehension had built and I was thinking about backing out again. I wanted to lead but at the same time the thought of it scared the crap out of me. My partner Matt was not about to let me back out though, he walked to the base of the first line that I said looked ok, flaked the ropes and just said ‘up you go then’.
I could hear that little voice of doubt but I tried to apply some of the techniques I use when I lead on rock. Where do you need to get you, where can you put in a screw, make a plan, right now just go, just keep going. Go, go go go go.
The first route I lead
It worked!! Don’t get me wrong, I was still scared the whole way up, placing 3 screws within a body length, the worst parts were always the first few moves above the last screw that I placed but I steadily worked my way up the climb. On the placing of the 6th screw I realised I was going to run out before the top, so I had to down climb and retrieve two, ah well, learning curves. It was with a massive sense of relief and achievement that I built my belay.
Feeling good a few meters below the belay
I was buzzing for quite a while after that climb. I managed one more lead that day, the first pitch of a multi-pitch route. It still didn’t feel any less scary than the first and by the time I reached the thread belay my arms were so pumped I struggled to pull the rope through to clip in. I had made it though, my second lead.
On my way up my second lead!!
Sadly the top pitch was too sun affected and Matt ended up backing off it after he broke a massive slab of ice from the route. By the time we returned to the group our party of four were feeling satisfied with the days climbing and it was time to head home.
I don’t think my fear of leading on ice is going to go away in hurry but it is something that I know I want to be able to do, which I think makes it possible for me to start to push through it. Once I start the process of controlling my fears about it, I find I can push the negativity out of my mind for a while and just focus on what I need to do. Starting that process isn’t always easy and the worst is when I lose control of that focus part way up a route. I am pretty chuffed that I am making progress, I just wished it had happened a bit earlier in the season, we probably don’t have many day left to get out before it all starts to melt.
Still, there is alway next season.
Photo by M.L.Kennedy
Massive thank you to Matt and Dispatch for all the advice and encouragement this season. Dispatch a.k.a Matt Kennedy is also a very good photographer and as you have seen, got some great shots of Matt and I on the ice, check out his instagram @m.l.kennedy