How does ice form from year to year? A million dollar question for ice climbers and one that has me scratching my head this year. We had a relatively mild fall with lots of warm weather and no doing time locked up in the ice box of minus twenty Celsius, or colder, yet it has still been below freezing for most of the time. The ice loved it, especially the low water volume flows and those on the East Slope of the Rockies. Climbs that make an appearance once or twice a decade, like The Water Hole, a fine grade 2/3 pitch just above Lac Des Arcs, not fifteen minutes from Canmore, grew big and blue. I’d guided it two or three times in the last twenty five years and I’ve already been there five times since the end of November! Other high water volume routes like the iconic Weeping Wall have been slow to start leading me to conclude that they like the - 30 when the ice accumulates like whip cream being blown out of a can. I, however, am not found of -30, even though it is excellent training for climbing on high and cold mountains, I prefer the user friendliness of milder temps. This season has been a winner in my book, here’s some photos:
November 29th, the Narrows of Rogan’s Gully a classic route on the southeast flank of Cascade Mountain. Most ice climbers would know this area because Cascade Falls lies parallel to Rogan’s Gully, one gully to the east. Cascade Falls greets everyone who drives to the head of the Bow Valley at Banff and it is interesting to note that Chief John Snow of the Stoney Nakoda Nation has pointed out that the Stoney name for Cascade mountain was “Welcoming Mountain”. Cascade was the first waterfall to be climbed in Western Canada but the first ascentionists have been lost in the flow of history. It is known that Lloyd McKay led close to the route’s top in the winter of 1965. Rogan’s Gully is named for Gerry Rogan who first climbed the route in March of 1973 partnered to one of the progenitors of Canadian ice climbing, and a fellow British ex-pat, Bugs McKeith. I’d been to the route on November 12th and it was pleasing to see how much it had filled out in two weeks. “We are right inside the mountain!” One of the young men I was climbing with exclaimed, “this is wild.” So true, grey vertical rockwalls tower for a hundred feet above you in the Narrows and the sky is a slice of blue overhead like the corridor you would see looking up from a slot canyon. The final pitch of this 300 metre long route, that feels like a little alpine route, was thin that day and I had to coach my two young guests to ‘tap’ their ice tools rather than swing hard and shatter the meager ice and blunt their picks on the rock below. I’ve been back to the route twice this season and it has only been getting better.
December 10th, my guest, Jarrid, and the bright and happy Apprentice Guide, Brent, looking like they are on the North Face of the Eiger, well, if it wasn’t for the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree over Jarrid’s right shoulder. We have just topped out the ice on Coire Dubh, a 250 metre long grade 3 that Bugs McKeith had climbed by himself for the first ascent in December of 1973. Bugs named the route for “the Black Quarry” in his native Scotland. Climbers then worked out that you can extend the route to the ridgeline and summit of Loder Peak -550 metres- via some 5.7 mixed climbing and long snow and ice gullies-Coire Dubh Integral. Jarrid is interested in mountain and alpine climbing and Brent was along as a practicum guide. At no cost to the guest, the practicum guide is along to observe and learn the art of guiding under a full guide, a full Mountain Guide in my case – me. Given the shortness of daylight we opted to climb the fine 5.7 mixed corner above the ice and then descend. The corner can present an array of conditions from taking crampons off and climbing with bare hands on dry warm rock to what we had that day –the most challenging mixed conditions I’ve seen there. I dry tooled, planted my picks into ice, set my crampons onto snow covered edges the size of a paperclip. Protection presented a search for rock gear, and I placed three good ice screws, one of them 16 cms long, a first for me on that pitch. Jarrid got his money’s worth, so much so that we are planning on skiing into Takkakaw Falls a 250 metre high grade 4, the second highest waterfall in Canada! on January 28th, one week from this typing. We’ll camp out, climb Takkakaw the next day and ski out. Wish us luck!
December 27th, my long time guest, Bryce, descending empty handed from the Bourgeau Right Hand waterfall for the second time! It’s the route that Bryce most wants to do in the range, the first time we got a pitch and a half up it and it got to darn hot and it started to fall apart … we ran away. This time we plowed for two solid hours to get up to it and find out that it was just too darn thin to climb. Some days you sweat like a beast for hours to come to the conclusion that walking away is the right thing to do. We salvaged our day by backtracking to Rogan’s gully which had filled out to its full form over the intervening month since I was there with the young guys.
The next day Bryce and I were joined by Brad, one of the Apprentice Guides at Yamnuska who came along in the position of practicum guide. The three of us motored west through Yoho National Park to the Kicking Hoarse Canyon and the magnificent Pretty Nuts, a 180 metre long grade 4. Pretty Nuts sits directly above the Trans Canada Highway. If you threw an ice chunk from the top of the first pitch you could nail a semi. The CPR mainline passes under the highway under the climb (you could nail a train too).
“It’s kinda like climbing in a little Europe.” I said, “Planes, trains and automobiles. There should be a little café down there where we can get cappuccinos and strudel.”
“I’m not complaining.” Bryce replied, “I loved the 5 minute approach after all of the hiking we did yesterday.”
“I like strudel.” Added Brad.
Gig had taken the Yamnuska Three Month Mountain Skills semester in the past. He now lives in Calgary and is keen on pursuing his ice climbing with the goal of leading grade 5 this winter. The Ghost River area has been loving this season and the seldom formed and much desired, Rainbow Serpent, came in and had been climbed. Gig and I agreed there was no better way to get ready for leading grade 5 than following grade 6:
Alex Greary was able to come along as a practicum guide and we rendezvoused with Gig at 6:30 am on the wind blown shoulder of highway 940. Alex and I threw our packs into the back of Gig’s 1987 Toyota Forerunner, the truck was lifted and dented, rusted at the edges, coffee cups and Jonny Cash. “This feels like a redneck rodeo.” I said. “Viva le Ghost.” Gig quipped. “Does this seat go back?” asked Alex from the rear.
Rainbow Serpent sits in an incredible natural amphitheatre that ice climbers call “The Recital Hall”. Just 100 metres in diameter and near perfectly circular the Hall decries that art imitates nature. To gain the Hall you have to climb Aquarius, 60 metre, grade 4. Once you are in the Hall the acoustics are magical and I couldn’t help but yodel, often.
The first pillar of the Serpent was stout and solid and Gig came to my belay wide eyed, pumped and happy. Not one to stifle his joy, Gig shouted, “That was bloody amazing!” The second pillar was narrow, steep and serious and Gig said, “I don’t know how you led that. I don’t think that I’ll ever be leading anything like that.” “It’s all incremental lad. As it gets steeper it usually gets more complicated and harder to protect. It took me a long time to be able to put leads like that together, baby steps, baby steps. You’ve got the rest of the season to work on it. And thus far it has been a fine season indeed.”