Canmore Part 1: intro ice

Ice Evolution with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures

26 – 30 December 2018

It was fall. The rain came in endless succession. Temps had dropped up in the mountains and early season snow had arrived. After Fern and I spent the day in the Liberty Bell range, I ventured out to Black Peak with Kyle Yamamoto. At 8,921 feet, it strikes the sky above Wing Lake. An enjoyably moderate approach follows the Maple Pass Trail from Rainy Pass, eventually forking into the Wing Lake Trail to pass by Lewis Lake on the eastern aspect of the objective. The main southern route on Black is a long, entertaining scramble. In late October there was plenty of newly fallen snow on its slopes. Not enough to be any sort of avalanche concern but it was definitely early winter conditions. A couple of ill-suited gear choices ultimately deterred us just below the summit but we were more than satisfied with the trip. Any time you’re above 8,000 feet with 360 views of the North Cascades is a good day.

I thought back on this trip from my parent’s couch. The pictures from summer and fall scrolled past. 2018 had been on another level. Cham made sure of that. It changed my life. But every trip added to the progression. I started to feel confident in my ability to plan and execute alpine rock objectives. But it was time to hang up the cams for a few months and focus on winter. As the pictures moved past, my reminiscent ramblings gave way to premonitions of ice. I had about two weeks over the holidays and I wanted the winter version of Cham. Turns out the best waterfall ice climbing in the World is in the backyard next door, Canmore, Alberta. Time to go to school.

I knew very little about ice climbing. But what I had heard generally consisted of, “It’s really dangerous,” and, “Don’t ever fall.” Best to start from ground zero with professional instruction. I looked through a few different options and settled on the Ice Evolution program offered by Yamnuska Mountain Adventures. This course combines what they delineate as Ice Climbing 1 and 2, Intro Ice and Top Rope Management, respectively, into a five day program. From a first glance it looked like it would cover the necessary components of foundational mileage, introduction to techniques and a bit of multipitch for a taste of the real thing. Economically, it also offered a significant advantage to the same topics 1:1 with a guide. I signed up for the December 26 schedule, set up a membership with the Alpine Club of Canada and booked two weeks of lodging at the Alpine Club Hostel just outside of downtown Canmore and a quick five minute drive from the Yamnuska office.

Christmas Day arrived and I hopped in the car for a ten hour solo drive across the Canadian Rockies. The border was empty except for the moody guards and I travelled uninterrupted to Revelstoke. Here it got dark, snow started to fall and the driving a bit more involved. The road was covered in sand and slush that caked my windshield in a translucent layer of grime. Not so pro tip: if you find yourself driving in such conditions at night, remember to wash off your headlights. Mine were severely dimmed from hours on the mucky highway. I pulled into the hostel parking lot late that night and my soon-to-be friend Joke, who had found work as a housekeeper during this stop of her own journey through Canada, helped me get oriented to the place since I arrived after the front desk had closed. I installed my bed sheets, organized my gear and hit the sack, alarm set to mark the start of a new obsession I knew required no alarm to get me out of bed.

Day 1: Intro at the Junk Yard

We met in the Yamnuska office at 7:30AM. If you head to Canmore, make sure to check out Rocky Mountain Bagel Co on 8th street for breakfast. They open early enough for all but the most painful start times and make one hell of a breakfast sandwich. When I arrived at Yam, a few of the other participants were already sat around, all in shared, thoughtful question about how the day would go. A few awkward and sleepy introductions were made before our instructor Brad oriented us to any necessary gear rentals and the course’s curriculum. The plan for the day was to hit a flow called the Junkyard about twenty minutes outside of town, near the Grassi Lakes Trail, nestled under Ha Ling Peak and the southeastern slopes of Mount Rundle.

It was fortunate that everyone in the group had rock climbed. We were relieved to skip the, “This is a figure 8 and an ATC,” talk. A quick hike took us to the base of the flow where we donned our crampons for the first time and took to the ice. And man did we start at the beginning. While Brad set up the top ropes we walked in a circle on flat ice to get comfortable with the upcoming belay position out on the flow. Brad set up three ropes. The right most a short low angle WI2, the middle a bit longer WI2 and the left most a short WI3. Like any good teacher, Brad’s next step was footwork. He asked us to put down our tools and work our way up the lower angle terrain with just our feet. Like any student of climbing we were eager to swing the tools but in retrospect I am thankful for this initial approach and the subsequent effort with only one tool. At the time I’m writing this (about four months late…), I have already been in a few situations of soloing lower grade alpine ice with one tool. While it was far from the most impressionable aspect of the trip, I have thought back to this exact moment in each of these instances.

We picked up the tools after a few laps and I set into the left most line. It was ugly. The lower angle stuff came no problem but I found the learning curve when things started to turn towards vertical. The pump was real. But it was day one and I was stoked to have hacked my way up the steep bit a couple times. I used a pair of Petzl Quarks, one with a hammer and one with an adze. It didn’t take long to nail myself right above my eye with the adze as I pulled it out of the ice. Brad had of course, warned us about this very thing earlier in the day. When we switched over to a thin, even higher angle curtain to the left, he suggested I try the more ergonomic Petzl Nomics. The advantage of these tools on water ice to the more alpine oriented quarks immediately became apparent. I would use them for the rest of the trip.

Day one was a wrap before I knew it. It had been more or less a total hack show but I loved every minute of it. We packed up and headed back into town, but not without our first exposure to ice fall from a part of the flow above our packs. We heard a crash, and a few smaller chucks rolled down to us just as Brad yelled at me to move to avoid a head-sized block that crashed into the rock I’d been perched on a split second before. Time for a beer.

Day 2: The Wedge

The second day was cold. We were headed to The Wedge out in Kananaskis. This flow is located off highway 40 and offers impressive views of Mount Kidd’s south face on the walk in. As we pulled into a trailhead parking lot just past the approach trail, my truck’s thermometer read minus 20. The plan for the day was to get more practice on steeper ice and to work on the basics of proper ice climbing technique. With a glance toward the temperature, I was a bit more interested in how well the cold weather kit I had pulled together would perform. It’s one thing to travel in those temps, generating body heat under a breathable set of layers to keep you warm. It’s an entirely different experience to sit around at a crag, taking instruction and intermittent laps on the ice in a frigid environment. It was no surprise that I overheated quickly on the hike in, but am pleased to say that between my heavy weight, North Face long underwear and Mountain Hardwear Nilas puffy, I was warm and comfortable the entire day.

The main takeaway for day two was the basic technique sequence for steep ice. It’s not so much like rock climbing where you combine a counter balance of pulling and pushing in various directions to support your weight up the wall. In ice climbing it about reading the ice, to know where to place your swings and how to move your feet. It starts with, swing high. The pick should be placed in the ice as high above your head as possible. It helps to line it up, then take a swing. Throw in a flick of the wrist at the end for those one swing sticks. That arm should ideally be at full extension. There are two positions of power, one is with the arm at full extension and the other is fully locked out, or bent in so that your elbow is down and hand near to your chest. In between those two positions is the land of pump. When swinging, it helps to push your hips in to the ice and lean your shoulders back to get a better view of what’s above your head.

The hard part comes once your tool has found a solid placement. While keeping your upper arm straight, your feet kick, kept wide, usually in a sequence of three or so steps, up towards your butt. The hard part is to only move your hips out away from the ice to make room for your feet, and to not bend your upper elbow to accomplish the same. Once your feet have gained sufficient ground, stand up on your front points, now bending the upper arm into the locked off position near your chest. The real pro move is to analyze the ice above you while making this move to select the next tool placement. The lower tool comes out of the ice on the way up, hips move in, shoulders back, swing high, all the way up. In principle it is a simple sequence of moves. The muscle memory to do it every time, efficiently, while gripped and cold adds the element of complexity.

By the end of the day I felt comfortable with it. Every swing required that I talk myself through the sequence to execute it correctly but the foundation was there. Brad must have agreed because he had started to drop little ideas about our multipitch objective for day three. Most of the group was going to head to the National Park for a WI3 route called Cascade Falls. But Brad started to toy with the idea of sending Tobi and I to a WI4+ in the South Ghost called Wicked Wanda. It was a big step up, he promised would test our limits. I had no idea what to expect but I was grateful he recognized our desire to progress quickly and set up the right experience.

Day 3: Wicked Wanda (WI4+)

The alarm for this one went off a lot earlier. Toby and I met our guide for the day, Nick Sharpe, well before the ass crack of dawn. He’s a kind and direct Scotsman. His energy for the day was abundant and I could tell he would both be a confident leader and considerate mentor. We met at the highway 40 turn off from the Bow Valley Trail highway. This highway runs back northwest, and becomes more rugged as it turns off onto a dirt road headed directly west into the Ghost River Wilderness.

I had heard of the drive into the area being quite difficult at times. More so for the North Ghost, but even in the South I understood the apprehension as we dropped down a steep hill into a huge, dry riverbed. The scale of the thing was enormous. We had to pick our way, following the faint tracks of previous vehicles in the smooth stones. A couple mischievously hidden turns later and we followed the last of the narrow dirt track to the parking lot just as sunrise had crept over the horizon. We packed up and set off into the brush. And thus began my love affair with the Ghost.

The climbers’ path wound for a ways into the trees. It relented to cross country travel after a few minutes so Tobi and I dutifully followed Nick as he navigated up a rocky canyon toward the cliff bands on the northern flanks of Orient Point. We briefly caught a glimpse of The Big Drip, a monstrous WI6, mixed route on the eastern precipice of the mountain. As we gained elevation, the river valley stretched out beneath us and the sun illuminated the opposing walls. Nick pointed out Malignant Mushroom (WI5), Sunshine (WI4) and the directions to Aquarius (WI4), the latter two of which would become an integral part of my next excursion to the area. While I didn’t get to climb it, I was particularly enamored with the imposing pillar of Malignant Mushroom. An inspiring sight that cemented a pit of nervousness for what we were about to climb.

Before long we got our first look at Wicked Wanda. It’s upper pitch an intimidating sculpture of sharp, featured chandeliers, molded by the wind. It was unlike anything I had seen. The sheer magnitude of the ice was breathtaking. It was indeed a frozen waterfall. My stomach clenched as we scrambled up and over a dirt embankment to the left of the normal approach ice. This short pitch was very wet and would not have set us up for a comfortable start to the climb. As we rounded the corner into the final alcove I took note of the prime photographic vantage point from where you could see the entire flow. I could tell right off the bat why Brad had been apprehensive the night before, this skipped a few steps from the short, hooked out crag we visited the day before.

We positioned ourselves right at the base of the ice. Nick went over the details of the plan. He would lead up to the first belay, followed by Tobi, who would drag up the second rope. I would then follow and clean the screws. The first pitch is about 25 meters to a fairly large ledge. I learned a lot watching Nick lead. He was methodical and deliberate with his movements. The position of his swings, the fluidity of each sequential step, slowly making his way up. It looked cold. The potential for a first case of screaming barfies ripped into the forefront of my mind. Nick reached the belay and Tobi set off after him. Big props to Tobi for getting up that pitch. It was both longer and steeper than anything we’d been on yet.

I took a few pictures and then I was up. Tied in, Tobi pulled up the rest of the trailing rope and put me on belay. It was taxing to stop and take out the screws. Before long I discovered the little horizontal steps Nick had kicked into the ice on occasion at these placements. Sweet relief. Another critical tip he’d given to us was to unlatch the thumb of the upper hand while hanging on the tool. I remembered this just after the first screw and could feel the pump back off. After a few minutes of hard work I reached the belay. The guys greeted me with big high fives. I tied into the anchor and took a look around. What a position! I’m used to being a few meters off the deck at this point but never in an icy cave surrounded by ice daggers and mushrooms bigger than your head. I stared at them, chilled and mesmerized.

Tobi was freezing so I took over belay responsibilities for the second pitch. Nick opted to go right out of the cave. The first move a delicate traverse through the mushrooms. He warned us not to swing at them. Instead, he carefully hooked his tools around the back or to the side. After the mushrooms there were a few moves of mixed climbing where the ice met the cliff face. He moved up the channel between these features and topped out. This pitch is shorter, perhaps 15 meters. The first moves through the mushrooms were definitely the crux of the route. The mixed climbing was super fun but the upper two screws worth was soaked and had frozen over the screws. I had to hang on one tool and use the other to chip away the ice before I could get a good enough grip to back them out. The terrain rolled over and I met Nick and Tobi on top. The fingers of my gloves were frozen so solid I could barely handle the rope and my ATC. Nick rappelled first. Careful not to kick ice down, I joined him on the ground, very ready for more.

Day 4: Bear Spirit

Cool place, too many people. I was physically present but let’s call it an active rest day. After Wicked Wanda the day before, I honestly just wasn’t enamored with the limited climbing and hoard of people. There were a couple good learning moments though. The most important was a huge crack through the base of one of the main pillars. A couple people had been on it when we arrived but Brad warned us with strict certainty that this was not a good idea. The crack was faint in the context of the monstrous block but obvious once we knew what to look for. Would it have failed? Maybe not. But Brad had convincingly horrific stories to reference of similar situations when it had.

We did a bit of top rope set up instruction and Brad set us loose to practice what we would. I opted mostly for a lunch and lounge approach. One of my Cassin Blade Runner front points had mysteriously disappeared. I love those crampons. They have performed well in every situation but this was a little disconcerting. The bolt holding the interchangeable toe point must have come loose, presumably during the previous day’s rappel. I was therefore in horizontal alpine points. They worked fine but it didn’t add to my motivation. I now check and tighten those points at the beginning of each day and have not had the same happen again. Luckily I met a guy at the crag who had extras! He was kind enough to gift me one later that evening and saved me a huge headache. I climbed around a little bit on a hanging curtain next to the main pillar. It was fun but a halfhearted effort. I had it in my mind to climb hard and mock lead the next day.

Day 5: Johnston Canyon

The fifth and final day of the course took us to Johnston Canyon. I followed the now familiar protocol, alarm at 5:45, bagel and coffee at 6:15, be at Yam by 7:00. I drove out to the trailhead with Brad in the passenger seat and the rest of the crew in tow. Johnston Canyon is a forty-five minute drive west of Canmore and is a very popular destination for climbers and sight-seers alike. After we parked and walked the snow covered, cement “trail,” I immediately understood why. The walkway followed the wall of a river gorge, sparking memories of the via feratta in Zermatt, and ended at a rail-guarded view point. Ice coated the entire opposing wall of the canyon. We scrambled over the railing and negotiated a slippery rock step down to the creek shore below.

There were a couple other guided groups present. While it was not the case on this day, it was widely commented that this particular crag gets extremely busy. Probably best to hit it on a weekday to be safe. But we got lucky. It was just our three groups for most of the day. A guide named Larry led another Yamnuska group. The third pair was led by a guide named Kris Irwin. I didn’t know it at the time but he and I would put the ultimate exclamation point on the trip about a week later. But for now it was time to set up top ropes.

Johnston Canyon routes increase in difficulty from right to left. The furthest right most lines are short WI2s. The left half of this main, right flow steepened to WI3ish and ended with some thin, mixy climbing on its left flank you could argue as WI4. Next to the left, was an imposingly narrow, vertical pillar, which if it was led on virgin ice could have been WI5+, but it was really hooked out. Much of the wall from this point on had not yet filled in enough to climb. Sharp daggers hung suspended from the cliff beneath the forest. A steady, invisible, trickle of water slowly extended their reach in an attempt to pierce the landscape below. Furthest to the left is Prism Falls, the crag’s crown jewel. Featured, vertical ice, towers in a long, sustained pitch from a pool fed by a gushing waterfall on the far left of the canyon. I tried my luck to get Brad to set up a top rope on this line but it was not in the cards for today. We did not have enough rope and there was too much hazard to the belayer. I settled for the skinny pillar in the middle. Brad promised it would be a good challenge.

The day started with a variety of warm up laps on the lower grade ice. As it wore on we all began to feel like a bit of a spectacle. Hordes of camera-toting tourists filed along the walkway, here to enjoy the veil of frigid beauty. I climbed the WI2 and 3 but my mind was on the pillar. Up close it looked hard. I broke for lunch and when I walked back up the guides were getting geared up to give it a go. Larry danced his way up. Brad sent it with methodical precision. Back on the ground, he gave me a word of encouragement but warned me not to kick or swing at the lower pillar. “Ok,” was all I could say. Images of the pillar exploding under my weight flashed through my mind.

I stepped up to the base of the pillar. The first move wrapped me around from climber’s right onto the front. It was steep but the ice felt strong. I quickly began to identify the hooks that would prevent any need to swing. Hook high, arm straight feet up. Except this time no kicking. It was one of my favorite moments of the trip. Instinctively, I hung on one arm and imagined how Larry had placed his front points, a dance, suspended on a breath of air. I delicately inserted them into small recesses in the surface of the ice. It was the first time I really felt a flow in the movement. This is when it all clicked. I negotiated my way up the pillar to the rest stance in a cave half way up.

The first moves out of the cave were overhung. I placed my tools in the back wall and took a few moments to get blood into my fingers and cool my nerves. Ready to go, I leaned back and found a tool placement up above, back behind my head. I stemmed one foot out onto a tiny, hollow sounding spoke of ice that lined the left wall of the cave and the other into its back wall. I pulled through and tried to quickly get my second tool up into the ice. Once this was in I felt more secure and moved both feet out from the cave. The next moves were on thicker ice and it felt good to get in a couple swings and wide stems that took me to the top.

I lowered down to a rain of high fives and big smiles. That was super fun. It had been tough mentally but once I got in the groove it went pretty easily. I figured I’d go with the positive momentum and capped off the day and the class with a few mock leads under Brad’s supervision. He was happy with my screw placements and I felt very confident on the WI3 terrain. It had been a big question, whether I was going to lead on this trip or not. I wanted to, but had no way of knowing how it all would go. After those mocks, I knew I was ready. It was the perfect progression. I arrived back at Yam that evening beyond content and grateful that my first five days on ice had gone so well. We celebrated our positive experience with hot tub beers and I looked forward to some real 1:1 progression.

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