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Susi Süßmeier | Cold, Cold, Canada : Ice Climbing in the Canadian Rockies
Words by: Susi Süßmeier
Photos: Susi Süßmeier & Philipp Schädler
There is no such thing as “Too Cold”
The snow was squeaking under my shoes and the fabrics of my clothes and gear rustled when we approached “Polar Circus” in -26°C, one of the must do Icefalls in the Canadian Rockies. This icefall provides 450 meters of south facing ice climbing, depending on the conditions up to WI5.
Sometimes climbers are lucky and there is an additional feature called “The Pencil” – a fragile column rated WI6. We got lucky, but another sort of lucky. The day before, our friends reported that “The Pencil” was close to touching the ground.
Today it was far off the ground and big chunks were greeting us further down… Further up the Icefall steepens and provides amazing climbing, which will even catch the sun if you time it right. Earlier in the day I started dancing to keep warm whilst Philipp led the first steep pitch. When we arrived at the end of the ice, there were three of us; the sun, Philipp and me.
Summary: “too cold” doesn’t exist in ice climbing, it’s all about timing and Polar Circus is a good choice for a cold day, as it is usually hooked out and one can move fast.
Taking a shower at -20°C
Over the following days the weather forecast only mentioned unpleasant temperatures.
Nevertheless, we were stoked to swing the ice axes. With warm synthetic insulation trousers (Compressor Pant), the fattest down jacket (Sigma Women’s Jacket) and heat pads in our gloves, we climbed Mixed Master at Weeping Wall (also in Icefields Parkway) and the Whiteman Falls in the Kananaskies.
Our experience at Whiteman Falls explained everything we needed to know about the name. Even in temperatures below -20°C it felt like climbing a waterfall instead of an icefall, and when we reached the top of the two pitches we were covered by a thin layer of ice all over the body.
Whiteman Fall WI6, 80m. The approach through the gorge is adventurous and incredibly beautiful, at least when we were there. There are two mixed climbing options to the right of the fall.The approach, nevertheless, takes time (roughly 1,5 hours).
Amazing Icefalls – Amazing approach
A different adventure provided “The Ghost”. It’s a valley by the Ghost River in the eastern part of the Rocky Mountains. Located here are some of the most spectacular and beautiful icefalls in the entire Rockies. ‘The Real Big Drip’, ‘The Sorcerer, ‘Hydrophobia’, ‘Fang and Fist’, ‘Recital Hall’, ‘Rainbow Serpent’ and ‘Fearfull Symmetry’ to name a few!
However, there would be no story if there was no “but”… and it’s the approach!
Whereas some people drive there just to have fun, for ice climbers the frequently unfrozen rivers and the “car eating drifts” (as the old ice climbing guide book by Joe Josephson describes) are sometimes the crux of the climbing day…
Early in the morning we drove our car, a Jeep Wrangler, down a big hill to the first river crossing.
Being concerned about the river crossings, we even didn’t notice the strong winds. Will the ice on the river be strong enough to drive on it? It was! After a bit of hiking in deep snow and easy climbing up the Icefall ‘Aquarius’, WI4, we arrived at ‘Recital Hall’, where we expected ‘Rainbow Serpant’, a two pitch icefall, WI6.
In previous years a stunning ice structure, ‘Fearfull Symmetry’, also formed; but not this year.
Back to ‘Rainbow Serpent’: Instead of the ice column we expected to be there, there was just a curtain hanging from the overhanging rocks above us.
Luckily there is a bolted Mixed line, but in variable, chossy rock. We heard it might be M8+?
It felt hard…
Reaching the ice, we got the pleasure of climbing on 3D-like mushrooms and icicles to the top. Back to the car, we found out that the crux was still waiting for us: the strong winds accumulated the snow against our car, and we spent the night digging our way out of the valley. (Don’t forget the shovels!)
Rainbow Serpent, 2 pitches, WI6 in the Recital Hall, Ghost Valley. Approach via Aquarius, a WI4 Icefall. If there is no ice, there are bolts in the rocks. And yes, you are seeing correct, the climber climbed via a hole in the ice from the rocks through to the curtain.
In total we spent almost 4 weeks from mid-December 2017 to mid-January 2018 in Canmore, Canada. We lived in a rented room and hired the most off-road suitable car at the car rental place we could get. The days were short (8 hours between sunrise and sunset) and the first snow had fallen, so skis or snowshoes were helpful to approach to some of the not-so-popular ice falls.
Thinking back to my times in the Rockies reminds me of nice memories of a land with wild and stunning nature, very friendly people and icefalls that make the ice climbers hearts beat faster!
My Highlights: The Stanley Head Wall with Nemesis and Suffermachine!
In The Know – Information
Getting There: Fly into the Airport in Calgary, from there hire a car and drive for little under an hour to Canmore.
Transport: A rental car is a must in this area. Make sure you have good tyres, as even the highways are usually covered in snow. If renting, make sure you also have good insurance that covers chip damage. Never underestimate Canadian grit.
Where To Stay: We stayed in the area for four weeks, so rented a room as our base in Canmore.Canmore is a little town next to Banff National Park. From there it’s not too far to the Ghost Valley, the Kananaskis, Mt. Roundle and Stanley Headwall.
In general, it’s easy to sleep in a hostel and there are a couple in the area, so if you’re lucky you might find one closer to the ice falls further west. (From Canmore to the Weeping Wall at Icefields Parkway it takes over 2.5hrs one way!)
If you’re looking for somewhere closer to Icefields Parkway, just a few Minutes’ drive away from the Weeping Wall, there is a comfortable winter room-like cabin called “Ramparts Creek”.
Season: The ice climbing season starts in Canada from November on, December seems to be quite good. In February they still climb, but the south faced Icefalls might be not so good anymore.
Guide Books: There aren’t a lot around, there is a newer guidebook containing the famous lines (Ice Lines – Brent Peters) and an App (Ice and Mixed App – Will Gad). There are older copies in the ether, but you will need to keep your nose to the ground in order to find a copy.
Other Tips: Skis or snowshoes can be helpful on the approach, depending on the snow situation.
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