“You can ice climb eight months of the year around Canmore, Alberta.”Our guide Pat Delaney of Yamnuska Mountain Adventures tells us there are three places in the world that are the best for Ice Climbing. Norway is one, I can't remember if it was Russia or somewhere in the Himalayas for his next choice, but who cares because The Canadian Rockies in Alberta are the tops!
We had been in Alberta during a particularly cold snap with several days under -20 Celcius for our outdoor ice climbing adventure extravaganza. There wasn't a doubt in our mind that we'd find big ice to climb. We were just unsure how we and it would react in the mind numbing cold.
Our friend Jeff Bartlett told us that optimal ice climbing temperatures were about -9 degrees. Mostly because, who wants to climb in unbearable weather? But secondly, the ice becomes brittle when the temperature plummets too much. Putting ice screws and steel crampons in to ice that dry and cold can chip it away with ease.
Check out some climbing we did in the summer with Yamnuska a few years ago!
We were in good hands though, Pat is a professional climber with over 20 years experience and our second guide Jean Gamilousky has 9 years guiding experience with several more climbing under his belt. There are always one guide to every two people and since we had a film crew with us, we had two guys to keep us company today. When we asked him how he got started he said “It was with my dad's pick axe and some rope” He's been climbing big ice around the world ever since.
Yamnuska Mountain Adventures is the biggest and best climbing company in all of Canada. They have skilled and experienced staff and have rigged huge high mountain film shoots such as The Bourne Legacy and Inception.
Today, they were taking the Big Ass film crew of ThePlanetD! Travel Alberta had sent us out to enjoy winter activities with a three man crew. Cameraman Ryley and his assistant Justine of JoeMedia and Jeff Bartlett our guide/production manager and photographer extraordinaire from Travel Alberta. We were there show off the beauty of Canada's most beautiful province. Leo Dicaprio and Jeremy Renner (aka the New Bourne) have nothing on us! What a crew!
The early morning meeting was spent going over safety procedures and putting our gear together. We've never had anyone go through the waivers so thoroughly and they would not let us sign until we had actually read it all. Ice Climbing is a whole new level of danger and we liked it! After all our gear was in order, we strapped on our harnesses, helmets and boots and took a short drive to the junkyard nearby.
From the parking lot, we started our hike up to the high waterfall to get a better view and better ice. It was about a 20 minute hike up and through the forest and we even saw cougar tracks leading away from the trail. Soon we were surrounded by nothing but frozen trees and ice.
The Ice Climbing Begins…Almost
We came to a bench on the trail and strapped on our crampons for the rest of the hike up to the waterfall. Crampons are steel spikes that help you walk on ice and when climbing a frozen waterfall, they help you dig in and stand on the wall. We took a short lesson from Pat on how to walk in crampons. It's easy to get tangled in them and if you fall, you could easily get your foot stuck breaking a leg. If you fall down the side of a steep hill you would normally slide until you came to a halt. With crampons on, your foot will most like catch something, ripping your leg and doing some very serious damage. So when walking with crampons, walk with your feet wide, look where you are going and don't be in a hurry. We all made it safely to the waterfall.
We weren't cold anymore after our hike up and we were ready and excited to start the climb. Pat and Jean set up our top ropes for us. Pat lead up the ice like it was an easy set of stairs. He screwed in a few bolts to keep him from plunging into the cavern below should he fall, but I don't think he needed them. It wasn't long before he was at the top of the climb setting our protection, tying in to a tree, so that Dave and I could climb in relative safety.
I volunteered to go first.
Pat gave us a lesson on technique. It's important to ice climb with good technique or else you will waste a lot of energy. Here's what we took away.
Tips for Ice Climbing Technique
- You start by swinging your axe up to a spot where you can reach comfortable and plant it in to the ice.
- Once you test it and pull down on the axe to make sure it will hold you, you swing the second axe a little bit higher.
- When both are firmly planted, you kick your feet into the wall shoulder length apart. Bring your hips in and when you can stand comfortably, take out your lowest axe and swing higher.
- When you move your feet this time, move them up and together below the highest axe.
- Once you are up to the next level, you move your feet out again to shoulder width, take out the lower axe and swing it up and above.
- You never move until you have tested the axe to make sure it is secure.
Ice Climbing is all about solid footing
Like regular rock climbing, Ice Climbing seems to be a lot about foot work. When your feet are firmly planted in to the ice, you can easily relax and stand on your toes with your heals pointed down. When your feet are secure, you can take your time to find a good spot to swing your axe into. You want to swing your axe into a dimple or divot in the ice. It's much easier than swinging in to a solid hard piece that will probably break away when you hammer in to it anyway. At least that is what we learned.
Keeping your hands warm.
We had heard about the screaming barfies before we went ice climbing and it wasn't until I climbed that I actually understood what that was. It was extremely cold and your hands are constantly above your head cutting off circulation. I spent the first half of my climb holding on to the axes and not taking a moment to sit back and relax. Once I figured out that I could stand easily on my feet, I took a moment to shake out my hands. That's when all the blood came rushing to my fingers and they felt like thousands of needles were jabbing into them. They were so cold and in so much pain, it made me want to scream. Sometimes climbers have it so bad, they don't know whether they should scream or barf!
Luckily I didn't get that bad and after a bit of time shaking them out and yelling down to everyone that “I have the screamy barfies” I continued on.
It was the greatest feeling to reach the top and look down at the beautiful valley below.
Dave lowered me down and it was his turn to climb. He made it look easy and climbed it quickly and I joked that because I went first, I showed him just how to do it and cleared a route for his axe. He just giggled.
We climbed a few more times and started to really get the feel of it. Pat told us that we did great and it was probably because of our climbing experience. I felt particularly proud when he told me my belay was excellent.
In the end, we really loved ice climbing. Dave and I agreed, that we liked Ice Climbing more than rock climbing. It's really easy to understand the technique and pattern of hammering into the ice, kicking your feet and moving up methodically. I know that it takes a lot of expertise and training to be able lead climb ice and that would take us to a whole new level, but when having someone lead it for us and set up a top rope for us, it's all about the fun!
Now if only we could find an Ice Climbing route in 90 degree weather?
For courses and more information on Ice Climbing in Alberta visit Yamnuska Mountain Adventures