Waterfall Chasing is Easy When They Are Frozen
Just kidding. There is nothing easy about ice climbing.
Taking the leap into ice climbing was so next level in my mind. The idea of putting your life in the hands of screws twisted into frozen water and relying on them to save you from splattering yourself on more frozen water if you were to fall, just so you can smash axes into an insanely magnificent natural ice feature and climb to the top of it has never really been my idea of fun.
But, when your spouse is an extreme adventure junkie with no fear of heights because he climbs power poles for a living, of course this would be an epic adventure on our forever-growing bucket list. I sit behind a desk for a living, I should add. There is no thrill or accident risk in my day beyond the next paper cut or getting the last cup of coffee, so my idea of fun and thrill is at a different level.
Alright, back to ice climbing…
Learn From the Pros
In today’s day and age, there is no reason to not learn from someone smarter than you. We started off our ice climbing adventures by joining in on an Ice Climbing Intro course put on by the awesome crew over at Rockaboo Mountain Adventures in Jasper, Alberta. This was a great way to get exposure to the sport in a safe way.
It was December 30, 2017, and we are getting ready to head out. The temperature is -30 degrees when we pile into the tour vehicle to start our drive to Tangle Falls. We are with an awesome group of people about to do something crazy for the first time, and none of us are particularly excited by the frigid temperatures we are going to do this in.
Our guide gets us set up. He lead climbs Tangle Falls, setting screws and builds our super power, top rope anchor. We go through the basics of ice climbing, how to kick your feet into the ice and what to look for when placing your axe. Jordan gets to the top of his very first climb like a professional. In fact, the guide asks me if I am sure he has never done this before. My turn next. I start my climb up and it feels more natural than rock climbing – though is there really anything actually natural feeling about climbing rocks and ice walls?
I get to the top of my first climb and I am ecstatic! This has to be one of the coolest things I have ever done. I am not even noticing the cold at this point. I am so pumped on this cool accomplishment and am in a euphoric state with a smile reaching ear to ear. Jordan can tell instantly that this won’t be the last time we will be ice climbing. My feet are back on the ground and I start to feel something weird in my hands. Then they start to hurt. My hands become so cold I feel like I am going to puke. The guide gives a chuckle, and states “You got the Screamin’ Barfies!” I respond, “What the hell are those?” as I am shaking my hands around trying to get the feeling back. “Its the feeling you get in your hands when they get so cold all you wanna do is scream and barf!”
Apparently, my death grip on the ice axes was not required, and in this cold of weather, the Screamin’ Barfies can come on quick. Rookie mistake #1.
A year goes by and winter is back. We are itching to get out again, but with no adventure gurus in our area that we can rent gear from or to take us out, we decide to go back to the Rockies and hire a private guide for an entire day of ice climbing adventure. We connected with Patrick, owner of Ridgeline Guiding located in Canmore, Alberta, and told him we had a need for bigger, harder ice climbs and an awesome learning experience. And oh boy, did he deliver.
We head to Grotto Canyon. This year, the winter was not nearly as harsh as our previous -30 degree mission, being 4 degrees when we start our day. We start on Grotto Falls, an easier multi pitch and great place to learn. Patrick gave us a great lesson on some of the key principles and techniques of ice climbing, preparing us to do our own solo adventures in the near future. The fall was not entirely frozen, and me being me, did not tighten up the cuffs of my jacket sleeves and had ice cold water run right down my arm at one point. Rookie mistake #2.
Once again, I am finding myself loving every moment of everything we are doing. This sport was once a “Why would anyone do that?” idea to me and now something I can’t get enough of. As much as climbing of any sort is really a team sport in the sense you should always have someone on the other end of the rope, climbing rocks and ice is also an individual sport. There is no pressure to beat anyone else or do better than anyone else. It is all about reaching your own new goals and new heights, while being cheered on by the super awesome people down below, or sometimes above.
We move over to the falls known as “His & Hers”. This climbing was challenging and exhausting. At points, I asked for a ‘take’, rested my axes and just hugged the ice. There is nothing easy about ice climbing, which makes it is so much more rewarding when you reach the top.
If you want to try out the sport, and are deathly afraid of falling like me, I recommend hiring Patrick for your first trip out. He is a super cool guy, easy to get along with, and when you get above your axes at the wrong angle and fall from only 3 feet, he is so quick, he will catch you without your ass smashing the ground. Rookie mistake #3.
We have bought all our gear and we are set to venture out on our own. When you ice climb in a non-super-tourist town, the access to these frozen beasts can sometimes be not as easy. We set our eyes on Heights of the Pass (HOTP), a 30m northern facing waterfall that flows into Azouetta Lake. We follow our local ACC guide book to get out there.
When we arrive, we are looking around. Um, where the heck is this thing?! Read the guide one more time, walk back 150m from our parked vehicle as stated and we are looking into unbroken snow and brush. We came here to climb, not snowshoe!
Oh wait. We didn’t pack the snowshoes… Rookie mistake #4.
After some (preventable) burning of extra energy breaking the trail to the top of the falls, we set up and got ready for our 30m rappel. If you have read my “Inside Mountains” blog already, you know this is not my favorite part of climbing; if you haven’t read that blog, you should because caving is cool.
We rap down the 30m, get situated and start the climb. The view is incredible. The weather is mint. It is the perfect setting for our first solo trip. We chose HOTP as it has a bolted anchor already set so you can top rope. Top rope super powers are essential when starting out in the sport of ice climbing as only once you have become very experienced should you start lead climbing on ice. We climb up, encouraging each other on. We each take our turn at reaching the top, and it is nothing but high fives.
We did it. We successfully did our first solo ice climb adventure.