Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Learning to Ice Climb; Dec. 4-7, 2015


Last weekend Mike and I and Mike's friends Chris and Greg took an extended weekend getaway out to Canmore, AB to take some ice climbing lessons. I have been ice climbing before but have never had instruction and have always felt like I was simply flailing at the ice and not trusting my gear. Since Mike and I had been planning to go to Colorado to ice climb in the New Year I wanted to have an idea of what I was doing before heading out on that trip -  I did not want to spend a week in Ouray on a frustrating flail-fest.

King Creek Approach

To accomplish this we organised a 3-day ice climbing trip to the Canadian Rockies, hoping to practice the efficient use our gear and hopefully help us (i.e. me) gain some confidence when it comes to ascending frozen waterfalls. I was not disappointed!

Mike belaying


We left on Friday night after work and flew to Calgary where we rented a car and drove to Canmore. We stayed in a town house that we rented at the Canadian Rockies Chalet, which I'd recommend for its affordability, spaciousness and reasonably good location. And it has a hot tub!

Amber Climbing, Mike Belaying


On our first day of climbing we organized the gear we would need for the weekend and drove out to King Creek in Kananaskis Country. Tom Wolfe, a friend and mountain guide from Canmore, joined us. This was his first day back ice climbing after breaking his leg last January and he was keen on seeing if he could still do it in an easy environment. The area was busy but it worked out just fine as Tom was friends with some of the other guides that were there and we all shared ropes which allowed us to spend more time climbing and less time setting up ropes.

We started our day by playing with the gear on the ground and learning how to move effectively in crampons and how to properly swing our ice tools. From there we climbed various routes in the area while Tom gave us suggestions to improve our technique, climb more efficiently and conserve energy. As a brand new climber, Chris also received a crash-course in belaying and was a pro by the end of the day. After a full day of climbing we celebrated with some post climbing beers (Thanks Tom!), had dinner at Boston Pizza and enjoyed a relaxing trip to the hot tub.

Evening Shenanigans

The next day we headed to the Junkyards in Canmore and we spent the day getting some more mileage on the ice. We played around for the day climbing a gully with some thinner ice and we also did laps on a shorter but steep pitch of ice around the corner. We also tried a few moves of mixed climbing on one of the routes near the gully and we worked on more efficient foot/crampon placements by climbing some of the routes with either one or no ice axes. It was a fun challenge with surprisingly successful results!

Junkyards approach

View from the Junkyards

Mike climbing the gully

We also practised V-threads and rappelling off of the V-threads we made so we would all know what we were doing for the multi-pitch climbing day planned for tomorrow.


We ended the day by browsing the gear store in town and enjoying a beverage at a local pub before driving out to the Calgary Airport and saying goodbye to Greg.

Ha Ling Peak from the Junkyards approach

On the last day of the trip we hired Tom and Joe McKay to do the coolest climb of the weekend. We climbed the 3-pitch, WI4 Guinness Gully in Field, BC.  Mike and Chris climbed with Joe  and I climbed with Tom.

Guinness Gully Approach

The morning started early with a 5am wakeup call and 1.5 hour drive to Field, but the early start paid off as we were the second and third parties to the base of this popular route. Several other parties showed up after us and had a bit of waiting in store throughout the day in order to climb safely.

Joe leading the first pitch

The climb started with a short, snowy hike up a side-hill and a short step of ice to approach the base of the first pitch -  a steep looking 30m pitch. I was a bit intimidated by the first pitch and struggled a bit climbing it due to my nervousness, especially when I was cleaning the ice screws in the steeper section and trying to stay in balance, not get too pumped and not peel off the climb. But I took a deep breath, sorted myself out, and after a breather while Tom led the second pitch I was good to go and enjoyed the challenge of the rest of the climb.

Chris and Mike at the base of the 1st Pitch
Mike and Chris climbing the 1st Pitch

The second pitch was steeper and slightly harder than the first pitch and about 20m long. It was really fun and probably my favourite pitch of the route. This time I focused on enjoying the challenge of trying to figure out body positions to climb in balance  and efficiently without pumping out - The nervousness was gone and the rest of the climb was fun and awesome!

Joe cruising the 3rd pitch on lead

Mike and Chris Killin' it! 

After a bit of a hike up a snow slope we arrived at the base of the 3rd and final pitch. This pitch was also pretty awesome - a full 60m of fun climbing! We got a bit cold at the base of this pitch waiting for some rope shenanigans to end so we could climb safely without having ice, snow, ropes, etc knocked down on us from the party above, but it gave us a chance for a snack break before climbing this sweet pitch of ice.

Chris Rappelling

From the top we did 3 or 4 rappels and/or lowers off of fixed stations and trees to descend the route and after a quick hike back to the cars we enjoyed some beverages to celebrate another sweet day of climbing and a kick-ass weekend full of adventure!

 Down climbing the lower step

A big thanks to Tom Wolfe for organizing an epic weekend of ice climbing for us and for convincing me that winter climbing actually can be fun! (I was doubtful before this trip....) Looking forward to more adventures together in the future!

Post-Climb Wrap-up beverages

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