The New Zealand Alpine Team is spending three weeks ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies around Canmore, Alberta this February.
Follow this blog to see what we get up to!
Day 0 - 31 Jan
We all make it to Vancouver. The others subsequently make it Calgary, but I get held up in Immigration. Should have been better behaved in my younger years... (I'm entering on a 2-year working holiday visa so there's a load of faff) Anyway, I miss my connecting flight and the rescheduled flight lands much later in Calgary where Lionel and James are patiently waiting with the second rental car. We have just enough time to dash to MEC and do a hurried gear shop - new toys all round, and a top up of ice screws. I'm still trying to find double boots to fit - small feet are not catered to well, and New Zealand is not a good place to find mountain boots so i'm not well versed in what works for my feet. An ongoing problem! Despite the delays, and bad weather having caused many road closures, we still manage to join the others in Lake Louise that day for a very late bedtime. The weather would limit what we would be Canadian Rockies Ice Climbingable to access in the next few days, but in Canmore - there's plenty of options to keep us busy.
Day 1 - 01 Feb, Lake Louise
We had a later start this morning, the weather was quite wet and road closures still were effect. While the others headed out to Lake Louise Falls to get stuck into some ice, Lionel unluckily got stuck with heading into Canmore with me to go shoe shopping. The trip was successful and I now own what seems to be the only pair of boots in Calgary, Canmore, MEC online and Lake Louise that fit well enough, and we made it back to Lake Louise in time to climb some pitches and repeat some of the drills the others had been doing in our absence.
The weather had been very warm lately, it was above freezing level and felt like New Zealand! The previous Canada ice climbing trips have run in January which is generally much colder - we've gotten some flak from previous intakes about how we're getting it easy! Nevertheless there's still plenty of screaming barfies to go around, and some soggy ice patches and running water give tricky climbing -there's plenty for us to focus on in terms of technique in the coming days.
Day 2 - 02 Feb, Johnston Canyon
Another day, another short, easy access track. We could get used to this. Lionel and I got an early start to the day, somehow turning up to the crag half an hour ahead of the other carload, despite departing the hostel later than them! Apparently 'the scenic route' was worth the delay. Who knew extra highway and a U-turn made for great viewing? Probably due to it being a weekend, the crag was quite busy.
Not a sight you'd see in NZ!
Ben had an interesting time contending with ice being knocked down from above, while I had enough trouble contending with the ice I knocked down myself, pulling a decent chunk down into my own face. Luckily I only had a little blood, a fat lip, and myself to blame. In amongst the traffic we sneaked in some good leads and ran laps on top ropes to work on technique pointers. An important takeaway was to keep heels down to engage more crampon points in the ice.
Day 3 - 03 Feb, Haffner Creek
With Highway 93 reopened after the storm we headed down across the border into BC to check out some of the ice and mixed climbing on offer at Haffner Creek. The forecasted snow flurries kept the views hidden as we drove across the pass, but by the time we had walked in to the top of the creek the sun was starting to peep out. The crag was busy and getting busier, so we very quickly teamed up and staked our claim on some routes before they could get snaked from us! Driving in, Lionel stressed that he would like us to focus on ice climbing here rather than getting into mixed lines... me and Dan missed the memo completely, and immediately jumped on a mixed route - Californication! This bad behaviour led the rest of the team astray. They soon followed suit (after being obedient and climbing some pure ice pitches), having fun on climbs like Shagadelic and Mojo, Although halfway across the world, we bumped into a friend from New Zealand, James Warren, who has been based here for a bit, smashing out some harder mixed lines. The short, slightly harder routes gave excellent progression from the previous days of climbing, and allowed us to put some of the technique points into good practice. The transitions from rock to ice were especially tricky, with delicate traverses, pulling on to overhanging curtains, and around on to hanging pillars.
With Lionel taking a rest day, Ben got in a spectacular volume of routes with excellent guidance, especially tips on efficient screw placements on steeper ground. James smashed out an excellent onsight on a mixed route involving powerful, pumpy hooking up an overhang, difficult moves up a face, then a delicate step out on to a hanging pillar. I had a blast getting some leads in on mixed ground (no pure ice routes all day... I blame Dan), especially enjoying the pulls out onto overhanging curtains. I've found I really enjoy featured ice - it's much more like rock climbing!
Tomorrow is a rest day for all of us with time to go into Canmore for shopping, so we felt justified in eating a large proportion of our remaining food, and spending the evening settling scores on the pool table. However, we are yet to have a breakthrough and dethrone Lionel - the resident pool shark.
Day 4 – 04 Feb – Day of rest
A day out on the town to consume bagels, coffee and hit the shops. It’s -20 so I'm secretly happy today is a rest day! The Rocky Mountain Bagel Co sells off their day-old bagels at $7/dozen, so we load up big for the next few days of climbing, fuel up on caffeine and bagel sandwiches and start on the shopping lists. Things I wish I’d brought – spare bolts and nuts for crampons and axes! The pick weights on one of my tools came loose mid-pitch and I lost the fasteners in the snow. I have spares for the other bolts but not for weights, and these prove hard to find. None of the gear shops stock spares, though we eventually find a fastener shop and convince them to sell us what is, for a trade supplier, an extremely small order. In future I’ll definitely have few spares on hand for any extended trip.
Day 5 – 05 Feb, Carlsberg column, Field
James, Ben and I head out to Field with Lionel to climb the Carlsberg column. The avalanche conditions are not great, but we have heard the area above the Pilsner, Carlsberg and Kronenberg pillars have been bombed, and can see the evidence in the avalanche debris below the routes. James and Ben take the left hand of the first pitch, and Lionel and I race them up the right hand side, with no clear winner emerging – the routes join at the top and to avoid dumping debris on the other party (though this would most certainly secure a win) we top out together. A snow pitch follows to bring us to the base of the third, crux pitch. We again race up the left and right sides, and again top out at the same time. Lionel leads the fourth pitch to finish off the day.
For interest and to gather a bit of information we traverse over to the Pilsner pillar, dig a few pits to look at snowpack, and have a sneaky peek at the Pilsner pillar… which looks awesome. We’ll be back for sure.
Day 6 – 06 Feb, Tokkum Pole, Marble Canyon, Haffner
With tomorrow marked down for a rest day, the obvious thing to do is to try go hard. James, Ben, Jono and I head to Marble Canyon to have a look at the Tokkum Pole. James is super keen to get on the first lead, but we have information that says it may not be in condition. However, it’s five minutes walk from the road, so well worth just going to have a look. You never know! The others head to Haffner to get a pump on.
Tokkum Pole looks good from the top, but upon rapping down we see that the pole is standing on a very small base, with a significant crack partway through the lower third. As we’ve abseiled over the pillar, we can still top rope it, but the decision not to lead is well put by Jono; if it was at the top of a mountain, well you’d climb it, but as it is just that pitch, close to the road... might be a day to just choose life! The consequences if it does come down are massive, and it’s just not worth the risk today.
James heads up the featured left hand side of the pillar, which involves pulling and mantling some overhangs – tricky featured climbing. Ben heads up after him. I head up the outside arête of the pillar – much less featured, steep, continuous climbing with no rests, which predictably gives me a serious case of the barfies as soon as the angle relents. I retrieve a (probably water-destroyed) Samsung Note 9 from the pool at the bottom but unfortunately no real booty is to be found. We all run another lap up the pillar to exit, and drive across the road to Haffner to properly wreck ourselves before rest day – arriving just in time to meet the others walking out.
Jono and James go hard on steep, mixed routes, and Ben and I climb some interesting routes on ice and mixed. I have a score to settle with a mixed line that spat me off last time, manage to smack a tool into my face while popping off but Ben and I both send it the second go. I’m glad to put that grudge match to rest.
Meanwhile James and Jono are running lap after lap all around the place, and we make it out after dark and back to the hostel in time to hear that rest day has been cancelled by Dan. This is somewhat unfortunate for those of us who tried our best to wreck ourselves before rest day, but also climbing ice is better than resting, yeah?
Day 7 – 07 Feb, Ex-rest day at Pilsner Pillar, Field
Cancelled rest day sees Lionel and James headed up to the ice line Twisted, Ben and I to Pilsner pillar, along with Jono and Dan who head next door to Kronenberg. Ben graciously gives me first lead, so I head up the right side of the Pilsner pillar, rapping off so Ben can lead it next.
Then suddenly we’ve got company – none other than Lionel and James! The avalanche conditions on the access to Twisted weren’t acceptable so they’ve decided to choose life, bail and come join in the Pilsner party. Close behind is Jono and Dan, having climbed Kronenberg already and come to join! I eye up a line up the centre of the pillar, which turns out to be a long, wet, slow lead with Ben patiently shivering out the belay. (thanks!)
This lead really drove home for me that new ice is slow, tiring, cleaning off poor quality ice properly is important, and how scant or difficult protection can be in new formed ice covered in cauliflowers and petals. Lionel’s been repeatedly telling us to place protection before pulling the bulge at the top of the pillar - the ice on top here forms huge dinner plates with huge potential to take you with them! We’ve been told off for standing too close to the base of the falls, then told to go further away, then further… and it’s evident why when ice starts to be hacked off by climbers. Some of the pieces hit with tremendous force, more than enough to kill anyone in the way, and it’s a sobering lesson in amongst the excitement of watching large pieces catapulting down.
The others meanwhile have been running laps on an excellent looking mixed line into a hanging dagger.
It’s been another full day, and we finish well and truly ready for (finally?) rest day.
Day 8 – 08 Feb, Rest day Canmore
Rest day again consists of numerous bagels, coffee, gear shopping and groceries. It’s also Dan’s birthday, so dinner tacos are followed by a surprisingly good supermarket cake and wine. The infamous Rocky Mountain Bagel Co $7 day-old dozen is fuelling our climbing days well!
Day 9 – 09 Feb, Murchison Falls/Field
Today we split up into two groups – Jono, me, Dan and James head up into Murchison Falls, Ben and Lionel out to Field to climb Kronenberg.
Murchison Falls was the longest approach of this trip thus far, we were estimating 1.5-2 hours, but a little over an hour saw us standing at the base of the most impressive wall and ice pillar thus far. However it must be said, without the well formed boot pack the approach would have taken significantly longer.
Jono and I headed up Virtual Reality while the others headed left to But… My Daddy’s a Psycho. Two very different lines! Daddy’s is a steeper-than-expected, well formed pillar from the ground, while Virtual Reality’s first, low angle pitch had a thick slab layer of ice, which would fracture in large pieces – care was definitely needed, and the belay to be put well out of harm’s way! The second, much steeper pitch ended in a very homely belay cave, perfectly tucked out of falling ice. The final, crux pitch forms as a thin, intricately featured veneer on the steep upper wall. The most interesting and wild pitch of ice I’ve ever climbed, with Jono boldly cruising up the lead and letting me stop to enjoy it on a friendly top rope. Thin layers over rock requiring delicate footwork, hollow glassy pillars with holes throughout, showing the effects of the sun in the last few days.
By the time we got down, the others had run at least nine (!) laps of the steep first pitch of Daddy’s to finish a good training day.
We reconvened at Castle Mountain with Ben and Lionel, who had had a stellar day up Kronenberg, which they reported was still in excellent condition.
Shauna, the Castle Mountain hut warden arrived with a belated birthday cake for Dan. The catch was... a technical table traverse challenge was required to qualify for cake. I never imagined my years of table traverse training would culminate in spooning cake into bowls, getting pumped, half mantled on the end of a hostel dining table.
Day 10 – 10 Feb, Weeping Wall
Weeping Wall is one of the well known ice crags of the Rockies. An impressive sheet of ice falling over 2-3 pitches, leading to a snowfield scramble to the Upper Weeping Wall – 3 pitches of WI5-6. We tried to start early from Castle Mountain (a significant drive) but we had to stop in Lake Louise for petrol and to our dismay we needed a Canadian credit card to use the 24hr pay! The pump opened at 7, so we were forced to begin our drive after filling up when it opened. The start up the centre of Weeping Wall thus commenced more than a few hours later than planned. We were two groups working around each other on the bottom pitch, sharing the generous belay cave 1-2 pitches up.
From there we split ways – the kids on the left side of the central pillar with Ben smashing out a hefty lead, and the oldies… I mean… adults, on the right side, with Jono beasting up tricky ice with lots of clearing to do. While Ben was on the sharp end and me belaying, James occupied himself by chopping a very aesthetic window in the middle of the central curtain. The curtain turned out to be quite thick! We met up again at the top, however with our late start and having taken the most difficult route up we had been beaten to the Weeping Pillar on the upper Weeping Wall, without enough time to both wait for the other party to finish and for us to also climb it.
Day 11 – 11 Feb, Weeping Wall
Today Lionel and Dan took a rest day, and the rest of us though it was a perfect day to head up much earlier than yesterday to Weeping Pillar first this time. Jono and Ben climbed together, taking the fast track left hand side of the Lower Weeping Wall, while James and I again took the slow lane with eyes on the right hand side of the central pillar. Jono and Ben sped past us, so when we finished our (very enjoyable, and still tricky despite the hard work by Jono yesterday clearing all the chandeliers and poor quality ice off the route) line to get to the base of the Upper Weeping Wall, they were just past halfway. We left them to finish the spectacular line in good style and headed back for an early afternoon.
James’ window in the central curtain was an unexpected star however, featuring in a few videos on the Canadian Rockies Ice Climbing group on Facebook, with climbers starting the line up the central pillar by climbing from the belay behind the curtain… and out of the window. Fame!
Day 12 – 12 Feb, Murchison Falls
Jono, Dan and I left the others to a rest day at Rampart Creek (and try out the Rampart Creek hostel sauna!) and headed back down the Icefields Parkway to Murchison Falls to go climbing with John Price. This time Dan and I hopped on My Daddy’s a Psycho (probably making it Dan’s 10th lap this trip??) and traversed across after the second pitch to Murchison Falls proper to meet the Jono and John who had climbed the lower pitches of Murchison Falls. We then had a great social climb of the upper pitches of the falls together… plenty of banter, Jono raining down chocolate coated coffee beans from the belay, some interesting variations on the route, and the expected deadpan, terrible humour. It was sunny and warm – not great for the ice, but made for a pleasant day for those on the ice as well as those back at Rampart Creek hostel - dozing, trying out the sauna, and generally living it up Canadian Rockies style.
Day 13 – 13 Feb, Kananaskis and Weeping Wall
This time the Jono-Dan-Sooji 'dream' team headed out again with John to Kananaskis, up Evan Thomas Creek with the intention of climbing a mixed line – Physiotherapy. We however noted two other cars before us in the carpark, and with all other ice lines along the creek being devoid of climbers, we didn’t rate the chances of our intended line (at the end of the creek) being free so stopped off at a pair of classic lines along the way – Moonlight and Snowline. The ice was a thin veneer at the start of Snowline, with Dan picking a very careful and delicate way up on ‘minimalistic’ protection. Jono and John smashed up the adjacent line, Moonlight, and we met at the top to rap down and walk out after a good day.
While the others were out at Evan Thomas Creek, Ben Lionel and James went for the Upper Weeping Pillar fresh from their rest day. After a big breakfast and head torch approach, James and Ben followed Lionel up the lower left side, moving quickly trying to get up to the Central Pillar.
On the third pitch Lionel was moving swiftly over easy ground but still placing adequate pro, when suddenly like a barn door opening he fell off, which shocked Ben and James - reminding us how important it is to still protect the easy ground - Lionel's second lead fall in 38 years! After a quick regather and shuffle they were standing under the Central Pillar, and Lionel smoothly lead the first pitch up into the cave meaning a slightly stoked James got the middle pitch, leaving Ben with the last. Six rappels later ended them back at the car for a nice ten hour day.
Day 14 – 14 Feb, Golden
Again on to a rest day – this time we met up in the pumping metropolis of Golden, BC. We were going to stay with and see a friend and local mountain guide, Hannah. After shifting cafes to try satisfy Dan’s discerning standards we ended up in a great secondhand bookstore/café called Bacchus. I was recognized by a pair of kiwi girls at the next table – turns out we were a year apart in the engineering department at Canterbury Uni. Small world! Not a huge amount was going on in Golden, as usual, so we departed soon after for Hannah’s place and had a huge cook up of burgers. Something I am especially skilled at is being terrible at estimating food quantities when cooking for a group, so there were enough burgers left over for lunch the next day. Oops!
Not wanting to overcrowd Hannah with guests, James, Lionel and Ben booked into a motel in Golden (thereafter affectionately known as ‘the love motel’) while Dan, Jono and I found some couch and spare room space.
Day 15 – 15 Feb, Kicking Horse Canyon
On Hannah’s suggestions we picked some areas to check out in the Golden/Kicking Horse area. Lionel, James, Jono, Ben and I headed to Kicking Horse Canyon to look at the Essondale Falls area. Lionel and Ben headed for Essondale Right, while the rest of us headed over to a mixed route – Asylum. However on arriving at Asylum and seeing how wet the ice already was (the last few days had been unseasonally warm!) with day set to heat up more, we decided the overhead risk from hanging daggers was unavoidable and unacceptable so we trundled back over to Essondale Right to crash Lionel and Ben’s party. They were kind enough to let us share their ice, and we headed up the bottom pitch in unison.
Setting up camp below the upper pillar we spent a relaxed day running laps, Ben putting in a great first lead up the right side – plenty of cleaning off poor quality ice and chandeliers to make very tricky climbing.
I got the first lead up the chimney-groove on the left, with hollow hanging sections and tricky protection making it a very full-value and serious pitch.
Dan and Hannah headed up to Cedar Weeps, another ice-filled canyon hidden up the back of Golden, getting in a multipitch mixed route quickly with enough time left in the day to head up a few single pitch ice routes around the corner. We had another excellent dinner party at Hannah’s, with the rare treat of Dan playing guitar later in the evening, and me contrasting terribly with my poor baritone ukulele skills.
Day 18 – 18 Feb, And Then There Were Five
Another rest day! We are getting better at these as we get to know Canmore better. Additionally while the first few rest days were filled with hasty shopping for gear as we sorted out our personal choices and systems for tools, gloves and layering – now we have these more dialed in and it’s just quick stops in to the bagel store for dozen bags, Safeway (and Safeway Liquor if we’re feeling misbehaved), and Canadian Tire (for hand and toe warmers!). I’d definitely vouch that if you’re heading out ice climbing for your first extended trip (like me) plan to pop back in town (in Canmore – Vertical Addiction, and sometimes Valhalla Pure - though they carry much less climbing gear) as you discover things you need… or just want. (We develop an addiction for and make a very good effort at buying the entirety of Canmore out of Petzl Pur’Ice picks for Nomics)
This rest day though we are leaving Dan who has a flight back to NZ. He’s taking with him one of our rental cars however, so we have to ditch some gear with John Price in order to have a chance at fitting the five of us into one car. After Dan heads off, we stop by the pub for a few pints before retreating back to Castle Mountain – tomorrow our plan is to finally head into the Stanley Headwall.
Day 19 – 19 Feb, Stanley Headwall
We’ve been talking about doing a day up the Stanley Headwall… and with time starting to wind down on our trip it’s about time we finally got up there and climbed something. The main issue has been avalanche hazard, but now we’ve had some warmer days and clear, still nights, and the snowpack has had a bit of time to stabilize.
The Castle Mountain hostel thermometer says -4C when we get up… but we suspect given the bitter chill in the air (and the fact the car’s thermometer says -16 and gets down to -21 on the drive…) that it’s a little bit colder. It’s by far the coldest day of our whole trip, and we’re going to a very cold place – the Stanley Headwall is higher up than most walls we’ve visited, and in the shade all day.
This is the hardest morning for me by far, my hands are fully shut down from cold before any climbing starts, and by the time James and Ben have bravely ground up the first cold lead in tandem (we’re coordinating a 5-climber ascent of the same line – possible, but requiring good teamwork and planning) I’m properly cold. After a solid round of barfies and whimpering on second, we’re good to go from the upper pitches. James and Lionel are climbing as a pair, and Jono, Ben and I form the second team of 3, but at belays we're a rowdy party of 5.
James and I take leads for the start of the upper pillar, and coordinate well on lead, moving and waiting to stay out of each others’ fall lines and way, and to place belays to keep our seconds from bombing each others or belays. Consistent climbing on difficult ice, rimed in places, and brittle due to the frigid cold, gets us a good pump on and a great challenging lead each.
We’re really psyched on getting down – Nemesis is an absolute classic and a great line to bag for the trip – it’s been challenging, difficult, and altogether a mega day.
Day 20 – 20 Feb, Field
With one day remaining for Jono to climb in Canada, we decide to head back to Twisted – which Lionel and James had attempted to get to early in the trip, but bailed due to unacceptable avalanche conditions.
This time things are much more settled. Ben, Lionel and I head up Twisted, while Jono and James climb a mixed line to the right. Ben takes a bold lead up a very resonant floating pillar, pulling a small overhang to finish the pitch. Definitely a lead to be chuffed about!
Meawhile Jono is heading up a difficult pillar – tricky featured ice and thin protection. Lionel continues up our line, stepping up and around a hollowed out pillar and on to more solid ice. The last lead is mine, and turns out to be steeper than anticipated, on brittle dinnerplating ice. Just to make it more interesting, the wind picks up significantly just when I start and spindrift starts pouring down constantly. It’s slow and tiring, being forced to wait in awkward positions for what seems like an eternity until there’s a break in the spindrift and I can see again.
We retire to the pub in Field to have a round of beers, which all too rapidly turns into another round, and ends with an emergency stop in Lake Louise liquor store on the way back to Castle Mountain. Will the life of the party leave with Jono?
Day 21 – 21 Feb, And Then There Were Four
We have tearful goodbyes in Banff to Jono. In the space of a few days we’re down to four, and there’s positively luxurious amounts of space in the car now. We head to Canmore to pick up the usual supplies – bagels and hand warmers. It’s a terrifyingly warm day – must be positive temperatures – with clear skies and winter sunshine. Are we being lazy or sensible when we decide to take the rest of the day off to rest? Anyway, we’ve decided to chance getting back up to the Stanley Headwall tomorrow – however the forecast brings snow flurries and moderate winds, both of which are red flags for avalanche hazard through new and wind transported snow. We decide it’s worth a try, however we will need to be prepared to get there and simply turn around if the snow or wind pick up.
Day 22 – 22 Feb, Field
We get out the door fairly early at 6am, however just as we are leaving it starts slightly snowing. The temperature is also very warm once again. All bad signs! We get barely 5 minutes down the road when the snow has increased, and we make the call that it’s just not a Stanley Headwall kind of day. We activate the Great Backup Plan, and drive to Field to climb Kronenberg and Carlsberg. James and I are the only ones who have not been up Kronenberg, so we partner up while Lionel and Ben run some laps on Carlsberg. There’s a pleasant amount of spice in the line – thin ice, a poorly protected technical traverse and difficulty on second with hanging daggers catching ropes. There’s even a piece of booty gear far right that is out of my reach on abseil – it pains me greatly to see booty and be unable to rescue it. Black offset nut – I’ll be back for you!
It’s a much less epic day than what we’d planned, but we’re all very happy with the decision made as there’s a lot of snow around (and more falling) as we drive back to Castle Mountain.
Day 23 – 23 Feb, Marble Canyon
Today we’re bound by the same issues as yesterday – new snow around, giving less than desirable avalanche conditions. We had a look at Tokkum pole back at the start of the month – it had a significant crack through the lower third, with the lower part of the pillar resting on too small and unstable a base for us to decide it was safe enough to lead. Seeing as we’re close by at Castle Mountain and it’s a 5 minute walk in, we may as well have another look – Haffner Creek is just across the road so we can spend the rest of the day there anyway. As expected, it hasn’t gotten much better – in fact it’s gotten significantly worse – the crack now goes all the way through the lower third and the base is now a skinny precarious little stump.
We use our toprope to have a couple of interesting laps smashing up different routes, then climb out and relocate across to Haffner. James has stayed back at Castle Mountain to have a rest day, and in retrospect this sounds like a smart decision so I stay behind in the car and have a damn good siesta while Ben and Lionel smash out some burly mixed routes in Haffner.
Day 24 – 24 Feb, Rest and move to Rampart
We’re planning out our last days now, and trying to figure out priorities for what we can still fit in before the dream team break up for the month. We’d like to try get another route in on the Stanley Headwall, and there’s a few things up near Rampart Creek that are calling. We take a slow morning to have pancakes with Shauna (the Castle Mountain warden), who has brought us some maple syrup… because she’s shocked we have been in Canada nearly a month and not had any yet! We’re terrible tourists. The drive up to Rampart Creek we do at a leisurely pace, stopping by Lake Louise to use the WiFi and pick up some additional supplies. Then we boost it up the Icefields Parkway and do a sneaky scoping mission up to Curtain Call to make sure we can find the parking and access in the dark the following morning – usually you can tell where the access starts by sighting the climb (which needs daylight!) from the road.
The early starts are always a bit of a grind, but it’s worth getting on the more popular routes well before anyone else can snake them – plus the lazy afternoons are always good. Especially today, Rampart Creek is absolutely packed so it’s not entirely infeasible we get stuck behind quite a few climbers.
Day 25 – 25 Feb, Curtain Call
The scoping mission is well worth it and we know exactly where to stop in the morning. As expected this early, we’re the first here – so there’s no hurry to leave the car. It takes us quite the while to leave the car… it’s warm, comfortable, and we all could have done with a few more hours. However eventually we gain momentum, get feet on the bootpack, and much sooner than expected we’re standing under the first pitch.
While James and Ben battle out paper-scissors-rock for leads, I get lucky and Lionel lets me take my choice of pitch – the top pillar, of course. James and Lionel lead the bottom, rope-stretching pitch in a slow grind – the car thermometer said it was -19C when we left – and it’s definitely one of the colder days we’ve had this month. But the air is perfectly still, so it’s not altogether unpleasant, and we’ve got a gorgeous view of the valley stretching towards Jasper with first touches of red morning glow on some of the peaks. Barfies all round, with some very … interesting… noises from the afflicted. It’s agreed generally that laughing at someone moaning in pain is poor form.
There’s another round of paper-scissors-rock at the base of the upper pillar – this time we’re battling it out to see which team gets to lead the top pitch first – there’s only room for one leader at a time. I would think by now I’m easy to beat – I always pick rock, as it requires the least finger movements and effort – but I crush Ben’s scissors, grab some screws and head on up. There’s a huge crack through the base of the pillar that gives a nice pull through the overhang above, and from there it’s steep consistent ice gradually easing off into the top out. The ice is very brittle in places (it’s been pretty cold!) and there’s huge chunks coming off – I swing my pick once into what seems to be a section of normal ice and the whole chunk just pops off. Naturally it goes right into my face.
There’s a fair bit of swearing and a fair bit of blood, but the climbing after is great and there’s two equalized, sound V-threads at the top – how convenient. We’ve decided the best way to get four climbers up is for me to abseil, so Ben can lead again sooner, rather than getting too cold. Lionel and James then second him to clean the gear and we can all descend together. We get back to Rampart just after midday for an early finish to match our early start. Perfect…. Rampart Creek reigns king among the mountain hostels when it comes to saunas. Sweat, chat with Italian climbers, pour some water on the stones, sweat some more, jump into a powder drift outside, sauna again… the best cure for all those sore spots.
Day 26 – 26 Feb, Ice Nine
Today we are shifting back ‘home’ (Castle Mountain) so for a short, easy access day we head up to Ice Nine. It’s close to the road, less than a few hundred metres from Rampart Creek Hostel! After a short stop to say hello to the passing neighborhood fox, we’re gearing up and leading opposite sides of the bottom pitch – Lionel headed up the (looker’s) left, while I headed up the right side of curtain.
It’s a bit thin and makes interesting noises at times…. But there’s a large base of ice and it’s solid enough to keep climbing. I’m happy with our choice of line – Lionel’s getting rained on, but I’m staying pretty dry over on my side! However it’s a short lived advantage. As Lionel pulls up to a bolted belay I trundle up a ramp of sun rotted unprotectable ice, then spend what feels like an hour chopping out chandeliered and aerated ice until I finally get some screws that I’m happy enough to belay off.
James and Ben take the second pitches to the top. Ben is left a little disappointed the left side has obviously been climbed a lot and is a bit picked out. It spoils the challenge somewhat. James’s line however doesn’t bear any signs of traffic whatsoever, and is a steep sustained lead on tricky, fluted columnar ice. Staunch!
We finish before midday and head back to Rampart Creek for a nice sit down lunch before heading down to Castle Mountain to bake Shauna a thankyou cake and pack for what might well be our last mission out to the ice the next day.
Day 27 – 27 Feb, Stanley Headwall
Today is yet another early start. French Reality and Nightmare on Wolf St are the objectives. There’s a little falling snow as we pull out of Castle Mountain, though the forecast is only for a short flurry so we’re hopeful it will clear. It’s a much more pleasant temperature than last time as we walk up toward the Stanley Glacier, the car temperature sensor reads something around -7, unlike last time when it was more like -20! There’s a little bit of wind transported snow around, and when we turn off the main glacier path to the bootpack up towards French Reality and Nightmare on Wolf St the first sign of concern is that we are occasionally breaking though the underlying crust. There’s a weaker, unstable layer a bit below this crust. When we climbed Nemesis, we were satisfied that this underlying crust formed an adequately strong bridging layer, but now that we’re breaking though it we aren’t quite as happy with the situation. This turns into real concern when the loose snow on top changes into a soft slab layer as we near the base of the headwall. With these factors and the completely unacceptable runout, it’s time to turn around. It’s painful, as we are so-oo close to the lines and they look nothing short of amazing. The decision making process that leads to bailing is often good, valuable experience, and especially having Lionel there makes it a good educational experience.
On the descent we do some avalanche rescue skills and practice transceiver search – we have decided we won’t head anywhere else to climb as there’s not anything we are keen to head to that will not have the same avalanche conditions. Instead we’ll head to Canmore for lunch, pick up some gear we have stashed at John’s, and my skis from another friend’s house, and go shopping for an excellent roast chicken dinner – the last supper of the awesome foursome. Lionel works wonders in the kitchen, and we (including Shauna) all sit down with a bottle of Canadian wine, and have an excellent, slightly rowdy last night in Castle Mountain.
Day 28 – 28 Feb, And Then There Were Three… Two…
Early this morning I catch a ride to Revelstoke with a fellow Castle Mountain resident, to go skiing with my brother and his partner for a week before going back to the Wilderness hostel-hopping ice-climbing life. Lionel and Ben are flying out tomorrow morning back to NZ, and James is staying in Canmore to get sorted for the next few months of travelling around Canada and the USA. It’s hard to believe it’s been a whole month already, and it’s really odd to no longer have the others around. All good things must come to an end it seems.
We would especially like to say a huge thanks to Dan, Lionel and Jono for their time – it’s a lot of personal time and money to come to Canada just to have to put up with a bunch of cheeky young ones. We have learnt so much, had such a full, fun month and really appreciate it.