Ice Cold Six Pack
Six Rockies Ice Classics
By Brandon Pullan
As the days shorten and the seasons roll by, nights become cooler, leaves change colour, and the sound of files sharpening ice tools is heard and down jackets get duct tape patches. The snowline comes lower on the ranges of Western Canada and the once flowing water draining the mountains becomes an icy playground for climbers.
As the winter season begins, climbers watch and wait for Jack Frost to permanently solidify the waterfalls. Wet drips slowly cease, becoming motionless ice, strong enough to hold weight and accept the cold steel of an ice pick.
For forty years the Rockies have been a world-class ice climbing destination and in the words of Bugs McKeith, “(In the) winter of 72-73 the seeds were planted of what was to blossom into one of the most exciting things that has happened in the Rockies since the big peaks were first climbed.”
Ken Baker and Lloyd MacKay had climbed Cascade Falls in the late 60s, using aid and other techniques. However, it was in 72-73 that the stage was set on Rogan’s Gully, Bow Falls and Bourgeau Right-Hand. Over the next decade, a small group of climbers sought out and climbed ice routes that are now hailed as classics. The path to what is now an international winter hot spot was being built.
Rockies ice climbing has withstood the test of time: it remains as serious an undertaking as it was decades ago when these routes were pioneered. Several factors contribute to the committing and appealing nature of the routes; factors that are better experienced than told.
With guidebooks and new equipment, it is easy to forget that at one point these routes were at the cutting edge. Rockies Ice pioneer Rob Wood said “we were …confronting the psychological difficulties presented by the huge unknown variables of whether or not it was humanly possible to survive the scale and severity of these intimidating walls of ice”
As the years passed, hundreds of ice routes, unprecedented winter alpine routes and modern day mixed routes were established in bold styles. As standards have risen, so has the willingness of climbers to try the testpieces. Routes that held fearsome reputations are now considered manageable classics.
Of all the waterfall ice climbs, it is the WI 6 routes that ice-climbing dreams are made of. Standing tall, defying gravity: pillars; smears; mushrooms; tubes; chandeliered cauliflowers. Pure ice routes sans bolts and drytooling.
Here are six of the Rockies’s most incredible WI6 climbs.
As Baker and MacKay inched up Cascade Falls in the late 1960s, one can only imagine their thoughts while gazing across the Trans Canada Hwy to Mount Rundle. The Trophy Wall needs little introduction, as it has become synonymous with the sport of ice climbing. It stands above the town of Banff on a 200m wall of grey palliser limestone. Over the years, numerous routes have been picked off, but the first was The Terminator. It clings to the wall as a series of smears connected to each other and to the ground by pillars. It rarely touches down, but when it does, be sure that there will be line-ups. It is likely the most stared at and watched route, as it sits near the doorway to the Rockies, proud and inspiring. In 1985, after years of being watched and referred to as the ‘big drip’ it was finally climbed by Jay Smith and Craig Reason over three days.
Two other major routes have been climbed on the wall: The Replicant and Sea of Vapours. Sea of Vapours was climbed in 1993 by Bruce Hendricks and Joe Josephson and summed up well by Hendricks “That small stretch of topography was to deliver an intensity of experience and challenge which would expand my perspectives about what was possible in climbing.” Start early as the approach can be a time sucker. Park at the Bow Falls view point and hike in as for other routes on Mt. Rundle. It’s a long walk through the golf course and up the drainage to the approach ice and deep snow can make it even longer.
The impressive Stanley Headwall is home to one of the most aesthetic and stunning ice falls in the Rockies. Although the Headwall is an impressive sight from the highway, Nemesis, its most famous route, is tucked away, out of sight. The ominous name promises a worthy and perhaps protracted struggle. McKeith attempted the climb many times with different partners throughout the winter of 1974. Nemesis has been described as ‘frozen tissue paper hanging from the wall’ and the route would prove a big undertaking at the time. The first ascent was completed after a long siege in aid climbing style. On one attempt, McKeith took five hours to cover 20 m. In the end, the route took six days over two months and it was finally freed by John Lauchlan and James Blench in 1980. McKeith said: “For two months of the winter, it had been the bane of my life… I, for one, enjoyed every minute of it, from the red wine and dope nights in the (bivy) cave to the neckiest moments on the climb.” Starting early is not important, as the approach has a relatively short approach. Snowshoes work well, but skis are better. Watch snow conditions, as the approach and climb are in bad avalanche zones. Park at the Stanley Glacier parking on the Radium Highway and head in.
At the end of a theatrical performance, the cast will return to the stage to be recognized by the audience for their act. Curtain Call does just this, returning every season to be recognized as one of the most intimidating routes in the region. When the stage is set and conditions are right, Curtain Call is admired by audiences willing to show up and be entertained by its magnificent show. It is two steep pillars joined by a series of unpredictably funky mushrooms and wildly steep ice. Located on the Icefields Parkway a few km north of Tangle Creek. Park under the route and hike up through the trees.
The difference between an architectural pillar and a column is that the base of a pillar can be any shape but round. Ice pillars are similar: vertical columns with wildly misshapen ice where ice meets ground, resembling mushrooms and gargoyles formed when the falling water splashes and the spray freezes in mid-flight. Pillars can be any width or height, depending on the season.
Field, British Columbia sits on the Trans Canada Highway in the shadows of looming peaks. The town is a must-visit spot for ice climbers when the flows on Mounts Stephen and Dennis freeze. There you will find the Beer climbs, routes names after different kinds of beers with easy access and a stunning setting that belies the presence of some scary avalanche paths. Be wise when visiting. This route can be linked with the other beer climbs to complete a wild day of ice climbing. Sometimes this route can form as a massive pillar or one or two smaller ones. There are also mixed options behind the pillar. Most parties only climb the first pitch.
Pilsner Pillar is a delicious column found amidst the plethora of beer climbs. At times Pilsner can form as a massive solid and seemingly bomber pillar and sometimes will form as a thin dagger barely making contact with the ground. Either way, it will provide entertainment that is best celebrated with a true lager down at the Truffle Pig Cafe in Field.
The Weeping Wall could be referred to as the most classic WI 5 ice routes. It is as wide as a football field and 200 m tall. This climb, with its numerous variations, is worth the visit alone. Above the Weeping Wall stands a vast amount of vertical stone with many ice routes, but the gem is the Weeping Pillar. It is a stunning, three-pitch line of pure, but constantly changing ice. The upper two pitches are acutely vertical, throwing climbers back onto their arms. These pitches consist of sometimes bewildering formations like chandeliers, mushrooms and rotten layers interspersed with great plastic ice. However, as Joe Josephson states in Waterfall Ice ‘Don’t despair, it isn’t always in such rough shape and the Weeping Pillar can offer some of the most difficult plastic ice you’ll ever climb.’ This route makes a long day, as the Weeping Wall must be climbed to reach the Pillar. Luckily, the Wall is a mere minutes from the Icefields Parkway.
Many of Rockies ice routes are situated in, up, or near creeks. Creek routes often don’t offer the best exposure, but can position the climber in a wild setting with a great ambiance of creek walls, tight canyons with trees clinging to the cliffs and the sound of rushing water. One creek that should not be missed is Opal Creek in the Highwood Pass of Kananaskis Country. This creek houses many worthwhile routes, but the gem is Whiteman Falls. Two pitches of fascinating ice sometimes offer the hardest climbing in the range. Start up a pitch of technical ice leading to a cave. The angled strata of the creek walls add to the position of the climbing, creating a great sense of exposure. From the cave, climb a suspended tube of ice, with water rushing inside. Also not to be missed in Opal Creek is Red Man Soars the M5+ two pitch classic mixed route to the right of Whiteman’s, climbed on traditional gear and fixed pins. The highway is closed after December 1, so you can only do the route if it forms early. Snowshoes help on the approach if there is fresh snow.