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Ice Climbers Soloing Big and Difficult Rockies Ice Lines

Experienced ice climbers have long pushed the limits of going solo on big climbs in the Rockies

Soloing big ice climbs in the Canadian Rockies isn’t new, as some of the biggest frozen flows, like the 700-metre Polar Circus WI5, was first soloed in the 1980s.

Every year, veteran ice climbers ditch the partner and head to the ice for some alone time. Soloing ice climbs should be left to climbers with many years of experience on some of the most difficult big ice climbs in Canada, along with an understanding of snow slopes and avalanche terrain.

In the past few weeks, several big climbs in fat conditions have seen solo ascents. Quentin Roberts repeated Blessed Rage, a 250-metre WI6+ in B.C. solo, read about his climb here. Roberts noted that he wanted to repeat the historical FA from the 1990s, which was done solo.

In the past week, Toshiyuki Yamada has also climbed a big ice line without a partner to pay tribute to a historical solo ascent by Barry Blanchard (see a photo here). Yamada climbed the 80-metre Whiteman Falls WI6 alone, which was soloed by Blanchard in the late 1980s and famously photographed by Pat Morrow.

Stas Beskin, arguably one of the most active ice climbers chasing serious lines in western Canada, made a solo ascent of Oh Le Tabernac, a 55-metre WI5 in the Tabernac Bowl on Mount Wilson, which has been soloed many times over the years. The Tabernac Bowl has a lot of history, as several top climbers have added climbs to it over the years. Here’s a brief list: Oh Le Tabernac WI5 55 m (FA Carlos Buhler, Dick Renshaw in 1981); Maori Wedding WI5 35 m (FA Karen McNeill, Dave Thomson in 1995); Meech Lake Memorial WI4+ 60 m (FA Joe Josephson, Jeff Nazarchuk in 1991); N’Ice Baby WI5 110 m (Alain Chassie, Guy Lacelle in 1985), Les Misérables WI6+ 80 m (FA Barry Blanchard, Kevin Doyle in 1992).

These are just a few of the many solo ascents going down in the Rockies these days. Again, leave any form of soloing to experienced climbers.

Legendary Soloist Guy Lacelle

In 1997, the late Guy Lacelle made the first solo link-up of three WI5/6 climbs on the steep and famous Trophy Wall on Mount Rundle above the town of Banff. The three routes are Sea of Vapors, Terminator and the Replicant, each are 160 metres. When Sea of Vapours was first climbed by Bruce Hendricks and Joe Josephson, it was graded WI7+.

Lacelle was one of the world’s top ice climbers and his triple solo on the Trophy Wall is still one of the boldest days of ice soloing in the Rockies.

Shortly after his solos on the Trophy Wall, Lacelle said: “I didn’t put any pressure on myself. I started with Replicant to warm up, then I felt good and climbed the most demanding route, Terminator, and finally felt like I had enough energy left to climb Sea of Vapor safely.

“It took me five hours, which is about the maximum amount of time for me before my focus and energy start to diminish. As for as the exposure, it helps me to stay focused but doesn’t wear on my energy. I have been more taxed on a few occasions than the Trophy Wall day. For example linking Weeping Pillar and Polar Circus in twelve hours in December with brittle ice and less training.”

MEC cover 1996: Guy Lacelle’s first ascent of Le Grand Delire Photo Joe Josephson

A native of Hawksbury, Ontario, Guy started climbing while pursuing a physical education degree at the University of Ottawa. His first climb was the 100-metre La Congelee (W13) on the massive Chute Montmorency outside Quebec City, which he completed with a partner in seven hours, a climb he has since soloed in less than five minutes.

His first trip to the Rockies was in 1983, when he and partner Alain Chasse climbed Polar Circus, a fierce route near the Columbia Icefields. He later went on to teach winter courses for Outward Bound in Ontario and guide for the Yamnuska Mountain School in Canmore, Alberta.

In 1988, he traded teaching and guiding for a new lifestyle, tree planting in the summer months and climbing in winter. Typically, he would spend 50 to 60 days climbing ice during the winter season. Lacelle died an avalanche in Hyalite Canyon, Montana, while climbing a snow gully between climbs in 2009.

Lacelle soloed a number of big ice routes, including the Trophy Wall solos, The Fang WI6, Rigid Designator WI4, Ames Ice Hose WI5, Capitaine Courageux WI5, Curtain Call W16, Malignant Mushroom WI5, Au-dela des Ombres WI5, Hydenfossen WI6, Pilsner Pillar WI6 and Iron Curtain WI6.

Lacelle Tribute