Ice climbing: High adventure in the Canadian Rockies

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Written by Patrick J. Smith posted on Monday, November 30th, 2009

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The common cliched answer a mountain climber will give you if you ask him why he climbed the mountain is, because it’s there.

So what about the frozen waterfall? Truth is, it’s not any different.

The Canadian Rockies abound with frozen waterfalls and other sheets of ice. They make for spectacular viewing and wonderful photos. They’re also, for those with the skills and the taste for adventure, plum climbing opportunities.

We must caution you: ice climbing takes skill and preparation. It’s not a casual activity. Climbers must be aware of the conditions and the hazards they face at all times.

Chief among those hazards in the Rockies are avalanches. Partly this is because of the nature of ice climbing, of course; any area prone to having water freeze vertically and in gullies is almost by definition a terrain trap. Add in the fact that the Rockies are big mountains, and what you get are a majority of climbs that face avalanche hazards on at least part of their lengths, some for extended periods of time. There are other factors that may add to the risk, as well, which is one of the many reasons why climbers should know their routes and evaluate them before attempting the climb.

There are three terrain ratings for ice climbs: simple, challenging and complex. As you might expect, simple climbs are the easiest, with routes surrounded by low-angle and/or forested terrain, having little exposure to possible avalanches. Challenging climbs have limited exposre to terrain traps or starting zones, and may have long exposure to areas that get infrequent avalanches. Complex routes comprise just about everything else: areas that see frequent avalanches, or areas where multiple avalanches may occur, and more.

Naturally, the majority of climbs in the Canadian Rockies are classified as complex. Banff National Park in particular is rife with complex climbs, but Yoho National Park and Kootenay National Park have their fair share, as well. Perhaps oddly, Jasper National Park has only one complex climb: Slipstream.

It’s no surprise to see Banff topping the list, though. Banff has more simple and challenging climbs, too. It’s a climber’s paradise.

Avalanche bulletins are prepared daily between November and April throughout the Rockies (twice weekly in Waterton Lakes). Call 1-800-667-1105.

Another precaution we cannot emphasize enough: Do not climb alone! Be sure to climb with at least one other experienced person. And be aware of your limitations … not only yours, but your partner’s, too! If you are a novice, confine yourself to simple climbs. Don’t fret; you’ll find many such climbs in the Rockies, and they are well worth the effort.

You should be aware that conditions vary within the Rockies, but in general, conditions on eastern slopes tend to be drier, and therefore, easier. Still, avalanche bulletins cover large areas, and local conditions could be quite different. Always be vigilant.

Watch out for sudden temperature changes, too … especially warming. That can melt snow more quickly. It can also destabilize the ice you are planning to climb.

Frozen waterfalls include their own hazards, such as fissures, and the safe window for climbing them may be ver short.

Finally, do not become fixated on just one route. Be flexible. Things change quickly.

We know that’s a lot of warnings and guidelines. But that’s par for the course when it comes to any kind of climbing. If you’re careful, vigilant, and know your limitations, try climbing the ice rather than just looking at it. You’ll never see it in quite the same way again.

Alberta Adventure Guide

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