Early Season Ice Climbing

Since our week long trip to Canmore last Winter, Ice Climbing has become a passion of ours. This past season has seen us put a lot more effort into Climbing in general. Climbing is not just a full body sport, it’s a full everything sport. It’s physical, mental and emotional. It’s the perfect activity in my opinion. I can understand why people give up everything to live in a van and climb full time as a dirtbag. Climbing gives you almost everything you need to feel a sense of living fully.

Ice Climbing, however, tends to not have a huge following. Even within the climbing community only a small subset of climbers will learn to climb ice and stick with it. For most it appears to be a novelty activity to do once, take some photos of and then never do again.

Not for myself. Something about the aesthetics of it appeals to me. Swinging sharpened Ice tools and kicking serrated barbs of steel into walls of frozen water. Seeing layers of ice shatter and explode or feeling the ice tool make a satisfying “thunk” as it bites solidly from a perfect flick of the wrist.

All ice is not made equal either. Time, weather and location can have a dramatic effect on the properties of the ice you will be climbing. The type of ice you climb in the morning can be completely different to the type of ice you climb that same evening. To rock jocks that have never been on ice I try to use this analogy, “Imagine going to your favorite granite rock climbing area only to discover when you get there that the rock has now changed to limestone with bands of gneiss running through it, and instead of a 5.10b crack you now have a 5.11a face climb. It’s that kind of flux that you have to be prepared for with ice”

Or put simply by a friend of mine as we geared up at the base of a climb:

“Ice Climbing is just badass, that’s it, everyone knows it”

What follows are some accounts of the Ice Climbing trips I’ve been on in the past few months and what I’ve learned from those experiences.

Mount Baker Seracs:

Spring wrote about our experience at Mount Baker here: “Mount Baker: Ice Climbing“, so I won’t labor the details. I was really psyched to get out on glacier ice. From all my glacier experience the number one rule has always been to avoid going anywhere near crevasses but on this trip our goal was not only to find the deepest, darkest cracks in the glacier but to lower ourselves down inside them.

This would also be our first time back climbing Ice since the season ended last Spring.

We climbed a number of walls of ice. In places the difficulty felt harder than AI5, with overhangs and bulges in the ice to overcome. Compared with waterfall ice, glacier ice felt particularly dense but placements felt extremely solid. Due to its age, ranging into the thousands of years, glacier ice can build up a lot of tension over time and explode when you strike it with your ice tool. We noticed this on a number of occasions.

By far the most adventurous part of this trip was the glacier scrambling to get to the climbs. It usually involved soloing over exposed AI2 terrain and the occasional hop across bottomless crevasses. Fun!

Glacier Ice Climbing will definitely become both a season ender and opener for us now.

Marble Canyon – Dry Tooling:

In the middle of November we headed North in search of Ice at Marble Canyon, an Ice Climbing area north of the gold rush town of Lillooet. There was ice, just nothing we could climb yet as it was still mostly liquid water. Nobody had brought their wetsuits.

We opted to dry tool instead. Dry tooling is basically rock climbing with all the equipment you use to ice climb. It’s an odd activity. If Ice Climbing is a subset of Climbing in general, Dry Tooling is a subset within a subset. A lot of Ice Climbers may never do it.

Our ice and rock climbing experience really hadn’t prepared us for it. We’d tried Mixed Climbing (which is climbing a mix of ice and rock) in Canmore last Winter, but only for a bit near the end of our trip.

The biggest aspect we noticed with dry tooling was the lack of sensory feedback. With rock climbing you can feel the rock through the thin rubber on your shoes and with the skin on your fingers. You can tell if a hold is good by touch, without the need to see it. Even when climbing ice there is a feedback in the way the shaft of the ice tool vibrates when you strike the ice or in the sound it makes. You learn the sounds of good or rotten ice and build up the engrams that inform you about if a tool placement is solid of weak.

Dry tooling does away with almost all of this. You hook little notches and lips with your tools and pull up. It feels really tenuous and tool placements can suddenly blow and pop without warning and because we never physically touch the holds it’s hard to know if the hold failed because we hooked it wrong, weighted the tool wrong or if the hold was just not good.

I’m sure there are little tips and tricks that we will learn as we progress. We’re looking forward to that process.

Something that was also awesome about that trip is that we camped nearby at a recreation site and had a fire. I’d camped there before in the Winter but had not had a fire and it was a miserable experience. As soon as it turned dark it was too cold to stay up so we were all in bed by 5pm. We’d been kept awake also by a pack of coyotes nearby that howled through the night.

It had soured my feelings about camping there so much that the next time we went to Marble Canyon last season we booked into a Motel in Lillooet.

This time however, with the fire, it changed everything. Two of the guys with us cooked a whole chicken on a grill, as well as vegetables, which turned out amazing. The warmth around the fire was just enough to allow us to stay up until a reasonable hour.

Sleeping in a Lillooet Motel is still an option in the future, but there was a charm to having a campfire, cooking a meal on it and being outside. My previous bad experience had been quashed.

Roast chicken on the fire

Roast chicken on the fire

Squamish Ice:

Our home, Squamish, BC, is known for a lot of Outdoor Activities. Ice climbing is generally not one of them. Except this year. Thanks to an Arctic Outflow, a weather phenomenon that brings high winds and temperatures as low as -20’c some years, most of the seepages and low flow waterfalls around this area froze up. We started seeing pictures pop up online of our favourite granite crags covered in climbable ice. We dropped all our plans, knowing this peculiarly cold weather would not last, and grabbed our ice climbing gear.

We climbed at an area in Squamish known as the Smoke Bluffs, but there was ice in a lot of places near town that we never got to visit before the ice started to melt.

The climbing was mostly easy, WI3 at the hardest. It was also perfect “Hero Ice”, ice that is not so cold to be brittle and not too warm to be fragile. It takes tools easily and makes each swing place solidly first time, every time. It’s also called “Ego Ice” for good reason.

We only top roped. The ice was thick enough to climb, but too thin to lead on ice screws.

Within a few days it was all over, the temperatures went back to our winter normal of a few degrees above 0’c and the ice began to turn back to water. We’re hoping for another, longer arctic front to blow through but it will likely not happen until next winter at best. At worst, it could be another decade or more before we see conditions like that again.

Marble Canyon – Christmas Ice:

Early on Christmas morning, while we imagine most adults were sleeping and most children had snuck downstairs to rummage under the tree, we quietly loaded our ice climbing equipment and camping gear into our car and headed north on empty roads. We realized that we were standing up old Kris Kringle but we didn’t feel bad, we had a date with Jack Frost that we simply had to keep.

To us, living well is the only tradition we follow. Every day of our lives has equal importance. Past days teach us something, future days contain opportunity and the present, well, has to be seized.

Christmas is no exception. Knowing that most Ice Climbers would likely be indisposed with turkey, wine and presents we decided to go to Marble Canyon, which only really needs 10 climbers there to feel busy and crowded.

En route we caught this rare glimpse of a Canadian bobcat in the wild. They are normally nocturnal animals and pretty shy so seeing one like this felt like a privilege.

We arrived there late in the afternoon. We had taken cues from our friends during our last visit and decided to camp out this time and cook some chicken over a fire. We quickly cleared the snow from our tent platform, set up our tent and then headed out towards the ice with our climbing day packs.

Getting to the ice requires crossing a frozen lake. It’s takes only a few minutes to cross but, coming from Ireland were bodies of water generally never freeze well enough to walk on, I’m always a little apprehensive at first.

When we got to the base of the first climbs at Marble Canyon we could see that a few of them had formed up since we’d last been here in November. But we also heard the one noise that all ice climbers dread. Running water.

A route I had hoped to be able to climb called Icy BC, had a lot of running water on it and big open holes in the ice. It would need to wait until our next visit.

The route that appeared good is called the Deeping Wall, a wide swath of ice over 40m’s tall with a variety of different options on how to climb it ranging from WI4 to WI5.

We decided to set up a top rope on it and give it a go. The hike up to the top of these climbs is always interesting. The trail tends to get covered in ice and compact snow requiring you to wear crampons. There are also more than a few places where a slip off the side of the trail would be terminal.

We reached the top of the climb and Spring got into position to set up a top rope anchor. Spring has a lot of strengths but climbing systems, such as anchors, are her achilles heel at the moment. She has explained to me in the past that the burden of responsibility for building a proper anchor is part of why she finds building them so hard. She is going to trust her life and let others trust their lives on that anchor and it makes her nervous. For me it’s much more clinical, I don’t think about the ramifications of building a bad anchor, I just have a list of safety checkboxes in my mind, and as I build the anchor I check off the boxes until the anchor is ready.

Spring cautiously worked her way down to the tree that we’d be using as our anchor and secured herself. This climb was too tall to use only one rope for a top rope so we’d need to join two together. As our ropes are of different diameters I used a rethreaded figure 8 with stopper knots.

Some delays added up as I reminded Spring about how to set up the anchor and which knots to use. I feel that Spring knew what to do, she just needed me to confirm that her decisions were right. They always were.

The anchor was in an odd location also on a steep slope a few meters down off the main access trail so feeding the ropes down to her took some time. By the time Spring had thrown the ropes and rappelled down it was twilight.

Rapping down at twilight

Rapping down at twilight

We both tried the climb but only got a few meters up the initial WI5 section. The long drive to Marble Canyon, about 3.5 hours from Squamish, and the delays with the anchor had sapped our energy.

There was no rush. We had the entire place to ourselves and nobody was at the campground either. We discussed leaving our ropes in situ but ultimately we made the decision to pull them, concerned that they might freeze to the ice during the night. We left our anchor in place overnight though.

Back at camp we got a roaring fire going, cooked our chicken and vegetables on the fire pit grill and sipped some delicious, seasonal winter ale. There was nowhere else we’d rather be as we turned in for the night.

The next day we headed back over to the ice early in the morning. Spring went up to check on our anchor to make sure no rodents had been gnawing on it through the night and in a few minutes she had the ropes set up and was rappelling down. We’d talked about ways to be more efficient in setting up the system and it had paid off.

After some warm ups on the route, going up a few meters and then coming back down again, Spring was the first to try getting up to the top of the climb. She made slow but consistent progress. The difficulty of this climb was that it was slightly overhanging at the bottom and sustained further up. It was also long, being +40m’s. Spring would move up a step, shake out her arms to stop them from getting pumped, and then move on. Eventually she topped out having not fallen or taken a hang on the rope once. I was really psyched that she’d been able to do that.

Spring on the Deeping Wall

Spring on the Deeping Wall

After a short snack break, it was my turn to give the climb a go but we realized that the ropes had become stuck somehow. We tried to free them for a bit but nothing worked. Puzzled, I hiked up to check things out. My first thought was that the knot joining the ropes had become stuck but when I got to the anchor I could see that it was fine. One side of the rope however just wouldn’t budge.

I had no choice, as only one side of the rope was free I fixed it to the anchor and rappelled on that strand to investigate what was wrong with the other side. As I lowered down I realised that it was sitting in a runnel of water and had become frozen in place. I easily broke the rope free of the ice and lowered to the bottom. Spring hiked up to unfix the rope so we could continue climbing and then rappelled down. This whole fiasco had eaten up an hour. We made sure to keep moving and flicking the ropes every few minutes so that they couldn’t freeze in place again.

Spring behind the ice curtain

Spring behind the ice curtain

Finally I got to climb. I tied in and within the first few moves I was struggling to push back the lactic acid building up in my forearms no matter how much I tried to shake them out.

This ice was WI5 but there was also an issue with the condition of the ice at the bottom of the climb. The bottom 5 to 10 meters of this climb was really hooked out from previous climbers, whereas the ice above this looked immaculate. This was a tell tale sign that the majority of climbers that had been trying this route were not going all the way to the top. A usual reason for this is poor form causing beginner climbers to pump their arms or calves out really quickly.

On rock, this wouldn’t be an issue, but on ice, it can be a pain. When somebody climbs a section of ice they leave a mark. The next person on the climb, if they are also unfamiliar with efficient ice climbing form, will tend to use the divots and marks left by the previous climber. If enough people do this it can drastically change the appearance of the ice. It makes ledges and cups in the face of the ice known as “dog dishes”. It can also force climbers that do know proper form into using these bad foot and pick placements.

This is how I felt on the lower section of this climb. Proper form tries to spread your body weight across your shoulders, hips, knees and calves. But on this section, with each step up it felt like my full body weight was either on one shoulder or on one of my calves. I’d try to pull up on my tools to relieve the pressure on my calf only for my forearms to start pumping out, when I’d relax my arms my calf would begin screaming again. Imagine juggling a coal from the fire between your hands, you might be able to do this for a few moments, but eventually your hands are going to get too hot and you’ll need to drop it.

I pumped out and took a hang on the rope. I contemplated just lowering back down.

If technical systems are Springs weak area, climbing strength is definitely mine. Spring was able to get up this climb without pumping out once. I hesitate when I should push through, in the same way Spring hesitates when she should trust that she knows her systems.

We climb almost exclusively together and I guess we’ve been enabling each others weaknesses in the past. Spring has done the majority of leading between us and I’ve built the majority of anchors and glacier travel systems. Since recognising our habits we’ve been working on the areas we’ve allowed ourselves to become weak.

As I hung on the rope I called out to Spring to lower me down. She didn’t budge, she just replied with “Not happening. Just climb it! You know what you need to do!”. It was the kick in the butt I needed. Spring was right, there was no reason for me to lower off this. I knew I could get up it. I just needed to move quickly through the lower section of messed up ice and then I had over 30m’s of good ice above it. I pulled myself back onto the ice and got moving again. I moved through the lower section, seeing 2 to 4 moves ahead so that I wouldn’t have to rest in any of the bad positions. I got past the lower section and, once on the fresh, largely untouched ice, I cruised up the rest to the top now that I could start using better form.

It was just after 2pm by now and we decided to pack up and start heading home. Knowing it would be dark early we wanted to get most of our long, 240km drive home behind us while it was still light out.

On our way back home, on Boxing Day, as we imagined the many city streets of North America packed with people rubbing shoulders to try and buy the most stuff in the holiday sales I said to Spring “I guess the only thing I gave you for Christmas this year was a belay”. She smiled. We pulled over, just as the sun was setting outside of the town of Lillooet to watch the clouds turn from yellow, through orange, to red. It felt good.

We didn’t purchase any gifts for each other this Christmas, but had instead encouraged each to grow stronger, given each other new experiences and made memories to last a lifetime.

Here’s to many more memories of climbing ice this Winter.

Sunset north of Lillooet

Sunset north of Lillooet

Author: Leigh McClurg

I grew up in County Dublin, Ireland and moved to British Columbia, Canada with my wife in 2010. I fell in love with being in the Backcountry and Mountains that are all around me here and try to spend all of my free time exploring those wild places. My main goals are to chase happiness, see as much of this planet and its cultures as possible and grow every day through knowledge and experiences.

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