Swing like you screw, kick like you poo.
“I don’t screw like that” a girl replied cheekily from the back row of our Ice Climbing group. Our instructor, Carl, paused a moment, cracked a wry smile in response and moved on: “When you swing your Ice Tools get your hips in against the ice, legs extended and shoulders out, like you screw. When you want to kick, hang off your highest tool and get your butt out, like you’re going to poo and look at where you want your feet to go”
We were on our second day of Ice Climbing instruction with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures near Canmore, Alberta. The previous day they’d given us an intro to Ice Climbing at the climbs Irish Mist and The Water Hole, today we were at Kings Creek to hone our technique further on some single pitch Ice.
The snow gods had finally answered the pleas from Skiers all over the Rockies and on this day it was dumping snow after a rather long drought in these parts. Anything we put down on the ground for a few moments was soon buried under fluffy white powder. I imagined it might make for a rather miserable day of climbing Ice but it turned out to be one of the best.
Kings Creek lies at the bottom of a gorge with steep rock walls on either side. As snow built up above eventually it would fall off branches, boulders and slopes when they could no longer hold the weight of it. It would cascade down, get funneled into gullies, gain speed, bring other loose snow with it and eventually reach the bottom where we were climbing. This made for an almost ethereal experience while climbing ice, which isn’t exactly the most normal activity to begin with.
As we climbed, periodically, these sluffs of snow would hit us in waves. It was like being suddenly shaken up inside a snow globe. You could only brace against the ice and hope your belayer hadn’t been buried below.
As I finished climbing another line and shouted “Take!” to my belayer, I clipped my ice tools into my harness and lowered my hands to my sides. My hands started to ache, ache badly (In ice climbing this is affectionately known as the Hot Aches or the Screaming Barfies). I braced against the pain and resolved to stop over gripping my Ice Tools next time. I looked down and shouted “Lower” to my belayer. At that moment I could see a snow sluff from my vantage point picking up mass and momentum above and barrelling down. It hit my belayer and everyone at the base of the climbs, they all started laughing. As I was lowered down and felt the crunch of chandelier ice under my crampons, the pain subsiding in my fingers and seen the smiles on the faces of those at the bottom I thought to myself “people who choose to take a holiday somewhere sunny and near a beach in the Winter are crazy, why aren’t they doing this?”
A few weeks prior myself and my wife had bitten the bullet and signed up for this Ice Climbing course. We’d spent the previous Summer learning to climb rock mainly for the purpose of getting better at scaling the mountains in our backyard here in British Columbia. Our tastes had been changing though and the aesthetic Alpine routes of snow and ice had grown more and more in their appeal.
The decision to properly learn how to climb ice happened swiftly. Last season we failed to reach the summit of Mt. Baker in Washington via its North Ridge. An Ice wall before the summit stymied our progress. As soon as I stood below it I knew I did not possess the ability to climb it. I knew also that this skill was not something I was going to pick up quickly, I needed to be taught it.
So here we were, in the Ice Climbing Mecca of Canada, Canmore, learning to climb Ice.
Day 3. We awoke early, well before sunrise, and rolled out of our bunks. We’d chosen to stay in the ACC Clubhouse, a hostel on the outskirts of Canmore. I didn’t really worry about waking my roommates as they were already stirring. This hostel attracts mainly Backcountry Recreationists, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a snowshoer, skier or Ice Climber, you’re sleeping schedules are usually the same; Asleep early, up before dawn and ready at the start of your mission for the day by or before sunrise.
Today we were paired up with Nick, another guide at Yamnuska, who would be taking us on our first Multi-pitch climb at Guinness Gully. Nick, a British expat, made the day thoroughly enjoyable. His life was storied and adventurous and would gladly share snippets of it with us as we waited at the base of each pitch for our turn to climb. Two parties were ahead of us which slowed down our day, but I wasn’t complaining. Learning about how someone like Nick has made a life out of his passion for the mountains was as valuable to me as learning how to climb Ice.
We topped out on the third pitch and then quickly rappelled back down to the base of the climb. As we drove back to Canmore Nick regaled us with more stories about how his life had led him here. He detailed how he had been guiding for 8 days straight, then had two days off and spent that time skiing with his family, before coming back to guide for us. It says something about a person when they spend all of their working time in the mountains and when they finally get some time off, choose to spend it in the mountains also. It says they love what they do, regardless of if someone pays them to do it, and that in and of itself was inspiring to me.
We arrived back at our hostel and unloaded our gear in the laundry cum mud room in the basement. It was quickly filling up with the armaments of the other climbers who were back from their day of doing battle with the ice. As we all sat down at the almost medieval long table in the kitchen with our plates of simple foods to fuel us rather than excite us people, with expressions of eustress, started to talk and share stories of their day.
Ice Climbers are extremely loquacious, they have to be. They share the same passion as Rock Climbers, but unlike their brethren they have a constant thirst for beta, precious beta. I’ve sat at tables with Rock Climbers and as soon as I informed them I was in the nascent stage of climbing as a Top-Roper I received the cold shoulder. I had nothing to offer them. Rock routes seldom change and a top-roper has little to offer a trad or sport climber. There is also a slight feeling of elitism that I hope I don’t also develop as I progress towards leading rock in the future.
Ice Climbers seem to be fighting a dissonance. On the one hand, when they’d hear I was guided or top-roping I could see their inner Rock Climber losing interest, but on the other hand I had seen and touched the ice today and they needed to know about it.
Due to the ephemeral nature of Ice it can change in structure and quality on a daily basis. At least once a year these climbs are going to completely disappear. A lot of the ice climbs near Canmore lie at the bottom of avalanche paths also so they can be buried or destroyed in an instant.
As we sat, rubbing shoulders, top-ropers, mixed and pure ice climbers, the fervor for “condition updates” was palpable: “How was the ice? Chandelier? Plastic? Dinner Plate? Dog Dishes? Hooked out? Delaminating? Fat? Thin? Wet? Death cookies on the approach?”.
In between relaying our condition updates we got to know each other a little. Climbers were here from all 4 corners of the globe to share in the thrill and excitement of ascending walls of frozen water.
The next two days of our course saw us covering steeper ice and eventually mixed rock and ice on Day 5. We practiced mock leading but not true leading. I feel this was a sensible decision by the guides as, really, even after 5 days of instruction, the movements still felt a little forced.
As our guide, Carl, said on Day 1: “Your primate brain has no knowledge of climbing ice, unlike rock, this will not feel intuitive, you need to create new engrams to show it what to do” and he was right. Climbing Ice feels about as unnatural as an activity can get and the movements are counter intuitive to how I’d imagine I should climb it. But, with time, new engrams did develop and like learning to ride a bike, eventually I started to not even have to think about what I needed to do.
We’re already thinking about our next trip to Canmore for next season. We thoroughly enjoyed being instructed and guided by Carl, Jean and Nick at Yamnuska Mountain Adventures and may choose to go with them in the future as our experience was amazing.
If you’re planning a trip for next winter and are thinking about escaping the cold. Don’t. Embrace it, and learn to Ice Climb. Trust me, you won’t regret it.