In the high-stakes world of extreme sports, ice climbing is one of the most exhilarating — and terror-inducing — outdoor adventures on earth.
A Cold Reality
It is not for the fainthearted; in fact, of the 5.7 million Americans who participate in the many forms of climbing each year, only five percent venture anywhere near the perilous conditions associated with climbing around on ice. But for those few thrill seekers who are undaunted by the risks, ice climbing is the only way to go.
My own objectives in the extreme ice-climbing game seemed simple enough: to add a little adventure to an otherwise dreary winter and stay in one piece long enough to discover what made the sport so appealing to a balls-to-the-wall minority. The problem, however, was that I’d never been the bravest of souls when it came to climbing; I’d been harboring a fear of heights most of my life.
How significant was this phobia? I’d frozen up something awful during an indoor climbing class at the University of Calgary some years back, and ended up being the only one in the group who didn’t make it to the top of the man-made wall. At the time, I blamed my reluctance on the instructor, who kept turning around to talk to some of the ladies in their skin-tight climbing outfits and didn’t seem to be paying much attention to me as I hung on for dear life, two stories above the floor. But in my heart of hearts I knew that the shortcoming had been my own, and I was hoping to make things right on my ice adventure.
So, early one cold morning I left my hotel room in Canmore, Alberta — somewhat uncertain but determined to overcome my fear and accomplish my initial goals — and began the three-hour drive up the Ice-fields Parkway to the Sunwapta ranger station in Jasper National Park. The air was crisp and clear, and the mountains, bathed in the golden light of dawn, were visible for miles in all directions.
The drive was going great … until I noticed the numerous near-vertical streams of ice cascading from the tops of the peaks. Suddenly the harsh reality of what I was about to do sent a spike of terror up my spine. These 3,000-foot-high frozen waterfalls are part of the reason that the Canadian Rockies are known as the ice-climbing mecca of the world.
At the Sunwapta ranger station, Joe McKay — mountain guide, mountaineer, and ice-climbing fool — met me at the door, and after a few pleasantries led me down a flight of stairs to pick out the gear we would need for the climb.
The best way to describe ice-climbing equipment is to say that it is sharp — razor sharp. And one of the sharpest tools in an ice climber’s arsenal is the ice ax. Resembling a weapon out of a kung fu movie, these implements are made of steel, fiber-glass, aluminum alloy, or, more recently, carbon fiber. They range in length from 16 to 28 inches, have various picks depending on their particular use, and an anvil at the head opposite the pick.
The runner-up for “most likely piece of equipment on which a climber can become impaled” has got to be the crampon. Modern ice climbers rely on two different types: the mono-point adjustable crampon (for waterfall ice) and the flexible 12-point (for alpine climbing). Climbers also use tubular ice screws (again, really sharp), which are designed to allow the ice to “drain” through the center, and water-repellent ropes that don’t freeze easily in the subzero temperatures associated with ice climbing. Other equipment includes plastic mountaineering boots, waterproof climbing suits, pitons (wedges or pegs that are driven into the ice for support), slings, and helmets for protection against falling rocks or ice.
It was mid afternoon by the time we completed our drive back down the also extreme lce Fields Parkway and arrived at a trail that led to the Weeping Wall, a giant curtain of ice. The Wall is one of the most famous ice routes in Canada, owing to the fact that even its lower pitches reach points higher than 500 feet. We grabbed the gear out of my Jeep and began the five-minute hump to the base. Without crampons on our feet, the going was slippery and slow, but since we didn’t have much of a hike, McKay had decided against wearing the spiked irons.
When we reached the Weeping Wall, it was doing just that: weeping. Streams of water poured down from overhead. The south-facing curtain of ice had been hit hard by the direct sunlight since noon, and the surface was getting soft. McKay felt that it wouldn’t be long, maybe just a week or so, before the Wall would become altogether unclimbable. If I had showed up any later in the season, I might have missed the window of opportunity on ice climbing in that area.