West offers world of panoramic beauty for ice climbers

jeff mcintosh/the canadian press


Amy Davis, right, from Calgary, swings her ice axe as friends Racquel Fraser, centre, from Edmonton, and Julia Lindeman, from Lethbridge, Alta., watch her climb a frozen waterfall near Canmore, Alta., while taking part in a beginner ice climbing course.

The moment of truth for newbies, says Dave Stark, comes when they stand in harness and helmet and crane their necks back, back, back, to take in the forbidding blue-white beauty of the frozen wall of water they’ve come to overcome.

“A lot of people look at it and say, ‘There’s absolutely no way.’ And then five minutes later they’re pretty pleased with themselves because they realize they can do it,” says Stark, the director of operations for Yamnuska, a Canmore, Alta.-based ice outfit that offers ice climbing and other backcountry adventures.

Ice climbing, a staple of European sporting culture, is slowly gaining a stronger, crampon-tipped hold on vacationers and enthusiasts in North America, particularly at sites in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.

In the West, the spiritual home for icicle maniacs is Canmore, a town on the doorstep of Banff National Park.

In Canmore and up the Icefields Parkway there are well over 800 climbing routes featuring breathtaking ribbons of falling frozen water.

Americans, Europeans and Canadians are all trying their hand at the sport, which can run from October to late spring, says Marc Dastous, a Yamnuska staffer who also co-ordinates the annual ice climbing festival in Canmore, now in its 10th year.

Technical innovations have opened the sport — once the preserve of ice-veined hardcores — to weekend enthusiasts or those who just want a half-day break from skiing.

“The sport is growing,” said Lawrence White, executive director of the Alpine Club of Canada.

“You see the calibre of the climbers that are coming from Europe, it gives you a sense of where the sport is going.” Those who sign up for excursions get outfitted in helmets and harnesses along with boots, crampons and ice tools.

Stark says climbers have to learn how to walk all over again: a wide stance to avoid stabbing yourself and to step with the entire foot a la Frankenstein for best purchase.

Once outfitted, climbers clamp, cramp and hack their way up the ice, constantly surveying the varied texture of the fragile wall to find the best grip in a dynamic environment that can shift from benign to treacherous with just a few ticks of the thermometer.

Excursions range from beginner to advanced, depending on the degree of the slope.

“Physically, it only gets so hard, but mentally it’s a big game to make it all happen,” said Dastous.

Those who persevere are treated to eye-popping sights like Polar Circus, a climbing site considered the crown jewel of Rockies ice climbing.

Located on the west slope of Cirrus Mountain, south of the Weeping Wall area halfway between Banff and Jasper on the Icefields Parkway, Polar Circus is a sub-zero panorama of icy chandeliers, cascades and pillars punctuated by steep, long challenging pitches that culminate in a 100-metre dead-drop vertical climb. Dastous said those are the best of times: high on an ice route beneath a clear blue sky with the towering Rockies above, below and all around. “You just can’t beat it.”

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