A jagged mist sprays my face as the serrated pick of my ice axe strikes its target. I pull on the handle of the shaft to test the placement – it's solid. I look down at my boots, the jagged teeth of my crampons firmly clawing into the slippery wall. I find some small mushrooms of ice near my knees and hear a satisfying crunch as I kick my toes in against the frozen wall. I look up at roughly 15 more metres of this frozen chandelier, determined to finish what I started.
My forearms burn from the vice-like grip on the tools, my tense hands restricting much needed blood flow to my fingers — a common mistake for an ice climbing rookie. I take a deep breath and attempt to relax my grip, I'll need every calorie of energy if I'm to finish this climb. I grunt as I swing the other tool high above my head, and wonder what the hell I'm doing up here.
Ice climbing has roots in the storied history of 19th-century European mountaineering. Long regarded as one of the many disciplines of climbing that would help alpinists reach their summit goals, ice climbing has slowly gained traction as a veritable mountain pursuit, spurred by a culture of seasoned climbers seeking the more aesthetic route to the top instead of the most direct. Like most modern sports, technological development of equipment springboarded ice climbing to the next level of popularity. The first 10 point crampon was invented in 1908 by English engineer and mountaineer Oscar Eckenstein, a design he published several articles about in Ostereich Alpenzeitung, the Austrian Alpine Journal. Eckenstein was adamant that these pieces of metal would change the way people scaled mountains and soon took his design to Italian blacksmith Henry Grivel. The Grivel family had been manufacturing equipment for alpinists since 1818 and had garnered a huge following in the mountaineering community. The new crampon design eliminated the need for "step cutting," a laborious process where every step taken on the snow or ice required chiselling a step with a pick or axe. Twenty-two years later, Henry's son Laurent Grivel modified the 10-point design to include two extra "fangs" on the toe of the crampon, allowing climbers to navigate steeper and even near-vertical ice. The Grivel 10-point crampon remains relatively unchanged to this day, its design has been copied by countless manufacturers and it was included as part of "The Most Influential Gear of All Time" by Outside Magazine in 2012.
The ice axe — commonly referred to as a "tool" — has also developed over the years. The traditional straight-shaft mountaineering axe is still widely used for glacier travel and alpine climbing, but every type of modern ice axe bears the mark of the work of Yvon Chouinard. A pioneer of pure ice climbing in the 1960s, Chouinard had tried every tool available in the glaciers above Chamonix and decided none of them worked well enough to scale vertical ice. He shaped the pick to match the curvature of the swing, an ingenious yet simple modification that revolutionized the sport. Modern ice tools now also have a curved shaft to allow "hooking" over outcroppings, also allowing easier removal from the ice. The leashless ergonomic handles allow the climber more opportunity to shake their hands and restore blood flow without dealing with cumbersome wrist straps. Not only can climbers now strike vertical ice with unprecedented confidence, they can scale overhangs and perform remarkable manoeuvres on both ice and rock or a mixture of both.
Getting the Feet Wet
I'm climbing a cascading waterfall above the Duffey Lake Road near Lillooet, B.C. This area is known as "The Rambles" and its convenient location — a short yet slippery 20-minute hike from the highway — makes it a go-to venue for local climbing guides. Having only climbed ice briefly several years ago on Blackcomb Mountain's "The Office," today I'm grateful for the guidance of Paul McSorley of Altus Mountain Guides. He's just returned from a six-week expedition to Cerro Torre in Patagonia last week and is enjoying the chance to get back on his home ice in the Duffey.
"We need cold snaps here on the coast to form the ice," explains McSorley as he attaches crampons to his Scarpa mountaineering boots.
"Too cold and it makes the ice brittle, too warm and the ice can delaminate from the rock and become quite hazardous to climb. The best temperature hovers just below zero, between minus two and minus five."
McSorley brandishes a handful of ice screws, threaded hollow tubes of chromoly steel with hangers attached at the head and sharp boring blades at the tip. He demonstrates the process of placing protection during a lead climb by tapping the screw effortlessly into the ice with one hand, connecting a quick draw (two carabiners linked by reinforced webbing) and finally clipping in the rope. I'm familiar with placing protection in solid rock with cam devices, nuts and hexes but this is the first time I've come to rely on the structural integrity of frozen water holding me up in case of a fall. I take another look at all the sharp edges protruding from my boots.
Better not fall.
I belay McSorley as he walks up the mellow gradient of the first waterfall and he talks me through the strategies to conserve energy.
"Always one hand, two feet," he says, referring to moving both feet up for every one strike of the tool. His expert form makes quick work of the first pitch.
"You always want to minimize the number of strikes, they use a surprising amount of energy and over a long day you'll be swinging hundreds, even thousands of times. It takes it out of you."
McSorley anchors himself to a nearby tree, pulls up the excess rope and gives me the all clear.
Here we go.
The first few steps seem a little strange, but the ice isn't too steep so I'm still in my comfort zone. I approach the first wall and see hardened pockets littered all over, evidence of the many climbers passing through this winter. The tools place securely, the ice sticking almost like plastic against the sharp steel picks. I aim for the concave ice, the hardened depressions being less likely to fracture or "dinner plate" than the convexities. I reach the first bench and high-five my guide on a job well done. But we're just getting started.
The next cascade climbs higher and steeper, but I'm still feeling confident with plenty of strength left in my forearms. I feel a pinch creeping into my calves, a symptom of repeatedly walking and balancing on the toe blades of my crampons, what I later learn is called "front pointing" or "German technique." I try my best to tighten up my haphazard form and give my limbs a chance to rest in between moves.
As I crest over the next bench I see my ultimate goal for today. The last two pitches were just a warm up for what lays ahead. A massive cascade with a 15-metre pillar of vertical ice looms over me, goading me with its grandeur. McSorley dances up the pillar with as little effort as the previous two climbs, his attention focused on avoiding brittle candle-like icicles formed on the outside of the column. He sets the anchor above to secure me with a top rope, meaning if I make mistake I'll only fall the stretch of the rope rather than to certain injury.
This is my first attempt at true vertical ice and I have already made the mistake of underestimating its difficulty, or perhaps overestimating my own abilities. McSorley yells encouragement from his belay position, safely out of the range of coffee cup-sized chunks of ice that rain down below me. The feeling of desperation I recall from my days of rock climbing begins to take over. Can I really do this? I repeat my mantra "one hand, two feet" over and over to conserve as much energy as I can. I wiggle the tool in my right hand to remove it for my next strike and as it dislodges suddenly, the hammer on the back of the axe glancing off my sunglasses leaving me momentarily dazzled but unharmed.
Fatigue has set in throughout my limbs but I've come too far to give up now. With a second wind I breathe through the pain and keep kicking and swinging up the wall. I top out and grab the anchor in triumph, bagging what I consider my first real ice climb route.
While the Coast Mountains have some of the most plentiful snowfalls, when it comes to the ice, the Canadian Rockies hold all the aces.
"The best place in Canada and arguably the world is in the Canadian Rockies in the Bow Valley area," says McSorley, who lived in Banff for 10 years before moving west and settling in Squamish.
"The consistent cold conditions at high altitude give you a super long season from late September all the way through April. The quantity of ice is a factor too, there's thousands of waterfalls and still many unclimbed cascades.
"The nature of the Rockies themselves are more suited to the formation of ice. There's a lot more porous rock such as limestone instead of the granite that we have here on the coast."
Porous rock means that water will slowly creep through it, as well as flow over it. This leads to reliable ice formations with excellent structural integrity, at the right temperature.
But we are not without ice climbing hot spots here on the coast. Lillooet is a hub for numerous ice climbing locations such as Marble Canyon, Seton Lake and the plethora of routes along the Duffey Lake Road. Whistler and Squamish also get the occasional formations during cold snaps, but routes can be fickle and often a blend of rock and ice — termed "mixed climbing" — is required.
"We get about one or two weeks a year when the ice forms at sea level," says McSorley.
"When the ice does form you get amazing mixed climbing and unique formations that can use rock climbing protection. That's the new school thing, a modern approach climbing a mix of rock and ice."
Climbers have been exploring coast mountain ice for almost four decades. In the winter of 1978, Shannon Falls near Squamish froze and on December 31 it was ascended by two groups, first by John Knight and Malcolm Macfadyen followed closely by Don Serl and John Wittmayer. The mid '80s saw an upsurge in interest with new routes opening up along the Cayoosh River and the Hope region with many first ascents credited to long time Squamish local Bruce Kay. In 1993 Don Serl — along with Kay — published their guidebook West Coast Ice and the average Vancouver climber came to realize the ice climbing potential within a day trip of the city. Cold winters in the mid '90s led to the creation of 60 new routes with familiar names such as John Chilton, Jia Condon, Eric Pehota, Trevor Peterson and Rich Prohaska leading the charge.
With the ever-changing coastal climate, ice climbers in the Sea to Sky seem to have far fewer opportunities than in the past.
"It was a fairly marginal start (to the sport) compared with regions like the Rockies, the season was always shorter," says Kay, 51, now retired from avalanche forecasting and living in Squamish.
"Now its just that much shorter. About 10, 15 even 20 years ago it was more predictable, but even then it was a bit of a crapshoot with the conditions."
The lack of consistent conditions has certainly stymied the growth in popularity of this fringe sport, but so has the plentiful snow that hammers the coast every winter. Outdoor enthusiasts are simply more inclined to go ride powder on their boards than go winter climbing in lacklustre conditions.
"Skiing and snowboarding is what everybody focuses on," says Kay.
"There are very few people who do ice climbing here, let alone mix climbing. It's another culture. If you were to go to Canmore, (AB), everybody and their dog is climbing, it's like playing tennis or something."
Gord MacArthur spends plenty of time climbing outside in the Canadian Rockies. He recently chalked up a route called "The Game" (M13), a coveted mixed route at the Cineplex Cave in the Columbia Icefields Parkway. He has also climbed with Red Bull athlete and fellow Canadian Will Gadd.
"Will coached me for a lot of years, helped train me and prepare me," says MacArthur from his hometown of Cranbrook, B.C.
"We have a pretty awesome relationship in that respect. He taught me a lot."
MacArthur is one of three athletes on the Canadian Ice Climbing team, all of whom journey across the world during the winter months to compete at every World Cup event. Competitive ice climbing takes place mostly at either indoor or outdoor venues with artificial ice and designed obstacles. Athletes compete in speed (fastest time to the top) and lead (technical course, points given to height gained with fewest "hits") categories.
"In competition, it's a whole other style that's so different to rock or mixed climbing," says MacArthur.
"It pushes you so much deeper than climbing. Obviously, I love being outside and climbing with friends, but competition is a whole other level of mental confidence."
Video footage of UIAA showcases athletes performing insect-like manoeuvres on specially designed courses as well as sprinting up vertical ice at super human speeds. Russia is a dominant force with full financial backing from the federal government, something the Canadian crew can only dream about at this point.
"There's a lot more funding and support available in Europe," says MacArthur.
"The Alpine Club of Canada do what they can, but obviously they are limited by resources. In particular Canadian competitors are limited to what they can raise on their own. It's challenging for sure, its very expensive."
A season of training travel and competition fees can cost as much as $12,000. MacArthur manages his busy lifestyle by working as a graphic designer in between his trips and even on the road. When he is home he balances his training schedule with his family life. He is married with two daughters.
"With my family and business then professionally climbing full time year-round, it's a lot to take on. My design business allows me a lot of flexibility on where to work from, all I need is a laptop with Internet. Without that I would never be able to compete full time.
"It's a balance, but if you want it bad enough you make it happen. That's sort of where I'm at, I want it bad enough so I make it work the best way I can. My wife is really supportive."
A day after his interview with Pique, MacArthur travelled to Romania to compete at the UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup stop in Bustini. He placed 21st in the Lead category and 28th in the Speed category.
The allure of ice climbing lies not just with the exhilaration of scaling frozen waterfalls and alpine summits. The fluid nature of ice means it never forms exactly the same way twice and it will often change day to day. Like surfers watching the weather for the next big swell, ice climbers wait patiently for the cold with their gear packed and ready.
"You have to be there in the right conditions," says McSorley.
"That's part of the appeal and part of the excitement of ice climbing, if you get lucky you have to take advantage. Some routes come in one time and never again. If you can be there for that little magic moment in time, it's a pretty special thing."
But like in any weather-dependant recreational pursuit, luck can also go in the other direction.
"I love the exploring, it's part of the adventure. The physicality of it is super fun too — you get to blow off some steam and have a good mental and physical challenge. But sometimes you walk all day long and you get skunked, that's just how it goes some days."
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