Every day’s a road trip, as we thread our way through the beautiful mountains of the Canadian Rockies in search of ice. On the way back from 'Nothing But The Breast' a David Thompson Highway 'classic' (above) we pull up 13km east of the Saskatchewan River Crossing, off the famous ‘Icefields Parkway’
The Icefields Parkway is a road that threads its way
through the spectacular Rocky Mountains, parallel to the Continental
Divide and linking Lake Louise and Jasper in Alberta.
It is one of the most scenic drives you’ll ever make. Quiet in
winter, with snow on the road elk grazing and Lynx wanering alon! But
bumper to bumper traffic in spring and summer, when you can spot grizzly
bears and their cubs, black bears and other wildlife that the Rockies
is famous for.
In winter we strain our necks trying to spot ribbons
of blue ice out of the car windows - between the trees, above the tree
line and in far off valleys as we drive the 230km in search of ice.
We pull off to the side of the David Thompson Highway and get out our
tired looking binoculars and focus the lenses southwards and onto a far
off image of what looks like some blue ice. It’s only a small glimpse,
but is it ice, does it extend out of sight and could it be an unclimbed
We head back to Lake Louise excited to find out more. We go into the
local book shop and start sifting through the map section to help get
our bearings. The name of the creek and the surrounding summits all
start to unfold.
Some other climbers enter the shop and we fumble the map back into
the rack and close our guidebook. They come over and we start chatting. I
change the conversation onto the fragile snow pack and strong winds
that have accompanied all the snow that’s fallen this winter. We chat
about about routes 'in' condition, then we shake hands, I reiterate the
need to be safe and we say goodbye.
Next day, we’re parking up 13km east of the Saskatchewan River
Crossing on the David Thompson Highway. Snow shoes and head lamps on, we
attack the first 150m of knee deep snow and fallen trees seriously
restricting our progres to the frozen river. The ice looks thin! We take
our packs off and uncoil a rope. Dean heads across tied onto the end of
the rope which will act as a life line if the river is more than just
waist deep. Then I tie the packs onto the other end of the rope and
follow. I hook my arm around the rope and lock it close to me and
slowly, as if I’m walking on egg shells, follow. The rope runs steadily
through under my arm as I walk forward, with the rope weighted behind me
by the back packs, still in the snow on the river bank. I can see
bubbles of water moving beneath the cracked blue ice lit brightly by the
pool of light from my headlamp. I look up and the black sky is full of
stars, the only light polluting the view is from our headlamps. I get to
the other side and we drag the backpacks over the ice to us, coil the
rope and head off in the direction of the valley bottom.
The terrain opens up and it’s relatively flat with fewer trees and
just the odd fallen one making progress a little easier. My mind wanders
as I very slowly break trail in the deep dry snow.
The Rockies has had a real problem with the Pine Beetle destroying
forests and I wonder if the Pine Beetle has been here too. Last winter
was one of the coldest on record, with temperatures regularly at minus
30 degrees. I don’t think the beetles like those temperatures and wonder
if many of the beetles have died.
We change position trail breaking. It’s exhausting work. The ski
poles don't really help in the deep snow and lifting a leg and snow shoe
over each section of virgin snow each step is physical. Headlamps off
and the sun, just behind the high summits close by, lights up the early
morning sky. We shed layers and continue through some now very dense
pine forest following a faint line towards the valley bottom where we
believe a creek will flow. We plan to hit the creek and then pick our
way up the creek bed.
We stop at the edge of the creek. It is blanketed
with fresh snow, shaped by huge boulders and dead treefall. We can hear
the sound of moving water below the snow. Heads down we start up the
creek bed, breaking a deep trail in the snow, trying to avoid the
boulders, and find the best way forward.
It is totally exhausting, but we look up and get a glimpse of the ice
on the left bank of the river. It’s complete and is about 100m long. We
look at each other and smile, which is all I have the energy for right
now. We continue up, taking it in turn to break trail and after six
hours we reach the avalanche cone at the bottom of the ice.
We’re both tired but there’s still time in the day, so we kit up and
walk to the base of the flow of fantastic blue ice. We can see two
independent lines of ice - two potentially unclimbed routes. We look
across to the other side of the valley and see another easier angle flow
of ice in a deep canyon. Three possibly unclimbed lines. Amazing!
The sun is starting to dip behind the high summits to
the west as we head up the first pitch. It’s an incredible feeling to
be exploring a potentially unclimbed flow of ice in an untapped winter
venue like this, especially as the route looks amazing and there’s more
than just the one here.
The climbing is fantastic, a great WI4 initial 55m pitch of quality
ice up to a steeper 30m curtain of ice, which we climbed from an ice
cave belay on the left.
We drill ‘V’ threads in the ice and abseil back down
in two pitches, collect our gear and head back down the creek to the
car. It still takes 3.5 hours to walk out, following the track in. The
wind had blown new snow into the track making it hard work.
Strangely, the creek is called ‘Corona Creek’ and the rocky summit
that feeds the ice is called Corona Ridge! All very apt in the middle of
the pandemic that is just beginning.
Later that week, we went there a couple more times and climbed all the new routes we had seen, which was pretty exhausting! It’s rare to find unclimbed ice in the Canadian Rockies and be able to make first ascents. I’ve been lucky enough to have had that great fortune before. This was my eighth first ascent in the area over the past 20 years, which has been amazing.
The ice conditions in the Rockies this winter were
fantastic, with a number of routes that don’t normally form in
condition. It was great to be able to climb a couple of routes that I’d
not climbed on previous trips. It helps with my motivation and
excitement planning future trips. I am already looking forward to next
Stay safe in these unprecedented times of the pandemic we’re all experiencing.