I'm struggling, both with the uneven road surface and the knackered suspension on the old banger we've borrowed, as I try to focus the binoculars on what looks like a thin slither of ice deep inside a huge cleft of steep rock, high up on the west side of a valley.
I lean out of the window and yes, through the binoculars it’s definitely ice. It’s far away and doesn’t look much, but its ice we’ve not seen before. We've spent hundreds of hours scouring these valleys, cliffs and peaks over the years looking for unclimbed ice and the excitement on seeing new ice never diminishes.
We head back and the conversation has now been turned up a level....a week of patience and now we've just had a tantalising glimpse of a slither of white ice that could be unclimbed? Is it formed?
4am, its pitch black, just the pools of light from our headlamps catching the icy stream bed and gaps in the spruce pine forest ahead. We pick our way through the dense woodland laying thick in the bottom of the valley as we follow the stream twisting and turning up into this huge valley. It's slow going and we take it in turns breaking a trail in the deep unconsolidated fresh snow. Even the snowshoes are finding it hard to cope, as we flounder waist-deep in the new snow.
The way opens up, but our objective is still hidden around the corner to the right. We cross over to the left edge of the stream and head up higher on the left bank of the valley to try to get a better view. Three hours later Dean stops in the trench he's been ploughing and I pull up behind him. I look up and we see the slither of ice tumbling steeply down a huge cliff of tiered limestone, starting at the open cleft we could just make out from the road and connected all the way down to the steep snow slope below guarding the base of the route. Now we're excited! We plan a route up to the base of the cliff, close to where the ice meets the snow slope and head on up....5 hours in and ‘whumph’ as the wind-blown snow settles onto the layer below. We stop dead. We've been picking our way carefully but it's another sign that these slopes need some care. We chat and make a decision to turn back.
From a flat rock back down our track, we analyse the steep ice above and scour the terrain below the route for a safer way in. An hour passes and we think we’ve found something. Up and to the right, around another huge rock feature, like a Castle of limestone disconnected from the main face. It looks like it’ll go. Energy levels rise and we walk back out to the road head, planning the next days.
It's another early start and we park up again next our tracks and trench from the previous day’s efforts winding up the riverbed and into the dense pine forest. It's brutally cold and it takes a while to get going. Dean leads out and it’s silent apart from the crunch of our footsteps in the frozen tracks and our breathing, which on exhale, condenses in the cold air around us.
The thick pools of light from our headlamps now start to fade as night becomes day and we turn them off to allow our eyes to adjust. We arrive at the flat rock and in silence have a drink and put on our snowshoes. As I’m ready first, I break right leaving our old track and start making my way up new terrain towards the ‘Castle’. It’s slow going and I quickly stop to shed a layer. The ground steepens and I’m now waist deep in soft powder snow. Holding each ski pole between both hands, I reach forward and grab a huge bucket of snow and by pulling the snow towards me, I’m able to step up and inch my way forwards. Hidden rocks mask hollow snow pockets which I fall into. The ice still feels a long way off and I check my watch for the time. I look up and it’s a cloudless day. I rethink the forecast. It’s later than I’d like, but it feels good. Dean joins me and takes the lead. We don’t say anything, we don’t need to. It’s an intimate experience and one we’ve shared many times over the years climbing together. I know what he’s thinking and know how he feels.
We reach a steep almost overhanging limestone wall on the second tier of the ‘Castle’. The rock is immaculate as I scour it for summer rock routes. The wall flattens off and then drops away in front of us. We stand there looking over and down to the base of the ice. A gulley filled with snow comes in from the right and guards the final section to the foot of the ice. The ice is over 100m away and too far for one rope length. We gear up; adjusting our crampons, racking ice screws and fix the ropes for an abseil. Dean heads down into the gulley as I stand waiting. He kicks into the snow at the end of the ropes and waves for me to join him.
I look across at the snow filled gulley and then up to the ice which is plastered onto the steep walls above. The lower slabs are complete but it looks thin. I feel the day warming up. This is the last piece of the jigsaw. I look back up at the abseil and where we’d descended and pull the ropes. The ropes drop at my feet, I tie on, grab my ice axe and give Dean the rope for a belay, stepping into the gulley. I dig down to a deep firm layer and test the slope for its security. I step again, each one leaves me waist steep in soft snow. I dig another pit in the snow slope to get a feel for its security and continue on. I look back at Dean now 30m away still silent. My line now punctuated by dug pits in the snow and minute decisions made. Eventually I reach some ice bulges and relax. I drill in some ice screws, secure the rope and belay Dean across. Dean arrives at the ice, we look at each other and both now know the route is on. We sort the rack and Dean kicks into the ice proper and delicately climbs up the thin icy slabs that connect the steep pillar above. I take in the beautiful mountains and rock scape around us……you’ve ‘gotta’ love the Canadian Rockies!
Adrian Nelhams & Dean Mounsey on the first ascent of ‘Wild Horses’ WI6, 160m, Totem Tower, Alberta, Canadian Rockies