Ice Climbing: BYOD

In the context of learning to ice climb, the ‘D’ in BYOD stands for diaper. Yes, it’s spookier than you can imagine.

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After a months-long friend drought I decided to hop up to Canada to spend some quality time with my dearest girlfriends in Calgary (shoutout to SSM, Lydia and LP!). Fresh off some serious international mountain love affairs, I was curious to see how my perspective of the Canadian Rocky Mountains had changed.

My body was still buzzing from the whole Kilimanjaro experience, and I was growing increasingly focused on the whole become a BadAssMotherfuckingAmazonianQueen climbing woman thing. The only problem was what I had in gusto I lacked in technical skill. Sure, I’d done a reasonable amount of poking around the wilderness and climbing indoor walls, but I didn’t have serious experience. So what’s a girl to do?

The scariest, most extreme form of mountaineering, as it turned out.

Well, holy balls

So there I was. Kananaskis country on a sunny Saturday morning with a hired guide and a lump in my throat. After laboriously adhering my crampons (ice daggers you stick on your feet, prickly side down) to the bottom of my mountaineering boots and learning how to carry an ice axe without risking impaling myself, we were off.

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The foothills of the Rockies are really extraordinary. Within 30 minutes of leaving the prairie flatlands of Calgary, you begin weaving and meandering around increasingly large hills as you drive West. And before you know it, you’ve gained altitude, there is snow on the ground, and you’re surrounded by the most awe-inspiring mountain range on all sides. For that reason it reminded me a lot of the Himalayas emerging from the Tibetan Plateau.

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We approached King’s Creek after a 25-minute walk through a pine forest along a small frozen river. Vertical rock faces surrounded us and as we rounded the final corner the trail gave way to a clearing with frozen waterfalls weeping over the cliff. It was both higher and steeper than I imagined, and I forgot to bring my trusty flask of Fireball Whisky. Damn.

There was no time wasted before our packs were off and helmets came on. Jeff, my tough guy instructor, spidermaned his way to the top of the easiest pitch, placing screws in the ice along the way. He threaded his own rope (called lead climbing) as he climbed and I belayed him (secured his rope).

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Then it was my turn. Jeff provided a quick ‘How to Ice Climb 101’ session which basically covered kick-jab-kick-jab-repeat, and I was off. And by off, I mean struggling to kick or jab.

After a five minute massacre of the first four feet of ice, disabled chunks flying everywhere, stabbing and karate kicking and totally exhausting myself, we spent a little more time reviewing technique. It turns out that I needed to channel my inner ballerina, not martial artist, and that my savage survivalist attack strategy was extreme.

The problem was that I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the point of the crampon being less than an inch in the ice and able to reliably hold my body weight.

Equally I was trying to figure out what business I had being there in the first place. Feeling exhausted and defeated, I took a whiskyless break and had a wee self-talk.

Verity, you are secured with a rope when you fall, and more importantly this is a critical step in becoming all wild and outdoorsy-like. Get your shit together.

Light Kick Light Kick Gentle Jab Gentle Jab

Slowly foot by foot I started to catch on and eventually managed to get myself up some easy pitches. Ice climbing is interesting because it’s a very linear activity, whereas rock climbing is much more dynamic. You generally move up, down, left or right on the ice and it’s important that you kick your crampon into the ice head on. Rock climbing on the other hand requires a lot of flexibility and you can work diagonally with greater fluidity, and creativity.

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The rest of the day was spent learning more technical skills, including how to use ice screws (did you know they can literally hold a school bus under the right conditions?!) and how to climb with only one axe.

Although I was making measurable progress at no point did I feel comfortable or like, hey man totally got this. I assumed climbing the next day would be a natural progression in both difficulty and skill.

Wrong.

*#&$^#@!!!!!!

I calculated two days would be sufficient for gaining reasonable technical skills relating to ice axes, crampons and rope work in the cold, so I signed up to climb the next day too.

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Sunday, as it turns out, was not a day of rest. As Albertans were rolling out of bed and brewing their fresh Tim Horton’s blend, I was unknowingly crampon-ing my way toward the Hannibal Lecter of ice climbs.

We entered the majestic Johnston Canyon just outside of Banff and I didn’t think twice about what I saw because part of learning is watching professionals, right? My instructor would flex his climbing muscles so I could see how it was done under I’ve-done-this-for-10-years circumstances and then we could leave, find little falls to climb, and I’d feel inspired to tackle my modest pitches with a touch more skill.

So, as it happened towering, and I mean motherfucking TOWERING, ice walls surrounded the canyon and serious climbers dotted the ice as they created new routes. A gaggle of tourists watched in awe from an observation deck. “These people are out of their fucking minds”, “I can’t watch”, “OMG check out my selfie with the climbing guy in it.”

My thoughts were interrupted by Jeff, who told me to gear up and get ready to climb.

Instant panic.

He assured me that we would take our time and I had the skills to tackle this icy monster. In turn I assured him that I was of sound mental health, and people who do this for fun clearly aren’t. After some colorful back-and-forth, I suited up and tied in.

We started with some shorter WI3 climbs which proved much more difficult than the WI1-WI2 climbed the previous day. I was making more accurate holds with my ice axe although I still felt the need to kick the shiz out of the wall with my crampon before trusting it to hold me. As we approached lunch my legs and arms were sore, and I was tender from bruising sustained from falls, misses and general clumsiness.

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Verity v. WI5 Ice Pillar

The hardest pitch within the canyon, called Upper Falls or Prism Falls, is a 40m high WI5 ice pillar. It’s a frozen waterfall that launches high over the canyon’s cliffs and dives into a frigid pool of flowing water. There is a small patch of rock on one side where a belayer (rope holder) tediously stands and measures the tension in the rope to determine how much to give the climber. You see, the ice clouds in this frozen structure are so large that you can’t see over them, so instead of watching someone climb from below and tightening as they ascend to protect from a fall, the belayer must rely on the feel of the rope to gauge how high the climber is. Spooky stuff.

So, I’m ready to call it a day after eating a sandwich and congratulating myself for not pooping my pants and Jeff announces that I’ve graduated to the pillar.

Ha! Cute.

But really, he says, I need to give it a chance.

All I want is my mom.

Again, after considerable back-and-forth and me pulling out all the stops, he convinces me to walk the plank. Instant regret. 

I spend the next twenty minutes bear-hugging mushroom-shaped plumes of ice and jumping from ice ledge to ice ledge 20m high. My mind spirals to the darkest places.

So the rope is attached to a tree at the top. What if a woodpecker goes to town? What if a forest fire starts? Termites? Freak lightning strike? I definitely shouldn’t have eaten that entire sandwich for lunch.

You went out of your way to find this guide, and even paid him money.

I began questioning my own sanity.

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Spoiler: Still Alive

I’m writing this blog post so spoiler, I lived. But I did learn a valuable lesson! Aside from wearing a diaper when ice climbing, I now know there is a limit to my risk appetite! It is climbing ice pillars.

I’d love to hear about how you found your own athletic and adventure limits.

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The good news is that there is still a lot of adventuring to do that doesn’t require ice axes, crampons and 40m ice walls, so I’m off to figure out what that looks like!

BRB just doing stuff for a bit k?

V x

PS: I saw this Hermes display at the Vancouver airport. Basically a trendsetter.

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9 Comments

  1. Oh my good grief – no more to be said!!!

    It’s NOT something I could possibly aspire to do…nope, nope, nope.

    Way to go for you Verity!

  2. Totally engaging images whether photos or written – alluring as they are, I will not be doing ice except on skates, skis or cocktails!

  3. You are my hero! You failed to mention how you celebrated your accomplishment? Glad to hear you enjoyed your visit back to the great province of Alberta.

  4. Loved this post! And so proud of you for challenging yourself, and pushing your own boundaries. You inspire me every single day!!

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