First-Timer's Guide To Canadian Ice Climbing

I’m fresh off the plane home from my inaugural trip to Canada specifically for ice climbing. I’ve previously been on trips to Squamish, the Bugaboos, and for alpine climbs around Canmore, but never to dabble in the masochistic endeavor of scaling some of the world’s best ice and mixed routes. So I learned a few things on this trip. Here’s my advice to make a trip like this awesome.

1) Prepare to be intimidated

I lived in Ouray, Colo., for close to 10 years and I’ve climbed the Black Dike on Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire. Totally prepared, I thought! Yet, standing below Nemesis for the first time blew my mind. How could this thing possibly go in two pitches? And that was on the last day of our trip—I had recently on-sighted the local test piece Man Yoga. I repeat, prepare to be INTIMIDATED.

2) Go in March

You’ve gotta go when you’ve gotta go, but if you have a choice, try to go in March. In March, days are longer, the sun has more power and everything should be fat and plastic. But, that said, you can go anytime between November and March, just be comfortable doing things in the dark. Climbs may be thinner and more challenging, but crowding probably won’t be an issue. Honestly, running into a few fellow climbers can be kind of comforting.

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3) Go to bed early

Days are very short in the Great White North, especially in December. I don’t care if you like to party, go to bed early, and drink lots of water. You may never need sunglasses while you’re up there. You are most likely going to be waking up at Butt Crack-thirty, then driving to and approaching your route in the dark, climbing all day, possibly descending in the dark and DEFINITELY driving home in the dark. Go to bed EARLY.

4) Rent a decent place to stay, hot tub recommended

It may cost a bit more than you expected, but it’s so worth it. You need a decent bit of space to dry all that gear every night, and you’ll save money by cooking your own meals. Plus, sitting in that hot tub will reheat your core and help reset your muscles for tomorrows journey.

5) Rent an AWD or 4WD vehicle

Pay a little extra. This is likely a “Bucket List” trip, and you deserve it. Unlike the “Jamaica of Ice Climbing,” also known as Colorado, Canada rarely warms to above freezing all winter. So the roads are icy and snow packed and you’ll likely see cars in snowbanks. You can be like a Canadian and help them, or you could just zip by in your trusty little SUV. You’ll be sharing the road with big rigs, and it’s slippery, so drive very carefully. It’s better to show up at the parking lot a few minutes later than expected than hours late and lighter in the wallet due to an expensive tow job.

6) Rack twice as many screws as you normally would

This relates to #1. Rack heavy and you’ll be glad. Screws are so light and easy to place now, there’s no reason to skimp here. Because you’ll be on multi-pitch ice—meaning you’ll have two belays in at once—that’s a minimum of four screws off the rack before you even start the next pitch. It’s better to have two screws left over after making your belay than to get there and being one—or, heaven forbid—two screws short!

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7) Spend a day or two sampling the “easy” routes

We did one “easy” day to start the trip, a nice jaunt up Super Bock in Field. It started with a pleasant 1.5-hurr walk, with a nice, steep hill to help get the blood pumping. After climbing through a cool rock archway, a few more cool pitches culminated with a lacy, chandeliered pitch of heady grade 5. After rapping the full length of our 70M ropes, as you might have guessed, our rope was stuck. Ouch! We got to re-lead the last two pitches and, voila, our “easy” day was no longer that easy. I was glad we picked a nice warm-up route to start the trip. Note: We didn’t have any other rappelling issues the entire trip.

8) Don’t be afraid to wear mittens

It’s COLD in Canada in the winter—ask a local! Mittens are like a warm hug at a long, cold belay. Keep those paws fresh for climbing and slip them in to a cozy cocoon in between pitches.

9) Get comfortable doing things in the dark

As outlined in #3, you’ll be spending most of your days in darkness. This is not the place to try things for the first time, that means having a trusted, functional headlamp and extra batteries. Be comfortable making V-Threads by headlamp and rappelling, packing and walking in total darkness. In a week of climbing, I think we only made it home once in the light and that was because we got “scooped” on our original plan and ended up doing a shorter day on the Lower Weeping Wall, where we still climbed about 200 meters of ice.

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10) Don’t be afraid to fail

Remember, ice is different than rock. You’ll be dealing with a lot of BS, including frigid temperatures, brittle ice, darkness, route finding and objective hazards. Even with climate change, I don’t think the ice is going extinct too fast up there. If you have to bail off a route, do it safely. On your next trip it’ll all seem so much better—you’ll train harder and be more prepared and you’ll likely hike the pitch you bailed off.

Now go buy your plane ticket.

My Essential Gear List:

- Sequence base layers

- Transition Hoody

- Alpenice Jacket and Pants

- Stormtracker Gloves for hard leads

- Luminary Glove for easier leads and following

- Highcamp Mitts for belaying

- Scarpa Phantom Ultra

- Grivel G20 Crampons and Carbon Tech Machine Tools

- BlueWater Ice Floss 7.7 X 70M ropes

- Petzl Laser Speed and Laser Speed Light Screws

- 40L Pack