Ice climbing, avalanche risk & gear love

Living near a mecca of ice climbing, this winter I decided to try a multi-pitch ice climb. I called my partner in crime who is also the only girl I know crazy enough to join me, and we picked a weekend for our adventure.  We’d both done some top-roping before and were really psyched to try something new.  Neither of us can lead ice so my good friend and guide Patrick got the honours of leading us ladies (no pun intended – haha).

The problem with planning things in advance is that mountain weather runs on its own schedule.  Checking the forecast I could see that a perfect storm was brewing for avalanche conditions.  By Friday night Patrick confirmed what I had been thinking, plans were going to have to change.  It’s always a little disappointing when things don’t work out the way you envisioned, especially when you can’t wait around indefinitely for better conditions.  Thankfully Patrick had a wicked backup plan in mind and really, any climbing is great when you’re with friends!

Avalanche risk

I joked that next time I pray for an epic weekend, I’m going to have to start specifying which part I want to be epic!  Apparently the Rockies are experiencing a “once in 30 years” avalanche cycle;  the Trans-Canada highway was closed for 5 days, there were 3 fatalities over the weekend and many unusually large avalanches were reported.  Having recently taken an avalanche safety course, I had a good appreciation for how bad conditions were and was glad Pat had able to find somewhere safe for us to climb.  The mountains will always be there and you want to make sure that you will as well!

Ever seen something like this? It's from the Banff NP avalanche bulletin.

If you’re going out in the Rockies this winter be sure to check the avalanche bulletins first.  Another great resource is @ParksMtnSafety (Banff National Park) or @KCPublicSafety (Kananaskis) on twitter.

Climbing on …

We headed to the Junkyards in Canmore which most people know as a top-roping area.  There’s actually a lot more to it and  we spent the morning practicing moving up and down as a group of three.  In retrospect I think it worked out well because the next time we climb together, we’ll be that much more efficient.  There’s a lot more to seconding than just cleaning draws/screws and the better you are at it, the better your climbing experience will be.

The mixed climbing is to the left

After, we tried a mixed climbing which is something I’ve been wanting to do as it’s always intrigued me.  Watching Patrick climb the mixed route was like watching a beautifully choreographed dance.  Me … not so much.  Trying to place crampons and axes on snow-covered rock and thin ice is very different from rock or ice climbing but the challenge is strangely satisfying.  One piece of advice? – don’t swing your axe, place it gently.  Whack the rock once and you won’t need any reminders not to do it again!

My gear

I’m always interested in knowing is what other people wear ice climbing and what does or doesn’t work so that being said, here’s what I wore and some suggestions:

  1. Footwear: Scarpa Mont Blanc GTX mountaineering boots (plus wool socks/Superfeet insoles). I’ve only worn these boots twice but they have been great so far & very warm.
  2. Bottoms: Light synthetic leggings & waterproof insulated ski-pants.  Unless you have a death wish for your ski-pants, wear gaiters or get a pair of tighter fitting pants.  Speaking from experience, crampons will catch on your pants if they’re too baggy.
  3. Top: Synthetic tank top, merino long sleeve shirt, synthetic long sleeve shirt, Patagonia down sweater & hardshell.  All in that order. It might seem like overkill on the layers but both my girlfriend and I wore roughly the same thing and neither of us felt too cold or too hot.
  4. Belay jacket:  First Ascent mountain guide hooded down jacket.  I wore it over my hardshell in the morning when it was cold then packed it away as it warmed up.
  5. Hands: I love my thin waterproof mittens and wanted them to work so badly but I’ll concede, gloves would have been better.  Nothing sucks more than trying to clip or unclip a draw and getting your mitt stuck in the gate.  Mittens are fine to belay in but I’d rather climb with thin softshell gloves.  If you’re just top-roping, thin mitts would be fine though.