Story and photos by Gryphon Black-Wallis
A staccato thwack, thwack breaks the mid-morning quiet as the needle points of climbing tools sink into the frozen chandelier of ice. Two less elegant sounding kicks with my heavy boots and we are off the ground, rhythmically moving upwards.
During the long, cold months, those of us who like to spend our time outdoors sometimes need to get creative to satiate our appetite for mountain adventures. Many turn to skiing and snowboarding; however, just beyond the groomed slopes of your favourite ski hill, you might see the faint dots of brightly coloured Gore-Tex jackets as the fearless and foolhardy alike venture up frozen waterfalls to test their mettle against the elements.
Ice climbing is a fringe sport rarely represented in the mainstream due to its dangerous appearance and hard man aesthetics. Like skiing, ice climbing requires a lot of specialized gear: ice tools, mountaineering boots, ice specific crampons, and ice screws – drilled into the ice to protect a climber from any falls.
I had called my good friend Dustin during the week to see if he was game to climb the following weekend. Always up for a challenge, he enthusiastically agreed. Making sure he was convincingly geared up for our little excursion, we left the parking lot and tramped our way towards the first set of falls and the area’s namesake, Troll Falls.
Ice climbing has its own grading for difficulty that takes into account the steepness of the ice in question as the main factor. Troll Falls gets a grading of ‘waterfall ice two,’ or WI2, which is about as easy as it gets. Having no illusions about our skill level, this little trip was more a method of practicing the basic skills and getting comfortable in this new environment.
A short five minutes down the trail and we had arrived at pitch one. We greeted the troll, an odd rock formation at the base that resembles a vague grinning face, and preceded to gear up. As this was Dustin’s first experience with ice, I was lead for the day and ascended the 10 or 15 metres to the lip of the falls, anchored to a tree, and belayed Dustin up. I then followed a meander up the creek bed above to a short, icy step and then the second full set of ice. This second section of ice was unique in that it had frozen separate from the cliff behind, leaving space all the way around the back. A couple hours later, we headed back down to the vehicle, having practiced some basic skills and, more than anything, managed to have a safe and enjoyable day.
For the intrepid, places like Yamnuska Mountain Adventures and the Outdoor Centre at the University of Calgary offer courses in ice climbing, ranging from those designed for first timers to learning advanced skill, moving towards the ability to have your own self-powered adventure. With the growing popularity of scrambling, skills like ice climbing can lead to having the confidence and ability to start mountaineering in any conditions.