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Canada Ice Climbing 2023

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Blog 1: The first week of ice

By Mason Gardener

Well, we are into it, albeit off to a rough start, as Mason's bag was lost on a connecting WestJet flight to Calgary. Unfortunately for the boys (Mason & Liam), it meant that they had to mince around in the city jumping from call center to call center. Not the start they wanted. Thankfully, after a lot of stress, the bag magically arrived on the same day the rest of the team turned up. With all that sorted, and cars packed to the brim, the team set off to Lake Louise for a midnight arrival.

Day one the team set off for Haffner Creek. This venue leads itself to a safe and interesting warmup into things. After coming from 28 degree days in NZ, most of us were pretty rusty, so a reacquaintance with the tools was necessary. Short top rope drills (WI3) on picked out ice, bulging blue ice for interesting lead practice and a fun 20m drilled out M6 leading onto ice made for a quality first day.

During the lead up to Canada, it was evident that the faceted snowpack and deep persistent problem was going to give us concern. With this knowledge our decision following Haffner was to only go to terrain and areas which would mitigate our exposure, until we could gather more knowledge. Day two leant itself to two teams taking on different areas. A crew hit up the classic Louise Falls (WI4), snaking the Canadians to the climb by a mere 5 minutes. During the climb, they observed several natural class 2 avalanches ripping off the slopes on the opposite side of the valley. Justifying the choice to go where they went.

The other team went to Marble Canyon to take a look at Tokumm Pole (WI5). The slot canyon drops down some 35 meters to a bubbling pool of death. The ice glued to one side of the canyon overhangs the pool making for a rather intimidating endeavor. Unfortunately, the pillar had not touched down this time, so we opted for lowering in and each climbing the pillar on top rope. After a handful of attempts trying each of the obvious steep lines, we each tried the mixed step at the bottom. On top rope, tenuous mixed moves lead into the base of the pencil dagger giving way to delicate climbing to reach the base of the main fat ice. We all met back up at the hostel, to then convoy towards Rampart creek hostel.

Day three, Weeping Wall was beckoning. With its popularity came an early start. Once again, we snaked the Canadians by mere seconds as we crossed the road as they pulled in. Three teams of three set off to tackle lower Weeping Wall (left, middle and right; 150m WI4-5). Under the guidance of the mentors, each mentee managed to get a solid lead somewhere on the wall. With the warm temperatures, holding around near freezing, weeping wall was a playground given that we were down before lunch.

Much the same happened on day four with mixing up the mentor/mentee groups and climbing alternate lines to the previous days. Again, a solid day out on the ice for all.

Day five, Canmore rest. Bagels, pints, and a conversation with Will Gadd. Wonderful.

Blog 2: Kananaskis Country and Rampart Creek

By Owen Daniell

Our first day in Kananaskis we planned to go to Evan Thomas Creek. It was a chilly morning, and we were soon cruising up the creek. Al Maddy and Liam stopped at a multipitch called Moonlight, while the rest of us continued on to something called the green monster. I led my first climb of the day up a groove like piece of ice. I didn't feel too bad on the lead, and got to listen to henry groaning with barfies, pump and cold complaints on a different line a few meters right. Next, Mason led an impressive daggery M6, and Jono bailed off a hard-looking mixed route called Physiotherapy when he nearly knocked down a car sized dagger. I was cold the whole day, and pretty much everyone got the barfies, none so bad as Sophie who had to hang on a screw, moaning while her fingers and toes re warmed.

The next day was properly cold, with my Subaru's thermometer reading -33 C that morning. I was to climb a flow called moonlight with Lionel and Mason, with the caveat that If it was too cold we would go down. I put on more layers of clothes than I knew was possible and we headed out. I volunteered to lead first, and quickly racked up while still warm from the approach. The other two stripped down to change their base layers, but I found the idea of going shirtless in -22 unsavory and opted to take my chances with a sweaty base layer. I started up the pitch as the sun rose. The climbing was fairly relaxing wi3 with heaps of pick holes to choose from. Many good hooks and good screws got me up to the first belay cave. Ensconced in the lead, I placed my two long ice screws as a belay and set about bringing Lionel and Mason up, not realizing there was a bolt belay only a few feet away! They didn't sound good. From the first few moves I could hear some "Oh Boy" and "This is going to hurt" followed a few minutes later by a chorus of moaning as both my seconders experienced heinous barfies. I quietly compared their noises to Mason's dairy farm. Once at the belay, neither Lionel or Mason could get their feet back, and we made the call to bail. A rappel was quickly set up, and soon enough we were drinking hot tea while Lionel told me tales of nighttime SAR missions. After recovering, we walked back up to the green monster we had been at the day before. We watched Jono lead an impressive thin pillar, but the cold was bitter and we soon headed out, regaining warmth about 40 minutes into the hour long walk out!

The next day was a rest day, and was our day to drive up to Rampart Creek Hostel. It was spent primarily at the Grizzly Paw Pub in Canmore. We filled the cars with food once again, drove up the slippery Icefields parkway and settled into our new digs.

Intense discussions were had about the next days plans. It was decided that Jono and Sophie would go to Ice Nine, a pillar near the hostel, Liam, Mason, Lionel and Maddy to Weeping Wall, and Henry, Alastair and I would try Mixed Master, which was supposed to be exciting thin ice and mixed climbing.

The alarm woke us at 6, and we were into the chaos of ice trip mornings, making food, last minute gear preparations, washing dishes, loading the cars and getting going. We arrived at the Weeping Wall car park and walked a few minutes North to the Mixed Master track. After a quick avy pit to examine the facets and slab potential, we decided to cautiously make our way to the base, sticking to slight knolls and areas which were below threshold. Alastair led off on the first pitch, with some tenuous moves over a rock step, clipping an old rusty piton before stepping onto a short pitch of rotten sun-baked ice. A stubby ice screw and a sling around the whole formation (might have done something) for protection and Al pulled over the ice bulge onto easy snow and up to the first belay.

Henry and I followed gingerly, and soon were belaying Al on the second pitch. It looked exciting to say the least. A flow of ice no more than 30cm wide, and not very thick in the back of a corner which presented no prospects of rock gear whatsoever. Al bridged up, hacking off large pieces of the already dwindling ice supply and managing a few stubby ice screws for pro. The crux came at the first breakover bulge, where the ice went from vertical to flat. Al hacked and hacked for a decent pick placement, de-icing the pitch better than a chemical truck at an airport. "There's no more ice" He yelled down to us, before downclimbing to his top screw and taking on it. After a brief rest he downclimbed the rest of the pitch and, despite my encouragement to Henry that he should try it as rock was his specialty, no one else was keen and we bailed.

After a rappel and a walk back to the car, we discussed where to go next. Weeping wall was an obvious choice, but it looked like a mob scene of parties on it, and I had already climbed it twice and was keen to go somewhere new. We settled for the Bridal veil falls area, and after a quick stop to help some people trying to take a BMW with summer tires up icefields parkway we were at the carpark. We walked downhill for a spell and were facing Panther Falls, an intimidating massive ice mushroom with a weird overhung gap in the top. This was an opportunity to learn about pillar stability, as despite the crack in the top, the pillar was massive and supported at the bottom, meaning it was good to climb.

Henry put his hand up first and the lead was his. He cruised the ice, pink helmet and yellow jacket showing beautifully against the large ice mushroom, and soon Al and I were seconding up. We got to the anchor but had forgotten a V-threader. We decided Al would rap down on a fixed rope, then would tie his V threader to the end, we would pull it up, and we would be on our way. As Al started to rap down, he started to climb up a thin scary looking pillar on the climbers right above the main Panther Falls, testing it while still on abseil. After some good hacks at it, he decided it was on. We down-pitched to the pillar base, and Al racked up to send it. On lead, it looked spicy as anything, with fast and desperate screw placements while fighting pump, and several exciting foot pops. Al disappeared over the bulge and gave a whoop as he topped out, bringing Henry and I up behind him. "I watch scary highballing and I still couldn't watch that," Henry said at the top. We walked off and back to the base, just in time for me to quickly lead Bridal veil falls before the end of the day.

The discussion that evening about the next days plans was even more intense than the day before, centering on one particular climb: Curtain Call. In the end it was decided that Al, Sophie and I would go attempt Curtain Call the following day. This left me apprehensive as to how I would go leading pitches of WI5. We breakfasted and packed up the car as normal the next morning and drove north to the climb. As the first grey dawn broke, the thing looked massive, intimidating, and terrifying. We walked up in the trees next to the avalanche meadow, digging a pit to get more information on the snowpack. All seemed reasonably stable for the terrain we were entering, and after soloing a small piece of approach ice, we were racking up at the base. I took 16 ice screws, which I hoped would be enough.

The pitch started out easy enough, with low angle and good screws, but soon steepened into a chandeliered monster in which any protection had to be fought, kicked, hacked and dug for. I jammed many screws in, figuring that if I took a massive winger one of the many would surely hold. After about 45 meters, I was thoroughly pumped, scared, and had burned through most of the 16 screws. I found a place for three decent screws, and set up a hanging belay to bring Al and Sophie up. The second pitch had looked quite easy, but after the previous pitch, I was becoming mentally and physically spent, and overprotected the entire thing, jamming screws in every which way and having to take in, lower and back- clean at one point to get more screws. I finally reached the bolt belay next to the pillar, and brought Sophie and Al up.

Al was juiced for a big lead, racked up and started hacking his way up the side of the pillar. After resting at a small cave, he traversed around and out of sight. We heard the occasional scream of "I’m so pumped" and occasionally saw an axe swinging just over the silhouette of the pillar. He seemed to run out of rope towards the top, then the rope came slack again and finally came nicely tight with a belay. Sophie and I wondered how much Al was epic-ing on the pitch while gnawing at some dry bread I had in my pack. I soon found out.

Once finally on belay, I began to realize the impressiveness of Al's lead. The ice on the traverse kept falling off like dinner plates, an exciting prospect with many meters of air under my feet. This was followed by an overhung gap and a wild overhung v-groove. I got increasingly pumped as I climbed higher, pulling out screw after screw. Sophie later told me she knew exactly where I was the whole pitch due to the hunks of ice, whimpers, yelps and obscenities emanating from that location. After one more pumpy overlap I pulled onto the easier angled ice to meet Al at the belay where we v threaded back to Sophie and then back to the ground.

The next day I was feeling the strain from several hard pitches and opted for a relaxing ski tour, while many of the others climbed at Haffner Creek again.

Blog 3: You don't have to be strong to ice climb

By Maddy Whittaker

I cannot do a pull up. This always surprises people. "But you climb," they say.

Now don't get me wrong. Upper body strength can greatly improve your climbing, and it is an area I am working to improve. But you don't have to wait until you are the next hulk to start climbing. Particularly when it comes to ice.

I'd climbed ice a number of times in New Zealand before the team trip to Canada, including multiple 600m+ alpine ice routes. However, I must have got up them through sheer willpower, because I certainly did not have the technique nailed. Ice climbing had always been something where I ended up massively pumped out, and as a result rather scared. Over the past few weeks I've come to see that this does not have to be the case.

When done with proper technique, ice climbing is all about the legs and feet. I've discovered that you are not pulling yourself up with your axes, rather you are pushing up with your feet. The first key lesson I learnt was that your axes should not be at the same height. One should be at full extension, and the other should be a bit lower, so your fist on the ice axe is in front of your face/forehead. The arm on the higher axe should be straight as you bring both your feet up, and then stand up. Take the lower axe placement, pull it out, swing that axe so that arm is straight/at full extension. Then bring both your feet up. Maybe you can already see the pattern happening. The images below of Liam and myself (Maddy) at Johnson Falls demonstrates this process. (For a much better description/teaching/videos, search up Will Gadd's instructional videos on youtube).

Now I didn't unlock this all at once. First, I had learnt and applied the classic ice climbing triangle technique in New Zealand (google this if you aren't sure what I mean by the ice climbing triangle). This worked really well when the ice is smooth alpine ice, and had served me well in the New Zealand alpine.

However, on my first day of climbing in Canada, it quickly became apparent that there was more to ice climbing than just triangle technique. The ice here was heavily featured so I couldn't put my front points and axes wherever I wanted. Sometimes there were bulges that would break off if I tried to place an axe or kick into them, or there were brittle chandeliers that did not offer sufficient support for axes and crampons. Sometimes I needed to just use natural features e.g. hooking holes in the ice, rather than just bashing my axe into the ice. It was that day at Haffner Creek that I learnt to apply some of the principles of sport climbing technique to ice e.g. sometimes you would need to put all the weight through one leg, and then use the other more as balance, almost like flagging with that foot in order to keep the weight based over your other foot, and not on your arms. This 'park style' technique is not always the right way to go, but for highly featured ice, it was a game changer. Up until this point, I'd seen ice climbing as a repeated rhythm of triangles. Now I saw it as a dance, constantly moving and responding to the shapes of the ice, to keep the weight over your feet and off your arms.

The last part of the puzzle to unlock, was the easy way to place screws. Hanging off tools with arms bent was never going to work with me. I can probably maintain this position for about 10 seconds, and then the pump starts to get the better of me. Rather, mentor Lionel encouraged me to place both axes in a position where I could hang off each one with a straight arm. I was to maintain a straight arm while placing a screw at waist height with the other arm. By having both axes available to rest on, you can swap arms and shake out throughout the process of placing the screw, to avoid pumping out. This really required a change in mentality. Screws were no longer something you placed in a state of desperation, when you were either far above the previous screw, or were pumping out and getting at risk of taking a fall (a position you really don't want to be in while ice climbing; sharp things and ropes and ankles and knees are not a good combo). Rather, placing screws was a calm and methodical process, with no need for panic. Ice climbing didn't need to be scary. Ice climbing was about making it easy for yourself, and staying solid.

Never has this been more evident than climbing the 6 pitch WI4 route called Professor Falls. If I had l led this route 3 weeks ago, my forearms would have died on pitch one and I would have been scared out of my mind. Instead, I found myself flowing up all the pitches, laughing and chatting with my belayers Alastair and Mason, and almost forgetting to place screws, because I was so relaxed. It was a pure type 1 fun day of frolicking up a frozen waterfall. I felt this again two days later, as I led my first WI5 up through preplaced screws. Improving my technique not only had allowed me to take on more challenging and lengthier routes, but it had made it all fun instead of scary, which is really what it is all about.

So while I cannot do a pull up, with proper technique I can climb a WI5 ice climb. In a way, I am grateful for my lack of strength, as its forced me to climb properly, rather than being strong enough to just pull up and get away with it. Now I'm excited to get strong and gain some power. I wonder what will happen when I combine that with what I've learnt and will continue to learn technique wise. WI6 I'm coming for you...

My next steps on the remainder of this Canada trip: to consolidate what I've learnt technique wise through lots of leading lengthy sustained WI4 pitches and WI5 pitches. When I'm feeling very solid on that, I'll work on climbing WI5 confidently with a pack.

Blog 4: A Sport Climber’s Take on Ice Climbing

By Henry Booker

As a sport climber, the thought of a trip to Canada for the sole purpose of ice climbing was at first a strange and daunting concept, after all only months ago I would have never thought my first major climbing trip overseas would be for anything but bolt clipping. The trip ended up being an extremely useful experience, with me learning an entirely new set of skills that I can apply in the mountains back here in NZ. The purpose of me writing this article is to explain what the sudden transition from rock to ice was like, and to give people who may be in the same position some helpful pointers to look out for in order to really make the most out of the discipline.

For me the first major thing I encountered were the differing mindsets, specifically the head game required for your ice climbing to really take off. Before the trip I was explained by the mentors to take on a 'no falling' mentality which was something that as a sport climber I found hard to grasp. At the beginning I was adopting the same mentality I have when soloing on rock or entering a no fall zone on trad (which are both arguably more consequential than stitching a WI3 with screws), which as I was learning ended up being a real detriment to my headspace. I had not yet formed the proper climbing techniques and wasn’t familiar with the movement of ice climbing and as a consequence I constantly felt like I was on the brink of falling. One of the things that really benefited me was multi pitching and seeing multiple people hanging off 2 or 3 screws at once which showed me how strong a good placement can really be. And with doing multiple pitches of easier climbing in a day I learnt at a faster rate how to get my positioning right to not get as pumped and generally become more stable on the ice compared to a day at a single pitch crag. One of the first climbs I did on the trip was Louise Falls, a popular low angle multi pitch. It was actually my first ever ice multi pitch and looking back that was one of the most beneficial days for me on the trip, for my mindset as well as figuring out how to move efficiently on ice.

In ice climbing I also figured out how important risk assessment is, and how different the methods of risk assessment compared to rock climbing are. On rock the risk assessment is really narrowed down to how good the pro is, and maybe the rock quality but generally if the rock is total cheese you probably won’t bother to even climb it. However on ice there are so many more factors to consider before even stepping out the door of your accommodation. The biggest issue on most climbs is the avalanche danger which with proper education and caution will help you to lower the risk and keep you alive. Keeping your ego in check is a real biggy in being safe on ice climbs and not being afraid to turn back, or consider other options for the day if things just aren’t going your way with conditions. On some of the pillars I climbed, it was crucial to assess the quality of the ice to make sure they won’t just collapse on you. And that also ties into where you place pro as you should avoid putting screws in the weakest/lowest parts of the pillar. Sometimes this means you have to solo 10m before it’s safe to place your first screw as falling on a weak part of the pillar can theoretically compromise the structural stability of it. All these factors are unique to ice climbing and may sound like a lot of admin but even for me as a sport climber I felt psyched and willing to put in the effort in learning to get these things right so I could climb the lines I wanted to.

I found out very quickly how important having correct and good gear in the sport really is. It may seem incredibly obvious, but going into the trip I had no understanding of just how important sharp screws, good boots, and good quality clothing is. As someone who works part time at a climbing gym and heavily relies on sponsorships to afford gear, there were a few crucial pieces of kit I didn’t pay attention to that provided a few struggles on the trip. The biggest one was my boots. I left choosing a good pair of boots till last and before the trip I had pretty much had all the kit but a good pair of boots. I made a visit to my mentor Jaz who lended me a pair of Steve Fortunes old Spantiks, which it was clear to see had seen many things in their probably extensive lifespan. The plus side to this choice in boots were they are double boots meaning throughout the trip even in extremely cold temps my feet were practically immune to the cold. However on the first week of the trip I wasn’t lacing them up correctly and the main hindrance to my technique was the 6ft of heel lift I was getting every time I tried committing to a foothold. We soon fixed this issue but admittedly they became the bane of my existence especially on mixed routes with them weighing multiple tons each, and having a severe case of athlete’s foot for no extra cost (sorry Steve). I got the boots and thought she'll be right, but this experience goes to show how crucial taking the time to get gear that works for you is. Another obvious must have in your kit bag I learned is to have at least a file, but also spare picks and front points if you can. There were times where I'd hit some rock and destroy the tips of my tools, so having a file back at the hostels to sharpen them up really made my life a whole lot easier.

Layering systems at the start of the trip for me were something I've never really had to pay attention to yet, but in the cold Canadian winter I really had to refine these and get them right in order to not freeze, or just to have a lighter pack. Macpac really pulled through, with me having an extensive amount of layers for me to experiment with and towards the end of the trip all it took for me to figure out what clothes I needed for the day was to walk outside and feel the temperature. At the start of the trip I would always pack things like another mid layer and pro thermal but about a week and a half in I would always just leave these behind because I actually never needed to use them. Looking at the weather to have a guess at the temps for the next day is crucial as it means you can pack everything the night before and have your layers ready to put straight on so you can be out the door as quickly as possible. Having a really good belay puffy was something I really relied on, most of us had a Macpac Arrowsmith to keep us warm throughout the trip.

These are some of the most important takeaways I've had from the trip, and it was refreshing to be humbled and to try a discipline completely foreign to me. I started the trip wondering what the hell I was doing in Canada, and now I'm psyched to get on some ice and alpine objectives in New Zealand. I'm very grateful to Lionel, Jono and Alastair for sparking the psyche in me and fast tracking my progress throughout the last month.

And to all sport climbers, the biggest thing for me was to really get outside my comfort zone and to try something totally new. I would encourage everyone to push your limits in another discipline – not necessarily just ice climbing, it could be trad, or bouldering, or big wall climbing – to help you become a more well rounded climber overall.

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