Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park is a spectacular ice climbing location.
There are a host of exceptional ice climbing opportunities in Jasper National Park north of Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. In summertime, the drive would be west from Calgary on the TransCanada Highway to Lake Louise, then north on the Icefields Parkway to Jasper. This driving experience is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular rides on the planet in a long, narrow valley through towering mountains and hanging glaciers.
In winter, the Icefields Parkway, which passes the massive Columbia Icefield, is frequently closed for weather or due to avalanche activity blocking the highway. Often it can take several days to reopen the road. The Icefields Parkway route is shorter and faster, but checking road conditions is important. There is no good recovery.
For this trip, the Icefields Parkway is closed and our early morning start is on the alternate route which is a 3 hour drive north on Highway 2 to Edmonton, then 6 hours west on Highway 16 through the coal mining area of Wabamun, Evansburg, Edson and Hinton into Jasper National Park.
The scenic drive passes by the entrance to Fiddle Valley and Miette Hot Springs on the way to the Town of Jasper. The drive is long but the approach to the mountains, although different, is no less spectacular than the drive west from Calgary into Banff National Park.
Mining truck exhibit near Hinton, Alberta on the Hwy 16 access from Edmonton to Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada.
There is still time, late in this short winter day, to do a 50 meter, WI-2 climb of Swartz Falls, just off road-side on Hwy 16, 12 kilometers (7½ miles) west of the Town of Jasper, as a warm-up for the next day before we settle into accommodation at the excellent Sawridge Inn for the night.
There is plenty of outstanding accommodation in this year-round recreational paradise. Jasper is a major, world-class ski resort and people travel from all over the world to take advantage of the experience. Advance reservations are recommended.
The main objective for this trip is climbing ice in Maligne Canyon the next day.
Following an incredible buffet breakfast, the adventure begins with an early start and the easy, tourist-access route along the top of the canyon drops into a shallow access point, just above the second bridge, where access can be gained into the frozen wonderland surrounding Maligne River. Crampons are mandatory.
Canyon walls are eerily coated with frost in early morning, giving the impression of walls of ice rather than rock. The hike back up through the canyon is around large breathing holes in the river ice and through narrow fissures. Navigation over cascades of frozen tumbling rapids is easily achieved and the powerful Maligne River can be heard rumbling beneath. Caution is required on horizontal surfaces where ice may be suspended above the water level and thin ice must be avoided to prevent breaking through.
This is a popular hiking and ice climbing area so well-trodden routes makes choices relatively obvious. Close attention to detail is required in this perpetually dynamic and incredibly beautiful environment.
The climbing objective for the day is 'The Queen' which is the most popular climb in Maligne Canyon. The Queen is a 35 meter, WI-4 climb. Retreat to an access further back in the canyon allows top roping for the rappel back into the canyon.
Turns are taken for climbing and rappelling. A climb on the right hand facing, vertical surface deals with a route partially covered with chandelier ice. Chandelier ice is like huge corduroy with fixed icicles attached to the surface of the ice waterfall and the process of sticking the ax into solid ice between icicles results in the knuckles taking a beating, even through well-padded gloves.
The bottom of the canyon is quiet and the only people seen all day are a guided group of hikers who come around the corner precisely at the moment of accidental detachment from the face. The belay facilitates a rapid recovery.
For the people who might like to try ice climbing, there is a book called 'Ice and Mixed Climbing: Modern Technique' by Will Gadd, which would be an excellent supplement, but not an alternative, to individual or group instruction. Many people begin by learning and practicing on an indoor climbing wall before enjoying the climbing sport outdoors.