There are a host of exceptional ice climbing opportunities in Jasper National Park north of Banff National Park. In the summertime, the drive would be west on the TransCanada Highway to Lake Louise, then north on the Icefield Parkway. It is one of the most spectacular rides on the planet in a long, narrow valley through towering mountains and hanging glaciers. In winter, the Icefield Parkway, which passes the massive Columbia Icefield, is frequently closed due to avalanche activity blocking the highway. Often it can take several days to reopen the road. It is shorter and faster, but it is important to check for conditions. There is no good recovery. For this trip, the Icefield 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 and on to the Town of Jasper. It is a long drive but the approach to the mountains, although different, is no less spectacular than the drive west from Calgary to Banff National Park.
There is still time, late in this short winter day, to do a 50 metre, WI-2 climb of Swartz Falls, just off road-side on Hwy 16, 12 kilometres west of the Town of Jasper, as a warmup 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 area. It is a major, world-class ski resort and people travel from all over the world to take advantage of the experience. Advance reservations are necessary.
Our main objective is to climb ice in Maligne Canyon the next day. After an incredible buffet breakfast we make an early start and the easy, tourist-access route along the top of the canyon drops us to a shallow access point, just above the second bridge, where we can gain access onto the frozen 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 frozen cascades of frozen tumbling rapids is easily achieved. We can hear the powerful Maligne River running underneath. Caution is required on horizontal surfaces. The ice may be suspended above the water level. Shallow ice must be avoided to prevent breaking through.
This is a popular hiking and ice climbing area so well-trodden routes makes the choice relatively obvious. It is wise to pay close attention in a perpetually dynamic environment.
Our objective for the day is ‘The Queen’ which is the most popular climb in the canyon. It is a 35 metre, WI-4 climb. Dave retreats to an access which will allow top roping then rappels into the canyon.
We take turns climbing and rappelling. I do a climb on the right hand facing, vertical surface which is partially covered with chandelier ice. Chandelier ice is like huge corduroy with fixed icicles attached to the surface. It is necessary to get the axe into solid ice between these icicles and the knuckles take a beating, even through well-padded gloves.
The only people we see all day, in the bottom of the canyon, are a guided group of hikers who come around the corner precisely at the moment I fall from the face. Lovely! It is a quick recovery. Dave is paying close attention and has me firmly in the air. I pause to catch my breath while he takes time to socialize with the group, enthusiastically expounding the thrill of ice climbing, and explaining how well I am doing for an old guy. It is always good to have a friend’s support
We spend a second night at Sawridge Inn and return to Calgary the following day.
If you believe you 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.