Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley - Hiking Alberta

 

The Sheep River Valley in Kananaskis Country offers many winter ice climbing opportunities.

 

 

While many Calgarians celebrate the New Year in their homes, or at expensive downtown parties, the choice here is enjoying the fourth hour of sleep in preparation for next years first mission. 

An early morning drive, on empty roads under a striking red sunrise, heads south from home near Canada Olympic Park and west from Okotoks through Turner Valley and the Sheep River Wildlife Sanctuary to meet a friend and hiking partner in the Sandy McNabb group campground area of Kananaskis Country

The New Year's Day objective is a reconnaissance hike and potential waterfall ice climb on the frozen North Coal Creek which feeds the Sheep River where the objective will be to locate an ice seep or frozen waterfall suitable for ice climbing.

 

 

The long switchback from the parking area descends to the bottom of the Sheep River ValleyNorth Coal Creek is directly across the Sheep River which is nearly all frozen.  Carefully navigating the way across the Sheep River begins the journey over the snow-covered surface of Coal Creek in boots with crampons.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

Carrying rope and ice screws make my colleague heavier so he leads.  The hike proceeds on ice, covered with six inches (15 cm) of loose snow in a chilly breeze through the shady and ever-tightening canyon.  

Coal Creek has running water beneath the ice which encourages listening carefully and watching for breathing holes.  It is unlikely the route would punch through the ice into deep water but water getting above the top of boot could be compromising.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Breathing holes in frozen North Coal Creek - Kananaskis Country, Alberta

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

Occasionally, dead fall is encountered on the creek and off-trail through forest is employed when it is easier than navigating the creek while looking for drainages off to each side which may contain waterfall ice.   About 4 KM (2.5 miles) in,  we encounter a draw worthy of investigation but there is no reasonable potential within reasonable range.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada An example of a potential draw feeding Coal Creek.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Sun begins to creep into the twisting Coal Creek - tantalizingly out of reach.

 

Near the 5 KM (3.1 mile) mark, the rock walls narrow substantially and within the context of ice climbers, an exciting discovery appears from around a tight bend in the narrow canyon walls.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, CanadaCoal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

The seep is very attractive but a pool of deep water at the base requires exercising serious precaution.  Coal Creek is entering from the left-facing side of the bowl with axes in hand.

After enjoying the find, a climb over the step to the left continues through the canyon.  About a kilometer further arrival at the junction of North and South Coal Creek.   

Along the route there is above average evidence of cougar and lynx.  There is no evidence of human traffic in the canyon but there are cat tracks everywhere.  The next discovery is a beautiful sunny spot to sit, relax, warm up and enjoy lunch.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

Views are phenomenal.  In one direction Junction Mountain hosts barely discernible Junction Fire Lookout on its flank.  It is an active lookout and an excellent 13.4 km (8.3 mile) summer hike with an elevation gain of 690 m (2,265 m) from the Indian Oils parking area west of Turner Valley as documented in Mike Potter's book, 'Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies'.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada A view towards Junction Mountain from our lunch spot in the sun.

 

In the opposite direction, there is a grand view of the rolling, grassy hills around the canyon just hiked through.  Here in the sun, the air is still and it does not get much better than this.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada The view of the rolling, grassy hills above Coal Creek from the warm, sunny, lunch spot.

 

The decision is made to climb to higher ground, then off-trail the periphery of two adjacent hills for return, first on higher ground before dropping into a draw which will provide an alternative route with potential for further discovery.  Navigation is via topographical and digital wrist compass. 

Through the drainage, challenging navigation is on a tight, frozen-solid ice surface. The creek is choked with trees, dead fall, rock falls and ice sections with occasional water flow from warm springs.  Exit from the draw finds footsteps from earlier in the day for the return to North Coal Creek.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada The view towards Junction Mountain from the high spot above our lunch location - Grand views!

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Into an unknown draw, crampons on and a battle with challenging terrain back to Coal Creek

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Hiking over ice in one of the easy sections on the way back to Coal Creek.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada A two meter (6 foot) ice fall in the unnamed draw requires climbing over trees and rocks to slide down one side.

 

Back on Coal Creek, the warming day has compromised the integrity of the creek surface and boots punch through the ice more often.  Heavier snow is harder work on tired legs.  Daylight is diminishing rapidly on this short winter day.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

After completing 15 KM (9.4 miles) of aggressive off trail,  it has been a physically demanding day.

There is not a lot of ice climbing but this area of wilderness has provided new discovery combined with plenty of exercise and fresh air for another great and memorable day.

 

Coal Creek Ice Climb - Sheep River Valley, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

Thank you. The ice walk up Coal Creek was reasonably straightforward with an occassional offtrail to avoid deadfall across the creek. The cross country offtrail back through forest and down the draw was a significant character builder. That hike down the draw and back to Coal Creek was brutal, occasionally bordering on hilarious. One of a hikers greatest and most important skills, as you know, is the ability to maintain a sense of humor at all times. In spite of the heels being badly beaten up, I enjoyed a fabulous snowshoe the next day at Lower Kananaskis Lake. Multiple chinooks this year have created and fattened ice better than I have seen in several previous years. Thanks for your comment, Leigh. And a Very Happy New Year to you too.

Good for you for getting out on New Years Day and doing such an arduous hike. I had no idea that you were an ice climber too. I have yet to explore the Sheep River area but one weekday in the near future it's on my list. Happy New Year Barry.

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