Ice climbing opportunities in Ya Ha Tinda Valley northwest of Sundre, Alberta, Canada.
The drive from Calgary to Airdrie begins in the early morning darkness of a bitterly cold winter day. The four-wheel drive Jeep begins the drive north and west from Calgary, to Sundre, Alberta, Canada, then further west to Ya Ha Tinda Valley where four-wheel capability is tested on the approach to the east border of Banff National Park.
Travel time on this reconnaissance day is 3 hours in a Jeep whose heating system cannot keep up with -35 degree C (-31 degrees F) cold weather. Parking near Bighorn Campground begins the process of gearing up prior to beginning reconnaissance of ice conditions for climbing.
There is a goldmine of ice climbing opportunity in this area and a short hike begins nearby on snow-covered river ice, with water gurgling underneath our feet, into a magnificent canyon with a series of spectacular, frozen waterfalls. Careful listening for the subtle hissing of 'breathing' holes in the river ice is important to avoid hiking near, or into them. Several ice climbing opportunities are identified prior to the return drive through Sundre to Airdrie and Calgary.
The next day begins very early. Excited anticipation about the day's potential ice climbing adventure encourages driving the previous day's route before sunrise. This time, better road conditions reduces the trip time between Airdrie and the Ya Ha Tinda Valley to about 2 ¾ hours. Weather conditions change to sunny but the temperature remains brutally cold at –30 degrees C. Approach in crampons begins at 11 AM along the frozen river hike. Big Horn Falls is on the left. The hike on ice continues about 1 KM (0.63 miles) along Big Horn Creek to a fork in the deep and dramatic canyon.
Transition to ice climbing gear is completed as rapidly as possible in the bitter cold before the short jaunt along a right fork where the next four hours are energetically enjoyed climbing a series of progressively more demanding ice falls. The cold is less noticeable while focused on relatively intense and strategic physical endeavor. The digital camera refuses to function at these temperatures. In hindsight this might have been resolved with a heat packet in the camera bag.
Belayed down climbs are carefully executed and towards the top of the route there is a challenging and mixed ice, rock scramble, both up and down through a tube in the canyon wall. Scrambling on rock with ice climbing crampons requires focused attention to detail. Foot placements are executed differently.
Back at trail-head parking near mid-afternoon, there is time to enjoy a quick, hot lunch in the Jeep prior to the drive home.
Arrival back in Airdrie occurs as darkness settles in on a short winter day. Lasagna, moose tracks ice cream and excellent homemade cake preclude watching an ice climbing video and ending the day with the exchange of good conversation and great stories.