Climbing Frozen Canadian Waterfalls
Arc'athletes Matthias Scherer and Tanja Schmitt recently travelled to Alberta, Canada to climb some of our breathtaking frozen waterfalls. Here is their report.
"Friday, 5:30am, we leave the dark outskirts of Canmore, AB driving towards Banff and the Icefields Parkway. The roads are covered with a snow/ice mixture, and the long, seemingly never-ending route leads us along the Bow River through thick fir forests. Frozen Hector Lake rolls past, then Bow Lake, onto the Mistaya River as the sharp contours of the Waputik Range stretch their snow laden shoulders towards a black night sky punctured by the fading light of stars.
Waterfowl Lake appears as dawn slowly sets in. The mighty outline of Mt. Murchison rises through twilight as we park the car at 7:50am. Two cars are already here, so we change climbing plans from 'Murchison Falls' to 'Cosmic Messenger'. A long walk along a frozen riverbed awaits us.
On Thursday, it's finally time for the approach to 'Murchinson Falls' – a great route with windblown, treacherous ice that has many possible ways up. It's long and interesting. The last pitch has some detached ice with water flowing strongly behind it. At the summit, we take in the view. Rappel down the three pitches and arrive back at the car with incoming darkness.
On Friday, we decide to go for 'Virtual Reality' just next to 'Murchinson Falls'. The upper sections look chaotic and it's hard to say if it can be climbed this early in the season. How is the ice connected to the rock? It looks fragile. Based on our recent experience we guess that it should be okay, but you never know.
We solo up the little steps to the climb. Now for the unknown. I start to climb up; there are some tracks from an earlier party, probably the day before. The ice has a lot of tension and is cracking beneath me. After 15 m of climbing I have the option to climb left, or to stay right on a fragile looking curtain. I am going for the curtain. After a couple of steps in the rock I am through the very thin and brittle start. With two swift strokes of my tools, I go over the first meduses and quickly reach the second curtain. Now things are really interesting: no tracks from other climbers are above me, just a V-thread and an abandoned screw.
The ice is extremely glassy. Every movement I put forth responds with a cracking moan. I am scratching and cutting my tools with highest caution into sketchy thin icicles. My last screw is ten meters below me in the best ice I could find – an entirely relative term. But I feel good. I have found my inner peace and with very calm moves I am approaching the overhanging meduses above me. From the picture we studied, I know that there is a possibility for a belay above this overhang on the right.
With just fifteen meters of rope left, the need to find an anchor is urgent. A nice glassy ice flute takes a screw to protect the hard moves over the meduses. The curtain reverberates under my feet while I try to balance my weight as much as I can. Luckily, the ice above the meduses sounds solid; the ice is better connected to the rock than below. Behind a big icicle, I find a cave and, Yes!, there is a wonderful crack going up the rock. Two cams and a knife blade build a mind-calming belay.
I attack the next pitch, where the ice has a better sound, the whole structure has a better connection to the rock, but still it is formed by countless little icicles, making the climbing very delicate. After twenty meters, the appearance of the ice changes dramatically: big finger-like tentacles of spray ice cover the rock. The ice is barely a few centimeters thick but luckily the angle decreases and over fantastic and beautiful molded ice, I gain the plateau above the climb.
The name of the line might be 'Virtual Reality', and the fragile ice has bizarre shapes, but the climbing is real. What a great place - what an extraordinary climb!"