Trip Report    

Banff and Jasper Ice climbing

Three days of spring ice climbing in the Rockies.

  • Fri, Mar 17, 2023 — Sun, Mar 19, 2023
  • Banff and Jasper Ice climbing
  • Climbing
  • Successful
  • Road suitable for all vehicles

Summary: We cragged in Johnston and Maligne canyons, and climbed Kerkeslin Falls (3p, WI3), Shades of Beauty (3p, WI4) and Melt Out (3p, WI3) over the course of three days.

Prequel. Justin and I both took part in the Alpine Ambassadors ice climbing trip this winter. This is a fantastic program, put forth by former board member Steve Swenson, to help climbers in the Mountaineers bring their climbing to the next level. This year was my second Ambassadors ice trip, and Justin's first. My goal for the trip was (if things felt right) to lead a WI4 and Justin was looking to get on lots of "real" ice, something that is so scarce in the PNW, and to push his leading. We had a wonderful trip and climbed lots of fun things. But, I didn't lead the WI4 I wanted to (I pink pointed a few). I focused on climbing hard and in good form, until my arms stopped working by the 6th day of climbing.

Fast forward to March, my work brought me to Banff for a conference, and Justin was able to come join me for a weekend of climbing. I was stoked!

Day 1. We left Banff on the late side (around 9:30am) and, looking to get back into the swing of things after a month off, went to Johnston Canyon to top rope some harder ice and maybe do some easier leading. The trail was full of tourists and the morning was cold. It took about 40 minutes to hike to the upper falls. We popped over the fence, wandered down the creek and found a guided party of 3 was just getting going. Everything looked fat and in in Johnston Canyon

Since the guided group was going to work the more moderate curtain off right we scrambled to the top and set up an anchor to top rope a fat pillar. We belayed this from the top to mitigate the hazard of the big daggers, and mega-top roping on super skinny ropes. First lap felt hard (maybe WI5-?), and the second lap felt easier. The tourists clapped for Justin, but not me :-/

climbing the pillar

Not wanting to burn out on long, harder routes, we scrambled down after two laps and each took a turn leading a moderate route on the curtain (WI2/3).

After this we packed up and walked out to the car, getting there around 4:30pm. Stopped for snacks in Lake Louise and then made the long drive north to the town of Jasper. The driving over the Icefields Parkway was inspiring; we stopped to gawk at Bow Falls, Polar Circus, and the Weeping Wall, and marvel at the Columbia Icefield. The 2WD rental car made the drive without an issue. There was a small amount of drifting snow. Beer and burgers in Jasper, and we went to bed tired from a long day.

Day 2. The alarm went off at 6am. We got some breakfast at the earliest opening cafe in Jasper (Bear's Paw Bakery -- it good), with a plan to climb Kerkeslin Falls in the first part of the day. This is a three pitch WI3 about half and hour south of Jasper. We were first to the parking lot and while we were slowly getting ready to leave another party of three showed up. So we picked up the pace and made our way to the base of the climb. The approach was around 35 minutes through the forest on a well beaten track and as we finished kitting up the other party arrived at the base.

approach pitchWe soloed the easy approach pitch and did a short walk to the first pitch. Justin took the lead on this, and linked it with the second pitch both pitches around WI2/3. It became clear that the other party belayed the approach ice, since they didn't arrive at the base of pitch one until Justin had finished leading the first and second pitches.
p1 of kerkeslinI look the lead on the third pitch. Much of the ice on this pitch had a shell on the top, and this got into my head a bit. Each screw required cleaning down to good blue ice. I climbed past the anchor and ended up climbing an additional 35m of fun, easy, blue ice steps.p3 of kerkeslin I came up short about 5 feet and belayed off screws in the ground. Two 70m rappels brought us to the base of the route and we were back to the car by lunch time.
top of Kerkeslin fallsWe were hungry, and drove back into Jasper for a big lunch. Still hungry for more ice climbing, we took a short drive to Maligne Canyon and set up a top rope on The Queen. This is a stunning place to go cragging and we each took three laps on The Queen, which ranged from WI4 to a harder WI5 off to the left side (over the "the cave"). We had to pause frequently for tourists walking through the canyon, although the hiking guides were very diligent to make sure their people stayed out harm's way.
the queenThis is the best picture of the trip, thanks Justin! (BTW, almost all these pictures are Justin's, sorry for not getting good one's of you buddy!) Below is a pitcture of The Queen. We climbed the far left in the picture, and the center.

We wished we brought beer, since after we topped out the late afternoon sun was shining warmly and we felt the full beauty of spring in the mountains. Instead, we headed to the lodge and got seats near the enormous fireplace (complete with mounted buffalo head)  where we had beer and fried chicken sandwiches, and I got very tired. We thought we would get to bed early that night, but it was still 10pm when we put out the light, with the alarm set for 6am.

Day 3. The first objective of day 3 was a three pitch route called Shades of Beauty. This was about 40 minutes south of Jasper on the Icefields Parkway. I was tired, and hadn't paid too close of attention on the approach beta, so the 1.25hr approach was disappointing. It was -18C when we left the car.
Shades of beauty The route has a WI2/3 pitch, followed by a short section of WI4, and then a 35m pitch of WI4 coming in two longer steps. Justin took the lead on the first two pitches. We used some of the tricks we learned in the Ambassadors trip, belaying the second pitch off the anchor in a little ice cave. Justin did a great job on the second pitch, which was The Real Deal ice climbing and a perfect intro to harder leading. I felt nervous about p3, but fueled by nerves I took off, sewing it up with screws as I went.p3 of shades of beautyThe placements aren't as close as they look, but the whole pitch did take over 12 screws and took about 40 minutes. I topped out at a bolted belay, breathed a sigh of happiness and relief, and belayed Justin up to the top. It was the perfect amount of hard and I was happy to have comfortably gotten the WI4 lead in that I had hoped to get back in February. One 70m rappel off bolts and then a naked A-thread rappel brought us to the bottom and we were back to the car by 1pm where we ate a ton of snacks alongside some resident crows. It was +3C at the car and felt glorious.

From there we drove about 6km south and tromped up the hill to our final climb for the trip: A little 3 pitch WI3 called Melt Out. Once again Justin led the first two pitches (linked), which was wet and in full sun. It was warm at the base, but the ice was solid and the tools were all sinking deep. This was fun, easy climbing in a superb setting. At the bolted belay, I found Justin sunbathing with music on. I led up another 35m of WI2 steps (one screw) and that was it: climbing on this trip was complete. A 35m rap followed by a 70m rap had us to the ground quickly. We did the approach, climb, and deproach in around 2.5hr. This is what spring break is all about: Ice climbing in the sun :)IMG_3256.jpgLooking down the Icefields Parkway from the top of Melt Out.IMG_3259(1).jpg

The drive back south to Canmore was easy, and filled with plenty of gawking at the climbs near the Weeping Wall. It was interesting to observe the natural avalanche activity on the the west aspects of the mountains lining the highway. One loose wet slide went into the road near the Weeping Wall; generally steep things south of the Columbia Icefield seemed to have a lot natural avalanche activity. We got good food in Banff before heading to a cheap hotel in Canmore for the night. We slept in (8am ish?) and packed our bags for the trip back to Bellingham.

Gear: We took an assortment of about 15 screws on each climb. This was overkill, but we're newer and didn't want to get in over our heads. Two 70m half ropes. Ice tools. Crampons.

One last thing: I wanted to give another plug for Steve's Alpine Ambassadors program. Without the experience and confidence I gained there, there is no way this trip could have happened. Special thanks to Steve, Kris and Kyle, and all the other guides and volunteers who help make these trips happen :)