How I Fell in Love with Ice Climbing: Scaling Canada’s Walls with Steve Swenson

I discovered my love for ice last year after winning a 5-day ice climbing trip in Alberta, Canada with legendary climber Steve Swenson. The experience was not only a chance to climb but an opportunity to form long lasting friendships amidst breathtaking scenery. This unforgettable adventure is being offered once again at the 2023 Mountaineers Gala, and the lucky winner is in for the trip of a lifetime.
Andrew Hughes Andrew Hughes
5-year member and ice climbing fanatic
March 10, 2023
How I Fell in Love with Ice Climbing: Scaling Canada’s Walls with Steve Swenson
All photos courtesy of Andrew Hughes.

Waking early on my first morning of a five-day climbing trip in Canada, I quickly dressed and enjoyed the wonderful breakfast offerings that Steve and his partner Ann so generously supplied. Nibbling on a toasted slice of a local bread and slowly sipping my much needed coffee, I continued to pack  everything for the day until my phone vibrated on the counter. It was go time. I stepped out into the crisp cold of a clear morning still speckled with waning stars as the surrounding peaks were beginning to glow with the first light of a new day. 

Several months before I could never have envisioned that on this early December day I would be here, about to embark on several days of ice climbing with Steve Swenson. Yet here I was, thanks to the Annual Mountaineers Gala and Auction. My winning bid welcomed me into a new world of adventure I had only eyed from a distance. Though I had climbed Everest, completed the Seven Summits, and reached the South Pole by ski – I had never truly climbed ice. If great heights have taught me anything  it’s that there is always more to learn. With humility (and a little sense of humor) there is great joy in expanding your relationship  with the great outdoors.

IMG_0833.JPGWaterfall ice reading at Wild Flour Bakery in Banff, which has been serving up comfort food since the 1800s.

In the weeks leading up to my arrival, I had been put in touch with Jay Mills, owner of Canadian Rockies Alpine Guides. With over 20 years of ACMG certified guiding experience, I knew I was in good hands despite my limited experience. Jay worked with me to determine my ice climbing abilities, set goals and hopes for this experience, and establish a strategic approach for maximizing our time together. I told him: treat me like I know nothing, and let’s build an unforgettable adventure from there. And did we ever.

On day one, Jay and I hopped in the truck, topped off our coffees, and hit the road heading West into Banff National Park. Not more than 20 minutes later we were pulling off the side of a quiet road, tossing on our packs, dividing up gear, and setting off on our approach. Jay felt like a fast friend as we reflected on how our individual journey had each led us to a life in the mountains, and how the relationship we formed with the natural world provided formative experiences and directly influenced who we are today. 

IMG_1063.JPGA morning approach into Kings Creek Canyon.

Before I knew it,  we arrived at a beautiful, varied wall of ice. Under a perfect blue bird day, we began at the beginning, touching on the foundational skills, strategies, and techniques that would serve me that day and in the days ahead. Jay set a top anchor as I belayed and then I set off, exploring multiple routes up this face, each time returning to valuable insights and observations that would inform my next climb up. 

After a few  hours my body was spent, but I was sold. Ice climbing was now going to be one of my “things.” Like the rock that calls climbers to Yosemite, I now understood why the ice of the Canadian Rockies makes this place an ice climbing epicenter. Only one day in and I was already plotting my return for more.

After dropping Jay, I set off to explore some of his local recommendations. I visited a remarkable French bakery and  devoured a delicious crepe, then headed to a local distillery serving stellar gin before capping the evening  at a nearby brewery bustling with bantering of the day’s adventures.

The second morning, Jay and I set off for a special day to a spot he had personally discovered and which few others knew about. The approach passed historical indigenous canyon art, reminding us we are but grateful visitors in these special locations and that these lands are sacred and storied. On this day Idid my first multi pitch, ascended several different types of ice, and enjoyed the valley's views with a long hike. 

GPTempDownload 61.JPGFour days of climbing culminated in 90m pitches of ice climbing.

Having these first two days with Jay was such a wise way of building capabilities and confidence, even for ice climbing beginners like myself.. With the abilities acquired and under Jay’s observation, Steve was able to choose the best options for my growth and improvement. 

Before putting my new skills to use with Steve, I was given a rest day, which I used to leisurely explore Banff. All who know me also know my proclivities for pastries. And let me just say, Banff’s bakery scene is strong. After a wonderful lunch at the only distillery located inside a national park, I took a small hike to a nearby lookout that provided views over the enchanting and world-renowned Fairmont Hotel.

IMG_0829.JPGExperiencing a bustling Banff during a recovery day.

Each night, I would return to the warm welcome of Steve and Ann who reside above the climber’s apartment. They would invite me  for home cooked meals and we’d share stories from the day and get lost in interesting conversations. Each day I didn’t return to an apartment, I returned to what felt like home.

The fourth morning, and my first climb with Steve, we decided on a distant but new climb that Steve had never done before. It was  a shared exploration and adventure. We headed off before sunrise, driving past Lake Louise toward Jasper along the Icefields Parkway.  The road was quiet and I quickly exhausted my ability to communicate the sense of awe and amazement at the scenery we were passing. Words still fall short of the memories, but that drive alone would have been worth this entire trip. 

Steve, with a sparkle in his eye, constantly called my attention to icy routes strung along the rocky faces of these noble peaks. Decades of experiencing these places meant stories woven within each route, which I soaked up with gratitude as he so generously shared them. This experience became so much more than just a chance to ice climb. It was a rare chance to journey into the unknown and witness lifelong relationships form for the first time–something truly special to be cherished.  You can read all the books in the world, but to sit with the source of some remarkable stories and hear  them first-hand as you drive down an icy abandoned road…. well, those are the stories that stick with you.

IMG_0963.JPGAwe-inspiring peaks run endlessly along the Icefields Parkway.

We made our best guess at directions and followed the tracks of others we hoped led to the route we were seeking. Ultimately we ended up somewhere unexpected, but no less special: a beautiful pillar of ice with views over the valley. Water poured down the middle of the icy tower and I once again experienced a whole new way of ice climbing. Steve patiently provided tips and belayed me as I followed the route he had previously set. After a few goes we set off to find our  original intended objective. It was an adventure, one that never led us to our route of interest, but what we found was still a memorable day out in the mountains and woods.

The final day we set our sights on another new location–King Creek Canyon. As we parked, we saw three other climbers preparing to head in the same direction. Steve instantly recognized a fellow guide and two fellow Mountaineers –the world ever proving how small it is.  With a day of climbing in the shadows of this narrow but stunning canyon, the warmth of friendly companionship and light-hearted chats was heartwarming and highly efficient as we got to use one another’s ropes to maximize our climbing of some substantial sized pitches of ice. Steve continued to share pointers that consistently improved my efforts. The value of his words–tips from the lips of someone who has literally written the book on how to ice climb– were priceless pieces of knowledge I will hold with me forever.

We climbed until the prior four days caught up to me and I couldn’t continue, despite my desire to do so. We hiked out of the canyon along the creek that called out its wintery gurgling song and found ourselves back at the truck just as the sun was setting and bathing the mountain faces in blushing pinks.

The next morning I would be off. Back to Calgary and back to life in Seattle. I would leave with memories deeply meaningful, friendships newly  formed, and a passion for ice climbing that would continue to weave into the path before me.

GPTempDownload 64.JPGSteve imparting sage insights before, during, and after every ice pitch climbed.

As we honor Steve this year with the Lifetime Achievement Award, we do so with immense gratitude for not only all he has achieved, but all he has so generously given to us over the years. And once again, even on his special night, Steve’s generosity shines as both he and Ann give the chance to enjoy  another unforgettable and impactful experience ice climbing with  a legend.

Regrettably, I won’t be able to attend in person at The Mountaineers Gala and bid again on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (to try and do it twice in a lifetime) as I will be in the Arctic, pulling a heavy pulk by ski on my way to the North Pole as I attempt to complete the Explorers Grand Slam. But know that experiences like this come rarely and their impact truly is one that only appreciates with time. May you be the lucky winner of this wondrous adventure and find the same deeply meaningful memories and moments that found me in those unbelievable Canadian Rockies.

To see some additional videos from Andrew’s time ice climbing in Canada during this experience or to follow along on adventures around the world, including the North Pole expedition this April, 2023, you can do so at his Instagram @andrew_i_hughes

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