Ice climbing is an inherently dangerous sport. Poor protection and the varied quality of ice require a great degree of experience and judgment to be managed safely. Avalanches are common in the drainage features where ice climbs often occur. Placing your belays safely and not exceeding your ability are key principles to safe climbing. For more information on ice climbing and avalanche danger refer to the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale for Ice Climbers
Top roping is a good way of increasing your skill level in a more controlled manner. Good venues for this include Maligne Canyon (35m II, WI 2-6, 1*) and Tangle Creek (60m I, WI 2, 1*). Practice rappelling in a climbing gym before experimenting on ice. Belay from a sheltered location, like ice caves. Always back up abalocoves (V-Threads) with a two screw ice anchor and always use a prussic backup on your repel rope. Courses on ice climbing are offered by certified mountain guides Association Of Canadian Mountain Guides and local guiding companies.
Trip Preparation/Safety Considerations
Types of Ice climbing
Within the mountain National Parks are hundreds of ice climbs. Every type of ice climb can be found from the long alpine ice routes to short bolted mix and dry tooling routes. Local guidebooks can be purchased at many retail stores in the area. A comprehensive reference is Waterfall Ice by Joe Josephson, Published by Rocky Mountain Books.
The earliest ice climbs form at higher elevations on north and north easterly faces slopes. Many of these can be found in the Columbia Icefields area and are often considered alpine ice routes. Some of these routes can form by early October. By late November many of the waterfall ice climbing routes have started to form. It is during the earlier months of the winter before the snow has accumulated in the alpine that many of the avalanche prone climbs can be climbed most safely. Ice routes are generally in their best condition from December to March. By the middle of March many of the lower elevation ice climbs are starting to melt so that by mid April only a few climbs remain.
Climbs and Services
The largest concentration of established ice routes can be found along the Icefields Parkway, between Lake Louise and Jasper. Between November and March this is a very quiet highway with no vehicle services, and infrequent snow ploughs. Cell phone coverage is non-existent between Athabasca Falls and Mosquito Creek. Pay phones are located at Saskatchewan River Crossing Warden Station, the lower parking area at the Icefields Centre, Beauty Creek Hostel, Sunwapta Warden Station, Bubbling Springs pullout, Athabasca Falls Hostel, Athabasca Falls parking area and Athabasca Pass lookout. The Alpine Club Of Canada and International Hostel Association offer accommodation at Rampart Creek, Beauty Creek and Athabasca Falls.
Established routes are also located along Highway 11 (the David Thompson highway) which joins the Icefields Parkway at Saskatchewan River Crossing. Snow accumulations may be less in these ranges making for easier approaches. During the winter months the closest accommodation is at Shunda Creek Hostel near Nordegg and Rampart Creek Hostel. Motor vehicle services are located at Nordegg, Lake Louise and Jasper. By mid March the Saskatchewan River Crossing resort is open offering a full range of services. There are few climbs along Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway) within the park.
A voluntary safety registration system is available for climbers in the National Parks. This information is vital during search and rescue operations. It is necessary to register in person at the park information centres or Warden Offices during business hours. On completion of the excursion, the party must notify the park by telephone or by returning the registration form. The park service will investigate all overdue registrations. However, weather conditions, daylight and objective hazards at the time may delay the rescuers reaching overdue persons. Climbers are advised to prepare to spend a minimum of one night out after a registration becomes due.
Dial 911 to report an emergency. Cell phone coverage is limited within the park with some coverage existing close to the town site. Pay phones are located along the Icefields Parkway at; Saskatchewan River Crossing Warden Station, the Icefields Centre lower parking lot, Beauty Creek Hostel, Sunwapta Warden Station, Bubbling Springs pullout, Athabasca Falls Hostel and the Athabasca Pass lookout. Several emergencies have been called in using satellite phones in recent years.
Let the dispatcher know that you are in Jasper National Park (or the north end of Banff National Park) and then give your precise location and the accident location. Phones to the south of the Icefields are routed to a 911 dispatch out of Rocky Mountain House. The dispatcher will not be as familiar with the area as the Jasper and Banff Park dispatchers. The speed of the rescue response will depend on you knowing where you are.
If you are calling for assistance using a satellite phone the number to call to reach the Jasper emergency dispatch will be 780 852 3100 or 877 852 3100 depending on your service provider.
The Park Warden Service provides comprehensive rescue services for visitors to the National Parks. The Costs of rescues will normally be recovered from the Park User Fees paid by all visitors at the park gate. Park users should note that ambulance services, including air ambulance, are the responsibility of the user.
Most ice climbs form in drainage features. During the winter months many of these features are filled with snow and become avalanche terrain. Avalanches regularly kill ice climbers. Even class one avalanches can present a life threatening effect on a precariously balanced ice climber. Understanding the avalanche phenomena will help you make more informed decisions. For more information on ice climbing an avalanche danger refer to the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale for Ice Climbers
The Park Warden Service between December and April prepares daily backcountry avalanche bulletins. These forecasts can be viewed online at www.avalanche.ca and are posted at the Jasper Information Centre. A recorded version of the forecast is updated each evening and can be heard by dialling 780 852-6176. The avalanche danger can change rapidly with changing weather. Be observant of changing conditions and earlier warning signs during your approach and while climbing. Before heading out be sure to check the local weather forecast 780 852-3185 or check on line with Environment Canada .
The Icefields Parkway (highway 93) travels through many avalanche paths. These areas are marked by avalanche signs at the start and end of the avalanche danger areas. Do not stop or park between these signs as you are at danger from avalanches here .
Avalanche control activities take place along this section of highway and the road may be closed during these times for several days at a time. For shorter closures the Weeping Wall and Polar Circus may be closed during the day. A sign at the trail approach will indicate if a closure is in effect. Please do not climb at these climbs at this time. Un-detonated explosives may be encountered in these areas. Do not move or touch any objects that you suspect are explosives and report them immediately to the Warden Service by calling 780 852 6155. For information on closures call the Jasper Warden Office dispatch centre (780 852-6155) or the Sunwapta Warden Station (780 852 5385).
Avalanche courses are offered through the Canadian Avalanche Association , by certified Mountain Guides and guiding companies. If you would like to speak with an avalanche forecaster call 780 852 5383 or 780 852 6155
Iceclimbing Routes With No Avalanche Danger
Maligne Canyon (35m II, WI 2-6, 1*)
Park at the Maligne Canyon Tea House parking area on your way up to Maligne Lake, there are phones and outhouses in the parking area. Follow the trail to just past the second bridge where you can access the canyon. There is no formal hiking trail here. Several of the climbs can be accessed from above by repel and/ or for setting up top ropes. Several people have fallen to their death in this location, please exercise extreme caution.
If you enter the canyon you do so at your own risk. The canyon is water filled in the summer and is very hazardous during the winter if the ice gives way. Dangers include:
- Falling ice and rock overhead.
- Thin ice underfoot with deep cold flowing water below.
- Slippery surfaces.
Tangle Creek (60m I, WI 2,1*)
Tangle Falls is located on the north side of Tangle Hill 7.4 Km north of the Icefields Centre along the Icefields Parkway, park in the ploughed area close to the outhouses. The closest phones are at the Icefields Centre parking lot. Climb the rock to climbers right of the ice climbing to gain access to and from the top of the routes.
Panther Falls (60 m II, WI 3-4,1)
Park in the ploughed viewpoint to Bridal Veil Falls on the Big Bend hill along the Icefields Parkway. The top of the climb can be accessed from the north end of the parking area, or from below by following an often snow covered summer trail through the timber below the south end of the parking area. Although there is no avalanche danger on the route, to access the climb from below you will be exposed to some steep avalanche prone slopes. To avoid these entirely you can rappel from the top of the climb to the base of the route. The climb is usually done as 2 pitches with the first pitch starting from behind the cave. The exit pitch is through a cool Scottish gully like feature. Be aware that there are some deep narrow limestone slots between the top of the climb and the parking area. These are often completed hidden by snow. The closest phones are at the Icefields Centre Parking area and outhouses are located at the Parkers Ridge summer trailhead to the north.
Weeping Wall (180 m II, WI 4-5+, 1)
Parking in the ploughed parking area opposite the Weeping Wall 28.6 Km to the north of Saskatchewan River Crossing. A short approach takes you to the base of the route. Several lines exist on the ice curtain. Most climbers walk off to the left across an avalanche prone gully to a rappel station from a tree. The gully is referred to as Snivelling Gully and is a terrain trap for icefall and avalanches. Rappel from Abalakovs and two chain anchor stations on skier's right of the gully. Alternatively rappel your route. The closest phones are at Saskatchewan River Crossing Warden Station and outhouses are located at the Weeping Wall parking area.