Waterfall Ice and Mixed Climbing
Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Jasper, and Waterton Lakes National Parks are home to many of the finest waterfall ice and mixed ice climbing routes anywhere in the world. Located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, these parks offer a combination of good access, reliable conditions, hundreds of excellent routes and a very long season often starting as early as November and lasting until April. Warm temperatures and frequent chinooks (warm, dry winds) can make the ice quality questionable, and it is not unusual for climbs to melt out or fall, then reform, several times in a season.
A mixed climber swings for the ice in Yoho National Park. © Rob Owens
Avalanche hazard is the most significant threat to ice climbers in the Canadian Rockies. The vast majority of routes are exposed to avalanche hazard - often for extended periods. The simple fact that water flows and freezes in gullies makes most ice climbing routes natural terrain traps. Climbing early in the season before the snow arrives may mean reduced avalanche exposure but may also mean increased technical challenge on partially formed falls. Some of the avalanche related challenges facing the Rockies’ ice climber include:
- Complicated approach terrain requiring early starts
- Long exposure times climbing waterfalls threatened by overhead hazard
- Potentially different snow and weather conditions affecting avalanche terrain above the route
- Climbing above cliffs, or between steep pitches on avalanche prone terrain
- Rapid temperature changes that trigger avalanches and topple waterfalls
- Shallow and weak snowpack conditions that prevail most of the winter
Know Before You Go
Ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies demands avalanche awareness skills. If you haven’t yet, sign up for an Avalanche Skills Training Course to learn how to how to identify avalanche terrain, understand the conditions and factors that cause avalanches, plan and carry out a backcountry trip, carry out a companion rescue and use appropriate travel techniques when travelling in avalanche terrain. Before setting off on your trip, check the weather forecast, the Public Avalanche Bulletins and the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale.
Click here for an ATES list (avalanche terrain exposure scale) of popular ice climbs in the Mountain Parks. Click on specific routes on the lists to see a photo of the climb and associated avalanche terrain. These photos are not “real time” photos and are only meant to give a general idea of the terrain on, above, or below the climbs listed.
Don’t forget to check the Winter Backcountry Checklist too. Don’t leave the trailhead unless everyone in your group is wearing an avalanche transceiver and carrying a shovel and probe, and knows how to use it. Practice often! Visit your nearest Beacon Basin. Be prepared to change your objectives as the conditions change – don’t allow yourself to become too fixated on a single destination just because it’s your only day off.
Ice Climbers from around the world enjoy great conditions in the Mountain National Parks. © Rob Owens
Comprehensive rescue services are provided by Mountain Safety Program Specialists for visitors to the Mountain National Parks. Climbers, however, should plan on being self-reliant and remember that rescue assistance may not always be immediately available, especially during stormy weather. Rescue costs are normally recovered from the park user fees paid by visitors upon entry to the park.