Maligne Canyon, Jasper National Park: Ice climbing the Canadian Rockies
17 June 2015
My husband and I are lagging behind as our ever-smiling guide Max Darrah from Rockaboo Mountain Adventures as he glides across the track. Towering in stature, broad shouldered and sporting a mop of golden brown curls, Max reminds me of a Canadian version of the Chesty Bonds man. We're heading to Maligne Canyon, one of the most visited canyons in the Canadian Rockies, where sheer limestone walls plummet to depths of over 50 metres… although in winter the limestone is covered by snow and ice.
Jasper National Park is home to some of the best ice climbs in Canada and Max wants to show us the best of the best. "The Queen is one of the best climbs around here," he says, cracking a wider smile than I thought was possible when it's -10C.
I have to half jog to keep up with him as we traverse across the blindingly white snow to our starting point. Even Max's walk seems cheery. He is also a visitor safety specialist for Parks Canada (so he doesn't just climb ice, he rescues people a little too adventurous for their ability when they get stuck attempting climbs) and he loves to scale frozen waterfalls. You read right… The even stranger thing is he isn't the only one. Driving around the region, I've seen many weekend warriors waging war on the mountains, ascending their frozen walls.
The 15-minute walk to the canyon verge is spectacular! Powdery snow drapes the soaring pine trees, tiny flakes drifting down from the branches as we pass. As we round the next bend I really feel as though we could bump into Tumnus or the White Witch, and this time when Max smiles at me I smile back – it's not everyday you get to be in a fairy-tale.
Ice climbing season in Jasper is generally from early December to late March, and unless you're a Canadian ice-climbing devotee who knows frozen waterfalls like the back of their hand, a guided climb (or clumsy clamber in my case) is most definitely the way to go. Max knows the terrain back to front and has a wealth of knowledge about the sport… and everything else.
Chesty Bonds is carrying the ropes and we've got our personal gear. There's some serious equipment involved. I'm wearing crampons over my snow boots, which are basically huge spiked soles that assist the ramming of feet into vertical ice. We are holding ice picks (designed to be swung into the frozen waterfall) and we're rocking out helmets. The ropes Max is carrying are used in much the same way as when rock climbing.
The starting point is the top of the canyon (because you need to get down before going up), and unlike rockfaces, ice waterfalls are much trickier to descend. The water freezes as if it's still running, resulting in long, toothy ice stalactites to manoeuvre around. I fake a smile at Max and pretend I'm super brave as he attempts to lower me down. I refuse to go further. He smiles. I whine. He smiles again and starts saying something about mottos and courage, and ladidada.
Stepping over the first outcrop is the scariest bit. I almost can't do it. Max keeps edging me on with his perfect I-climb-ice-for-fun smile. I intensely glare at him with my I-sunbake-for-fun scowl. For some reason that only makes his smile extend even further.
Then I do it. I lift my foot and miss the ice a few times, then I find a good spot to grip the ice and slowly (in the truest meaning of the word) descend into the canyon. My husband is not so keen on the descent, so he and Max walk down instead (there always has to be another way down in case you can't get up) and then we begin the climb.
We opt to climb The Queen – a beautiful serrated ice wall – and the actual climb isn't as scary as the descent. According to Max it's a four-step process. Step one: place the ice pick nice and high in the ice. Step two: weight the tool with a straight arm. Step three: look down at your feet and move them up to good foot holds. Step four: stand up and repeat. We both have a few attempts and get a few metres higher each time.
Depending on prior weather conditions, how you climb will differ. Alberta had experienced a cold snap the week prior (-40C in March, which is quite rare) resulting in brittle ice and lesser people attempting climbs at this time – so no carved out routes up.
I never make it to the very top but feel quite the opposite of defeated. Not only have I climbed an ice waterfall (which sounds pretty epic and I make sure I sneak it into conversations for months afterwards), I enjoyed it and would do it again. Driving back to our lodge Max keeps smiling and this time I join in. I've got a funny picture in my head – next time I see a crazy Canadian climbing a frozen waterfall I can say, "eh, I've done that too, eh!"
The writer was a guest of Travel Alberta and The Canadian Tourism Commission.
Qantas (qantas.com.au) flies to Los Angeles from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) flies to Los Angeles from Sydney and Brisbane. From there Air Canada (aircanada.com) flies to Calgary. From Calgary International Airport it's just over five hours drive to Jasper.
In winter the lakeside Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, making for a picturesque stay. The cabin accommodation delivers a true winter lodge feel (you can also book suites, guestrooms and speciality rooms). See fairmont.com/jasper.