Photos and story by ROSS BALLARD
Dec. 8th 7:00 am
I wake up suddenly after only three hours of sleep. The day has come, the gear is packed and the “ice rig” is stocked with food, water and beer for a couple days on the Ice Fields Parkway. I walk outside and knock on the door of the rig to wake up my good friend and climbing cohort Tyler. The “ice rig” consists of a brand new 2016 Ford F250 and a short box 1979 “Camperette”. It has two small beds, a fridge, stove and heater and enough storage space for our climbing gear. With propane heat and a twelve volt system we are able to cook like kings in warmth while we watch the seven inch “flat screen” on Ty’s portable DVD player. For any committed ice rat it’s like a suite at the Ritz; it would make climbing in the ice fields both comfortable and affordable. It was the maiden voyage for the rig and we were amped to get under way. We are well past Tete Jaune Cache when I realize I have forgotten a very important piece of equipment. The COFFEE PRESS!!! I curse myself. Shit. To make matters worse it was around +4 and raining, then snowing, then raining…
We arrive in Jasper to +5 and yet more rain. Not ideal Ice climbing conditions. We fill the spare propane tank and after a quick stop at Gravity Gear for some anchor cord we head down the Ice Fields Parkway in a gathering snow storm. At the park gate we buy an annual pass to access the frozen nasties beyond and are told that the roads are poor. This is a severe under statement; we have never seen a worse maintained Canadian highway! Through the dusky gloom I can just make out Tangle Ridge and the giant stage of “Curtain Call” one of the stoutest ice climbs on the parkway. We spend our first night in a small rest stop just downhill from the roadside waterfall at Tangle Creek.
Dec. 9th Tangle Falls 60M WI2-3
I step outside to clear skies and dropping temps; it is -5. We arrive at Tangle Creek to find the main falls in full remission. A week of warm weather has left nothing more than a hollow cone of ice which partly collapses while we are there. There is thin but climbable ice to both the left and right of the hollow tube and we decide to start on the right. We find a narrow ice ramp that looks suitable to ascend. Tyler takes some slings for anchors and our two smallest screws. He climbs with ease, placing the screws more for practice then safety. After making a tree anchor we hook and stem thin ice for an hour and decide to switch the rope to the left side of the falls. The ice here is surprisingly fat and soft at the bottom and I even find a neat little rock buttress that provides secure tool placements in a limestone crack. We spend five hours climbing and pull the rope at around 2:30 pm. We put all the sharp stuff in a rubber bin and bring our boots and gloves upfront to dry in the truck.
We are out of beer and I forgot our breakfast (pancakes) so we drive to the tiny village of Nordegg for supplies. We head into the gas/food store for eggs and pancake mix and another must have for the showerless road tripper; baby wipes. We walk across the road to the “Beer Cabin” and leaving Nordegg, we drive forty kilometers back to Cline River where we plan to climb the following day. I step outside at two am and find the stars clearer and closer than I have ever seen them; even with my poor eyes they are luminescent and as numerous as grains of sand on a beach. Orion’s belt shines like pale diamonds on the ink black sky.
Dec. 10th – Cline River Gallery 35M WI3-5
Waking late again I make a hearty pancake breakfast. We drive a few kilometers to the Pinto Creek trail head and the path leading to Cline River Gallery. Located in the Central Alberta Rockies only 43 Km from Saskatchewan River Crossing, the Cline River carves a deep gorge into the stone and small water seepages create huge sheets of ice, some of which grow right down to the water’s edge. I have been ice climbing for eleven seasons now and I have seen some truly jaw dropping ice formations, but the Cline gallery was like something from a perfect dream. An emerald green river snaking through a steep walled canyon lined with steep ice in every shade of blue imaginable. Baby blue daggers, sky blue pillars, and glacial blue walls. I was stunned. This early in the season the ice was un-pecked and vertical. Being our second day out, we walked to the top and anchored off a big spruce tree. We climbed the shorter thirty meter left-hand wall and found some brilliant WI4 climbing with staggered pillars we could stem in between. Too much fun! After five hours we were out of snacks and low on water and energy. We leave our packs at the top and walk down to the canyon floor. I snap a few photos and we stare in awe at the lonely beauty of this sacred place. We will be back later in the year to embrace “Pure Energy” the WI4 center piece of this natural wonder.
Dec. 11th 2 O’clock Falls 120M WI2-3
Two O’clock Creek is located on the ceremonial lands of the Nakoda Indians. The falls offer an amazing view of the Kootenay Plain and the traditional hunting and fishing grounds of this proud First Nnation. We feel very lucky to walk through this area. Prehistoric campsites have been found on the plain dating back over five thousand years and it is clear to see why; elk and deer tracks dot our path and Abraham Lake is only a few minutes away. We walk past a wind-blown sweat lodge and scattered through the forest are trees covered in bright strips of cloth. When we hit the first hill on the way to the falls Tyler spots a huge cougar track.
As we gear up Tyler finds that yet again his crampon is broken! Last year one broke in half; this year a crack in between the two front points. He is not pleased but the crampon technically works so he can still climb. I get my first lead of the season on a sheet of rolling plastic, placing three screws in the first pitch and making a tw- screw anchor in a fat ice bulge. I bring Ty up and he leads the easy second pitch leaving me the gravy. Early season conditions have left a ten meter section of ice dead vertical and I get a solid grade three lead in. The tree I anchor off is wrapped in the bright colors of the Nakoda people and I am blessed with a stunning view of the Kootenay Plain. I hum a quiet chant while Tyler climbs up to me. Ever since my father past away in 2006 I have carried some of his ashes in a small capsule around my neck. When my aunt passed a couple years ago I added some of hers and whenever I find myself in a sacred place I spread their ashes and say a prayer. I did so here and thank my dad for always supporting my climbing. I feel closer to him in the mountains than in any other place.
We rappel at precisely two o’clock and spend an hour or so top roping the bottom pitch, pulling the rope just before dark. In the light of my headlamp I spot what I think are weasel tracks heading down the trail; they continue for a few meters then end suddenly in a clearing with the feathered wing brushings of a large raven; poor silly weasel. We drive into Banff for showers, burgers and brew and camp beside the water of the spirits, Lake Minnewanka. Once again the stars are other worldly; like bright shiny pearls on a black velvet blanket. As I watch a small star falls across the night sky and away from the world behind Mt. Rundle.