Ice giants: ice climbing waterfalls

I once had a girlfriend yell at me “You love climbing more than you love me!” As I packed for Squamish, I tried to object, but I’m a shitty liar. It was a passionate love affair.

By Ross Ballard


It’s midnight and I am in my shop; one of my crampons is locked firmly in the vice and I am slowly honing it to pointy perfection. I take comfort from the heat of the stove behind me as I turn dull metal into sharpened steel. The night before going ice climbing has always felt like the night before Christmas. I can feel the energy and positivity flowing through me and when I close my eyes she looms in front of me, shimmering in chrome and azure plate mail; beautiful and dangerous to behold.

For those lucky enough to have tried ice climbing there are only two emotions: love and hate. If you love it than you are undoubtedly a bit of a masochist, as each day on the ice brings with it some form of pain. Smashed knuckles, the slow calf burn of climbing low angled ice or the freezing of fingers and toes and the extreme pain involved when they warm up again. A pain so intense it has caused some climbers to vomit and earned it the nickname the “screaming barfies.” These are just a few of the things you must look forward to on your average ice climb.

One must think about the approach and the weather for each climb; the latter being the gauge for just how much pain you are going to have to put up with. As the temperature drops it becomes a question of just how much you want to endure, for as the cold intensifies so do the hardships.

Climbs in this valley must be earned. You must put aside the pain and work calmly and safely in the environment you’ve chosen.

In the winter of 2012, I came back to the valley and it was at that time I met my good climbing buddy Tyler Stayer. Together we discovered and explored many waterfalls that had never been climbed. First ascents are a coveted thing in the climbing world and we endured many cold days in pursuit of them.

There is something truly magical about climbing a waterfall; if only for the fact that we really shouldn’t be there. A frozen waterfall is like a living breathing creature, in a constant state of motion. Melting and then growing with the rise and fall of each sun. Softening and then hardening with the rise and fall of the thermometer.  Each new day brings a different set of challenges that must be overcome. Every waterfall has its own distinct features and colors which are affected by the geography and geology. Minerals leech out of the surrounding soil and rock, which is being slowly eroded by the crushing mass of ice and the slow burdens of time and gravity. Each season a waterfall will form differently; sometimes they are huge and fat and blue, sometimes they are small shriveled and grey, and some seasons they aren’t there at all!  What forms each year is one of nature’s beautiful mysteries.

My passion for climbing waterfalls has led me to some truly breathtaking places, but more important than the adventures are the people you share them with. When you climb, you must put your life in someone else’s hands and trust that they will be conscious and careful with it. That is a heavy responsibility which many people simply don’t want or cannot trust others with. It takes time to find good partners who share similar goals and a common respect for each others safety.

Each day spent climbing in this valley is a dream I feel blessed to have lived. When I look back upon them I don’t often think about the hardships; I think about the brothers who I have shared a rope with and the amazing times we’ve had finding ourselves amongst the curtains and pillars of this rarely explored wilderness.

For the amazing number of waterfalls there are between Valemount and Clearwater there are probably fewer ice climbers per square kilometer than in any other part of western North America. I have been seeking ice giants in this valley for twelve years but new and spectacular things abound, and each season finds me standing below something so beautiful and perfect I almost don’t want to climb it. Almost.

Thanks for reading. Play safe!

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