Today my mate Nick Sharpe sent a photo of Mount Kidd Falls in Canada a route we did in 1983. This a steep ice climb protected by a huge avalanche bowl on Mount Kidd. Nick is a Mountain Guide in Canada and is living the dream it brought back so many memories as we start another winter in Scotland of a trip over 40 years ago to a wild place where few climbed and there were so many unclimbed routes about.
I have so many wonderful memories of Canada and the Rockies from my early trip in 1983 when there were under 100 ice climbs there. My great friends Mark Cheeky Sinclair RIP and Tom MacDonald had read Bugs MacKeith’s articles about ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies. It was in the SMC Journal and Bugs an expatriate Scottish climber who was living in Canada had written such an article we had to go. He told tales of huge ice falls many unclimbed, few climbers and of adventures on the ice.
Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal – Reviews 1982
“This is a Guide Book to the ice climbs in the Canadian Rockies. It is dedicated to our late member Bugs McKeith and contains one of his drawings as a frontispiece. Profusely illustrated with some of the most impressive photographs on horrendous ice falls, this little book makes interesting reading whether or not one decides to go to the Rockies. The author’s definition of “free” relating to ice climbing would be a nasty shock to most of us. CS”
We were hooked and I spent 5 weeks on the best trip of my life in Canada in late February and March 1983. It was a group of six of us that went some top guys like Tom , Cheeky and Pete Kay a bear of a man from down South in North Wales, Mark Ritchford a young gun and a baby pilot from New Zealand at RAF Valley , Malcolm Taylor what a crew.
None of us had ever been to Canada and a winter trip was a very serious event. The flight over was exciting we wore everything as we had so much gear, we took the same as we climbed in in Scotland. We hired a car nothing like the hire car nowadays as cash was tight. It was through “Rent a Wreck” real name and could not take 6 0f us and gear in one go. It was all we could afford but did the job just. Three headed to Canmore our base near Banff in the Rockies about 2 hours away and three of us went and shopped for food and then hit the city Calagary but that is another story! We had no clue it was a 5 hour return journey in mid- winter. Eventually we all arrived at the Alpine Club Hut at Canmore where we based ourselves for the first week. This was the ideal place to be and it became our Base for the whole trip as we moved about the key areas, rarely seeing anyone. We had the only guide a simple guide-book with a few routes in it and were lucky as staying in the hut was a young climber Guy Lacelle and Chic Scott little did we know how well-known and how incredible people we had met.
As I said before there was little known about ice climbing in Canada and only a few climbers about Guy and Chic gave us so much information in these early days there were few fixed belays. There was a lovely place nearby called Grotto Falls and we started a shakedown there. Tom and Cheeky had climbed some of the hardest winter climbs in Scotland a good few grade 5 climbs. I was a far more modest climber enjoying grade 3 and struggling on the harder grades. We were astonished at the steepness of the ice and the lack of protection we had in the way of ice gear.
Next day we drove to Banff for Rogan’s Gully and Cascade Falls is a beautiful 300 metre grade 3 ice climb that probably sees the most ascents of any climb in the Rockies (when it’s in shape). It was a great introduction to ice climbing and the dangers of climbing in the Rockies, where the fear of avalanches is extremely serious.
Both routes were an interesting day and we were learning all the time. Descent is by abseiled points and abseils were off trees or ice screws, or ice bollards it made one think and after two days climbing we had to have a rethink as we were running out of abseil tat ! We bought some hollow tubing that was recommended to abseil off later and had some scares watching it bend as we abseiled off, I was first to go as at that time was the lightest!!!!
The Footfang crampon ideal for the steep water ice and what a difference they made on clearing the chandler ice that formed. It was scary climbing and bold at the time with the axes available and the new skills to learn.
We climbed with these ice axes Terrors, Chouinard Zero axes, Humming birds and a couple of Chacals .The axes made a great noise on the sticky ice. We also used “Terrors” and carried a spare axe in case one broke in the cold, we climbed in some very low temperatures -20 to – 35 .
Few of the locals climbed in these temperatures the ice was to hard? We only had a few ice screws about 4 per pair and they were hard work on the steep ice, nowadays you have possibly 12 screws per pair and they are so easy to use.
On our feet we had the Classic Salewa Crampons, the Chouinard crampons and Tom had a pair of the new Footfangs crampons. It was a huge learning curb but what a place to learn! We had also invested in the new plastic boots Koflacks and they saved the day on a few occasions in the extreme cold. They were in the early days a white moulded plastic boots with felt inners an incredible improvement on all previous boots.
“Plastic boots came upon the mountaineering world like a rash in the late 1970’s and within a couple of years just about everybody had a pair. Scottish bog trotters said it was the first time they’d had dry feet for a hundred years, Himalayan climbers didn’t get frostbite and boot polish dried up in the tin – redundant. Unfortunately, there was a down side – condensation made your feet look like wrinkled prunes with blisters popping up on each wrinkle!
Blisters appeared round the ankle where the boot top rubbed and if water did get in, it couldn’t get out. Some folk loved them, others hated them, but as if by magic, they almost totally disappeared from the scene sometime in the late 1990’s.”
Koflach were one of the main producers back in the 70’s, using technology gleaned from making ski boots and we’ve got a prime example of their ‘Ultras’ here. They were probably the most prolific boot on the market at the time.
We met many of the greats of the early days of Canadian ice climbing and held great parties at the weekend when all the climbers arrived. They were amazed by this group of unknown climbers from Scotland who seemed to getting up many of the routes at the time. There were so few climbing ice unlike nowadays and we built a bit of a reputation and broke a few hearts at the time from the lovely Canadian girls. I fell in love with the country, the people, the climbing was way above my grades but it was incredible scary climbing and every day I felt glad to be alive after the wild abseils.
I have been lucky enough to be back in Canada 5 times everyone was an adventure but now it is a Mecca for ice climbers, it is busy and changed beyond comprehension. That first trip was incredible climbing with these basic ice tools and gear, the freezing cold, the terrifying abseils and the chase out of the forest by a bear. Add to that stunning women, broken hearts and great friendships maybe there is another trip in me?
Thanks to Nick Sharpe Mountain Guide for all his photos and who lives the dream in Canada and its memories and all those who looked after me on these wonderful adventures thanks.
Some of the Routes climbed in 1983 – Canmore Junkyard, Rogan’s Gully, Cascade, Grotto Falls,
His, Hers, Chantilly Falls, Louise Falls, Professor’s Fall, Whiteman Falls, Mt Kidd Falls, A Bridge to Far, Bow Falls, Grotto Falls, Silk Tassel,
Massey’s, Pilsners Pillar, Guinness Gully, Carlsberg Column, Bourgeau Snivelling Gully, Panther Falls, Weeping Wall, Right, Central and Left, Polar Circus. Sacrebleu.
Dedicated to Mark “ Cheeky” Sinclair RIP, Al MacLeod and Guy Lacelle three great people who loved the mountains and wild places
Big Al MacLeod RIP missed every day.
“Gee man, you are the first Scottish climber who cannot climb
I thought you all could climb? ”
Canada Ice 1983
“We were young and bold and very cold”
Sue and Dave Booth maybe 2017