As we wait for winter: A land of blue skies, pillars of ice, no crowds Canada Ice early days – 1983.

1983 Canada Ice – The dream ice climbing venue. Koflachs boots and basic ice screws.

As we wait for winter my mind goes back to some great winter days and a special trip to Canada.  A land of blue skies  and pillars of ice and few folk. I had no clue what was going to happen on this trip at the time it was a journey into the unknown.

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 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. 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 Mac Donald, Mark  Cheeky Sinclair 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.

1983 canada trip Pete kay and all the boys l.

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 of 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. Money was tight for us all we lived frugally.

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. We 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 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 The Junkyard in Canmore we started a shakedown there. It was incredible to have such ice roadside and so much of it add the blue skies it was incredible but so steep. 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 3/4 and struggling on the harder grades. I had climbed lead things like the Mirror Direct in the Cairngorms, Green Gully and Comb Gully on Ben Nevis. They were like the introductory pitches on most routes here it was frightening.  We were astonished at the steepness of the ice and the lack of protection we had in the way of our ice gear.  We had to buy some “snargs” ice screws after the first week on my Access card which I had just got and saved our trip financially. You all owe me money still.

Next day we drove to Banff  for Rogan’s Gully  and Cascade 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. There were few fixed belays then 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.

We felt we were now ready to climb some harder routes and after some advice from Chic Scott and Guy  Lacelle we headed to Louise Falls a classic grade 4 climb near the magnificent Château at Lake Louise. This was the first of the steeper lines we climbed and gear was very simple then. We climbed with Chouinard Zero axes and humming bird hammers , terrors and a couple of Chacals. I loved the great noise they made on 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. All the locals were amazed as the ice was so brittle in these cold temperatures.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. Nothing again like today’s gear.

We climbed every day one car 3 pairs all heading off in different areas, long wait in -20 for a lift tired frozen but we got about. Every weekend we headed back to the Alpine Hut at Canmore and partied but that is another story.  

We met many famous climber the late Bill March and Rusty Bale so many others.

We visited so many routes and had so much fun meeting few climbers on route ending up on the Weeping Wall and two of our team did an ascent of the classic Polar Circus in a day, pretty rare then. They also climbed a new route Sacre Bleau with Guy Lacelle who went on to become one of the best ice climbers in the World.

I loved Canada and visited many times the last in 2011 how it’s changed. There are so many routes now it’s very busy but will always be a special place in my heart. Maybe I will get back and get a route in again before my 70 th birthday. I still have contacts in Canada.

It was a great bonus that first trip and led the way to so many trips by pals and helped push the climbing standards of many in Mountain Rescue. It enabled me to climb some great routes back home even with my abilities.    Ice that could take ice screws and that may hold a falling climber took a bit of getting used to.

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 inner an incredible improvement on all previous boots.

A bridge to far.

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 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 in the collection. They were probably the most prolific boot on the market at the time.

Polar Circus – ice heaven seas of ice that go on and on. It terrified me just to look at it.

Routes climbed – Canmore Junkyard, Rogan’s Gully, Cascade,  Grotto Falls, His, Hers, Chantilly Falls, Louise Falls, Professor’s Fall, Takewaka and Whiteman Falls, Mt Kidd Falls, A Bridge to Far, Bow Falls, Grotto Falls, Silk Tassel,  Massey’s, Pilsners Pillar, Guinness Gully, Carlsberg Column, Silk Tassell,  Bourgeau  Snivelling Gully, Panther Falls, Weeping Wall, Right, Central and Left,  Polar Circus.  A few second ascents “Sacre Blea” a new route.

I must get the old slides scanned any idea of the best bit of kit to do it? Mine is out of date.

When we came back we had a slide show and the troops were amazed of what they saw. Even I came back and climbed so many classics on the Ben and other places. It was a incredible trip

In memory of Mark Sinclair and Guy Lacelle taken to soon.

I wonder what the young guns would think of our basic gear, ice screws, wooden axes and crampons. When I went out in 2011 there were a few questions about these earlier days. I just laughed and asked for a tight rope.

Which ice screw / axe ? All the gear nowadays and yet what fun we had and we stayed alive!

Thanks to Tom MacDonald and the late Mark Sinclair for the vision to take us there all these years ago. To Pete Kay, Mark Rochford and Malcolm Taylor for the friendship and fun. To Chic Scott and the late Guy Lacelle I look back and really appreciate your advice and friendship.

I am so privileged to have been part of these Golden Days.

About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 36 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 4 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Articles, Equipment, Expeditions - Alaska - Himalayas etc, Gear, Ice climbing Canada, Views Mountaineering, Weather. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to As we wait for winter: A land of blue skies, pillars of ice, no crowds Canada Ice early days – 1983.

  1. Lee says:

    Fantastic tale of daring do. Louise only a grade 4 too! I’ve been so scared (even with the modern kit) every time I’ve climbing that top pitch!
    Loved Koflach plastic boots – fitted to well and foot fangs were good on the ice but poor in snow!!!
    Total respect for what you guys did especially in those days. You paved the way for us. Shame the troops don’t go anymore. I think I was always fighting fear when climbing those steep ice routes!


    • It was enlightening for us all and started the next generation of ice climbers in our system. Few realised what those early days were like they were a real journey into the unknown then. Thanks for your comments.


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