The first time I saw this cliff was in 1984 and I was in awe of it to me seemed to have so be a sea of ice. There was no one about even on the Highway in these days it was winter and climbers were few. We had been to Canada on a winter climbing trip at that time there were under 100 ice climbs in the area, nowadays there are hundreds.
Tom and Mark had read an article in the SMC Journal by an ex pat Scot Bugs McKeith saying there was so much ice in Canada waiting to be climbed. He along with a few locals climbed these incredible pillars of ice with basic ice tools learning the hard way and pushing ice climbing to a new level. Sadly Bugs was killed not long after he wrote his article about this mecca for ice climbers. The seed was sown in Tom and Mark though how we got the trip together it was incredible.
Alistair ‘Bugs’ McKeith -, Alistair (1945-1978) known as Bugs
Bugs is probably best known for his pioneering role in the development of Canadian ice-climbing, but he started off life as one of a small but influential band of Edinburgh-born climbers of the 60s known collectively as ‘The Squirrels’. His pre-Canada climbing record is impressive: new summer lines in Scotland, early repeats in the Alps as well as new routes in the Dolomites and Mont Blanc and participation of the first ascent of the North Pillar of the Eiger in 1970. McKeith’s climbing career took a brief rest after this when he joined the British Antarctic Survey, but he put the time to good use to experiment with ice-climbing techniques – a factor which would lead to his innovative and bold approach in North America shortly afterwards. After travelling and climbing in the Andes and back in the European Alps he returned to Scotland, he became dissatisfied with the ‘smallness’ of the place and moved to Canada. From the early 1970s onwards, McKeith was one of the driving forces behind the development of Canadian ice climbing, importing Scottish know-how to a largely unexploited arena and unsuspecting local climbing community. The first ascent of Tatakakken Falls was futuristic in the extreme; a thousand feet of Scottish Grade VI ice it was the hardest icefall climbed at the time and the first at its grade. McKeith also made the first ascent of the famous Weeping Wall, off the Jasper-Banff highway. Innovative aid was employed during this ascent, the crux being overcome by the use of etriers hung from Terrordactyl ice axes– a technique which emphasised McKeith’s technical aptitude and willingness to think creatively. With his period of greatest achievement probably still to come, McKeith suffered an untimely death at the age of 33 when he was caught in a cornice collapse while descending Assiniboine having completed a major face climb. What he had helped start in western Canada, however, was to evolve into a major facet of world climbing activity.
Standout climbs: 1st British ascent of North America Wall, Yosemite, USA, 1971; 1st winter ascent North Face of Mount Stanley, Canada 1973; 1st ascent Tatakakken Falls (Grade VI), Weeping Wall (V/VI), Canada.
The seed was sown and I still do not have a clue how I got on this trip but I did. It costs us a fortune at the time but was the best expedition I have ever had.
We had a single car for the 6 of us and most days were long days and lots of hanging about waiting for a lift in – 20 we learned a lot from that trip. We had very basic kit and learned about the brittle ice , cauliflower ice and it was so different from Scotland.
The gear looking back was primitive but that is all in my other blogs so its worth having a look. It was great gear though and the very basic ice screws at the time. We arrived with a few slings some tat for abseils and 4 ice screws per pair! We ran out of tat quickly there were few fixed belays. We abseiled of hollow tubing that bent at times but somehow stayed alive.
We were lucky to be looked after by two great world class climbers Guy Lacelle and Chic Scott. They gave us some great advice and help. At that time the late Bill March and Rusty Bale we’re climbing and we met them a lot. Yet it was the locals we hit it off with as we climbed Mon – Fri and partied at the weekend.
photo – My trusty Zeros wodden axes but in 1984 still great gear.
This Weeping Wall was the Mecca of ice climbing with the World famous Polar Circus just a few miles away. Two of our group did an early one day ascent of this climb which was incredible at the time.
The Weeping wall It is 5 minutes from the road and just dominates the view and in these days exciting abseils of the cliff after a route, nowadays its a lot easier with chains and bolts.
We stayed at Rampart Creek is a Hostel in the wilds just a few minutes from Weeping Wall. This is a wonderful hostel set in a surreal location. It has no running water and all power is by Solar and they have a wee generator. The assistant warden was a lovely lady called Darcy who looked after us so well, she even cut wood for the sauna, what a lady, what hospitality. We had a great night and a couple of young American climbers were the only other people staying. It was an early start as Dan and Dave were after a big route on the Weeping Wall. This mecca for ice climbers forms a huge cliff about 2 hours from Jasper.
Climbers come from all over the world to climb on this incredible cliff. It has two tiers the first about 600 Feet separated from the Upper tier by steep snow and trees. The only way off this cliff is by abseil of trees and bolts in the wall. There are few bolts on the belays and most are ice screws or the famous V-Thread (also known as the “Abalokov” anchor, named after a Russian climber who popularised the technique) and the ice bollard. In a V-thread two intersecting tunnels are bored into the ice to form a “V” shaped tunnel. A sling or cordelette is then threaded through the V and tied in a loop. The rope is passed through the sling, which remains left behind after use. We got to Rampart Creel after an eventful drive and then settled in for the night, it was a cosy place but so much snow about must make it a hard life to live so far away in the winter. We had some great nights here in the past and I remember cutting ice from the creek for our source of water, so different nowadays. Dan and Ned used the sauna but I had an early night as we would be up early next day.
The last time I was here was 7 years ago we had fun on the left hand route with lots of spindrift falling all day. We met some “North Face athletes there we told them that we were MOD athletes and I had been here 40 years ago, most were not born then. I do not think they believed me. They set up a rope on the first pitch of Central Ice fall and we all had fun climbing it even me, not bad for a 60 year old. It took me back to an early ascent with Jim Morning who climbed with a broken hand after falling skiing at the beginning of another expedition.
On the same trip a local climber fell high on Central ice fall Direct and one of our team Bill Batson and partner traversed off to sort him out and lower him several pitches of the climb. They were lucky Bill was there and able to recover him. That was inspiring climbing by Bill at the time and had a great outcome. If you fell that length on Scottish ice I doubt you would have survived. You do not last long in – 15 degrees after a fall. He was a lucky guy the nearest hospital was 2 hours away but apart from a bashed face he was okay a timely reminder.
Grade & Length: III, WI4 – 5+, 160m
Approach: Park at the signed “Weeping Wall” parking lot about 25 minutes North of the Saskatchewan Crossing, or 15 minutes South of the Columbia Icefields. If you miss the sign, you certainly won’t miss the enormous sheet of ice right beside the road.
Walk 5 minutes to the base.
Route Description: One of the most famous ice climbs in the world, the Weeping Wall offers a number of great lines ranging from WI4 to WI5+. The most common lines are the Left Hand (WI4), the Central Pillar (WI5+), and the Right Hand (WI5), although numerous variations are possible. Another line known as Snivelling Gully is hidden on the left and goes at WI3, although it is often wet and/or snowy. A direct finish to Snivelling Gully goes at WI5, and is obvious when formed.
The Upper Weeping Wall is just uphill and makes for a much longer and more difficult day of climbing.
Descent: It is possible to rappel anywhere on V-threads, but a fixed rappel line exists on the far right. For this fixed rappel line, start with a rap off a tree with a large chain around it and rap straight down then move right to bolts on a rock ledge at 55m. Make a second 55m rappel straight down to more bolts, then a third rap to the ground.
Gear: Screws. 2 ropes for descent.
Objective Hazards: Because the wall gets lots of sun, beware of hanging pillars and curtains above. There is rarely avalanche hazard.