I have so many wonderful memories of Canada and the Rockies from my early trip in 1983 when few from the UKwere aware of this Mecca of ice. At that time there were under 100 ice climbs there. My great friends Mark “Cheeky” Sinclair and Tom MacDonald had read Bugs MacKeith’s and expatriated Scott articles about ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies. I think it was in the SMC Journal. Bugs was an Scottish climber who was living in Canada had written such an amazing article we had to go. He told tales of huge ice falls many unclimbed, even fewer 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, Cheeky, Pete Kay a bear of a man from down South in North Wales, Mark Ritchford a young gun stationed in Germany 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 clothing 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. On arriving at Calgary three headed to Canmore our base near Banff in the Rockies about 2 hours away. The other three of us went and shopped for food and then hit the city Calgary 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 Alberta 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.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. At the time little did we know how well-known and how these two 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 where 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 above that 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. Our ice screws were simple as they were hardly used then in Scotland.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!
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 the humming bird axe and a couple of Chacals and even a what a 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 . 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’ They were probably the most prolific boot on the market at the time. Scottish Mountaineering Collection notes).
The one car was a nightmare as we usually climbed in pair’s and I remember often walking along the empty roads in minus 20 at the end of a long day it was so cold it still makes me think. In really low temperatures the ice was so brittle and few were out like we were every day. We many more characters in Canada like Bill March and Rusty Bale who had done that week a 2 day ascent of the classic Polar Circus. This route was climbed in a day by Malcolm and Pete Kay the weekend after. That was an early for that era one day ascent of this route.
The social scene was fantastic, just amazing we rested at weekend and had some wild nights in the Alpine Club. At the end of the trip we sold lots of our gear to make ends meet and I had an early Access Card which funded a few things. We met some great characters and the entire group climbed well. I climbed a lot with Tom MacDonald who passed away last week.
We had started climbing together at RAF Kinloss in 1972 and here we were on some of the most wonderful ice climbs in the world. Looking back it was surreal. We moved around staying in basic Youth Hostels and living cheaply with these great characters.
My Memories of Canada at that time: hanging of dubious belays me wanting to abseil off and Tom pushing on with limited gear alone in this wild place. Mark Sinclair looking after me and taking time out to help me on Guinness Gully and the Stout that long day with Pete Kay. The kindness of the local climbers and people who make any trip worthwhile. Leaving a set of terrors on Masseys at Field and them being recovered by local climber’s.
Pete Kaywas so strong and loving the ice, Marky the young dude full of confidence and Malcolm Taylor typical fast jet pilot the best climber a teetotaller who did a new Grade 5 with Guy Lacelle who was one of the best ice climbers in the world. Meeting Guy and learning so much he said “I thought all Scots could climb Heavy till I met you” I will never forget him soloing beside me laughing as he climbed you never heard his axes or feet on the ice, unlike me.
Its great to relook at the past and think of the great days. I gave a lecture to Kinloss after our trip, the troops were amazed by the ice and the climbs. This lead the way for team member’s running trips for many others. My mate Dan Carrol I am sure went at least 10 times. I had 4 trips but that first one was incredible for its time.
Routes climbed – 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 and a few others.
Sadly Mark was killed on Lochnagar. Guy died in an Avalanche and Tom last week. Yet the memories are of superb days that make you glad you did specail things with special folk.
Nowadays with all the gear all these routes are easier than in our day, gear has improved so much in all aspects. The routes are busy and it amazing to see how many routes there are now especially on the big Mountains. When we left the Alpine Club we gave them a copy of the book Cold Climbs for their amazing library. Nowadays the Youth Hostels are busy often we were the only ones about and there are so many new cliffs and routes. Add in perfect ice , blue skies and you have the perfect blend for winter climbing. Folk Ski into routes now and were amazed to see our guys walk in in deep snow. You learn every day.
Comments welcome as always.