It was the winter of 1984 had been to the Alps on several occasions but this was my first big trip. Canada in winter then was a big proposition nowadays many do it but then it was and felt a huge undertaking. It was in the last week of a 6 week expedition we were now in the most incredible ice arena I had ever seen. I will never forget the first time I saw this cliff was in 1984 and I was in awe of it to me seemed to have me to be a sea of ice. I had never seen anything like it in my forays into winter. There hardly anyone about in winter in Canada then even on the Highway 93 in these days it was winter and climbers were few.
At that time there were under 100 ice climbs in the area, nowadays there are hundreds. It’s a Mecca for ice climbers.
My pals 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 at that time it was incredible.
Alistair ‘Bugs’ McKeith -, Alistair (1945-1978) known as Bugs.
Bugs is probably best known for his early 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. Canadian climbers were and still are world leaders in ice climbing.
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. What a man, what a time to climb.
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 there were 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 Creek 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 river.
We climbed the easy Snivelling gully to get a feel for the cliff. Then onto other routes. Pure steep ice with gear limited at the time. It was bold climbing for its time. Then the wild abseils of with no back up then on the way of a prussic knot. Crazy but wonderful times.