Words: Christian Lanley
Photos: Christian Lanley & Chris Brinlee, Jr.
After a failed ski expedition to Mount Castleguard due to rapidly deteriorating weather and avalanche conditions, Paul Chiddle--program director and seriously-legit mountain guide at Yamnuska Mountain Adventures--sent Chris Brinlee, Jr. and I an email with a list of WI5 ice climbs and told us to pick one to go do together.
We checked them out online and settled on The Sorcerer, a four pitch, 700-foot four-star classic in The Ghost Wilderness of Alberta, Canada. It looked rad and very steep for our first multi pitch ice climb, and I was unsure if I was even strong enough for that level--but photos and a description of the route had me stoked to try hard and embrace my inner top-rope-tough-guy to try and make it up a world-class climb.
After receiving instructions from Paul on where to meet, Chris and I scarfed down burgers, packed, and went to bed early--we had a 3am wake-up call. Once the alarms went off, we left our hostel in Canmore and hit the highway in the dark. I was tired and anxious--but totally excited.
Paul was waiting for us at a turnout; we threw our bags in his fully built-out Tacoma and continued onward. Soon the road turned from pavement into a frozen river; we pulled up to an FJ Cruiser that had high-centered on the ice, blocking the bridge. The driver got out and we tried to winch his rig free, but our attempt was unsuccessful.
To get around the FJ, Paul drove his Tacoma off the road and onto a frozen lake that had formed in the dense forest when the river began flowing over and freezing. Immediately, I thought, “I want one.” After a few very intense minutes, we made it back onto the “road;” it was still dark by the time reached the start of our approach.
The sun began to rise as we walked into the canyon and I caught my first glimpse of The Sorcerer. “Hope you guys brought your big boy arms!” Paul exclaimed as he looked back with a grin. I thought, “Wow. This thing is huuuuge!” Upon reaching the base of the frozen fall we roped up, strapped crampons onto our Salewa Vultur Vertical GTX boots, and got ready to climb.
Paul led the first pitch which was short and started off pretty steep, but he flew up with ease. Then he belayed Chris and I up on separate half ropes simultaneously, which was cool because we got to climb at the same time for the first time. The first pitch went well, and I was pretty confident that we were going to have an epic climb. The second pitch was short--steep snow; and nothing special, but once we all arrived at the anchor, the real fun would begin.
Paul took off on pitch three and it was incredible to watch him work. His technique was flawless, his control superb, and his movements efficient. It was clear that he had spent a lot of time climbing in the mountains. The third pitch was long, sustained, and steep; and he didn’t even seem to be breaking a sweat or breathing heavily. He placed screws for each of our ropes and quickly made his way to the next anchor, giving us the go-ahead to follow. Chris and I started climbing--and right off the bat I started feeling pumped. Chris seemed to be making good progress but I was struggling to get up over the first bulge. It was steep.
I don't really consider myself an ice climber--I had top-roped a few times at Lee Vining in the Sierra, but it was never that committing and in such a grand setting. Without leashes, I couldn’t help but think about how bad it would be to drop one or both of my tools--and those nagging thoughts were distracting me from climbing. Before long, my hands and arms were so pumped that I could barely even hold onto the tools, let alone swing them and pull up. If I dropped a tool though, the route would be over and we’d all have to descend.
I had to rest, so I swung the left tool into the ice and let go to hang onto the right one. I yelled “take” and sat back into my harness, but the rope stretch dropped me a couple of feet below my left tool and it was a pain to get back up to it. By the time that I did, I was even more pumped and tired and once I got going again it wasn’t very long before I could barely hold on anymore. I went to repeat the same rest process as before, but my foot blew after placing the first tool and I took a swing out to my right and the rope got pulled over a bulge and sent a huge chunk of snow straight into my face.
I was left hanging on the other side of the bulge, and my tool was 15 feet away from me. Chris was laughing from above as he watched me get nailed in the face by the falling snow. “Hey Christian, you still got a chubby?” Paul yelled down. I couldn’t tell at the moment, but he was also laughing at my struggles. “Oh yeah I love it!” I screamed back, trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do next. I took that moment while hanging on the rope to look down and around at my surroundings. I thought, “Wow!” We were so high and exposed and I was several hundred feet up a frozen waterfall. Unreal.
Fortunately, the side of the bulge that I was left hanging on was less steep, and only about 20 feet from the anchor--so I was able to get up with just one tool. Paul lowered Chris to the tool that I left, retrieved it, and climbed back up.
At that point I was pretty certain that I was going to drop a tool or mess something up if I kept going because the next and final pitch was the crux. Since we were going to rappel down the same route anyway, I decided to stay back at the belay--which happened to be a big open cave--and shoot photos of Paul and Chris as they climbed the last pitch. I actually took a nap at the anchor since it was so quiet--it was easy to see how Ghost Canyon earned its name.
Once they finished the climb, we all rapped down and made the trek back to Paul's Tacoma, where we once again drove over frozen lakes, through flowing rivers, and over all kinds of other crazy terrain to get back to the highway.
In the end, I realized that just because I was a strong rock climber--it didn’t necessarily mean that those strengths or muscle groups would translate to climbing vertical ice, which relies heavily on overall fitness and endurance. Next time, I’ll be prepared with some well thought out training tailored specifically to ice climbing. I also learned that pretty much anyone can walk up the lower grades of ice--and to me there wasn’t much variety between those climbs, but once you get up into the WI5-6 range the fun really begins! Next time I go out, I’ll be prepared.
Christian Lanley’s love for the mountains, penchant for suffering, and diverse creative abilities have shaped him as an alpine storyteller. Follow his adventures via @lanleyc on Instagram.