Dangling over a frozen waterfall, Kirsti Oja swings her ice axe into the slippery white wall above her and inches up the crag. The GSI technician from Calgary thrives in winter’s sub-zero temperatures, when she can gear up and head to the Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise areas in Alberta’s Rocky Mountain range for a bout of ice climbing.
“I like extreme sports,” says Oja, 33. “Trying something different like ice climbing opens up your world. It gives you a different perspective of nature and spectacular views you won’t get anywhere else.”
Now in her third season of ice climbing, she searches for hidden locations where she can hack her way up to perches and catch a glimpse of a glowing alpine sunrise or sunset.
Oja, a rock climber and member of the Alpine Club of Canada, began scaling icy cliffs with her best friend. “Neither of us had tried ice climbing. We wanted a way to spend time together outdoors while learning to do a new activity.”
Now, she spends as much time as she can discovering new crags. “We go out in groups of two to six. It’s important to have people you trust and connect with in a sport like this.”
Ice climbing offers a guaranteed charge for adrenaline junkies like Oja, but it comes with its risks and dangers. Safety precautions are paramount. Gear includes safety ropes, harnesses, ice screws and helmets. As for the climbing equipment, sharp edges are key.
“We wear crampons, they are like having big grizzly bear claws on your feet,” explains Will Gadd, a Canmore resident and one of the world’s top ice climbers. The 54-year-old professional athlete’s many feats include scaling the spray ice alongside Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls and ascending the ice cap of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
At the beginning of a climb, an experienced leader secures a top rope at the height of the ascent and places ice screws in strategic spots for safety. Climbers at the base tie into their harnesses and a belayer takes in the slack and tightens the rope, ensuring a short fall if they slip.
Hanging vertically over the frozen water, climbers make their way up a pitch using an ice axe to dig in and haul themselves up. “The axe is almost like a piece of weaponry that you swing into the ice,” notes Gadd.
For beginners, he recommends taking a course. “It’s a higher risk pursuit and you need to know the safety tactics,” he says. For those who are new to the sport, Gadd’s video series on climbing.com outlines equipment usage and mastering technique.
Courses are offered by several outfits, including Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, which has delivered ice-climbing instruction since its inception in 1977. The Canmore-based operation offers beginner to advanced programs and can provide equipment if needed.
“There are no prerequisites, you just need a general fitness level, and the right clothing,” explains Jesse de Montigny, the company’s managing director, who is also a certified International Federation of Mountain Guides Association guide.
He takes guests out on routes that range from a single pitch climb of around 30 meters to multipitch routes of up to 700 meters. A single pitch is similar to going up a rock-climbing wall at the gym, while a multipitch adds many more levels.
The Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise area offers a myriad of routes for all experience levels.
“ Warmer winters in the Rockies provide a stable ice pack. People come here from around the globe because it is one of the few places where the ice has remained reliable
-Will Gladd, veteran ice climber
“I love the challenge of climbing,” says de Montigny. “It’s very individual, about pushing your own limits.”
As with all winter sports, global warming is a growing safety concern. In the Alps, temperature fluctuations have led to the cancellation of some of the ice-climbing clinics Gadd used to lead.
He’s seen changes in other parts of the world as well while assisting scientists with research projects. For instance, last year he went to Greenland with American glacial hydrologist Jason Gulley to investigate water flow beneath glaciers and how fast sea levels are expected to rise.
Despite Gadd’s concern with the acceleration of glacier melt in Canada, climate change seems to have given the sport here a major boost. “Warmer winters in the Rockies provide a stable ice pack. People come here from around the globe because it is one of the few places where the ice has remained reliable,” he notes.
Reliable, stable, yet demanding and strikingly beautiful, Canada has found itself in an elite position.
“This is the greatest country for ice climbing,” says Gadd.