Every year, we try to balance time spent with family over the holidays with our voracious wanderlust. It's so hard to pass-up on those "free days" we are granted from our jobs during Thanksgiving and Christmas so we've started alternating which holiday we spend away from our loved ones so we can chase snow or ice or rocks.
This year, Thanksgiving was the holiday of choice to check out a new-to-us area to climb ice: The Canadian Rockies. We'd heard from several friends that the ice around Banff, Canmore, and Lake Louise is not only easily accessible but also that it comes in early in the season. We were stoked to check out a new area and to brush up on our ice skills before our mountain season truly kicked off.
After some back-and-forthing, we decided to find a cheap hotel to stay at in Canmore. Our truck (a Tacoma) is the perfect vehicle for quick trips and for dry trips, but we knew that this weekend would involve successive days with wet gear that needed drying out so the hotel was a good option. With the cost of some hostels being $40/night per person NOT including any food or much space for gear-splosions, the $80/night Canmore Rocky Mountain Inn, which included breakfast, a sauna, a complimentary wine service (!!!), and two queen beds that were awesome for laying out our plethora of gear, was an exceptional option. We definitely felt like we were splurging... in our nearly 4 years of belay-tionshipping, we've stayed in a hotel 3 times.
A wrench, however, really got thrown into our trip-planning when a massive warming trend busted through the area and melted out a chunk of our snowpack and a lot of our ice. We decided to go for it anyway, combing forums and asking for advice from folks who knew the area re: if anything would be climbable and if there would be enough snow to ski. The answers all pointed toward the positive so, with the CRMI set to be our home-away-from-home for the weekend, we loaded up the truck with skis and climbing gear, borrowed a guide book and downloaded Will Gadd's incredibly helpful app, and set off on our 14-hour drive into the Canadian Rockies.
Wednesday, November 22: Travel Day
Wake up at 5am. Drive all day. Drink a LOT of coffee and RUNA. Eat a LOT of snacks. Arrive in Canmore... eventually.
Thursday, November 23: Haffner Creek
Our first full day in the Rockies! We slept in until 630am, grabbed a leisurely breakfast in the lobby, filled a thermos with hot tea, and drove up to Haffner Creek to try to find some easy, accessible, ice to climb. We botched the approach after parking near the rest area since no one had hiked in from that point recently, ergo, the "well established trail" did not exist. Adding 20-30 minutes onto the approach turned out to be fine, however, because the area itself was so close to the trailhead.
It began to drizzle lightly as we entered the canyon and the rain began to steadily increase its strength throughout the day. Finding only a couple of WI3 "boulders" to climb, we opted to dry tool up the chossy, muddy limestone near the crag's entrance. It was delightful... if you're into that sort of thing. We would alternate between climbing in the mud to belaying in the shower so neither up us hiked out dirty (silver lining!). Our friends Brad and Whitney hiked in to see what we were up to, laughing at our "we drove 14 hours and we're going to climb TODAY" determination.
Overall, it was a mostly hilarious experience that left us very, very thankful for GORE-TEX.
The rest of the evening was spent drinking *complementary* wine while playing giant chess near the hotel's fireplace.
Friday, November 24: Balfour Wall
Balfour was a bit of a trek for us coming from Canmore but after receiving a tip from some locals in town that Balfour was in, we decided the drive would be worth it. Driving up The Icefields Parkway at 7am with nothing to see but the vague outlines of snowy, stormy peaks was a crazy experience. It definitely left us both wanting to come back when conditions, and some accompanying visibility, are improved.
The hike up to the Balfour Wall was short but sweet and very slippery. Frozen mud and moss created a decently tacky surface but as we approached the base of the falls, the surface turned to mostly ice and rock and we laughed our way to the base, mouths gaping at the tiny but mighty ice formations we were heading toward. WE HAD FOUND ICE!
We were joined shortly after our arrival by a pair of climbers who hadn’t been to the Balfour Wall before either… and those were the only other people we saw until we got back to our hotel. After lines and lines waiting for climbs in the PNW, this was a welcome treat. We set up a top rope on an accessible WI4 to warm up, top-belaying each other up a few laps until we felt like we were warmed up enough to throw some screws in. This was our first time leading single pitch ice- ever!- so that was a fun experience. We did a couple of WI3s before calling it a day.
We’d gotten in about 10 pitches each and our untrained muscles were aching. We did the long drive back to the hotel, spending some time in the hotel’s sauna before eating a bunch of food and trying to figure out where on earth we would go on our last day in Canmore. After reading several reports of ice in the surrounding area not being in and not wanting to drive 90+ minutes North to get to the "for sure it'll be in enough" areas, we eventually settled on driving into K Country to check out a couple of easier routes that we thought might be accessible and fun.
Saturday, November 25: Evan-Thomas Creek
"K Country," it turns out, is incredibly close to Canmore and would be a great destination if we had had more time to spend in the area and better conditions to contend with. But, a warming trend is a warming trend so we made due with what we had.
The approach trail is super easy to follow and we hiked by an assortment of groups waiting in line for more classic lines such as Moonlight (WI4) and Snowline (WI4). We chatted with them briefly before hiking further up the creek. We eventually found a couple of fun looking lines that weren’t in at all (looking at you, Combo Falls!), before realizing that finding the routes we were after might end up being quite a chore. The creek was still ripping and there was no way we would be able to hike directly toward the routes with any ease.
With beta from summitpost and the app telling us to hike up and to the right of where the creek starts to flow in earnest, we found ourselves wandering around on a well-established trail looking for some evidence of where we could rap in, we eventually gave up on the “easy” approach and hiked the slippery trail back down toward the creek. Instead, we took the ‘zero stars, do not recommend’ approach up the left side of the creek.
After some careful route finding, a lot of slipping, and some consistent assistance from the “rock throwing” maneuver to see if the ice was thick enough to cross, we found a pitch of WI3(ish) that we could climb out. The line was called "B2" and it was short, grey, and had a muddy, adventurous top out.
We hiked out, smiles on our faces that we’d actually found something to climb, and drove back to Canmore.
Sunday, November 26: Travel Day
Wake up at 530am. Check out Tim Hortons & eat donuts. FINALLY see Bighorn Sheep. Miss crucial turn in Washington and spend +1 hours driving home. Get stuck in traffic on I-84 in Hood River (typical). Arrive home and fall asleep... eventually.