I struggled for quite awhile with how detailed to be in this blog post, and still am to be fair so please bear with if I bounce around a bit. It was one of the most magical trips I’ve taken in my outdoor adventure lifestyle, and will not be soon forgotten. It’s also the first time in my life I learned what “cold” really meant.
So what is the Alpine Ambassador Program? It’s a program within the Mountaineers for what the organization calls “super volunteers” that would like the opportunity to get outside with some very experienced people and push their skills to the next level. For this trip, we went to Canmore Alberta with the intentions of taking our ice climbing skills to the next level. There were 14 climbers total that were accepted into the program from across all of the Mountaineers branches in Washington. So, to say it was an honor and a treat to be there would be a huge understatement.
Myself, Krissy, and Kyle were the ones from our branch that were accepted so it was really nice to have such a strong presence there. We took of Saturday morning in Krissy’s car and headed up the Trans Canada Hwy for the long 11hr drive to Canmore. The views as you come into the Canadian Rockies are absolutely breathtaking. It’s very interesting how they are so different than the Cascades, but equally as beautiful. By 4pm or so we were hauling our gear up the steps at Bell Cabin located on the Canadian Alpine Club’s property. The cabin is really nice, but with one kitchen and one fridge we were curious how 14 people were going to co-exist peacefully for the next 8 days. I’ll admit I was pretty anxious and a bit nervous as more people started showing up. On paper, I felt like I barely made it into the program with my current skills and I couldn’t help but let a bit of anxiety roll in as I overheard others talking about all this cool and tough stuff they climbed. Yes, I guess even I get a bit nervous every now and then.
We had a large meeting that night talking about how the following days were going to play out. We’d been watching the temps quietly, but were getting VERY concerned as it looked like he polar vortex that had reached Washington just as we left was going to hit us square on. Sure enough, they shifted our mid-week rest day and cancelled the first day of climbing due to temperatures in the -40*F range. Yeah, you read that right. I’ve never even been in temps that are colder than 0*F so this was a big eye opener. FYI... you can feel your nose hairs freeze with every breath in temps that cold. Yeah, that’s freaking cold!
Day 1 consisted of us farting around town. We tried to hit the local climbing gym, but apparently everyone in the valley had the same idea so that was a no-go. It was kinda fun just to bomb around Canmore and take a peak at the place although we were really anxious to get outside and get on some ice! After a short meeting later that night it was determined we were a go for the next day. Everyone was being split up and going to crag that day so the instructors could assess our current skills then make more of a game plan going forward for the rest of the week. Perfect!
I should mention that our instructors were slightly above average. Jim Elzinga and Steve Swenson (both ice climbing GODS with more first ascents on ice than they can both even remember) were the volunteer instructors. With over 100 years of combined experience on ice they’re knowledge was downright silly. The rest of the instructors included four professional local guides. One of which happened to be Ian Welsted who won the Golden Ice Axe award in 2014. Darren, Ben, and Kris were also incredibly talented with numerous first ascents to their name and countless days on ice. In essence, we were surrounded by more talent than we could really comprehend.
Cragging day went really well. Since I’d just come back from Bozeman, MT on an ice climbing trip the weekend before I immediately felt right at home. Jim and Darren were fantastic and gave me a ton of pointers to help tweak my technique. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by some very talented people each time I’ve been ice climbing so to be honest I didn’t have a lot of holes in my actual technique. I was definitely feeling blessed for that because I was far too focused on doing everything I could not to get the screaming barfies in the balmy -25*F temps that day, lol. Day one down. No barfies. No falls. No hang dogging on the rope. Big success!
I’ll say that the locations of the rest of the week were highly dictated by weather, and not by what the guides wanted us to climb. It was a MUST that we stayed in the sun and did everything we could to keep our internal temps up. Unfortunately, an amazing climber named Steph had to call it quits after day one due to frostbite. We were so bummed for her, and it really did put the seriousness of what we were doing into perspective.
Day two brought us back to Johnston Canyon with Ben for some more cragging. It wasn’t their first pick, but due to limited places in the sun it was the right call for our safety. After winning Ben’s confidence it was also nice to get some leading in. He was very different from the other guides in that he was much quieter and soft spoken. He wouldn’t call out your mistakes while you were doing them, but rather you’d touch down and here he would be with a note pad of things he wanted you to work on. So cool! You could tell how genuine they were in their desire to teach us. These weren’t just guides. They were teachers, and I was in heaven!
Finally on day three it was time to a little multipitch. Steve, Jerry (a student), and myself headed into the South Ghost to climb a route called Sunshine. This area is beyond beautiful. It’s got a wicked 4wd only road going into it that crosses a riverbed to get to the trailhead. From there you continue on foot up the river bed all the while seeing climbs on both sides of the valley. My highlight for that day was actually just listening to Steve on the drive there and back. He’s got so much knowledge, and his passion for the Alpine Ambassadors program is very apparent. The climbing was superb, and to be able to say I swung leads with Steve Swenson is something I will not soon forget!
Day four it was Ian, myself and another student named Marek. I was soooo stoked for our goal that day. A route called Guinness Gully up by Field, B.C. that’s rated at WI4. This would be a nice ramp up in seriousness from the previous days for sure! We meet Ian for coffee and went over the day. With temps still lingering around the -25*F mark there was a bit of concern and we actually stopped again about 30min down the road to have another cup of coffee and try and let the day warm up a bit more. Yeah... um... it didn’t. Haha! Ian was incredible! We swung leads on it, but in addition he really puts my wits to the test. He challenged me to pretend and be the guide for the day and switch roles with him. So, not only was I pushing my climbing ability, but I was really forced to focus on the logistics of everything for all of us.
Funny story.... so there I was leading the 3rd pitch of Guinness Gully. I was high on life because I was climbing great and swinging leads with Ian Welsted! Yeah buddy! I find a decent rest spot to put in an ice screw. I got a nice solid “stick” above me (our wording for when your ice axe really sticks in well) and I pull a screw off my harness. After looking around for where the best spot to place it was (should have done that first) I decided that off my left hip was best. This required me to swap hands on my upper tool and switch hands. No big deal. What proceeded to happen next I will never forget. Without even thinking I stuck the ice screw that I had in my hand sideways in my mouth like I’d done MANY times in the past to free my hand. That.... was a mistake. Have you ever seen the movie The Christmas Story? Yeah, that’s exactly what happened here. The second that screw touched my lips I knew I was... wait for it... screwed. Hahaha! It froze to my lips so fast I didn’t even get a chance to flinch. Now to my defense I didn’t even hesitate when it happened. I immediately grabbed another screw, placed it in the ice, clipped into it and went on about my business building an anchor without missing a beat. What Ian and Marek didn’t know about was the full on make out tongue session I was having with that ice screw while doing it all. Let’s just say it was so intense I feel like I should apologize to my wife for what I did to that screw in my mouth to get it to unfreeze. Hahaha! Luckily, physics took over and all was well as I quietly clipped that ice screw back onto my harness with no one the wiser. Oh ice climbing. What would I do without you? With all the laughs and learning day 4 was another huge success. I was confident, climbing really well, and having the time of my life.
By day 5 I was starting to feel it. Muscles were getting a bit sore, and I think I was getting slightly run down overall. The stoke was still incredibly high, but the 39yo body was starting to give a little bit of feedback if you will. The objective for this day was a WI5 route called Tokkum Pole in Marble Canyon. Any remaining muscles that weren’t sore yet were gonna be come tomorrow. This beautiful ice pillar is about 95ft tall with easily 75ft of that being perfectly vertical before turning into WI3 for the last 20ft. Plus you get a nice little 10ft section of M4 climbing at the top to get yourself out of the canyon and back over the hand railing. It’s situated in one of the most beautiful little slot canyons I’ve ever seen. There are walking paths with hand rails all over the top of the canyon because that’s really where “ground” level is. The opening in the canyon is anywhere from 3ft to 30ft wide in places and generally around 100ft deep in most places. Calling it beautiful simply doesn’t give it enough credit. The climbing was exactly as expected. Super fun, but physically the hardest I have ever done. The day was an absolute blast not only because of the climbing, but that day was really made by the people. Darren is such a fun guide. As a full time long line rescuer out of Banff he’s got a tremendous amount of knowledge, but it’s his humor and never ending energy that’s really contagious. Combine that with Krissy’s bottomless barrel of giggles, and it was one of the most fun days of the trip.
Yep, day 6 brought the stiffness and soreness I knew was coming. I was definitely feeling it when I got up. Let’s just say that rest day we were supposed to have midweek was a really good idea on their part. Maybe next year we’ll get to actually use it, lol. I wasn’t the only one that was tired on day 6. The temps were dropping back down into the pain zone and people were getting run down. One group decided to call it that morning and stay in the cabin. Not this guy! What our group compromised on was a nice little area called Grotto Falls right up the road. It had a short approach which was great in case we decided to bail. I’m glad I went out that day and got to see the area, but it was by no means my best day of climbing. I climbed a route called Hers, but only once. Having gotten the worst case of screaming barfies I’ve ever had in my life I just couldn’t get myself to want to go through that again for a little 45ft route. The only way I can put into words to describe how cold it was is relay what happened on that climb. My base layers have what basically comes down to a balaclava built into them. It was so cold I decided to climb that time with the mask portion up over my mouth and nose. This caused no issues while climbing, but keep in mind you’re breathing fairly hard as you’re climbing. When I hit the ground ALL of the condensation that I had been producing with my breath froze. That included the mask of the balaclava and all the water droplets in my eyelashes. Yes, I froze my eyelashes together! It took a couple minutes to get them unfrozen to where I could get my eyes open all the way. It was that moment that I knew I was pretty much done, lol.
This trip was amazing beyond words. I sat there on Saturday night at a huge banquet table in a local restaurant just gazing out amongst all the people in our group. I felt so humble and blessed to even be able to just sit here and listen to such talent. Combine that with how genuine, kind, and eager they were to teach it’s going to be really hard to top this trip. The only thing I can do is to do my part by bringing the skills I’ve learned back to my branch, and passing it along to other students. I’m really excited to do that, and can’t wait to get back on the ice again!