After missing last weeks xc ski lesson due to the fact that I was having way to much from ice climbing in Alberta, I attended my first XC ski lesson at Stevens Pass Nordic Center offered by the Mountaineers. It has been a very rough winter sport season. After a huge blast of cold and winter weather in early December, there has been harly any snow and lots of warm clear days. I don’t know every trail that I was on since I was with an instructor, but I do know that I was on the Main Line (mostly flat) and Side Trail (more hilly) most of the day. I was in the more advanced group… but most skills we went over I had already figured out from xc skiing in Yellowstone last year. I was introduced to the hockey stop ans stemming turn. It seems I can only execute these techniques when under dire circumstances (like when i am about to hit a tree)!

The trail conditions were decent… concrete as I would expect in the Cascades. There was one trail we took toward the end of the day that had huge melted out sections and was extremely icy, but I do not know the name. Exercise caution when you are not certain of the trail conditions.

Today was the final day of the ice course… a bittersweet experience because it was an awesome climb… but the final climb. We met early (7:00am) today at the Bagel shop. Joining us were two Mountain Guides in training: Mikey and Philip. Eric had a meeting with them regarding avalanche reports and safety. It was decided that beacons were not needed on today’s journey to Rogan’s Gully.

Rogan’s Gully is located in Banff National Park. The arrived just as the sun’s first rays peaked over the horizon revealing a large herd of elk on the Banff Airfield. We shouldered our packs and headed up the climbers trail. We scaled the flanks of Cascade Mountain and traversed several meters above the normal approach to avoid the heavy avalanche debris that had accumulated. The incline was steep, but nothing I’m not accustomed too. We were at the base of the climb in about 45 minutes.

Eric tied into the lead end. Then we tied a figure 8 on a bite with a long loop. I tired into the loop and Jeanelle tied into the end. Thus the two of us would not impact each other if we fell as Eric belayed us up at the same time. Nino set up to lead the Philip and Mikey. The first pitch was probably a WI2. The double follow method worked very well though communication is esencial especially when climbing over a bulge or narrow space. We reached Eric and clipped into the chain anchor and waited for the rest of the group. We didn’t need the rope for the middle section fo the climb. Avalanche debris littered the gully concealing the ice. We simply walked on top of it using one ice tool as an ice ax in case self arrest was needed. The final pitch was a gorgeous WI3 ice flow; steep and long! What a wonderful pitch to top out on! We ate lunch in the shade of the two rocky summits of Cascade Mountain before we began us decent. We competed a double rope rappel off of the long waterfall pitch and then simple walked down roped up glacier style to the first pitch. This was a single rope rappel. Both rappels had chains or webbing.

It was about 3:30 by the time we reached the base. A wonderful mutlipitch day in great company. We met up later for a farewell dinner at the Grizzley Paw Brewing Company. Tomorrow I will board my plane and head back to the Pacific Northwest where ice is scarce and snow is still for want this year.

I would recommend any course offered by Mountain Skills Academy to anyone in search of gaining outdoor skills and a memorable experience.


Today we were joined by another American student. Nino is a sponsored climber and personal chef from California looking to possibly do a career move and become a certified Mountain Guide. The four of us drove to the trailhead of Johnston Canyon near Banff. The trail is very popular with tourist and Eric warned us that there would probably be spectators. We hiked for about 1.1 miles (for some reason the trail sign measured in miles and not km) to the upper falls. The trail for the most part was in good condition with some slippery spots. An elevated boardwalk wrapped around the walls of the canyon treating us with splendid views the entire away.

The upper falls was quite a spectacular site. A large frozen waterfall towered to the left with water still flowing beneath it into the partially frozen pool. The flowed the the canyon walls and massive icicles dripped fro the overhangs. Paradise. We climbed over the boardwalk railing and onto the shoreline of the creek to gear up. Then we headed across the frozen creek to the giant ice flow. Eric handed me several Black Diamond Express Ice screws and six screamers. No top rope this morning. I was leading.

Jeanelle put me on belay. I chose a route that looked neither too steep or two low angle. I moved slowly, but very deliberately up the route. It was long and a few times I felt a quick wave of panic, but I thought of Alex Honnald and just slowed my breathing. According to Eric, who met me at the top) I did everything right expect for the fact that I elected to run out the last couple of meters. Typical of me when I get over confident. I tend to do the same on rock. I have gear… so i ought to place it!

After Jeanelle completed the route I led and cleared the screws we spent the rest of the day going over multipitch ice. Mostly the anchor building for hanging belays is like rock… except screws are used. It was also discussed the Personal Anchors are, in Eric’s opinion, not needed. Just a clove hitch will do since the rope is the strongest thing you have and if that goes you’re done for regardless. Also, went belaying from above drape the rope long ends to short if you are swinging leads… but short to long if there is one leader. We also went over making and inspecting V threads and rapping safely. The first climber rappels down with an autoblock and with the rope threaded not only through the V Thread perlon, but also through a carabiner on a screw (22 or 19cm) in case the V Thread fails. If the rapping climber makes it safely the upper climber removes the screw and prepares to rap. The upper climber does not use an autoblock since the lower climber will keep him or her on a fireman belay. If there was an injury to the rapping climber an autoblock with stop them from ever reaching the lower climber. With the fireman belay the lower climber could get their injured partner down safely.

Nino and I paired up and practiced our newly learned skills. We split one pitch of ice into two short pitches and swapped leads in-between. I hope to climb with him sometime in the future. He is very precise and safe… all good things in the alpine. I learned a lot of little trick from him… but by now it was getting very late. The light was dimming and we hadn’t eaten all day! We packed up our gear and headed out of the canyon.

Tonight Jeanelle’s friend from Calgary is coming to visit… and tomorrow is our final ice day.

The only students today were me and Jeanelle, carpooled with Eric after meeting him at the Summit Cafe, to Grotto Canyon on the outskirts of Canmore. Again the trail was mostly flat, but extremely icy so we walked with care. The Canyon flooded last year. Eric pointed out the bolts along the canyon walls. Once they had been high from the canyon floor offering protection. Now though, with the flooding causing a build up of rock, soil and debris on the ground, you could easily reach up and touch the first bolts of the routes. The floods did not wash away the Native American Pictographs painted in faded red on some of the walls.

The canyon eventually led us to two folks. Two ice formations were frozen to the wall. Eric set up a top rope on the left formation. It was overhung and steep, a W4. He cautioned us to keep our hips to the ice just like in rock climbing as we ascended. He told me that i should be good at overhangs because I’m short. I did fairly well. I fell once on the route due to bad foot placement… I would not lead a W4, but it was a great top rope.

After Jeanelle completed the climb we began to talk about dry tooling… or the fine art of using ice tools and crampons on rock. It is a delicate sport for certain and requires creative placements. It is amazing what tiny indentations will hold your weight if you keep the pressure exactly right… move the pressure in the wring direction and you fall!. Eric demonstrated dry tooling as he climbed the dry tooling route beside the ice we had just climbed. He emphasized resting every 2-3 moves. It is easy to get pumped and you WILL get pumped. You just have to control how much. He was fluid on the wall, never fast or spastic. Everything was thought out and he clipped the bolts and transferred to the ice before topping out in no time. It was a different story for us.

Rest. Resting is so important. Jeanelle and I took turns attempting the M7-8 climb (which was established by Eric). Each time we got a bit higher up. On my second and third attempts I was very fluid and precise since i had memorized the moves and didn’t try to rush things. I made it onto the ice at one point and began to climb up the waterfall, but the quick-draw pulled me off since it was yanking me in the opposite direction (plus I need more practice!). For sure this is a sport I want to get much better yet. It is addicting! And it will make you a better overall climber.

After Jeanelle and I killed our arms Eric set up a top rope on the left ice flow. This route was fantastic. you go through the back of the waterfall and come to the front via climbing through a hole! This was the most fun route I completed this far. Getting out of the hole required lots of finesse and presented a unique challenge! The perfect close to the day.


Today after meeting at 8am at the Rocky Mountain Bagel Co., we once again headed out in search of ice. Today we drove about an to where Highway 40 ends in Kananaskis County. Here we hoisted our packs and set off into the canyon carved out by King Creek. The approach was flat and well worn though gorgeous walls of rock…there were several  crossings over King Creek via think snowy logs and ice bridges to add to the excitement. A gully also funneled a large pile of Avalanche debris on the trail… at testament to the power of nature and warning to always be away of your surroundings.

We arrived after about 2-3km to a large frozen flow of ice. This waterfall was much larger than the walls we scaled yesterday and a bit steeper. I belayed Eric up the ice so he could set two top ropes. He, of course, ran up the ice… What else could I expect though. He was, as we explained this morning, part of the team that scaled the hardest (trad) Ice Route ever… Rights of Passage: WI8. W3’s are a walk (or run) in the park to him!

Jeanelle, who by now as become not just my roommate and belayer, but a good friend (all non-typical woman are apparently in Canada) and took our turns on the new ice route all morning. In-between I practiced my swing on some low ice trying to get the wrist flick right. According to Eric it was pretty much the only thing holding me back. Everything else was natural. I thank last summer’s numerous Alpine ascents for that. The ice was of good quality and mostly hard since the canyon was in the shade 95% of the day. We could see the sun shinning on the rocky faces of the mountains, but the rays never hit us.

In the afternoon we went over matching our tool and traversing by placing a tool over on shoulder: a handy trick indeed. We also went over placing ice screws and did some mock leading. Always place the screw at 90 degree, very take your hand off the screw as your place it and, even though you have protection, DO NOT FALL. It much more dangerous to fall ice ice than on rock.

We headed out at about 3:30pm… we begin a new chapter of the course: Mixed Climbing.

Yesterday was rather grueling. The airport was Seatac was crowded due to the tendency toward Friday departures for weekend vacationers. Luckily our tiny propeller jet bound for Calgary Airport in Alberta, Canada was not stuffed with passengers and I had the seat beside me all to myself. My eyes were glued to the peaks of the  Cascades and then the Canadian Rockies as we soared above. But I know that although the peaks were white with snow, they were not blanketed this year. The polar vortex has missed the western America to the despair of many powder hounds… But I wasn’t in search of snow. I was in search of ICE.

Canmore and Banff in Alberta, Canada is known for it majestic Waterfall Ice and hence it’s amazing ice climbing and dry tooling opportunities. I had come to attend the Ice Climbing Super Course offered by Mountain Skills Academy in Canmore. The school had been recommended to me by a glacier climbing teammate, Seth back in June while climbing Mt Adams…. and ice had been on my mind ever since.

Today was the first day of the course. My roommate, Jeanelle, and I left the Rocky Mountain Ski Lodge where we were staying and met up with the rest of the group at Rocky Mountain Bagel Co. at 9:00.There we met Eric Dunerac, a pioneer climber  of all disciplines in the Canadian Rockies and owner of MSA. Jeanelle and I are the only folks in the full super course. The rest of the group would only be there for the two day intro to ice section. There were 6 students in total… the right size.

After signing some release formed we headed out to Grassi Lakes… and ice climbing area  overlooking Canmore. We hiked up the road for a bit and then up a short and steep trail to the lower Ice Flow. Here we geared up with harnesses, Crampons (I was excited to use my brand new Black Diamond Cyborgs) and helmets. Eric first gave us a lesson on how to move with our crampons over steep ice approaches. The most important thing is to make sure all points of the crampons are in contact woth the ice… thus you must roll your ankles in counter-intuitive ways. But Eric’s explanations and exercises (which included running on steep ice in a zig zag pattern) proved effective and soon we were ready to learn the all important swing.

I have black diamond Cobras with hammers (the lightest of the ice tools). We took turns hammering away at low ice walls on the ground perfecting the techniques. Elbows must be in (no chicken wings) and your hips must be lines up with the direction of the swing. You swing as though the ice tool were a hammer and at the last moment flick the wrist forward to get the perfect stick. Sometimes you must swing several times since weaker ice will sometimes plate off the waterfall until you get to the sturdy ice beneath.

With the basics practiced Eric took us over to wear he had set up three top ropes. He taught us the X pattern technique. Swing both axes util you get a stick and then straighten your arms and stick your butt out to get a look at where you place your feet as you move up. Then hips to the wall and stick the axes again at the higher point.  We took turned belaying each other up the W3 routes. I noticed several things almost immediately… I swung horridly with my left hand… the right hand was much better. It is very tempting to over grip. Resting every few moves is critical … But more importantly it was very apparent that ice climbing is not just about swinging where your feel like and putting your feet where you want. The ice has very clear features just like rock. Flagging, drop knee, hips to the wall…. all the rock climbing techniques come into play on ice as well. And I loved it.

Eric put me on some steeper pitches after my first two ascents. He also introduced the energy saving expert technique where one hand is always higher than the other. Jeanelle and I climbed up some thin fingers of ice flowing over rock and discovered the problems of getting over bulges and using soft woodpecker swings on grey (thin) ice.

The day flew by quickly… Eric was an amazing teacher and impressed us by free climbing (at a running pace) pretty much every W3 route we were top roping. I loved the efficient  pace at were he taught. Quick and effective… not wasting time…. and lots of progress. We pulled the rope and headed back to the cars at around 5:00pm… heavy anticipation for the adventures of tomorrow!