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!

 

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