2014: “Do you want to come ice climbing?” No, I'm good.
2016: “Ice climbing?” Nah.
2018: “Want to go ice climbing tomorrow?” Maybe.
It's a Sunday morning in late January, and my hiking boots break through the windblown crusty snow to powder underneath. I'm on my way to Star Creek Falls in the Crowsnest Pass, because though I've postponed ice climbing for years, it's time to face a little fear.
Dana McMahon leads the way, an avid ice climber from Fernie. He and his wife Michelle have invited me for a day of climbing on a relatively conservative waterfall.
We walk a well-worn trail along a snow-covered creek surrounded by pines and into a narrow canyon, just outside Coleman. We meet with a small, frozen waterfall, and unstrap our crampons from our bags. Slipping my boots into the crampons, and careful not to cut my pants on their sharp metal teeth, we follow Dana up along the canyon.
Ten minutes later we meet with Star Creek Falls, 15 metres high, hidden below a steep scree ridge and towering trees that blow violently in the chilly wind.
How nice to find a place you never knew existed, especially when on a mission to do something that terrifies you. The ice on the left side of the falls is a solid blue, glimmers turquoise. In the centre, water plunges into an icy hole, and on the right, snow pillows and more white ice.
“It's really beautiful! How do you approach it?” I ask.
“I'll lead climb the left side, use my ice screws, then make an anchor,” Dana replies.
“Sounds easy enough.”
Michelle belays Dana as he leads the climb up the turquoise-coloured ice. He alternates slamming his tools (ice axes) into the ice, then steps, then digs again. Five minutes later he's at the top and repelling down to us newbies who shake a little in our boots.
“Who's climbing first?” Dana looks to me. I gather my wits and attempt my first climb in my flimsy hiking boots, crampons, harness and climbing helmet.
Dana directs me for where to put my feet, how to swing my axe, what angle my crampons should enter into the ice. It's not long though before my feet cramp and, five feet off the ground, I give up. The hiking boots aren't stiff enough to support me as I hang from the ice.
“Maybe you'll fit into Michelle's mountaineering boots?” he suggests.
I concur, wrap myself in my puffy coat and grab my salami sandwich. I sit below the waterfall while Ashley and Russ take turns climbing. Russ climbs the right side of Star Creek Falls—he's incredibly tall, ascends with ease. Ashley struggles the same as I, happy to have the companionship of uncertainty. A little support.
After snacks, Dana encourages a second climb, this time on the right side of the falls with the snow pillows and ice chunks.
“That looks okay,” I reply nervously, and slip my feet into Michelle's mountaineering boots. Stiff indeed, I can't bend my ankles in them. The moment I slam my foot into the ice, though, my confidence skyrockets. Mountaineering boots are the best solution.
I dig my left axe in, then right, slam my boot with crampon into the ice. Dig, step, repeat. Before long I'm ten feet off the ground, and my feet feel great. My hands freeze; I let them hang below my heart, allow the blood to rush my fingertips, then climb again.
Halfway up the falls I yell to Dana, who's gone to visit with Russ below.
“I think I want to come down!” I yell.
“Do you though?” he asks.
“I don't know!” Ugh. I keep climbing, determination suddenly outweighing discomfort. A few moments later I reach the top, greeted by quiet woods and frozen water, shadowed beneath leafless trees.
“It's really pretty up here!” I yell, then repel to the bottom. High-fives all around, so grateful for the encouragement.
For the remainder of the day, after Ashley finishes the same climb, and along the snowy walk out of the canyon, in the car driving back to Fernie, I can't shake the joy. I just finished my first ice climb, and I'm buzzing.
2019: “Want to go ice climbing?” You betcha.