Learn­ing to ice climb, and chill out, in Canada

The News Tribune - - Sound Life - BY MARK JOHANSON Chicago Tri­bune


I’m not even half­way up an ephemeral ice wall in Banff Na­tional Park be­fore I find my­self, quite lit­er­ally, on a slip­pery slope.

To my right is a sinewy gorge known as John­ston Canyon and the snow­cov­ered hik­ing path from which I came. To my left are stun­ning pil­lars of frozen river wa­ter that blan­ket a craggy 100-foot cliff. I, of course, am pre­car­i­ously af­fixed to said cliff, and I’m cling­ing for dear life.

I’ve come to this un­spoiled spot to take a stab at ice climb­ing, but I’m be­gin­ning to feel like some re­ject from the Mar­vel Uni­verse with my hands and feet sport­ing spiky weapons that I’m not quite sure how to use.

“Kick your cram­pon into the ice like you’re an­gry,” my teacher, Larry Shiu, screams from down be­low.

I do as I’m told, and frozen wa­ter crys­tals tum- ble into the riverbed. My newly firm at­tach­ment means I’m now closer to the ra­di­a­tor­like wall, but I refuse to let the fin­gert­in­gling tem­per­a­ture get to me. I need to fo­cus on the task at hand: hook my ice ax into a higher perch and con­tinue my ver­ti­cal march up­ward.

Shiu tells me to think of the ax like a fly-fish­ing rod.

“Flick your wrist,” he shouts as I sink the tool into the blue-gray ice, al­low­ing me the lever­age I need to push on­ward and up­ward. I quickly gain con­fi­dence and race to the top where, har­ness­ing the power of my newly weaponized ex­trem­i­ties, I pause to take in the full panorama.

My jour­ney into – and up – this stun­ning canyon be­gan a few days back with a flight to Cal­gary, an oil-rich city of 1.2 mil­lion in the prov­ince of Al­berta. As my plane landed, all I could see was a dense cloud of white, as if a marsh­mal­low puff of snow had been smushed up against the once-golden prairie. It took a 75-mile drive west to find the Canada of lore, where toothy Rocky Moun­tain peaks poke out over ev­er­green forests and fairy-tale turquoise lakes.

Banff is Canada’s old­est na­tional park and a play­ground for climbers, boast­ing dozens of pris­tine ice routes, most of which are eas­ily ac­cessed from lo­cal roads. Add one of the long­est sea­sons (De­cem­ber to early April) and most ideal cli­mates for ice climb­ing, and you be­gin to un­der­stand why the area is re­garded by many as the best place in the world to try this in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar sport.

A 2017 re­port from the Out­door Foun­da­tion found that out­door climb­ing was one of the five fastest-grow­ing ad­ven­ture sports, with ice climb­ing form­ing a siz­able chunk of that growth (thanks, in part, to cheaper and more widely avail­able equip­ment). Its pop­u­lar­ity has soared by more than 20 per­cent over the past three years, and there’s even talk of mak­ing it an of­fi­cial sport in the Win­ter Olympics.

I’ve come to Banff to see what all the fuss is about on a two-day ex­pe­ri­en­tial course with Yam­nuska Moun­tain Ad­ven­tures (prices start­ing at $150 a day). But things aren’t go­ing as glow­ingly as planned.

“I’ve got good news and bad news,” Shiu tells me after my first day on the ice. “The good news is that you’re stronger than you look. The bad news is that your tech­nique is crap.”

I com­mis­er­ate with a fel­low class­mate that evening over din­ner at the Chiniki Cul­tural Cen­tre, a mu­seum-cum-restau­rant of the Chiniki First Na­tion peo­ple. As we chow down on some hearty fry bread “tacos” topped with elk meat, my class­mate shows me a post she’s just put on In­sta­gram. In it, I’m dan­gling off the ice wall with the kind of body pos­ture peo­ple might as­sume if they were us­ing a toi­let.

It seems my tech­nique re­ally is crap.

I rest my head for the night in a plush bed at the Fair­mont Banff Springs Ho­tel, a castle­like af­fair built in the 1880s to lure va­ca­tion­ers west­ward along the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way, be­fore head­ing out to the ice the fol­low­ing day, de­ter­mined to right my wrongs.

John­ston Canyon is a sharply hewn river val­ley lined with quak­ing as­pens and lanky lodge­pole pines. To get back to the ice wall, I have to crunch snow for about 45 min­utes, walk­ing like a cow­boy to avoid dag­ger­ing my pant leg with the ra­zor-sharp cram­pons on my boots.

Along the way, I ask

Shiu what went wrong yes­ter­day, ex­plain­ing that I seem to be much more adept at rock climb­ing.

“Rock climb­ing is usu­ally eas­ier to pick up be­cause you just use your feet and hands to grab and go,” he ex­plains. “In ice climb­ing, you have to fig­ure out how to swing your ax and kick your cram­pons into the ice, so there’s a big­ger learn­ing curve.”

Shiu sug­gests that I work on main­tain­ing a per­fect tri­an­gle on the ice, with my feet spread wide and my ice tool above my head in the cen­ter. “This is the most stable body po­si­tion,” he says. “When you get the three points fixed, you have one more ice tool that is free to swing higher and build your next tri­an­gle.”

With that in mind, I har­ness up and give it a go. In­stead of strain­ing my Pop­eye mus­cles to race up the wall, as I did yes­ter­day, I fo­cus on slow, con­trolled move­ments. A few climbs in, I’m feel­ing much less crappy.

I re­al­ize after a suc­cess­ful sec­ond day that I’m so used to a city life that re­quires speed for ef­fi­ciency that it was ini­tially hard for me to slow down. But ice climb­ing isn’t about speed; it’s about care­fully cal­cu­lated moves. It’s this won­der­fully med­i­ta­tive mind game where speed can be your en­emy.

Ice climb­ing is also about trust­ing the un­known, an­other thing I’m not ter­ri­bly great at. You have to trust that a tiny cram­pon spike will sup­port your weight, and that a piece of frozen wa­ter isn’t min­utes from melt­ing in the af­ter­noon sun.

If you can sus­pend your dis­be­lief for a few hours, your re­ward is not only an in­ti­mate con­nec­tion with na­ture, but also the chance to be a D-list su­per­hero, at least for a while.

MARK JOHANSON Chicago Tri­bune

Main­tain­ing a tri­an­gu­lar body for­ma­tion is key for novice ice climbers tack­ling the cliffs in Banff Na­tional Park in Al­berta, Canada.

MARK JOHANSON Chicago Tri­bune

Larry Shiu, a teacher with Yam­nuska Moun­tain Ad­ven­tures, keeps ex­tra ropes and cara­bin­ers on his har­ness.

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