Guide to ice climbing in Alberta, Canada

Ice Climbing, Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park (Photo by Travel Alberta)Ice climbing.  It’s a cool sport, no question. You’re outfitted like an action movie hero, ropes draped over your shoulder, crampons fitted on your boots, a dome helmet and an attitude that goes one way – up. Lucky you.

Alberta is one of the world’s hottest spots for ice climbing and avid climbers travel from all over the world to Albert’as Bow Valley corridor in the Rockies, to ice climb.  

Read on to find out what ice climbing in Alberta is all about: how to do it, where to experience it, who provides instruction, the gear to use, and some tips for getting started.

Ice climbing at a glance

Aspen Uzelman, Climbing Coordinator at The University of Calgary Outdoor Centre, is a veteran ice climber and she loves it. Here’s a quick glimpse of what you can expect. 

“Ice climbing is slightly similar to rock climbing as far as gear and set up go, but the approach usually involves crossing creeks or hiking in snow,” says Aspen. “Depending on how many people you go with, you are usually by yourself, waiting as your partner is climbing and setting up anchors.”

“It’s a mental game and a challenge,” she adds. “When you are looking to place your tools, you are looking for the fine details in the ice. I am completely focused on where I am placing my next tool and where I am stepping. It is a form of meditation for me.”

Prepare to sweat – ice climbing is a challenging activity! However, if you are reasonably fit you can probably handle it.  Here’s what else you need to know!

Ice Climbing, Banff National Park (Photo by Travel Alberta)

How to ice climb: Choose a location based on your ability and the ice and avalanche conditions, recommends Aspen. Get your gear ready (such as harness, ropes, crampons and ice screws – more on gear later), and proceed up, using your ice axes and crampons to adhere to the ice. Once at the top, you would build an anchor and either come back down, or bring your partner up, depending on the climb.

Best ice climbing spots for beginners in Alberta: You can find ice throughout the mountains, says Aspen, but the best beginner places are Kings Creek in Kananaskis, The Junkyards in Canmore, Ghost Valley (west of Cochrane), Nordegg (200 km west of Red Deer), and the Jasper ice fields.

Ice climbing season in Alberta: The season generally runs from early December to March, but popular areas are packed on the weekends. Any time you are going climbing, the earlier you arrive, the better, so you get your choice of climbs.

How to get started with ice climbing:  You can get your climbing legs at many indoor climbing walls. It’s warmer inside and you can learn the necessary skills in comfort.  The University of Calgary Outdoor Centre and Yamnuska Mountain Adventures (Canmore) are excellent places to take classes. You can find climbing partners at Mountain Equipment Co-Op under ‘Trip Partners.’ Clubs include the Alpine Club of Canada (which runs an ‘ice camp’ in Banff in mid-November) and The Calgary Mountain Club. 

Ice Climbing, Weeping Wall, Banff National Park (Photo by Travel Alberta)

“It is important to have a firm understanding of how to be safe while you are out there,” says Aspen. Most ice falls are exposed to avalanche danger, so you want to make sure you know what is above you, what the avalanche conditions are, and how to manage those risks. Andrew Stevens of Yamnuska says: “We often run private programs for individuals and if someone wants to climb a route along, say, the Icefields Parkway area, it’s not a problem. But for most of the courses we run, the instruction opportunities are in the Bow Valley corridor. It’s really the mecca for ice climbing.”

U of C Outdoor Centre intro courses are $125 but the best deal is to do the Ice Series for $400.

Gearing up: Gear is expensive. You want dry ropes (about $200), crampons (about $150 to $200), ice tools (from $300 to $600 a pair) and a lot more gear. So beginners, heed this tip: rent.  If you’re looking to buy gear, Mountain Equipment Co-Op is a good bet.  Aspen started out climbing with experienced people who already had most of the necessary gear. She rented boots, axes and crampons. Rental cost is $16 for tools, $12 for mountaineering boots, $6 for crampons. The gear is all provided for University of Calgary Outdoor Centre courses, so $100 is a really good price for a full day out.  

What to wear: Always start with a base layer that will wick away moisture, using materials such as polypropylene, silk, nylon and polyester. The next layer is for warmth, and lightweight fleece is usually best. Last is your outer shell — try a waterproof jacket and pants.  Don’t forget to bring a change of clothes and shoes, since you’ll want to change for your ride home.

Fuel for fun: Never underestimate how much you will eat. Snack every hour, and bring at least 1.5 liters of water to stay hydrated and energized.

For more on winter activities in Alberta, go to:

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