We all have a favourite superhero (especially if you’re a young-at-heart man approaching middle age, like me), but Spider-Man is certainly up there with the best-loved of all the planet-saving characters many of us have grown up with. At some point we’ve probably all wanted to be able to climb up the side of a building, sticking to it like super glue, or spray ultra-strong webbing over a bad guy robbing a bank. Well, I’ve yet to find the kind of holiday where you’re able to do the second one of those, but there is at least a place where you can try your hand at the first – as the Rockies in Alberta must surely rank as a strong contender for Ice-Climbing Capital of the World.
My only previous climbing experience was one day during a school camping trip as a 13 year old, so it’s safe to say I was about as much of a beginner as possible. However, I’ve hiked up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, across the Haute Route in the Swiss Alps and a few of the Great Walks of New Zealand, but only once have I had to put crampons on my boots, and that was for walking on the Franz Joseph glacier, not trying to climb up a wall of pure ice. I’d certainly never wielded an ice axe with the intention of climbing with it, and holding it for the first time out in the Canadian mountains felt oddly like being a caveman from early civilization. Man and nature, with just a handful of tools to bring them together.
The location of my first foray into ice climbing was a spot known locally as The Junkyard, about a 20 minute drive from Canmore (which is itself about 20 minutes away from Banff, the more well-known town that I imagine is what Canmore may be like in another couple of decades). My guide, Jean, had lived and climbed in the area for over 20 years and is the kind of person who bases his holidays around where he can climb (either ice or rock), so it was clear that he really loves what he does for a living, and his enthusiasm was both infectious and put me at ease that I was in good hands for my attempt to scale one of The Junkyard’s ice walls. Like any good guide, we went through all the basics of crampon and ice-axe use beforehand, at the HQ of Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, meaning that when I was taking my first tentative steps onto the ice I was as prepared as possible.
What I didn’t realise though, is how tiring it can be – Spider-Man makes it look much easier than this! Leaving my ice axe on the ground, to test the support from the crampons alone, I tried to grip the ice with nothing but my gloves, and realised pretty quickly I wasn’t going to become a superhero overnight. But the technique is designed to allow you to put your faith in your legs, so that when Jean finally handed me the ice axe I wasn’t relying entirely on it to stick to the wall. Those first few steps are unlike any other sensation – everyone is familiar with ice when it’s horizontal, on the ground, but being confronted with it vertically and accepting the challenge to climb up, is another feeling entirely. After those initial steps, and then a few more, is when the mental challenge sets in – you’re no longer so close to the starting point that you feel you could just get off the wall, nor are you anywhere near the top, where (hopefully) satisfaction will greet you. You are literally half way up a rock face which is covered in the most slippery substance you’ve ever encountered, and the only thing holding you there is two spikes at the front of each foot, a glorified hammer with a sharp point, and your own steely willpower. To quote Talking Heads, at one point you may indeed wonder “How did I get here?”…
But a challenge is a challenge – and this was mental as much as physical. I must admit, there were definitely times where I thought I wouldn’t make it to the top, or that I was going to fall (even though I was being safely held on a rope by Jean). Taking photos using my double-gloved hand, or filming video when my arm was shaking due to excessive overuse, gave me an even greater respect for mountain filmmakers who face conditions tougher than these on a regular basis.
My level of concentration was the most intense I’d had in recent memory, every fibre of my being focused on where I was going to aim the ice axe, getting the flick of my wrist right at the exact moment to wedge it in securely, or making sure my legs were in the correct position before ascending another few inches. Another novice climber to my left provided a great sense of perspective that we really were climbing up a wall made of ice, pure air at our backs, with our guides now a decent distance below us, and more mountains on the horizon behind us. And just when I thought I couldn’t go any further, that every muscle in my arms and legs were aching more than I was comfortable with…I reached the top. Relief, yes, but also jubilation and satisfaction – I’d climbed up my first wall of ice! I could feel a beaming smile start to encroach on my face, and even though I had reached a point where I could take a firmer foothold, I was still very aware not to get complacent in case I slipped. Later, Jean described it (not in an arrogant way) as “like walking up a flight of stairs” for him, but congratulated me on getting to the top – everyone has to start somewhere, and I like to think that maybe even Spider-Man would be proud!
All words and images by Lee Hubbard. This post was brought to you as a result of the Travel Alberta blog trip, created and managed by Captivate in partnership with Travel Alberta. GlobalGrasshopper maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site.