Icefields Parkway – Melt Out (III WI3)

(Originally written for the EWU Climber’s Connection blog HERE)

Justin and I left the hotel in the early morning, hours before the sun would rise over the Canadian Rockies. We had been in Canmore for two days already but had only been able to get a handful of pitches in at the Junkyard crag due to the warm weather. Everything was melting; nights were spent searching the Internet for information on what flows were “in” enough to climb. We were hungry for the type of long ice climbs that we had experienced last season.

Murchison Falls was in good WI4+ shape according to a local guide so we decided to make an attempt on the long and committing line. Unfortunately, we started our approach in the wrong drainage… After several kilometers of steep hiking and scrambling up ice steps we realized that the ice ahead was not Murchison. We reversed our approach and continued our journey along the Icefields Parkway.

Our car swerved all over the road. I couldn’t be bothered to drive, I was preoccupied with gawking at the world-class ice climbs standing tall along the Parkway: Oh Le Tabernac(WI6), Ice Nine(WI6), Polar Circus(WI5), and at least 50 other amazing climbs flew by. Arriving at the Weeping Wall, we pulled over and literally ran up to the base. Thousands of feet of ice shot upward, looking menacing and inspiring at the same time.  It was absolutely one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen, leaving me with a burning desire to sharpen my skills, return, and climb it.

Me before the mighty Weeping Wall.  Photo: Justin Brown

We continued along the parkway, enduring a miserable thigh-deep post holing misadventure in search of a climb. A few kilometers later, we failed to find a trailhead for another.  Our moods turned sour and the car was silent. Had we really just spent a day exerting ourselves with no climb to show for it?

Finally, Melt Out came into view: three pitches of moderate ice looked to be in good condition. I was moving slowly on the “short” approach – tired from the approaches earlier in the day and starving for something besides the two goo packets I choked down in the car.

After quickly gearing up at the base of the climb, Justin began his lead up the first pitch on nice, soft ice. I followed, noting the rotten ice at the top out. Our moods were instantly lifted by the ice climbing in a beautiful setting. High fives were exchanged at the belay and Justin offered me the next lead. “Sorry man, I hate to let you do the hard work but I’m just not feeling it,” I said apologetically. Pitch two looked long and steep, and the rotten ice of the first pitch had brought down my confidence. Justin is a gifted climber and athlete, much more so than me. Although it might make sense to let the strongest partner do the leading, I feel a nagging guilt when my partners do more than their fair share. Justin replied “No problem man, don’t worry about it!” in a sincere voice and fired up the sustained pitch with style. Always the gentleman, he always encourages me by offering leads but has never once complained when I decline.

Justin cruising pitch 2.  Photo: Nick Sweeney

At the belay anchor, we discussed the last pitch.  It looked thin and we didn’t have much time before the sun disappeared behind a mountain across the valley. Evaluating the pitch, I told Justin “Put me on belay,” as I started grabbing gear off of his harness. I lead through several short, easy steps before a final steeper section. I placed good ice screws with some trial and error (the ice wasn’t thick enough for anything but “stubbies” in a few spots) and got to the top of the climb just as the sun was starting to disappear. Although it was a very moderate pitch, this was my first real ice lead and I felt good that I had been able to do my share of the “hard work”.

Taking the lead up the first easy ice step on the final pitch.  Photo: Justin Brown

I brought Justin up, we made our rappels, and made our way back to the car, as happy as climbers could be. The three pitch climb took us around 2.5 hours car to car. The only music I had on my phone for the ride home was a Kendrick Lamar album and black metal… I wasn’t sure which Justin hated more so I played some of each.  Like always, he didn’t complain.

The Alpine Ninja on rappel.  Photo: Nick Sweeney

Climbing in the mountains, beyond the crag, requires a trust in your partner that is hard to cultivate. Money can buy cams, ice screws, and crampons, but a partnership must be grown. Justin and I have climbed a handful of long, high quality climbs and there will be many more to come.  As John Muir eloquently said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” I’m grateful to know a handful of people who hear the calling as I do.

Gear Notes:

Screws and two 60m ropes.

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