A few weeks ago, we posted the first report from Arc'athletes Matthias Scherer and Tanja Schmitt of their frozen-waterfall climbing expedition to Alberta, Canada. Here is part two of that report, written by Tanja.
"It is November the 25th. Our goal for the day is Whiteman Falls in Kananaskis Country. In the light of our headlamps we heed up the creek. When the first frozen ice appears, we put on harnesses and crampons. Being ready first, I start to climb the initial easy ice. As I reach the exit, I hear the noise of roaring water and see the light of my headlamp reflected in dark water. In front of me lies a small lake, surrounded by icy edges, seemingly not passable.
Matthias comes up, astonishment on his face. The adventure seems to have started already! Falling off from this rock means taking a very cold bath and returning to Canmore. So I´m quite curious watching Matthias dry-tooling the little passage. To my surprise, nothing spectacular is happening. Then it is my turn to save the day. The placements hold and soon I achieve soft, welcoming ice and we are able to follow the canyon up to the mighty column of Whiteman Falls. Big, bright, and impressive, it looms over 80 meters up in the sky, with huge mushrooms forming the first pitch.
Matthias starts out for it. Some medusas are the size of church domes. The sound of the ice axes are echoed back from the encircling walls. It is really a stunning place that we're in. Climbing up to the belay on the pillar, I get direct contact with these most bizarre forms. On belay, I look up for a long minute – above us rises the ice now vertical into the sky, a powerful monument of pure water, frozen in long daggers and pipes.
It's hard to judge the ice quality and the possible placements for screws … certainly a long way to go. Matthias sets out for it. Looking at him, I feel overwhelmed by this great, white, shining line, the cathedral-like rock, and the endless forests building up behind. As soon as belay is achieved, I follow up. A beautiful and demanding climb.
Two days later, we find ourselves again in the darkness of the Icefields Parkway. We approach 'Dancing with Chaos' – a long, cascading, white line falling down on a huge rock wall. The initial ice pitch is easy ice, followed by a steeper bulk of chaotic ice. The name is well earned, although, I have seen many worse. The ice demands some weird movements but I can find some good placements for protection. The dance turns out to be a nice one.
We're in a good rhythm now, heeding against north in the early morning again, the acquainted darkness rushing by, the forests, the silhouettes of the mountain ridges. With headlamps on, we start the approach for 'Shooting Star'. We don't talk much. Shortly before we reach the ice, a thick morning fog appears, veiling in the whole scenery. Then the curtain rises and 'Shooting Star' awaits us with all it's might.
We gear up and then the climbing begins. The ice is thin and I have to take care. In the upper section, fragile medusas are formed, demanding swift and quick movements. Somewhere between the loose ice, I find an ice bulk of thicker consistence, perfect for a 10cm screw, and on goes the climb. Spin drifts are coming down, covering my face and my neck with snow. When I finally reach the thicker ice, the hollow sound of the ice axes makes me aware that the whole upper part of the falls is detached from the wall. Despite that nerve-killing sound, though, the ice is good.
When the rope is running out, I build a belay on screws, not a most confident one, but one I can live with. Matthias comes up and leaves for the second pitch – good ice, but slightly detached from the rock. Then a snow couloir leads up to a large bowl. On the headwall, a mighty column has formed, large medusas building its extremely aesthetic pedestal. It is a great sight!
The initial medusas have to be climbed with care. When I reach the free-standing pillar, I put in my first screw. Now the steep part starts. Looking up, I see the vertical ice looming above me and I focus on the moment. The ice is hard, this falls had not had much repetitions yet and I have to find the balance between scratching and hitting the ice, knowing that this demands some carful treatment. Shaking my arms out, I pull myself up the last few meters. As soon as I am on belay, Matthias starts to come up. He gives me a high-five and goes for the last pitch – a mixture of ice and a lot of snow.
More spin drifts are coming down. Suddenly, I hear Matthias cry out. Vibrations of stress go through me. White masses of snow are rushing down. It is not the first time I've experienced this – we had been seriously avalanched on an ice falls once, and the memory of it has never left me. But we´re lucky, this avalanche is of no big size and it is soon stopping. I feel the rope moving again and the sign for belay given a short time later. I follow up and focus on speed.
When I reach the upper part, I simply have to stop and gaze in disbelief. The sight is just awesome. A huge, round rock is chocked above the rock walls, an incredible sculpture of nature. It is looking like the mythical stone of Sisyphus, left here as an eternal symbol. But there is not much time, we are in the middle of a high avalanche-potential gully and the wind is getting stronger. So we hurry up and Matthias is pressing on. He quickly builds a v-thread and smashes in a knife blade. With four abseils and a walk down the snow couloir we are at the bottom of the climb again, safe and sound.
Due to the tricky avalanche situation, the next day sees us on the 'Weeping Wall', ticking two of the classic lines there. More snow is coming and the trail drifts on the ridgelines above Canmore lets us decide that it´s time to give our nerves a break and go for some safe dry-tooling to 'The Playground'.
After the warm-up routes we go for the M10 route 'Swiss Cheese' in the cave. We checked the route already a week before but could not send it yet. Mat, memorizing the moves completely now, sends it on his first try today. I try the route myself, but fall off somewhere in the middle. Two days later, we are there again, and my first try fails because I´m too nervous. But on my second try, everything works out fine and I can clip the anchor after a clean RP."
At this point, Matthias and Tanja still hadn't attempted climbing in the Ghost, but knew that they simply couldn't miss it. Here's Matthias with that story.
"The day is rising with a red light that sets the huge rock walls above us aflame, while we approach on the frozen drainage of Ghost Lake. Our objective for today is 'Rainbow Serpent' – a mythical line all hidden in a natural wonder called 'Recital Hall'. We have teamed up with Steve Swenson, a real connoisseur of the Ghost. The ice is cracking under our feet and I take in the cold, fresh air. There is a wonderful peace filling the air here and I enjoy every step of the approach.
We reach the foot of 'Aquarius', the access fall of "Recital Hall". Tanja is racking up to climb this very aesthetic 60m pitch of ice that separates the big rock wall. She is gaining fast the belay and Steve and I are following up. I pass Tanja on the belay and enter the 'Recital Hall'. First, my eyes fall on the unformed shape of 'Fearful Symmetry' but after a few steps more, I can't believe what I see. It's too beautiful – 'Rainbow Serpent'! This is one of the most aesthetic ice pillars I have ever seen and standing in front of the nearly 100m natural wonder fills me with the deepest admiration and respect. The sound of our voices gets amplified by the natural structure of the hall.
I am climbing up the easy ice to the huge first freestanding pillar. I put a screw at the base, and with carful tool placements, I am getting on it. While I am in the middle of the pillar, two big, black ravens come in to the hall and the crackling of their voices follows the sound of my ice axes. I am getting closer to the end of the pillar when, all of a sudden, with a deep boom the whole pillar is cracking and settling. Luckily, nothing more is happening – we are the first to climb 'Rainbow Serpent' this season.
Over the medusas on the right side, I gain a good belay on the foot of the upper pillar. On two bomber screws, Tanja and Steve are coming up. The look of the upper pillar is tremendous. The sun is caressing the ice and creates wonderful reflections. The ice itself consists of thousands little icicles frozen together. A wonderful view, but it will be tricky to climb. I start into the pitch, and four easy meters bring me to the upper pillar. I am looking for the first placement for my right tool on the fragile ice when I am cutting loose a double fist sized ice block. This time, I am not fast enough and it hits me full on my chin – luckily no open cut.
Steve is cheering from the belay and a little bit on the left, I find good ice and swing on to the fantastic pillar. There is a lot of air under my feet and the exposure is incredibly beautiful. I have to stop and to look down to savor the greatness of this place. The pillar is getting narrower towards the top but the ice quality gets better and with a last look down to the ground of the hall below, I am topping out. A deep happiness is filling me, letting me forget the cold and the wind. I am grateful that I could be in such a wonderful place with such wonderful people as Steve and Tanja. When they come up, we shake hands, but it's really cold and they have both been waiting on the belay, so they are doubly cold.
One more day is left for us in the Rockies before we will return to the Alps. The snow has settled and the winds are quiet, so we decide to do the classic 'Bourgeau' left falls in Sunshine. The low temperatures on that day give us a good challenge and so we sit all satisfied the next day in the warm plane back to Europe. Canada was great and we will definitely come back!!"
As you can imagine, and expedition like this comes with a lot of breathtaking photography, and we've put a handful of Matthias and Tanja's shots in an album on our Facebook page.