Columbia Icefields Alpine Climbing Skills Practice Weekend

Columbia Icefields Alpine Climbing Skills Practice Weekend
July 20, 2016 Sheena Lambert

On July 8 Susan, Vi, Felipe, Tiffany, Ping and Sheena set off to the Columbia Icefields.  Since the intention of this trip was to transfer knowledge among the participants, this trip report will relate our lessons to you dear reader.  Your humble scribe Sheena is very new to alpine climbing and therefore gladly soaked in the wonderful collective knowledge.  Before leaving Calgary we learned the first rule of alpine climbing “Thou shall go to the mountains despite horrific weather forecasts or thy summer will be spent watching reruns of Real Housewives of New Jersey” and the second rule “Thou must bravely run away when conditions are bad or thy climbing career will be short and end in death by rapid deceleration”.  


During the drive, we found out that it is possible to get 3rd degree burns to the nostrils and palate from solar radiation reflecting off the glacier and it is therefore wise to apply copious amounts of spf 70 sunscreen and to cover your nose and lips with a buff.  Failure to do so will end in weeks of suffering post exposure and the knowledge that in the not so distant future, your collection of interesting facial lesions will entertain your dermatologist and pathologist.

tree anchors

In addition to picking the campsite, Ping and Susan also practiced building equalized anchors in trees!

These lessons started making me wish I stayed in the gym to pull on plastic under the soothing glow of fluorescent lights but I’m told that “gym climbing is not real climbing” so I soldier on…  

Once we arrived at Wilcox campsite, Susan and Ping schooled us in the art of  deluxe campsite selection.  Show up early and snag the site across from the cook shelter so on the off chance that a future downpour should soak through your fancy gore tex climbing gear leaving your undies wet enough to ring out, you have a place to dry everything.  See July 9 for more details.

While we were setting up camp in our premium location, we discussed how to pee while roped up on a glacier.   For the ladies, unclip the elastics at the back of your harness which allows the trousers to be dropped while staying tied into the rope or get a she pee. Practice with it in the shower and once you have successfully eliminated 10 times without peeing on yourself you are good to go in the wild.  Lucky you gentlemen! You need to use method one to do number two.


alpine purse

The Alpine Purse: the ultimate mountaineering accessory!

Other topics of conversation included practicing crevasse rescue systems at your local playground.  Ascend ropes to practice self rescue and familiarize yourself with hauling systems.  Understand the purpose of each part of the system because in the field things may be different than how you practiced and you must be confident that you can adapt to the situation at hand.  Another way to practice ascending a rope is to set up a top rope, climber ascends the rope and the belayer lets our slack so they can be on a “treadmill”

Sleeping in camper vans is amazing!  Learn how to pack the van properly for smooth transitions from snooze to climb which allows you to catch more zzz’s.

In addition to carrying ice tool, ice clippers can be used to carry the all purpose mountaineering purse:)



July 9 Athabasca Glacier

Picking the safest, most efficient and evenly grated line on a glacier takes years of practice to perfect.  Taking input from your teammates will help you develop your route finding skills more efficiently.  Remember: your route is greatly aided by making up silly interpretive guiding stories!  The rare alpine rebar starts its life cycle as a long rusty nail and with time grows into the proud organism that now marks the best approach to the tongue of the glacier.  Ps don’t litter!

alpine rebar

Investigating the rare alpine rebar near the toe of the Athabasca glacier.  It grows very slowly, but is quite a hardy species!

Once on the glacier to rope, or not to rope– that is the question:

The answer is to rope on snow which has hidden hazards and allows one to self arrest and not to rope on ice when you can see the hazards and cannot self arrest.  

An unroped party will always travel more quickly and attentively than a roped party.  Since we were travelling on ice and we could see the crevasses we did not rope up for the first half of the athabasca glacier and kept our eyes peeled

for mill wells that lurk under snow plugs.  These are scary water slides to hell that drain meltwater from the surface of the glacier to the ground and scream drowning hazard.  Mill wells are amazing make sure you stop and look for glacial narwhals but don’t fall in!

We tied into the rope.  With a party of 3, the middle


Susan and Tiff heading towards the “fun jumbly part” of the main athabasca glacier.

person ties into the rope with an overhand on a bite follow through with the bite locked off through a carabiner.  The end people to tie into the rope with a figure 8 follow through and take up excess rope with a kiwi coil.  Space between people is determined by the size of crevasses on the glacier.  It’s best to measure out the distances from the middle person and tie an overhand to mark the amount of rope that needs to be coiled.  Keeping your hood up while coiling is very helpful.  Once the rope has been coiled, bring a bite of rope through the belay loop and tie off the coils with an overhand knot and secure the bite with a biner.  Test the coils by pulling on the rope and when done correctly the weight should be transferred onto the harness.  




Most of the team hanging out on the Athabasca Glacier

We played around with different rescue systems and learned that you only get mechanical advantage up to a 6:1 pulling ratio.  Any more than that say a 9:1 will have too much friction in the system to be effective.  Our backpacks were bravely rescued multiple times and we learned to focus on the purpose of each step rather than memorizing a system.  Always add protection and test the new system before transferring your weight.

backpack rescue

Our backpacks were clearly not paying sufficient attention as two of them fell into the same crevasse and had to be rescued repeatedly.

Serac falls are unpredictable and scary so don’t expose yourself to overhead objective hazard.  If a few collapse bravely run away!

totally real vertical climbing

Felipe, totally climbing a completely vertical ice face like the hardcore mountaineer he is. No photo-trickery whatsoever…..

Sometimes the most benign feeling boots will develop a taste for human flesh.  If you are especially unlucky, they may develop a lust for blood at inopportune times like while you are bravely running away from serac falls in a torrential downpour.  When a blister is detected prior to popping, band-aid advanced healing blister pads works well so long as you can get your feet dry enough for them to adhere.  Do not pull them off or they will rip off your skin so wait until they are good and ready to fall off (usually about 5-6 days later).  If blisters are popped and deep I like to use a thick layer of polysporin as a lubricant with a bandaid over top followed by a layer of leuko tape.  Once boots have the blood lust it seems more effective to get a new pair that fit properly rather than conducting an exorcism so make sure your footwear provider has a great return policy and make sure to carry blister kit material with you.  




drying out gear

Drying out our gear to get ready for the next day’s adventure.

Haul your soggy carcass back to camp after aggressively driving through tourist traffic, monopolize the cook shelter, and make ridiculous drying racks with your wet ropes using every knot you know and some you just made up for the occasion.  Your compatriots will amaze you by lighting the fire using dryer lint soaked in paraffin wax in an aluminum muffin tin as a fire starter.  To keep the warmth in and other campers out, hang a tarp over the door but make sure to leave an opening to let the oxygen in and carbon monoxide out.  Eat a delicious meal with your climbing buddies and enjoy some well earned beverages.


July 10 – Little A Glacier

When you look at a glacier and see a big pile of rocks, most likely more rocks will join their fallen rock star buddies and you don’t want to be in the way when they make their grand entrance.  Again death by rapid deceleration is not fun.  Be like Fred Beckey and stay out of the mountain garbage chutes so you can climb hard beyond your 93rd birthday.

When racking screws and ice axes on your ice clippers, make sure the sharp pointed tips are pointed away from your femoral artery.  If you spring a leak from that tube, you and your climbing partners are gonna have a bad day…


Simu-climbing can be a fast way to get up the mountain when the entire party is comfortable in the terrain.

We practiced simu-climbing and learned that this is a good technique when the conditions are icy, the chance of a fall is very low but the consequence of falling is serious as in you will not be able to self arrest and will pull your entire rope team along with you for the ride.  In flatter terrain 1 screw is sufficient for the party while on steeper terrain 2 screws should be placed for the party.  The leader racks all the screws on the ice clipper, places them, and clips the rope as the team travels.  The second person transfers the rope so they can pass and the third removes the screw.  This all requires much communication so that there are an appropriate number of screws to support the party.  The leader saves 2 screws to build an anchor and belays the rest of the party up the ice.

Displaying 20160710_105113_HDR.jpg

We elected to climb the rock-free ice on the left of the rock strewn gully on the right. That turned out to be a good choice, as a variety of rocks ranging from grapefruit to basketball sized fell down the gully.

When the ice gets very steep you need to pitch out the ice.  An anchor is built for the belayer and the leader leads the pitch placing screws where needed remembering to clear out the rotten ice and then builds an anchor to bring up the second.  If travelling as a party of 3, the middle person will lead and the 2 end people will second.


Tiff and Felipe enjoying the view from an anchor.

Adequately clearing out aerated ice is crucial for your survival as an alpine climber.  Use glancing blows with the adze to clear the rotten ice off of the solid blue ice.  This is critical when the sun comes out and starts turning sweet ice into scary shmoo.  If you have screws with black metal, cover this up with snow to minimize melt out.

Learn systems so when you are faced with a situations such as “how do we clean 3 anchors left by 2 parties with a rain storm approaching?” your party can figure out a safe way to make this happen (Thanks for rescuing us Susan!!).  

When making an Abalocov it is helpful to use 2 screws so you and gauge the angle of the first screw and meet up with the second screw.  Cut your favorite webbing and pull it through with a hooker, tie it off then thread the rope through the webbing.  Back up the rope with a quick draw on a sling making sure the quick draw is below the anchor so all weight is on the anchor.  


This was a fantastic weekend thanks so much to everyone for their knowledge I learned a lot and had tonnes of fun.  I’m hooked on alpine climbing but the gym is still pretty rad just ask Tobias;).



Leave a reply