I am sitting at Good Earth Coffeehouse in downtown Canmore. One of the few places that makes a descent espresso on a rest day as I approach the end of the first month of the Vertical Year journey. It has been an incredible month settling into the trip, working on my ice technique, surviving fires, meeting and climbing with new friends.
It is peak ice climbing season here. The temperatures have lifted to a much more comfortable range of -5 deg C to -18 degC (compared to most days below -20 degC), blue bird skies and low winds. Avalanche danger though still an issue is subsiding, opening more options for those capable and willing to take them on.
For locals, getting on ice twenty days out of a season is a great season. In the first month I have managed to climb sixteen days on ice which I am stoked about. We have managed to climb some of the classic falls in the area including Moonlight (100m, WI4+), Louise Falls (100m, WI4), Guinness Gully (235m, WI4) and Weeping Wall (165m, WI4). Incredible climbs all in beautiful scenery. Even if you are not interested in ice climbing, the Rockies produce some of the greatest winter landscapes around.
Huge, stepped limestone peaks with often vertical faces and intricate ridge lines surround the highways. A dusting of snow provides incredible contrast, snow bowls and couloirs entice back country adventurers and every now and then you spot a long veil of ice. The length of the ice routes is one of the many reasons why so many flock here to climb.
The first couple of weeks here were more like a holiday than settling into a new area. I was climbing with James who I had met on a trip to Chamonix in 2016 and some of his friends. We were all staying at the Drake Inn, in downtown Canmore climbing all day and eating out every night.
James and I had a very real awakening one night when the room next to ours caught fire. We were ready to check out the next morning so our bags were packed however the proximity of the fire triggered an instinct in me to just get out. I left me wallet, passport, phone and the rest of my belongings in the room.
Thankfully the local fire crew were returning from another call when they were alerted to this fire. This meant their response time was a fraction of the standard 5-10 minutes and they were able to contain the fire before it took hold of the building, our belongings and any potential lives were lost. It was a surreal experience and not one that I hope to repeat.
Canmore itself is a beautiful town. As you would expect, the vistas are incredible wherever you look and the people are very active. Most young people living here are working odd jobs while focusing on either climbing, skiing, or both. The Canadian Olympic team boasts twenty locals, mainly in Nordic Skiing or the Biathlon which is likely due to the world class Nordic ski centre just outside of town.
The indoor climbing gym is always filled with parents and their children, often primary school age climbing. I joined the recreation centre here called Elevation Place for around $50 per month which includes access to a large climbing gym, regular gym and heated swimming pool. I would imagine a similar facility in Australia would cost three times that and Canmore is not a cheap place to live.
The place is the epicentre for ice climbing in the Rockies so there is a very strong climbing community here. The majority are rock climbers though and it is apparent with the quality of the route setting in the gym here. There are more than 120 routes ranging in difficulty from YDS 5.7 to 5.13d (Australian grade 15 to 31) and the gym is filled with locals training hard for the summer projects. For me personally it means I can maintain my rock climbing strength and technique which I am very thankful for.
I am living in a suburb of Canmore called Cougar Creek in a house with three other guys. There is a good atmosphere in the house, everyone is clean, social and friendly. None are ice climbers. The house is about a twenty minute walk to downtown for groceries, shops and the indoor climbing gym. Best of all though Lady MacDonald peak sits right behind the suburb and has a fantastic trail leading up a ridge with a thousand meters of vertical elevation gain. I couldn’t ask for a better training run to get fit and strong for Peru!
The ice climbing here is truly world class and is presenting plenty of challenges for me. The ice is so much harder here than anywhere else I have climbed. It fractures, ‘dinner plates’ off, can be sun and rotten, significantly affected its structural integrity.
I am leading WI4 routes (ice grades go to WI7, you can read about them here) yet I would say I am far from ‘a confident WI4 leader’. I am confident I have the technique; however, my head game needs to get to the same level. That is the immediate short-term goal for now.
As I have mentioned previously, ice climbing is a real head game. I have found it to be the crux of the climbing here rather than the physical movement itself. Falling often has severe consequences and I have found it a constant battle to push that out of my mind when leading. Perhaps it not wanting to injure myself at the start of this trip, perhaps it is not wanting to lose the ability to climb, perhaps it is just the fear of falling in general. Whatever is driving those thoughts, it is not practical, not helpful and I need to manage that.
Rather than focusing on the consequences of a fall, I need to consciously focus on the factors that will prevent a fall.
Placing solid ice tools that will not shear out of the ice if both my fleet blow. Placing solid feet, particularly when placing an ice screw. Placing screws only when necessary, for example just before the climbing gets hard or during a sustained section of vertical ice rather than every few meters. Placing screws takes a long time, thirty seconds or more and consumes a lot of energy.
Focusing on practical steps in the process is the key to improving my mental game and therefore becoming a more confident ice climber. The same principle could be applied to any situation whether it’s meeting that ridiculous deadline at work or completing a triathlon. Spending energy on the consequences of not performing detract from your performance. That energy is always better spent on identifying and focusing on the practical steps which will lead you to the result you are after.
If you don’t know all the steps involved, focusing on the ones you do is the better choice. It often leads to identifying the next step in the process. It’s obvious I know yet it is also easier said than done.
Overall the experience so far has been as incredible as I had hoped. Canmore is the right place to work on and improve my ice climbing skills which I feel are coming along nicely. The climbing is truly world class, the setting is absolutely stunning and the community strong and supportive.
I am meeting very interesting and experienced people. I have already had some interesting conversations regarding the local experience towards mental health and climate change and hope to develop those relationships further.
There is still a long, hard journey ahead, yet it has kicked off in great fashion. I am enjoying the challenges that ice climbing is presenting me and opportunities I have. Like anything in life, it is up to me to make the most of those opportunities. That is exactly what I intend to do.