James commenced the first rap off a tree anchor at around 6:30pm. The sun had long since fallen behind the mountain opposite one of Canada’s most famous ice climbs, the ‘Weeping Wall’ causing the temperate to drop to around fifteen below freezing. It was cold but the thrill of having just climbed the best ice climb of our lives to date at such an iconic location was keeping us warm.
Standing there waiting to rig up for my rappel alone on that snowy ledge, the atmosphere was quite eerie, like I wasn’t alone. Brooke and Ashley who I had stayed with in Calgary advised me that it was not the Bears I should be worried about, it was the Cougars, and not the older single female type either. I doubt there were any large cats around, yet the ambiance made it seem possible. These are the tricks the mind can play.
Several raps later we were both down on terra firmer again. Stoked. It was about 7:45pm, well and truly dark and you could not wipe the smiles off our faces. Rapping down in the dark was the cherry on the cake. It had been a full day out of blue collar climbing. Hard work, thoroughly enjoyable and a day neither James or I will forget.
The Weeping Wall is an ice flow 165m high and more than a football field across. It’s huge and offers numerous lines ranging from WI4 to WI5. The wall’s size lends itself to having several parties climb at once and the day we climbed was no exception. There was a total of ten parties including ourselves.
I had never seen anything like it. Several parties of German climbers were on the steepest section to the right, two more parties were in the gully immediately left of the wall, a British pair chose the left-hand side while James and I attacked the middle section where the wall transitions from WI4 to WI5 climbing.
The first twenty meters or so was steady, nice climbing. A true warm up for what lay ahead as the remaining 140m was predominately steep and technical climbing. Though the wall has a southern aspect, meaning it gets full sun during the day, the ice remained hard and brittle. Several swings of your axe and kicks of your crampons were required to find secure placements. It was hard work and so both James and I were quickly stripping off layers even though the forecast high was a barmy fifteen below freezing.
The end of the first rope length led to an ice anchor on a sloping ledge. Above we had two options; head straight up a very steep pillar of WI5 or traverse out left to a less sustained WI4 pitch. We chose to head left.
The path we had chosen was an interesting and enjoyable pitch. The quality of the ice varied significantly from thick, hard blue ice, thin smears over rock to aerated pillars. It was a line where you had to choose your placements and protection carefully. This was confirmed the next day when we inadvertently ran into Brent Peters, who wrote the latest ice climbing guidebook for the area at a local crag just outside Canmore.
The final pitch started off relatively easy, yet like most classics the Weeping Wall had a sting in its tail. The final pillar was probably the steepest section of ice on our climb. With poor quality ice to the left, the line James chose became slightly overhanging due to a dome of ice on top forcing you away from the pillar. When it came time for me to follow, I was glad that James had stepped up to the plate. It was an incredible performance.
We topped out on a snowy ledge at the base of a 200m high rock wall overlooking the valley. On the right side of the headwall was a WI6 ice flow of equal length which one of the German parties had decided to climb. The landscape had a slight pink hue about it typical of an alpine setting at dusk.
I suddenly realised how hungry I was. Having started around 10:30am we had been climbing for almost eight hours and I had eaten only a single sandwich and a handful of almonds.
Taking a moment to have a drink and eat some food we decided on our descent route. James and I were both overjoyed with how the climb had gone. It was by far the longest, most sustained pure ice climb that either of us had completed and James summed it up well for his part when he told me those were the best leads of his life. I couldn’t think of a more fitting place to complete such a feat and I am super stoked for him. The climb rates equally high for me.
The Weeping Wall showed me how much more I must learn about the art of ice climbing. Better body positioning to get good rest, improved foot technique and always working on that mental game. Maintaining focus on climbing efficiently, securely, factors that reduce the risk of a fall rather than thinking of the consequences of a mistake. There is always something to be learnt from any experience.
There are still many weeks left in the season here and a lifetime of ice to climb. Each option providing an opportunity to improve, refine technique and ultimately have fun. As the great Alex Lowe once said, “the best climber is the one having the most fun”. Well I aim to be the best climber here.