A Snowy Canyon (Canadian Rockies)

Party: Felix Ossig-Bonanno, Jono You, Badon T. Howard
Photos: Jono Yiu, Felix Ossig-Bonanno

When the end of the week finally came, I was pretty sapped. It had been a long week, and I figured I’d head to Maligne Canyon for some afternoon ice climbing. I cooked a nice hot breakfast, watched a tv episode… and then came a knock on my door. I invited Jono in. He was all fired up, it was time for an adventure! After a little brainstorming I remembered this canyon I’d been wanting to descend for some time. I had been close to doing it with Ingmar, but I think it was cold temps that had stopped us.

Badon was on his way over too. This gave me a little bit of time to prepare. I spread out gear on my apartment floor. I didn’t have much info. Talking to some locals, it sounded like there was one large pitch: 30m or 60m (I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer) followed by some smaller… with the extra bodies we could take all the gear we could possibly need. Lots of webbing/tape; an ice screw & coat hanger in case we needed to make a V-thread; extra rope… I thought we were quite prepared…

The only negatives for us was the late start, the fact I didn’t have a harness for everyone, and perhaps more importantly that both Jono and Badon hadn’t really rappelled/abseiled before… I made sure everyone had a light and off we went!

To save time we drove up to the TH – I’d hitch-hike up tomorrow to collect it. A couple hours of hiking and we were peering into the top section of the canyon. It started rather meekly and I think the others were a little under-whelmed. “Are we even going to need the rope?” Jono asked.

I had never been in a canyon with so much snow! You’d sink in up to your shins or knees with each step, occasionally breaking through a layer of ice, or plunge through into some void sinking up to your hips! Something I have always enjoyed in canyons are slides, and the snow certainly increased what we could do. We slid down a small drop to enter the canyon, and even some larger ones around 3-4m, sinking into the snow pillows at the bottom.

We rounded the corner passing in impressive column in the limestone wall. Not much further on we reached the first pitch (P1 xx CL 5m). It was bolted. Whilst not a huge fan of bolting, I think my lack of experience making anchors in snow and ice made me appreciate the well placed anchor – helping me relate to the spokespeople for bolting.

I was happy it was a small drop. It would make the ideal pitch for us to practice before the large drop I had been told about. We headed back up the canyon, geared up (I made Badon a tape/webbing harness) and went through the basics of abseiling and the particular descender they’d be using.

Around the corner, we reached the cliffline that the canyon now plummeted down. I peered over the edge, but couldn’t see the bottom. I had so many things to think about… I couldn’t descend first as I needed to make sure they were connecting to the rope correctly… with them going first, should I top belay? What if the rope didn’t reach the bottom?

I located a pinch point and we got some webbing out to make an anchor, but in the process I noticed some better situated bolts hiding behind snow (CL). Getting my ice tool out, I used the adze to create a platform at the lip, where on all fours I could reach the anchor. Bina-blocking the 60m rope, we tied a knot in the end. I stressed the importance of not letting go with the break hand, and down Jono went.

The rope proved to be plenty long enough, and Badon followed without incident.

Things, then got a little interesting… When I reached the bottom, Badon still had the rope threaded through his descender. I started pulling the rope down, thinking it would help pass the tail through the descender. I forgot about the stop-knot… Removing the rope from the descender as I had shown him, the knot stayed in place, and unknowingly I pulled it half way up the pitch before realising. Shit! It was about 20m up. Just about the main ice flow. Maybe I could reach it? Donning my crampons and ice tools I started scaling the face, kicking in my points, brushing the snow away and driving the points of my tools into the ice above. I was up about 10m. I looked down… then back up. I could still down-climb from where I was, but I wasn’t sure about the next section,  or whether I’d even be able to reach the rope. Doubt… trust your gut I told myself.

We had enough rope to finish, and I could retrieve my stuck rope the following day. As much as it annoyed me, it seemed best to climb down and finish the canyon. The consequences of falling were high, and would put a lot of stress on my friends who where in an environment even more peculiar than how I saw it.

The others had gotten quite cold waiting for me, and I could no longer feel my fingers. I told the others to keep moving whilst I warmed my fingers in my arm pits.

We plodded through the snow, sliding down many small drops, occasionally falling through, and just enjoying the scenery, never knowing what would be around the next bend. My favourite part of the canyon were the following two pitches.

I couldn’t find bolts for any of these pitches. But we found some good logs to anchor off. They looked pretty frozen in place, but we backed it up with a meat anchor just in case. We seemed to be making better time now, but when I checked my map it appeared we were only an eighth of the way down the creek so I tried picking up the pace a bit.

Some way down, we came across another small pitch. We couldn’t slide down this one. It was slightly overhung, and the walls were slanting down so you couldn’t really see the floor, despite knowing it wasn’t very far down. Following this we encountered many slides, snow covered log jams, log ladders and other winter wonders. For the next hour or so, the canyon was tracked by a four legged creature with a lot less mass then us, but even so it seemed to take a good path of least resistance.

Soon the canyon began to open up. Badon took off his tape harness that was starting to uncomfortably slip down. We tried exiting up onto the ridge on our left, to escape the uneven footing of the creek with its fallen trees and flotsam. On our second attempt, this paid off and we made much better time. I was sure now that we wouldn’t be overtaken by darkness. Now and then we picked up an old trail, even finding some rotting planks nailed to a tree. A saw hanging from a branch… but it was faint and the majority of the time we threaded our own way through the trees.

We hit the road we were aiming for. Walked to the highway and stuck our thumbs out. Several cars and trucks past. I started taking my harness off, and before I had finished a sedan pulled over. Bill, a Jasper local was happy to give us a ride back into town. On the way he told us of his attempt at climbing Mt Robson, and multi-day trips into Cadomin Cave. Adventure…

We were all a little sore and all very hungry. We sorted gear and went for a feed. What a good day it had turned out to be! I think no one was was exception the day to turn out like it had. I was happy to introduce a couple of people to a new sport!

The following day I toured up with Badon to retrieve my rope. We dropped the first pitch, pulled the rope up, ascended, and then skied and boarded back down to my car. We’d both independently hitch-hiked up and arrived within a minute of each other.

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