While many people in Squamish have been grumbling about shovelling snow off their driveways, local ice climbers have been having a heyday.
This winter’s frigid weather has created pristine and rare ice climbing conditions.
Squamish typically has little or no ice climbing during any time of the year, as rain and warmer weather make it impossible to form the frozen waterfalls or ice-slicked cliffside runnels necessary for the sport.
Tim Emmett, a local professional climber, told The Squamish Chief on Jan. 6 that he hasn’t seen ice climbing conditions this good in his 13 years living in Squamish.
It’s the culmination of several unusual circumstances that happened this season.
First, was the atmospheric river phenomenon.
“There was loads and loads…of precipitation, so there was a lot of water in the ground before the cold snap came in. And then when it got cold, it got cold really slowly, which is unusual. So you’ve got this combination — lots of groundwater and the slow freeze, and then it was cold for ages,” said Emmett.
“It’s, like, the ultimate ice climbing or ice-forming conditions.”
As a result, areas, where ice was inconsistent, were frozen solid, opening up a gateway of possibilities.
Some areas of the Smoke Bluffs were encased in ice sheets, allowing for mixed climbing.
The top of the Sea to Sky Gondola also provided places for ice climbers to play. The Squamish Valley, too, saw its share of ascents.
Perhaps the most obvious formation can be seen from the highway. Shannon Falls was completely frozen over, and, as a result, climbed this season.
Also very visible from the highway was the Stawamus Chief, where ice sheets formed in places, allowing for its share of ascents.
As one example, a party managed to perform a rare mixed rock and ice climb up the Apron of the Chief, following the general direction of Over the Rainbow.
That distinction belongs to Jean-Marc Savoie and Niall Hamill, who topped out that climb on New Year’s Eve.
Hamill said that his partner came up with the idea to link several routes in the area of Over the Rainbow, normally a 5.9 route in the summer.
“We were climbing in some sort of bushy, and, sometimes, mossy terrain, connecting strips of snow and ice that were just barely enough to make it reasonable,” said Hamill.
“[It was] low angle but scarce protection, so definitely some mentally challenging climbing up there, not necessarily terribly physical, but tricky and not for the faint of heart.”
He said Savoie deserved much of the credit for conquering that route.
Hamill was also involved in another high-profile climb.
He and Sam Eastman put up a new first ascent on Jungle Warfare — not to be mistaken for the long-time trad climb in the area.
The pair put up the route on the Slhanay’s Barbarian Wall, and gave the route a grade of M6 WI 5. Mixed grades can go as high as M16. While water ice, referring to ice that forms only in certain seasons, grades generally range from WI 1 to 8.
Hamill said the idea came after one of Eastman’s friends scoped out the area and suggested there might be an ice climb waiting to be ascended.
As a result, Hamill and Eastman gave it a shot.
Hamill recalled that his climbing partner put on an impressive performance on the most challenging part of the route.
“Watching him execute it perfectly, it was just obviously so high quality. I could tell that it was going to be a really memorable route for both of us. Like a perfect corner with really nice steep ice,” he said.
Hamill expressed appreciation for how things have turned out this season.
“It’s kind of a privilege to recreate in these places,” he said.
When it comes to difficulty, perhaps some of the most challenging new climbs were put up by Tim Emmett.
He and Sam Eastman put up a new route in the Squamish Valley in the area known as The Shooting Gallery that he called “the best ice climb in the West Coast of Canada.”
Emmett said it was probably WI 6+, an exceptionally hard route.
“For waterfall ice, that’s near to the highest grade, yeah, there are sevens but 6+ is legit. It’s as good as anything in the Rockies,” he said.
Ice had formed in an area before, but hadn’t been of good quality.
However, this season, things were different.
“It’s steep technical ice climbing with limited protection, so sometimes the space between screws is pretty far…it’s absolutely amazing, like really 3D climbing,” Emmett said.
However, as far as difficulty goes, that wouldn’t be the hardest first ascent put up this season.
At the Mamquam Falls, Emmett and his partner Trevor McDonald ascended a new climb called Seasonal Affair, rated at M7+.
It doesn’t get much more difficult than that when it comes to ice climbing.
Emmett said his friend Jimmy Martinello found and bolted the line with Keenan Nowak.
However, it had yet to see a winter ice-climb ascent.
While Emmett had his eye on it for at least a couple of years, he delayed the endeavour until Martinello was available to give his blessing in person.
This season, it all came together. But the ascent wouldn’t come easy.
“I got really pumped. It’s steep and really tests fitness, and right top…i had a lot of lactic acid in my forearms and what that does, is it makes it harder to hold the ice axe,” he said. “When you’re hitting the ice, if you don’t hit the tool really firmly, it could just bounce off.”
When he topped out, it was a big relief.
“It was brilliant. It was a really good feeling, it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for… years, that climb, and it only comes into condition rarely,” said Emmett.
“Ice climbing is a bit like surfing. When the surf comes, you go. When it gets cold, you go. Ice climbs can be there for, like, a day or two days and then they’re not there anymore. You really have to drop everything and just go and do it.”