Artem and Tom joined me in Banff for a few days of climbing on the 14th. Tom had never been ice climbing before and Artem had never done any serious ice climbs. I’m also a a relative beginner. So naturally, after partying on Friday night, we decided to climb something big on Saturday.
Cascade Waterfall is called by some as the best WI3 climb in the world. It’s 300m of relatively easy WI2 with the last three pitches a WI3. It’s also one of the most accessible climbs in the Rockies with a 10 minute approach and has fantastic views of the highway for its entire length. However it is threatened by a huge avalanche bowl from above.
Artem, Tom and I got to the parking lot at 7am. To our dismay, another group of 4 had beaten us to the trailhead. While we faffed around for AN HOUR trying to fix a faulty crampon for Tom, the other group got going.
The plan was for me to lead all the pitches and then belay Artem and Tom up after me. But when we got to the base we realized that the other group had just started the first pitch. This set off a flag as we realized they would likely be pretty slow.
The first few pitches were pretty straight forward and we were able to solo some of them. Behind us, another party of three began making their way up towards us. They were soloing everything and caught up with us pretty quickly. By the time we arrived at the crux sections of the climb the group ahead of us was clearly making extremely slow progress.
We ended up waiting for about 3 hours while the first group finished two pitches of WI3. By then it was 2pm and although the avalanche forecast was low, I was not stoked about the fact of there being a huge, south facing and warming avalanche bowl above us. Finally the group ahead topped out and I led the final pitches. The first was fine but the second was absolutely terrifying. Being a high volume waterfall, there are usually sections which are detached from the rock. However at the top of the second hard pitch, the ice (about 2 inches thick) was separated from the wall by no less than a meter of air and flowing water. This was also the crux of the route and so I was praying the whole time that I wouldn’t break through the ice and plunge into the waterfall inside. Every single placement felt so fragile that I vowed never to climb something like that again (a vow which I have since broken). Usually I would have bailed but it was past the point of no return and I couldn’t see a way I could downclimb safely.
But the ice held and I made it to a belay station where Artem and Tom could second up. By the time we made it to the last pitch, it was dark and we knew we had a long rappel ahead of us. We finished quickly but the stupid ropes which had been constantly plaguing me with Gordian knots decided to tangle themselves again. By that point I was cold, miserable and I would have been willing to sacrifice a kitten just to be back in the warm car.
After 4 rappels and 4 hours of descent we were finally at the base. It had taken us 15 hours, 5 of those which were spent in the dark. I was utterly spent because of the mental stress of leading the whole route, and I was bitter about the slow group we had had to wait for on nearly every pitch.
Artem and I had a discussion during the descent about the merits of climbing long ice routes. At that point we couldn’t find any. Between the waiting around, miserable cold, incredibly slow progress, and marginal ice conditions near the top, along with the objective hazards of falling ice, avalanches, punching through into a freezing waterfall and the whole thing potentially collapsing while we’re on it, we decided ice climbing is quite possibly the stupidest sport ever invented. Yet somehow it is so incredibly addicting.
Despite the massively long day, it was a day of firsts for us. Tom did incredibly well for a first time ice climber. He was thrown head first into multipitch ice before he had even had a chance to swing a tool. Artem too, had his first experience with a big and committing mulipitch ice route. And for me, it was the first time I had led something that big.
Unfortunately my camera died before the crux and most exciting/photo-worthy pitches of the route. More photos to follow but Artem has them on his camera.