Island Alpine - ice climbing
Vancouver Island isn’t known as a great waterfall ice climbing destination. In fact rumour has it that Victoria, BC has the world’s largest collection of under-utilized ice climbing equipment!
It is a rare winter indeed when freezing temperatures drop low and long enough for any significant road-accessible ice to form. The last really significant freeze to do this was in February 1989 when Upper Campbell Lake froze completely and ice draped just about every crag and hillside. Most recently the early season conditions through December 2013 came very close to repeating that and Island climbers enjoyed some of the best ice conditions for many years.
Although infrequent when the deep freezes do arrive the quality of the ice produced is second to none. Mild West Coast temperatures and repeating cycles of freeze and thaw along with heavy wet snowfalls can mature Island ice into a sublime plastic névé or ‘snice’.
When temperatures drop some of the areas to look for good low elevation ice include: Comox Lake, Upper Campbell Lake, Buttle Lake, the White Ridge and Highway 28 right to the head of Muchalet Inlet. There are plenty of other places but these areas have good access.
In a more typical winter you will have to look at least as high as 3,000 ft (1,200m) to find any ice in condition. The best all round locations for Island ice climbing are at: Mt Cokely and Mt. Arrowsmith along Pass Main, Boston Lake below Mt. Becher, Mt Washington, and at Tennent Lake below Mt Myra.
While these areas can offer good waterfall climbing in most years, the most reliable winter climbing conditions on Vancouver Island ice is usually found higher up on the north faces of the mountains.
If you are looking for winter climbing of a less committing nature but full-on potential try Mt Arrowsmith, Mt Albert Edward, King’s Peak and Mt Cain. Each of these peaks are readily accessible throughout the winter and have some classic gully climbs and face routes of just a few hundred metres giving a great taste of Vancouver Island’s winter alpine climbing.
At the middle of the pack for accessibility and commitment are routes on Big Den Mountain and the Haihte Range. The potential for new route development in both these places is vast and the existing climbs come highly recommended.
Mt. Colonel Foster is home, by far and away, to the most challenging winter climbing on the Island. The 3,500 ft (1,000m) north-east face of the Colonel is scored by several huge couloirs and numerous other more complex lines. Only three routes have been established on this incredible peak with many new ones waiting to be done.
Because of the inaccessibility of most of the winter routes one of the biggest first challenges is estimating the conditions are right before committing to the long approaches. Even at the best of times the Elk River Trail to the base of Mt Colonel Foster is going to take a day each way in winter so it’s important to be able to gauge whether or not the effort of the approach is going to be worth it. Watch for periods of stable, cold weather with little snowfall prior to climbing and forecast for the ascent.
Early winter conditions can often be the best as temperatures drop while the snowpack is still relatively shallow. Successive freeze-thaw cycles help build the ice for climbing and sub-zero temperatures keeps everything stable and falling shrapnel to a minimum.
As a typical winter progresses the deep snow build-up can bank out many of the gullies especially the short steps, making them technically easier than during leaner, early season conditions. The sting in the tail however, especially for couloirs, are the incredible cornices that can develop. What seems like a technique only for text book drawings, tunnelling cornices, is very much a reality on Vancouver Island.
Sadly there is little in the way of steep glacier ice for year round ice climbing. The best options for anything even close to steep summer ice can be found on the Mt Rosseau massif and the Haihte Range, but don’t think you’re going to find Rockies style summer ice.
There are a lot of great routes all over the Island waiting for discovery in the right conditions at all elevations. There are thousands of steep creeks all over Vancouver Island and the forest must hide an incredible number of waterfalls that freeze in some years - to say nothing of the obvious suspects like Della Falls!
Some of the potential new winter climbs have almost obscene access difficulties but at the same time certainly incredible climbing. Mt Cobb is one such peak where three parallel waterfalls have been seen formed as thick icefalls cascading off the north side of the mountain in a series of vertical steps. Victoria Peak is another mountain waiting for more winter lines to be established. Mt Harmston is one to watch and... well, not all the secrets can be let out so easily!