Ice Climbing Louise Falls: It's Not Vacation if You Don't Fear for Your Life
When I decided to come to Banff for spring break, ice climbing was in the forefront of my mind. I've been getting more and more into climbing in the past few years, so I was super excited to plan a trip to one of the best places in the world to climb. The Canadian Rockies have a huge concentration of amazing ice climbing routes and an incredibly long season from October to April. Little did I know that ascending this popular multi-pitch route would pose one of the biggest mental and physical challenges I've faced thus far in my outdoor adventure career.
Before we get into it, I want to address that when we departed from the United States, the CDC had issued no travel advisories on international travel for COVID-19 except for four high risk countries. After much research in the week leading up to the trip, we felt that traveling a few hours north of the border would not pose a problem. We did not foresee the situation escalating so exponentially, and by the time we realized that we needed to be back in the states as soon as possible we had virtually no options. Had we known the extent to which things would become worse in such a short period of time, we certainly would have cancelled the trip. We in no way intended to put others at risk by traveling unnecessarily, and like many other travelers this past week we did not realize the severity of this situation until we were already across the border.
The day started off chilly, the car thermometer reading -14 degrees Fahrenheit. My dad and I were anxious but excited with a beautiful weather forecast and an exciting plan to climb Louise Falls on the northwest side of the lake. It’s only about 350 ft with three or four pitches, but the climb was rated an intimidating WI4-5. We had both done WI4+ climbs before, but only short top roped pitches. As we walked along the beautiful Lake Louise approaching the falls I was excited but I could tell my dad was extremely anxious.
When the falls came into view my stomach immediately twisted into a knot that quickly rose to my throat. I was staring face to face with an extremely long, steep climb. In that moment I thought we were in over our heads. Our guide, Sebastian, could tell I was doubtful and assured me that it would be easier than it looked. “This guy doesn’t know us, has never seen us climb, and is way too confident in our abilities,” I thought to myself as we geared up.
Louise Falls is wide enough that it can be climbed by a few different routes. Two groups of climbers had arrived before us and were ascending the first few pitches, so we waited for a bit so that they could get sufficiently ahead before we started climbing. You never really want to climb right underneath anyone because falling ice is a major hazard. As we watched them climb the first two pitches I got increasingly nervous because they looked like they were having a hard time. If these experienced climbers were having trouble, how could we possibly get up it?
While we were waiting Sebastian gave us some instruction on technique. As he led the first pitch I tried to seem confident because I could tell my dad was worried. “We’ll take it one pitch at a time and if we can’t go any further we can rappel down,” I said. The first two pitches were 25 meters and 60 meters rated at WI3 and WI2 respectively. They were pretty picked out, meaning that the other climbers on the popular route had gouged small divots for us to step and swing our ice tools in. I wasn’t yet comfortable, muscling myself up the short pitch and burning out my forearms in the process. It was exhausting. After some instruction from Sebastian I improved my form making it much easier for the second pitch.
When we topped out in a small cave, we were met by the group in front of us. Their leader was just finishing up the most difficult pitch of the climb. He had struggled leading, and it took him almost an hour to climb the 25 meter WI4+ pitch. This steep chandelier was the crux of the climb that had been intimidating us all morning. We waited there for the other two climbers in the group to finish.
I was positively terrified sitting in the cave looking over the lake. It was a gorgeous view, but I couldn’t enjoy it with the thought of what we were about to attempt in the forefront of my mind. My dad quietly asked if descending was an option, but Sebastian said that we couldn’t and that rappelling down would in fact be more dangerous than finishing up the last two pitches. As he uttered the words, one of the climbers in the other group took a fall. It was small and non-consequential, but a fall nonetheless.
I saw my dad’s face go pale, his eyes wide looking at Sebastian who reassured us that he wouldn’t have taken us up here if he wasn’t 100% confident that we could do it. After the other group ascended, he showed us a better route that would be much easier than what they just did. After he was secure at the top of the pitch, my dad ascended with me cheering him on from below. He went first so that he could clean the route, taking out each screw along the way. Unscrewing the protection takes a lot of balance, stability, and energy, so I was relieved to know that I didn’t have to do that job.
As my time to climb came, fear consumed me. I couldn’t think or move, stuck on the edge of the cliff unable to go up or down. As I stared down at the little specks below, tourists watching our every move, something in my brain snapped. There was no time for fear. There were no options. I had to climb. So after unscrewing my protection I tentatively inched my way out onto the route one step at a time.
I got about two feet up before realizing that there were four daunting screws staring down at me with my rope unattached off to the right. The knot in my stomach melted into fiery anger as I choked back tears. I was so upset that my dad had not only failed to do his job, but he had also unhooked my rope from the screws so that I was too far over to reach them. Remember friends, I’m only 5’2” so not only does it take me more swings of the tool and kicks with my feet to get up, my reach is also much shorter than my leader’s.
I was so pissed off that I swung my axe harder with every move, smashing my crampons into the ice, cursing with every step as I ascended. All I could think about is what I was going to yell at my dad when I reached the top. The anger fueled me, lighting a fire under my ass and motivating me to keep going. As I came over the final lip, all I could see was my dad’s apologetic gaze as he encouraged me up to the final step. Seeing him in that moment melted all of my anger away. He apologized profusely, explaining how our ropes were twisted and he couldn’t stabilize himself enough to get the screws out. He said he was proud of me and promised to clean the next pitch.
I realized that the only thing that got me up the most difficult pitch of my life was my anger. I wasn’t really mad at him or the screws or anything for that matter. I think in the moment I knew I needed to find a way to ignore the fear in order to let my body finish the job, and anger was the only way I knew how. At the top I told him not to worry and that I was proud of him too.
The last 25 meter WI3 pitch was tough only because we were so physically and mentally drained. When we topped out we were both elated and exhausted. It was similar to my mindset after completing the Presidential Traverse, but a thousand times better. I don’t often feel proud of myself, but this was a really big deal to me and the high was unbelievable. The descent down the side of the slope was almost as treacherous as the climb up, with us sliding down in waist deep snow self arresting every few meters. We were roped up in case one of us started falling uncontrollably down the cliff. It was kind of fun sliding down in the deep powder, and after gathering our belongings we proudly made our way back to the car.
To be completely honest, this climb was more difficult than what I thought we could handle at our skill level. I tend to underestimate myself, but our guide Sebastian knew that this would be perfect to get us out of our comfort zone while still being doable. He was amazing, giving us the tools and encouragement that we needed to make it to the top. He was incredibly well prepared and knew exactly how to instruct us to succeed. We absolutely couldn’t have done it without his help, and I can’t imagine we would have been successful with any other guide.
I also want to give a huge shoutout to my dad, who was apprehensive from the start. I talked him into this a month ago, and although I told him multiple times that he could bail beforehand, he still came out of obligation. I felt bad, but in retrospect I couldn’t have succeeded without his encouragement and we both felt incredibly accomplished afterwards. My dad has always been my hero and the person I look up to in life. I know I’m sometimes too hard on him, but seeing him go so far out of his comfort zone just to make me happy was humbling. I knew beforehand that he would do anything for me, but this went above and beyond the usual fatherly duties. This was the ultimate father-daughter bonding activity, and we’re definitely closer because of it. And luckily he still wants to climb with me at home so I don’t think I’ve scarred him too much with my overly ambitious idea of a vacation.
The most difficult part about this climb was the mental game. Confidence is imperative, and I didn’t have enough of it at any point throughout the day. I think this comes with my inexperience in multipitch climbing, but I think this experience has given me more confidence in my abilities. In reality this wasn’t all that different than top roping, it just was much longer and higher off the ground with no option to back out. Although it was a roller coaster of emotions, climbing Louise falls was a life changing experience, showing me that I’m much more capable than I realize and that I have more to be proud of than I realize. And is it a really a quality vacation if you don’t fear for your life at some point throughout the trip? I think not!
Louise Falls: Lake Louise, Alberta [WI4+]