First Crack: Ice Climbing in Lillooet, BC

by Wendy Marshall

While my family was neither wealthy nor outdoorsy, I’ve always had a passion for being in nature. As a result, I easily landed in Geology studies at Western Washington University, yet “extreme” sports like snowboarding still felt as distant as Mars despite my PacNW upbringing. That changed the day I spotted a weekend trip posting on our Outdoor Club board. Lillooet Ice Climbing, it said. As a figure skater who hoped to work in Antarctic science, I already had a deep love for ice—but ice climbing? A little research, and I had the facts. This wasn’t just any ice-stomping, but straight-up frozen waterfalls. One of those sports. Here was my chance, to enter a world of edgy skills, glossy magazines and pure alpine adventure. I knew I had to go. After paying the fee and tooling up on boots, axes, crampons and clothes at my very first used-gear sale—my head bursting with brands from Charlet-Moser to Grivel, and terms like monopoint crampons—I was ready.

On February 12th, eight of us plus Ryan and Dave, the young but competent leaders, piled into the vans and set off. A hub of interior British Columbia, Lillooet is a tiny place whose economy still utilizes extractive industries like logging and mining. It also offers some of the best vertical ice terrain in the area, plenty of it easily accessible by road for short excursions. First, of course, you have to get there. We wound deep into the Canadian Rockies on the Trans-Canada Highway, passing towns with names like Hope and Spuzzum, and by the time we reached Hell’s Gate—a thin, sketchy red bridge and air tram swaying precariously above the little river that thundered through rocky Fraser Canyon—we felt alike nervous, excited and surreal. Our target destination: Marble Canyon, barely an hour north of Lillooet.

Marble Canyon shelters clusters of frozen waterfalls, which we could see from the road, clinging to rock faces between ridges of snow-dusted conifers. We craned to look, our necks cricking. Then suddenly we arrived. Grabbing our mix of owned and rented gear, we hiked a short way across the frozen Crown Lake, up a slope to a popular family of icefalls, crowned by the famous 3-pitch route named Icy BC.

This group offers routes rated WI3-6, from fat chunky well-bonded ice columns, to thin glaze mixed with bare rock and hanging sheets. Saving Icy BC for later, we started from the left, at the broad Deeping Wall. Ice climbing with a group, I learned, is great fun and camaraderie, but you also stand around waiting. A lot. Nervously, if you’re a rookie. I picked up what tips I could, befriending Allison and Jen and the rest of our team. We watched Ryan and Dave climb to set up topropes, inserting ice screws as they went. The first volunteers followed, and cries of “Ice!” “Ice!” (or in the case of Andrew, a Brit, “Oice!”) rang out whenever somebody knocked loose any sharp ice chips or plate-sized “death cookies” with axe or crampon, at which we ducked our helmets.

But nothing compares to that virgin attempt at a new skill. Everyone was so encouraging, and I tried to feel reassured by the tug of the toprope at my waist, when I’d never even climbed with a toprope on rock. Soon, my forearms were burning. Tiny ice chips stung my face and plinked off my helmet, as the wicked-looking recurved technical axe I’d proudly purchased ricocheted maddeningly off the rippled blue ice time and again. Now I couldn’t get a foothold—what was wrong with me? My crampon had popped off my foot! Time to descend. I felt a bit discouraged, weak and clumsy, not to mention sweaty, my pumped arms like jelly. Back to waiting and watching in the cold. But it was hard to feel sad for long in such a beautiful place. I got a sweet photo of Allison and Jen hugging for warmth, grins and pink cheeks and nose-ring barely peeking out of cozy winter woolens. Then I wandered over to look at a stunning pillar of ice that emerged magically from beneath an overhang, creating a glowing cave of translucent blue like a temple of ice. Crawling in, I felt awed and exhilarated.

That night, we camped in tents, in the coldest night I’d ever faced. One by one, we drifted from the cheerful campfire, filled by a tasty dinner of sloppy bean stew, and to bed. The thermometer dropped to 10 degrees F. Morning came, and the last thing I wanted was to poke more than my nose from my sleeping bag, but I knew I’d be warmer moving. I couldn’t feel my foot, so I shoved it hard into my boot, heard a crack, and thought, “Oh well—I might’ve broke a toe, but I can’t tell!” (I hadn’t.)
Over the weekend, I learned valuable techniques from our leaders, which we practiced between climbs. A bent-kneed “monkey hang” from extended arms will save them from fatigue. Coupled with the hang, wrist straps offer added support when your grip becomes tired on the ice axe. Using the weight of your lower leg pendulum-style, kick straight in, drop your heel and try not to wiggle your foot. Aim for the pockets of dense-looking blue ice between the lighter-colored prominent bulges, which are often highly aerated and/or fractured. But the greatest feeling came from a properly-executed swing of the axe. After being shown how to line up my shoulder, elbow and wrist to transmit the force of my swing with maximum efficiency, the serrated pick sank home with a solid, satisfying ssthunk. Chills flew up my spine. “Yeahhh,” Ryan growled, to cheers from my teammates.

On the third day, we hiked a bit further to a beautiful route called Cherry Ice, where victory found me at last. My axes landed solidly more often than not, and my hands and feet found their rhythm: Thunk-thunk, followed by the chip-chip-chip of crampon steps. My teammates grew tiny below. Too stoked to stop, I rounded the waterfall’s sloping crest until the rope topped out, then looked out at the amazing view. I felt fantastic, wishing I could climb again immediately. But as I handed off the rope at the bottom, a tiny ice chip whizzed by and cut my ungloved hand, as if to say: “Don’t get too cocky, now!” I felt the respect, but my joy was undiminished. The others shared my sentiments. “We chopped this to s---,” one guy said happily. Then all too soon, we were leaving, me sitting next to Dave as the van pulled away, and by accident we broke into the same song at the same time: “On the road again ...”

A few years later, this same trip was again offered. Then I would climb Icy BC itself, stay at the Mile 0 Hotel, and try the notorious Figure-4 move just for fun. Since moving to Portland, Oregon, I’ve discovered the Columbia Gorge offers some exciting water-ice possibilities, while the Mazama Center’s new ice climbing wall provides a place to work on techniques. But I will always treasure my first ice climbing trip, most of all for what it represents: The courage of trying and the joy of being.
Wendy Marshall found the Mazamas in 2014. She loves herbs, nature, and mountain sports, and supports the latter through a budding career in writing, aided by a steady supply of Fig Newtons and dark chocolate during rough stretches.

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