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Ice Climbing

Once you fall, the fear of falling goes away.

That’s what I learned halfway up a wall of dripping blue-white ice in Banff National Park. Or rather, I learned it halfway down, as my harness halted my plunge and bounced me against the frozen upper falls of Johnston Canyon.

I fell because a saucer-size chunk of ice had broken under my ice ax. Fortunately, at the other end of my rope was a solid pine tree, about a hundred feet above me–also, my guide, who felt my sudden drop and leaned back against the slack.

Dangling from a rope on an ice cliff does not leave you many options other than to start climbing again. With a new ferocity I pierced my crampons into the smooth and dripping ice face, then attacked it with one whack of the ax after another. Like an overdressed gecko, I climbed upward: hand, hand, foot, foot. Crunch, crunch.

I’d always wanted to try ice climbing but it’s not really something that’s available back home. First off, you need ice to go ice climbing, and second, you need mountains. Luckily, Banff has both in large amounts.

My first attempt at the sport took place below a rounded rocky ledge, dripping with ten-foot long icicles. On one side, the water had frozen in rivulets, creating one ice column that looked like a giant melted candle. The hike to its base took me through the white wonderland of Johnston Canyon, where a single glassy clear stream cuts through a narrow channel of eroded Rocky Mountain stone. Snow-covered ice lifted up from the creek bed in a strange geometry of white polygons. Turquoise pools were circled by bubbles and bundles of fragile ice strands. The frozen world around me was extraordinary, beautiful, and totally silent. In fact, the first sound I heard was my ice-picked boot toes slamming into the ice, followed by the crash of my axe overhead. Diamond shards of ice flew off the wall, spitting beads of cold water onto my red face.

Make no mistake, ice climbing was a workout. The ascent definitely tested my body strength: I felt it in my calves, thighs, and abs. Beneath my winter jacket, I was soaked with well-earned sweat and when I finally did reach the very top, I took five, sat down in the snow and gazed around.

Like all good travel, ice climbing carried me to a place I had never been before, to a tremendous new view of a new corner of the world. This round trip involved rappelling back down to the earth below, but I managed just fine. Rappelling is just a different kind of falling and I had fallen before.

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