Nice ice!

🕔Jan 31, 2011

Winters are long in the Northwest. Rivers stand still in icy repose, mountains hide behind clouds, and waterfalls freeze in silent cascades. Silent, that is, until someone breaks the sleepy stillness with the swing of an ice axe. Ice itself is onomatopoeic—crunching, dripping, cracking, groaning—and there’s nothing quiet about the sport of ice climbing. The alpine activity is a sensory experience heightened by the inherent risk and the thrill of watching the ground below recede with every step.

“Ice climbing is a totally unique sport that threads a fine line between pleasure, pain, and fear,” says Jonathan Lambert, an enthusiast from Terrace. The sport has its roots in mountaineering, but also exists on its own. Climbers use ice axes and crampons (not to mention an arsenal of other tools) to safely make their way up sheets of ice, usually frozen waterfalls.

“Climbing anything is fun,” says Derek Willmott, a Smithers schoolteacher and climber. “It allows a degree of mental focus that clears out your mind very pleasantly.

“The actual movement of ice climbing tends to be less gymnastic and elegant than climbing on rock,” he continues. “For me, a lot of the appeal is the fantastic scenery that you can climb through. Picture a sinuous river of radiant blue ice winding upwards through convoluted rock canyons: giant icicles, weird “cauliflower” lumps, freestanding pillars, all sculpted in shades of green, blue, grey, clear. It can be truly stunning.”

Ice in all its myriad formations is beautiful. But climbing it—isn’t that a bit strange? “Climbing frozen water is pretty contrived,” admits Scott McMillan, another Smithers climber. “But what sport isn’t? You generally can’t rock-climb in the Northwest in the winter,” he explains, “so it’s a good way to get your climbing fix without having to leave the country.”

Like most extreme sports, ice climbing requires some prior knowledge and plenty of preparation. “It’s not something you should read about and then just go out and do,” warns McMillan. “Take a course or go out with knowledgeable friends first. With good training and judgement it is a relatively safe pursuit, but without proper training it can be very dangerous.”

Risk is one thing, but what about the pain? “Anything worthwhile involves a certain amount of pain,” says Canmore athlete Will Gadd. “The interest factor just has to outweigh the pain factor, and ice climbing is very, very interesting!” Gadd’s ice climbing expertise is unparalleled: he’s won numerous awards, opened the hardest routes in the world, and continues to climb competitively at an international level. Last year he climbed non-stop for 24 hours for a fund-raiser, ascending the equivalent of over 25,000 feet. “Even after climbing ice for 30 years I still find myself laughing at the idea that I’m actually climbing a frozen waterfall,” he says. “How weird is that?”

While the Rocky Mountains may be an ice-climbing mecca, northwest BC has a lot going for it. “When the weather is right around Terrace and Rupert—a good cold spell—the ice can be as good as the best stuff in the Rockies,” says McMillan. Plus, he says, the Rockies have “thousands of climbs, but also thousands of climbers.”

The Northwest is often defined by its emptiness, and in the world of ice climbing, emptiness means potential. “Rounding a corner in an unfamiliar creek canyon to come face-to-face with a curtain of green water frozen into fantastical shapes is pretty neat,” says Willmott. “Like other outdoor activities here, there is just so much room for exploring and discovering new places.”

Gadd agrees. “For me, new routes are my main interest,” he says. “I love getting out and finding new stuff. All the fun of ice climbing plus the exploration, research, and pure guessing that leads to unclimbed ice!” The Northwest is full of countless cascades waiting to be discovered and climbed.

The entire northern landscape changes in winter, and BC’s icy waterfalls showcase the deep freeze like nothing else. The following is a short collection of ice-climbing areas throughout the region. Each of these locations is an amazing sight in its own right and can be incorporated into a tamer trek on snowshoes or skis. While most of these climbs are not directly threatened by avalanches, accessing many of them requires travelling through the backcountry, including through potential avalanche terrain. Be safe. Be smart. For more information, check out the user-developed site,


The highway between Terrace and Prince Rupert is a jaw-dropping scenic drive, and in winter it just gets better. When the weather is right—immediately following an Arctic outflow—there are a number of climbs along this stretch of road that easily equal Rocky Mountain ice climbing but without crowds of climbers.

Exstew Valley
The Exstew climbing opportunities are best accessed by snowmobile, as access is via an unplowed logging road. In good weather, it’s worth the effort. There are beginner, intermediate, and advanced climbs.

When the ice forms on the Exchamsiks wall, it becomes an astonishingly beautiful and somewhat crazy sight. Climb it if you can, but make sure you come back afterwards!

Rumbling Dragon’s Tail
One notable route on the highway itself, near John Little Falls and the Exstew River, is this enigmatically named climb that culminates with an incredible view of the Skeena and its mountainous surroundings.


Little Oliver Creek
This valley is blessed with a variety of climbs, ranging in difficulty. There are a few ways to access the climbs—check the website for details—but the namesake creek is about 40 kilometres east of Terrace. The climbs here are all named with the same creativity you find on mountain-bike trails and rock-climbing routes. “One Fierce Beer Coaster” is a personal favourite.

Located in an avalanche path on the railway side of the Skeena, the climbs behind Usk require timing the ferry across the river and hiking the train tracks. The view is suitably spectacular, but watch for falling snow.

Kitselas Road
There is an assortment of climbing opportunities along the Kitselas Road by Terrace Mountain, which itself has ice-climbing potential in a few locations.


Kitwanga Mountain
Near Kitwanga, on the Cedarvale backroad, there is a cliff band that offers both ice and mixed (rock and ice) climbing. It’s “a bit of a trek” to access, but worth the effort.

At the base of Weeskinisht Peak in Seven Sisters Provincial Park, there is an unexplored climb waiting for someone to head out and christen it. To access, follow the Cedarvale Trail into the park (Trails to Timberline by Einar Blix details the trail itself) and scramble up the talus slope at its end. Look for the ice in a gully to your right.


On the road to Stewart—Highway 37A—there are incredible high alpine opportunities. Ice climbing routes no doubt abound, but most are unexplored. Avalanche exposure along this stretch of highway is very high, however, so alpinists beware!

Bob Quinn Lake

Ningunsaw Falls
The Nigunsaw River is a tumultuous river that meets Highway 37 north of Bell II. The waterfalls—and associated climbing—are directly off the highway.

Kinaskan Falls
On the far side of Kinaskan Lake (north of Nigunsaw River and south of Dease Lake) is an ice route that leads up from the lake into a gully. To get there, snowshoe or ski across the lake itself.


Porphyry Overlook
Located in a canyon on the Bulkley River between Moricetown and Hazelton is a couple of top-rope climbing routes. This location could be good for beginners heading out with experienced and equipped friends.

Hagwilget Falls
Hagwilget Peak is a formidable sight, dominating the skyline behind New Hazelton. At its snowy base is a climbable waterfall, accessed by snowshoe. The mountain itself is also climbable, although summer is probably the more sensible time of year for a full ascent.


Reality Check
Inside the ski boundary of Hudson Bay Mountain, this cascade is visible from town. It’s not a beginner climb, but interested skiers can voyeuristically visit its base on their way back to the lift.

Glacier Gulch
There are several climbs in Glacier Gulch, ranging from beginner to advanced. All are accessed from Glacier Gulch Road. If you’re heading out just to scope out the scene, a pair of snowshoes are worth bringing—the road is only plowed partway and a short slog through the snow is necessary to get to the ice.

Netalzul Falls
This waterfall north of Smithers is described as being located in the “middle of nowhere.” Accessed by logging roads and a bit of a bushwhack, it’s technically within Netalzul Meadows Provincial Park. Even the Parks website warns that “Netalzul Meadows is not easily accessible,” and this isn’t counting winter conditions. But the hardest treks often have the highest rewards, and Netalzul Falls is a 100-metre cascade in a spectacular mountain environment.

Little Joe Falls
These falls are located in Babine Mountains Provincial Park. Skis or snowshoes are necessary. To access the falls, either follow the summer trail or cut directly to the creek and follow the ice.

Silver Queen
Also in Babine Mountains Park, this ice is accessed from the Joe L’Orsa Cabin in Silver King Basin. While the climb itself is advanced, the cabin and its scenic surroundings are available to all for $5/night.


Hungry Hill Falls
Hungry Hills Falls is above Helen Lake, just out of Houston. This climb is accessed by skiing or snowshoeing from Summit Lake Road. It offers a great view of Morice Mountain and the Telkwa Range.

Equity Mine Road
South of Houston, there is an icy cliff face about 14 kilometres down Equity Mine Road. Flagging tape marks the location. A lot of the ice here is still unexplored.

Prince George

Because the interior climate is cooperative, ice climbing around Prince George is reasonably well developed. The esteemed Alpine Club of Canada has a Prince George chapter ( that provides aspiring winter athletes an amazing source of information about ice climbing accessible from the city. The club has regular outings, events, and courses posted on its website. The following is a brief list of some of the Prince George ice-climbing areas already explored:

Willow River • Viking Ridge • Ptarmigan Creek • Snowshoe Creek • Rainbow Falls • Sunbeam Falls • Holmes River • Small River • Parsnip River • Bijoux Falls

Highway 97North

Arguably the best place for an introduction to ice climbing is the Rocky Mountains. Jasper’s best-known ice is in Maligne Canyon. Because the Rockies’ outdoors ice scene is more developed than the remote areas in the Northwest, guiding and lessons are available. “I did my first major ice climb when I was a kid in Jasper,” says Gadd, “and about froze my ass off! Clothing, gear, and safety have all improved dramatically to take most of the real suffering out of ice climbing—which leaves the fun.” The winter wonderland of Jasper is nothing if not fun, and climbing ice here is an unforgettable experience.