Author: Brent Nixon
The southwest of BC isn't renowned for its world-class ice climbing but spend a little time digging deeper and when the Goldilocks conditions arrive the ice can be spectacular and often unexplored.
The mild climate means ice climbing often seems crazy to most West Coast rock climbers. However, the southwest corner of BC holds some real gems. When ice climbers first started ice climbing it seemed like an activity only hardened, fringe climbers would ever pursue. Out there in the dead of winter, slogging through knee-deep snow to some scrappy slab of half-frozen ice, mostly covered in snow. Even the act of attaching ice tools to a pack mentally enrolled you into a coveted band of gnarly climbers that chew nails for breakfast.
However, over the decades ice climbing in southwest BC developed and now contains some fantastic ice lines. Although lesser-known than the classic ice climbs of the Rockies, there are some really big and really beautiful ice climbs that comprise our coastal classical list below. These lines don't form each year and the coast can have warm winters with less ice, but sometimes receives colder winters with lots of ice.
One advantage of being a coastal ice climber is that during arctic outflows when cold arctic air pours down through coastal valleys from the interior, we can get a slew of new, never formed ice climbs. These unpredictable cold snaps, combined with wet coastal conditions, serve a banquet of first ascents.
Tantalus Wall on The Stawamus Chief in rare icy conditions during an arctic outflow in 2022. Photo: Alex Ratson
Winter on the coast is not just for skiers. Last winter, we had nearly 2 weeks of ice-climbing conditions in the Squamish Smoke Bluffs. Some really nice climbs, WI2-3 ice came in making for very fun and easily accessible ice. Further north, in Whistler and Pemberton, the ice is more reliable, as the winters are colder. The Birkenhead Valley holds some real gems for a good chunk of our winter. Driving further north from Pemberton, over the Duffy Highway, takes you over Cayoosh Pass. Once over the pass, you notice a distinct decrease in the quantity and depth of snow. In the final 25km of the Duffy Highway leading down through Cayoosh Canyon to Lillooet, you enter the home turf of the coastal ice climber.
Skiers have no business this far north. The climate becomes dry and cold, and in an ideal ice climber’s winter the snowpack is shallow to non-existent. Reliable ice always forms in the Rambles Area. It’s higher elevation, tucked into a cold, north-facing aspect above the highway and seems to form fat every winter. Further up the highway, exiting Cayoosh Canyon puts you in the small, picturesque town of Lillooet - the hub of West Coast ice climbing. From Lillooet, prime ice-climbing real estate radiates in three directions. To the northwest lies the Bridge River Canyon known as “The Bridge”, to the northeast lies Marble Canyon known as “Marble”, and to the south, along Hwy99, is “The Duffy”.
Lillooet is our ice home away from home. We have grown to love the cinder block walls at the Mile-O-Motel, and they even offer a discounted rate for ice climbers. The town is small and quaint but they have an absolutely scrumptious bakery, a new fantastic brewery, and an award-winning winery. These are the standouts, but long-time coastal ice climbers feel a certain nostalgia for May Wong’s restaurant and The Reynolds Hotel. If you are dining at May Wong’s, make sure to order the egg rolls and Wonton soup, which are both delicious. At the Reynold’s Hotel Pub say hello to local resident and bartender, Rhonda - she’s one of the kindest people you’ll have the privilege of being served by. Don’t plan on a hot meal at a restaurant if you’re rolling into town late, though - the restaurants all stop serving food at 8 p.m, but you might be able to find a snack at the brewery or something to microwave in your hotel room from the gas station. If you insist on getting an early start, then you will inevitably end up at the A&W with the regular pack of local seniors sipping coffee and catching up over breakfast at 6 a.m. Staff here know ice climbers rolling in when the door unlocks at 6 a.m. all too well.
From Lillooet, you have access to most of the coastal classics, minus a few. Below you will find a description of 10 classic West Coast ice climbs. All of these routes are high-quality, memorable ice climbs that offer fantastic adventure. For the grade, these routes are a rights-of-passage for all coastal climbers.
Located in the Bridge River Canyon, northwest of Lillooet, this striking ice line will snap your head back when you first see it high above Highway 40. Anytime you head into the Bridge River Canyon is an adventure. Snow plows run up and down the road year-round (including summer) to clear rockfall off the road. In winter, it is not uncommon for closures to occur due to avalanches of snow or rock.
Getting to the base of the route is the crux for some climbers. Park at the prominent right elbow bend in the road and walk an old spur down to the river bank where you need to cross. Chest waders are mandatory equipment here, but desperate climbers have also made the crossing with black garbage bags in their boots. Once across the river, the approach is moderately short with a good boot pack from the far side of the river to the base.
The first and third pitches are the crux. Depending on how they form, it can be one or the other, or both. The first pitch forms steep cauliflowers and sometimes a thin ice curtain. Pitch 2 brings you to the third pitch pillar. The pillar is about 15m long, steep and pumpy. From there, continue up multiple pitches of beautiful blue WI3-4 ice. It’s incredibly fun and continues on for seemingly forever. Rappel the route on v-threads.
Climber Ryan Larkin on The Plum. Photo: Alex Ratson
Located in the Birkenhead Valley close to Pemberton, BC. This ice climb is not to be missed once it comes in. The approach trail has old flagging to help find the way and takes about 30-45 mins to the base, depending on snow conditions and whether or not a boot pack exists. The first long 50m WI3 pitch brings you up to a steeper WI4 pitch. Some rambling up the creek with small ice steps leads you to the final 2 pitches of fantastic WI5.
The Plum is a full-value, full-day, big coastal route with the crux pitch at the end. The WI5 crux can be broken into 2 pitches and climbed via low-hanging fruit and lower-angle ice on the left side or taken head-on via the central or right steeper pillar lines in one long 60-70m pitch. Either way, you get to tick a majestic and impressive coastal classic.
Located in the heart of the Cayoosh Canyon, this is one of the longest, most sustained, moderate ice routes on the coast. Like many coastal ice routes, this one involves an adventure just getting to the base. Park uphill on the highway, at a prominent pull out and walk back down the highway looking for an old rope tied through the concrete barrier. From here, head down to the river, which used to be quite epic to cross until a passionate local installed a sweet Tyrolean cable.
Don your harness and head hand-over-hand across the cable. The other side involves 150m of steep, frozen dirt climbing to the base. Savvy coastal ice climbers bring an old set of crampons to wear for this climb. Kick the front points into the frozen dirt to make progress upwards and then change to new, sharper crampons at the base of the ice.
Once the approaching adventure is over, begin climbing pitch after pitch of sunny, south-facing ice. Due to the south-facing nature, the climb can actually feel warm on your back and the ice will become plastic. Get an early start if it’s a warmer day to avoid wet conditions near the top. End at a large frozen tree on the canyon rim where the first rappel rings exist. Rap the route on v-threads below.
This highly sought-after route has a short season given its low elevation close to Hope. Located directly off the side of the Trans Canada Highway, it only has a 15-minute approach. When frozen, it forms a long strip of ice soaring high into the gully of Flood Falls Creek. This ice climb is an excellent novice multi-pitch with many stepped pitches of WI2/2+ ice. The crux is getting cold enough conditions to freeze the route.
This climb requires an arctic outflow weather pattern to freeze. The trick is to time your climb near the end of the outflow. As the temperatures begin to rise you can avoid the frigid arctic conditions while the ice is fat and solid. The short climbing window is surely responsible for many unscrupulous sick calls to work.
Pitch after pitch of moderate ice leads you upward. Depending on the year and the temperatures, sometimes ice can form for up to 12 pitches of climbing. Pitches are separated by minor steps in the gully. When not completely frozen, icy pools in the flat step areas have sanctimoniously baptized unaware climbers, heads up so you don’t take a poorly timed ice bath.
This route is somewhat hidden above Highway 99, in the back left corner of a closet-like rock alcove. You can see the upper pitches from just south on the highway. More prominently on display are the dramatic hanging icicles and pillars of Shreddie WI6 at the head of the same rock gash. This is another coastal approach that works best with old beater crampons that you don’t mind dulling in steep frozen dirt and rocks.
Park at the Rambles Area and find the boot pack, just south, leading off the highway. Head straight up the gully putting those beater crampons to full use. This takes about 30 minutes before reaching the first 10m ice step where most climbers ditch the beater crampons and rope-up. Closet Secrets will come into full view starting on the left wall and rising up dramatically and elegantly in the corner. A bolt belay on the left marks the start.
The route starts off as an engaging, narrow ice strip before broadening out, becoming more comfortable with more ice after about 10m. Short, fun ice curtains and flows lead up towards the rim of the wall. The steep approach magnifies the feeling of exposure as soon as you step onto the ice. It’s exhilarating looking over the river and highway below.
Tabatha Rathbone climbs Loose Lady
Loose Lady is considered the best of the best by many coastal climbers. Find the cryptic start along Highway 99 by looking for the obvious boot pack leading up diagonally off the road. The forested approach is relatively short and gentle with low-intensity bushwacking.
Stay on the left side of the creek drainage for about 10 minutes before deking right into the creekbed. Head up the creek bed, encountering small, fun ice steps along the way. The first real climbing pitch is 30m WI2 with a chalkstone crux dispatched on the right side. This usually involves a move or two of mixed climbing. The next pitch is a long beautiful 50m WI3 pitch that is really only steep in the last 15m. This pitch lands you in a perfect rock punchbowl feature with the main event located around to the right.
The headliner of the show presents itself in all its grandeur spilling from a small notch in the rock rim high above. Slabby flow ice followed by steep blob ice verging on overhanging, and finishing with a steep chandeliered pillar section will test your stamina. The final 70m of ice is normally climbed in two pitches with a great cave belay midway up. A bolted anchor at the top on the right side allows you to reach the base with one double-rope rappel.
One of the crown jewels in coastal ice climbing is Marble Canyon where this gem is located. Accessed via the paved Highway 99 with a lightning-fast, flat approach (15 minutes) across the frozen Crown Lake is just one reason why this area is enormously popular. Park at the Marble Canyon Provincial Park turnoff where there is usually room for 5-6 vehicles.
Icy BC is the most obvious large multi-tiered ice line on the right side of the bluffs across the lake. Pitch 1 climbs a long 60m WI3 broken with a small flat step in the middle. Belay back from the top on bolts. From here, scramble up to the short, steep WI4 second pitch. This often forms a hollow tube that you can hear water rushing through. Above this lands you in a small basin with various ice lines to choose from. To continue on Icy BC, choose the largest steep line slightly left and center. The crux pitch is about 50m and spectacular.
Access Alert: The Provincial Campground is closed for winter camping. Hard work by the Climbers Access Society of BC has negotiated a small parking area to be preserved each winter for ice climbers. Please pack out all trash and keep the facilities clean in order not to compromise future access.
Deeping Wall and Icy BC at Marble Canyon Provincial Park. Photo: Alex Ratson
A fantastic series of steps tucked away in the forest a scant 30 minutes from the car. Don’t be fooled by the view from the road since you can only see the second and fourth tiers. Much more ice lies squirrelled away between the rock walls and behind the forest cover.
Approach uphill to the NE across open parkland-like forest slopes to the drainage gully. You will first encounter a wonderful 25m WI3+ pitch which will lead you into roughly 300m of fun, rambling WI2 ice. In high snow years, these pitches can be covered in snow. The next steep pitch you encounter is a 25m pillar of stellar, high-quality WI4 ice. Above this, continue 100m to another WI4 pitch, 20m. The sunny exposure will ensure good photos and plastic ice.
Finishing 1000m up the hillside, the route has a very “Professor Falls” feel to it. Don’t be surprised if your cell phone begins to light up near the top! The Xwisten cell phone repeater is only a stone's throw away.
(Contribution by by Steve Janes)
The signature ice climb of downtown Lillooet. Local residents can do laps on Honeyman or neighbouring Cherry Falls after work, and still have time for a beer at the newly-minted Lillooet Brewing before last call. Named after the actual “Honeyman”, proprietor of fresh organic honey, who has a property just downstream from the falls, this is a large volume falls that requires a spell of deep-freeze weather to get things set.
Once frozen, the falls usually stays in shape until a significant warm spell gets the water pumping again. The climb provides room for several top ropes or lead opportunities with fun, stepped ice. When fat and in shape, this climb is huge and not to be missed. The south aspect gets lots of sunshine leading to plastic ice. Heed caution once things start to warm up and holes begin to form. Large ice chunks can come down.
Access Alert: The water in the creek was traditionally used as Lillooet water supply, and the creek runs directly through residential properties below, so please do not litter or leave any human waste. If nature calls, please carry and use a Wag-bag to pack out all human waste. Additionally, be sensitive to local residents when parking and hiking in on the approach.
“How did I not know about this fantastic route?”, is the response from most climbers after first climbing French Foreign Legion. Again, it is quite close to downtown Lillooet - maybe 10km from the main plaza. Follow the Eastside Road until below the route. The surroundings are spectacular with the rugged, craggy Fraser Canyon laid out below you and sagebrush desert slopes leading up to the route. How many times can you say you went ice climbing in the desert?
Trudge up open, dirt slopes, meandering between the large sagebrush to the base. The first pitch is a funnel and can be wet, but you will find dry ice above, so persevere in this case. The route is long and moderate, usually with plastic ice. The blue ice is a stark contrast to the reddish-brown desert rock.
On pitch one, belay off a massive log frozen diagonally into the stream bed. The second pitch climbs a super fun, narrow ice strip leading into the gully above. The gully freezes wall to wall with a really nice flow of ice continuing for several pitches. The climb is mostly grade 2 ice with occasional steeper steps and makes a fantastic fun day with incredible views over the Fraser Canyon the whole way.
Any classics list has many contenders so also included are some honourable mentions below:
- The Theft
- Red Wall Wanderers
- White Bloter
- Silk Worm
- Bitcoin Billionaire
- Salmon Stakes
- A Scottish Tale
- Cruel Pools
- Mr. Freeze
- Shriek of Sheep
Tabatha Rathbone on Loose Lady. Photo: Alex Ratson