Hiking, mountaineering, and rock climbing have been my passion for about five years. Every weekend, I get together with a few close friends, and sometimes my hiking club, to head out into the backcountry to seek out one obscure peak or another. Each experience is unique unto itself, but it’s not every weekend that I get the thrill of trying something completely new. On January 17th, my mountaineering buddy Ryan Bartlett invited me on a trip to Boston Falls for my first ice-climbing experience.
Boston Falls GPS Route & Map
Boston Falls is a popular climbing area, well-known on Vancouver Island for its low-elevation ice-climbing opportunities. The falls form on the east aspect of Mount Becher’s massif, and sit above Boston Lake. Those who hike Mount Becher may have glimpsed the massive ice-wall while on the route to the summit, at about 80 metres of elevation. The falls are most commonly accessed from the parking lot at the old Forbidden Plateau ski lodge, also known as Wood Mountain. The approach is a common one, shared by many popular treks: Mount Becher, Mount Drabble, Indianhead Mountain, and the lovely through-hike to Raven Lodge at Mount Washington.
We had a typical early morning start. Ryan arrived at my house before 5:30, and we were en route to the parking area before 6:00 am. Dawn was just cracking as we pulled into the parking lot, where I was surprised to see another vehicle already there. It sat empty, and I guessed it was owned by someone seeking a winter alpine camping experience.
We took our time loading backpacks, and I fiddled with my gear. Instead of my normal snowshoe approach, I was trying out my backcountry skiing setup, a new-to-me purchase last year. It was 8:30 am by the time I sorted my gear malfunctions (or user malfunction, more accurately) and picked up my backpack, loaded with climbing gear.
We skinned up the old ski slopes, where midway up we discovered the typical boot pack. It was solid enough that people were walking without snowshoes, but I was happy to have my touring gear on. It took about two hours to route ourselves up from the car and along the route to Boston Lake, just below Boston Falls.
Breaking out of the trees and into the cirque, I paused to take it all in. The snow was pristine, the lake nearly untouched, except for a single snowshoe track crossing the lake and zig-zagging its way up the steep slope. As I examined the ice-wall, I noticed two men prepping to climb the big central run – the drivers of the empty vehicle in the parking lot. It looked like they were in for a great climb!
As this was my first ice-climbing experience, I wasn’t interested in any of the vertical, multi-pitch climbing possibilities. I was content with Ryan’s plan to set a top-rope on some low-angle ice. We changed into our climbing gear and pulled out ropes, ice-screws, and tools, then set up our first climb of the day. Ryan eagerly took advantage of the opportunity to lead a section of ice, with the intent to climb up and set an anchor for top-roping.
Up on the wall, the ice was much steeper than it looked from down below. He took his time testing the ice, setting the ice screws and clipping the rope. It took some time, but eventually he topped out in the trees and set the top rope. After he descended, it was my turn. I had two turns climbing before we needed to pack up and head out. I used a different set of ice tools on each climb. First, I used some tools that Ryan borrowed from a fellow climber; they have an aggressive angle on the pick, and they were a bit heavier. Conscious that it was my first time, I was cautious as I climbed. With the first strike, the ice chipped off in a piece the size of a saucer and grazed my face – I needed to be more careful!
As I climbed, the cold set into my hands. Within a few minutes, my fingers were cold, and in ten minutes they were freezing! I felt like I was on the wall for a long time, mostly trying to swing the tools and get them placed well. I was wasting energy. I only climbed to the start of the bush before I had Ryan lower me. I was surprised how difficult it was to place the heavier, more aggressively-shaped tools. On my second attempt, this time on a different pitch, I tried Ryan’s tools. His were lighter, and although they were less aggressive-looking, they were much easier to place. I suspect this is a combination of geometry and weight!
By 3:30 pm, we were tired but still wishing for more. We packed our gear and looked across the lake, excited about the ski back to the car! Of course, this is where things went awry.
On the return ski, Ryan broke the binding on one of his skis and was forced to boot-pack back to the car. He didn’t even get a moment of real skiing in! I had a totally different problem. The return started well, and I route-skinned back to the start of the ski hill; this was my favourite section of the day. The skins slowed me enough that I easily made the tighter corners and enjoyed the gentle ski. Plus, the skins allowed me to add power when I needed to get up some of the short inclines. However, the fun was all too short!
Eventually, the route rejoined the old ski runs, and I took my skins off. By all accounts, the snow conditions were great; not too powdery, only slightly consolidated, and the well-used portions of the track, although irregular, were fast. With my long skis and my inexperience, it was too fast. I lacked the confidence to gain speed and ride with it, and I don’t have enough skill to stop on the narrow track or in the powder.
I won’t go into all the boring details, but simply summarize: I fell a couple of times. Then I overshot my decent route back to the car by a generous margin. Finally, with my third fall, my ski’s brake jammed, allowing the ski to skid off down the track and out of view. Fortunately, I managed to retrieve it with only minor effort; after turning the corner, it followed a Skidoo track, then headed off into some bushes where it came to rest. Unfortunately, I was way off course. Making matters worse, the light was faltering, and I decided it was better for me to walk the uneven terrain rather than ski.
I won’t say that the trip down to the car was my worst mountaineering experience, but it was damned unpleasant. I slung my skis over my shoulder and tucked my poles into my pack before heading down the hill. With each step, I sunk down to my knee; in special cases, I found a tree well and ended up in the snow up to my waist. Making things more frustrating, dusk turned to dark, and the more effort I put into my movements, the slower I was! Plus, my radio wasn’t working properly, and although I could hear Ryan loud and clear, he couldn’t make out most of what I said. Listening to his voice, it was clear that he was getting worried.
It was 5:45 pm by the time I arrived back at the car, with the last hues of light gone. We loaded our gear and headed home.
This is another day that I’ll look back on and laugh about. Certainly, it was a great learning experience. I need to spend a lot more time on my skis on the groomed runs before I think about heading into treed terrain. I won’t let a crappy walk and abandoned ski slope ruin my experience –it was all worth it.