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Outdoor Adventure

A Via Ferrata Adventure

The Via Ferrata at Mt Norquay

“You’ll be clipping and unclipping these 220 times.”

This is what John Thornton (‘JT’ to everyone in the Bow Valley) tells us as we look down at the carabiners attached to our climbing harnesses.

We are at the base lodge at Mount Norquay, about to embark on a four hour adventure on the cliffs above the ski resort, and everyone is excited to be trying something new. That something new is Norquay’s Via Ferrata, first launched in 2014, with JT playing a major roll in its development and operation.

Guide John Thornton, happy in his natural habitat.

I’ve been wanting to try it ever since, and yesterday I got my chance. As a bonus, JT is leading our group. I’ve known JT ever since I arrived in Banff, and am keen to see him in his natural habitat.

After a quick ride up the trusty North American chairlift — built in 1948 and still going strong — we are ready to clip in and meet the “iron road.” Via Ferratas were first developed in Italy, and are an ingenious way to get up steep mountain-sides. Steel rungs for your feet and hands are attached to the cliff, and you clip your carabiners to steel cables adjacent to the iron steps. The combo allows you to climb easily, and be protected in case you fall.

JT leads the way, offering tips and encouragement, and we climb up and up, over steep bluffs, through little chasms, even across a suspension bridge. Below us is a fabulous view of Banff and the Bow River, and from north to south, a glorious panorama of Banff’s two signature mountains, Rundle and Cascade.

I’ve done a lot of rock climbing, scrambling, and even a few alpine climbs, so I shouldn’t be having so much fun, but the Via Ferrata is pure happy time. It gives you an eagle’s eye view, camaraderie with your new cablemates, and the joy of being up where the clouds can go.

People often ask me what I like to do on my days off, and what other things there are to do in Banff park. Yesterday the answer to both questions overlapped, and I highly recommend Banff’s Via Ferrata.


The Great Boiling Water Ice Experiment

Guide Joel Hagen conducting boiling water experiment on cold day.

Last week, Arctic air parked itself over the Rockies, and on many mornings, temperatures were as cold as -35 C. That’s not so fun for skiing and snowshoeing, but it’s perfect for trying a neat winter experiment – turning boiling hot water into frozen steam in just a couple of seconds.

Here’s how it works. You fill a thermos with boiling water, and then, making sure you’re not facing the wind, you throw the hot water into the cold. Amazingly, none of it makes it to the ground as liquid water. Instead, it appears to turn into an instant cloud of frozen steam.

So, what is going on here?

Boiling water, being so close to steam, is very energetic, so when you throw it out of the thermos, it splits or breaks into tiny droplets. The droplets now have a large surface area compared to their size, which allows for a lot of evaporation. Each teensy hot droplet is trying to turn into steam.

But the air is really cold, and cold air simply can’t hold very much water vapour, so the freshly made steam condenses back into a liquid. But each bit of “condensate” is still really small, and in the cold, all those little bits quickly freeze. Once that happens, you get an ice cloud that is, literally, very cool!

Check out this video of the whole thing in action. From emptying the thermos to the ice cloud disappearing takes about ten seconds!

Thanks to Mistaya Lodge (a great place to go backcountry skiing!) for a few thermoses of boiling water and the great sunrise venue for the experiment. And thanks to Mark Finlay for exposing his fingers long enough to take the pictures and the video.

Boiling water wasn’t the only thing to freeze last week. It was cold enough that your breath and even your runny nose would freeze, especially for a bearded guy like me.

In case you’re worried, we’re back to normal temperatures this week, so it’s safe to get back out on the snowshoes and enjoy the outdoors.

Ice Walking at the Athabasca Glacier

guests and guide on the Athabasca Glacier

Midway between Lake Louise and Jasper is one of the wonders of the Canadian Rockies, the Athabasca Glacier. A literal river of ice, it flows down from the Columbia Icefield towards Highway #93, and is a must-see destination in the Canadian Rockies.

Last week, on a field trip sponsored by our Interpretive Guides Association, I got to join Master Guide Peter Lemieux and fellow interpreters on an ice hike all the way up to the top of the glacier, where it tumbles off the Icefield in a series of ice falls. What a spectacular place, and what a unique experience!

A pool of mysterious “cryoconite,” made of wind-blown dust and microbes.

We passed millwells and crevasses, ice-scraped bedrock and sub-surface ice tunnels.

Along the way there was so much to look at, from the mysterious “cryoconite” deposits on the surface of the glacier to the massive side moraines that showcase what a beast the Athabasca Glacier was in the 1800s.

Peter and his dog George led us across the ice surface, chopping the occasional step, offering the occasional hand, and stopping to share stories of the changes he’s seen at the glacier over the 30+ years he’s been leading trips there.

Most shocking is the speed at which the glacier is receding. Peter stopped at one of the metal research poles in the ice, where, at the end of May, he’d put a piece of yellow tape around the pole where it came out of the ice. In less than a month, the ice surface was melting away quickly, and he said that the glacier will lose 5 – 8 metres of ice from its surface this summer. It was a powerful reminder of climate change in the Rockies.

The piece of yellow tape by guide Peter’s hand was wrapped around this pole in late May, right at the surface of the ice. In less than a month, almost a metre of ice had already melted away.

The highlight was getting to the icefall, where chunks of ice the size of houses cartwheel down from the icefield above.

All in all, a top-notch experience, and highly recommended: