The name Bella Coola conjures up visions of extreme Alaska-esq type skiing for the power hounds out there due to the number of ski movies that have filmed in the area. However, it’s relatively unknown in the ice climbing world. One of the obvious reasons for this, of course, is the remote nature of the community. You don’t drive through Bella Coola on the way to anywhere! There is also the relatively short ice climbing season, given the fickle weather and temperatures on the coast, and the fact that no guidebook currently covers the area.
However, if you’re seeking something a little off the beaten path there are some amazing ice climbing opportunities to be found on the steep granite walls surrounding Belle Coola and Hagensborg. Many of which have yet to see a first ascent!
This past December I had the opportunity to team up with a buddy, Jia Condon, for a few days of climbing around Bella Coola. While this was my first climbing trip to the area, Jia’s been picking off beautiful lines in the valley for about 18 years! His local knowledge was key to getting the most of our 4 day stay and allowed us to complete a couple of beautiful first ascents.
In the end we completed two new routes and almost bagged a third, not bad for our first ice of the year. I’ve detailed the two climbs below to give you a feel for the area.
Route 1: Tour-de-Snooka (WI4, 400m):
The first climb we got on was dubbed Tour-de-Snooka for a number of reasons. First, the climb is on Mt. Snooka. The second will become apparent as you read but it all started with an extremely circuitous route, in the dark, through what seemed like a never-ending forest of devil’s club and alder.
After several hours, we reached the base of our intended climb, slightly bloodied and glad the bushwack was over! However, once we arrived, Alex Boileau (a local climber that was joining us for the day), revealed that he’d already climbed it! Or at least he was fairly sure he had… Sh#t!! After a short discussion we decided to abandon this climb and continue to a second flow that we’d scouted from the road, with binoculars, the previous day. Now after a bunch more thrashing through the forest, no longer in the dark, we arrive at the base of the climb… finally!
The climb follows a beautiful narrow gully over mossy rock through some rambling terrain at the start. After soloing up a few pitches of easy WI2 we decide to get the ropes out when it steepened to WI3-4. The crux pitch followed—a very chandeliered pillar. Likely climbable, potentially not protectable and definitely not a sure thing.
We had two choices: continue up and see how it went or traverse a few hundred metres along the side of the mountain to an adjacent flow that had a much higher chance of success. Unfortunately we only had time for one. Given that it was our first day of ice that season we opted for a bunch of easier ice instead of the more challenging single pitch above.
So, after a descending traverse through yet more bush, we arrived at the base of what we would call Tour-de-Snooka (I’m sure the name is making a lot of sense now). We racked up again and climbed 6 pitches of grade 3 and 4 ice with great views of the Bella Coola valley under a pale blue sky. The perfect great reward for our perseverance.
Route 2: Deceptive (WI4, 200m):
The day after Tour-de-Snooka Jia and I took a rest day to recover from our epic bushwacking mission to plan for the next objective. Another local ice climber, Steve Hodgsen, was going join us for the day so we went over to his house to discuss some options. When Jia asked him if he had any ideas, he pointed out his living room window at the north face of Snooka. There, in the gap between two trees, was an elegant ice line just begging for attention. We’d found our objective!
Early the next morning we found ourselves bushwacking though the devils club, alder and blow-down, in our characteristically circuitous fashion, to the base of the climb.
Three fantastic and long pitches of WI3-4, with a little scrambling between, quickly lead us to the top of the ice we’d seen from Steve’s house. Were we done already? The line had been deceptively short, about half as long as anticipated. Still hungry for adventure, we hiked further up the gulley to see if we could find some more ice around the corner. Alas, we didn’t.
We descended through the forest on the east side of the route. The ground under the steep spruce and hemlock forest was covered in frozen moss which made walking/down-climbing easy while the soft light filtering through the canopy provided a tranquil ambiance. A great end to a great trip!
With continued cool temperatures the ice was just getting better and better. Unfortunately we both had other obligations and so it was time to head home. I’ll be back next year though!