Canyon Creek Ice Cave
Date Walked: 22nd March 2012
Distance: 9.5 miles (15.4km)
Actual Ascent: 977 ft (298m)
Time Taken: 5 hours
March is the month that gives the highest average snowfall here and the mountains had being hammered with snow for over a week. As a result I was struggling to find an accessible hike to undertake this week and it was starting to look like another day in the snowshoes would be the only option.
I scoured my guide books for the foothills where the mountains meet the prairie and south facing slopes are free of snow and came across Canyon Creek Ice Cave, I remembered seeing the cave entrance when I climbed Prairie Mountain at the end of January, reading on, it was uninspiring, a long hard gravel road followed by a steep ascent to the cave. Though it may be an uninspiring approach the cave was a worthy target so I plotted my course and headed out quite excited about the potential adventure ahead.
I arrived at Ings Mine car park located North on Canyon Creek road directly off highway 66 expecting to find at least some snow covering the road. I had the snowshoes at the ready but was surprised to see a clear car park and the first section of road also clear. I considered the route, it was mainly gravel road with a steep ascent at the end so I opted to leave the snowshoes behind.
I took my time getting the boots on, I even sat and had a cup of tea and a banana before striding off with purpose down the road, I actually found myself enjoying the walk without snowshoes, on dry ground on a beautiful sunny morning. It was still -6 and the wind made it feel cooler but the sun would no doubt warm things up by the afternoon.
After a mile or so I was intrigued to see a burst of colour in the forest to my left, when I investigated further I found a number of Tibetan Prayer Flags attached to the trees there. I have read about these sites which are apparently quite common in the Canadian Rockies but this is the first time I've seen one. All 5 colours were present ( Blue – Space, White – Air, Red – Fire, Green – Water, Yellow – Earth) and it did add something to the forest. In Buddhism putting up prayer flags can gain merits for the next life. The motivation why they are put up influences the strength of prayers and the virtue generated. Putting them up merely to gain merits will not generate much virtue. Putting them up for the benefit and happiness of all beings will give them a greater strength. The prayers are supposedly carried into the world by the wind and rain brining benefits and happiness to those touched by them.
back on the road the next point of interest was a huge flare burning off unwanted gasses from a Shell gas venue in the middle of the trees (no wonder there is a good road here) This was followed by numerous warning notices about H2S gas seepage in the area and how camping here was not advisable!!
beyond the Shell location the road rises and provides a nice view down into a small canyon with the frozen creek below
further still and the road drops down again and narrows as it runs beside a rocky creek bed that is a side stream off the main creek
as the road curves around to the left I note a small footbridge on the right hand side and a route (of sorts) leading up between the adjacent hills....one to note for when I'm seeking another escape from the snow, but for today I'm following the road
the road passes through a narrow gully with a bridge where the creek switches sides and the hills are replaced by steep sided cliffs
it turns very cold through this little gully, the wind is funnelled down right into my face and a number of times I stop and turn to face the sun to absorb some heat on my hands and face, it is a remarkable change with the wind at my back and the heat of the sun really warms my skin every time I turn, I even have a few short 'walking backwards' efforts to enjoy the warmth as I go
rounding another bend and rising out of the small cold gully I see the sheer cliffs ahead where the cave is located, I immediately fancy getting to the top of the cliff rather than inside it and make another mental note for potential future hikes.
the road drops once more into a cold dip where I finally see a small sign denoting the trailhead and I can get off the hard road
the trail starts with a gentle climb through the trees on a long steady ascent, I cant help but think that at sometime I am going to have to take on a steep climb
my excitement grows as I catch my first glimpse of the cave entrance high up in the cliff ahead
there are some significant boulders lying around and more worryingly a steady stream of smaller rocks falling from the cliff face and bouncing down the hill
its a good grunt up the final section to the base of the cliffs and the hat and gloves are gone as I warm up nicely on the ascent
across the way Prairie Mountain has a much heavier covering of snow than it had when I hiked up there in January, looking along the ridge I think I can see a way down which would allow a nice circuit from there.....more mental notes made
crossing this section of scree is concerning as a number of rocks bound down the slope darting in all directions as they kick of their predecessors, I scurry across here pretty quick
almost at the entrance now and getting giddy at the thought of exploring the cave which has around 500metres of tunnels off the huge entrance hall
once inside the entrance the ascent continues a little further over a huge pile of rocks from an earlier collapse
I drop my bag and any excess stuff I can and dig out my spare batteries, head torch, flash unit for the camera.....then I realise that I've left my tripod, (which I brought specifically for the cave) in the truck under my snowshoes, nothing I can do about it now and I head off into the cave in search of ice, even with the light of the entrance still illuminating the cave I find my first ice stalagmites growing from the floor of the cave
in a small side chamber the floor has a huge number of smaller stalagmites all over making exploration a little more difficult here
scrambling over a huge rockfall at the back of the main chamber I find this incredible ice stalactite that has reached the floor and started spreading across there too, the blur is because I was moving about trying to illuminate the ice with my head torch (which worked pretty well) during a long exposure.
I almost managed to sit still for 30 seconds here ; ) in the foreground of this shot are the remnants of a second huge stalactite that has broken off and smashed on the cave floor
quite a way back in absolute darkness I saw this gully leading off to the right with huge ice flow dropping down into it, I'm peering in waiting for my eyes to adjust again from the camera flash to determine if I can climb down there
I fit easily into the gully and but am blocked from going further by this enormous wall of ice, I can actually see the cave continues through here but the ice has effectively sealed the chamber off, I crawled round to the right for about 25 metres before that too was closed off
After climbing out of that chamber I crossed the main hall and squeezed through a gap into another lovely big chamber with plenty of room to wander but no ice formations, right at the back another collapse almost blocks the route forward. After considering my options for a while I decide being alone it would be better not to squeeze through there today and I set off back to the main chamber.
I stop off at the 'big un' again and do my very best to stand still for 30 seconds, this time I didn't do too badly
heading back to the entrance there is a long line of small ice formations on the floor which I missed on the way in (eyes were not adjusted) they make a neat line all the way along the centre of the cave
looking directly upwards shows where these little nodules are getting their water from with some real witches fingers hanging down from a fissure in the roof
Judging by the state of my clothes I think I should have brought some more gear with me to crawl about in but its too late now so there it is, the Ice Cave.
it's lunchtime now and I look around for a decent perch to enjoy my tuna salad, hot tea and banana desert....oh yeah, this will do nicely
after lunch I'm back out, blinking into the light as I admire Prairie Mountain across the way and the beautiful valley holding canyon creek below.
I scuttle down the scree quickly still aware of the falling rocks running down there with me but I escape unscathed back to the road below, the snow has melted entirely from the road and I make the long trudge back to the truck a happy man.
Once back home I found I had a good bruise on my foot and enough of a limp to get on my nerves the next day, not sure if that was the long hard road/big boots effect or did I do something without noticing. Either way it doesn't matter, this was a great day which I really enjoyed, I think it would be even better with a mountain bike to get you through that road section.