Tangle Falls. It sounds like it might be the lair of a supervillain, but it looks like the ninth wonder of the natural world.
Just off the Icefields Parkway in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, about halfway between Lake Louise and the town of Jasper, on a fine winter day in early March, I gaze across the road and up at a frozen waterfall that features an astonishing variety of ice. There’s blue ice, hard, white, crystalline ice, and then there’s the translucent, wavy ice that appears, to my city eyes, to have been Photoshopped onto the side of a mountain for maximum effect.
That’s no exaggeration: Tangle Falls, if anything, looks like it’s been pulled straight out of a superhero movie.
The catch? I’m no superhero. For me, mountains are things you take pictures of to post on Instagram, not climb in winter. And double that for frozen waterfalls!
And yet, thanks to Max Darrah, one of the co-owners of Rockaboo Mountain Adventures, by the end of today, I’m going to be ice climbing up Tangle Falls. This winter sport has been part of Alberta’s outdoor culture ever since the first railway and government surveyors showed up in the area in the 1880s.
See ice-climbing in Jasper National Park’s famous Maligne Canyon, without wearing mittens (unless you love mittens, of course, but that will make it difficult to swipe the screen).
Couple met during a ski-hill mishap
Rockaboo Mountain Adventures, based out of Jasper, is a guiding company run by Max and his spouse Lisa that began in 2010. Now with a newborn, they are becoming the quintessential Alberta outdoor adventure family.
The company offers tours and instruction in ice climbing, backcountry skiing, avalanche safety, rock climbing, ski touring, and team building. If there’s something you can do on the side of a mountain, chances are excellent Max and Lisa can teach you how to do it in a way that’s safe and technically sound.
Fittingly, the story of how Max first connected with Lisa was a snowboarding event that went technically wrong, but emotionally right.
“We were both working in Banff,” he says. “We went snowboarding together. There was a bit of incident. I didn’t know her very well, and she fell.”
"I skied by her and just saw a ski sticking up so I lent her a hand, and we sort of seemed to hit it off."
At the base of the waterfall, Darrah attaches the crampons to my ice-climbing boots, which makes me feel like a little kid again. With tiny ice spears sticking out of my toes, I join Australian Lisa Reid and Argentinian Max Schoffel (both of whom have more ice-climbing experience than me, as in more than none) walking up a modest ridge to reach the base of Tangle Falls.
A newbie finds success
There, I receive a four-point tutorial in ice climbing.
Basically, it all boils down to launching the ice picks you carry in each hand into the ice at the proper angle to hold some of your weight. You follow that up by kicking the frozen waterfall with the spears in your toes, pull yourself up, then repeat, like some kind of frost-tipped Peter Parker spiderman-walking up a frozen wall of ice until you reach your destination.
All of it is done while attached to rope — your belay — connected to a harness, controlled by a second person on the ground, which basically makes the whole experience easy and accident-proof.
It’s tricky jabbing your toes into a sheer wall of ice, followed quickly by a kind of euphoria when you actually figure out how to make them stick. From any vantage point, Tangle Falls is a real frozen beauty.
Beside me, Argentinian Schoffel is amazed by the varieties of ice seen in the frozen falls.
“It’s just water,” he says, “but it’s very dynamic. It changes all the time. You feel different. The density, the shape, the colour. How the ice forms, how cold it is, how much volume (it contains).”
Darrah tells me that early spring is a great time to visit a frozen waterfall.
“It’s one of the best times to travel in the mountains. We’ve got awesome ice, and it’s not just here. It’s all over Jasper right now, and down the parkway towards Banff. And it’s mild out, it’s scenic. It’s a beautiful time to be in the mountains.”
The takeaway: there are no evil villains lurking on the frozen landscape that is Tangle Falls and Jasper in March.
“Mountains are generous with their gift of humility,” Darrah says, “and that’s one of the beautiful things about coming out to the mountains: we engage some risk. It’s one of the things that creates the reward and the reward is great.”
Now, after channeling my inner superhero and taking in the stunning Canadian Rockies from the top of the waterfall, I can’t help but agree.