Ghost River Wilderness Area (The Ghost) features some of the most challenging waterfall ice climbing in the world. Its popularity is boosted by the frequent Chinooks (warm temperatures and high winds) that keep the upper reaches above its ice routes free of snow and thus safer than most routes deeper into the National Parks. The Ghost was established in 1967 on the front range of the Canadian Rockies and consists of 15,317ha (60 square miles) of raw wilderness bordering Banff National Park to the east and north. Its mountains include Mounts Aylmer, Apparition, Oliver and Costigan. The Ghost Valley actually entails a larger area that is more specifically located approximately 30kms north of Canmore along the eastern border of Banff National Park and east of the Palliser Mountain Range. The Ghost’s glacier carved valleys provide for steep water runoff creating some of the best waterfall ice climbing anywhere. Although Orient Point is not technically in The Ghost, this whole area of provincial wilderness takes on that identity.
Ghost Valley is discussed as the South Ghost and North Ghost relative to climbing. The South Ghost is divided into several different areas when discussing waterfall ice: Orient Point, Devil’s Gap, Constellation Valley, Black Rock Mountain and Johnson Creek.
Orient Point consists of 5 main established waterfall ice routes:
Hidden Dragon- 50m- III, WI 4
The Joker- 50m- III, WI 3
The Hooker- 200m- III, WI 5
Candle Stick Maker- 140m- IV, WI 5
The Real Big Drip- 200m- V, M7+, WI 7=BYM (bring your mama)
As you start to descend the last steep hill on the road going into the Ghost, there is a pull out to the right, kind of a logging road that shoots off to the right. If you pull over here, you can examine the Orient Point routes in one of two bowls on the east face of Orient Point. The infamous Big Drip is in the left bowl (south) and the Joker is visible in the right bowl.
From Calgary or Canmore, access 1A which parallels the TransCanada to the north. 13.4kms west of the Hwy 22 junction in Cochrane is the Forestry Trunk Road (Route 940). Turn north on the Forestry Trunk Road for 23kms to a gated gravel road on your left. There is a trail head information kiosk board here, but no obvious sign. If you find the gate closed, it is imperative that you close the gate behind you. Most climbers only take 4-wheel drive vehicles beyond this point, but depending on conditions, other vehicles can travel the road. This rough road goes for another 17kms until it reaches the “big hill”. Along the way there is one ice/water crossing. If this hill is muddy or icy or has too much snow, it can be extremely difficult to navigate. Orient Point can be viewed to the southwest from atop this hill. This is a remote area and very little exists in the way of facilities or emergency help.
Joe Josephson’s guide book, Waterfall Ice, Climbs in the Canadian Rockies- 4th edition, references turning left at the bottom of the “Big Hill” as you enter the Ghost River bottom. Present day (2006) you should turn right. Drive a short distance along the gravel bank before you come across a cairn and then descend the bank into the gravel wash. Follow as close as you can any visible tracks that circumvent the dikes as you continue south and west towards Orient Point. Access a faint road that rides up onto an east-west dike and turn left onto another faint road that continues south towards a cut line road that leads up to the base of the climbs. Whether you continue with your vehicle depends on how much ice is on this road and what kind of vehicle you have. We parked in the gravel bottom and hiked up the steep cut-line road. The road eventually dead ends into the trees where a trail continues southwest (left) circumventing a slope on its left side on a small ridge. Eventually you cross a drainage to the left side which leads up to several short pitches (130m) of WI 2 ice (photo). Follow this easy ice into the north bowl below Orient Point where you will find Hidden Dragon (low and straight ahead), The Joker (left), The Hooker (center) and Candle Stick Maker (right).
The important aspect of the Ghost regarding safety is that you are on your own. You are not within the boundary of the National Parks and access can be difficult and long for rescue personnel. I highly advise you take a Satellite Phone (for communication with loved ones who might worry if you get stuck) and always be prepared to spend the evening.
There are no permit requirements to enter, climb and/or park in Alberta’s Provincial Parks. Cougars and Grizzlies can be more common place in the Ghost than the national parks due to its location on the front range. Take bear spray during non-hibernation months. This can be avalanche terrain during the winter. Therefore it would be prudent to check recent notices posted on the Canadian Avalanche Association’s website regarding that issue. However, the ice climbs in the Ghost are considered less avalanche prone than most routes throughout the National Parks. The frequent Chinooks keep snow levels typically manageable in the Ghost.
CampingThere are no official campsites in the Ghost. Random backcountry camping is allowed, but open fires are prohibited in the Ghost River Wilderness Area. However, it appears that camp fires are tolerated or even allowed in the Ghost River Valley around Orient Point. More camping information can be found at this site.
When to ClimbWaterfall ice climbing is typically a winter sport; however, I have explored the Ghost in the summer and found climbable ice still in place.
The Kananaskis Provincial Park website is a very thorough park website, including trail conditions or closures, wildlife notices, weather conditions, avalanche conditions, camping permits, whitewater conditions, etc. It is an excellent source if you are going to spend any time in the Ghost or surrounding area. Outside of the parks web sites, Canadian Avalanche Association is also useful, particularly for winter travel. Canadian Alpine Accident Reports are also extremely useful.
Alberta’s Provincial Parks