"Hydrophobia” is a stunning (and somewhat intimidating) ice climb located in the Wiaparous Creek drainage, of south western Alberta. This is truly one of the classics of the Canadian Rockies ice climbing scene – and well worth the effort required to climb it. The climb is rated grade 5+, with its first steep pitch normally constituting the crux – don’t be fooled though, the remainder of the climb is steep and sustained; solid grade 5 climbing skills are required.
Perhaps the most difficult part of climbing “Hydrophobia” is figuring out how to access it. This shouldn’t, however, deter you – almost any type of vehicle will provide you with some type of access to the climb; but the lower the clearance of your vehicle, the longer you will have to walk.
Certainly, the quickest (in terms of walking time) approach to Hydrophobia is via the Wiaparous Creek Drainage. However, be warned that this way is sometimes perilous and has been the scene of more than a few epics (think very stuck vehicles). Rather than trying to explain how to approach Hydrophobia, I will refer you to this link (Hydrophobia Wiaparous access
), which provides detailed instructions on how to get to the climb via Wiaparous Creek. Keep in mind that the condition of this approach will vary depending on the weather and recent snowfall. In general, warm weather or heavy snowfall, make the approach more difficult. Having said all that, also realize that people have made this approach in all-wheel-drive station wagons (i.e. Subaru, etc.) and low clearance small SUVs; you just need to chose the appropriate conditions. Good information on the current condition of the approach can often be found (or requested) on the Grav Sports website
Hydrophobia - The route we took is marked in red, but keep in mind this may change from year to year
The other more fail safe way at reaching Hydrophobia is via the North Ghost Access. To do this, it’s easiest to follow the first part of the approach instructions on Dow Williams’ “Beowulf
” route description. Dow rights the following:
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’s “The Real Big Drip- 200m- V, M7+, WI 7” 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.
At the bottom of the hill, turn right and do your best to follow a sometimes vague, sometimes obvious, track along the right of the wash until it becomes essential to cross the wash heading west and navigate further north crossing a well established bridge over the river and continuing through some big ruts and/or snow drifts until you come to a river crossing.
You can park right before this river crossing. If you feel the urge, you can ford the river in your vehicle and park on the other side. (Dow notes in the Beowulf route description that an official government ban was in place at this point (2007); however, in 2010, this ban was lifted, meaning vehicles that are able can now drive right up to Claw Creek (from Dec 1 to Mar 31 only), which is the start of the approach to Fang & Fist. You are supposed to follow orange triangle shaped signs – while these help, it’s still very easy to lose the “road”.)
If you park before the river crossing, you must walk across the river – waders would be helpful; that or strip down, cowboy up, and walk across in some old shoes. From the other side of the river, walk directly north – aiming for the valley between Black Rock Mountain on your right and a large limestone wall (Bastion Wall) on your left. Your will need to cross the river again, but this section of the river is a side channel and normally quite shallow – you can do this in your hiking boots.
Once out of the river channel pick up an old road (actually a seismic line) – the road takes the line of least resistance through the pass, so it isn’t hard to find; we found it easily in the dark. Once on this “road”, follow it for approximately ½ hour – you will gain elevation (passing a couple of large ditches built across the road to discourage ATVs) until you reach a small lake on your left hand side. Keep walking along this road - at the end of this lake you will likely see a well used trail branching off to your left and heading across the end of the lake up into the forest; this is the trail to “Sorcerer”, don’t take it.
Continue along the road until it takes an abrupt 90 degree turn to the right (east). From here veer left onto the second lake. Follow this lake onto its northern end and then you will hit the forest.
If you are lucky, there will be snow on the ground and a well used path leading from here all the way to the Hydrophobia drainage. If you are not lucky (as was our situation), you will now endure a fairly crappy bushwhack (but don’t let this discourage you – it’s worth the walk) for about 1.5 hours. Keep heading north. After 15-25 minutes you may be able to see an icefall high on the mountain to your left; unfortunately, this is Sorcerer – don’t be fooled into thinking its Hydrophobia, because no matter how fast you walk, it will take you longer than 25 minutes to reach the Hydrophobia drainage.
As you head north, you will cross a number of small ridges. In general, you want to head up and over these ridges, until you are sure you are in the Hydrophobia drainage (which is the next major drainage after Sorcerer). This will be farily obvious, as you will be able to see that you are in a wide drainage – once there start contouring up (left/west) and to the north. You will eventually contour into the Hydrophobia drainage and pick up the well used trail used by those approaching from Wiaparous.
Follow this trail up to the start of the climb; which is abundantly obvious at the head of the drainage.
The Route Description
This composite photo shows the entire route in significant detail
For the first pitch of Hydrophobia, one must ascend a 20-25 metre (depending on where you can start) pitch of 60-80 degree grade 3 ice. You need to belay in an alcove either to the left or right of the starting section of ice. This start varies from year to year, but in general it always forms fairly narrow (i.e. not in a wide sheet, like the rest of the climb) It may be tempting to solo this grade 3 approach ice (which is what we did), but there’s a few things to consider:
1. It’s longer and steeper than it looks
2. Once you get to the alcove, there’s not a lot of room to manoeuvre
If you do solo this pitch, rope up and gear up at the bottom.
The second pitch is reportedly the crux (grade 5+), although I thought there wasn’t much difference between this pitch and the last pitch. You must first negotiate your way out of the alcove and get established on the face proper. From there you are gunning for an obvious small cave in the middle left of the climb that seems to form most years (it forms under a small overhang). This pitch is about 35-40 metres in length. When we climbed it, there was little ice to establish a good belay off of and little room for two people – but it nicely protects the belayer, so should be used if available.
Climbers on the final pitch of Hydrophobia
The third pitch climbs out of this cave (either to the left or right) and heads straight up (more or less) to another obvious cave in the middle of the route. A section of this pitch eases off somewhat, allowing the leader to take the weight off of his/her arms, before the final 25 metres of vertical ice – sustained grade 5 climbing, but slightly easier than the first pitch. This belay cave (for us) was excellent – flat with walls on three sides, with nice fat ice for belay screws.
The fourth and final technical pitch climbs out of this cave (and is bit sketchy) and ascends the line of least resistance to the top. The guidebook notes that there is a “sting in the tail” – we found this to be the case. After 40 metres of vertical to just off vertical climbing, you need to save enough juice to make it over a final 10 metre very steep section – my arms were redlining lactic acid at this point. Don’t despair though, from the top of this section, the climb begins to roll off and soon you’re at the top – normally, you will see a collection of V-threads; pick one to belay off of.
If you want to see the top of the mountain, or if you’re a hardman (or woman) and are going to climb Sorcerer next, there is still another 20 or so metres of grade 2-3 ice to get you off of the ice. It is a safe bet that your calves will be screaming by the time you're there.
Making the final rappel - note the location of the final V-threads
Sixty metres ropes are recommended and 70 metres ropes would give you a bit more wiggle room. We rappelled from V-threads at the top of the fourth pitch (always inspect ice anchors and back them up where you feel it is required). With sixty metre ropes we were just able to rap back to the ice cave at the start of the fourth pitch.
From V-threads in the back of this ice cave, we rappelled another 55 metres to an established set of V-threads about 25 metres below the ice cave at the top of the second pitch. This was a hanging belay and quite awkward, but as there was really no good ice to drill V-threads from in the first cave, this was the better option.
From this awkward hanging stance, we were able to rappel to the bottom (only about 40 metres away).
Ice tools, double 60 meter ropes, 10-12 ice screws with draws and/or screamers, crampons, helmet, a down jacket for the belay (it was cold here even when we climbed it, which was at the end of March on a warm day), a threading tool to make V-threads, extra sling to back up existing V-threads (where required), quick-links or rap rings, a compass, and a headlamp (it’s a long day).
It’s a good idea to print off a map of the area from Google Maps (i.e. hit the "lat/lon" link in this route description). This satellite image provides you with considerable information – for example, the small lakes are visible, as are a couple of other small openings that you come across on the approach. A compass or GPS could be helpful for navigating the route back (if there’s no snow, the route back looks a lot different than the route there).
We are relatively quick climbers and walkers. With no trail to follow, it took us 2.5 hours to make the approach to the bottom of the climb. It took 3 hours to climb and rappel the route, and took us 2.25 hours to walk out. We took no rest stops on the way there or back. This doesn’t include time to gear up, eat, or gear down. My point being that it is a pretty long day coming in from the North Ghost, so you will want to prepare accordingly (e.g. bring ample water, headlamp, etc.).
Bottom line though – it’s totally worth the effort. Hydrophobia is an absolutely fantastic line in a gorgeous and remote setting.