When you’re about to throw yourself off a bridge, you put a lot of trust in the person telling you everything is going to be OK.
In this case, as I’m harnessed to a stranger and dangling from a rope hundreds of feet above the bottom of Maligne Canyon, that trust was rewarded. Down I went, pushing softly off the walls of the cliff as we slowly descended into another world below. With our crampons (finally) crunching on solid ground and my footing assured, I craned my neck for a look upwards. There, a smiling speck against the blue sky, was Max Darrah giving me a thumbs-up.
Darrah is the guy to trust in these situations. As a mountain guide, he and his wife Lisa operate Rockaboo Mountain Adventures, a guiding company in Jasper National Park. As a human who regularly drops people off bridges, he exudes that kind of encouraging competence that makes you try things you never thought you would. And as part of Rockaboo’s introduction to ice-climbing, which had me going from noob to scaling frozen waterfalls within a couple of hours, that trust was more than rewarded.
With his mix of good humour, knowledge and strength, Darrah seems born for this kind of work. But it wasn’t always his focus. Darrah spent 10 years keeping people safe in the mountains of Jasper National Park as part of the region’s search-and-rescue team. He saved countless lives, often by putting himself into risky situations, but that selflessness took a toll. Darrah found himself suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from some of those harrowing moments in the mountains. But when he started getting treatment, with much support from his family and community, one thing that helped bring stability and joy back to his life was those very mountains and the people who put their trust in him.
Today, Darrah’s focus is helping people get the same joy out of the mountains that he does. Among Rockaboo’s offerings is guided introductions to ice-climbing. Ice climbing is as absurd and exhilarating as it sounds: using specialized gear, you climb frozen waterfalls. Alberta is a hub of the sport, hosting some of the best ice-climbing locations, guides and athletes on the planet.
But the frozen Maligne River in Jasper National Park offers something unique. Over the eons, the river has carved a stunningly beautiful smooth-walled canyon deep into the rock of the Canadian Rockies in a series of cascading drops and falls that create amazing postcards. Come winter, the river freezes into a series of otherworldy ice sculptures that are amazing to photograph and unforgettable to climb.
Under Darrah’s steady instruction, our group quickly learns the basics of safety, roping up our harnesses and taking turns ascending the ice using pickaxes in our hands and spikes on our feet. There’s a rousing sense of delight in learning to ice climb, as if you’re pulling a fast one on gravity. In some ways, it seems totally unnatural to be ascending a frozen waterfall by hammering spikes into it. But after acclimatizing to the experience, there’s an undeniable feeling of being part of the ice and river too.
Later, after lunch and a warm tea, we collect our gear and walk on the frozen river on the canyon floor to another climbing spot. The canyon twists and turns, revealing surprises around each corner – a wall as smooth as marble here, a car-sized chuck of dangling ice there – as our group’s oohs and aahs echo above.
We spend the afternoon climbing a series of falls while Darrah keeps watch. At one point, I catch him during a quiet moment. He sees me and smiles. “This is what it’s all about,” he says, motioning to everything around him: the cliff, the ice, the mountains, the sun, the people. Then, he tugs on my harness and encourages me to get back onto the ice.