It’s the first face to greet you as you head west into Banff National Park: an enormous wall covered in rock, ice and snow, that looks untouchable.
Many extreme skiers have thought about descending the east face of Cascade Mountain for decades and three finally did.
“It’s a beautiful face that you see everyday driving from Canmore to the west,” said ski mountaineer Andrew Wexler.
“I’ve stared at it for as long as I’ve lived in the valley and wondered about it, and this was the year.
“It is both a passion and a craft — and who doesn’t want to excel at their passion and their craft?”
In the early hours of Feb. 18, Wexler, Justen Bruns and Kevin Rohn set out on what would become an historic adventure just above the townsite of Banff.
“This was really skiing into the unknown,” said Wexler, who is also a ski and mountaineer guide.
“Even though you can see the face, you still don’t know what you are going to get, what your anchors are going to be like, how are you going to get through this one cliff section?
“Will you have to climb down? Will you have to rappel down? Will it work? That is a big question.”
With their skis on their backs, they made their ascent up the south face of Cascade, the side that stares down Banff Avenue.
It took them four and a half hours to climb to the top into the clouds, always weighing the risks around them.
“A small avalanche in the wrong place, pushing you over a cliff, that was the main hazard. Obviously, falling,” Wexler said.
He has had other first descents in the Canadian Rockies.
“There are nerves… While you’re on the face you’re wondering: ‘Am I making the right decision? Is this a good time to be here?
“But it did feel like a good day to be there.”
The group spent just under eight hours descending the mountain. It involved steep technical skiing, setting up anchors for about nine rappels over rocky cliffs and down ice falls. All things they had been preparing for.
“It entailed a lot of local skiing leading up to it. It entailed having some really good partners and it entailed the right conditions the right day,” said Wexler, adding they had a lot of luck on their side too.
“It was a beautiful day so you could see everything down to Rundle and the Sawback Range and Minnewanka.”
“It’s so iconic I think for all of us — Justen, Kevin and myself — we’d been looking at it all season, some of us for many years, and it was pretty cool to be realizing and for the day to come, kind of a pinch-me moment.
“We were really excited. Tired, but pretty fired up,” said Wexler.
It’s been a busy season for first descents in the Canadian Rockies, partly because many guides just aren’t as busy so they have more time to complete the personal missions on their lists.
While many have skied Cascade Mountain before and ice climbs are very popular on the east side, this is the first record of anyone skiing the east side.
Steep skier pioneer Doug Ward has a long list of first descents under his belt. He admits he’s looked at east Cascade for decades.
“It’s connecting a lot of technical challenges. Kudos to those guys… I was mighty impressed,” said Ward, who is 62 and continues to make history with his pursuits.
There’s no denying the sport has grown since the 70s when Ward was first blazing new terrain, but he does worry about the lack of experience some have when tackling bigger projects.
“I think there’s a lot more awareness, a lot more enthusiasm now for folks getting out there.
“I’m not always convinced the caliber is up to the challenge. A lot of folks are confusing touring and mountaineering and they are very different things and the consequences are high,” said Ward.
He thinks skiers really need to progress through the steps, starting with skiing steep terrain, snow awareness and mountaineering.
But Ward is excited about the places some athletes are taking their sport and he still has a list of things he’s excited to tackle himself.
The season for steep skiers like Ward and Wexler really only begins in April and there are many routes both are eager to cross off their lists, including places nobody has gone before.