No place for a picnic

NOTE: Access to the Ice Cave was blocked during the year 2000. Several accidents have been reported there causing its closure. The Kananaskis administration decided it was too dangerous. The ice cave trailhead is 7 kilometres from the gate at Ing’s Mine trailhead on the Canyon Creek Road. Many people bring bikes and ride the road to the trail leading to the cave.

On a hot dry day my back is soaked in sweat under my pack. I gingerly pick my way through the rock rubble in the inky black cavern. The seven-year-old voice attached to one of the dozen sparks of light, echoes the sentiment of most of the visitors to this dark and eerie place. I’m cold and I want to get out of here.

The ice cave was a popular outing for Calgarians since Stan Fullerton discovered it in 1905. It’s about 20 minutes west of Bragg Creek and about 100 metres up on the southern flank of Moose Mountain, the ice cave draws spelunkers of all ages and experience. From the parking lot, the cave is visible as a tall black scar about three-quarters of the way up the mountain. It doesn’t seem that far away. The round trip, including a few minutes in the cold and dark, takes about 4 hours. We can do it.


View from near the trailhead

The trail begins with a pleasant stroll through the forest. Soon we begin to climb and the footing on the dirt track becomes a bit slippery. We have a three-year-old along on her first mountain adventure. We scurry to keep up as she scrambles up with only an occasional heft up and over stone steps taller than her. As we crest a small ridge we see the cave mouth and the humps of jagged rock ruble we must negotiate. The trail is well defined, but there are occasional deviations which leave us uncertain as to which way to go. Usually the trails rejoin and all wind up at the main cave. Some are sidetracks off to other caves in the area, but you are not likely to get lost.

canyon creek

View of the Canyon Creek valley

We are climbing now, over slippery stones and precarious dirt trails with little or nothing to hold on to. Most of the trail requires more effort than skill, but caution is advised. Several accidents in 1998 almost brought about the closure of the access road. The greatest danger lies in the scree slopes of broken jagged rock – the debris of crumbling mountains.

We pick our way over this jumble and through rock outcrops, some seemingly placed there as a convenient set of stone steps. Access to the cave is up a steep incline that can only be negotiated on all fours. There is some traffic there on a fine Sunday in June. You have to be alert to an occasional rock tumbling down from above.

cave entrance

The cave entrance.

The cave mouth has a large platform of rock at the side where you can rest and admire the view of the Canyon Creek valley far below. The entrance is about 4 metres wide and fifteen tall. A stream of cool air flows from within. We break out the flashlights, put on long-sleeved shirts and head into the damp and dark.

cave kids

Two sparks of light in the damp dark cavern

The main cavern is large and easy to navigate walking erect. The light fades gradually until about 15 metres in. This is as far as you can go without a flashlight as the rocks on the floor create an obstacle course in the dark. The floor is wet and covered with ice in places. Damp, cold air smells musty and seems to have a weight that presses against your skin. It is mysterious – extraordinary. Not at all the kind of place you would want to have a picnic.

A study of the caves revealed 494 metres of tunnels extending far into the mountain. The cave was formed by ice which expands in the fissures of the rock, splitting off chunks and carrying them away as silt in meltwater. Caves are also formed when weak acids, formed when groundwater and minerals combine to dissolve the limestone rock. The cave was cold, probably just above freezing. Large blocks of ice are present in the main cave. Some of the more remote caverns can be sealed with ice depending on the weather. Expert cavers probe the depths, but novices are advised to limit their exploration to the main cavern which is about five metres wide, four high and extends some fifty metres into the mountain. Caves are often dangerous; with slippery slopes, deep holes, unstable rock and unpredictable water flows. For information about caving in Alberta contact the Alberta Speleological Society at:

Here’s Dan Janzen’s Youtube video titled, “The Ice Caves (Ing’s Mine), Kananaskis”

The trip down can be quite unnerving, more so if you are carrying a now spent and sleeping three-year-old. Choose your steps carefully and offer a few words of encouragement to those huffing and puffing their way up. Breathing is easier on the way down, but thighs, knees and toes get a real workout.

There is no water along the way so come prepared. Although one fellow was musing about setting up a snack bar while we were there, no one is likely to undertake such a grueling commute to work. Anyone with a minimal fitness condition can handle the outing, but this is not a simple walk in the park. Come prepared for some strenuous exercise and you will be rewarded with a unique experience.