O Canada! – The Best of the Canadian Rockies

Nemesis (WI6, 140m) on the Stanley Headwall

Canada is home to many great things – Maple Syrup, Ice Hockey, Neil Young, and of course, the Canadian Rockies. These hallowed hills are to ice what Yosemite is to rock; a mecca to which aspiring climbers must journey at least once. I have been itching to climb ice in the Rockies since I was first introduced to the mountains in 2013, so I jumped at the chance to make a pilgrimage of my own.

During an extremely fruitful season, I managed to get in a total of 42 days on ice, climbing 35 different routes throughout this incredible landscape. My understanding and knowledge of ice, its varying quality and how to climb it efficiently and safely has come along in leaps and bounds – an investment of time and effort which will pay dividends for years to come.

The Canadian Rockies are expansive, so if you’re planning on making a trip of your own, where do you start? The information provided below is my personal perspective. It is based on a single season, so it barely scratches the surface of what is out there. Nevertheless, I hope it can help steer you in the right direction and get you started on Rockies Ice.

The Best Top Roping Area

Johnston Canyon WI5 pillar
A sweet WI5 pillar in Johnston Canyon

A number of quality top roping areas exist around Canmore, but my pick is Johnston Canyon, located a mere 10 minute from the Trans-Canada Highway once you head west of Banff. If you’re not yet comfortable leading, you’ll need someone to climb a pitch of WI2 to access the top roping anchors. With this achieved, you’ll have access to a variety of fun features – a short, steep, shallow groove, some long and technical WI4 mushrooms, even some sustained WI5 pillars. It’s a perfect spot to run laps and hone your technique.

Johnston Canyon is also a popular tourist location, so you will have a steady stream of onlookers. This may unnerve some, especially if you’re just starting out, but it’s also an ideal opportunity to get some sweet shots of you getting after some steep ice!

Other Honourable Mentions:

  • Bear Spirit – 45 min approach. Walking access to anchors. WI3-4 plus mixed climbing. Popular on weekends.
  • Haffner – 10 min approach. No walking access to anchors. WI4, lots of mixed routes.

The Best Beginner Multipitch

Snivelling Gully Veronica following Pitch 1
The first pitch of Snivelling Gully

A lot of people regard Professor Falls as an ultra-classic, and although this four pitch WI4 route is certainly quite good, I don’t consider it a great introductory climb. The route is terraced with wide snow benches separating each pitch, so it feels more like doing a bunch of single pitch routes back to back. It’s still a worthy route, but it doesn’t take the top prize.

My pick for the best beginner multipitch climb is Snivelling Gully – a 3 pitch route which sees you using a wide variety of techniques. The climbing is fun and never too difficult, and all this in one of the most iconic locations in the Rockies – The Weeping Wall. The line climbs the far left of the wall, sneaking glimpses of the huge expanse of ice to your right where future climbs await…

There are a lot of multipitch routes in the Rockies and most have bolted belays. Snivelling Gully does not, and I think this is a good thing. Improving your ability to build solid ice anchors and assess existing ones is a skill that will serve you well on future climbs. Practicing these fundamental skills before committing to more advanced climbs is a great idea, and this route allows you to practice those skills in earnest, whilst in a relatively safe environment.

The climbing itself is fantastic. A pitch of sustained 75 degree ice kicks things off. The second pitch is lower angle, but is often over hollow ice, sometimes with sections of running water requiring delicate movement. The final pitch is the crux where you top out to magnificent views – a towering rock headwall on one side, the peaks of the Colombia Icefield on the other.

Other Honourable Mentions:

  • Melt Out – WI3, 100m. Sustained at the grade. Opportunities for ice anchors. Short approach.
  • Chantilly Falls – WI2, 100m. Easy access, easy climbing. Close to harder multipitch routes a short walk up the valley.

The Best Place to Avoid Crowds on Weekends

Gibraltar Wall
The almighty Gibraltar Wall

For those who do not have the privilege of climbing mid-week, the weekend presents their only opportunity to get on their desired objectives. As a result, most classics within a couple hours of Calgary will have teams lining up. So, where do you go to avoid them, yet still enjoy an incredible route?

My pick is a climb behind the little-known town of Canal Flats in British Columbia. Gibraltar Wall (WI4, 150m) is a miniature Weeping Wall with minimal crowds, even on weekends. We climbed here on a Saturday and only had one other party to contend with. However, given the 100m width of the wall, we never saw them.

The climbing here is a mix of rambling WI3 and steep yet short WI4 pillars. A southern exposure makes this a great place to visit on cold days where basking in the suns warmth will be a welcome relief from shivering at your belay.

Although it is a long drive even from Canmore at two and a half hours, the approach is less than ten minutes from the car. A note on the drive – you will read about a shortcut from Highway 93 South via a forestry road. My advice is to ignore this and just drive south to Canal Flats before heading into the Forestry area to the climbing wall. We decided to try the shortcut on our way out and it is not as straight forward as it seems. Even though you are on the road that eventually hits the Highway, there are several turns you need to negotiate and a single wrong turn will lead you deep into the endless forest. We added an hour and a half to our return trip due to one such mistake.

Other Honourable Mentions:

  • Jasper – Just about any climb around Jasper will fit the bill. It’s a bit of a drive, so best to make a weekend of it.

The Ultimate Canadian Rockies Ultra-Classic

There is only one contender – Polar Circus (WI5, 700m). This route looms above the Icefield Parkway, drawing the gaze of tourists and would-be ascensionists alike who find themselves dreaming of what it would be like to be high on this king line. I was one such day dreamer and was fortunate enough to climb the route in late March 2018.

Avalanche on Polar Circus with Quentin Roberts next to it. Photo Alex Ratson
Quinton Roberts dodges a bullet… (Photo by Alex Ratson)

Walking up to the upper pitches of the route after having already climbed 200m of ice is a moment you will never forget. The imposing icefall calves its way through the walls of Cirrus Mountain, seemingly continuing forever. It is an ice climbers wet dream.

There are certainly much harder climbs in the area, though few roadside routes are so committing. It has been the scene of several fatal accidents and scores of near misses, with no less than twenty avalanche zones threatening the route and a southern aspect which means the sun can quickly change conditions. The moment of one such near miss in 2017 was captured in the image found to the left. Thankfully the party was unharmed when a huge avalanche ripped over them whilst they were on the final pitches. Picking the right window to attempt an ascent is crucial, as is moving efficiently while on the route.

Polar Circus is quoted to have up to nine pitches, with only the second pitch rated at WI3. Unless the rarely formed “pencil” is in, the top two pitches will provide the technical crux. Make sure you have energy left in the tank for this section. If the pencil is in and you are capable of climbing WI6, you should take this option, as it avoids an exposed traverse through an avalanche-prone snow slope which has been the scene of several fatal accidents. Though the pencil had long since fallen when we climbed the route, there was thin veil of ice which we were able to climb instead, meaning we could avoid those dangerous slopes.

A successful ascent of Polar Circus is a feather in the cap of any aspiring ice climber, not to mention a moment that you will treasure for the rest of your life. Though I cannot recommend the route highly enough, be sure you are ready and pick a safe time to climb. Doing so will not only improve your chances of success, it will ensure the experience is a whole lot safer and more enjoyable.

Other Honourable Mentions:

  • Nemesis – WI6, 140m. Located on Stanley Headwall, a true feather in the cap. Steep, sustained climbing.
  • Bourgeau Left – WI5, 185m. Located above Sunshine ski resort. Incredibly aesthetic with solid climbing throughout.
  • Weeping Wall – WI4-5+, 165m. 5 minute approach. Stunning location. A number of varied and quality lines abound.

So there you have it… There should be enough high quality ice to get you started and whet your appetite for more. Get after it, eh!

Josh Worley
Guest Writer
May 2018

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?

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