Bourgeau Left is a king line, the kind that stops you dead in your tracks the moment you first see it. This sprawling flow of ice, 185m in length, appears as a singular white scar against the Mt Bourgeau’s southern limestone face. Located immediately above the Sunshine Village Ski Resort, just outside of Banff, it is one of the more accessible classics in the Rockies. Skiers on the gondola mostly just stare at it in awe, but for climbers, it is the stuff which dreams are made of.
The first ascent of the route was a total epic, forced over three days by a team of three locals in 1974. The top crux pitch, originally the first WI6 pitch in the Rockies, was climbed at night in wet conditions which completely soaked the team.
‘Gloves froze to the straps of my axes,” Rob Woods recalled. “Helmet was frozen to my hair and beard. Carabiners were frozen shut and had to be hammered open. Clothes cracked as I moved.”
Rob and his partners Tim Auger and George Homer eventually topped out and then spent an additional five hours bushwhacking it back to the car – a true adventure and a humbling story of what pioneering climbers went through. With modern gear and beta, climbers like myself have it significantly easier these days.
Although the climb has now been downgraded to WI5, this is still a route that demands respect. The first pitch is often thin, can be hollow and often determines if the route is ‘in’ or not. Delicate movement is a necessity. The crux pitch is often chandeliered, wet and steep making the climbing quite challenging. On top of this, there is significant avalanche hazard above the route. Although you cannot see it from below, the route lies directly beneath a behemoth snow bowl. Even in good conditions, it is not a route to linger on.
My partner for the climb was fellow Aussie, Adam Darragh, who I met while ice cragging at Johnston Canyon. He was there with his partner and daughter. I saw them wearing Mountain Designs pants and asked where they are from. They are from the Blue Mountains and had done a house swap with a couple here in Canmore until April. Adam’s partner is a strong sport climber and she mentioned that Adam would be keen for ice climbing partners. I am here until April… perfect!
Having already climbed a couple of routes together since meeting, and with avalanche risk low, we believed we were ready to tackle Bourgeau. We arrived at the carpark early and were happy when we realised no one else appeared to be heading towards the route. The early bird gets the worm!
The approach is a fair slog up snow slopes for about an hour, gaining several hundred meters in elevation along the way. We set our bags down underneath a pine tree near the base, deciding to take up some snacks, water, a thermos and single puffy between the two of us.
We climbed on twin 70m ropes, which meant we could link the first two pitches together. Having only a dozen screws for the climb, managing protection was crucial. Adam started up the steep ribbon of ice, moving deliberately, consistently and placing protection only where it was needed.
It has been a real pleasure and privilege climbing with such an experienced guy. Adam is significantly more experienced than I and a much stronger ice climber. Though I can lead on more moderate terrain, leading falls to him in our partnership if the grade is 5 or above or conditions are difficult.
We often talk about technique, movement, managing the ice, protection, hazard and rope systems. Having confidence in your partner removes one more stress from a naturally stressful environment. I am learning from Adam, picking his brain both through conversation and observation. I hope I am repaying my debt by being a capable partner for him to tackle his objectives, by being a partner he can trust.
Adam reached the lip of the lower cliff, a point which demarks the second half of the route, and the rope came tight on me. I swiftly followed the line he set, kicking my feet and swinging my tools in a steady rhythm, maintaining a stable triangular shape with my body. Swing, kick, kick. Swing, kick, kick. Following provides the best opportunity to focus on and refine good technique, so I was able to move efficiently and reach the top of the 70m pitch quickly, feeling quite refreshed and relaxed.
I continued up the snow slope which separates the two halves of the route, soloing a 15m section of WI2 to the next belay station. Adam joined me and we decide to have a quick drink and bite to eat before leaving the bag in the small cave as we finished the route.
The next pitch is a short rambling WI3/4 pitch to another belay cave. We quickly dispatched of this pitch before Adam turned his eyes to the final crux WI5 pitch. The middle section looked wet and was heavily chandeliered, though could be bypassed either on the left or right. Adam set off and went right, moving steadily until he was at the crux. Placing screws takes a long time, often thirty seconds or more. One of the strategies Adam has talked to me about is the trade off in ensuring you are protected and not placing so many screws that you are too pumped to climb – a tough mental battle to be fought when you are on steep ice.
Adam moved through the crux section and topped out. “Off belay!” The rope went tight and suddenly it was my turn to move. Moving toward the crux, the ice was plastic and my tool placements solid. At the crux, however, the line is wet and small sections fracture off due to the low bond.
“Focus on good feet,” I tell myself. “Relax your heels. Minimal movement as you stand up. Keep your arms straight”.
I focused intently on my technique as I moved through the crux section. I felt comfortable, yet I know I am not ready to lead a pitch like that. Not yet. Nevertheless, there was nothing you could do to wipe the smile off my face as I topped out.
Our ascent took approximately 3 hours, thankfully much quicker than the FA! We are stoked with how the climb went. It is a beautiful route in a spectacular setting. Our systems are getting dialled and we are climbing more intuitively as a partnership. This is a treasured feeling in the sport of climbing.
With 70m ropes, we descend the route in two raps. We bypass another team on the way down, a pair from Washington state. We exchange pleasantries and give them some beta for the descent before wishing them all the best.
“Enjoy! It is a fantastic route!” I exclaim as I lower over the lip.
Bourgeau Left is deserving of its classic status. It is long, aesthetic, challenging, committing, has a colourful history and is well respected. It is a route that provides everything you could look for in an ice climb and it certainly represents the best qualities of climbing in the Canadian Rockies. If you are here for an ice climbing trip, be sure to add it to your hit list. Or if you happen to spend a day at Sunshine skiing or snowboarding, make sure you look out right and admire the beauty of this formidable route.