Articles - Canadian Rockies
Photo: Keith Sharples
Keith Sharples - Posted on 26 Jun 2009
What might surprise you is, for an area with such an obvious tradition, sport climbing has seen a steady increase in popularity in recent times. Delve deep into the canyons within the Bow Valley area and around Banff and Lake Louise and you’ll find plenty of limestone cliffs which have seen tremendous development as sport climbing venues.
But, this being the Rockies, they are sport climbing venues with a twist. Some, such as Bataan and Acephale, require one to two hour walk-ins; many are above the 1,000m elevation mark; some are within wild-life corridors hence you’re as likely to see a bear or an elk as another climber; and some have pictographs which are reckoned to be between 500 and 1,000 years old!
Bouldering is also going mainstream in the area, although there has been a tradition of bouldering here for decades, with a gang of marauding ex-pat Brits, which included names like Jack Firth, Bugs McKeith, Jon Jones, Chris Perry and Gerry Rogan, mixing it up with the locals as long ago as the late Sixties at places like Big Rock.
Whatever your persuasion and destination, the climbing is pretty much guaranteed to be set against a stunning back-drop. If you are looking for a summer climbing destination and are keen to take in some scenic, wildlife and tourist stuff as well and can live with temperatures between 20-25oC then the destinations mentioned should keep you going for a few weeks. And once you’ve ticked this lot, there’s the Ghost River area to go explore.
The 2,000-plus sport routes in the Rockies are spread across approximately 30 crags, the majority of which are within an hour’s drive of Banff. They range from esoteric to international destination crags. Here’s a quick and dirty run-down of the best.
Hailed as the Ceuse of the Rockies but the facts bear closer examination. Acephale is a one hour solid walk-in (and don’t let the locals tell you otherwise); it’s up in the clouds somewhere (around 1,500m or so) and offers great limestone sport climbing. Sadly however, Acephale isn’t as extensive as Ceuse nor is the rock as good, hence the analogy falls over a little. That said, Acephale is one hell of a crag offering the greatest concentration of hard routes of any in the Rockies. Acephale Lower Wall is blessed with the morning sun and is a wall climber’s paradise offering sustained climbing on edges. Acephale Upper Wall, a 30m high wall is another 15 minute walk up the hill – just what you wanted – but very much the main area with the hardest ticks. Currently, top of the pile at Acephale is Lev Pinter’s recently completed 9a project, one of Canada’s hardest routes. Acephale is becoming one of the destination sport climbing crags of Canada, a fact evidenced by the recent visit by US rock-star, Dave Graham. Sadly, Acephale has a short season because of the orientation and elevation but if you like bearing down on the harder stuff, check-in around July and knuckle down as there’s plenty to go at.
Back of The Lake (BoTL), Lake Louise
Long on history and big on variety, BoTL on the shoreline of Lake Louise is a total ‘must visit’ given the easy access, the great climbing and great scenery. BoTL also has the second largest collection of routes of any crag in the area and while many are bolted, there’s plenty of trad climbing, including Sonnie Trotter’s route The Path. Weighing in at 5.14R this is one of Canada’s hardest trad routes. Clean sweeping walls, striking arêtes and cracks abound on the quartzite crag, offering tremendously varied climbing including both single and multi-pitch routes. BoTL, more than any other crag in the Rockies, ticks just about all the boxes. The major downside is its elevation (over 1,700m) and proximity to glacial air/water flow off Mt Victoria. This means BoTL is another major venue with a short season. That said, June to August is enough time to get in there and get plenty of routes ticked.
Probably more Ceuese than Acephale or perhaps even Ceuse itself. A monster walk-in – even the locals admit to a two hour slog up the side of Grotto Mountain – Bataan certainly ain’t no easy day out. However, Bataan faces southeast/southwest, is sheltered from the winds and hence enjoys the longest season of any cliff in the area – allegedly March through to October. The number of projects and the potential at Bataan is staggering.
Cougar offers the third highest number of routes in the area, but the greatest concentration of middle to upper-middle graded routes of any crag in the Rockies, out-gunning even Grotto and BoTL. Nearly 20 separate buttresses are spread out along the Canyon, the first of which are a comfortable 20 minute walk. However, the farthest climbs are another 40 minutes walk beyond. A stick clip will make some routes feel more attainable as well.
One of the few roadside crags in the area, Grassi has a good concentration of mid to harder graded routes which (often) stay dry even in the rain. The cliffs, which offer numerous pocketed wall climbs, are dotted along a scenic narrow gorge that drops down the hillside. While Grassi is a popular crag and regularly draws many climbers, the individual buttresses are separated out so it seldom feels too crowded. One of the cliffs has some closely bolted routes suitable for beginners. Despite the obvious popularity of Grassi, there are two issues to bear in mind. Firstly, some climbers might find that stick-clipping is desirable on some routes and, secondly, owls nest here on one of the cliffs and climbing is banned during the nesting season on those cliffs.
Home to one of the most extensive collection of cliffs and climbs in the Rockies, Grotto Canyon is popular given the good spread of grades and the number of easy to middle-grade routes. It is also blessed with an easy approach. Top-roping of some of the easier routes has lead to a polish that might deter some, though Stoney devotees will obviously feel right at home! Some recent re/retro-bolting has ironed out some of the early ground-up bolting wrinkles though it’s still a bit flaky in places. The canyon has some rock pictographs which should be avoided completely. As with many of the canyons, Grotto is light on sun.
Another great collection of buttresses are scattered along Heart Creek, the closest of which are within a stone’s throw of the Trans Canadian Highway (the T-Can to locals) although some of the better, harder routes lie on The Bayon, which is some way up the creek. Heart Creek, by the way, offers the quickest access for Calgary-based (working) climbers raiding on an evening blast. They are friendly, but hungry for rock, so best not get in their way!
Ha Ling Peak (aka Chinaman’s Peak)
Boasts the longest sport climb north of Mexico, Sisyphus Summits (5.10d). A good time is reckoned to be six-to-seven hours for the 21 pitch monster, which can be climbed stringing pitches together on a 50/60m rope. Descent off the route is via the back – though it can also be abseiled.
Unlike the sport climbing, the bouldering in the area is spread out across Alberta and British Columbia. Distances from Calgary and/or Lake Louise are given to assist with locations. Here is a taster of the best locations.
Located 50km south of Calgary, Big Rock is steeped in bouldering history as well as spiritual and cultural tradition. Big Rock is true to its name both physically and metaphorically. Problems on the two massive quartzite blocs range from the ancient to modern and from easy to desperate. Highballs are frequent and every hold type is well represented. Pressure groups have tried to ban climbing here on account of the Indian pictographs on one of the faces so it’s important to respect the access arrangements that have been thrashed out over time.
Another massive boulder field rammed with both quartzite and limestone boulders ranging in size from truly tiny to monstrously massive. The area is ecologically sensitive and zero-impact is a pre-requisite. Located 17km east of Lake Louise, Cathedral can be easily combined with a trip to Takkakaw Falls (see below), assuming that you have sufficient skin! The first boulders are just seconds from the car-park which overlooks the Spiral Tunnels (a landmark railway engineering project involving two huge 270 degree tunnels). The rest of the boulders are spread out up the hillside. Some of the problems here are Fontainbleau-esque though, unlike Font itself, grades are predominately easy to middle of the road.
Located in Yoho National Park some 27km east of Lake Louise in British Columbia, Takkakaw Falls redefines esoteric bouldering! Freezing cold water from the Daly Glacier on the Waputik Icefield thunders 254m down the Takkakaw Falls, one of the largest in Canada, into a sizeable boulder field. Development of the dolomitic limestone boulders has occurred since the Millennium and is likely to continue for some time. The spread of grades is good, the climbing is very enjoyable and the situation under the Falls truly atmospheric. Highballs, tricky landings and projects abound.
About 90km west of Calgary is White Buddha, a stand-out bouldering location on more than one count. Firstly the weather is almost freakish and, despite being high on the foothills, the white limestone faces south and gets any sun going. Devotees swear that they boulder in t-shirts in January while the rest of the Rockies are locked down tight with frost and snow! Secondly, the bouldering is on a cliff rather than on individual boulders. Thirdly the climbing, which is mainly on big positive holds, is reckoned by most to be great fun. There’s a good spread of grades too.
When to Visit
Summer is the time to go to the Rockies for rock climbing. Go too early and the high crags will still be covered in, or drying out from, the winter snows but go too late and the snows will be back again. July and August are best. Bouldering is possible over a wider window.
Where to fly to
Calgary is the number one fly-in destination, though Edmonton (a few hours’ drive north) isn’t a disastrous choice. Vancouver is too far away (a dozen or so hours by car) to be a smart choice.
Rocky Mountain Books, Canada’s leading publisher of outdoor activity guidebooks, publish several guides to the area including Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies and Bouldering in the Canadian Rockies. The sport climbs guide, crafted by experienced local climbers Jon Jones (ex-pat Brit) and John Martin, is in its sixth edition. The Bouldering guide, by Marcus Norman, is a relative fledgling volume in its second edition. For a run-down of the easy walks in the area try Graeme Pole’s Walks and Easy Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, an Altitude SuperGuide.
National Park information
Banff National Park (BNP) covers some 2,564 square miles. Visitor passes are required to secure entrance into the park environs around Banff. Adult fees are $9.80 CND/day or $67.70 CND/annual or for family/groups (in a single vehicle) $19.60 CND/day or $136.40 CND/annual. Jasper National park lies to the north and park entry prices are similar.
Where to stay
A tricky one. An RV (motorhome to us Brits) offers the most flexibility, especially if you are looking to do a bit of touring around, but it doesn’t come cheap. Calgary is around an hour and a half drive south east of the bulk of the climbing and so a bit of a commute. Canmore is much closer and probably the centre of choice. Head to Banff if you’re feeling well-heeled. BNP has 13 campsites, including RV facilities, dotted around. Fees and facilities are very reasonable.
Where to get supplies
Stocking up with supplies throughout the BNP is easy in town but considerably harder away from population centres. For climbing kit the Mountain Equipment Co-op store in down-town Calgary is the (indoor outdoor) shopping experience of any trip to the area. Allow half a day and a few hundred dollars for the full experience. Tick a box in the literature while you are there and you’ll become a life-member of this most quintessential outdoor co-operative.