Published in The Climber 94, Summer 2016
Rock climbing in the Canadian Rockies
Words and Photographs by Derek Cheng
The wall steepens and I gingerly place a foot higher. I reach for a hold, which breaks off in my hand. I toss the offending piece of stone from the wall with a cry of ‘Rock!’ Friends below scatter.
A few moves higher I send another loose rock flying, this one the size of an onion. The projectile scrapes the leg of a friend at the base of the crag who had mistakenly thought that huddling in a corner would keep him out of harm’s way.
Shit! This is perhaps the worst pitch of rock climbing I’ve ever done. There is no pro for dozens of metres. This pitch of crappy, brittle limestone on Castle Mountain, in the Canadian Rockies, feels steep for a grade 5.4 (12). Every foot and hand placement is delicate, and tenuous. Every movement must be slow and deliberate. I’ve grabbed handfuls of gravel more solid than this.
After several held breaths and excruciating moments I finally find a cam placement. A few moves later, I climb over a ledge to an anchor. Exquisite relief. I continue up, reaching the top of the second pitch. A blood-curdling scream suddenly sweeps up the face. Everyone freezes. I can’t see my partner, Katelyn, who was seconding the first pitch as part of another party of two. I call out anxiously. There’s nothing but silence for a few heartbreaking moments.
‘I’m okay,’ a response finally floats up. Katelyn had pulled off a block the size of a toaster. As she was to the right of the anchor, she had fallen and swung. The block dropped harmlessly over her shoulder, adding to the debris at the base of Brewer’s Buttress.
What are we doing here? Surely there are better mountains to climb, with kinder rock.
The same question lingered when I was kicking loose shale onto Katelyn’s helmet while she was confined to her anchor on Saddle Mountain. And when a rock to the helmet rudely reminded me of my own vulnerable position while soloing Mt Indefatigable. And on Hand in the Honey Pot on Mt Rundle when a chunk of limestone bigger than a loaf of bread broke off when my thigh merely brushed it.
But the Rockies are magnificent in other ways—an adventure playground of the highest order, with endless mountain terrain rich in glaciers, forests, and peaks that push skywards. Where else in the world are there so many towering rock faces, most of them easily accessible from the main highway running across the country?
The following words from Canadian climbing hero Sonnie Trotter say it all (especially the lack of words about rock quality): ‘It is absolutely astonishing to me that this heavenly range actually exists in real life. They are some of the wildest, most spectacular, pristine and, for the most part, accessible mountains in the world—and they are right in our own backyards.’
The first thing you notice when you enter Rockies territory is the sheer volume of rock. Around every corner on the drive east from Rogers Pass, more mountains with more rock faces are revealed. The Rockies are immense, even though they exclude classic areas such as the Bugaboos and the Valhallas.
The Canadian Rockies form part of five National Parks: Banff, Yoho, Jasper, Kootenay, and Waterton. The range also includes a number of provincial parks. The Rockies runs some 2000 kilometres, from the border of British Columbia and the Yukon down through Alberta, and south over the USA border to Montana. The rock is sedimentary; it’s mainly limestone, with bands of shale and quartzite that can be exceptionally solid, or notoriously brittle.
The first I heard about climbing in the Rockies was from Bruce Miller, a humble member of alpine royalty who has tied in with the likes of Conrad Anker. Miller was belaying alpine legend Steve House on the Greenwood Locke route on Mt Temple in 2010 when House pulled off a flake and slammed into a ledge from 25 metres up. House suffered a broken back, ribs, pelvis, and a collapsed lung. That was not the strongest advertisement for climbing in the Rockies, but events transpired and the summer of 2015 led me to the heart of the Bow Valley.
The small town of Canmore is nestled among a series of eye-catching peaks. The Ship’s Prow blushes in dawn light. The Three Sisters to the east catch the evening light. Mt Rundle’s 11 peaks trail a jagged line west to Banff. But several enquiries into rock quality were all met with the same shrug: ‘It’s the Rockies. It’s a bit shit.’
Still, the first pitch of Brewer’s Buttress on Castle Mountain transcended the usual definition of a choss-pile. We chose it because of the hut on a massive ledge halfway up the peak, and the fine view from the long-drop, perched on the edge of a precipitous drop. We bivvied under the stars, with only the foraging of squirrels and the odd passing freight train breaking our slumber.
The following morning, after a mild leg-scratch and a near miss on the first pitch, we climbed a number of aesthetic corners to the summit. The higher we got, the lower the choss-o-meter registered. Some pitches even gifted us immaculate rock. At the top, the sharp, splendid pyramid of Mt Assiniboine greeted us in the far distance.
Assiniboine was immediately added to our list of objectives, which was growing every day. We’d added: Ha Ling, the iconic peak I could see from our bedroom window; Yamnuska, the birthplace of climbing in the Rockies; and the Grand Sentinel, a free-standing pillar on the south-east side of Mt Temple.
I hadn’t clipped bolts for several months, and gaining a bit of sport climbing fitness seemed like a good way to start the summer. At first, the polish and hard-to-read nature of certain areas were hardly inspiring (avoid Grotto Canyon). But soon enough, locals directed me to Planet X, Acephale and Echo Canyon, the steepest crags in the Bow Valley. I was quickly enamoured with several classics, like Shooting Star (5.12d/27) at Planet X, an overhanging line of striking dihedrals and roofs; and Atlantis (5.12c/26), on which sharp, diagonal rails weave a path through steep terrain.
All of these crags are an outrageously convenient five-minute drive from town. That was mind-blowing to someone who was used to the ten-hour round-trip from Wellington to the Central North Island crags. Even the alpine climbing is close to Canmore. Yamnuska? Twenty minutes to the carpark. Lake Louise? An hour. And there are plenty of virgin lines to tempt the more enthusiastic developer.
One day, we dared to venture beyond an hour’s drive, heading deep into the Kananaskis Range in search of a beautiful corner aptly named Joy (5.6/14). The 600-metre dihedral splits the main face of Mt Indefatigable from the first move to the top-out—a stunning, unique feature.
Every climb seemed to have something special. Takakkaw Falls, in Yoho National Park, has an anchor a stone’s throw from a raging waterfall. Above a typically loose, unprotectable shale pitch, a giant hole in the face leads you into the darkness. The route requires you to crawl on hands and knees along this 30-metre cave, which is understandably damp, a remnant from a time when the waterfall was even more immense. The cave narrows just enough to force you to drop into a belly-shuffle before you emerge into the light next to the apex of the waterfall and its narrow, sharp channels and deafening roar.
Sir Donald (3284m) is a dark triangle that dominates the skyline at Rogers Pass, and looks like it belongs in the Himalaya. It offers a delightful 5.4 (12) scramble up the North West Ridge, which rises above the surrounding glaciers and rugged peaks.
Back in Canmore, the pull of Ha Ling was overpowering. We chose the classic North East Buttress (5.6/14), a casual excursion with some fine pitches of corner climbing, among broken bands of bad shale. Like other popular tourist peaks with easy trails to the top, a heroes’ welcome awaited us at the top: rounds of congratulatory applause along with expressions of disbelief along the lines of, ‘Wow! Did you guys just climb up the face?’
To the east, the famous Yamnuska beckoned, its long and jagged skyline rising up from scree slopes. We headed up Kahl Wall, a so-called classic with nine pitches up to 5.10b/c (19). It had unique climbing: Jug-free, with many holds, but all of questionable worth. The crux pitch had a number of thin moves with excellent exposure. The worst pitches validated the quality of Yam’s easier lines—they’re a bit shit.
The following day we headed for Saddle Mountain, near Lake Louise. Within minutes of starting Dodging Wives, a four-pitch bolted 5.11c (22), a distinct sentiment spewed forth: fuck Yamnuska. Why would anyone choose that pile of crumbly cake over this magnificent quartzite?
Saddle has a number of stunning lines, the most spectacular of which is Screams From the Balcony, which tops out on an overhanging buttress replete with several small roofs. I counted nine roofs in all, the last one surmounted via a beautiful finger crack. At the top, I was unsure if the screaming was out of fear, or in delight.
The Back of the Lake Crag at Lake Louise is considered to be the cragging jewel in the Rockies crown. Anyone who passes through with only a week to climb is told to head directly there. The rock is perfect quartzite, often with vertical cracks and horizontal in-cuts for hands and fingers on the overhanging sections. There are roofs, arêtes, technical faces, and cracks. Sometimes you get all of the above in one steep, magnificent line. And the setting is stunning. The hue of Lake Louise seems to be infused with a purity of blue that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Moraine Lake is in the same area, at the head of the Valley of Ten Peaks. A stroll up the valley not only gives you a view of several peaks that resemble the bottom jawline of some mammoth, prehistoric predator, but also brings you to the free-standing, 100-metre-high pillar known as the Grand Sentinel.
Of the few lines on the pillar, Cardiac Arête (5.10d/20) is the standout. This route has four bolted pitches up a sharp, aesthetic arête, with wild exposure and a nearby glacier that frequently releases boulder torpedoes to the talus below. At the top of the route is a flat platform, which seems custom-built to pose for summit photographs and bask in the euphoria that comes with the sheer pleasure of beautiful climbing in a sublime position.
Lake Louise epitomises everything that is great about the Rockies: a lot of rock amid stunning serenity. But even here, we were not immune to poor rock. The first pitch of Screams From the Balcony was a mini-version of our nightmare on Castle Mountain. The tops of some other routes require battles through bands of collapsing shale.
While having lunch at the base of Saddle Mountain, some climbers dislodged a boulder the size of an armchair from the top of the cliff. The sound was like the swooshing of a diving bird inches from the cliff face, but magnified a thousand times. I gazed skywards, half-expecting to see a winged dinosaur the size of a bus, but instead watched as the block obliterated on impact with the ground a mere ten metres from us.
This is a special type of playground, where falling death-blocks could interrupt your lunch. As I continued to munch on my hummus and crackers, it struck me: You have to be prepared—more than usual—to navigate rock both excellent and fragile, but as long as death was avoided, this enhances the experience; it improves your skill set. Close encounters with choss are character building, and add flavour to an adventure.
The summer season in the Rockies is short. As October rolled around, several objectives—Mt Assiniboine, Mt Edith Cavell, the Tonquin—remained undone. Whole ranges were unvisited. Therein lies the secret of the Rockies to keep drawing you back: the infinite rock faces will mean that the tick- list will always keep growing.
Rock climbing in the Rockies offers a huge number of peaks, and limestone and quartzite sport climbing in the Bow Valley and near Jasper. Banff or Canmore, west of Calgary, are great locations to base yourself for a summer season, which generally runs from mid-June to the start of October. A helmet is strongly advised.