Bow Falls is 100+/- meters of ice that is sourced by a glacier lake (unseen from below) that lies in a basin below the receding toe of the Bow Glacier on the Wapta Icefield. Early 20th century photos show the glacier ice once flowed right over the cliffs where the falls now form. Bow Falls make up part of the headwaters for the Bow River which is the main tributary that flows through Banff National Park, the Banff town site, Canmore (outside my backdoor) and through Calgary. Bow Falls is located in Banff National Park, one of four connecting national parks making up the central Canadian Rockies.
The Bow Falls route forms early due to its elevation and northern tilt beneath the upper ice fields. It is not necessarily considered a quality climb early however. Bow Falls is considered less of an avalanche risk than most ice in the Canadian Rockies, although I witnessed several slides over adjacent ice on our climb. Several lines form on Bow Falls with the WI 3 more left (Photographers Gully) and the WI 4 center to right. We climbed the WI 4 center, two pitches. To the right of Bow Falls, shorter routes on Gorby Falls can form, but were not in when we climbed Bow Falls in April. You will pass Pointless Gully, III, WI 4 and Aimless Gully, III, WI 4 on your right during the approach to Bow Falls. Pointless Gully has considerable avalanche concern. Both of these routes looked good in April.
The main risk involved in this climb is the high volume waterfall that runs underneath Bow Falls that can create a chasm on approach as deep as 35’. Bow Falls has two published accident reports to date. Bow Falls is listed in Joe Josephson’s “Waterfall Ice, Climbs in the Canadian Rockies.”
The Trans-Canada Highway runs from Calgary through Banff and Yoho National Parks on its way to Vancouver. As you pass through Lake Louise heading westbound, you want to exit onto the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) towards Jasper. Park at the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge 36 km north of when you left the Trans-Canada. Ski across the north end of Bow Lake as you would to access the Bow Hut on the Wapta Icefield.
You will be required to purchase a national park pass as you enter Banff National Park coming from the east on the Trans-Canada. This pass is good for all four national parks. If you plan many visits to Canadian National Parks within one year, you should purchase an annual pass. There are no permit requirements to climb in Banff or Yoho National Parks, but all camping is regulated. There is also a backcountry permit required if you plan on spending a night in the backcountry versus the conventional campsites. This can be obtained via the parks website. The huts are managed by the Alpine Club of Canada versus the Parks. The Alpine Club of Canada headquarters is located in Canmore, AB, the Banff National Park headquarters is located in Banff, AB and Yoho National Park headquarters is located in Field, BC. You will drive through the manned national park kiosk as you enter Banff National Park on the Trans-Canada. You will drive through a kiosks area again as you gain the Icefield Parkway. However, it is normally not manned in the winter.
When To Climb
I climbed Bow Falls in April. It goes in early and stays in late. The main issue is how solid Bow Lake is. Do not cross the lake on approach if you have any question as to the soundness of the ice. You can circumvent the lake on a trail to the right.
Mountain ConditionsThe Yoho National Park and Banff National Park websites have weather, wildlife reports, trail closures, etc. Outside of the parks websites, Canadian Avalanche Association is also useful, particularly for winter travel. Canadian Alpine Accident Reports is also extremely relevant.
From the west end of Bow Lake, continue up the valley for another km as you would for access to the Bow Hut on the Wapta Icefield. Turn left and ascend into the trees and then drop back down onto the creek that leads into the narrow canyon (terrain trap) that proceeds up to the Bow Hut. Depart to the right here and head for the amphitheater containing Bow and Gorby Falls. You are aiming for the lower left corner of this large headwall.
The climb begins with a broad, sometimes thin, layer of ice covering a chasm and some serious running water at times. This is a hazard to beware of. We did not rope up at this juncture, but many parties do. With crampons, continue up to the base of the steep waterfall folded into the rock in the left corner of this broad headwall. The easiest line is nicknamed Photographers Gully and starts in the left corner right above a nice flat corner off of the ice in which to set up the climb. The center and right side provide more esthetic and challenging lines to climb.
The first pitch we did took us to right below a huge rock that protrudes from the falls. We set up a station here and ascended climbers left up well sculptured ice. You top out above the headwall at a comfortable spot if the weather is calm. There are chains further south for a rap, but also some bomber rap station (my memory has failed me on what kind) that allowed us to descend straight down the ice versus making contact with our crampons on the rock to climbers left. There is a way to down climb the route as well.