“Did you put the ropes in the truck?”
“No, didn’t you?”
So ended our first attempt at Polar Circus
in March 2006.
The ice-climbing season in the winter of 2007 was progressing very nicely, with the overall goal of climbing Polar Circus sometime in early March shaping up good. Ice climbing took a decidedly back seat, however, when my wife gave birth on March 7th two and a half months prematurely. Three months in the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit make you realize climbing is not that important.
So in March 2008, with a healthy one year old baby at home, my long-time climbing partner and good friend Greg
and I were hoping to be able to finally get this climb done. For those who may not know, Polar Circus is probably one of the best known ice climbing routes in the world – people literally come from all over the globe to have a chance to climb this route. It’s a very long route consisting of 8-10 pitches (depending on where you start) of grade 4-5 ice and has a distinctly alpine ambiance. There is extreme avalanche danger from the huge snow bowls that drain from the climb, so picking the right day is paramount for a successful ascent.
The Warm Up - Professor Falls
The second pitch (grade 4) of the popular "Professor Falls" near Banff, Alberta.
We started our Polar Circus weekend by heading south to Banff and climbing Professor Falls. This is a five pitch grade 4 route that is deservedly very popular. The crux to this climb is getting on it first. I’ve always said I may not be the strongest climber in the world, but I can get up earlier than anyone. We managed to get on the route first (only barely though as Greg made an error in his alarm setting duties) and were finished the climb by noon. We had to rappel through four parties on our way down. After drying our gear in a Laundromat in Banff, and having some food and beer, we headed back north for Polar Circus.
The Night Before
The classic view of Polar Circus taken from the highway. Only the top two pitches of the climb are visible (note their brown colour).
We parked along side the highway at the bottom of the climb at about 6 o’clock Saturday evening and then prepared our gear for the next day.
The route description we were using was from Dow Williams
of SummitPost fame, who had climbed it in 2007 - it proved quite informative. There are two pitches of grade 2-3 ice at the very bottom of the route, but the majority of parties walk around this ice and start at the first grade 4 pitch. This is what we wanted to do, but weren’t exactly sure how to do this. Before we packed it in for the night, Greg walked up to the first easy pitches to scope it out. He could see footprints heading up an avalanche slope to the left and decided that must be the path around. We figured we would straighten it all out in the morning (isn’t it always easier to find a path when you’ve never been there before, only have a vague description, its dark and you’re navigating by headlight). We set the alarm (Greg double checked) for 6 a.m. (it was getting light enough to see at about 7:15 a.m.).
One of the biggest issues with this route is avalanche hazard. You need to climb the route when the risk of natural avalanches is low. This typically means waiting at least a week after a major snowfall, and also not climbing the route on warm or sunny days (as excessive solar heating may cause the slopes above to slide). The forecast for the next day was for a high of -5 Celsius with mixed sun and clouds and only a 10% chance of snow. As we went to sleep (in the back of my truck) the sky was fairly clear and the temperatures were cold – it also hadn’t snowed in about 2 weeks; conditions seemed ideal.
Morning arrived and it was friggin cold (about minus 15 C) and, of course, snowing. This wasn’t “blowing off the roof tops” snow – it was actually snowing pretty hard and accumulating (in Canada we say “it’s puking” – I’m not sure if that’s an American saying as well). Not the best start to the day. We left the truck at 6:30 sharp, following the well worn trail to the base of the mountain – we were hoping the snow would subside as we climbed.
The first challenge was finding the way to the bottom of the first grade 4 pitch in the dark. Although there is a donkey trail to the base of the mountain, from there you ascend steeply up avalanche debris on the left and the trail disappears, except for the odd footprint here and there (which are hard to see in the dark with fresh snow). We knew from the route description we needed to find a path that traversed into the climb on our right side. This sounds easier when reading the route description the night before, then when it’s dark and puking snow. Anyway, either through skill or good luck we found the trail leaving the avalanche gully and traversed into the base of pitch number one. By this time it was snowing even harder…
The first pitch of the uber classic Canadian Rockies testpiece - "Polar Circus".
“Shit, I can’t believe this”, Greg said, obviously referring to the snow.
“I know, me neither – I wonder if we’ll ever climb this thing”, I replied, disgustingly.
“Let’s give it two hours”, I said to Greg. “If it’s still snowing in two hours we’ll bail.” He agreed.
The first pitch, rated grade 4, was a fun pitch that Greg quickly led. Unfortunately, both he and I (when I followed it) couldn’t find the chain anchors. Greg gave me an old-school belay – sitting on his ass straddling a big piece of avalanche debris. By the time I reached the top, it had quit snowing and the sky was clearing – it seemed our luck had turned around.
The second pitch of Polar Circus, located in Jasper National Park
From the top of this pitch you trail the ropes up the gully for about 100 metres to the base of the next pitch – a beautiful grade 3 forty metre pitch of ice. I led this and managed to find the belay station. Once Greg climbed up, he headed off up the narrowing gully toward one of the more spectacular and menacing features on the whole route – the “Pencil”.
Greg has just soloed the easy 10 metres of Grade 2 ice and is moving behind the "Pencil" on Polar Circus.
The “Pencil” is a free hanging 50 metre dagger of ice that looms over you as you climb toward it. It rarely touches down and forms up into a condition where it can be climbed sanely. When it does – it’s solid grade 6. Today it was touching down (barely), but only a French man decked out in fluorescent pink would dare to climb it. Luckily I’m not French and I retired my pink gear at the end of the 1980’s.
This is the "Pencil" - an impressive feature of Polar Circus in the Canadian Rockies
If you don’t climb the “Pencil”, you need to traverse around it to reach the upper pitches – this is called “turning the Pencil”. It involves a very exposed traverse up and right across avalanche slopes for about 150 metres until you can head back left (across more exposed avalanche slopes) and eventually reach the main gully again. This takes between 45 minutes and three hours depending on snow conditions. This would not be fun if you were breaking trail. As you make this traverse, the upper six pitches of the route come into view. They are breath-taking and well worth the effort. The upper pitches are described in three tiers; each tier consisting of two pitches.
We “turned the Pencil” on the established trail and were at the base of the first tier at about 10:30 a.m. Our game plan was for me to lead the first two pitches of tier one; Greg to lead the next two pitches of tier two, and for us to alternate pitches for tier three.
The route description notes that the two pitches of the first tier (grade 4) can be done as one if the party feels comfortable simu-climbing 5-10 metres of the route. We decided that in order to save time, Greg would start climbing when I ran out of rope.
This pitch itself was absolutely stunning – it was long, sustained and had perfect one-stick ice. I was about 6-7 metres from the anchors when I ran out of rope and Greg started climbing behind me. The funny thing about this is that when I ran out of rope I was on easy grade 2 ice and Greg was on steep grade 4 ice, so he by necessity, climbed slower than me. Well those of you who ice climb will know that after climbing a 70 metre pitch of ice, your calves are burning; and the worst thing for burning calves is grade 2 ice. I was so close to the anchors that I could spit on them, but it seemed like an eternity until I got to take the weight off my screaming calves ( I have legs like a chicken, so I’m particularly vulnerable to screaming calves).
This is the lower part of the third pitch of Polar Circus.
Traversing back into the main gully of "Polar Circus" after turning the "Pencil". The upper 6 pitches of Polar Circus are visible on the left.
The next pitch on Tier two is called the “Ribbon Pitch” – the name comes from the thin ribbon of ice that pours through the narrow gap in the gully. The first 15 metres of this pitch (grade 4) are vertical with funky ice. As planned, Greg led this pitch doing a fine job navigating through the ice bobbles. Once past this initial steep section the pitch kicks back. There is no obvious spot to belay at the top of this pitch so Greg stopped and belayed on ice screws on a bit of a sloping ramp. The plan was for him to lead the next pitch, but the belay was too cramped for switching over ropes, so I just dropped the pack off, collected a bit of gear, and started leading the remainder of the pitch. I was about half way up this pitch, when I heard a loud whining sound – my dehydrated brain was trying to process what this sound could be, when a five-inch wide rock went screaming past my head. The sun was starting to warm the rock about us – loosing the odd projectile.
The "ribbon pitch" on Polar Circus. This is the normally the fifth pitch of ice on the route. It starts off vertical on funky ice, then kicks back to grade 3. (climber: G. Cutforth, photo: A. Jones)
This pitch was a full 60 metres long, but the last 25 metres of it consisted of walking up a sloping ledge to the anchors on the right.
This picture is of me on the top section on the third ice pitch of Polar Circus. The picture gives a feeling for how long the pitch is (a little over 65 metres from the base to the anchors).
Once Greg arrived at the belay, we both took in the spectacle of the third tier. Without a doubt, it is one of the more awesome looking sections of ice I’ve ever seen. It’s a full 100 metres high, mostly dead vertical, and about 35 metres wide at the bottom. This year, just to add to the effect, it was also brown. We could only speculate about why it was brown – our best guess was that with the long spell of warm weather we had at the beginning of March, the slopes above may have avalanched down to the ground; thereby causing dirt to be mixed in with the water that feeds the falls. Brown ice certainly adds an intimidating character to the climb.
Now the original plan was for me to lead the next pitch, but because I’d led the last one, I asked Greg what he wanted to do. My only stipulation was I didn’t want to lead the last pitch, as this was the grade 5 crux. Greg and I have a good understanding when it comes to alpine routes – ice climbing cruxes are for him and rock climbing cruxes are for me. Greg was concerned that if he led the next pitch he’d be hogging the lead – I really didn’t mind though – I’d had three leads already. So after a quick Powerbar and swig of water, Greg was off.
The first pitch of the third tier climbs the right hand side of the ice formation. It’s long and quite steep. Greg was about a third of the way up……
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I broke my pick”, Greg said with disgust.
The Top Tier - This is Greg nearing the top of the 7th pitch on Polar Circus. He's climbed the last 3/4 of this pitch with one broken pick.
He was low enough on the pitch that I could have lowered him down off an ice screw so he could replace his pick, but instead he decided to keep climbing. It was obvious to me, without Greg ever saying, which pick he had broken – while he was getting good sticks with one or two swings on his left tool – it was taking him four or five swings with his right tool to get any purchase. About 40 metres up he reached a rest spot and furthered pondered his options, as the final 15 metre crux section lay between him and the anchors. He was now too high for me to lower him, but he could have set up a belay, pulled the rope, lowered his tool on the rope, and had me fix it. But that would take a lot of time, and the one thing about Polar Circus is you don’t want to screw around.
Greg decided to lead the next grade five section with one inch of pick missing on his right tool. The only thing he did differently was place a lot of protection – about a piece every two to three metres. Placing this much pro is actually harder work, but Greg figured if at anytime he just couldn’t get his broken pick to stick, he wanted to have lots of gear in. To his immense credit, he made it to the top in fine style, and was soon off belay and bringing me up. While I climbed the last 15 metres to the belay I was amazed at just how hard this climbing was, and how I would have had trouble doing it with two good picks.
After taking 10 minutes to repair Greg’s ice axe, we re-racked the gear and got ready for the last pitch of the route. This pitch is the crux of the entire climb. You are belaying just below an ice cave on the right side of the ice. The climb then traverses out to the left onto a 15-20 metre section of dead vertical ice. According to our route description, once you get by this section, it was easier ice to the top.
Greg headed up, but because of the traversing nature of the climb I lost sight of him within 5 minutes; however, due to the acoustics in the gully, I could clearly hear him swinging his tools and breathing hard. By the amount of debris raining down, I could tell the ice was also pretty manky – definitely not the one stick ice we were enjoying on the lower pitches. At one point I plainly heard him mutter to himself “Man, am I ever tired”.
The final (and eighth) crux pitch (grade 5) of Polar Circus. The climb trends up and to the left (away from the camera). The photo conditions were harsh - shade into bright sun, but hopefully you can get a sense of the steepness of the climb.
Soon enough Greg reached the top and it was my turn to go. The traverse off of the belay onto the ice is the definition of exposure. You get to look down the full 2,000 foot length of the route – not somewhere to be if you’re afraid of heights. Following Greg’s lead, I could see why he was breathing so hard – it was very steep and the ice wasn’t very good. Luckily Greg had cleaved lots of it off, so I tried to hook into his placements whenever I could. Unlike the last pitch, where Greg sewed it up with protection, on this pitch he put in one ice screw near the middle of the steep section and then ran it out ten metres to the first rest spot. By the time I got there I was pummmmmmmmmmmmmped. The rest of the climb eases off somewhat, but by this time; you’re so tired it feels hard anyway.
When I arrived at the top at 2:30 p.m., the first thing Greg did was show me his crampon. He’d broken one of his front points off on the way up. A broken pick and a broken front point in two pitches – surely that’s some sort of record. We’ll have to call Guinness.
We refused to shake hands at the top, preferring to not get too excited until we got back to the bottom – after all we were only halfway done Polar Circus.
Getting Off (pun intended)
This is the view looking down (while rappelling down) from the top of pitch 7 of Polar Circus - it's about 2000 feet to the highway. My truck is barely visible on the right side of the picture, but you'd need to know where it is to see it. (photo: A. Jones)
I’d like to report that the rappels were all straight forward, but they actually weren’t entirely. The first two rappels off tier three are no problem as you are just rappelling from the same anchors you used on the way up. We couldn't do the next rappel (from the top of the second tier to its bottom) as it was described in Dow’s route description
(almost certainly due to anchors being covered with snow). According to his description you use a different set of anchors (than the ones you used on the way up) to rappel from, which can get you all the way down to the bottom of the Ribbon Pitch. We couldn’t find these anchors and rappelled from the chains that we’d used on the way up. Right at about 55 metres on this rappel, there is another set of chain anchors on climber’s right – they are hard to see; I rappelled by them and then had to clamber up to reach them. From these anchors, it’s another 25 metres to the bottom of the ribbon pitch.
From the Ribbon pitch, Dow’s description says to rappel from the chains down to some ice ledges and build an ice anchor to get you from there over the final 10-15 metres to the bottom. We found another chain anchor on climbers right about 15 metres from the bottom, so didn’t have to build an ice anchor (which can be time consuming). A short rappel from these chains brought us to the bottom of the first tier.
From here, the description directs you to not reserve the traverse around the Pencil, but instead to climb further down the gully looking for chain anchors on the left in order to rappel over the “Pencil”. We did this, including putting me on belay to look far down into this gully (as it was very steep and exposed the further you go down this gully), but could find no anchors (note - a later discussion with Dow leads me to believe I didn't look far enough down the gully; be warned, it's very exposed here). It’s also possible these anchors were buried in avalanche debris. As there is no ice to build anchors off of, we had no choice but to reverse the down climb of the “Pencil”.
Reversing the “Pencil” is not for the faint of heart, because down-climbing this section is a lot scarier than climbing up it. It’s so steep that you have to front point down (i.e. down-climb facing the slope) a significant portion of it. One slip and you’ll end up on the highway.
At the bottom of the Pencil, there is another short rappel down into the main gully. I waited for Greg here for a while, and got my heart rate up when a big section of ice above me decided to let go (the sun was working its magic). It missed me, but made me really want to get the hell down.
When Greg arrived we down-climbed and walked back to another set of chain anchors (that we’d used on the way up), and quickly rapped back to the bottom of the second pitch.
Now there was only one rappel to go, but unfortunately, this was the pitch where we couldn’t find the anchors and Greg had belayed me sitting on the snow.
notes that the anchor’s are on the (climber’s) right. We hadn’t noticed them on the way up, despite both of us looking. Due to the steepness and exposure of the top of this climb, I belayed Greg while he front-pointed down to the top of the climb looking for the anchors. A large whoop let me know he’d found them. They are exactly where the description says, just further down then you’d think. It’s pretty exposed down-climbing to reach them, so parties may want to consider a hip belay for the first person down.
From here it was one rap back to the packs. Still no hand shaking though, as we wanted to get out of the avalanche gully before we considered the route done – and this doesn’t happen until you’re about two minutes from the vehicle. The last 15 minutes back to the truck were not without comic relief – my crampon fell off, and worse, Greg fell off the trail up to his hips in snow about 10 metres from the truck.
As soon as we stepped onto the highway, the relief and pleasure of having climbed Polar Circus washed over us, and we shook hands, high-fived, and soon had some cold beer going. The route had taken us 11 hours car to car, but we probably could have been at least an hour faster if we didn’t have to down-climb the “Pencil”. It took three years of trying, but we’d finally managed to climb this gem of the Canadian Rockies. Now what?