The Prefight Show:
Unlike De La Hoya and Mayweather, the lead up to our battle with Polar Circus
was without any significant glamour or showmanship. What it lacked in hype however it made up for in substance...again in contrast to De La Hoya and Mayweather.
This Canadian Rockies classic had long been on Aaron's and my hit list. I have driven under this impressive route at least 100 times over the years and each time a wave of butterflies has passed through my belly.
Our first attempt ended two years earlier one hour out of Hinton with a rhetorical question from me "You put the rope in the truck right?" One hour later we were back in Hinton with our rope in hand and a new and closer objective in our sites.
The next season (2007) started off great and we were fast preparing for our shot at Polar Circus when Aaron's youngest made a premature dash for the light 4 months before his due date. Needless to say Polar Circus was demoted essentially off the radar of priorities as Aaron and his family worked stoically through a REAL life battle. Happily that one ended favourably for all.
This season it was our turn to reject Polar Circus. Our focus had turned to the Sorcerer and Hydrophobia in the Ghost. Polar Circus was to wait one more year. That was until the weather turned warm one week before the trip rendering the access into the North Ghost too sketchy to risk. With the Ghost out of the question our attention once again turned to Polar Circus.
The Weigh In:
Professor Falls Pitch 3 - Professors
We were on the road early in the afternoon on Friday March 14, 2008 heading for Banff. Our plan was to sleep in the back of Aaron's truck and climb Professor Falls
Saturday. From there we would head back up the Icefields Parkway and sleep at the base of Polar Circus for a Sunday morning assault.
We arrived in Banff with light to spare and scoped out our parking/sleeping area. As this is a notoriously busy climb, we were eager to be the first on the road/trail in the morning. Our plan was to wake at 5:45 am and head off around 6:30 am. Unfortunately I got the :45 correct but not the 5 and had us waking at 6:45 am. This did not appear to be an issue until two vehicles rolled into the parking lot at 7:15 am. With that we were on our bikes and off to the races.
Pitch 5 - Professors
We arrived at the base in good time having dropped our bikes off in the trees 2 km before the climb. I was suited up and starting my way up the ice when we heard the first of of what would prove to be many parties approach the base of the climb.
Professors is described as having typically good but wet ice and that was exactly what we got. We found the climb to be a friendly grade 4 with 4 of the 5 pitches deserving of the grade. The final 40 metre pitch being more varied and sustained than the first 3. Aaron and I climbed quickly and soon lost sight and sound of any parties behind us.
Rappeling Pitch 5 - Professors
We took the time to hike up and soak up the views of the Trophy Wall above but unfortunately there were no hard men or women on either route. That said both The Terminator and Sea of Vapours were daunting even from that distance.
After a few minutes up top we started the rappels. At the base of the first rappel we ran into another party of three. The rest of the descent was without issue except for the shear numbers of climbers we encountered. You quickly learn to appreciate the solitude we enjoy up near Jasper where another party is almost something you look forward to seeing. In total we met 10 more climbers in 4 different parties on the way down plus one more party on the trail. Everyone was great and made every effort to let us through at each station.
90 minutes after touching down at the base of the final rappel we were back in Banff drying our gear in the Laundromat and heading off to Wild Bill's for beer and nachos. Things had gone exactly according to plan and after the successful warm up on Professors, we were feeling good about our chances on Polar Circus.
The Living Quarters
We arrived at the base of Polar Circus around 6 pm Saturday evening with blue bell skies and had ourselves packed and ready by 7 pm. A short recon hike revealed very little in the way of direction past the avalanche slope to the left of the drainage, but we assumed that a trail would be obvious even by headlight the next morning.
The night sky was clear and cool as we headed for bed. That night I alternated between being too warm and the air too rank (i.e. Down jacket over my face) to too cold and the air too crisp (i.e. Down jacket not over my face). Perhaps it might have been the temperature, or perhaps it was the anticipation of the next day, but regardless the sleep was far from restful.
We woke Sunday morning to clouded skies and light snow. For anyone who knows this route, this is not a good sign given the serious avalanche terrain that threatens this route from above. Perhaps Polar Circus was going to knock us out early. The snow made navigation tricky and several times we stopped to evaluate where we were and where we wanted to be. Aaron typically has a good nose for this stuff and so it was that we did eventually find our way past the first two menial pitches of ice and into the drainage proper at the base of the first grade 4 pitch of ice. By this time the clouds had socked in and the snowfall had intensified to the point where we set a time limit of two hours. If the snow did not let up by that time we would turn around. With this agreed we started to gear up and by the time I started to lead up the first pitch of ice the snow relented and patches of blue sky could be seen in the morning light.
The first pitch of ice was in great shape and the line of least resistance was climbed with no real issues. Perhaps it was the dim morning light, but both Aaron and I failed to see a belay station and so I brought Aaron up perched behind some avalanche debris 30 meters up the drainage. By the time Aaron reached the belay, the skies had essentially cleared and we made our way up to the base of pitch 2 slightly more optimistic about our chances.
Aaron climbed pitch 3 in great style and brought me up to the belay station where the first views of the infamous Pencil presented themselves. It had touched down but it was clear that it was far from climbable for a couple of weekend warriors with young families back home.
With the Pencil in sight I headed off. I made my way up the rolling grade 2 ice to the station that is tucked in to the right of the pedestal. The Pencil truly is an impressive feature especially with the thin ribbon of ice connecting the dagger to the pedestal. I quickly secured into the station and brought Aaron up. Round three was in the bag and we definitely had some fight left in us.
Turning the Pencil
Turning the Pencil…
This is quite an undertaking in its own right. Most parties will bypass the Pencil by working through steep slopes that traverse up and right and then back up and left overtop the Pencil. Aaron started out on the traverse and once the rope ran out I started out behind him. The slopes you work through are quite steep and the risk of an avalanche is quite real. Thankfully there was a path through these slopes that we followed in reasonably good time. At one point Aaron belayed me in as the terrain steepened significantly. From there I was back on lead as I continued the traverse left and up to the base of the amazing upper tiers of Polar Circus. We were a little fatigued by the grunt up and around the Pencil but certainly exhilarated by the views of the upper tiers and happy not to have to retrace our steps around the Pencil…
Pitch One - Upper Tiers
Our original plan was to the break up the leads in the upper tiers so that Aaron could climb the first 2 pitches. I would then climb both pitches constituting the Ribbon. From there we would alternate the upper crux pitches.
Aaron hopped on lead for the first pitch of the upper tiers. We had good beta from Dow Williams that we could combine these two pitches by simulclimbing the last 5-10 metres. Aaron climbed this classic grade 4 line in impeccable style. The ice was in great shape and judging by the ease with which he dispelled the first 60 metres I was not expecting the steepness of the ice. Once enroute it became obvious that this was to be a stellar pitch with consistent steepness and great ice.
The Ribbon Pitch - Upper Tiers
The Ribbon started with a steep and somewhat manky section of ice. Thankfully this only lasted for about 20 metres. From there the ice kicked back and I worked my way up to the rolling ice above looking for an obvious belay stance. I finally set up a station in the ice where I thought I could comfortably stand, but it was clear Aaron would have to finish the next 60 metres of rolling ice as a gear exchange was impractical.
I brought Aaron up and we exchanged gear before he headed off on lead for the next 60 metres. He quickly brought me up and I made my way up to the base of the final 100 metres of ice.
We sat at the station to the right of the base of the final tower of ice and scarfed down some power bars and fluids. Our original plans of breaking up the leads was discarded and it was agreed that I would lead both of the final pitches. This would allow for a proper rest between leads.
Just Above Where the Pick Broke
The ice on the final two pitches was stained brown and that was somewhat disconcerting as I headed up to throw my tools into Pitch one of the Final Tier of ice. The ice to start the pitch was less than ideal. The terrain was steep and the ice was sketchy. I wasn’t in a position to place any protection before about 10 metres. After placing my first piece of pro my nerves settled and I made my way onto the second vertical section of ice. I was starting to find my rhythm in this section when I noticed something in the corner of my eye as I swung my right tool back. Was my pick shorter?
“Fuck!” I yelled.
Aaron, hearing my distress called back up “What?”
“I broke a pick!” I replied.
“What do you want me to do?” Aaron inquired.
Nearing the Top Of the First Crux Pitch
I am not one to talk a lot while I am leading ice and without further discussion I just honed in and decided to at least work through this steep section of ice and figure out what to do from a better stance. It is an odd thing, but once I resolved to continue on with the broken tool everything became much more focused. It seemed like a 4 to 1 ratio of swinging with my right tool with its broken pick to the left tool. Regardless I was determined to get to that next stance and eventually found myself in that spot.
By this time I had climbed past the 30 metre mark on the rope and was not able to be lowered. My original plan was to secure myself at this point, lower the tool and have Aaron put the spare pick on and send the tool back up. This would have lead to a major loss of time and some headaches for Aaron trying to clean the route.
Recognizing the steepness of the final 20 metres of ice, and in the interest of time and simplicity, I decided to finish the pitch broken pick and all. The ice in this section was dead vertical and somewhat punched out. You would think that that would work in my favour, but given that about 3-4 cm of my pick was missing and that I tend not to trust hooks with a full length pick I found it quite challenging to find a good placement with my right tool. Unfortunately for Aaron I compensated for this tenuous climbing by placing gear everywhere I felt secure enough as I had no way of knowing what I would find a few metres up.
When I reached the station, I was forced to take sometime to gather myself as the seriousness of what had just happened became more and more clear. I brought Aaron up to the belay and we quickly dispelled of the broken pick and replaced it with a spare. Polar Circus was proving to be a worthy challenge.
The Money Shot From The Top Traversing Out Onto the Face of the Final Pitch
The final 50 metres of ice on Polar Circus is daunting to say the least. The ice directly above the belay is dead vertical and incredibly ominous. You actually lead out left traversing onto the face. This is tricky and the ice was dinner plating in huge chunks as I made my way out onto the face. It’s funny how secure I felt because I had two unbroken picks. I guess that could be my silver lining from Round Six. The exposure and realization of where you are at this point is absolutely exhilarating. You can look between your legs down 250 metres of ice to the base of the upper tiers and another 500 metres down to the road. It is an awesome position and stirs up the most wild emotions.
Once out onto the face I saw the next 15 metres of vertical ice that I needed to climb. I placed some protection and started out on the last of this crux section. The next 10 metres flew by. I kept telling myself that I could just get up one more section of ice and place some protection. Each time I got where I wanted I was drawn to another section a couple metres higher up. Albeit a little runout, I did finally get to where I could place an ice screw with less weight on my arms. “Oh man I am tired” I murmured as I made my way up onto the final 30 metres of grade 3 ice.
At this point I noticed my right foot skating out as I pulled over each bulge of ice towards the top. Undaunted I continued up to the anchors where I noticed I had broken my front point on my right crampon. Polar Circus was not going to throw in the towel that easy.
I quickly set up the belay and soaked up the amazing views out across the valley and directly above the climb while I brought Aaron up. The time was 2:30 pm and after some much deserved photo shots, we quickly turned our attention to getting off of the route.
Rappeling the Ribbon First Rappel
We made the first several rappels without any real hassles. We were quite happy to find an intermediate station in the rock to the climber’s right of the first pitch in the upper tiers. This made things significantly easier than building a station in the ice.
Things got more complicated when we were unable to find the first station that would drop us down toward the top of the pencil. Aaron worked his way down some fairly steep slopes in hopes of sighting the first station but things were looking quite bleak. In the end we decided that it was covered in avalanche debris. This was certainly an unexpected turn of events. We were now forced to retrace our steps back around the Pencil via the trail we had grunted up only several hours earlier.
This is where experience becomes an obvious asset and it was only a few minutes before Aaron had moved almost out of sight. As is always the case, the hard part about going up any steep slope is the physical and aerobic strain. The hard part of going down is the exposure and moving backwards. The steep pitch of the slopes and the challenge of retracing our steps made climbing down incredibly slow for me. We estimated that we lost a good hour in this detour, and at least 30 minutes of that could be attributed to my pathetic albeit methodical pace. Another 10 minutes was lost to the snow balling up under foot that had to be repeatedly kicked off. By the time I finally reached the station beside the Pencil, Aaron had set up a rappel and was out of sight. I quickly set up to rappel, very happy to have some sort of life line to attach to, and was quickly back with Aaron on our way to the second last rappel.
Nearing the end of the Downclimbing Back Around the Pencil
We cruised the second last rappel without incident, but we were somewhat apprehensive about not knowing where the station was for the final rappel. We got back to my original belay spot in the avalanche debris and Aaron hip belayed me down into the steeper terrain atop the first pitch. I cannot explain how relieved I was to see the station up to the climbers right. It was placed a little higher than I would have expected, but it was there none the less. I let out an elated yelp and quickly went to set up the rappel and brought Aaron down.
We made quick work of the final rappel and within 15 minutes we were sorting gear just outside the avalanche prone drainage.
The Last Rappel
All that stood between us and the truck was the traverse out of the drainage and the avalanche slope we had ascended at 6:30 am. We traversed back to the slope without too much issue although the exposure was more significant than we had expected from our early morning trek. By the time we got to the avalanche slope I was tired of balling snow underfoot and removed my crampons making for a relatively enjoyable glissade descent to the base.
As we neared the road I stepped off the climber’s trail about 10 metres from the truck and found myself in snow up to my thigh. Polar Circus was not going to relent until we were out of sight and out of mind. We were back at the truck at 5:30 pm exactly 11 hours after setting off that morning.
This One’s Going to the Judges’ Scorecards:
The View Out From the Top
In the end there was no knockout or even a decisive win. It was an exciting 10 rounder for everyone. Both combatants were teetering at times, but no one went down for the count. The fight went to the proverbial judges and I would have to give the win to us although it was most certainly a split decision.
Polar Circus did not present the most challenging ice climbing we had experienced but what it lacked in technical ice it made up for in character, variety, atmosphere and shear mileage. Recognizing the heights to which the sport of ice climbing has been taken in the last decade, I realize that Polar Circus has lost much of its feared reputation. Regardless it was a great accomplishment for a couple of weekend hacks sporting a healthy dose of determination and perseverance. The broken pick, broken front point and having to turn the Pencil in reverse all added a special flavour to the story but this one is all about the climb itself. It was ten rounds of full on ice climbing in a fine position with a real alpine feel that all made for an unforgettable climbing experience. If you couldn't tell by the length of this trip report, it will forever stand out as one of my most memorable ice climbing accomplishments.
As ends all of my climbing excursions I was greeted by two excited daughters and one amazing wife back in Hinton. Another fitting end to an amazing weekend.