Polar Circus, the showpiece of the Canadian Rockies. Rising over 700m from the famous Icefields Parkway between Jasper and Lake Louise. It is an alpine climb like no other. The route forms every year without fail, and offers up to nine pitches of quality ice climbing at a moderate grade of water ice five. Ice climbers have Mother Nature to thank for this winter gem.
We were a few days into the long cold snap that plagued us in early December and my friend and trusted climbing partner Phil Wilhelm and I decided to have a go at the Circus. We left Banff at 7am with full stomachs and energized souls.Neither of us had climbed in a few days and we were feeling rested and ready for a challenge. I had climbed the route twice before but it would be Phil’s first time to the top. The climbing itself is not difficult but there is lots of terrain to cover and you never really know what time your getting back to the car. The plan was carry the ropes and solo the climb until the final crux pitches. We decided to each carry a pack with the gear, snacks, and flasks of hot tea.
It was -25C° when we pulled off to the shoulder from highway 93, directly below the route. There was already an empty vintage Land Cruiser parked in front of us and we could see two figures working their way up the first pitch. Damnit we thought. We got scooped by the smart climbers that stayed at the cozy Rampart Hostel just down the road. Thankfully, the route can safely accommodate several parties and there are numerous places to pass a willing party if you’re kind and patient.
Phil and I hiked to the base and it looked like the lower pitches were in good shape. Even at later times of the year the lower pitches are not always in, forcing parties to scramble up higher and traverse onto thicker ice. I yelled up to the only person I could see, “Good Morning! How many in your party?” “Two parties of two!” he yelled back. Shit. Shit I thought. Now what are we going to do. It’s easy to pass one party, but two! Phil and I started discussing plan B. We could head over to the Weeping Wall, but it wasn’t quite formed up yet. Our options were limited as most climbs in the area were not in shape yet. It was a slow start for ice climbs on the parkway this year.
We started up anyway, leaving fate to decide what would happen. We would either climb the lower pitches and rap down or hope the parties ahead would let us pass.
It was cold. The forecast was for a high of -18C° and a low of -27C°. Just before leaving the ground I decided to leave my Gore-tex jacket and a few other items behind. With the air so cold and the lower pitches looking dry, I didn’t think I would need the extra ‘keep dry’ layer. I had on a soft-shell layer and I knew we could keep moving and stay relatively warm. We came up behind the group ahead at the base of the 160 feet WI4 pitch. We exchanged hellos and chatted a bit while their fearless leader finished the pitch. We discovered that all four guys were ski mountaineers from Revelstoke. Now you have to come to the conclusion that the ski conditions around Revi must have been lousy. Four ski mountaineers, from Revi, on Polar Circus in the middle of the week in December is rare.
“Are you soloing?” One of them asked. “Well, the bottom pitches anyway. We’ll see how things go” I answered. We got the ok to climb through and ahead of the foursome. Phil and I were very grateful we could continue with the climb. Thanks guys!
We climbed side by side more or less, taking turns climbing through thin or dry sections of ice then waiting for the other. We moved together, methodically and efficiently, being in tune with ourselves and aware of each other close by. It’s a strange feeling climbing right beside someone. You still have the voices inside your head with a little more background noise than your used to. You deceptively feel more secure having someone right there, even though they’re not able to catch your fall on a dynamic rope.
We turned the unformed Pencil and hiked up stable snow to the upper pitches. So far the ice had been pretty good. Hard and fragile in some spots, wet and softer in others. We were moving and enjoying our time up here. The ropes stayed stashed as we picked our way up the lower tier. We stood at the base of the Ribbon pitch and watched water pour down the curving gully – the line that everyone is forced to take. I thought about the gore-tex I left a the base and cursed my mistake. Being wet when the temps were this cold was not what I was into. I started up, climbing through the wet section as fast as I could but could feel my jacket soaking up the water like a paper towel. Water ran down my sleeves to my elbows and touched my skin sending goose bumps throughout my body. I was soon out of the fall line and waiting for Phil to join me. We climbed to the snow ledge below the last tier and surveyed the water damage. Not too bad I was thinking, but definitely did not want to stand around too long and wait for the chill. The sun was shinning on us at this point which kept the climbing pretty comfortable. We had a quick snack and scoped out the final 330 feet.
Together we made our way up to the small ledge on climbers right below the final pitch. The crux turned out to be the final pitch on this day. The start looked very wet, in fact, it looked like vertical slush. We decided to climb one at a time as the ice looked too delicate at first to accommodate the two of us. I started out climbing the slush, burying each tool placement to the hammer and kicking deep steps in the unstable slush ice. It was more like really sketchy mountaineering than an ice climb. I couldn’t climb fast through this shit and I was soaked in no time. I traversed onto steep, smooth blue ice and I looked down. My mind was instantly pumped. A slip here and I would suffer same fate of many who have played this game.
“I don’t know about this Phil!” I hollered.
“It’s okay Irwin you got this!” Phil yelled back. A common blurt of encouragement from one climber to another. I took a deep breath and thought of building an anchor. I wasn’t tired, but I was feeling irresponsible. A sudden rush of excitement ran through me. This was where I wanted to be. I felt totally in control and confident. A truly deceptive state of mind at this point cause anything could happen.
With a cool head I picked my way up making bomber tool placements and precise foot placements. During one of my swings I displaced a chunk of ice that ice hit me square in the chin. Normally I would have paid attention to the blood that ran down onto my jacket but I had much bigger things to concentrate on. As the solid blue ice eased up it was replaced with now covered ice or poorer quality to the top. As I crested the climb a wave of relief ran over me. I yelled down for Phil to start climbing as I looked at the exposed bolted anchor a long way up from where I was standing. There was no way I was going to risk dry tooling up slabby rock 300 feet off the deck to reach that anchor. As the season goes on and the ice thickens up the anchor becomes increasingly easier to reach, but not today, not without a rope. I continued up the snow gully to ice 120 feet back and set up a rappel while Phil dealt with his mental crux. I knew he would be fine. Of all the climbs I’ve done with Phil, I’ve never seen him slip. He’s a calculated climber that moves with precision.
We celebrated, congratulated, and started our descent. Even if everything goes right, from the top of Polar Circus you’re still a long way from the car. Out of curiosity I convinced Phil to rap the Pencil in favour of walking back down the snow slope. We used an existing anchor and I set up the rappel and threw the ropes. The ends of both 60s landed on a small snowy ledge in the water runnel thirty feet below all tangled. I rapped to the snowy stance in hopes of sorting out the tangle. Just as I reached down to grab the ropes for another toss, I heard a loud crack beneath my feet and I plunged into an ice bath of freezing water along with the ropes. I quickly grabbed my rappel lines but found myself up to my waist in water and my feet still not touching down. I gripped the ropes in hopes of not going in any deeper and tried to find purchase to get myself out. The ropes were now in a horrible wet tangle as they wrapped around my legs like clothes in a washing machine. It was too difficult to pull the ropes back through my belay tube without anything to stand on and get me out of the water. I wallowed there, finally deciding to put a screw in a strip of ice above me and clipping to it. I was now slightly above the open pool with my legs in the splits trying to keep myself out of the ice bath. I had been in for a full thirty seconds and nothing from my waste down was dry. In fact nothing from my neck down was dry as I got soaked on the last pitch of ice.
I pulled the heavily soaked ropes from the water and spent the next five minutes undoing the amazing knot that had formed. We continued to the next rappel directly above the broken Pencil. The ropes were turning into cables and every pull required both our efforts. Watching the tail on the free end rise an inch with every excruciating pull was frustrating. The 100-foot free hanging rappel to the base of the Pencil was interesting with frozen ropes. As we started to pull I poked my head out of our sheltered spot to have a look above. A block of ice the size of a Nalgene bottle had its cross hairs on my forehead. I only had time to react and flinch, taking the block to the back of my shoulder and knocking the wind out of me. Thankfully, a direct hit was only just avoided.
Again, the pull took a lot of time and energy. We still had some terrain to cover and I was starting to shiver. The sun had dipped behind the mountains to the west. My wet boots were slowly freezing, along with my toes. Every piece of gear on my harness was encased in ice. We hurried down to the final rappels and caught up to the foursome who had retreated. Two more rappels were left. As soon as I was down, I freed myself from the icy ropes, grabbed my Gore-tex and ran directly through the trees towards the highway leaving Phil to deal with the last rappel, and the ropes. My boots were frozen to my feet and I jumped in my van, crampons and all to begin thawing out. It was nearly an hour before my body temp and feet returned to normal. That was enough time for Phil to rig up a Z-pully to deal with the stuck ropes on our last rappel – go figure! We drove home with the heat and Led Zeppelin cranked up and big smiles on our faces. I was lucky not to get frostbite but my toes have not been the same since that day. You just never know what your going to get on a climb like Polar Circus.
Have fun out there.