The Canadian Rockies—Not Just For Summer
In the world of winter climbing, there are many good venues worthy of a trip. Places like the mountains of Colorado, the hills of the far northeastern states, the Scottish Highlands.
Then there are the Canadian Rockies.
In two trips to the Rockies I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this incredible climbing area has to offer the winter climber, but a sampling of day trips into obscure places like the Protection Valley and Storm Creek, as well as classic areas like the Stanley Headwall and the Ghost, have impressed upon me not only the immense diversity of climbing here, but the exceptional skill of the local climbers. There may be a better, bigger, more (fill-in-your-favorite-superlative) winter climbing destination somewhere on the planet, but it would be hard to imagine that terrain wedded with such an active climbing community, with so much information available, above such a great town as Canmore, Alberta.
There is something for everyone in the Rockies, from rolling WI 3 routes, to bolted single-pitch modern mixed lines, to long and desperate traditional mixed climbs. Rest day options are a plenty as well, from the coffee shops and bars of Canmore to nightclubs up the road in Banff.
You’ll most likely be flying into Calgary (YYC), and you'll want to rent a car. It’s a quick shot over to the parking garage to pick up your rental. A few important things to consider:
- Get four-wheel drive. Suck it up buttercup, you’ll be glad you did.
- And snow tires. You’ll have to pay extra, but when it comes right down to it they’re like having sharp crampons. We’ve all climbed without, but it’s easy and safer with—and they’re required on mountain roads in bad conditions.
- Opt for clearance. If it starts dumping snow while you’re up on the Icefields Parkway, having a bit of clearance will help lower the stress level for a long drive back to Canmore.
- Insurance or no insurance? Check with your regular automotive insurance provider before you leave because some policies cover rentals, some credit cards do as well, but some of these coverages are pretty weak. The rental car company will try to sell you a policy, they do it because most renters don’t make a claim. You choose.
Where To Stay
For a small team, just the typical two climbers exploring the endless possibilities accessible from Canmore, Alberta, the Canadian Alpine Club’s Clubhouse located just above town is the way to go. Here’s why:
- The great room. Located up on a hillside above town, the sunrise views out the huge wall of windows—and the gas fireplace—make a rest day morning feel like you’re staying at the Alpine Ritz. Picture alpenglow in the mountains, and a warm cozy cup of coffee.
- The drying room. There are huge duffel-bag-accommodating lockers, with a free lock and key included in your stay, right next to a washer and dryer and drying rack. Great for packing, unpacking, sharpening equipment, etc. Just make sure you’ve left ample room for the folks who work at the hostel, who are helping to make your stay more pleasant.
- The stove. The big, eight burner, industrial rig is a pleasure to cook over. The kitchen is super well stock with everything you’ll need and there’s always a pot of coffee on, and on the house.
- Plenty of showers and they provide towels!
- The price. While the rooms may be a bit small if you get one with two beds, you’ll have it to yourselves regardless of how crowded the hostel gets. And there is so much comfortable space to sprawl out to use the Internet, read a book, sort gear and enjoy the fire and views, that you’ll feel like you’ve found a great deal. You pay for your room and all that the Clubhouse has to offer is then free of charge. Unless you want to buy a beer or a bottle of wine.
- The staff. They are wonderful.
Rooms are mostly bunkrooms, but not entirely. Book early. The one down side? The weekends can get crowded, so if the hostel scene gets to be a bit much for you, consider booking a hotel room for the weekend. Address and contact info:
Address: Alpine Club of Canada, 201 Indian Flats Rd, Canmore, AB T1W 2T8
Canmore has a few supermarkets. You can find them, and a Canadian Tire (which has pretty much everything non-climbing), on Railway Ave., within walking distance from downtown. For the famished meat eater, there is a Chinese buffet sold by the kilo at the Safeway.
Climbing Beta and Hazards
There is a load of information out there on conditions, new routes, even road conditions. Surf away, but here are a few places to check on your browser: http://www.gravsports-ice.com/icethreads/ and https://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/page.php?id=8836.
- Guidebooks: Joe Josephson’s Waterfall Ice Climbs in the Canadian Rockies (out of print currently, but the best resource if you can find it), Ice Lines – Select Waterfalls of the Canadian Rockies by Brent Peters, and Mixed Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, by Sean Isaac.
- Approaches and Descents: If you want short approaches, head to North Conway, New Hampshire. While there are easily accessible crags like Haffner Creek, most of the routes worth coming for involve a two-hour approach. The terrain is big here, making walk-off descents uncommon. For most routes, you rappel the line of ascent. Leaving a pack at the base allows you a few luxuries like a thermos or a change of base layers after a big walk.
- Avalanche Hazard: The Rockies have a continental snowpack, that means on a bad year much of the terrain can be simply inaccessible for long periods due to a persistent weakness. Early season trips, especially November, and late season trips, March and even into April, may offer the best opportunity to avoid the worst of this particular avalanche problem as well as the worst of the arctic weather. Otherwise, if it dumps snow, or if its get windy and snow is moving around, beware. Check the weather, and Parks Canada has a great avalanche forecast center you should use: http://avalanche.pc.gc.ca/bulletin-eng.aspx?d=TODAY&r=1.
- Rescue Resources: Banff, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks are the home of Canada’s busiest rescue service. And while good planning, including understanding approaches and descents, picking appropriate objectives and having plenty of previous backcountry experience should help keep you from needing them, this is good news. They are very good. Most locals carry a Garmin inReach style device capable of sending and receiving text messages, and transmitting to emergency authorities GPS coordinates and call for help.
Rest Day Highlights
If you get skunked by avalanche conditions or just need to take a day off, there are plenty of ways to spend it.
- Sports Facilities: The Elevation Place recreation center offers everything from swimming to indoor climbing in a new and state of the art the facility, easily located right in Canmore.
- Coffee Shop: I’m a big fan of the Rocky Mountain Bagel Co., but there are plenty of places to hang, get caffeinated and poach the internet.
- Bar Options: With all this walking, I’ve been in bed early, but here’s what the Google has to say. (After-all, a friend of mine met his future wife in a Canmore bar on a climbing trip!)
- Mountain Shop: Vertical Addiction can be found at 1300 Railway Ave, Canmore, AB T1W 1P6. Hours: 10:00AM to 6:00PM Mon-Sat and 10:00AM to 5:00PM Sunday