"A word on the spot is worth a cartload of recollections"
James Maggs, Southwold diarist 1797-1890

Friday, 13 March 2009

Polar Circus

After a couple of short hours' sleep we were on the road by 1 am. We bowled along the Trans Canada Highway, past juggernauts parked in laybys, their drivers showing more sense than us by sleeping in their cabins, and then turned off northward on the remote Icefields Parkway road. Icy mountains all around us were lit by the near-full moon.
We parked up and set off on a well-packed trail up the hill towards the start of the climb.
As Nick led the first pitch by the light of his head-torch, I hunkered down, grateful for my down-filled jacket, and looked across the moonlit valley. It was around -15℃.

Much more so than in the daytime, I was acutely aware of how vulnerable we were in that dark, starkly beautiful, frozen world. We couldn't afford to make any serious mistakes.

More pitches of climbing followed, interspersed with snow-plods. Some of the snow slopes we traversed were avalanche-prone and would be risky later in the day as temperatures rose. It was good to know that we should be able to by-pass them by abseil on our descent.
The final section of the climb consists of 3 discreet tiers of steep ice, each involving two pitches. This is where the harder climbing started in earnest. As we worked our way up the first tier it began to get light, but temperatures remained low. And because we were now climbing more slowly (we were nearer our technical limit) we were now really feeling the cold - especially when belaying.

We had to stop for long periods so that Nick could warm his numb feet. After 4 more pitches of climbing, a final monster ice tier reared up into view. Aware that the second pitch of this tier is the crux of the climb, I offered to lead the first. Although easier than Nick's, my pitch would involve sections of vertical ice and I felt nervous. As this photo was taken I was about to take off my down jacket to start the lead, feeling, as usual before a hard lead, like a condemned man.Here's me leading the pitch.
Nick lead the second (crux) pitch, which involved long sections of vertical ice. Rather him than me...At the top we both felt completely drained. We didn't take any photos, just ate and drank, exchanging few words,
before starting the long series of abseils down the climb. I can't remember how many abseils we did in the end: nine I think.

After one of them the rope stuck and we couldn't pull it down. Faced with having to prusik all the way back up 50 metres of rope, we eventually devised a way of jerking the rope free.

Here's a view of the upper tiers:In this photo I'm about to do the free-hanging abseil past "the Pencil", a huge ice column which had collapsed near the top:We finally arrived back at the car at 7pm, 16 hours after we had left it. We felt shattered but happy as sand boys to have climbed this 700 metre "showpiece of the Canadian Rockies".
I did need that can of Red Bull before the drive home.

*** UPDATE ***
The timing of our ascent was impeccable. Polar Circus avalanched yesterday.


  1. and 21 hours after finishing, my big toes are still numb!

  2. Amazing, bud. Can't believe it! What a fantastic post. Take care Lxxxx