The Ice Climbing Atlas Project is a collaboration between Avalanche Canada, our ambassador Sarah Hueniken, and Grant Statham, a visitor safety specialist in Banff National Park. The intention of the atlas is to provide an overview of historical avalanche observations from popular ice climbs in the Rockies. It is a work in progress and will be updated as information from more climbs is collected.
Avalanche observations are collected through surveys of local climbers conducted by Hueniken, a pro climber and alpine guide. Our hope is that by sharing historical data, climbers can better understand the avalanche hazard that exists on these popular climbs. We strongly encourage all ice climbers to always carry avalanche safety gear—transceiver, probe, and shovel.
Help us expand the project.
We're surveying people who have climbed the Mt Kidd climbs. If this is you, we'd love to hear about your experiences with avalanches there, even if your experience is that you've never seen one there. Complete this survey, it takes around five minutes, it's simple and really helps us to provide a fuller picture to other climbers.
ATES for Waterfall Ice Climbing
The terrain in the Atlas is rated using the new Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) for Waterfall Ice Climbing . The focus for climbers is on exposure time, avalanche frequency, human triggering by considering exposure to terrain traps below, and options to reduce risk by reducing exposure through choice of belay locations, alternative descents, and more.
Routes with no exposure to avalanches except small sluffs and spindrift.
Routes with brief exposure to very low frequency avalanches starting from above or crossing occasional short slopes.
Routes with long exposure to low frequency avalanches or brief exposure to high frequency avalanches starting from above or crossing a few short slopes en route. Options to reduce exposure.
Routes with extended exposure to high frequency avalanches starting from above or crossing steep slopes en route with terrain traps below. Minimal options to reduce exposure.
Routes with sustained exposure to high frequency avalanches starting from above and crossing multiple steep slopes en route with terrain traps below. No options to reduce exposure.
Bourgeau Left-Hand is a prominent south-facing climb on Mt Bourgeau that is easily seen from the Sunshine Village gondola. With a moderate approach and a consistently steep four-pitch climb, this is a classic for those looking for a sustained grade 5 climb.
Bourgeau Right-Hand is a classic grade 4 ice climb with multiple tiers and steps.
Carlsberg is a beautiful and classic Grade 5 curtain that sits in the middle of the beer climbs on Mt Dennis. It has a two-pitch approach to the main curtain or an exposed “walk/scramble” around to climbers right. After this approach, Carlsberg is on the left and Cascade Kronenburg, which forms sporadically, hangs on the right (as well as some mixed lines during leaner years). The main curtain itself is usually climbed in 2 pitches with bolted belays, but can be climbed in 1 long pitch. Sometimes a short, steep bonus pitch exists a short way up on climbers right, this is not impacted by avalanche terrain.
Cascade is a prominent waterfall that can be seen from the Trans-Canada Highway as one drives west past the Banff townsite turnoffs. Proximity to the road, a moderate climbing grade, and a sunny aspect make this an obvious tick list route for any ice climber living or travelling to Banff. It has also been the site of many unfortunate accidents and has serious avalanche terrain above it.
Guinness Gully is the last climb you encounter as you drive from the Field back road. It is also the most popular. A short approach and with nice, tiered pitches mean that many parties can safely enjoy Guinness at the same time. The first pitch is often at the crux, as it can sometimes form quite lean. If you have more time and energy, an extra 45 minute hike up the avalanche path will take you to Stout (above Guinness Gully itself) and Hightest (the drainage to climbers’ right). Both are Grade 4+ and can add another 1-3 pitches in your day, if conditions allow. Guinness Gully is most frequently rapped, but from the top pitch, climbers can traverse through the trees and scramble/walk the gully on climbers’ right. This may involve some down climbing.
A 40-minute walk from around the shoreline of Lake Louise brings you to the base of this very popular Rockies classic. With natural tiers to break up pitches, a striking pillar, minimal avalanche hazard and incredible views, Louise Falls might be the most popular ice climb for its grade in the Rockies. It is not uncommon to wait in line at the base or behind the pillars for a safe time to proceed. Most climbers walk off the route to eliminate hazards to those climbing below. The walk off has more areas of concern for avalanche hazard.
Murchison is a beautiful classic climb that has relatively low avalanche hazard. The main hazard is on the final leg of the approach from the right-hand fan and could potentially be managed by travelling slightly left to avoid the run out zone, depending on conditions. Murchison offers an amphitheatre of several classic climbs that don’t always form. Virtual Reality and Lessons of Oka are to the right and My Daddy’s a Psycho is to the left. The climbing can be engaging and challenging because of the often colder temperatures in the amphitheatre and constantly changing ice conditions, which can make for a longer day than one might expect for a climb of this length.
Pilsner Pillar is located on Mt Dennis and is the first beer climb that you come to as you drive the Field back road. Despite its length, the first 40 meters form the grade 6 pillar crux and people rarely climb the easier upper pitches. There are also several mixed lines that can be climbed as a first pitch. Pilsner Pillar is one of the avalanche gullies that gets controlled by Parks Canada to protect the road, but it can and does run naturally several times throughout the winter. It is one of the more likely avalanche paths to see natural activity in Field.
Polar Circus is likely the most sought-after ice climb in the world and is the ultimate route for an ice climber to tick off. It offers about 10 pitches of mostly moderate climbing (up to grade 5 at the top) with a very short approach. The climb is located on Cirrus Mountain and has a massive amount of avalanche terrain above it that is not easily visible, unless you drive further up the road and look back. Polar Circus has serious avalanche terrain in between pitches of climbing and has been the site of several avalanche accidents and many close calls.
First climbed in 1974, Professor Falls can be easily seen from Highway 1. It is approached from the Banff town site by either a bike ride or a 1.5-hour walk. It consists of several tiers of short steep pillars and curtains, and culminates in a crux WI4 pitch at the very end. It consists of eight steps, which allows many parties to climb the route at the same time relatively safely.
Ranger Creek is a popular venue for early season ice climbs. There are three main ice climbs here that are one to two pitches in length, as well as a few obscure mixed climbs that rarely form. It is some of the first reliable ice to form in Kananaskis country and therefore becomes very popular and busy.
Rogan’s is the deep gully left of Cascade Waterfall. It has a very short approach and, depending on the snow and debris amounts in the gully, offers many short, relatively easy steps of ice with a final full pitch of stepped ice at the top. The climb and the avalanche slopes above face southeast and therefore get a lot of sun.
First climbed in 1969, Urs Hole has roughly five pitches of moderate climbing followed by a direct finish that can be as hard as WI5. Due to its direct position under a large avalanche path, it is primarily climbed in the fall before there is much snowfall. There is often a glacier feature snow plug that lies before the last direct finish pitch due to the copious amounts of debris that piles up there.