Polar Circus is called the “showpiece of the Canadian Rockies and a must for all climbers” by JoJo. It is a very popular route. Featuring about 2300’ of vertical gain with over 1600’ of waterfall ice spread out over about 9 pitches, Polar Circus is a crowded classic. Charlie Porter named the route when he complained about setting up a station on one of the steep pitches, referring to his situation as nothing more than a “Polish Circus”. "Polish" eventually became "Polar" in the translation.
Friday, March 12: After climbing Left Hand on the Weeping Wall, we're hoping to have a go at Polar Circus. We get up at 4 AM to take a look outside. It is snowing and way too warm, so we go back to bed. We end up spending the day reading and organizing our pictures. It snows on and off all day, and temperatures remain pretty warm.
The next day is sunny and still too warm to climb Polar Circus, so we head to the Weeping Wall again to climb Right Hand.
Finally, the cloudy day we were waiting for arrives. It is Sunday and we were worried about having to fight for position with other parties, so we leave early and find ourselves gearing up at the base of the first ice step at 5:45 AM after a 15-20 min approach. As it turned out, we would not see another soul all day...
We simul-climb a couple of easy ice steps (sorry, no pics - it was dark) and an hour and a half later reach the first real pitch, a nice WI 4 section that leads through a rock band at the top (belay chains on the right). Note that you could also bypass the lower ice steps to the left via ledges that circle back around the first real pitch.
An easy pitch (WI 3?) deposits us in the snow gully that leads to the base of the "Pencil", which unfortunately had fallen down in December and has not reformed since (when in condition, it is supposed to be a great pitch of WI 6).
We climb up the snow gully and continue up the two-pitch variation around the right side of the "Pencil". The ice is thin in place and finding a decent belay anchor takes some time. From the top of the second pitch, we traverse right for a short while, then back left through a notch and into the "bowl", an exposed snow basin that leads back to the main falls. Note that instead of taking the variation, you can also continue up right 200 m through some small trees (running belays) before cutting back left to the notch.
It is 10:30 AM when we reach the base of the main falls. We take a half-an-hour break before we start climbing again. The upper three tiers are really what you came for. The final part is quite sustained and consists of a 5-pitch headwall with short vertical sections. The deep gorge between huge rock walls creates a unique atmosphere.
I lead the first pitch, a sweet and looong WI 3+ section (~65 m). Eric and I simul-climb a bit at the end of this pitch to reach the bolted anchors. You might just make it with a 70 meter rope, but certainly not with 60's.
Eric takes the second pitch (the "Ribbon pitch"), a fun, narrow WI 4 pitch. He was hoping to make it to the base of the third tier in one shot, but this would have required more simul-climbing. So he sets up an anchor and brings me up.
I take the third pitch and head toward the chain anchors at the base of the upper tier.
We take another long break before tackling the final two pitches. I lead the first one, a beautiful and fat WI 4 flow. I belay in a small ice cave on the right. Eric takes the next pitch. The first moves out of the cave are the steepest. The angle eases back considerably after that. Eric reaches the top of the gully and belayed me from another bolted anchor (on the right wall). We reach the top around 4 PM.
From the top of the climb, you can look up the gully and realize how much of a mouse trap this climb could be with questionable snow conditions... Beware that "Polar Circus" faces south, which is good because you might get warm on the climb but can make for severe avalanche danger. The top of the climb will probably be in full sun by the time you get to the base of the final headwall. I have found accounts of climbers who had been caught in an avalanche on the upper main falls... Be aware of the snow conditions and try to pick a cloudy day.
From the top of the climb, it's a loooong way down (about eight raps). Two raps bring us down from the upper tiers. From there, we walk down to the top of the 2nd tier and rap from there directly to the bottom of the "Ribbon" (be careful not to rap past the end of your rope - it's a full, stretched 60 m). From there, we rap from the chain anchor to somewhere low on the first tier and downclimb to reach the base (70 m ropes would probably make it all the way). From the base of the main falls, we head straight down the gully to some chains on the left. We made a short rap to reach the top of the "Pencil" and more chains on the right. We then rap down the "Pencil". This is a pretty intimidating rap. Eric was kind enough to offer me a fireman’s backup. We then retrace our steps to the top of the 2nd and 1st pitches and rap each one from their belay chains. From the base of the first pitch, rather than going down the easy ice steps we came up in the morning, we circle around via ledges. This brings us back on firm ground.
It is 6:45 PM when we reach the car. We had the perfect day on "Polar Circus", not too warm, not too cold and most of all, we had the climb for ourselves... Yesterday, was my (Lucie's) birthday. What a great birthday present!
We drive to Lake Louise later that evening. It is snowing on and off when we get up the next morning. We talk about what to do next. Some say you can't have enough of a good thing, but after almost four months in the Rockies, we've had enough of the cold and have seen enough ice for a season. Some mellow and sunny sport climbing at the Owens River Gorge sounds pretty good. We leave the next day - direction: ORG.
Polar Circus, Icefields Parkway, AB
|"Polar Circus" as seen from the highway.|
|Close-up view of the upper three tiers - what you really came for.|
|Parking on the side of the road before dawn.|
|Gearing up at the base of the first ice steps.|
|The first steeper section we encountered along the way.|
|Eric higher on this first step.|
|Taking a break before the second real pitch, a short WI 3 section.|
|Following the easy ice step.|
|Lucie going up the snow gully (above "pitch 2") leading to the base of the "Pencil".|
|I guess the "Pencil" won't go...|
|Eric climbing up the ice gully to the right of the "Pencil".|
|Looking back toward the ice pitch right of the "Pencil". We climbed straight up but you can also traverse R (climber's R) and follow snow ledges to the "bowl".|
|Following the ice gully.|
|Arriving at the belay.|
|Finally arriving at the upper three tiers.|
|The first pitch, a sweet and looong WI3+ pitch (70 m to reach bolted anchor)|
|Lucie leading the first pitch.|
|Placing her first crew.|
|Higher on pitch 1...|
|...and higher still.|
|Reaching the end of the pitch and easier terrain to the anchors.|
|At the belay atop pitch 1.|
|Eric starting "the Ribbon Pitch" (pitch 2 of the upper tiers, WI 4).|
|Higher on pitch 2.|
|We could not quite make it to the belay below the 100 m curtain in one pitch. Lucie leading toward the base of the final curtain (pitch 3 by our count).|
|Lucie at the belay atop pitch 3, at the base of the final curtain (bolted anchors).|
|Looking up the final curtain.|
|Taking a break before the last two pitches.|
|Lucie starting pitch 4 (WI 4).|
|Placing her first screw.|
|Higher on pitch 4.|
|Reaching the belay cave.|
|At the belay atop pitch 4.|
|Eric starting pitch 5 (WI 5).|
|Higher on pitch 5.|
|At the top of the climb (fixed anchors).|
|Looking back toward the road.|
|It's a looong way down! Rappelling pitch 4.|
|Rapping pitches 2 and 3.|
|Back on firm ground below the upper two tiers.|
|Rapping the "Pencil".|
|Rapping the first pitch.|
|From the base of the first pitch, we circled around via ledges to reach the approach trail.|
|Looking up the easy steps that lead to the first WI 4 pitch.|
|Back at the sign that marks the start of the approach.|
|Back at the car after a great day.|