Polar Circus is one of the most spectacular ice climbs in the world, aptly named the "showpiece of the Canadian Rockies." It is situated on the slopes of Cirrus Mountain along the Icefield Parkway between Banff and Jasper. The route lies underneath large avalanche slopes and requires one to cross other avalanche slopes - making safe avalanche conditions a requisite for an ascent. My partner during my attempt, Rolf Kelly, aptly describes the mythical place the climb held in our minds.
View Of Polar Circus From The Icefield Highway
"Seven years ago I first laid eyes on Polar Circus, a world renowned ice climb on the Icefield Parkway in Canada. The climb is quite spectacular, with 500 meters of climbable ice winding up a mountainside. It captivated my imagination and in many ways drove my passion for the sport...in the hopes that one day I would stand on the top."
Rolf Kelly in the Early Morning Hours of February 22nd. Finally Getting His Shot.
"I have since been back to the Icefield Parkway on three different occasions with the primary purpose to climb Polar Circus...but each time getting denied due to dangerous climbing (avalanche) conditions. On my 4th trip, the conditions looked fairly ideal...except for a predicted afternoon and evening storm which was supposed to drop a bunch of fresh snow. On this trip it was now or never."
Rolf Leading in the Predawn Hours
Indeed, it felt like it was now or never. After a marathon of driving I picked up Rolf in Calgary and we made it to the Rampart Creek Hostel on the Icefield Parkway. I'd left Denver the previous morning. There was no time to lose.
We arose at 5am and were climbing at 6am, in the dark. We dispatched the first couple of pitches by headlamp. We climbed fast, filled with energy and anticipation.
About halfway up the climb one is required to "Turn the Pencil" which is the first avalanche exposure on the route. "The Pencil" is an impressive pillar of ice that rarely forms (didn't form this year) and to get around it one has to cross steep unsupported slopes above large cliffs. The snow was stable and we made good time.
Rolf, "Turning the Pencil"
Once past "The Pencil" we were treated to views of the final, spectacular ice pitches. It had been lightly snowing for a couple of hours and the wind was picking up but we were making good time and didn't waste any launching into the final set of ice.
First View of the Final Pitches
There weren't any particularly hard parts to any pitch but they were each very long and the fatigue of the day was setting in. I'd neglected to train my calves as much as my arms before the trip and as a result they were on fire after each lead.
Closeup Of Final Pitches
Getting Pummeled by Spindrift and Wind
Yours Truly Leading the Second to Last Pitch
Rolf Getting Ready to Lead the Final Pitch
Rolf started the final lead just after 1pm. We were making incredible time and would be down well before dark (most parties descend in the dark). There was a party of two starting the final set of pitches, far below us. After 20 minutes or so Rolf was nearing the top of the climb, about 10 meters away. Suddenly I heard low rumbling that quickly became quite loud. I was filled with dread as I looked to my left and watched an enormous avalanche pour over the cliffs and into the climb below us. It was incredibly beautiful and seemed to move in slow motion but the power was unmistakable. The entire climb below us was filled with snow and it was impossible to see anything. We heard frantic yelling and screaming below and I was almost certain someone below us had been seriously injured if not killed.
This is Rolf's description:
"Oliver had just led a solid 50 meters of ice and now it was my turn. I pulled up the steep upper pillar and was transitioning onto easier ice above...roughly 30ft from the top. Then I heard something odd...it sounded like a plane. I pondered for a moment why a 747 would be flying through the Icefield Parkway and then took my next swing. Moments later the noise got considerably louder and I thought to myself...this plane is going to crash. Then I heard yelling and looked up to stare in awe at a massive avalanche launching off the cliff wall about 100ft away. It arced into the valley slamming into the climb just below us; it was thunderously loud and darkened the sky with an enormous debris cloud. I looked up and waited...completely exposed with no where to run...is this it? Is it my time? After half a minute the debris cloud dissipated and the roar gave way to silence interrupted only by our strained yelling. We were both ok...for now. Then we sat on the the side of the mountain in uncomfortably tension."
Rolf yelled down to me, "What should I do." I waited for a second, then yelled back. "We have to go down. We have to get out of here." Even if we reached the top we still had to rappel the route and we didn't know if the bowl above was starting to shed the new snow. There is no way to justify spending any more time in the firing line when avalanches start. We had to bail.
Rolf placed a V-thread and rappelled to me as I started setting up to descend. I was a nervous wreck for a few minutes, hands shaking, heart pounding. I wanted out of there but there was no easy retreat. I had to consciously calm my nerves and concentrate on what I was doing.
We yelled below us and the climbers below seemed to be ok. They were talking and seemed to be moving. So we started down.
Rolf Sums Up Our Feelings. So Close!!
After we reached the base of the final pitches we realized what had happened. A large cornice had fallen, nearly killing the climbers below. There were chunks of ice the size of human beings and craters 4 feet deep where they had landed. It had missed the party below us by 15 feet. It was probably an isolated event, and in all likelihood there wouldn't be another one, which calmed our fears about further avalanches. But we still hurried around the Pencil and into the relative safety of the protected slopes below.
The experience was a little heartbreaking, we'd been so close to the top.
Rolf sums up our feelings:
"We bailed...30 swings from an arbitrary little point on an uncaring cone of rock surrounded by endless other cones of rock in the middle of nowhere. And now I have this nagging little question to ponder...does it count?"
It depends on who you ask but climbing, for me, has always been about experiences with good friends. My experience on Polar Circus was unforgettable, watching the avalanche pour off the cliff is something that will forever be seared into my mind. But as a climbers, both Rolf and I wanted to finish the goal, to reach the top. It was a good reminder of the overall goal of climbing, which is to live to climb another day. We'd succeeded in that, which felt pretty damn good.