On the Edge (Fighting the Hard Battle) From Polar Circus to Sea of Vapors
Polar Circus is the showpiece of the Canadian Rockies. It’s the most classic piece of ice in Canada and one of the best pieces of ice in the world. It’s sought after from all over the world. Its length and sustained difficulty make it a rather serious outing. I have wanted this route for a long time but have waited for the right time to come. The ice climbing in Canada is simply the best on the planet and climbing Polar Circus would mean climbing the “best” route in the area that has the most amazing ice on the planet. The Canadian Rockies sport many classics from the Grand Central Couloir to Slipstream to the Trophy Wall. It’s the perfect place to train for the bigger lines.
Sunset in the Canadian Rockies
Polar Circus is a 900 meter line with over 1,600 feet of ice climbing. Consider the fact that all of it is WI4 to WI5 (only two pitches of WI3), it does not come easy. It’s simply one of the most beautiful, inspiring pieces of ice I have ever seen. The position of it makes you feel like your on a full on alpine climb in Alaska or South America. It’s located 2 hours west of Banff, Alberta and stands out.
Polar Circus (WI5, V) Only the top couple pitches are visible.
I had Polar Circus on my list for this winter, even on my 14’ers goals list, but I couldn’t find a solid partner for it. I was also pretty picky as far as that goes. I sent a few messages but no one could get it off so I was pretty sad. I was pretty happy with this winter and what I have done but there is always that ambition and determination in the back of my mind that always wants to do more and more and to become a better climber. So basically, I can’t get enough of climbing.
I went to Cody, WY with a few new friends for ice climbing and really had a great time. They mentioned the word “Slipstream.” For those that don’t know, Slipstream is located on Snow Dome in Canada and is called the pinnacle of achievement for ice climbers. Though only WI4, it includes about 3,000 feet of ice. I told them I had to go with them. I basically signed myself on for the trip. Anyways, they were glad to have me on the trip and we ended up having a fairly big group that went.
Riding the TREX in Alberta!
The drive included over 20 hours of boring scenery. Almost the whole drive was just Wyoming type scenery. I ended up driving all of except 2 hours. After 12 hours of driving, I let my partner drive. Right when he took over, we got a flat tire within 30 minutes, in the middle of no where, in Montana. I was very mad. We got the donut tire on it and trudged along at 40 miles an hour for a ways to the small town of Conrad, Montana. It was not to far from the border to Canada. It was after midnight and only one gas station was open, everything else was closed. On top of that we were afraid nothing would be open until Monday since it was a small town. We ended up sleeping in the car next to the railroad track by this scary house. We woke up at 8 and traveled everywhere just looking for help. AAA would not even help. It was stressful but soon we somehow found a tire store that was open on a Saturday. We got it changed and after a few mores of driving, were in the Banff area.
Sunrise over Canmore, AB (Photo from Kurt's Iphone)
I was super stoked to be in Canada and seriously would like to spend my whole winter in this area. It’s pure paradise.
Looking over Banff, Alberta
First, we went to the mega classic 3 pitched Lower Weeping Wall for a day to get ready and warmed up and did the first two pitches at WI4+. We chose the center line as there was another party on the right side. It was the hardest route on the Lower Weeping wall. I would have to lead the crux. I backed out. It was WI5+ and the ice was slush from the sun, meaning no pro and it was difficult climbing. Down we go. It was still nice to get on such cool ice.
Weeping Wall (WI4/5/6)
Myself leading the second WI4+ pitch
Later that night, Kirill and I made a plan. We would attempt Polar Circus Monday. Two friends of ours went to try it a day before but were turned back on the drive when no gas stations were open. We filled up during the day and really pinpointed this climb perfectly. We had heard to be off the climb by noon as the sun really bakes the top pitches to slush offering ice screws that would not even hold a wet cigarette. The weather called for overcast.
Approaching the meat of the climb
We woke up at 4:30 in the morning, and headed off for the two and half hour drive for Polar Circus. The sunrise was close to 8 A.M. and the sunset was at about 9 P.M. We started the hour approach and started climbing a little after 8. I was tired already and had only slept three hours but soon “woke” up.
The first pitch was soaking wet. It was almost like a full waterfall. The temperatures were cold and I knew this would be a long day as the commitment grade was V. Kirill started the first pitch at WI4 which turned out to be pretty honest. It was so wet in fact, that the quickdraws were coated in ice making it almost impossible to unclip. I got soaked following it and the rope had a coating of ice on it making it like a steel cable. It was only the first pitch and we had 8 or 9 leads left.
P1 of Polar Circus. You can tell it's wet
We thought about bailing as if all the rest of the ice was like this, it was not happening. After staring at the rest of the climb, we simply had to see how the ice was higher. Usually the higher you go, the less wet the ice is I kept telling myself. For times sake, we soloed the second pitch which turned out to be good plastic ice for 40 meters. I was really happy. The ice was amazing. It was snowing by that time and we were glad. Still, I didn’t know if the climb would be successful as many things had to work out right.
You can barely see Kirill topping out on the WI2. Getting ready to turn the Pencil.
Soon the third pitch came which sported easy WI2 ice for 70 feet. With good easy ice, I started soloing. When I got to the top, the ice turned very bad, very quickly. A chunk the size of a microwave came out with one swing and I screamed “ice” to Kirill who was waiting for me to get to the top. It hit him and I instantly asked if he was alright. He didn’t reply. It barely missed his family jewels. It just left a cut on his thigh. He soon replied that he was fine. I got out of the way and continued on to the “4” pitch which is usually simul climbed due to avalanche snow conditions but the snow was amazing so we both soloed the 50 degree snow which cut right and then left to the start of the last six pitches.
Great views to the Icefeilds Parkway
Kirill turning the last bit of the Pencil
The sight of these three formations stacked right on top of each other was amazing. If each pitch was just a single pitch, they would be very classic. Before the climb, Kirill told me he really wanted the crux WI5 pitch. He has looked strong on lead and had not lead at that grade. It was hard to give him that as that looked like the best pitch but I eventually gave in since this would be his first WI5 and knew it meant a lot to him. It also ended up working out perfectly.
We saved time by soloing a couple pitches but we still had to hurry to get to the top before its dark. Kirill lead a 65 meter pitch up the first formation which sported amazing WI4 ice. When I followed, problems happened. Out of no where, I mentally started struggling. My calves were getting really pumped out on the WI3 ice at the start of the pitch. So much so, I almost called for tension. The WI4 crux of the pitch seemed hard and my confidence went straight down the tube. I got to Kirill at the hanging belay and screamed to clip me in the anchor. I started freaking out while Kirill was shocked to see me like this. I was shocked as well. I have never had a situation like this happen. My calves were super pumped. I led the next short easy pitch to a good belay ledge at the beginning of the second formation. Kirill followed and we talked.
I was super down on myself. I had a hard time following the last pitch, how am I going to lead? I was afraid of falling on lead and all the fear wrapped around me and took control. I asked myself why I was even up there. I was extremely upset that I was letting fear do this to me. Kirill quoted that we could head down if my mind was not in it. My fear was telling me to head down but everything else was not in agreement. I also knew bailing was not an option because of this as I would not be happy with myself after the fact. I looked at the next pitch for 15 minutes silently while fighting the inner battle. It looked hard but was only WI4. I was really scared for some reason when normally it’s not that big of a deal. I simply could not handle going down but that would have been the easy option. I knew I was not getting to the top with this mindset.
Kirill leading to the top of the first formation
Kirill told me of all people he didn’t ever expect me to freak out. He kept telling me of some of the leads I’ve done that were way harder to build my confidence but it wasn’t working. I closed my eyes and prayed. I then fought the mental battle and started racking up. I was scared but once I got on it, I was in my groove and the fear disappeared. To be honest, of all things that day, I was proud of that battle I fought. I got up to the belay and Kirill came up saying the pitch was hard when I found it to be not bad at all. Following on the rope always creates thoughts of “I would never lead this” or “This is hard.” I call it top rope syndrome.
The sun baked pitch leading to the final two pitches
Soon the clouds disappeared and the sun was beating on the ice. It was getting hot and the top was not looking good. Kirill lead the next pitch which put us at the bottom of the final formation on a big ledge. The lead included WI4 ice that was sun baked snow/ice. If you did not put your tool in the right place, your tool would pull out. He led the sketchy lead and brought me up. The screws were unreliable. We talked and were about to bail. Kirill stated that the last two pitches didn’t even look fun. I went over to the ice and it was not “to” bad. I was comfortable leading it. I started up the first 30 feet of vertical ice with one screw and got on a small ledge. I traversed right to the WI4 crux of the pitch. It seemed interesting that when I started on it, the clouds came and covered up the sun. Still, the ice screws were rather interesting but were solid. Definitely would do everything I could to not fall. I got to the belay ledge via a series of mixed moves. I built a belay in the ice cave and brought Kirill up.
Myself leading the akward part. In a few minutes it will get overcast again!
Soon, a huge crash happened. A cornice the size of a car started falling down to our left. When it hit the bottom, you could feel the ground shake. I freaked out and was ready to bail but also realized bailing would be more dangerous as the rappels would be close to being under the cornices. The safest option was to stay put and keep climbing, or wait until the sun is gone. There was nothing directly above us.
Kirill came up with a grunt. I stared at the crux pitch. It had not even been touched for a long time. It looked bad. I pretty much had it in my head to bail as the final pitch looked out of condition. It contained mini icicles hanging off everywhere. You would not be able to put your crampons in it or your ice tools it seemed. And ice screws? You probably should just solo it. The first 40 feet didn’t look to bad. The next 60 feet after that looked very bad. Kirill said he really wanted to try it. I wished him luck and put him on. He lead out from the belay ledge on pretty crappy ice with not the most bomber screw placements. He was getting pumped but soon put that section away. He then was at the crux miserable section. He actually went around the corner where I could not see him and found beautiful plastic 90 degree ice for 60 feet. He then rushed for the top.
Kirill before the crux.
It took him a while to lead it and I could tell it was starting to get dark. I ran up it to get warm again and found the pitch to be absolutely amazing! I was extremely jealous that he got the lead as I wish I could have had it. It was exposed and the position was magnificent. I got to the top and started laughing. We both hugged. You know you’re happy when you hug. I could see my car far below and the position was out of this world. It was getting dark but I did not care, I had climbed Polar Circus.
Good exposure from the top, and I'm not even looking over the edge.
We had 10 rappels or so to do in the dark and I was not looking forward to it. It was already 8 P.M. Our rope was frozen every inch of the way with water. We brought a tag line so we could rap 60 meters at a time. On the first rappel, our rope got stuck. I DID not want to prussic up the rope in the dark. We kept whipping it around and finally got it to pull. The next rappel took us to the top of the second formation. Again, our rope would not pull for 10 minutes but finally pulled after many tugs. The next few rappels went fine but I was really wanting to get down. The descent was not easy. We then actually got the rope stuck on the 3rd pitch after down climbing the interesting 50 degree slopes. (“turning” the pencil) I did not want to prussic up the frozen rope. Kirill told me he simply didn’t have the strength to climb the WI2 pitch to get to the rope. I got pissed and simply quoted,” sometimes in climbing, you have to do things even when your body does not want you to.” Later, a quote we both laughed at. I started up with my leading gloves that were frozen and soloed up to the anchors in the dark. It was rather interesting. I fixed the rope that was stuck, rappelled and continued down.
Soon after two more rappels we were at the base only to find out a raven went through all our stuff at the base. The raven ate our food that we reserved for after the climb and stole two ice screws of mine I left at the base. Thieves! We rushed down and glissaded and got to the car after a bit. After 18 hours of climbing we were finally at the car! I was not happy with our time at all as it took 5 hours to descend but it was in the dark and a slow process.
Kirill was out right when he stepped in the car. I was upset that I had to drive the two and half hours back to our time share. It was 1 A.M. I took a No Doze and kept listening to really hard rock music blasted. I drank a sip of water every 2 seconds and constantly was ready to pull over to sleep. Everyone back in town was really worried about us. I somehow pulled the drive back and got “home” at 3:30 A.M. 23 hours after I had woken up for Polar Circus.
I was exhausted to say the least but Polar Circus proved to be one of the best ice climbs I’ve had the privilege of doing. It simply was amazing.
Jess getting helicoptored out (Photo from Kurt Ross)
On the second day of rest after the Circus, all the rest of the group came in laughing with beer in there hand. They were not suppose to be home. They told me how they had tried “Mixed Master” when it was not very in. While bailing off the first pitch, Jess, rappelled and the whole anchor (2 pitons) came out sending here decking to the ground. They sent for a helicopter and she was sent out. She only came out with scratches thankfully and still was able to climb the rest of the trip.
For those two days I rested up and made sure not to climb as I wanted to be fully ready for the next climb that has been a huge goal of mine in Canada. Kurt and I planned to climb Sea of Vapors on the Trophy Wall. The Trophy Wall includes 3 of the most sought after hard routes around. The wall is world known and sits a couple thousand feet above the Trans Canadian highway between Banff and Canmore. Climbing any of these routes is really considered a trophy. They don’t come into condition much. I have read about these climbs from many of the top climbers around and have dreamed. That’s all it took.
I have looked at the Trophy Wall in pictures and it really looked crazy but I wanted to venture up on it. I had to wait until I could lead solid WI6 though. All the climbs are Grade V even though only 4 pitches. The brutal approach and hard climbing makes a day of climbing. I really did not think I would get on any of these climbs for a long time. There remote, difficult, and really out of this world with exposure. You can feel the exposure all the way up. They really are some of the most sought after ice climbs in the world.
Stunned and Intimidated. Sea of Vapors is the right handed line.
Sea of Vapors was originally rated WI7+ and was probably the hardest route in the world when it was put up in the 90’s. WI7+ is still the top of the scale in ice climbing. The other two lines go at WI6+. Since then, there has been slight downgrading but the climbs still can become the most difficult around and are not climbed often.
When I heard Sea of Vapors was in WI5+ condition back in December, I was really excited. But I still didn’t know if I could get there. I thought about the climb over and over. I wanted it bad. Soon, a lot of people were climbing it making it a little hooked out and lowering the grade to WI5.
After two days of rest I packed and went to sleep. I thought about what the day was going to be like. I hoped everything would work out properly. I was also a little nervous as the climb looked quite desperate from far below. We got up at 4 and were out the door by 4:30 A.M. We started up from the car at 5 and hurried along. We planned to climb it with a team of 3. After a while, Kirill bailed as his calves were still sore from Polar Circus. It was now a team of two.
I started going real slow. I was still not totally rested up. The approach was hard but I was glad we at least had a trail. When the sun came up, I saw the Trophy Wall and it looked really intimidating. Looking at it and realizing that I was not feeling it since Polar Circus took it out of me created a thought of wanting to bail and return in a couple days and get totally fresh. I told Kurt how I was feeling and we agreed to at least go to the base and check things out. We climbed a WI3 pitch to approach the base. This thing looked hard.
Climbing the WI3 approach pitch
Kurt basically flaked out the rope and had me tie in. I threw him on belay. We were not bailing. We had perfect weather and ice conditions. We were also the first ones to get on it for the day. Kurt lead the first pitch was fun steep climbing. I joined him at the belay and he led the next pitch which sported a M4 move to good steep ice. When I joined him at the belay, I really was glad to actually be on the climb. Kurt asked me if I wanted the next lead. I thought about it and Kurt was pushing me to. I took the screws and went up. I actually thought it was the best pitch of the route. It was almost a full rope length of really exposed good steep climbing. It ended at the most amazing ice cave belay. After the lead I was so stoked to be out there. At this point, I thought we were at the top but Kurt took the lead for 15 meters to the true top out.
Kurt getting to the top of P1 on Sea of Vapors
Myself leading P3
Wonderfully exposed! Kurt following
Nearby, the Replicant, (directly left of Sea of Vapors) there was someone on it. It was in WI6+ condition. I watched as the guy led the first pitch which sported 20 meters of just about no protection and then overhanging ice for the rest of the pitch. He led it well along with the WI6 pitch above. We exchanged emails as we both got killer shots of each other. There line looked just as good as ours.
Jeff starting the lead of P2 of the Replicant (WI6+)
We were both really happy and started rappelling to the base. After 5 rappels, we were off the climb. I glissaded just about all the way down looking back up to the Trophy Wall thinking of my next adventure and goal. The climb was simply one of the best climbs I’ve ever done. Only to prepare me for the future and bigger goals I have.
Of all things, I was mad that my head was not in it, but I was happy to not bail and get over it by conquering my fear and emotions. It really felt like I was preparing for a war. Ice climbing is almost all mental.
Now that the ice climbing season and winter mountaineering season are almost over, I sag my head in sadness but in complete satisfaction. I only want more, and have the urge to keep getting better. That’s what climbing is all about. Competing against yourself year after year and chasing goal after goal until you get to your ultimate dream!
Myself on lead of P3 belayed by Kurt. Photo taken from Rafal from The Replicant
Video of another group going up it more recently
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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