Many rock climbers in Canada begin swinging at ice when the winter season approaches, however there are a few that don’t follow that trend. Instead, they watch and wait for the early spring climbing season to begin. Climbing rock is possible in the Canadian Rockies during the winter months and early spring, especially when chinooks occur. When a chinook rolls in, the temperature can reach up to plus 5 -10 degrees Celsius in the dead of winter. On those days, you’ll find climbers jumping in their cars and headed to the warmest crags they can find! The following are some of the best winter crags in the Canadian Rockies.
Wasootch Slabs, Kananaskis
The approach to Wasootch is probably one of the easiest approaches in the area, only second to Sunshine Slabs in Banff. Wasootch slabs are south-facing and receive plenty of sun. This makes Wasootch a popular winter climbing destination.
The grades at this crag range from 5.2 trad to 5.11c sport. The majority of climbs are in the 5.8 to 5.10a range. Because Wasootch is a popular crag, it can get busy. However, with 13 different walls to choose from, it can be easy to avoid crowded areas. It is important to note that some of the routes in the more popular areas tend to be quite polished.
Sunshine Slabs, Banff
Sunshine slabs is on this list because the approach is the shortest you’ll find in the Canadian Rockies, not because it gets loads of sun or because it is significantly warmer than other areas. From the parking lot, it is a flat 30-meter walk to the rock. Sunshine slabs offer a range of climbing from overhanging and vertical to slabby routes. The grades range from 5.6 to 5.12d, so you’ll find an abundance of moderates to keep you busy!
If you’re looking for a crag where you don’t need to commit to a long approach, this is the one for you! The Sunshine Slabs parking lot can be found by taking the turnoff for Sunshine Ski Village, which crosses hwy 1 via an overpass and then takes you over a cattle guard. The parking lot can be seen from the road, immediately after passing over the cattle guard.
Barrier Mountain, Kananaskis
With 9 walls to choose from, Barrier Mountain offers a wide variety of sport and trad climbing. The grades range between 5.8 to 5.13b. However, this crag is known for its sandbagged routes. Be sure to check out Yellow Wall, the first crag that is seen from the approach trail. There are many 3 to 5 star climbs on this wall. Barrier Mountain faces southwest, which means it gets plenty of sun to warm up the rock on colder days! The parking for this crag is on the side of Highway 40 and the approach trail is only 10-15 minutes long.
If you can stomach the hike up, Bataan is an excellent winter climbing destination. The approach takes approximately 60 minutes of uphill hiking to get to the first wall. However, the views and excellent limestone make the hike worth it! The climbs are mainly sport and the grades range from 5.10a to 5.13d. Be sure to check out the Swiss Cheese wall and its many 5 star routes such as Pushing 40 (5.11b), NFI (5.11c), and Trigger hippy (5.12b)!
Be aware that the approach trail can get icy, so good hiking shoes and spikes are a must. The parking lot for Bataan is near Canmore, right off Highway 1A.
White Buddha, Bragg Creek
This crag boasts mostly of bouldering, but there are also some short sport climbs. The bouldering grades range from V1 to V11. According to Sendage, the sport climbing grades range from 5.6 to 5.13a. White Buddha is close to Calgary and it can get quite warm in the winter, especially when chinooks occur!
Directions to this crag, according to Mountain Project, are: “Park in the powderface trail parking lot (or at the gates by elbow falls, which are closed from December-May). Follow the trail for around 15 minutes past the bridge then look for switchbacks leading to a cliff band on the right.” (https://www.mountainproject.com/area/114250731/white-buddha)
Slabby McSlabface, Kananaskis
Slabby McSlabface is a 4 pitch 5.6 climb that is easily accessible from hwy 40 in Kananaskis Provincial Park. The climb can be found by following the approach trail for Baldy Crag, and then taking a branch off to the right. The beginning of the climb starts in a drainage, which means that snow may get quite deep and make this climb inaccessible or difficult to access in the dead of winter. However, I have climbed it in early spring, and there were no problems with the approach, just a bit of snow to traverse through.
The four pitches of this climb consist of easy slab climbing and are well bolted. Slabby McSlabface makes for a fun day out for eager climbers wanting to get on some easy multipitches! One thing to be aware of with this climb is that there are lots of loose rocks.
Shakakan Wall, David Thompson Corridor
I am adding this one as an extra to the list for those who are closer to the Nordegg/David Thompson Corridor. Shakakan offers some fun routes graded from 5.4 to 5.9. It can get windy and snowy at this crag, but if the weather is nice, it can be a great place to do some easy to moderate routes. To access this crag, you need to park at the Windy Point parking lot. The crag is a short walk across the highway from the parking lot. Adventurous climbers can enjoy late or early season climbing at this crag. Be sure to check the weather, as it can be extremely windy!
Guidebooks for your winter climbing destinations
Information on these routes can be found online on Sendage or Mountain Project, as well as in local guidebooks. These guidebooks include Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies 7th ed., Bow Valley Sport 3rd ed., and on the Sloper App. The guidebook for David Thompson Corridor can be bought online at https://www.davidthompsonclimbing.org/.
Winter Rock Climbing
Winter rock climbing in the Canadian Rockies is possible, however, it is a sport of its own. Be prepared with plenty of warm layers, and also for some cold toes and fingers regardless of the temperature outside! The rock is typically cold, even if the temperature of the air warms up. But, you can still crush some routes when the sun is shining and the rock is dry.
So grab your belay gloves, your tarp, and some really warm socks. It’s time to get out and enjoy all that the Canadian Rockies have to offer!
Note: Kananaskis now requires users to have a pass to use the provincial park. See here for more information: https://www.alberta.ca/kananaskis-conservation-pass.aspx
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