Climbing with Giants in Alberta, Canada

Dry-tooling, stunning vistas and more from the Canadian Rocky Mountains

The town of Canmore, Alberta is set in the Canadian Rockies, just 80 kilometers west of Calgary. Unsurprisingly, the picturesque town is home to some of the best rock and ice climbing in North America. It’s also home to some of the best climbers in the world. We recently caught up with a few of those top climbers, Sarah Hueniken and Will Gadd, for a quick tour of one of the most beautiful parts of the world.

On our first day, we met Gadd at Rocky Mountain Bagel. The sun had not yet come up and Main Street, which is normally filled with mountain bikers, outdoors types leashed to friendly dogs and a sprinkling of tourists, was completely empty. Gadd is a renaissance man, as evidenced by his authoring, public speaking and TV hosting, but is most often recognized first and foremost as an athlete. He is one of the world’s most extraordinary paragliders and ice climbers. Having been the first person to climb Niagara Falls (with Hueniken second) he could be considered a Canadian National Treasure. He’s also a rather gregarious guy but today acts much more as a business-like guide. He would like his climbing party to be the first on the Hai Ling climb this morning. So, we quickly finished our meals only to be treated to a breathtaking sunrise over the peak we are about climb.

We are taking the NorthEast route that faces the town of Canmore. The grade, about a 5.7, is a popular classic climb up 2,407 meters. Gadd is pleased that we are the first ones for the day because we will not be held up or worry too much about rock-fall from a higher party. After about 10 copacetic pitches, we make it to the top. The view is spectacular with a blanket of altocumulus clouds snuggling the surrounding peaks. As we pack up, Gadd receives a text from his father Ben Gadd (another Canadian legend) who lives across the valley. “My dad watched us from his house. He said we did a good job,” Gadd says with a laugh.

We are able to walk off the backside of Hai Ling down a popular hiking trail. There are plenty of people out enjoying the warm weather on a late September day. We grab a quick coffee at Mountain Mercato and then head to Cougar Creek which is a short walk from Gadd’s house and features hundreds of elegant limestone sport climbs. After a few laps to wear ourselves out officially, our first day is done.

Day two we meet early at the Summit Cafe. This day we are dry-tooling and are joined by Hueniken, a world-renowned climber and guide (another Canadian National Treasure in her own right). Dry-tooling, which is a form of climbing using ice-tools on rock, was invented to give ice-climbers access to hanging ice (aka mixed climbing) and is commonly done during the shoulder seasons, when it is too cold or wet to rock climb and when the ice has not yet formed. Dry-tooling on its own has taken off and is a competitive sport, practiced inside as well as outdoors.

Hueniken tells us that where we are about to climb, named Temple, is “not your typical crag” and it certainly isn’t; but it might be one of the most beautiful. In order to get to the cave, we drove the Trans Canada Highway AB toward Banff National Park. Rainbows crowned the mountains from a fresh rain. Even more breathtaking was the drive through the park with glaciers hugging mountains overlooking turquoise lakes.

The hike to Temple from the parking area is rocky and loose. Almost half-way up Hueniken turns and says “in the winter, this is where we decide whether we will climb or not.” The area is so avalanche prone, access can only be determined half-way up. Since we are there in the fall, we are safe but can see the wash were debris lands. Temple faces Mt Chephren and was found by Pat Delaney and John Freeman roughly four years ago. It has since been developed by Freeman, Hueniken, Gadd, Gordon McArthur, Ben Firth, Rafal Andronowski and a rotating crew of people. The climbs, with ratings ranging from m12-m14+ (American m15), require super human power. We tried our hand on a climb called Supernatural (rated m13) and were only able to unclip two draws. Hueniken, who did the first ascent of Supernatural (one of the only routes of its grade opened by a woman), danced up the roof carefully placing her tools and wrapping her legs around her arms in moves called Figure 4s and Figure 9s. Gadd, who beams around Hueniken (he is her boyfriend), gracefully makes his way up the roof, resting every once and while to strike a pose and flirt with Hueniken. The two climbed on like this for hours. It was both exhausting and exhilarating to watch.

When we hiked out of the cave, we could see how far some of the routes went. Around 50 meters high, one climb called Instagrade (considered a “true mixed climb”) went to the waterfall. Gadd, who did many first ascents at Temple, has been the only person to reach the top of Instagrade, which he tells us is probably the hardest route in North America and a likely candidate for one of the world’s toughest. As we drove out of the park, we realized how special Alberta is for climbing. One day you could be doing classic routes that have been climbed thousands of times or trying new routes that have yet to be sent. The possibilities are endless.

For more information, you can visit the sites of both Sarah Hueniken and Will Gadd.

Images by Rafal Andronowski