I recall the first time I went to Bitchin' Canyon, to dub a once popular, overly hyped crag. At the time, I had spent two years squatting in my parents' basement up in Ontario, dog-earring copies of climbing magazines. Bitchin' Canyon, said the mag, was The World-Class limestone destination complete with steep, wondrous caves and a roster of climbers straight out of Who's Who. My imagination soared like a raven to this glorious cave spattered with blissful blue streaks and pockets sculpted by the world's best shaper - Mother Nature.
When I finally saved up enough ducats, I gassed up my two-cylinder rustbucket, nursed it across the Canadian border and punched it south to what I was certain was the greatest cragging area outside Olympic Mons.
Bleary eyed, jangled and anxious, I pulled into that hot, stuffy, over-crowded canyon of glue, broken glass and metal. I felt like a school kid who had been socked in the belly and had his lunch money stolen. I'd done boulder problems that were higher, harder and a billion times more aesthetic back home in Canada. I climbed for two days, then split.
Though I was pissed at the time, in retrospect, that was the best trip I've ever taken. It was the one that taught me that talk is cheap, and opened my eyes to the world-class limestone right in my own backyard of the Canadian Rockies.
That there was premier climbing virtually in my backyard was news to me, but climbers have been prowling this stretch of the Canadian Rockies since the early 1950s when Austrian-born mountaineer Hans Gmoser, the father of Canadian mountaineering, made historic first ascents of the Calgary Route (5.6) and Diretissima (5.8) on Mount Yamnuska.
The scenic stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway between Calgary and Lake Louise is home to boundless blue limestone, prime summer conditions and while the dollar has been battered by the Euro, it held up reasonably well here in Canada - meaning you can still climb here on a shoestring.
Canmore is the hot spot of this northern sector, and it is an absolute paradise for a typical cragging climber, someone who wants the amenities of a cush mountain town with a variety of five-star climbing options nearby. Canmore sits just outside of Banff National Park on its east side in a region of Alberta known as the Bow Valley. This alpine setting is about 200 miles north of the junction of northwest Idaho and northeast Montana-, and it is as rich with climbs as Alberta is with oil. There are roughly eight crags within a 20-minute drive of downtown Canmore. Acephale, Crag X, Grassi Lakes (good in the rain) and Carrot Creek are steep limestone walls that provide excellent sport-climbing challenges. More technical, less steep and equally enjoyable routes of both the trad and sport flavors can be found at places like the Stone Works in Cougar Canyon (where the climbs are generally in the 5.10 to 5.11 range), Steve Canyon and The Sanctuary. And for long multi-pitch routes (bolted and trad) in a crisp alpine setting, it doesn't get any better than Mount Rundle and Ha Ling peak; the latter has the longest 5.10d sport climb north of Mexico on its 3,000-foot north face.
At the northern end of the valley, off the trans-Canadian highway, you have Mount Yamnuska, a limestone stalwart up to 2,000 feet high and half a mile wide. Yam sports some 75 routes from 5.6 to 5.13b including the wildly exposed but just 5.8 Red Shirt, an eight-pitch line from 1962 that was the first to tackle Yam's steep rock. Amazingly, despite the wall's forbidding appearance, an abundance of holds keeps the difficulty at bay. Just proceed with caution on the 5.7 first pitch, which a population of flying squirrels have been pissing on for years. The hardened urine adds its unique version of polish to the stone.
Acephale is only about 13 miles outside of Canmore and a 45-minute hike from the parking lot. This wave-like limestone wall caught my attention because my hero Scott Milton (along with J.D. LeBlanc and Todd Guyn) established many climbs there. The fact that the highly motivated and talented Milton could climb anywhere on earth, yet kept returning to Acephale, said it all. Today, the blocky crag has over 50 routes, mostly 5.12.
Lake Louise rounds out the Bow's diversity. The Lake's quartzite is ripped with positive grips and its vertical walls make it more user friendly than other steeper areas. With about 100 routes from 5.6 to 5.14, most in the 5.6 to 5.9 range, and with mixed trad gear and bolts, the Back of the Lake crag is Canada's version of a boiled-down Arapiles. Factor in the unbeatable view of the robin's-egg-blue lake and calving glaciers and Lake Louise alone makes the region a world-class destination.
In short, the Bow Valley may be North America's best summer climbing destination. I can't think of any area with such diversity and quality. Question is: Why aren't climbers flooding into this still-quiet sector of North America?
Hard to believe the hype, I suppose.
Sonnie Trotter is a contributing editor currently residing in Squamish.