Bourgeau Left is one of those lines that when you first see it, you stop dead in your tracks. A sprawling flow of ice, 185m in length, appearing like a singular white scar against the Limestone southern face of Mt Bourgeau. As a climber, it is the stuff dreams of made of.
Located immediately above the Sunshine Village ski resort just outside of Banff, it is one of the more accessible classics in the Rockies. Visitors to the resort stare up at it as they catch the Gondola to the top in awe. Climbing it is respected.
The first ascent of the route was an epic. It was forced over three days by a team of three locals in 1974. The top crux pitch, originally the first WI6 pitch in the Rockies was climbed at night in wet conditions soaking the team.
‘Gloves froze to the straps of my axes,” Rob Woods recalled. “Helmet was frozen to my hair and beard. Carabiners were frozen shut and had to be hammered open. Clothes cracked as I moved.”
Rob and his partners Tim Auger and George Homer eventually topped out and then spent an additional five hours bushwacking to get back to the car. A true adventure and a humbling story of what pioneering climbers went through in establishing these lines. Modern climbers like myself have it significantly easier.
Though the climb has now been downgraded to WI5, it is a route that still demands respect. The first pitch is often thin, can be hollow and often determines if the route is ‘in’ or not. Delicate movement is a necessity. The crux pitch is often chandeliered, wet and steep making the climbing quite challenging. On top of this, there is significant avalanche hazard above the route. Though you cannot see it from below, the route lies directly beneath a behemoth snow bowl above. Even in good conditions it is not a route to linger on.
My partner for the climb was fellow Aussie Adam Darragh. I met Adam while ice cragging at Johnston Canyon. He was there with his partner and daughter. I saw them wearing Mountain Designs pants and asked where they were from. They are from the Blue Mountains and had done a house swap with a couple here in Canmore until April. Adam’s partner is a strong sport climber but new to ice climbing and she mentioned that Adam would be keen for ice climbing partners. I am here until April… Perfect!
Having already climbed a couple of routes together since meeting and with avalanche risk low, we thought we were ready to tackle Bourgeau. We arrived at the car park early and were happy when we realised we were the first to be heading towards the route. The early bird gets the worm!
The approach is a fair slog up snow slopes for approximately an hour, gaining several hundred meters in elevation along the way. We set our bags down underneath a pine tree near the base, deciding to take up some snacks, water, thermos filled with coffee and a single puffy between the two of us.
We were climbing on twin 70m ropes which meant we could link the first two pitches together. Having only a dozen screws for the climb, managing protection would be crucial. Adam set up the steep ribbon of ice moving deliberately, consistently and placing protection only where it was needed.
It has been a real pleasure and privilege climbing with Adam. He is significantly more experienced than I and a much stronger ice climber. Though I can lead on more moderate terrain, leading falls to him in our partnership if the grade is 5 or above or conditions are difficult. At least for now.
We often talk about technique, movement, assessing the ice, protection, hazards and rope systems. Having confidence in your partner removes one more stress from a naturally stressful environment. I am learning from Adam, picking his brain both through conversation and observation. I hope I am repaying my debt by being a capable partner for him to tackle his objectives. By being a partner he trusts.
Adam reaches the lip of the lower cliff which defines the end of the first half of the climb as the rope comes tight on me. I swiftly follow the line he set, kicking my feet and swinging my tools in a steady rhythm, maintaining a stable triangular shape with my body. Swing, kick, kick. Swing, kick, kick.
Following provides the best opportunity to focus on and refine good technique. I am pleased that I moved efficiently and get to the top of the 70m pitch in a short amount of time feeling quite refreshed and relaxed.
I continue up the snow slope which separates the two halves of the route and solo a 15m section of WI2 to the next belay station. Ropes in tow. Adam soon joins me and we decide to have a quick drink and bite to eat before leaving the bag in the small cave while we finish the route.
The next pitch is a short rambling WI3/4 pitch to another belay cave. We quickly dispatch of this pitch before Adam turns his eyes to the final crux WI5 pitch.
The middle section looked wet and was heavily chandeliered. A couple of ice daggers waiting to detach. This could be bypassed either on the left or right. Adam set off and went right. Again moving steadily he was quickly within the crux.
Placing screws takes a long time, often thirty seconds or more. One of the strategies Adam has talked to me about is the trade off in ensuring you are protected and not placing so many screws that you are too pumped to climb. A tough mental battle to be fought when you are on steep ice.
Adam moves through the crux section and tops out. “Off belay!” he yells out to me. The rope goes tight and suddenly it is my turn to move. Moving towards the crux the ice is plastic and I am able to get solid placements with single swings of my tools.
As I climb into the crux, the line is wet. Small icicles form on my clothes and it starts to become hard to see out of my sunglasses. Now as I swing my tools, small sections fracture off due to the low bond strength with the surrounding ice. “Focus on good feet Josh”, I think to myself. “Relax your heels, minimal movement as you stand up, hips into the wall and keep your arms straight”.
Focusing on my technique I move through the crux section. I feel comfortable and not too pumped yet I know I am not ready to lead a pitch like that. Not yet.
I top out. You cannot wipe the smiles off either of our faces! Our ascent was significantly quicker than the first, approximately 3 hours. We are stoked with how the climb went. It is a beautiful route, climbs well, in a spectacular setting and our systems are getting dialed. We are climbing more intuitively as a team.
With 70m ropes we descend the route in two raps. We bypass another team on the way down, a pair from Washington state. We exchange pleasantries and give them some beta for the descent before wishing them all the best. “Enjoy, it is a fantastic route!” I exclaim as I lower over the lip.
Bourgeau Left is deserving of its classic status. It is long, aesthetic, challenging, committing, has a colourful history and is respected. It is a route that provides everything you could look for in an ice climb and it certainly represents the best qualities of climbing in the Canadian Rockies. If you are here for an ice climbing trip, add it to your hit list. If you are here and spend a day at Sunshine skiing or snowboarding, make sure you look out right and admire the beauty of this formidable route.