The Canadian Rockies "Climbing Cycle"
by Will Gadd
Also check the Ice Conditions pages for current conditions.
For where to sleep, eat, etc., check this page.
I'm often asked exactly what is the best season to climb in the Rockies. I wrote the following so I wouldn't have to keep writing it.
If you don't have a copy of Waterfall Ice then get one, the following may not make sense without it.
Late October to Mid-November: Optimism for the Ice Freaks, despair for the Rock Freaks. Some ice, normally low avalanche hazard, normally not brutally cold.
Rock season is pretty much over around Halloween with the exception of the occasional day on Yam or other south-facing protected crags. You can likely find two or three decent days of ice climbing or at least some fun messing about around Haloween. What exactly is in when will vary, and unless it's posted on the conditions pages I don't have a frigging clue. Generally you're looking for north-facing routes above 6,000 feet (1800M). The good thing is that avi hazard is normally low. Kananaskis Country is likely your best bet, routes such as R&D are normally in by late October for sure, but it can be really busy as everyone charges up there. Take the very early or very late shift, I find this tactic takes care of the worst of the crowds. The crowded conditions will seem OK to anyone from Colorado, but it's not so normal around here. The routes in behind Fortress also come in early and are far less crowded as you have to, gasp, walk!
The "Big Rigs" normally don't totally form up until at least mid-November, with two exceptions: The Terminator Wall, and Slipstream. I've climbed on the Terminator Wall as early as late October, but it's pretty easy to see if there's any ice up there, and how good that ice is if you have a pair of good binoculars. In fact, binoculars are pretty much essential this time of year... Slipstream is also normally "in," early winter can be a good time to go as the cornice at the top isn't normally quite so massive as it is in the spring. But the glacier travel can be more involved due to less snow covering the gaping chasms.
The Ghost is often "in" a lot earlier than people think. Routes such as The Sliver, Burning/Drowning and anything between Hydro and Sorcerer often forms up in late October, these routes are surprisingly high and face north, it's cold up there earlier than would seem logical while basking in the sun in Canmore.
The Stanley Headwall is likely forming up decently by mid-November. Nemesis is usually climbed for the first time around November 5th, sometimes earlier and sometimes later. The good hting about early season on the Stanley is that you can walk in. The bad thing is the same, skiing is a lot more fun. But little avi hazard.
Hafner, Cascade, anything "low" or "sunny" is NOT in.
The "Alpine" is coming on also. A lot of routes in the Canadian Rockies are best done when the rubble is frozen up, and there's enough ice to get excellent gear. The avalanche hazard is generally low also, which means climbs can be attempted in gullies and across slopes. that would seem suicidal later in the year. Melt-freeze routes are at their fattest, normaly they will start sublimating and getting thinner by about the middle of November.
Skis not normally needed anywhere.
Mid-November to Mid-December:
Now we're starting to get lots of ice choices. Even the south-facing routes along the Icefields Parkway (Polar Circus, routes on Mt. Wilson) etc. are coming in. Normally Whiteman's falls is in enough to climb. The Stanley Headwall is in, and depending on the year the ski in is happening too. Avi hazard starts to become more of an issue, but temperatures aren't normally brutal so we don't have a horrendous "TG" layer (AKA "The shite ball-bearing crystal smack down by the dirt upon which everything slides and kills people). Daylight is an issue--climbs are normally started or finished in the dark.
Hafner is in but the creek can be a pain in the ass, Bear Spirit is coming in, the Cineplex has a good-sized creek flowing down the front of it but is OK to climb at depending on where that creek is running. Don't climb on the mixed routes unless the rock truly is frozen, you'll just break lots of holds and annoy the locals.
Field is forming up nicely but is generally a bit "later" than equivalent routes on the east side of the Rockies, variable. Normally enough in Field by the second week of December to climb.
This is prime Ghost season; not too much snow, most routes formed, creek crossings can be a bit involved due to thin ice.
New lines in K-Country are often done this time of year, the melt-freeze is as good as it's going to get, approaches are still primarily dry or only a few inches of snow.
Skis needed for approaching bigger routes along the Parkway, but not for anything else. The road to the Terminator/Golf course shuts, mountain bikes are the way to go. Walking up to the Terminator requires no skis anytime of year unless there's just been a massive dump, and even then they are normally more of a pain in the ass than they are worth.
Mid-December to early January
Now the routes with lots of water coming down them are coming in or in. Cascade, Takkakaw, Weeping Wall, Louise Falls, GBU in the Ghost, etc, it's cold enough that anything moving freezes up. This also means the days are short and can be brutally cold; the locals generally don't go out climbing below about -15 Celsius, but guides and Americans will push it down to about -35--once. Probably two thirds of the days are good climbing days, but the cold comes in "sets" of three to seven brutal days followed by a week or so of decent weather. We don't normally get huge storms in this period, but regular "dustings" that slowly add up to a significant snowpack. This means the avalanche forecast and being solid in your avi-hazard judgement is important.
Grotto is in too, as is everything in Hafner, good season for mixed cragging if it's not too cold.
This time of year a headlamp isn't just a "good idea," it will get used, as will the mega belay parka and spare gloves.
Not much "alpine" climbing is getting done, but sometimes it all comes together, there have been some good alpine ascents done this time of year despite the short days.
There might be one or two days where it's possible to rock climb at Bataan or White Buddha, but the only people trying to rock climb are serious chalk monkeys without the means to head to Mexico.
Mid-december offers one of the two "best" times to visit the Rockies for ice climbing.
Mid-January to early-Febrary: The Dark Season
Everything is in, but the days are short and often cold. People still go ice climbing lots. Nobody goes rock climbing. The sun doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of difference in general, it's so far away and at such a low angle that it's almost irrelevant. Still, there are lots of good days to climb, and everyone is motivated after the debauch of the holiday season.
The avi hazard can be severe; enough snow has fallen to be dangerous, but not enough to sort the snow pack out. Wind slab, TG, all the fun stuff the Rockies has to offer in the way of snow pack problems are fully on display and just waiting for a human. Then again, sometimes it's all bomber, but that's rare.
Skis normally needed for anything more than a 20-minute walk from the road that doesn't get done a LOT. Polar Circus, Hafner, Cineplex, Whiteman's, Louise, etc. don't need skis as there are so many people going in. Skis are seldom used anytime of year in the "front" ranges, meaning the Ghost, eastern K-Country. But if you're at all close to the BC border and looking at a longer approach then skis are definitely needed. Snowshoes aren't used much here, they are really slow and annoying 'cause they don't slide downhill for shit.
Mid-February to Mid-March. The sun is coming back slowly.
The last week of February or the first week or so of March is the other "best" time to visit the Rockies for ice climbing. The days are getting longer, the temps reasonable and everything is in about as good conditions as it's likely to get. Often the avi hazard works in "cycles," where it's nuts after a storm but then cleans up nicely. I really like early March in the Rockies, it's still definitely winter but the sun is strong enough to be noticed. The sun is higher in the sky each day, it's a time of celebration.
Mid-March to mid-April (Link to a one-day effort on the North Face of Athabasca, Polar Circus and Directissima in a day, sums up late March in the Rockies)
The lower south-facing routes are melting or melted out, and everybody wants to go rock climbing already. This is a very dynamic time of year in the Rockies, with warm days and sludge avlalanches mixing with bitter cold. Starting and finishing early on south-facing larger routes is a very good idea, get 'em done before the sun slams the ice and loosens the snowpack up in the bowls above the climbs. Be very concious of the sun in general, big releases in bowls high over the big routes are common as the day warms up, and even a small "sludge" slide can ruin your day.The first two weeks of April often produce some really good winter alpine routes, but we can also get big Pacific storms that drop a lot of moisture and last for a few days, then it takes a couple more days for the snowpack to clean up. But lots of sunny, fantastic ice climbing days still, and rock never feels as good as it does after a seaoson of swinging tools. Many Canmore locals bust down to Indian Creek.
The rock climbers are pushing the season at Bataan, Grassi and on Yam while the mixed crew is trying to finish off their projects before they melt out. The cineplex is normally done by early April. This is the best time of the year to ski in the Rockies, but everybody is getting burned out on winter.
Mid-April to early-May: Spring down low, still winter up high, often decent weather.
Ice season really ought to be over, but Slipstream and Riptide as well as other high and north-facing rigs are still getting climbed, as are many winter alpine routes and some ice routes until the end of May. Rock climbers want warm stone in the worst way, but only about half the days are going to offer up the goods. But none of the "hard" cliffs are seeping as the ground up high is still frozen, good time of year for Acephale on warm days. Yam season.
Mid-May to July 10th: Shoulder Season, spring "funk" weather.
Spring rock climbing season is in full effect, but it's better to go out in the morning in general, afternoon rain is common. A lot more days are OK than people assume, you just have to get out and go climbing, the odd shower or something is no big deal. Down jackets are still getting used regulary.
The alpine climbing is frustrating--lots of squalls and general shite weather thawart efforts, but sometimes it's great--the snowpack can be super stable up high, and is often hard enough to travel on top of. Just very hard to tell from the parking lot or forecast, that's always wrong by a fair margin. It can definitely still be "winter" up high until early July, which tends to surprise those from the south who come to visit.
Sport climbers are cursing the seeping rock. The rock at Lake Louise is often warm enough to climb on. Yam is still good, but the weather is funky in general.
July 10th-September 10th: Summer , rock and Alpine season.
Don't blink. Generally good weather. August is when most of the higher-altitude peaks are done; thunderstorms can be an issue, but generally not as bad as Colorado. There are often big windows of good weather and minimal rain low or snow high. Late August is when the alpine rock routes are often in their best condition. Acephale is great, but too warm for Bataan or Yam in general, although that's when people tend to climb there. The Bugaboos tend to see most action during August.
September to mid-October: Fall Rock, surprisingly good alpine.
Hard rock projects are sent, the days are generally sunny, a great time in the Rockies. The atmosphere is generally at its most stable during September.