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Words with Climbers in Epic Polar Circus Avalanche

On Jan. 28, a big avalanche fell on two climbers who were nearing the end of the ice climb Polar Circus WI5 700m north of Banff. Those climbers were Quentin Lindfield Roberts and Nick Black. We touched base with Quentin to talk about their experience which was captured in the below photo by Alex Ratson.

Avalanche on Polar Circus with Quentin Roberts 2017. Photo Alex Ratson
Avalanche on Polar Circus with Quentin Roberts next to it. Photo Alex Ratson

How long have you and your partner been ice climbing? I’m 24, I’ve been climbing since I was young with my dad and water ice climbing consistently for around five years now. I’ve climbed lots in the Rockies, Squamish, and throughout the States. In Patagonia, I climbed a new ridge route on Aguja T48 called M23 (alone, second ascent of the mountain) and got the third ascent of the Canadian Route on Fitz Roy last winter with Chris Willie.

Nick is less experienced on ice. He’s been ice climbing for more years, but less frequently. He has been mountain climbing for much longer (15-20ish years). He’s in his early 30s and from New Zealand. We had a trip planned for Alaska and were trying to get mileage in for him (and myself) beforehand.

Had you ever climbed Polar Circus before? I’ve never climbed Polar Circus before, although I have bailed from doing the route twice, once due to avalanche concerns and once because it was horrendously cold.

Nick heading up the lower pitches. Photo Quentin Roberts
Nick heading up the lower pitches. Photo Quentin Roberts

Where are you two based? We are based in Kelowna in the Okanagan. I had been climbing on the Icefields Parkway five days previously, but did not have an immediate grasp of the current conditions or the sudden change in weather conditions that might be imminent. That is part of the problem with driving seven hours to the Parkway to climb ice.

Was there a trail up to the base and any avi debris? Yes there was a trail up to the base. There was no fresh avi debris but there was old debris under what I think was last week’s snow.

Did you know about the route’s reputation? Absolutely we knew about the route’s reputation.

Did you guys check/discuss avi conditions? We did check the forecast but there were still a number of mistakes made on our part there. The forecast for Jasper worsened in its prediction for Sunday and that should have been one of the alarm bells. We were reconciled by the fact that Banff was still 2-2-1, that there had been next to no recorded natural avalanche activity for the past four days, and assumed that the change in Jasper was for lower elevation south facing alpine aspects that would see a huge amount of warming (as it stated in the forecast). We figured that high on the parkway and close to the Banff forecasting zone, we would be out of the temperature changes seen in Jasper on Saturday.

After discussing with the park ranger who met us at the base after the climb, we concluded that the natural avalanches seen on Saturday were a result of much higher than predicted wind speeds, combined with the warming trend seen throughout the mountains. In the gully on route we did not feel any wind, it was cold and completely still, although I am now confident that it was raging on the slopes above. It was -7C when we started and around -2C when the avalanche ripped. It was only on those last pitches when I was leading out that I heard the wind for the first time, and it was absolutely howling. About two minutes before the avalanche ripped, the sun popped out onto the slope above (I think it was around 2.30 p.m.) and I was 60 metres from the top. That in combination with the wind was the likely cause.

Polar Circus the day of the avalanche. Photo Quentin Roberts
Heading up Polar Circus the day of the avalanche. Photo Quentin Roberts


Did you hear, feel or see the avalanche first? I heard it and felt the rumble, it was fucking loud. It took maybe 15 seconds or so before the snow showed up.

What did you do while on lead? In that time between the sound and the snow falling, I buried my tools and established myself in an X, I didn’t have time for anything else.

What did your partner Nick do? Were they sheltered? I had led the last pitch as well and built a screw belay behind the curtain at the base of the pitch. The chains on the cliff to the right would have been in the full force of the avalanche. It was madly lucky we belayed there, I just wanted Nick to be further away from falling ice. Even though he was behind the curtain, he still got plastered with snow. Our anchor was completely buried.

Apparently he was hunched over holding the rope in tense anticipation the whole time, dreading that it would go tight. The rope was jolting from the avalanche and it freaked him every time. I can’t imagine what would have been going through his head. The snow fell for a long time, had we been anywhere else on the route we would have been in it proper. We were really lucky that we were on the steepest pitches.

Nick looking up on the pitch below the upper tiers. Photo Quentin Roberts
Nick looking up on the pitch below the upper tiers. Photo Quentin Roberts

Were you run out or did you have a screw close? My feet were around three or four metres above my last screw. I usually feel confident on that kind of terrain and wasn’t placing a huge amount of protection.

Did you just hold on for the ride? Yeah I held on. I was freaked out, but I was also super calm and rational. I remember consciously avoiding over gripping, so that I could brace for the bigger impacts of the larger debris chunks. The snow first filled my hood and pulled my collar back, then it filled my jacket and went into my pants, it got progressively heavier and harder and was pulling me back off the ice. I remember feeling mad at my jacket, because it felt like it was trying to pull me off.

Although I did get pummeled, the snow was surprisingly soft, just heavy. I held on and held on and held on, terrified that a chunk too heavy for me to brace for would hit. It never did, and eventually the snow stopped. Nick yelled up asking if I was alright and I howled back that I was.

How fast was your heart pumping? Once it abated, I’ve never been so pumped, adrenaline was everywhere and I was super shaky. Before that I didn’t even notice.

Quentin holding on next to avalanche on Polar Circus. Photo Alex Ratson
Quentin holding on next to avalanche on Polar Circus. Photo Alex Ratson

After the first avi what did you do? I re-established myself so I could get a screw in, clipped into my tool and screw. Put in a quick V-thread and bailed.

Were either one of you injured? Somehow no, a little battered and definitely shaken up, but no injury whatsoever.

What was the second avi like? I was at the next screw down from the V-thread when the second avalanche ripped. It was way smaller, but had more chunks. I was in direct to my V-thread and my screw at that point, and was way less shaky when it passed. I was just in ‘get out of here’ mode at that point. I contemplated leaving the screws, but there weren’t many to take out and I wanted to be able to bail off of screw anchors later on if necessary.

How fast did you get out of there? That might have been one of the faster descents ever for me. Mad dashes between sheltered spots.

Did you guys have SPOT device? No, I’m buying an Inreach tomorrow.

How long did it take to descend? I don’t know, around an hour probably, it was 3:30 when we got to the car.

Avalanche on Polar Circus. Photo Alex Ratson
Cloud of snow after the avalanche on Polar Circus. Photo Alex Ratson

Did Parks show up? Yeah they did, the guy was awesome. We discussed the situation and the triggers. They asked us some questions we spoke about our crazy luck and the learning experience.

What did you guys do after you got to your car? Alex Ratson had left us a couple of beers, they were heavenly. We drove back to Beauty Creek and debriefed.

Will you be heading back out anytime? We climbed Curtain Call WI6 the next day. Some people might consider that stupid, but It was good for both of us to get back out there and Curtain Call was amazing.

What would you have done different? When we turned the pencil, I was chopping around in the snow trying to get an idea of how unstable it was. It seemed completely bomber, and I think it was. There was a fair amount of spindrift though that should have told us that it was windy up there. I’m still musing over all of the warning signs that I should have picked up on.