Canada’s Largest Limestone Bouldering Area
Alberta hides the largest developed limestone bouldering area in the country. Just off the Crowsnest Highway, Frank Slide offers 2,200 unique problemsPhoto by: Greg Tos
Frank Slide is one of those massive Canadian bouldering crags that receives little attention despite the density of the area. Located just off the Crowsnest Pass 2.5 hours south of Calgary, the limestone talis field boasts well over 2,000 boulder problems.
This last summer saw over 300 problems-worth of development from guidebook author Trent Hoover. Hoover is a Frank Slide local with a bouldering career that tracks the evolution of the sport in Canada.
Hoover began climbing in Edmonton during his undergraduate years. Immediately hooked, Hoover would spend the next three decades establishing hundreds of Canadian boulder problems in the western half of the country. Between development, and routesetting, Hoover has seen it all.
He said, “My first routesetting gig was at the Edge in Vancouver. I was a there with Sean McColl, Andrew Wilson, and Mike Doyle. I started bouldering in Jasper, and near Calgary in the early 1990s; I started looking hard for bouldering in Canada because while many of my friends went to Hueco in the winters, I didn’t have the opportunity.”
Instead, Hoover explored Canada for new rock and first ascents.
“I put up problems in Jasper and Prince George, and a few problems in Squamish just when Squamish was really taking off. Then I moved back here. I knew there was bouldering at Frank Slide, but when I moved here there were only 300 problems.”
“One of the first times that I went to the slide, I walked by this big boulder. I built a bit of a landing and I climbed it and talked to the people I had just met and asked if they had done it. They said that they didn’t know what it was. In that moment I realized that there was probably a lot to be done here.”
Hoover said, at first it was difficult to discern what had been done and by whom.
“Unlike bigger areas, there hasn’t been a continuous record of the history. There was actually climbing in the area in the late 80s and early 90s. Their focus was more on practicing for sport climbing. On the bigger boulders there were a few top rope walls and they had built up some of the area’s landings. They didn’t really boulder a lot because the landings were pretty bad.”
“They didn’t have bouldering matts, so they flattened the landings where they could and they did mostly short top ropes. Then, after they moved away, there was kind of a break in the history.”
This is when things began to heat up.
“From the early 90s to the late 90s, a group from Calgary started to come down, a few of them came from Calgary to do a few of the more obvious lines that were close to the road. Seth Mason from Edmonton also came down. At that time, they were looking for harder problems, but some of the best climbing is deep in the Slide. So much of that wasn’t really touched until the early 2000s, when a group from Lethbridge started climbing there.”
“High school kids originally, Evan Erickson and Kyle Marco started going through the Slide in a more systematic way, climbing everything up to V7 and V8. They were still focused on the areas that were relatively accessible, relatively close to the road.”
“When I got here, I was more focused on exploration. I started hiking through some of these deeper areas, especially the areas that have become known as Karst Area and the City of Giants. These two sectors are deep in the Slide where there are now roughly 500 problems. They have some of the best rock in the slide. When I was hiking through these areas, I was surprised to find a few problems here and there, but nothing had been developed.”
“When I moved here, we started to get a lot more systematic about working through problems. We would be doing all the things you could find on a boulder, building landings, and cleaning things up properly. At that point, no one had really cleaned loose rock off. By then, the problems grew by as many as 100 a year. Then Josh Bylsma started climbing here.”
“Josh Bylsma has been an utter machine in terms of developing. By my estimate, he has put up 600 or 700 problems by himself. He’s a beast too, so he’s put up problems right up to V12, and several of them. He has a project there that he has been working on for probably five years now, which is a probable V14 highball. This is a very impressive line.”
“That got us to about 1800 problems and we kind of thought that it was tapped. ‘Oh, there is not a lot to be found now.’ Even Josh was into that part of his career where he was only putting up eliminates and things like that.”
“Then I started writing this guidebook, and as I am hiking through, I started noticing things I had never noticed before. I would warm up by shuffling rocks and building landings, building patios for everything and I got to 100 problems then 200 problems. This year I put up 309 problems in the Slide. There are about a dozen V3 to V6 problems that are utterly world class.”
Due to the fact the Slide can be difficult to navigate, Hoover said, “My plans with the book are to eventually pair it with a GPS app.” This will allow climbers to flip through the book as they search for problems, and then hike directly to the boulder. However, it is not as inaccessible as it might seem. In fact, it is roadside, and they are building a trail.
“The trail is going to be about a kilometre long and will loop through some of the biggest sectors on the north side of the Slide. The Slide is split almost directly in half by the Crowsnest Highway: Highway Three.”
It’s proximity to the highway makes, “Frank Slide probably the most accessible bouldering area with the exception of Squamish. Popoff the side of the highway and you are in a parking lot. Walk across the road into the boulders.”
As far as camping is concerned, “It is relatively close to Crown Land, so you can drive up a kilometre from the Slide, find a nice free camping area, and drive down to the Slide every day to go bouldering. If you are a van-lifer it has gotten kind of hard, but Frank Slide is probably the last big bouldering area where you can absolutely be a van-lifer and just live there.”
“There are a number of paid or provincial campgrounds within a fifteen-minute drive. In terms of that, the Slide is really accessible. Because it is a working-class town, some of the hotels are pretty cheap.”
The affordable style of living helps make Frank Slide an excellent bouldering, biking and hiking destination. The boulders themselves are a unique form of limestone.
According to Hoover the boulders are “Big, compact blocks with rails on them. They are made of a type of hold we call Frank Edges. Flat, perfect-pad edges that are smooth and usually slightly sloping. It requires you to generate a lot of tension, moving through sequences. You have to keep your feet on and keep your feet engaged. You end up needing not a lot of finger strength, because the holds aren’t tiny, but you have to generate a lot of force to stay on them.”
“Frank Slide is a really good area from V3-V8. After that, the holds are really similar, they just start getting further and further apart. If you climb V6 or V7 in Frank Slide, you’re golden.”
For travelling climbers, Hoover recommended a few classic problems.
“There is a really good V5 called Aftermath. There is a very beautiful and high V4 called Ghost Rider. There is a famous V7 called the Communist that is almost a perfect height: 17-feet, really committing, nice top out, with a crux at mid-height. There is a V8 arete called Rising Tides which is like ATD in Squamish. Above V12, there are a number of lines still to be done.”
Unfortunately, one drawback from the area has been the inception of the Grassy Mountain Coal Project.
“The Grassy Mountain Coal Project is the first in a planned series of coal mines that have been opened up by our newly conservative government in the midst of the early pandemic. They slipped this bill through which took a lot of protections off the Rocky Mountains in terms of coal mining. Protections which had existed since 1976. They removed that protection, and coal mining conglomerates started applying for coal mining leases.”
“The Grassy Mountain Project had already been tenderly on the books before then, and has since then, been moved into higher gear. The Grassy Mountain Project won’t directly create access problems for the Slide, but the mine is seven kilometres up the valley from the Slide.”
“Already with the construction of the road up to the mine for exploration, you can hear it from Slide. If you are climbing at the Slide in the future, and this line goes through, you will be able to periodically hear blasting, and if the wind comes from the North, there may be dust periodically blowing in from the mine.”
“There has been a huge public outcry against these projects. It is hard to say whether the Grassy Mountain Project itself is avoidable, at this stage. It might be rejected by the Federal Government because there are a number of concerns about effluent from the mines, especially selenium, but it’s hard to say. It seems that the public outcry is hopefully helping the Government step back away from some of these other projects.”
Thanks to public support, the Alberta Government has reinstated the 1976 Coal Mining Policy along with its protections. Unfortunately, this does not save areas that are currently in the process of development, such as the Grassy Mountain Coal Project, however, it does provide protections for numerous other sites.
While it is difficult to know exactly what might happen in relation to this project, Hoover is excited for a year without COVID so that he and other members local to the community might be able to bring back the Tour de Frank, an annual outdoor bouldering competition held just a little bit after Kelowna’s Rock the Blocs. Hoover hopes this festival will be helped with his new guidebook set to release within the next 12 months.
In either case, the 2,200 boulder problems of Frank Slide have created a variety of boulder problems that are accessible to climbers of all levels. As restrictions continue to lift, it is exciting to imagine just what might be around the corner for athletes seeking to push themselves on Albertan Limestone.
Featured Image by Grzegorz Tos.