Banff has a number of low-angle crags nearby, from the Black Band on Tunnel Mountain to Sunshine Slabs, but the best friction climbing to be had is on Spray Slabs above the Spray River northeast of town.
The area was developed in the early 1980s on an exposed bedding plane of fine grained siltstone that stands at around 70 degrees. The stone was quarried over 100 years ago for the construction of the Banff Springs Hotel.
The crags stretches from left to right for around 200 metres, but most of the rock is shattered and exfoliating. The main slab with the best routes is solid and only the unclimbed routes develop loose rock over time due to freeze/thaw.
The climbing can be described as delicate slab moves on micro-holds and friable flakes. It’s a fun area to visit to test your friction sills and to see how run-out some of the old routes are. While most climbs have been retro-fitted with protection bolts and ring-bolt anchors, some climbs remain in their first ascent state.
Fear of Flying 5.11b and Bad Sneakers 5.10c were first climbed back in 1984 by Sean Dougherty and have never been updated. There’s no anchor, which means you need to claw up loose scree to small trees. Bad Sneakers has only one piece of fixed gear near the top of the 20-metre line.
The oldest routes were first climbed in 1981 and include some stout lines by Bruce Howatt, including Unnamed 5.11a, Unnamed 5.10a and Aleutian Chain 5.10b. Also in 1981, Heavy Metal 5.10c and Half Deck 5.10c were added by Bruce Keller, as was Halloween 5.10d by Bernard Ehmann.
The most recent additions were by Greg Cornell back in 2003 and include Fear of a Fiery Planet 5.11a and Leather Eagle 5.9. After the 10 minute approach from the Bow Falls parking, I roped up on Leather Eagle, a route that guidebook author Chris Perry said weathers quickly and that “is a good route (hard for 5.9) but some of the holds may be suspect if it has not been climbed for a while.”
The first bolt is high, so I started up the most obvious line to the right. The first few holds disintegrated in my hands so I started farther left. Finding the holds that wouldn’t break while smearing on shallow scoops felt more difficult than on other local 5.11 slab routes.
Perhaps it’s because many of the holds have broken over the years. Near the top, you make a delicate traverse right and then follow a featured arete. It was a fun puzzle to piece together at a very sandbagged 5.9 grade.
On the main slab, we roped up on the now-classic Union Maid 5.10-, which follows a left-facing corner feature and small crimps on the face. It was much easier to read than Leather Eagle and should be on the ticklist for fun Banff slab climbs.
Other routes, such as Aleutian Chain 5.10b and Nine Below Zero 5.11a seemed spot on for the grade, but unlocking the hard-to-read slabs make for tricky onsights. Many of the moves are pure friction and others use small edges or flakes.
Spray Slabs doesn’t have a lot of routes, but the few often-climbed lines are worth checking out. The rock is mostly solid, although it’s obvious the area doesn’t get a lot of a traffic.
To reach Spray Slabs, park at the Spray Loop parking area behind the Banff Spings Hotel. Walk down the trail approx one kilometres and turn left down to the Spray River. Cross the bridge and spot the slabs on the right.