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50 Years of Climbing at Banff’s Guides Rock

It's one of Banff's most popular rock climbing destinations

Guides Rock is one of Banff National Park’s most historic multi-pitch crags and is only about a 10-minute drive from downtown Banff. The approach is steep with a number of calf-burning switchbacks, but only lasts about 20 minutes before you arrive at the base.

The limestone is stipply with some natural cracks, but more deep water-runnels that provide fun pinching and foot jams. Most of the climbs are bolted, but some old and bold traditional lines exist. It’s south facing, so it’s always in the sun and can get breezy in the summer, but it’s a perfect place to climb in early spring.

Guides Rock is a Verdon-like steep ridge above the Bow River on Mount Cory. It was once only used by locals for guide and rescue training back in the 1950s and ‘60s, but once technical rock climbing began, the potential for high-quality climbs was discovered. The first route up was by Brian Greenwood and Tim Auger in the mid-1970s up an obvious feature they called Three Roofs. It was once only climbed with a few points of aid before going free at 5.10b, now 5.10c due to polished rock. The steep crack climb avoided the more challenging finish up the striking headwall.

Guides Rock in Banff

Paper Chase Era

In 1978, Mike Sawyer saw a line through the headwall that would eventual redefine local bold climbing. He called his new route Paper Chase 5.11 and it was a totally new style of rock climbing in the Rockies.

It ventured onto a blank looking wall and had varied cruxes on the outstanding final pitch that surfs up waves of stone. Sawyer climbed it with Carl Austrom and their first ascent caused a stir locally and even out in Squamish. Over the years, the route has had bolts added and then chopped. The crux is currently not bolted and requires heady climbing on tiny gear.

The next route through the headwall was in 1980 and was called Rain Check 5.10b. From the second roof on Three Roofs, Chris Dale and Dave Morgan climbed the direct headwall on small holds. They climbed it in a rain storm and ran the cruxes out over 20 feet.

Sean Dougherty on Paper Chase. Photo Jim Sevingny

The next route was Take It For Granite 5.9, which climbs a rib east of the main face by Bob Sawyer and Dan Guthrie. It was 30 years later that the now-famous Aftenroe 5.7 was bolted up an 11-pitch line. My Wish Has Been Granite 5.10 was added to Sawyer and Guthrie’s line a few years later.

Then in 1984, Sean Dougerty and Mike Glatiotis established Direct Start 5.10c to Paper Chase. Then Make Dube and Guthrie added The Hook 5.10a as a new finish to Rain Check. Joe Buzowski, who helped develop Back of the Lake, got in on the action and climbed Close to the Edge 5.10c with Pat Paul.

Dougerty and Brian Baxter then climbed Street Life 5.11a after a close call on the wall due to too much Mexican food before the climb. Then Dougerty and Jim Sevigny climbed the sustained new Solid Air right of Street Life at 5.11b/c. Buzowski sought out a wild new route with Hugs Not Drugs, which he worked on and drilled holes for bolts that Josh Korman later led and free climbed, a bold undertaking. Buzowski, Peter Arbic and Guthrie traversed the upper headwall, though details are vague they called the route Adventures in Flesh Land, all on gear in the upper 5.11 range.

While some hard pitches were added over the next decade, development slowed until the bolting of Sea of Dreams 5.10d up a stunning arete and through the upper headwall by Mark Whalen. The route was controversial at first, but Whalen was used to the attention after bolting the six-pitch True Grit 5.10c near Canmore. Over the past 20 years, a number of new routes have been added, including Cure for Aid 5.11c up a stunning arete, Turf Wars 5.10c and the 2018 route called The Wanderer 5.9.

Mark Howell on Aftenroe
Photo Tim Banfield

For 50 years, climbers have been heading to Guides Rock for windy adventures on steep classics. There is still room for modern routes, like the new The Wanderer and the old classics will always be favourites for locals and visitors. If you’re passing through Banff this year, especially in spring, be sure to stop at Guides Rock to see what all the fuss is about.

How to Get There: Take the exit for Johnston Canyon off the Trans Canada and drive for just shy of three kilometres to a pull-out on the left. From there, you can look up and see Guides Rock. Cross the road to the dirt trail that diagonals up the road cut. Follow this to the rock.

Will Meinen on Sea of Dreams  Photo Brandon Pullan

Five Spring Climbing Areas in Western Canada

Yamnuska: West of Calgary, historic multi-pitch climbing with eight-pitch sport and trad routes.
Echo Canyon: On Grotto Mountain in Canmore are hard sport climbs on south-facing walls.
Back of the Lake: Moderate and difficult classic quartzite cragging near Lake Louise.
Skaha: Interior B.C. crags with hundreds of five-star classic sport and trad routes.
Smoke Bluffs: Easy access trad climbing close to Squamish.

Nico Magnun high on Guides Rock Photo Brandon Pullan