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For the Tick-List: Polar Circus in the Canadian Rockies

Avalanches on the big route have killed many people, so always check conditions before you go

Polar Circus, on Cirrus Mountain in the Rockies, is one of the most famous ice routes in the world of ice climbing. The location, accessibility, length, grade and history have elevated the route to a classic status.

The most difficult pitch is WI5, but most are between WI3 and WI4.

Polar Circus has 700 metres of elevation gain with 500 metres being waterfall ice. Guidebook author, Joe Josephson, said, “It is the showpiece of the Canadian Rockies and a must for all climbers.”

Charlie Porter is credited for naming the route while on the first ascent. He was complaining about setting up a station on one of the steep pitches, referring to the situation as a “Polish circus.”

Polish quickly turned to Polar. Halfway up the route is an optional pitch known as The Pencil WI6, which rarely forms. In 1975, Bugs McKeith, Charlie Porter and the Burgess twins sieged the route over eight days, using fixed ropes and aid.

Two days later, Laurie Skreslet, Eckhard Grassman and Mike Lailey finished the route, after only five days, free climbing all, but five metres. Polar Circus was the end of an era, the big, aesthetic routes had all been climbed. In 1982, cutting-edge climber John Lauchlan was killed in an avalanche attempting to solo Polar Circus.

In 1988, Barry Blanchard soloed the route. “I had soloed a number of waterfalls in the last month and I was enjoying it,” said Blanchard.

“I loved the freedom. The constant motion, always climbing, never belaying, and never being cold. I always need the fear, but in just the right amount. I have no interest in overdosing.”

Polar Circus

The final pitch is the steepest and most sustained, so be sure to get there with a lot of light left in the day. Most climbers require a full day to get up and down Polar Circus.

For gear, take a lot of screws of varying lengths, depending on the time of year. Two 60-metre ropes will get you down quickly, but many climbers bring 70s.

Polar Circus is one of the most classic ice climbs in the world and should be on every ice climbers tick-list.

Avalanches

Avalanches are a threat on Polar Circus, so be sure to check Avalanche Canada here before heading out. If you’re new to ice climbing, then read Ice Climbing for Beginners: Avalanche Beacons and Recco Tech.

All ice climbers heading to avalanche country should carry beacons, or at the very least have Recco on them.

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