Rogan’s Gully

Sunday was glorious.  It was a perfect day for climbing, with no wind and almost no clouds in the sky.  The ice was hard but not brittle, with an occasional sound of water trickling deep within but none running down the outside of the falls.  It was a long climb for the second trip of my second season of ice climbing, with some challenging spots, but Rogan’s Gully is a rewarding route not to be overlooked.

It’s easy to do so from Highway 1.  Nearby, Cascade Falls are clearly visible from a considerable distance, and to their right, another deep, dramatic rift in the mountain’s face looks like it could conceal something similar.  Maybe it does, but it isn’t Rogan’s Gully, which is barely visible to the left.  Even from the parking lot just off the Minnewanka road near the Banff emergency airfield, only the first pitch of the route is visible.

The hike in takes about 25 minutes of meandering through the woods and up the drainage from the gully.  Partway up the drainage we encountered a massive heap of avalanche debris, which was good for two reasons.

First, like Cascade Falls, Rogan’s Gully begins at the base of a large snow bowl.  It would be very dangerous to attempt this route when the slopes above it are loaded.  Their condition can easily be assessed from the highway.  Earlier in January I did see the upper parts of Mount Cascade loaded with snow, but after a long stretch of dry, warmish weather, they were fairly bare.

Secondly, the hard-packed snow covered some flatter sections of the route and made it very easy to walk on with crampons.  I especially appreciated this on the way back down…but more on that later.

The first pitch loomed dramatically above the packed snow, nearly ninety feet of well-formed, blue-tinged ice. The ice was hard enough to require solid swings of our axes and make it a challenge to place screws, but it wasn’t brittle, the way ice can become after a long stretch of very cold weather like we had at the beginning of December. The gully narrows above this, but here the sun was shining, the views of the Bow Valley were wide open, and I found this to be some of the most enjoyable climbing of the day.
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There was a bolted anchor at the top, and then came a long stretch of packed snow as the gully became narrower and narrower, with dramatic trees high on the walls on either side.
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I had the feeling we were climbing into the mountain, just as much as up. By the time we reached the first of a handful of short steps requiring the rope again, the walls were less than ten feet apart. Protruding boulders and deep, dark holes echoing with the sound of trickling water made these steps unlike anything else I’ve encountered. Once or twice I unleashed my axes and used my hands, and at least once I had to step on bare rock with my crampons. This is as close as I’ve ever come to mixed climbing. Again, these steps are provided with bolted anchors, although there’s one pair that’s close enough together that one anchor serves for both.

We continued to walk up on the packed snow, sometimes holding our axes just below the heads and using them to crawl up steeper sections. It was strenuous going and we were becoming aware that we were running out of daylight. This was not the first time that this had happened to us, and I had brought a headlamp. Earlier in the day we had seen a pair of much more experienced climbers ascending the first pitch unroped, and it’s likely that they did the shorter steps this way too. This would have saved a lot of time: it took us over four hours to get from the beginning of the climb to the ledge beneath the final pitch, with my climbing partner going first, then setting up to belay me, and then me coming up, removing any ice screws as I went. By the time we reached the small open area at the bottom of the final pitch, we were becoming aware that we were going to be making at least part of our descent in the dark.

I was also running out of steam by this point. All I’ll say about that is that my unfulfilled good intentions to get back into swimming and/or running in the new year haven’t increased my stamina one bit.

I belayed my climbing partner for the final pitch, but saved my energy for the return trip. This last stretch of some 120 feet (40 metres) is considered the most difficult part of the route, a dense blue curtain long and steep enough to be rated WI-3 rather than WI-2. Note the length: a single 60-metre rope is long enough to belay a lead climber, but won’t reach all the way to the bottom when doubled up for a two-stranded rappel from the bolted anchor at the top. Lots of accessory cord for rope retrieval would come in very handy here.

When we began downclimbing the packed snow once more, the sun was still out, but we couldn’t admire the view of Mount Rundle for long.
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The light turned cold and blue, but lingered long enough that we were past the first couple of short steps by the time it got dark enough for me to get my headlamp out. It was completely dark by the time we reached the bottom pitch—not the first time that this has happened to me. I’m not keen on rappelling in the dark, but my opinion on that is not universal. Headlamps are essential, and since it’s a bit harder to see where you’re placing your feet and therefore easier to slip, I would recommend being familiar with a friction backup knot such as the prusik.

A 60-metre rope was barely long enough for a two-stranded rappel down the last pitch onto the top of a mound of avalanche debris. Earlier in the season or after a warmer stretch, when there’s less snow accumulated at the bottom of the ice, it might not quite reach.

After blundering through the trees to the parking lot, we finished off the day with a mountain of nachos in Banff. This was one of several days over the past year when I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to see rare and unexpected sights. It began with tiny trees clinging to the sides of the gully. Then, as we raced down, regretting the need for haste, the sunset light poured over Mount Rundle like honey. The stars came out in numbers I’d nearly forgotten, and from above, the lights of the townsite were indescribably welcoming as we made our way down.

I may not have taken many reference photos, but it was exactly what I needed.

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