The basics - rock formations
Climbers familiar with the Canadian Rockies of Banff and Jasper national parks will find a gentler but still rewarding experience in Waterton Lakes National Park.
The largely sedimentary rock is older and more weathered, and combined with the warmer and wetter climate, creates conditions more suited to the experienced scrambler.
Big cliff faces, composed mostly of billion-year-old sedimentary limestones, dolomites, and red/green argillites, are usually full of fractured smaller cliffs and scree-covered ledges. Protection is often insecure or non-existent, and rockfall is a continuous hazard.
More solid, cliff-forming rock may be found in several locations. A greenish-black band of diorite, of igneous origin, can be seen on many faces. Unfortunately, this band averages only 30 metres thickness, and is always sandwiched between layers of pale and rotten quartzite. As well, there are noticeable outcrops of an ancient fossilized algal reef, now turned into sharp, pocketed and fairly solid limestone of up to 20 meters thickness.
Traditional climbing routes and activity are concentrated on the limestone and dolomite cliffs of the Bear's Hump, a stone's throw from Waterton's townsite. Multi-pitch climbs to mid-grade difficulty are found on the south-facing cliff, and are often dry and climbable by April. Most routes end at the busy summer viewpoint, and climbers often use the Bear's Hump trail for their descent. Be aware that wood ticks also love this warm south face in the springtime!
Sport climbing routes have not been developed to any extent in the park.
Scrambling, or more accurately “easy mountaineering”, is easily the most popular climbing activity in Waterton Lakes National Park. Several popular scrambling peaks include Galwey, Crandell, and the highest peak in the park, Mt. Blakiston.
South-facing scramble routes often come into shape early in May, although snow fields may be found on many routes well into the summer. Scramblers, like anyone travelling in mountainous terrain, should do their homework carefully, and carry emergency equipment and supplies. Mistakes in route selection, or an unexpected change in the weather, can turn a pleasant outing into a terrifying, life-threatening experience.
Several waterfall ice climbs normally fill-in by late November, and are climbable into the early spring. Warm temperatures and frequent chinooks can make the ice quality questionable, and it is not unusual for climbs to melt out or fall, then reform several times in a season. Most popular routes normally have little or no avalanche danger affecting them.
Camping and bivouacing
Camping regulations and permits are explained in our backcountry camping page. Most climbs in Waterton are easily completed in a day, and given the small area of the park, camping outside of designated backcountry campsites is not encouraged. Climbers may be permitted to bivouac on long routes or as necessary to safely complete a climb, however a wilderness camping permit is required, and some restrictions will apply.
Set up a check-in
If you are planning an activity that may be hazardous (e.g. mountain or rock climbing, or hiking alone), set up a check-in with a reliable friend or family member. Provide them with a detailed trip plan and the time you plan to return. Ensure they know who to contact in the event you don't check in at the designated time.
In the case of an emergency call 911.
Comprehensive rescue services are provided for visitors to the national parks. However, climbers should plan on being self-reliant and remember that rescue assistance may not always be immediately available, especially during the winter months. Rescue costs are normally recovered from the fees paid by visitors upon entry.
A number of guidebooks and on-line information sources are available, covering rock climbing, scrambling, waterfall ice climbing and ski touring. Topographic maps of the park are available for purchase at the visitor centre during the summer months.
Check the park's weather forecast, current trail conditions and warnings or closures or visit our Visitor Centre. Specific mountaineering inquiries and route conditions (if available) can be directed to the visitor safety technicians, by contacting the park.
Visitor safety technicians produce a regular Avalanche Bulletin for Waterton Lakes National Park from December 1 to April 15. Visitors should be aware that periods of avalanche hazard may still exist in Waterton Lakes National Park outside of the regular winter season.
Leave no trace
All backcountry travellers are encouraged to use low impact techniques, particularly in alpine areas. Fragile wet meadows and streamsides are especially vulnerable to trampling and informal trail creation. More durable surfaces such as rock, snow or gravel are preferred where possible. Travelling with a smaller group is safer, and creates less impact to vegetation, wildlife and other users. Scree descents can be fun, but may leave a highly visible track, and can accelerate erosion. Please consider the impact of your actions on the environment and other users.