Day 3 of our mountain getaway included an UNEXPECTED hike on Mt. Temple – the tallest peak in Banff National Park, and the fifth tallest peak in Alberta, Canada. Let me explain…again. After two days of aggressive hiking (Mt. Bourgeau and Mt. Rundle), we decided to hike the easy Larch Valley and moderate Sentinel Pass trails. What happened next…is something that only happens in the movies…
Distance: 16 km round-trip
Elevation Gain: 5,543 feet/1,690 meters
Summit: 11,621 feet/3,543 meters
Time: 7-12 hours
Location: The trailhead for Mount Temple, Eiffel Peak, and Sentinel Pass is at the Moraine Lake parking lot. Access is by a windy paved road, 15 kilometers from the Lake Louise townsite. Follow the trail to Larch Valley/Sentinel Pass and follow the trail ascending to the right of the pass.
To the best of my knowledge, the Larch tree is the only member of the evergreen family whose needles change color and drop to the ground. This occurs every year near the third week of September. Even though we were hiking during the first week of October, we were hoping to catch a glimpse of the ‘Valley of Gold’. We left Chateau Lake Louise early and headed towards the Moraine Lake parking area for a quick photo shoot at the Moraine Lake rock-pile lookout. This lookout provides all the famous views of this pristine lake nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Although it was too early in the morning to capture the iridescent blue waters, it was still a pretty photo-op.
From the lake, you walk just a short distance past the cottages to get to the trailhead. We arrived at the trailhead at 8:40, only to discover that to avoid Grizzly encounters, Parks Canada has a mandatory ‘hiking in groups of 4 or more’ sign posted. There was an older, single gentleman waiting patiently for others to arrive. We talked briefly, discovering that he also lived in Calgary, and that he simply wanted to hike up to see the Larch trees. 1 down, 1 to go! We waited for another ten minutes, and a group of three young men walked up and stated that they would like to rock climb on “Grand Sentinel” – a large rock spire just beyond Sentinel Pass. Looks like we’re ready! The five us began our hike right at 9:00 am.
We hike steadily through forest and past babbling brooks to a long series of nicely graded switchbacks. After about 45 minutes or so, we enter the gentle slopes of Larch Valley. We eventually come to the trail junction of Eiffel Lake or Larch Valley, and we take the right fork towards Larch Valley. Within half a kilometer we pop out of the forest and into Larch Valley! Although we are not surrounded by golden magic…we do see evidence that the phenomenon exists! Some of the trees are now bare, but there are a few lingering golden pines, which make us happy.
We stand in awe as we are officially surrounded by majestic snow-capped and glaciated mountains. The majestic peaks humble us as we reach the end of the tree line. The first gentleman states that this was his final destination, and he will now wait to travel back with another group. The three young men are anxious to pull ahead, so they do! The hubby and I are now alone. We have noticed multiple groups within Larch Valley that are now traveling in twos and threes…so we are not worried. We forge ahead – through the meadow, past a tarn, past a beautiful small lake – towards Sentinel Pass.
As we pass the lake and look ahead…we see a zig-zag pattern in the distance. These are the switchbacks of Sentinel Pass! The easy part of the trail is now over.
The switchbacks are not difficult, but a bit icy in parts. The trail is pretty well-defined, and the loose rock is not dangerous. The views from climbing the steep switchbacks to get to the top of Sentinel Pass alternate with each turn between Pinnacle Mountain towering on the left and Mount Temple towering on the right. Once we reach the top, we realize that the ridge is only about 10-15 feet (3-5 meters) wide. There is a half-circle of rocks which I imagine would be quite useful to block the winds while eating lunch. We notice a couple coming up quickly behind us, and due to the lack of space around us, we quickly eat some food so that we can get out of their way. We debate briefly if we should continue on, towards Paradise Valley and complete a long loop back to Moraine Lake, or if we should turn around and hike back down.
As we were reading our map, trying to decide the best path forward, the couple joined us. Even though the hubby and I were in layers, the girl was wearing tights, and her jacket was tied around her waist, and the guy was wearing a t-shirt…and had a “Happy Face” balloon tied to his backpack. They were young, talkative, and excited to climb Mt. Temple. Their excitement was contagious – and soon we were agreeing to join them on their hike up Mt. Temple. Why not?! We were already halfway there…
Little did I know just how difficult this hike would be for me. From the HikeBuzz website, the stats to Sentinel Pass: 6km, 723 meters elevation gain, average grade is 12%. From there to the summit of Mount Temple: 2km, 979 meters elevation gain, average grade is 47%. I pushed my boundaries…to the point that I was questioning what the hell I was even doing?!
The route up from the pass was pretty straightforward initially, with a well-defined path cut into the side of the mountain. Even though the trail was snow-covered, there were footprints leading the way. We ascended the first cliff band without too much trouble. But as steepness increased, the trail was less and less defined, and at the second set of cliffs (at about the 9,900 ft level) I was starting to get uncomfortable with the difficulty of the scrambling and the loose rock. Every time I had to “hike my leg up” I would look to my hubby above me for reassurance that I could do it. He would grin and nod his head, and say, come on – you can do this! As we traversed one of the gullies however, the loose rock began to slip beneath me, and I slid for about five feet. Not very far when I write it down…but believe me when I say it’s terrifying when you are vertically sliding down a cliff face and can’t look below you to see where you can stop. I was frantically clawing at any rock jutting out, and digging my gloves through the rubble and into the clay – anything for traction. I scraped my knees and shins pretty bad on the slide – but my adrenaline was coursing through my veins so I felt nothing at the time.
I am sure I was white-faced and wide-eyed as I looked up at my hubby and mouthed…I’m not sure about this… He said, take a breath, take your time, you can do this. And so I climbed up again. Once we reached some rocky steps, we hopped along to the top, and over to the small ridge where we could sit and eat. I was petrified at the 1-square-foot space I was allotted to crouch down on. I refused to eat anything…and I barely talked. The couple was having a blast…talking about all the climbs they’ve done and how this mountain was on their bucket list. The hubby was also in full-on adrenaline junkie mode and loving every minute. I wanted to enjoy it….but I think my risk-tolerance has dwindled slightly with age. After a good 20 minutes of swapping hiking stories and debating on the path ahead, we stood up and side-stepped onward beyond the ledge and into another rocky cliff face.
We gingerly climbed on…and the path got steeper and steeper. There were a few parts that weren’t that bad, that actually felt like we were “just hiking” – but then that section would suddenly end and we were facing another climb. At this point, I found that I was literally shaking. Which surprises me so much. I’m not afraid of heights…I love hiking…I love trying new things…and I love adventures. But I think that first initial slide just jolted something in me…and I couldn’t let go of that negative thought in my head…what if I fell? About 20 minutes later…Mr. Happy the balloon suddenly snapped off….and floated away. We all watched sadly as he was whipped around the cliff face. We pushed forward for about another 30 minutes (or what felt like an hour!), before reaching a vertical rock face – called a crux. This was the most difficult part of the hike, in terms of scrambling, and was certainly harder than I had expected. The hubby climbed up ahead of me – and when he was at the top, he leaned over and said, that was tough. I placed my foot in a crevice, looked up at him, and said I didn’t know if I could do it. He looked down at me, and I think for the first time saw that I was…just…done. There was no way around it. I literally did not have the upper arm strength to pull myself up. I could go no further. And although a tiny piece of me was relieved – I was mostly disappointed. I was angry and sad. And tears welled up in my eyes. The hubby slid back down – grabbed my hands – and said…turn around and look how far you made it. I would have kissed him…if I could move. He made me calm down and take a picture and the snow started to drift down around us. I have a huge fake smile plastered to my face…but he was right…we did come SO FAR. We yelled up to the couple that I was done for the day…and wished them luck on their quest to reach the summit. And we never saw them again.
We took a couple of “proof I was here” pics, and headed back down. Only we were greeted by a snow storm! The mountains across the way were completely obliterated by the sudden whiteout, and Larch Valley was covered in a blanket of white. The wind whipped up the snow around us and our faces were pelted with hardened flurries. We hastily climbed, slid, and hopped back down the scree slopes. Ok…the hubby mainly climbed and hopped while I just plain slid down! But by the time we reached Sentinel Pass and began the descent on the switchbacks, the sky began to clear again. I was starting to feel pretty excited with our accomplishment…but kept lamenting on the fact that “the chick made it look so easy!” That is when the hubby turned to me and said, “You do realize that they were experienced climbers. And eight years younger than us.” Eight years?! A) That makes me feel old – but B) That makes me feel AWESOME that I kept up with an experienced climber! And all was well again.
As I was literally shaking with fear for half the hike, I didn’t even think about taking pictures along the way!!! Below is a collage of pics that I gathered from Google that chronicle what we experienced along the Mt. Temple hike. Enjoy!
- This was the first part of the trail after Sentinel Pass. The end of the red line is where we stopped to eat lunch.
- This was right after lunch…we were literally hugging cliff walls in spots…
- Imagine this in ice and snow…there were parts so steep that I was literally climbing up on my hands and knees!
- There were multiple rock sections, which provided excellent hand and foot holds. The downside is that they were very slick in the ice.
- This is a typical view looking up as you are climbing…I literally had to “run and hop” to somewhat horizontal sections to hold my footing.
- This was the first vertical climb section…which I was able to complete…even it it felt like an hour to get up…the group was patient.
- Another fairly easy section of climbing…but again…parts were slick with ice, and with up to a foot of snow, you had to be careful where you placed your feet to make sure there was something solid beneath you!
- This was the exact spot where I could go no further! I was just too weak in the arms to pull myself up this vertical wall. Motivation for weight training, right?!
- This is what the trail coming down looks like.
And…even though I could go no further, I found the pic below (yellow star marks the spot) which shows just how close we were to reaching the summit. The hubby made it to the top of the rock right above the “6” in the bottom pic below.
Let me just say…the trail coming back down was MUCH easier for me! I realized that the fear of steepness and falling into oblivion I had on the way up…was not reciprocated on the way down. Perhaps because I could see ahead of me…or perhaps because I felt the worst was behind me… The rest of the hike back was quiet, and we only passed a few people along the way. By the time we reached Moraine Lake at 4 pm, the skies were cloudy, but the weather was good again. Now it was time to go back and assess the bruises.
I’ve been asked if I would I ever do this hike again? You betcha! But only in the summer.
Overall, our estimated 12-14 km hike took us a total of 7 hours.