Hiking // Banff National Park // Big Sister Mountain

BigSister

Hello friends!  Our second hike during our mini-getaway to the mountains was a huge success!  We chose the Big Sister hike for a couple of reasons: 1) The 3 Sisters are the famous backdrop for the town of Canmore; 2) We were staying in Canmore and wanted a local hike; and 3) We wanted a peak that was not still snow-capped in mid-June.  To be honest, our first choice was Cascade Mountain (Banff), but I had read that it’s a very difficult climb if there is snow at the summit…and when we were in Banff on Friday night, we saw snow.  From left to right below (and in order of increasing height): Little Sister (Charity Peak), Middle Sister (Hope Peak) and Big Sister (Faith Peak).

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Little, Middle, Big Sisters – Banff National Park – Canmore, Alberta

Big Sister trail info (via: TrailPeak.com)

Difficulty: Difficult
Distance:  13 km roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 4,167 ft / 1,270 m
Summit: 9,633 ft / 2,936 m
Time: 8-10 hours
Location: The road from the Bow River bridge takes you past the Canmore Nordic Centre and onto the Spray Lakes road (packed gravel).  The Big Sister parking area is a left-hand turn just as you hit the Spray Lakes dam.

We actually got a VERY late start on this hike, because of poor planning.  As I mentioned above, we were initially wanting to hike Cascade Mountain.  When we found out there was snow on the summit, we researched other options in the Canmore area, and came up with Middle Sister.  We left the hotel that morning just after 8 AM, thinking we could get everything ready to hit the trail by 8:30 AM.  But…we could not find the trail head!!! We followed some online resources which said to go near the golf course…but we were redirected to another parallel road…but there was construction on that road….so they diverted us to another parallel road…which was also construction.  We almost got frustrated enough to call it quits, but then pulled out the book and read up on Big Sister.  (FYI – Little Sister is considered a ‘technical climb’, so it was out of the picture.)  So we drove back towards town, past the Nordic Centre, and along Spray Lakes road.  It was there that we couldn’t find where to go.  You see, in Banff, most of the trails are marked with trail heads.  In Canmore, there are just road pull-offs and a visible trail heading up and into the woods.  We had limited phone service, so trying to look up other blogger reviews of where to start was nearly impossible.  We actually drove up to where we needed to be, but didn’t see any signs or indications that it was the right trail, so we continued on.  Then we finally hit cell service and looked it up again, and saw that we needed to be near dam….so we turned around and went back in the other direction.  Only to find out that the first place we had stopped was correct!!!  By this time, there was one other vehicle in the car, so we thought…why not try this trail?  It was 10:04 AM when we finally started.

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Unlike the Little and Middle Sisters which are ascended from the Bow Valley near Canmore, the Big Sister is ascended from the Spray Lakes valley – an approach from the back of the mountain.  As you can see below, Big Sister looks quite different from the trailhead at Three Sisters dam.  From the small parking area, an obvious trail angles up the center (facing a visible summit) before descending into a rock gully on the left. Eventually, this gully merges with the skyline ridge which is followed all the way to the summit.  But you do not follow the gully; instead, you cross gully and enter the forest.

BigSisStart

Although well-defined, the trail up through the woods is STEEP.  So steep that you are instantly sweating!!!  We initially started the climb in long-sleeves and hiking pants, but shed the pants for shorts literally within the first 15 minutes.

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We came across many unique rock and tree structures…they made for pleasant distractions through the forest.
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There are only a handful of places, mainly along the switchbacks, where you can take a breather on “flat” ground – flat meaning a foot or two of even ground vs. incline.  I took a few pics looking back along Spray Lakes, the reservoir, Goat Pond, and the mountains across the way.

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After a relentless uphill forested climb, we finally reached a small plateau – a pleasant little grassy knoll.  This was a perfect spot to stage take a few pics, change back into pants, and grab some munchies before the next part of the climb.
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The trail rises steeply through the trees until you reach open slabs.  Just before the first downclimb, the trail becomes obscure and options appear.  There is one immediate climb – straight up the steep, solid rock face, and another one slightly further up, and to the right.  The hubby climbed the rock face; I headed to the right, and used a tree trunk or two to leverage myself up.  There is yet another option a little further up and around the trail, although we did not see it until we were on way back down. You then continue up the ridge until right before the route curves to the right a bit.  From here, there is a steep slabby terrain on the right, or a 5-ft. high “bump” on the ridge to the left.  Although I was a bit nervous to climb the bump, the hubby went first, then reached down and took my pack, and helped me up the bump.  After that is an immediate down-climb, which was a bit steep, but had sufficient hand and foot holds.  Eventually the gully and ridge merge and the ascent angle relents, somewhat.  From there, we just headed up the slabs and just picked our way up.  The rocks were dry, so our rubber soles stuck to them quite nicely!

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Although I did not take any pictures while we were climbing, this is where we downclimbed from the backbone (first downclimb). There are other spots to go down as well – I think you just pick the route which feels right to you.  Following that, there is nothing but rubble, scree, slabs, then scree on slab…

photo via: Digital Diary

photo via: Digital Diary

photo via: Digital Diary

photo via: Digital Diary

And if you read the trail notes in the book (Alan Kane’s Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies), then you know that somewhere along the way there is an epic downclimb.  It’s between 10 and 15 meters – and literally straight down.  But it’s a FUN climb!!!  There are lots of footholds and places to climb, and even ledges large enough to stand with both feet.  The hubby had climbed down first, to see if I could make it…when we encountered the only two other hikes on the mountain that day.  They were on their way back down, so I knew we were THIS CLOSE…  I just had to make the downclimb.  I made my way down while the hubby talked to the other two guys…they were experienced climbers, and telling us the best way to navigate the left side of the famous pinnacle.  This was the very last step before the summit.  The potential problem, however, was the thin line of snow packed along our trail.  Needless to say, I didn’t take any pictures during this time, as I was way more concentrated on staying safe.  I found the next few pics via other blogs, so you will have to envision the snow patch we had to navigate.  The guys told us to closely hug the wall, and avoid the snow as much as possible (as there was nothing but ice covering the loose rock below it).  Then it was an “easy” few more steps beyond to the summit.  They were right…the summit was the easiest part of the whole climb!!!

pics via: On-Top.ca

Left is looking straight down the downclimb – middle is at the bottom looking at the climb – right is looking straight down at a climber coming up!  (pics via: On-Top.ca)

pics via: On-Top.ca

Left is view looking back as climbing the pinnacle (imagine the snow under her feet) – Right is view looking up at the path on the left of the pinnacle (pics via: On-Top.ca)

And then…we were upon the summit!  Fog hung thick all around us…embracing us in its white curls around the summit…struggling to clear…so that I caught only glimpses of the towns below.  There was no long-range view of the bow valley, of the teal waters…only the fog…and the edges of the surrounding mountains darkly jutting out above the fog…a few peaks breaking their ranks.  There was nothing to stare out at.  The fog returned our stares like blindness.  The air was cold….bone-chilling cold…making us shiver with each deep breath.  The rock bed stood up to our ankles, and up to our knees in places, so that we were standing in a miniature fortress – protected from the wind.  We felt so alive….alone on the top…the smell of fresh mountain air…the towns invisible below.  Everything was still, apart from the softly falling snowflakes.

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Here is a quick peek from the summit!

After checking out the summit register and hanging out for about 10-15 minutes, we decided to head back down.  It was 3:09 PM.  A full 5 hour climb to the top meant between 3 and 4 hours for the climb back down, putting us near, if not past, 7 PM upon our return.  Then we had a 1.5 mile drive back to Calgary.

After renegotiating the pinnacle section we climbed the crux and made for the scree slopes. We quickly lost elevation but as the scree became bigger and more slabby my enthusiasm for it waned.  The tricky part was to not kick down too many rocks (and it proved to be a bit of a challenge to keep them on the mountain!) because the hubby was ahead of me and I didn’t want to cause a rock slide in his direction. The terrain was full of loose slab and there was a tendency for them to shed large chunks of rock onto the slopes below them…so needless to say, I kept my distance for a bit.  When our legs felt like jello, we made for a break in the cliffs and went back to the slabs that we had climbed up on.  Although we may have looked like mountain crabs on the way down – legs and arms splayed to keep us low…it definitely felt safer than the large, loose, chunky rock slabs!

Somehow we wandered onto a different trail than the ascent trail.  Three times.  We were supposed to be on top of the cliff…but didn’t see the original downclimb we used on the way up.  We found another way, which still worked.  And then we couldn’t find the trail where we had crossed the gully…because we were somehow already on the original side (we crossed over too early).  And finally, once we hit the forest trail, we were yet again on an unfamiliar descent.  We went a few meters, and immediately did not recognize (or feel safe) on the path we were on….so we shimmied over to the cliff wall…found a place to climb up, and were magically standing feet away from the trail that led to the grassy knoll.  Whew…close call.  From there, it was all steep descent through the forest.  The rain came and went, multiple times, and with about 30 minutes until the rock gully, we finally pulled out our rain jackets and backpack covers to try to keep us dry.  We were SO VERY THANKFUL that we were no longer up on the scree or slabs when the rain came.  And before we knew it….we were back at the rock gully.  We crossed over, through the short meadow, and back down to the car.  I don’t have the official stop time, because we were too focused on trying to get our wet gear into bags in the truck, and change out of our wet, and now muddy, pants and shoes, but I know we got back to the car somewhere around 7 PM, because it was just before 8:30 PM when we arrived home.

So overall, a super challenging 13 KM in 9 hours!

Have you ever climbed a mountain?

Jen

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5 thoughts on “Hiking // Banff National Park // Big Sister Mountain

  1. So pretty! LOVE that summit video! You have me seriously wanting to book a trip to Banff now. I think I’d even tolerate that scary straight down part of the hike back down for those views. (I am a terrible hiker down mountains–takes me forever and it kills my knees.) Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos!

    • Hey lady! Thanks for the note! You would LOVE Banff 🙂 And agreed…I have no idea why the downhill part of the hike feels so much harder (and achier on the knees!)…but the summit views make it all worth it! The hubby has randomly started taking a short video at each summit (from this summer), so I think it will be fun to look back on down the road. Have a good day! xoxo

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