Mount Yamnuska has stared me in the face for long enough. I decided this past weekend that it was time to stand on its airy summit. But little did I know what I was in for. This demanding hike is full of surprises.
You can’t miss Yamnuska’s impressive rock face on a drive from Calgary west towards Banff National Park especially when it’s bathed in the light from the golden hour. It’s the first major mass of rock you see – and just 45 minutes from the western outskirts of Calgary. The mountain is famous in climbing circles for its multitude of routes including Blue Jeans Direct – the hardest climbing route on the wall with an impressive 5.14 rating.
Most people hike to the summit rather than climb but go prepared for some scrambling – and exposure. This is not a hike for novices or young families though both can enjoy the lower elevations of the mountain.
The 11 kilometre hike gains 900 metres (2,953 feet). Except for a few short sections, the hike is almost always going up – and very steeply at times. There are three areas that can give hikers a problem.
The first is the chimney reached after a solid hour of hiking. It’s not that difficult but it does require a few moves and a bit of muscling to make it through the narrow gap. Then there’s a mix of trail covered in scree and rock ledges to reach the real crux of the hike – a narrow exposed ledge with a bulge – made safer with chains bolted into the rock.
Many people turn back at the chains because of the exposure. Some people bring a harness and a few carabiners and clip in while others – like myself – move forward with concentration. The section is short – perhaps 50 feet long in total, and the drop-off isn’t that big – but it’s enough to be unsettling. To get through it, hold onto the chains tightly and move your feet from toe hold to toe hold. It’s entirely doable but it can be nerve-wracking for many people.
The summit is reportedly only 300 metres from the chains, but it feels much longer. A few airy steps and some more climbing will have you on top 2½ – 3 hours from leaving the parking lot. I think the worst part through here is the possibility of rockfall, and I can see the value in a helmet. One girl dislodged a medium sized rock near my husband – and a collective “ROCK” rang out, though you really don’t have much time to react.
The summit isn’t big. On a sunny weekend for a good part of the year you will be sharing it with a dozen or more hikers, and even the occasional dog. From the top you can see the initial route down through the scree – the third of what is considered to be a problem on the hike. It’s actually quite fun – if you stick to the main route. Head through the thick scree – not the pebble sized stuff that will roll your ankle in a second’s break of concentration.
The descent feels long and hot (bring two litres of water on this hike) but parts of it are a whole lot of fun – especially the final big descent down the scree field you can see from the highway. John and I have both said we’ll never look at the mountain in the same way now that we’ve been down that slope.
I always find the last kilometre at the end of a hot day the most tedious. Although it felt good to be back on an easier trail with some shade, all I wanted was a cold drink and a pair of scandals by day’s end.
What should you bring on the hike up Mt Yamnuska?
- Real hiking boots as opposed to running shoes with no tread are highly recommended.
- Gaiters would be good in the scree.
- Mountain weather can change quickly so always carry extra clothes and rain gear, even on a hot sunny day.
- Water – a minimum of two litres per person. If you take your dog bring lots for them as well.
- A helmet and harness would be optional. Helmets are less of an issue on weekdays when there are fewer people hiking.
Getting to the Yamnuska Trailhead
Drive the Trans-Canada Highway west to Exit 114 signed to Seebee. Head north on 1X to Highway 1A. Turn right (east) and follow the road about 2 kilometres to the parking lot on the north side of the highway. It is signed “Yamnuska.”
The hike up Yamnuska is more challenging than many – but it’s also fun as it offers a variety of hiking experiences. Before you go, ask yourself how you do with exposure.