Mountain Season Arrived, and How!

My trip to Banff was planned with many stunning, wild, and booty-busting hikes in mind, but nonetheless hikes that an averagely fit person could handle, given enough time. Somehow it ended with a hike that is currently in my top three most difficult summits.

I had no plans to do a big peak in Banff since my travel partner, Alex, wasn’t interested, but after I got to town halfway through my trip (after camping along the Icefields Parkway the first three nights) and spent so much time staring at them, I started to get the bug. I also – very foolishly – almost decided not to do this hike because the summit isn’t even at 10,000 feet, so what’s the point, right? Hahaha, sometimes I’m an idiot.

Next to Cascade Mountain, Rundle is probably Banff’s best known peak. And Cascade Mountain wasn’t an option since it was still covered in snow and there were too many active grizzly sightings on the trail. There were both black bear and grizzly sightings on the Rundle trail too just days before my hike, according to AllTrails reviews, but I didn’t want that to be the deterrent. Since Alex was taking the bus back to Calgary to catch his flight Saturday morning, I decided to go for it.

I started at 6:30 AM, bear spray in hand and my 80s Spotify playlist blaring. Yes, generally I want to punch people in the face when they play music on the trail but (1) there was not another soul around and (2) with active bear sightings, I wasn’t going to be moving quietly and alone through dark forest in the early morning hours. Obviously I turned the music off as soon as I got out of treeline. I’m not an asshole.

I knocked out the first 3.7 miles in an hour and a half. Mile one had only 335 feet gain, mile two had 916, mile three had 712, and I logged around 700 in the last .7 miles. Rundle has approximately a 5,600 foot ascent, so if you’re keeping track, that leaves about 2,900 gain for the last single mile to the top. I knew I was in for a rough time. Also for those doing the math, that’s about a 55 degree angle to slog up. 

At that 3.7 mile mark, I hit the gully. Don’t try to shortcut the route by ascending this. The rocks are unstable and people have died that way. I crossed the gully and lost the trail a few times on the other side, but after scanning the trees for blazes and ribbons, I kept picking it back up. At this point, I had some distance left in the forest and although the trail was steep, it wasn’t difficult because I was still mostly on dirt trail and there were lots of roots that acted as steps.

Here’s me, happily pretending I don’t know that the summit is only .75 miles away and I have well over 2,000 feet to ascend still.  

After treeline, there’s not much of a trail but it doesn’t matter because it’s obvious where you need to go – up. Or rather, there are many trails and it’s not clear which one to take. I met a local on my way down who said “stay left both ways.” Left on the way up on the more dirt and large rock side, left on the way down on the scree so you can do a controlled slide down with your poles, “screeing” if you will. But without that advice on the way up, I was glad there was one other couple a little way above me (little in distance, like 2/10 of a mile, which meant a solid half hour ahead of me) and I could see how and where they were moving. And how often they were stopping and standing there to – as I determined later on – collect themselves and calm down before continuing.

The trail became rocky, but while very steep and VERY slow going, it wasn’t especially challenging. Then, I reached the Dragon’s Back. This is where most people turn around and go home and write an AllTrails review about how soul crushing this hike is. There is no room for error on the Dragon’s Back. It is around 15 feet wide, which may seem like a lot, but not when there is a deadly drop off on either side. You traverse slick rock covered in small pebbles to cross the Dragon’s Back. Do not ever do this with precipitation. Also, the Dragon’s Back is long. It’s not like a 20 harrowing steps and you’re done. It keeps going and going and going. Anyone with the slightest fear of heights should not do this. On my return trip I encountered several groups heading back down the mountain who cited this as their turn around point.

But if you know me, you know I like the uphill. I’m fine with it, even when it gets scary or challenging. Still, after I traversed it, I looked back and knew I was going to have a hard time getting down.

Despite the psychological intensity and difficulty of the Dragon’s Back, that still wasn’t the toughest physical part. That came over the next .4 miles or so. I hadn’t yet met the man who told me to stay left, and I started up the wrong side after the Dragon’s Back. It quickly became apparent to me that I wasn’t where I wanted to be, so I did a pretty dicey crab crawl to get to a more stable-looking route. By the way, if you do this hike, wear a helmet. Like I said, I started at 6:30 and the trail was practically deserted so it didn’t matter that I was kicking down all kinds of rocks, but by the time of my descent close to 10:30, there were at least 15 groups making the ascent and rock was flying everywhere. No one, including my dumbass self, was wearing a helmet.

Even on the “right” trail, the path up was so physically demanding that I was often stopping to catch my breath after just 20 steps. And, like I said before, steel my nerves. Though I was only in the 8,400 – 9,400 foot elevation range at that point, the combination of steepness, instability, and sliding around took its toll. At some points, I had to bear crawl up because the mountain was so steep and perilous. Although I had a much wider break zone than I did on the Dragon’s Back, the fear and real possibility of getting caught in a rock slide was terrifying.

Finally, I reached the beginning of the summit push. In normal conditions, this would have been easy. There was almost no gain left and the trail was clear, though narrow and, again, with an unforgiving drop-off. But I was so flustered and exhausted from what I had just done (plus the top was quite windy) that was I still fairly terrified all the way to the actual summit. And when I reached it, I sat down and cried out loud with relief…and a whole fucking lot of pride. And some severe dread of the descent.

In case you’re curious, that last mile from the gully took me 2 hours and 23 minutes. Yes, for one mile. That’s how intense it was. Coming back down, as you can imagine, wasn’t much faster and I used my butt and hands a lot on the most dangerous parts, though I did get some almost fun “screeing” in, which I don’t recommend if you don’t have poles. You shouldn’t do any of this hike without poles.

If you read this whole post, you probably aren’t surprised now that it is in my top three most difficult mountain treks. But they are all difficult for different reasons and don’t have a priority order. Shasta was 2,000 feet more gain than this and the slog up unstable rock lasted far, far longer. One step up, half a step sliding down. It was beyond brutal, but I never felt like I might actually die on Shasta. The route I did had plenty of give for errors. Cotopaxi was the highest I’ve ever gone and I did get altitude sickness; it was my first real alpine hike, incredibly challenging in new ways since it was on glaciers with gear I’ve never used in hiking before; and I truly thought I was going hypothermic at my turn-around point. There were some deadly dropoffs, but since I was roped to a professional guide, I was never scared about falling. I trusted him completely and just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Rundle, however, was the first hike I’ve ever done where I was so acutely aware of the infinitesimal margin of error I had for so long and real possibility of slipping up and dying. This scrambling was more physically challenging than Shasta in some ways, and mentally, this was my biggest challenge yet. But I did. And now I’m ready for more.

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