Elevation - 2998m / Rating - Easy / 18km Roundtrip / 1600m Gain
Team: Roland Eksteins / Steve Henderson / Olivier Roy Martin / Brett Rayner
After climbing Mount Rundle the previous weekend, Steve, Olivier, and I were interested in more! For this weekends adventure we were joined by my new roomie Roland, and our objective was Cascade. Cascade is another iconic Banff mountain, and stands tall above Banff Avenue (the main strip). This beast is almost 3000 meters high, yet has a relatively easy route to the summit.
The weather was calling for low clouds and a possibility of rain, but we decided to make an attempt anyways. Hopefully we would be able to avoid any precipitation, and make it to the top. If anything we could stop at Cascade Amphitheater along the way, and make a decision from there. It was quite chilly as we hopped into the car to make the 8.5km drive to the Mount Norquay ski area parking. We could not see the mountain through the clouds, but it did not seem like it was going to rain.
The trail to Cascade starts along the bottom of the ski runs. You hike all the way out to the Mystic Express chair, and follow a trail leading right, into the woods towards Cascade amphitheater. Once in the woods the trail heads downhill, towards a bridge across 40 mile creek. The trail now starts uphill, and is rather steep in some sections. After about 20-30 minutes, there is a fork in the trail, and you head right, up switchbacks towards the amphitheater. All of the trees and trail may seem boring to some, but it can be quite peaceful, and leads to much better views.
Once the switchbacks end and the trail levels out, you have two options. There will be a junction with a left hand bend in the trail, with a trail heading right (log arrow) up a ridge. This is the direct route to the top, which bi-passes the amphitheater. We choose to continue left, and soon emerged into the amphitheater. We still could not see more than a hundred or so feet, but the fog on the landscape made for some great photos.
Trail to Cascade Amphitheater
Bridge over 40 mile creek
Fork in the trail
Entrance to Cascade Amphitheater
Walk along a path on the right side of the amphitheater, passing in and out of the trees. There are many trails that lead uphill to the right, and any will do. We headed quite far into the meadow, and took a trail that doubled back and got steeper before going into the trees. The main goal is to reach the top of the ridge, and then head left. There are many options for trails to take, but if the view is clear, the left edge is best! The trees will start to dwindle, and a good trail leads through some larch trees towards the start of the rocks.
Out of the trees and still no view (Photo - Roland Eksteins)
The Larches are beautiful this time of year (Photo - Roland Eksteins)
There is a hard transition from dirt to rocks, and route finding is easy. The trail traverses right and up a big slope, and there is no need to climb to the top, as it is the first (of many) false summit. Large cairns (rock piles) show the way. Many sections involve rock hopping on big, loose rocks. We delicately place our weight on the precariously piled rocks, which shift quite often. This type of terrain is notorious for ankle or foot injuries.
We emerged above the clouds as we came to the top of the first rocky section. Behind us the view opened up to reveal jagged mountains piercing the low cloud ceiling. The trail zig-zags up a grassy slope, with a slight plateau at the top where we took a short break.
From here, head straight up the next slabby rock section, looking to the right for an easy way down a short cliff band. Climb all the way to the top for a very short, easy step down. From here it is important to keep right again, as climbing to the top of the next rock section will cliff you out, and you will have to backtrack. Once down the second step, you are aiming up and right towards a slab amongst the scree. There are a few trails that lead up to the slab, and once across there is one wide trail to follow, heading climbers right around the false summit.
We could only see far enough to spot the next cairn (Photo - Roland Eksteins)
This one is for you MOM!
The steep Diamond (NE) face of Mount Louis
Mount Rundle across the town of Banff
Roland looks across the amphitheater, with the treed ridge we came up just visible
As you round the corner, Banff will appear below (if you are not in the clouds) and the view down the Bow valley is incredible. The cloud cover was spotty, and some views below opened up from time to time. We were more focused on the next task at hand: The false summit traverse.
The traverse consists of three sections of narrow scree path, on steep rocky ledges. There is much exposure below, and at times you walk directly beside huge drop offs. Those without a fear of heights will find the walking easy, if the ledge is dry, and there is no overhanging snow above on the false summit. Luckily this section can be seen from town, and should be observed carefully before making an attempt. We knew from the week before that any snow from early season snowfalls had melted, and the rock was dry.
A small cornice remained at the col between the false summit, and true summit ridge. There is a small step down, and then the climb up the final slopes begin. 200 meters of elevation are left to gain, which starts with short, steep switchbacks in the scree.
Traversing below the false summit
Looking down from midway along the traverse
Cascade amphitheater and the ascent ridge (Photo - Roland Eksteins)
Ascending the final scree slopes to the summit
The angle of the slope grows steeper near the summit, and some small rock steps guard the top. On a clear day the view is unimaginable. There are hundreds of peaks in every direction that you look. Lake Minnewanka snakes out to the northeast, and the transition from mountains to prairie in the east is incredible (speaking from subsequent excursions).
We sat on the summit, surrounded completely by clouds, waiting for the sky to open up, and the amazing views to reveal themselves. This did not happen, but we could clearly hear the announcer from the Mel's road race over the loudspeakers. I enjoyed a beer and a quick snack while staring off into the nothing. Even though we had no view, I was elated to be sitting on the pointy summit that everyone stares at as they walk down Banff avenue. We stayed for thirty minutes, then packed up our stuff and headed down.
Sitting on the summit, grinning at nothing because visibility is zero (Photo - Roland Eksteins)
Steve in the clouds (Photo - Roland Eksteins)
The best way back home is the exact way you came up. The Parks Canada pamphlet about Cascade talks of numerous mishaps where parties get lost on descent, or try to take shortcuts down steep, loose rubble slopes. I highly suggest stopping every so often, and looking back to take a mental (or real) picture of where you came from. We descended through the clouds, retracing every step we made. Lower down visibility improved, and the sky cleared, making for a beautiful fall afternoon. We stopped at the amphitheatre once more, to take in the incredible view, and had a snack (Steve ate a whole box of granola bars).
The switchbacks down to the valley seemed to go on forever, and roughly an hour after leaving the amphitheatre, we were crossing the bridge over 40 mile creek. The uphill back to the ski area is a nice relief from the knee-pounding descent. We emerged out of the trees by Mystic chair, and hiked back to the parking lot as light dwindled. Ten hours had elapsed since our departure, and we all felt pretty beat.
Norquay ski area
A beautiful shot of the ascent ridge from Cascade amphitheater (Photo - Roland Eksteins)
This trip was amazing for me, not only because it was my second big peak within a week, but because I learned some great lessons. We did not have any misadventures on this outing, but the differing conditions from our previous mountain (mainly the weather) brought about some great tips.
Firstly, you can still have fun scrambling when the weather isn't ideal, and the views are minimal. It is about the journey, and spending time with friends outside. Not to mention the physical (and mental) benefits of ascending mountains!
Weather can change quickly and without warning in the mountains. It is very easy to get lost when visibility is reduced, and GPS devices cannot always be relied upon for navigation.
The dangers inherent in mountain climbing are not reduced by proximity to civilization. Rescue helicopters don't fly in cloudy, stormy, or windy weather conditions, and they also don't fly at night. Just because they are close by, does not mean they are coming. It takes a long time for a rescue team to hike up with their gear, so it is better to be prepared. You should have materials to build a shelter, and enough extra food to survive a few days. Warm layers are also important at this time of year, as you can get cold when you stop moving, especially at night. It sucks when you are wearing every piece of clothing you currently have, and are still cold.
Most importantly, the main objective is getting home safely. The summit is the desired destination, but should never impair your decision making. Do not keep going up if weather is deteriorating. Set a hard turn around time so you can make it back down any tough sections well before dark. Carry a headlamp or torch, and spare batteries for late returns. Always tell someone where you are going, and when they should expect you to return. Check in when you get back.