Elevation - 2935m / Rating - Difficult / 4.65km Bike - 7.6km Hike - 4.65km Bike / (Photo: Nicolas James)
264m Gain (bike) - 1289m Gain (Hike) / Watch Data
Team: Nicolas James / Brett Rayner
When looking west from Banff there is a range of mountains standing over the Bow Valley corridor as it turns right and heads north towards Lake Louise. This is the Massive range including mountains like Bourgeau, and the great Mount Brett. Pilot Mountain is the furthest north in this range and is a formidable objective, with a scramble route approaching from behind.
When driving to or from Lake Louise this mountain always stands out, which is why I have wanted to climb it for years. I had never done a mountain rated 'Hard' from Alan Kane's scramble guide, but I felt that I had enough experience under my belt to give one a shot. I was definitely nervous but I wanted to do at least one hard scramble before it turned to winter and the season was over. My fearless friend Nick had the day off, and says yes to any of my crazy suggestions (even kilometers of bushwhacking through knee deep snow with no snowshoes!).
We arrived at the trail head at 7:30 am and prepared our bikes for the first part of the journey. We stepped over the animal gate, and started walking our bikes up the steep hill that begins the Redearth Creek fire road. Nicks bike exploded within two minutes of starting, and after a quick try at fixing it Nick opted to run the trail instead. There are some sections that are rideable, but most parts are uphill and I did a lot of walking anyways.
Just under 5 kilometers into the trail, just before a bend to the right, some pink flagging on the left marks Bob Spirko's route to the top. This ascends the second avalanche slope reached on the fire road, and we chose this route over Kane's because we didn't want to side-slope on scree higher up. After locking up my bike we started up the steep trail. It was easy to follow as the brown path was surrounded by bright green moss. I was not feeling so hot for some reason (my stomach was upset), and was a little disappointed I had to keep stopping frequently (I guess I like speed and efficiency).
The trail begins
Bike parking for the day
Steep mossy trail
The trail continues up into the woods, and will cross an open boulder field. From here it is back into the woods, and shortly after we came upon an open slope where the trail traverses left across two converging avalanche slopes. From here we continued to traverse left towards some cliffs and a tiny waterfall. The goal from here was to find an easy place to ascend a steep scree slope, and get on top of the cliff on climber's right. At the top of the scree we found a little cave where we took a minute to eat and drink some water.
Although the trail had been steep so far, nothing was difficult. There was flagging to guide us up on top of the cliffs, but once up we lost the pink flags and had to make our own way (looking back at beta we should have kept climbing to a second ledge to traverse left).
Finally we made it out into an open meadow, and if it wasn't for some clouds we would have been able to see the summit block, and difficulties to come. We heard voices from behind us, and as we climbed higher up the bowl we saw a party of three emerge from the woods. We continued to head upwards towards a rock pinnacle higher up.
The route heads up right beside the cliff
It was steep and loose at times
Nick in his den
The view towards Castle Mountain and Johnston Canyon
Steep slippery scree leading up towards the chimney
The scree slope continued to get steeper, and I opted for a route up to the left of the pinnacle. The scree was soon covered in a layer of verglas (thin ice) and it was even more challenging to ascend. My main goal was not to knock rocks onto the scramblers below me. We finally made it to the top of the slope right by the pinnacle where we stopped for another break. The big chimney loomed up another scree slope ahead of us, where the real scrambling would begin.
Steep slippery scree leading up towards the chimney
Nico gets elevated
Approaching the summit block
The group of three left before Nick and I, which was nice because we could follow their tracks through the snow (hopefully to the summit). We slowly got closer and closer to the chimney (the first hard section), until we could finally see what we were up against. The route climbs directly up the chimney, then traverses left along a very narrow ledge before heading straight up steep scree (less exposed).
The chimney had an inch or so of snow, with a ton of big rocks wedged about halfway up. It looked a little sketchy and Nick and I decided to take it one at a time. I climbed up between the walls first and soon stood below a blockage of big boulders higher than my head. It seemed the only way up was to use some of these precarious boulders to haul myself up and over (as indicated by the others footprints). I tried to wiggle a few of the lower supporting rocks to see how stable the jam was, and it seemed to be fine, so I started up.
At first I used some small foot placements on the wall to help elevate myself, and finally I grabbed the top most boulder to make the final move. I raised my left knee and jammed it into the wall, but as I put more weight onto my hands I could feel the rock moving. All of a sudden a small rock lower down dislodged, shifting the rock I was perched on, which trapped my knee against the wall. It wasn't crushing my leg, but my knee was pinned and I couldn't move it at all.
I was in a tight spot (literally) and wasn't sure if I would be able to free myself. Nick offered to help, but I didn't want to put him in a dangerous spot too. I finally found that I could push my knee upwards and as I tried to get higher my leg came free, but so did the rock. In an instant the rock went sliding down the chimney, with me riding on top. Luckily there were some good handholds on the boulder as I rode it down the chimney, landing (still on top) some 20 feet below right beside Nick.
Chimney and summit block
After taking a minute to gather myself and a quick check of the limbs, we started up the chimney again. This time it was much easier, and we made it up with no troubles. The left ledge traverse was a different story. It was covered in snow and ice, was very narrow, and a fall here would mean serious injury. We carefully made our way across, paying extra close attention to our hand placements. Once safely across we climbed scree towards the crux of the route, some short cliff bands just before the summit.
There was one more challenging spot, which was a scree gully filled with ice, over a horribly exposed cliff face. Nick forced his way directly up the gully, risking slipping all the way down. I decided to hop across some narrow scree pinnacles to the left, hoping there would be easier terrain above them. Of course as I moved to the second pinnacle, parts of the first crumbled away and I was forced to continue across a few more. I found myself stuck below a scree slope covered in ice, with no way back. The only way was up and a fall would mean certain death. As a precaution I tied some rope I had around my waist, and tossed it up to Nick above. His body belay gave me confidence and I slowly ascended the ice to his stance.
The two cliff band moves seemed rather easy compared to what we had just been through, and soon we were ascending the final scree slope towards the summit. The party of three passed us on their way down, and I jokingly mentioned that I had made the chimney easier, which they thanked me for! Finally we crested the summit ridge and the town of Banff came into view. It was cold, windy, and snowing nearby, but we had made it to the top of Pilot Mountain!
Nick keeping me safe (Photo: Nicolas James)
Nick on the summit with Mount Brett behind
Nick watching over Banff
An unbelievable feeling
Nick and Brett on the summit
Mount Ball shrouded in clouds
We spent some time taking in the view, we put on some warm layers and snapped a few photos. After my little ordeal(s) earlier I was motivated to get back down below the chimney. We slowly moved down the cliff bands, being careful not to slip on the snow. We found an easier way around the ice gully, and after some steep scree slopes were we back at the chimney. The down climb was not super difficult just slow, and we were eventually back down and taking refuge behind the pinnacle.
Some fun moves on descent (Photo: Nicolas James)
Nick makes his way back to the chimney
More steep moves on descent (Photo: Nicolas James)
Moving down the chimney with my surfing rock in the foreground (Photo: Nicolas James)
Back down the hard stuff and taking a little break
The way down follows the same route, but we opted to hang left in the meadow to walk down grassy slopes instead of the scree we came up. The descent went much quicker than the way up (I think the adrenaline rush from earlier events cured my sickness) and we soon found ourselves back at the bike (remember Nick left his bike less than 500 meters in).
As we sat along the trail preparing for the bike/run out, I heard loud breathing coming from behind us. I quickly turned around to see a giant bull moose standing in the trail about 50 feet away. I was not sure how he was able to sneak up on us, but boy was he huge and very majestic (and intimidating). I mentioned to Nick that we should move further off the trail, and just then the moose took off past us. I could feel the ground shake as he sprinted past and we watched as he then sauntered off down the trail.
We waited some time before heading off down the trail. Nick was jogging fast enough that we soon caught the moose, and we slowed down so we would not stress him out or make him think we were giving chase. Eventually he lost us, and we continued to the parking lot uneventfully.
What a lovely fall day (Photo: Nicolas James)
He was waiting for us to get the hell off the trail
Pilot is a fantastic mountain and a challenging scramble. I think with a summer ascent I would have thought differently, but with the snow and ice there really was no room for error. I recommend attempting this mountain in dry conditions because of the exposure on parts of the route. I would not recommend Pilot as your first 'hard' scramble, but if you are confident in your ability and have good routefinding skills this could be the summit for you!