Mount St. Piran: Elevation - 2649m / Rating - Easy / 12km Roundtrip / 900m Gain
Mount Whyte: Elevation - 2983m / Rating - Difficult / 14 km Roundtrip / 1270m Gain
Mount Niblock (above): Elevation - 2976m / Rating - Moderate / 13 km Roundtrip / 1260m Gain
Devil's Thumb: Elevation - 2458m / Rating - Easy / 11 km Roundtrip / 750m Gain
Also visited: Little Beehive, Big Beehive, Lake Agnes Teahouse, Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, Abbot Pass Lookout
Total Distance: ~31km / Total Elevation Gain: ~2472m / Total Time: 8 hours 26 minutes / Watch Data
Team: Brett Rayner / Jared Smith
Lake Louise is one of the most beautiful places in the Canadian Rockies. Aside from all of the tourists, the lake is surrounded by big mountains, glaciers, and stunning views. In 2016, I ran up the two mountains that flank the lake, alone (St. Piran and Fairview). I have always wanted to come back to check off Mount Whyte, and Niblock, which tower high above Lake Agnes (which sits above Lake Louise). The approach to the lake is quite easy, but the scrambling can be difficult, and any snow remaining could force you to turn around before making it to the top.
Both Jared and I had the Thursday off this week, and with one day of rest between our evening Edith run, we were ready for another long day. After completing three peaks around Castle Mountain, and the three peaks of Edith, I was looking at 10 summits for the week if all went well. The main goal was Whyte and Niblock, and anything else would be bonus.
We arrived at the parking lot around 9 am, and luckily there was still a few spots. Lake Louise is notoriously busy and sometimes you must park kilometers away, and have a long walk just to get to the lake. We did a little stretching while we discussed the plan. Jared wanted to add Mount St. Piran to the mix, which I was against at first because I had done it before, but he quickly convinced me otherwise. We decided on a long loop, hitting up both beehives, four mountain summits, and a trip to both tea houses.
We took off running, and soon we were past the hordes of people surrounding the lake, and were making our way up the Lake Agnes trail. Shortly after we turned onto the trail towards little beehive, where we met some female hikers looking for the St. Piran trail. We pointed them in the right direction, and then sped off to the beehive. The view over the Bow valley is nice, and the Lake Louise ski area is easily seen across the valley. We spent only a few minutes here to rest, before heading off towards our next objective; Mount St. Piran.
Our objectives in one photo! (every high point)
Hazy days above Lake Louise (and Mount Fairview)
The view from Little Beehive
The route up to St. Piran is very easy, and is mostly a switchback trail to the top. We caught up to pair of hikers, who thanked us again for pointing them in the right direction. The sun was beating down, drenching us in sweat as we quickly walked the last few switchbacks to the top. There would be no respite from the sun, as we would be mostly above tree line for the remainder of the day. We didn't stay for long at the top, just long enough for a quick pit stop. We were one hour and twenty minutes in, and already headed off to peak two.
Our next mission would be skirting ledges high above the amphitheater behind Lake Agnes. Although it would have been nice to head down to the lake to cool off first, we wanted to stay high, as any elevation lost would have to be regained. From the summit of St. Piran, head down towards the Niblock/Piran col, losing about 300 meters of elevation. Do not be allured by the many paths that lead down to the left, towards Lake Agnes (unless you are only doing the St. P loop). The grassy ledges that continue past the col are easy to traverse, with a few steep dirt patches being the only challenge. There was one point where it seemed we may be cliffed out by a gap between ledges, but upon further inspection found that if we hugged the cliff wall to our right there was a way around.
Upon arrival at the bottom of the waterfall and short cliff band, we took out our life straws to drink. I was running low on liquids, as we planned on drinking natural water, and filling up at the tea houses. The water was very cold and felt great as I stuck my head under, especially on this perfect (hot) bluebird day. After a short break, we began climbing up beside the waterfall. There were a few moves that felt a little exposed, but overall the scrambling was easy, and very short-lived.
Standing on the summit of Mount St. Piran looking towards Whyte and Niblock (Photo: Jared Smith)
Approaching the good scrambiling bits up to Whyte/Niblock col
Looking a little beat already (Photo: Jared Smith)
Looking up the waterfall cliff band (Photo: Jared Smith)
The moves around the waterfall were very fun!!
The Never ending rock scree commenced, and as we crested a short steep slope, a large scree bowl lay before us. Luckily there were long patches of snow, which helped expedite travel uphill (and body cooling!). Kicking steps into snow is much more fun than energy dampening treadmill rocks. The route traverses up and right towards Niblock, with many different paths spread across the bowl. We powered up towards the col between the two mountains, heading towards Whyte (left) for the last 50 meters (as that was our first objective).
When we reached the col we took a few minutes to rest, and take in the view. I had always imagined what it would be like to stand here, between these two mountains, and it did not disappoint! Many 11,000 foot peaks surround the area, and standing among them reminded me why I love suffering up mountains so much. It is great to imagine what standing on a certain ledge, or summit may be like. It is something totally different and amazing to physically be there, and that feeling is the reason I climb mountains.
Soon we were off running along the col towards Mount Whyte. The beginning is quite straightforward, as you scramble up the ridge towards a scree ledge traverse. Once across, we scrambled straight up the scree slope and into a gully. I followed some misleading cairns across the gully along a ledge and to some cliffs, so I turned around and went back. Jared was standing in the gully, and we looked up to find the easiest route. On the right side there seemed to be some small ledges that formed steps, and we started up one at a time. The gully narrows near the top and I emerged onto a sloping scree ledge, beside two bolts and some anchor slings. We didn't bring any climbing gear, and would be carefully down climbing to get back down.
Jared admires the view, with Mount Whyte behind
Running towards Mount Whyte, with Mount Niblock behind
Mount Whyte felt a little airy at times
From the top of the gully we followed the scree slope to the final summit ridge. Be sure to look back from where you came, as finding the gully again can be a little tricky. The final ridge is narrow, and we found ourselves skirting to the left on more solid ground, with our hands on top of the ridge to hang on. Finally we were standing on the precarious summit with amazing views in all directions. It had been three and a half hours since we left the car and we still had 6 more objectives to hit, so we didn't stay for long. I made the mistake of heading down the wrong ridge, which I soon realized when the climbing got difficult.
We finally got back on route and headed down, the same way we came up. We met two other scramblers who were making their way up the gully, and we stopped to let them finish as they did not have helmets (I always bring a helmet for climbs rated moderate and above, and if there will be narrow gullies or possibility of other parties). We were soon back at the col, sprinting along the flat stone path towards Niblock.
Jared examines the summit of Mount Whyte
Looking out towards Mount Niles and Daly (among others)
The route up Niblock is quite simple to follow. You can stay right on the ridge top,or you can follow scree trails that traverse below to climbers left. The last few steps take you to the very top of the ridge, hopping across broken rocks. It was amazing looking over at Mount Whyte where we had stood less than an hour before. We spent a few minutes taking photos before heading off for the fun part; running downhill!
Mount Niblock summit (can you spot Temple?)
Although the scree bowl was steep, footing was good and we made it back to the snow quite quickly. The ski running was awesome, and before we knew it we were standing with our heads under the waterfall. The allure of snacks and a drink at the tea house kept us moving, but we did stop at the back of Lake Agnes to cool off once again.
The trail around the lake is short and within minutes we were climbing the steps to the tea house. The menu was larger than expected and they only accept cash. I settled for a lemonade and chocolate chip cookie, which I ate as we headed back around the lake towards the Big Beehive.
Standing on the Whyte/Niblock col, headed for the far tip of Lake Agnes
A nice way to cool off on descent
Lake Agnes tea house menu
From the back of Lake Agnes a trail heads up to the col between Big Beehive and Devil's Thumb. There are a few switchbacks before it levels out, and the path to the left takes you to the beehive lookout. We spent only seconds at the BB, before racing back to the crossroads at the top of the switchbacks. We headed straight across and over a big log blocking the trail, now headed upwards towards Devil's Thumb.
The trail heads upwards steeply, before emerging from the trees. It then traverses climbers left along a very narrow ledge. This was great fun for running (with deadly consequences if we tripped and fell) and the view towards Mt. Victoria and the other behemoth mountains surrounding us was unreal. After the ledge, the trail turns right, up a steep dirt slope. The slope was short, and we soon found ourselves scrambling over rocks towards the top. The summit of Devil's Thumb may have been my favourite spot of the day. Behind us stood Whyte and Niblock, and the other checkpoints (past and to come) were all visible in front of us.
Running towards Devil's Thumb
Standing on Devil's Thumb overlooking Lake Louise
We still had two more spots to hit so we reluctantly left the top, heading back for the crossroad above Lake Agnes. The trail towards the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House snakes down through the trees, with signs at the junctions to guide the way. We passed many people heading back to the parking lot, and we hoped we could make it to the tea house before it closed. I had no water left, and although it was very hot we knew there would be water (and maybe lemonade) at the tea house.
As we climbed the last switchbacks the tea house finally came into view. There was a dog running around, keeping the chipmunks at bay. We ascended the stairs up to the second level of the tea house, and downed two cups of lemonade instantly. I put two more cups in my Nalgene bottle, and we went to sit outside and put our feet in the water.
There was a trail heading off further up the valley, which ends in a lookout towards Abbot Pass Hut. Jared joked that we should hit it up, and I called his bluff and said "let's do it". The lemonade had given me newfound energy, and we jogged the few kilometers to the end of the trail.
Plain of Six Glaciers tea house (Photo: Jared Smith)
Nice tan Jared (Photo: Jared Smith)
Abbot Pass Hut
After a few minutes of gawking at Mt. Lefroy and Victoria we decided it was finally time to head back to the car. We had 7 km of nice downhill trail and the goal was to run all the way back to the Chateau at Lake Louise without stopping. We passed many of the people we saw on the way up to the tea house as we tore down the trail at breakneck speeds. Within thirty minutes we arrived at the back of the lake, and I jokingly asked Jared if he wanted to do Mount Fairview. I will always say yes unless I think an idea is dangerous, but was happy when Jared said he was done for the day.
Approaching Lake Louise and the car!
We jogged the last kilometer towards the throngs of tourists, and when we arrived at the head of the lake we stopped our watches. After 8.5 hours of moving over a total of 31 kilometers we were done! We hobbled back to the car and ate some food we had stashed there.
I was so excited that we had completed all of our goals, and even more stoked that we had climbed Whyte and Niblock, mountains that had been on my to-do list for some time. It felt good to sit down in the car as my legs were feeling the 90 kilometers and 10 summits of the past week. I was looking forward to enjoying a beer (or three) when we got back to Banff!