Friday, July 22, 2016

5 Summit Day in Canmore (Kid-Friendly)

Hundreds of people climb up the popular Ha Ling Peak Trail in the nearby town of Canmore each day in the summer. Meanwhile, only a handful (if that) will tackle the connecting summit, Miner's Peak. Both summits share the same ascent trail, arrive at the same saddle (a low point between the two summits,) and are close enough to one another that it isn't hard to hike up both. From Miner's Peak, you can go on to climb up and over another three small summits on an un-named peak next door (referred to as the Three Humps.) The result - 5 summits in one day with roughly 800 metres of height gain.

Hiking up towards Miner's Peak (left) with the Three Humps to the right

I met up with a large group of families this summer for our annual Ha Ling to Miner's Peak Traverse. It was a great outing to do with a group because there were various end points depending on ability, age of children, energy, and general interest. Some moms carrying babes or hiking with children new to "scrambling" chose to make it to the ridge or saddle, and then stopped here. The views are still amazing at this point and it was a good end point for many.

Most of our group at the beginning of the trip

My son and I headed up Ha Ling Peak with one other teenager while the others waited below and had snacks/lunch. Then many of us headed up the easier Miner's Peak while some chose to go down at this point. Having tackled Miner's Peak, some again chose to descend or hang out to rest, while my son and I continued on to tackle the Three Humps with another family.

Resting at the saddle overlooking Canmore before heading up Ha Ling Peak (behind the boys in this photo)

In all, it was a great trip for a variety of experience levels. Last summer my son and I did four of the summits (skipping Ha Ling, the largest one) when he was six years old but this year at seven, we were determined to do all five summits. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to reach so many peaks in one day and we thoroughly enjoyed the outing.

Descending Miner's Peak with the Three Humps to the Left and Ha Ling Peak to the Right

Trailhead to the Ridge

Hiking up to the Ridge

You'll start at the Goat Creek Parking Lot on the Spray Lakes Road (Hwy 742 out of Canmore.) From here, you cross the highway, turn right on the gravel path, and cross over the canal on a bridge. Look for a big boulder with a plaque that says "Ha Ling, Miner's Peak Trail" in the trees to your left. This is the start of the trail and you'd be hard pressed to get lost from here on the well defined trail.

Follow the trail until you reach tree line and until things start to get very rubbly, loose under foot, and a bit sketchy for those in running shoes or sandals. I can't stress enough wearing proper footwear (hiking shoes or boots) and bringing poles for the descent on this part. I've seen many people sliding down on their bums and my son tore a huge hole in his shorts on this section coming down.

Also recommended for the hike down - bike gloves! Every time a child (or adult) falls down, it's the hands that go down first. Wear a pair of bike gloves and you'll save scratching your hands all up. I try to put my son in either long pants or longer shorts as well. The more skin covered, the better!!

Standing at the saddle or ridge top between Ha Ling and Miner's Peaks. (Miner's Peak is in the background to the left)

Ha Ling Peak Ascent

Ha Ling Peak is the first peak you'll want to do if trying for multiple peaks. It's the hardest with the most height gain so you want to get it out of the way first. Last year we made the mistake of going up Miner's Peak first. After tackling 4 summits on that side, there was no way anybody wanted to go up Ha Ling too.

My son pointing to Ha Ling Peak in the background from the saddle

As you can see from the photo above, Ha Ling Peak looks truly daunting!! It is a 3 km hike from parking lot to summit and in that distance you'll gain 737 metres of height. The trail is well switch backed up to the saddle but from here, it's just straight up the big pyramid to the summit.

Ha Ling Summit

The trail also gets a lot harder from the saddle. Inexperienced hikers will want to occasionally put a hand down to hold on to the rock and you'll find your feet skiddering out on occasion as you hike up/down loose scree. It's definitely a "scramble" at this point and a hard hike. Many people have been turned around by the final ascent, scared by all of the thin ledges, the exposure along the ridge, and the loose rock.

Canmore below us from Ha Ling Peak

Should you venture to the summit, you'll be rewarded with great views down to the Bow Valley and to Canmore. Should you choose to stay at the saddle, you'll still be on top of the ridge and will get the same view.

Needless to say (I hope) be very careful near the edge, don't let the kids run around at the summit, and use extreme caution at all moments. A fall off of the ridge would be fatal.

Back at the saddle again

Miner's Peak Ascent

If I freaked you out with my description of the Ha Ling Peak ascent, the good news is that Miner's Peak is MUCH easier. It's also more scenic (in my opinion) and there's room to have a relaxed picnic, to run around without danger of falling off of a cliff, and to let the kids play for a while. Miner's Peak is also much quieter and you have a very good chance at having the summit to yourself.

Height gain from the Ha Ling saddle to the Miner's Peak summit is only an additional 46 metres so it's pretty doable to achieve both summits in a day!

Mine's Peak is to the left (an easy walk up)  and the Three Humps are to the right (some scrambling required)

From the Ha Ling saddle, follow the ridge up to another saddle between Miner's Peak and the Three Humps. Here is your opportunity to have a proper picnic free of danger. You'll be in a lovely meadow and you'd almost expect to see sheep walking around. (so far, I never have though.)

Hiking up the ridge to the Miner's Peak saddle with the Three Humps

 The meadow in the photo below is the primary reason I like Miner's Peak better than Ha Ling Peak.

The meadow below Miner's Peak

We had six families make it up Miner's Peak (as opposed to three of us who braved Ha Ling.) This is a very rewarding and beautiful objective for those not comfortable with the exposure on the Ha Ling side.

Miner's Peak saddle with the Three Humps to the left and Ha Ling showing in the right

From the saddle, it's a fun little ridge walk to the Miner's Peak Summit. It gets a bit narrow in spots so just exercise caution, hold a hand if necessary and save your picnic/lunch for the meadow rather than spending a long time on the small summit.

Off and Running for the Miner's Peak Summit

Most children will actually enjoy Miner's Peak more than they will Ha Ling Peak. The narrow ridge is a lot of fun for kids and they will get the opportunity to try some fun kid-sized scrambling.

Fun ridge walking to the Miner's Peak Summit
Miner's Peak Summit

All of the kids were very proud to have made it up this summit and for many in our group, it was their first summit.

Miner's Peak Summit looking  down on the Bow valley
Navigating the narrow part of the ridge walk to Miner's Peak
Summit Shot with my 7 year old!

The hike back down to the saddle is always fun and I find that kids like to run this ridge. I personally don't mind but it depends on your comfort level and your child's experience with narrow ridge walks.

The narrow ridge walk on Miner's Peak
Running down the ridge back to the saddle with the Three Humps to the left and Ha Ling to the right

The Three Humps Ascent

Back at the saddle, you can't just stop here. Even if you just do Miner's Peak (saving Ha Ling for another day,) it's so easy to run up and down the Three Humps - and then you can say that you climbed 4 peaks in one day!

And it's only an additional 67 metres of height gain from the Miner's Peak saddle up and over the Three Humps.

Following a trail in the scree up to the First Hump

From the saddle, you'll follow a rough trail in the scree up to another saddle/col between the first and second Humps. While you don't have to run up the first one, how can you not?? It takes 5 seconds to detour off the small trail to tag the First Hump/Summit, and then you can move on to the Second Hump.

First Hump and the easiest one

After reaching the First Hump, it's a short ridge walk to the Second one. The kids LOVE this section because they get to do a lot of kid-sized scrambling on the narrow ridge, get to use their hands to climb up and down blocks, and they get the feeling of being a mountain goat.

Hiking up to the Second Hump (fun scrambling)
Ridge walking on the Three Humps
Second Hump Summit

The Third Hump is the hardest one and it's totally fine to skip this one if it scares you. Last year, I followed my son carefully, climbing up the final block right behind him, and then I down climbed right below him too in case he slipped. I used a lot of caution and did NOT let him stand on the summit. This year, well, I let him stand on the summit, I didn't follow right behind him, and I trusted his climbing abilities. He rocked it of course.

Our friends crossing the ridge on the Three Humps.  Ha Ling Peak to the Left, Miner's Peak to the Ridge
Scrambling to the Third Hump Summit

As you can see from the photo above, kids will have to use their hands while scrambling up to the Third Hump. Noah was fine but I helped my friend's daughter and it made both her mom and I feel better.

Standing on the Third Hump Summit (it drops steeply off the far side)
Third Hump Summit
Two Happy and Proud Kids on Top of their Third Hump

It was a great outing, the kids were all very proud of their accomplishments, be it for climbing one peak, four peaks, or all five peaks.

This will be an annual hike for our family and I wish there was a sixth peak to add on next year...

Want to Do this Hike with Your Children?  I always recommend a good guide book and this is my favourite for the Ha Ling to Miner's Peak Traverse.

Recommended Age for this Full Trip: Age 6+ with experience on steep hiking terrain. (Younger kids have definitely done both Ha Ling Peak and Miner's Peak though.)

Age 8+ for children who don't have a lot of hiking experience.

As always, it's recommended that you solo-hike big trips like this before bringing the kids. This way, you'll know what you are getting yourself in to and you'll know if the trip is right for your child or children.

To read last year's story where we climbed the four peaks (Miner's Peak and the Three Humps) follow this link to The Four Summit Day - Ha Ling Peak to Miner's Peak (and beyond)

Last year's story has a lot more photos in it.

Miner's Peak Ascent

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Ribbon Lake Backpacking Adventure With Kids (chains and all!)

If you're from the Calgary area and spend a lot of time hiking in Kananaskis, you'll be familiar with the popular hike to Ribbon Falls on the easy Ribbon Creek Trail. Continue past the falls and you can continue on to Ribbon Lake where a gorgeous backcountry campground awaits you. The crux however is the cliff bands that you'll have to climb to get from Ribbon Falls to Ribbon Lake using a series of chains put in place to keep backpackers safe.

I myself had never been up to Ribbon Lake before but had always wanted to climb up the chains past Ribbon  Falls and began to form a crazy thought in my head...

Ribbon Falls, Kananaskis

What if we backpacked into the Ribbon Lake campground --which meant we'd be climbing the chains with heavy overnight packs... - yeah, that would be easy, right?
What if we brought the kids with us? We could bring our son and a pile of other kids between the ages of 5 and 7... -- that would be doable, right? And smart given that none of us had ever done the trip solo without kids first. Right?
What if we hiked into Ribbon Lake via another route (we were thinking of Buller Pass, a challenging family hike for sure,) and then hiked out via Ribbon Creek, down climbing the chains (again with our heavy overnight gear and with kids...) --that would be fun, right? And going down is always easier than going up a cliff band, right? No?

Traversing a set of chains between Ribbon Falls and Ribbon Lake

Challenges aside, a plan was born! We would do a family backpacking trip to Ribbon Lake via Buller Pass, hiking out via Ribbon Creek with a car shuttle set up ahead of time. We'd invite a bunch of other families, and we'd head out for a wee little adventure... - except who am I kidding - we knew it would be epic, we knew it would be hard, and we knew it would challenge every one of us. But in the words of some wise person I'm sure, "Bring it!" We were ready. We hoped...

Hiking over Buller Pass en route to Ribbon Lake

Buller Creek to Buller Pass - Day One

We set up a vehicle shuttle with cars at both Buller Mountain Day Use Area on the Spray Lakes Road and at the Ribbon Creek Trailhead near Kananaskis Village off of Hwy 40. We then proceeded to hike to Ribbon Lake on the Buller Creek Trail which would take us over Buller Pass in a 670 metre climb spread over 7.4 km of hiking.

From the top of Buller Pass, we would lose 250 - 300 metres of height as we hiked down into the Ribbon Lake basin to reach the Ribbon Lake Backcountry Campground in a 10.1 km hike total distance.

On the Buller Creek Trail and ready to go!

The Experience:

The hike to the small waterfall, roughly 5 km from the trailhead, seemed to take a long time. The trail wasn't especially interesting and we just plodded uphill through the forest. There were no views and it was seriously overcast, threatening to rain most of the day.

The small waterfall on the Buller Creek Trail

The waterfall made for a good rest spot and we had lunch here. After that we continued on for the pass which was the most enjoyable part of the hike. The valley opened up, we had views around us, and we could see the pass far in the distance. It took a while to get there though! The trail gradually got more steep as we got closer to the final switch backs that would take us to the top of Buller Pass.
Hiking through a burnt forest on the Buller Creek Trail (Photo: Megan Dunn)
Hiking through upper meadows below Buller Pass
Tough hike but always smiles!
Rest break in the meadow before climbing up to the pass

On a clear day, this would have been a beautiful hike and the views from Buller Pass would have been stellar down to Ribbon Lake. Next time!
The final hike up to the pass was a bit of a slog up steep switch backs but it was blessedly short and didn't take too long to tackle. At the top of the pass it was extremely windy and we didn't hang out long! There was still some lingering snow but it didn't cover the trail or make route finding hard.
Final rest break before the switch backs up the pass
Heading towards Buller Pass
A helping hand always helps you get up the toughest trails
We could see Ribbon Lake far below us and I know I was thinking, "Oh, wow, that's a long ways off!! We'd better keep moving!"
The view to Ribbon Lake - far below us at Buller Pass
Buller Pass down to Ribbon Lake in the distance (Photo: Megan Dunn)
Starting the descent down from Buller Pass (Photo: Megan Dunn)

Buller Pass to Ribbon Lake - Day One

Here's where the going got tough for a bit. The trail was extremely steep down into the basin and the rock was loose. I took one small fall as I skidded out on loose scree and we had to cross a sketchy snow slope that would have been better with an ice axe. Fortunately it was short and nobody fell!

Descending a snow slope from Buller Pass
"Interesting" hiking down from Buller Pass
More snow on the trail down to Ribbon Lake
Who forgot the sled??
Once we got down into the basin, the hiking was easy for the most part and we were back on easy ground following a good trail. The only sketchy part was another snow patch right beside a creek. You really didn't want to slide or you would have been in the creek for sure!

Final hike to Ribbon Lake
Trying to stay above the creek without slipping off the trail (Photo: Megan Dunn)
Bridge before the campground (Photo: Megan Dunn)

The final 1.3 km of hiking from the Guinn's Pass turnoff seemed to take a long time and we were all tired by this point with our heads down, just trying to reach camp.

Finally at Ribbon Lake!

More on the Experience:

By the time we had reached Buller Pass we were all getting pretty tired and the packs were starting to feel very heavy. The kids were all troopers though and they all walked the entire 10 km distance. The 5-year olds did amazing and both 7-year olds were strong. Especially amazing was that one of the 7-year old boys had never done an overnight trip before and this was definitely his longest (and most challenging) hike.
This was also the first backpacking trip for one of our four families. I'm happy to say that they loved it and have agreed to come with us again. (on a winter trip next time!!)

Stopping for a rest break below Buller Pass

Camping at Ribbon Lake

Ribbon Lake is a beautiful backcountry campground with 20 campsites, two pit toilets, food lockers, well spaced out (and generally private) tent pads, two fire pits with benches around them, and picnic tables.

Cooking and eating area at Ribbon Lake

One thing that I really loved was that there was a communal area where you could eat, store your food, and sit around the fire. This made it easy for all of us to hang out in one central spot. We also got to choose a tent pad that was very close to the communal area so we didn't have to worry about leaving our son alone in the tent while we were still sitting around the fire at night.

Huddling around one of the campfires to stay warm at night

Had it have been warmer, I'm sure kids would have played in the lake too, but alas, it was a very chilly weekend and nobody was going in that glacial lake!

Our tent (close to the communal area at camp)

Will we return:

Yes, we will definitely return to Ribbon Lake again. I will be trying to time our visit for a sunny weekend though next time and I haven't decided if we will hike in via Buller Pass again or if we'd try Guinn's Pass next time. (or ascend the chains from Ribbon Creek)
While it was a challenging campground to reach, there were 6 families total at the campground while we were there so this would tell me that it is a family-friendly destination.
The kids had a lot of fun playing in the wood pile! (Photo: Megan Dunn)

I would recommend the trip for families with children 8+ because there is honestly no easy way of reaching the campground. You either climb over Buller Pass, climb over Guinn's Pass, or ascend the chains from Ribbon Creek (which local guide book authors don't recommend doing due to the difficulty of ascending/climbing down the chains with heavy packs.)
While we did the trip with children between the ages of 5 and 7, we were hiking with a very strong group of kids and I wouldn't say our experience was the "norm" for what you would expect of kids this young.

Playing in the Camp Wood Pile

Ribbon Lake to Ribbon Falls via the "Chains" - Day Two 

The most common route to reach Ribbon Lake involves climbing a set of cliff bands from the Ribbon Creek Trail. This is the route we'd take out.

It started off fine on an easy trail that circled the lake. Then it got a bit more "interesting" with some hands on moments. The kids got to scramble down some slabs and parental supervision/help was definitely required. We were still definitely on a hiking trail though and no fall would have too terrible.

Bunny! Hiking around Ribbon Lake (Photo: Sean Strang)
5-Year old traversing cliffs down from Ribbon Lake (Photo: Sean Strang)
Looking down to the Ribbon Creek Valley

Then we reached "the sign."

"Cliff Hazard Ahead. Use at your own risk." 

Always a comforting sign to see when hiking with young children - not. :)

Pulling out the climbing rope

We proceeded and sure enough, we had arrived at the "chains." At first, it was pretty benign and you could easily down climb by just sitting on your butt and sliding down each short section. Each pitch was individually set up with chains to hold on to and for the most part, we just had to supervise the kids sandwich style (one adult above and one below.) I was actually thinking that this wasn't going to be too bad.

Easy down climbing from Ribbon Lake with the help of fixed chains

Before long however, I was taking my pack off because I just didn't feel comfortable down climbing the steep terrain with a heavy pack on, pulling me backwards. And try sitting down on your butt to lower yourself down -- with a heavy pack on! You can't go down sitting while wearing a pack. It just pushed me forward away from the rock. I eventually took my pack off and had one of the guys bring it down for me. (Thank you Sean!!)

Helping the kids down the cliff bands

Pack off, I found the chains relatively easy and the kids were of course doing fine (being part mountain goat I'm sure!) The children weren't scared or phased in the slightest by any of the chains and did very well guided by their parents.

Nothing too serious...yet!

Then we came to the BIG cliff band with the largest set of chains. And I was flat out terrified!! Again, the kids did fine because we had brought climbing gear with us. We put a harness on each child and had them down climb while being belayed down. Most of the kids had previous climbing experience and found this quite easy. There were no tears, no complaints, and I didn't see fear in any child's eye. It was exactly like rock climbing and if you bring the right gear, it is totally doable with kids.

The BIG cliff where you can't see over the edge!
My 7-year old down climbing the big cliff while on belay
Easy peasy right? (Photo: Sean Strang)

Meanwhile, myself, I knew I had no harness, I was not on belay, and I had to down climb a vertical cliff without falling. A fall could have been fatal so extreme caution had to be used. All of the adults in our group felt confident with the down climb and I feel like a wuss for admitting this, but I ended up convincing my husband to put me on belay like the children.

Once I started climbing down the cliff, I realized that my fears were all in my head, and that the rock was super grippy. Without a pack, it was quite easy to get down this cliff. Still, I'm glad I was protected. Better to be a bit of a coward and come home alive than be overly brave and not come home at all!!

The kids seriously thought it was awesome! Just another day at the crag!

The big cliff behind us, we just had one more tricky section to cross. We had to traverse the edge of a cliff while holding on to a hand line and then down climb a crack (roughly 7 - 8 metres in height) to reach the hiking trail below. The traverse was easy with great foot holds but there was a small gap between the two sets of chains and I admit that I was once again scared. I passed my pack back to my husband and managed to get across but for a second, I thought I was going to be stuck in this spot forever.

The final chains, traversing along a ledge to a crack in the rock
I'm pretty sure my kid is ready to try a Via Ferrata Tour now! (Photo: Sean Strang)

Looking back at the giant set of cliffs we came down!

Back on a good hiking trail, it was an easy walk to the Ribbon Falls we had been eagerly waiting to see. I hadn't been up the Ribbon Creek trail since the flood in 2013 so it was great to see the falls again.

Hiking down to Ribbon Falls
My son's first time seeing Ribbon Falls

Overall opinion on doing the "chains" with kids:

I admit that I must agree with the author of the Kananaskis Country Trail Guides that "if you must camp at Ribbon Lake, take easier routes: Buller Pass or Guinn's Pass." Hauling oneself up the chains with a heavy backpack is not an easy feat (nor is lowering oneself down the chains either.)
Ribbon Falls
In the future, I think we would camp at Ribbon Lake and visit Ribbon Falls as a day trip. This way we could enjoy the fun scrambling terrain without our overnight packs. Alternately, we'd camp at the Ribbon Falls campground and visit Ribbon Lake as a day trip. A circuit could still be made too by hiking in over Buller Pass and out via Guinn's Pass. 
 As for the chains themselves, treat them as you would a rock climbing day with the kids. Bring harnesses, bring a short section of rope, and be prepared to belay the kids on the big cliff. The rest of the time, guide the children through the entire section with one adult above and one below. Short roping them to yourself would not be a bad idea as well! We often short rope our son when out scrambling and we feel much more secure knowing that he's tethered to Dad with a short section of climbing rope.
Not a rock climber and kids have no experience climbing? Save this trip until the kids are older. An experienced ten year old with some good hikes under his belt would have few problems. Younger than that, it's your call. - just make sure you know that your kids are capable of doing an exposed scramble before you choose that this is your route to the campsite or your route back to the car! 
Beautiful scenery above Ribbon Falls


Ribbon Falls to the Ribbon Creek Trailhead  - Day Two

 Total distances for day two were as follows:

Ribbon Lake to the Ribbon Falls Campground - 1. 9 km
Ribbon falls and Campground to the Ribbon Creek Trailhead - 9.2 km

Height loss to Ribbon Falls for us was 277 metres and then we lost another 311 metres as we hiked down the creek.

Stopping to rest along Ribbon Creek

The experience:

Easy peasy hiking along Ribbon Creek.
We stopped a few times to rest by the creek and to have snacks but for the most part, had to keep our heads down and walk quickly because we spent a LONG time on the chains.
The hike in took us roughly 5.5 hours and the hike out took us 6 hours. Both days were long but we were very glad there was no height gain on the second day. That was the only way my son could have done two long days in a row without a rest day in between. 
You get to cross lots of bridges on the Ribbon Creek Trail


Overall Experience  

We've reached the point where our son and his friends can do BIG things. They can tackle the same backpacking trip that I'd plan with girlfriends or with my husband as a solo trip.
We're now at the stage where a family trip makes me just as sore and tired as an adult trip would. There's little difference between family and adult trips now. The kids can come on many of the crazy adventures that we cook up and there's no reason for us to leave them at home with babysitters or grandparents. This is wonderful and we are loving it!
We are raising tough kids and they never cease to amaze us with their energy, their determination, and their love for adventure! Bring on more fun trips! 

Our crazy group and friends at Ribbon Lake (Photo: Megan Dunn)

Want to Plan this Trip with Your family?

Information on backcountry camping at Ribbon Lake can be found on the Alberta Parks website.

To purchase a good guide book, consider the Kananaskis Country Trail Guides by Gillean Daffern.