Thursday, June 18, 2015

First Summits - The Mighty YAMNUSKA (with a 6 year old)

Mount Yamnuska is often the first scramble for outdoor enthusiasts and hikers in the Canadian Rockies.  Hike to the summit on a warm summer day and you will likely pass hundreds of other hikers on the trail.  Look for children though and you won't see very many on this hike. Most adults find Yamnuska to be a challenging scramble at the best of times and few are crazy enough to try and take a child up the mountain.  Except for us of course.  We "tried."

Trying to Summit Mount Yamnuska with a 6 year old

First, what is a "scramble"

I referred to Yamnuska being a "scramble" in the first paragraph for that is the unofficial name given to a difficult hike where you need to use your hands to ascend cliff bands, traverse narrow rock ledges, and pick your way through loose scree to reach the summit.
This is Scrambling

Yamnuska is classified as an easy scramble according to Alan Kane, author of Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies.  In his words this means:
"the scramble is mostly hiking, much hands in pockets stuff, little exposure, no maintained trail.  It is mostly off-trail hiking."
However, before you go rushing out with your kids in tow, Kane does forewarn that there is one section of difficult down-climbing (and he is very clear that it is only an "easy scramble" if you ascend to the summit from the west side.  Few parties ascend via the west side though which is the hikers descent route and would involve much scree bashing in the uphill direction with hours spent slogging up treadmill type loose rock (think two steps forward, and one step back.)

So, when you attempt to hike up Yamnuska, you are really embarking on a moderate to difficult scramble.  And here is what Kane has to say about difficult scrambling:
"much use of handholds, sections may be steep, loose and exposed.  Fall distance may be significant enough to be fatal."
Still want to try Yamnuska with kids??  (the photo below shows where we had to turn around with Noah.)

This is the "difficult" section on Yamnuska.  (see the cable at the front of the photo and the drop below!)

Why is the hike or scramble up Yamnuska so popular?

This scramble is popular for various reasons but below are a few of the more common ones:

The cliffs of Yam as seen from the highway
  • This mountain is very recognizable from the TransCanada Highway en route to Banff (making it desirable for hikers to summit.)

  • It is commonly referred to as a "hike" and therefore attracts a lot of beginners who have never done a scramble or anything difficult before.  You'll see all kinds of people on the trail from tennis shoe clad tourists to visiting friends who have no idea what they're in for!  (fortunately they usually get turned around by the first chimney they encounter.)

  • There are many turn-around points which makes this a good hike for varying abilities.  You can hike to the bottom of the ridge (referred to as Raven's End) on a good solid hiking trail, you can scramble up on top of the ridge, you can traverse ledges towards the summit and stop when you reach the chains (shown in the photo above,) or you can go all the way to the summit and loop back around on the front side.  Many options. 

The first part of the trail is a great family hike with views out over the Bow Valley


How to "Hike" Yamnuska with Kids

Hiking to Raven's End

Start by turning off the TransCanada Hwy onto Hwy 1X towards Exshaw.  Turn right onto Hwy 1A and go 2km down the road.  Turn left into the signed Yamnuska day use area

From the parking lot, follow the trail from the main trailhead across the quarry road and up a well defined trail into the forest.  Proceed up it, along a steep section to a junction.  The junction will say "climber trail" and "hiker trail."  You want the hiker trail!! Even if you hope to summit, you still want the hiker trail.  The climber trail is only for rock climbers heading straight towards the cliff face on the front side of the mountain.

Follow the excellent hiking trail till its end at the base of the cliff at the far right hand side of the mountain.  This is called Raven's End.  (and you should see a lot of ravens circling the mountain here.)

This is the end of hike for all young children or inexperienced hikers. Up to this point you will have hiked up 520m over 3.5km.

To read more on this hike and for a full collection of photos describing the entire route, read this trail report from Hiking with Barry.  I'm also partial to Gillian Daffern's description in her book "Popular Day Hikes in Kananaskis Country."

Yamnuska Hiking Trail for Families to Raven's End

How we chose to "summit" Yamnuska with a 6 year old

First off, when I say "summit" I do not mean the official summit.  We tagged a peak on the ridge and we called it "Noah's Summit."  He was happy, we were happy, and everybody came back alive (the most important thing on all trips!)

Noah's Summit (the unofficial summit for all 6 year olds)

I'm not going to go into a big route description of how we hiked up to the top of the ridge because I'm a big fan of guide books, experience, and training.  If you can't find a safe way to the ridge top, you should either:

A.  Buy Kane's Scrambling guide book (available at all book stores)

B.  Go with somebody who has scrambled Yam. before

C.  Wait until you've scouted this out without kids first!!! I can not recommend coming up here for a "first ascent" with kids.  We've been up here several times and knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into.

Reaching this ridge top vantage point took us about 45 min. from Raven's End

We hiked about 90% of the way to the official summit following Kane's route up the east side of the ridge until we came to the chains at the down-climb and exposed traverse. Up to this point we probably climbed approximately 800m of the total 900m for this trip.  We weren't prepared to do the exposed traverse or sketchy section that followed with a 6 year old and so we turned around.  We'll return in a year or two with more climbing equipment and perhaps a month later in the year to ensure there is no snow remaining on the final traverse towards the summit.

Traversing scree slopes towards the summit of Yamnuska

Gear that we brought:

  • Helmets (something most adults wouldn't bring, but absolutely vital if doing this with kids.  And we chose to wear them too as a good example of safety.)

  • A short amount of rope to "short rope" Noah up difficult sections.  I also see this as imperative if climbing Yam with children under the age of 8-10.  (and it's probably safe to say that if you don't have the experience or training to "short-rope" a child, this hike is too difficult for you to guide young children up.)

  • Bike gloves to prevent against scraping skin on loose rock. Kids fall down a LOT so you want as little skin visible as possible.
Short-roping Noah up steep sections

Other useful tips:

  • Children should be wearing long pants.  Again, if your child slips on loose rock, you'll be happy for the layer of fabric between their skin and the ground.

  • Get an early start if the day is hot.  The front slopes of Yam are very dry and get sun baked in the afternoon.  It's not a fun place to be slogging up in the heat of the day.

  • Bring lots of water.  We each had a water bladder with 2L of water and we still ran out by the end.

  • Candy, candy, and more candy!

  • Bring many layers of clothing, emergency gear in case you get stuck and have to spend the night,  hats and mittens in case the summit is cold, a whistle to call for help, and a full first aid kit.  It's recommended to bring extra food as well - more than you could possibly eat.  Yes, your packs will be huge.  That's just the reality of doing BIG stuff with kids.  You should be prepared for every possible scenario.

Our Summit on Yamnuska

BIG disclaimer if you want to summit this mountain with kids

Are you prepared for this?
I think I've been pretty clear about the risks involved with this hike or scramble.  Should you decide to attempt this summit with your family, please know that I am not an experienced guide and that I am merely sharing our adventure with you.

Please buy a guide book or take an experienced person with you if you have not done this trip before.  Please do not attempt it with kids if you yourself have not been on the summit first without them.  Many people take this scramble "lightly" and head out ill-prepared.   That's not an option with kids however.


More First Summits

Go Climb a Mountain - Family-friendly First Summits

Ha Ling!  My Baby Climbed His First Real Summit

More First Summits:  Prairie Mountain, Kananaskis

My Rad Climber
Family-friendly Summits in Jasper National Park

Moving on to Big Adventures - and the kids get to come along too

Magical Autumn Hiking on the Bow Valley Highline Trail (Copper Mountain, Banff)

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