Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Family Hiking at the Next Level - Scrambles and Summits

My husband loves rock climbing and mountaineering with my son destined to follow in his footsteps. At the age of 7, my son Noah is no longer interested in cute forest walks and is known for his great persistence when it comes to hiking (read: don't expect him to stop and smell the flowers!) Noah amazes me each time we are out with his speed, his agility at running down steep slopes, and his love of climbing mountains. Just don't expect him to be happy on the approach trail because the big smile only comes out when the trip becomes "interesting." Narrow ridge walks - happy. Scree bashing up a steep slope - happy. Scree running down a mountain - very happy! And the happiest of all would be when the rope and helmet come out. Then Noah is truly in his happy place!!

My seven year old's happy place on top of a narrow mountain ridge

While it's great having a child so determined to tackle "big" hikes and summits, there are definitely some challenges we take pretty seriously.
Rope, harness, helmet - Check!
  • It's really hard to find hiking companions when your son leaves his friends in the dust. And it's not that Noah's so "fast" but more that he just doesn't stop. So when his friends stop to play in a stream, Noah keeps going. When his friends want to stop and play, he just wants to keep going. This means that most of our big days are best done alone as a family.

  • It's hard to find challenging mountains for a seven year old that don't involve ten hours days. Most of the great peaks in the Canadian Rockies that allow for a "walk up ascent" also require upwards of 1200 metres of height gain and possibly 20 km or more of distance. Noah would love to climb Castle Mountain, Cascade Mountain, or even Mount Temple. He'd just never be able to do them without random camping half way up. (and sadly, Parks Canada won't allow the practice of setting up a bivy site for summits that an adult could hike in a day - Yes, I asked!)

  • Realistically, a seven year old doesn't understand all the dangers involved with scrambling and climbing mountains. This means we have to be very diligent at "supervising" every step that Noah makes on a mountain. Kids just don't have the same sense of mortality that an adult would have.

  • We bring a helmet, climbing harness, and a rope for Noah every time there is even the smallest chance that we'll be doing hands on scrambling. While an adult might be able to scramble up a short pitch of class 4 climbing without a rope, we don't feel comfortable letting our son do anything too technical without being short roped or belayed. This past weekend we ventured out without the rope and all went well, but it's still safer to have it along.

Trust me, there's a rope being used here!

Recent Trip: Nihahi Ridge to the South Summit

Last summer we tried to get to the south summit of Nihahi Ridge (trip report here) but we had to stop once we got on the ridge, perhaps a 20 minute walk short of the South Summit. We easily tackled the crux crack last year (a tricycle ride around a playground compared to what comes next) and didn't even bother with a rope this year on the way up it (though we did use it on the way down.)

Scrambling up the "Crux Crack" on Nihahi Ridge

In all honesty, I don't even know why it's called the "crux crack" because it poses no difficulty whatsoever if you are careful. After this short little cliff band, the going is super easy to reach the lower ridge where you're rewarded with awesome views. And I'd highly recommend this portion of the trip for families with strong hikers.

Nihahi Ridge is an easy hike up to this point with one small cliff band

Once you get past the lower ridge where the photo above was taken, the going gets a bit trickier. It starts off easy enough as you follow a good trail through scree up and around a block that is actually really easy to get around.

On the lower ridge and looking up at the block we'll hike around on the right hand side

Once you get past the block in the photo above though, you are faced with what I call "the chimney." And interestingly enough, it's not even really mentioned in hiking books. Apparently nobody thinks it's a big deal. I however was terrified climbing it and had to get serious help on the way down. The rope was definitely used for Noah and a fall would not have been pretty. (think, broken arm or leg for sure!)

Climbing up the chimney crack to the upper ridge (the true crux of this trip!)

Getting to the top of the chimney above may be as far as most parties go. It's definitely a popular lunch and turn around spot and we saw many people descending here without going further. We however, were bound for the South summit - which meant we'd have to traverse a narrow section of ridge (roughly 15 minutes of walking) to reach the high point on this section of the ridge.

Walking along the narrow Nihahi Ridge to the South Summit

The ridge traverse was definitely the highlight of the whole trip and we were so happy to have gotten this far this year. Last year we were freaked out by the final climb to the Upper Ridge and turned around. This year we braved the short climb though and were definitely rewarded.

Family Summit Shot of Noah and I (Dad taking the photo)
My summit shot and definite happy place!

We had a very short break on the summit and turned around. Hiking further is possible but we decided the South Summit was good enough for us.

Hiking along Nihahi Ridge
My boys on Nihahi Ridge

Back at the lower ridge we stopped for snacks, and descended the "crux crack" - Also I'm still laughing that people call this the crux compared to the upper chimney.

Down climbing the crux crack back to the hiking trail (on rope)

So, you want to try Nihahi Ridge....


Go for it! I won't tell you not to. There are sooooo many spots to turn around that you could try this hike with a 4 year old and be safe.

Turn around spot one - Hike to the end of the official hiking trail.

The meadow in the hiking trail with Nihahi Ridge showing in the background

Turn around spot two - Continue beyond until you reach the crux crack. Ascend if you feel comfortable. Protect the kids with one adult above and one below. A rope really isn't necessary for kids over the age of 6 if they are sure on their feet and you protect them by following right behind them in case they slip.

A look at the upper hiking trail past the official trail end

Turn around spot three - If you make it past the crux crack, continue to the lower ridge and it's a fabulous spot to have a picnic!

Picnic on the Lower Ridge

Turn around spot four - Go further until you reach the chimney and make the call if you will go up it or not. Again, if you protect the kids with an adult below them, it should be doable by kids over the age of 6. Rope recommended but not necessary.

Noah is pointing here at the South Summit, far right hand side of the ridge

Turn around spot five - If you get up the chimney crack, stop at the upper ridge for lunch or snacks and turn around. For most hikers, this is their "summit."

The end of the road for most hikers on top of the upper ridge

Turn around spot six - If you dare, traverse the final ridge section to the high point and South Summit. Rope recommended for children under the age of 8. Otherwise, kids had better be very sure footed and you'll want to hold hands for a few moments.

On the upper ridge looking over the edge

To read more about this hike, read last year's trip report: First Summits - Nihahi Ridge, Kananaskis.

And if you are going to do the full scramble to the South Summit, I highly recommend picking up a good guide book! Recommended: Alan Kane's Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies - newly revised. Also recommended, Gillean Daffern's Kananaskis Country Trail Guides.

Guide books are valuable when tackling  terrain like this!

Useful Tips if Doing Scrambles with Kids


A "scramble" can basically be defined as off trail hiking, following unofficial trails on loose or steep terrain, while hiking up to a summit or ridge top. Often you will have to use your hands to ascend/descend cliff bands, cracks, and chimneys involving short sections of class 4 climbing. Alan Kane has written the number one guide book on the subject in the Canadian Rockies so if this interests you, pick up his newly revised scrambles book!

Tips for participating in this sport with children:

  • Good stable weather is not an option when climbing mountains with kids. We have turned around before when the clouds started building up. You may be able to run off an exposed ridge to escape a storm but can your children?

  • An "easy scramble" with kids should be treated as a "moderate scramble" with an adult party. This means we take something as simple as Ha Ling Peak with complete and total respect. It may only take you a few hours to tackle these hikes by yourself, but it very well might take your child five hours to do the same hike you'd run up and down in the evening.

  • Scout out new hikes first without the kids. If you haven't done a hike or a summit before, chances are you have no idea how hard it really is. It's safer to try it out with a buddy first and then determine if it's safe for your family.

  • Scrambling and summiting mountains is not something you start as a family without experience. For us, this is something we did for years before having kids - and then continued. But if you have never climbed a mountain, you should really join a hiking club and get some experience under your belt before introducing the sport to your children.

  • Start slow and work up to the big stuff with the kids. We didn't start with 700 metre ascents and hands on scrambling with our son. We started like you should with Tunnel Mountain in Banff. We took gondolas, we did lots of family hiking, and we worked on distance without the height. We slowly added height with easy trips up Prairie Mountain.

  • Know your limits. We are able to do the big stuff because my husband has extensive experience with climbing and mountaineering. By myself though, my son and I won't touch anything requiring a rope or a helmet. We save the big stuff until Daddy can be our guide for the day.

Know your limits and go with an experienced friend or family member

Recommended Gear for Scrambling with Kids


  • Bike gloves for the descent (if the kids slip on the way down this will protect their hands)

  • Long pants (and ideally, long sleeve shirts )  - hard if it's a hot day but a good idea for the way down in case your child slips and falls. The less skin showing, the better!

  • A helmet if there is any danger of rock fall, of bonking one's head, or of falling in general. My son uses a climbing specific helmet, the Edelrid Sheild Helmet.

  • A rope and harness if you want to short rope your child for protection or choose to belay them down a cliff band

  • Hiking shoes or boots (sport sandals are not enough for summits and kids will appreciate something sturdier than a running shoe if running down scree)

  • A small backpack for each child with their own water. This keeps them hydrated. We use the Camelbak Scout backpack.

This is not the time to skimp on good gear for the kids

Suggested Reading


Family-friendly Summits in Jasper National Park

More First Summits - Prairie Mountain, Kananaskis

Ha Ling! My Baby Climbed his First Real Summit

First Summits - The Mighty Yamnuska with a 6 Year Old 

First Summits - Barrier Lake Lookout, Kananaskis 

The Four Summit Day - Ha Ling Peak to Miner's Peak (and beyond)

First Summits - Forget Me Not Ride, Kananaskis 

Copper Mountain from Shadow Lake Lodge, Banff 

First Summits - Polar Peak, Fernie Alpine Resort

Goofy Summit shot on Nihahi ridge

All photos in this post were taken on our recent Nihahi Ridge Hike.


  1. I'm glad I started planning events for a younger crowd and didn't keep waiting for my son to "catch up" to Noah. Yikes. Way to go you guys.

  2. Your family is amazingly active LOL

  3. I have done Nihahi and would consider myself an intermediate+ hiker. I would not recommend the chimney and the final summit for younger kids. It is a pretty technical section and the top of the ridge is quite narrow with lots of exposure. I would consider that part and the top of the ridge rated for experienced hikers. Obviously, your family is quite experienced but many hikers are not at that level, especially with kids.

    1. You'll notice in the photos that my son was in a harness and attached to a rope. I wouldn't recommend this hike for families with young kids either. I put a ton of disclaimers in every story I write. My son is a highly advanced hiker (he hikes trails that many adults wouldn't be able to do.)

      However, I know many kids like my son who would be capable of this hike because they have very strong parents training them up from a young age. When you start doing scrambles at the age of 5 you progress very quickly.

      I try to put a blend of hikes up on this website, some for beginners, and others that are more challenging for those families ready for that next step.

      Again, thank you for the reminder to make sure I continue placing disclaimers and safety warnings in all of my guides. I will continue doing so.

      This would be a great hike for families with teenagers, which is something I want to be mindful of. I don't just want to write for the families with preschoolers. My son is now 12 and we'll definitely be moving into the next category of adventure.