Thursday, November 10, 2016

First Summits - Mount St. Piran, Lake Louise

We hiked up Mount St. Piran at Lake Louise in late September and it felt like we were tackling a winter summit. There was much more snow on top than we had anticipated and were we to repeat this same summit now, there would already be avalanche danger. This was our 7th "first family summit" that we did this summer for a grand total of 10 family summits completed by the end of September.

Mount St. Piran Summit, Late September

Mount St. Piran Introduction

Mount St. Piran is located at Lake Louise and is one a few "hiking summits" located here where you'll be able to pretty much keep your hands in your pockets the whole time. There's no actual "scrambling" involved in getting to the top and you'll follow good hiking trails much of the time.

Unless you're crazy enough to descend the back side with kids (and yes, you know we are that crazy,) it's a very easy hike with no technical difficulties. Your kids just have to be able to hike up 900 metres of height gain.

Note that as of 2021 there are parking fees in effect for Lake Louise. Follow this link to the Banff National Park website for more information. You can also take a shuttle bus to Lake Louise or use Roam public transit from the Town of Banff. Information is in the previous link.

Hiking up to the summit of St. Piran, Lake Louise

Stats for Piran


Entering the snow zone on St. Piran
Height Gain: 900 metres

Distance: 12.8 km for the full loop that we did, ascending up the regular St. Piran Trail and descending to the Niblock-St. Piran Col to reach Lake Agnes from the back side

Time that it took us: 6.5 hours round trip total

Age of Kids we hiked with: Ages 5 through 13

Best Resource Guide: Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies by Alan Kane (available at all major book stores)

Hiking up the Lake Agnes Trail

The hike starts on the heavily used Lake Agnes"tourist trail". This is probably the least enjoyable part of the trip and the trail was way too busy for our liking, even in September.

Fortunately, this trail is only 3.4 km long and we only had to go 3.1 km to the junction with the Little Beehive Trail. In that distance we gained our first 372 metres of height on the well maintained trail that was never very steep. (which isn't a bad way to travel.)

High above Lake Louise

Turning off for the Little Beehive Trail

At the 3.1 km mark you turn off for the Little Beehive Trail and follow this much less traveled path until you come to the junction for the St. Piran Summit Trail.  The Little Beehive viewpoint is at the 4.2 km mark but you don't hike the full distance. You'll turn off about 500 metres before reaching the end of this trail.

Climbing up the Little Beehive Trail (photo: Megan Dunn)

Along the way we started to get our first views and we began to see larch trees around us. We'd see more as we climbed higher up towards St. Piran.

Looking down on the Little Beehive covered in  golden larch trees

On the St. Piran Summit Trail

The Little Beehive is reached after climbing up 500 metres. This means that you have roughly 400 more metres to go when climbing up to the summit of St. Piran. And this is just a rough guess because you don't go all the way to the Little Beehive "summit."  There is definitely 400 to 450 metres of height gain ahead of you from this point though. And you'll want to pull out the candy here because the trail gets steeper!

The lower slopes were dry and covered in golden larch trees (photo: Megan Dunn)

We came to the signed junction for the St. Piran Trail about 100 metres before the end of the Little Beehive Trail. The Piran Trail is not an official parks trail but is still well maintained and is well switch backed for most of the distance. Views open up over Lake Louise and the whole valley and it's positively magical when the larch trees are golden. And the views do help take the mind off of the climbing.

Getting higher up the St. Piran slopes and it's getting snowy! (photo: Megan Dunn)

We followed good switch backs all the way up to the St. Piran shoulder and the snow was very manageable so far. The trail had been packed down by hikers ahead of us and so we had a very good path to follow. We didn't need ice cleats or spikes.

Climbing up to the St. Piran Shoulder above Lake Louise (photo: Megan Dunn)

On the St. Piran Shoulder

We stopped briefly at the shoulder to take some photos and to contemplate the snowy slopes ahead of us. The gloves definitely came out.

St. Piran shoulder before starting our ridge walk to the summit

Hiking up the Final Summit Ridge

For our crew, the hiking was easy going until we got to the shoulder. From here, we had to traverse the ridge up to the summit on snow slopes that were a big slippery.

Hiking up the ridge as the snow got deeper

The snow was also a lot deeper than we had expected for late September (and not packed down at all.) The boys also weren't entirely prepared in their light hiking shoes or trail runners. Fortunately they did have rain pants and we all had gloves, toques, and warm layers of clothing - all of which we needed!!

Final hike to the summit (photo: Megan Dunn)


The Snowy St. Piran Summit  

We didn't spend a lot of time on the summit because it was freezing cold up here. There was also deep snow drifts that came halfway up to my knees.

St. Piran Summit, late September

We took our photos, had snacks, and proceeded to make our way off the mountain.

Striking his Mountain Summit Pose

Note that there was no avalanche danger yet but should you attempt this hike now in November, there would be significant risk.

Rock shelters at the top of St. Piran

Completing the Traverse to the Niblock-St. Piran Col

We love loops, ridge walks, and traverses. It was therefore a no-brainer that we'd attempt to do the traverse of St. Piran, coming down the far side to the back of Lake Agnes.

Traversing the St. Piran Ridge to the Niblock-St. Piran Col (photo: Megan Dunn)

Normally, the traverse is "relatively" simple and straight forward but the slope is steep (very steep,) not fun when it's snowy (not to mention avalanche prone if too snowy,) and route finding is required. I've done this descent many times as has my husband so we felt comfortable with taking a more original way down rather than following the same trail we'd taken up. Also, we knew there was not enough snow for avalanche risk yet.

Our youngest hikers making their way across the ridge (photo: Megan Dunn)

In the end, I "almost" regret coming down this way because the snow made the descent very sketchy and tricky. It was slippery and the snow covered up holes in the rocks. Our son, Noah slipped numerous times when he'd fall into a hole and twist his ankle or hurt his knee. It wasn't fun in the slightest descending the steep slope and I think almost everybody in our group fell at least once.

Descending steep slopes to the St. Piran-Niblock Col (photo: Megan Dunn)

Fortunately, we made our way to the Niblock/Piran Col and then things started to improve (slightly) as we got on a rough dirt trail. If muddy this section can also be slippery though - and it was muddy. Overall, it was a much harder descent down the back side than I had remembered pre-kids.

The kids descended numerous sections on their bums holding on to trees to lower themselves. Adults fell as we all took turns sliding down the steep dirt/rock mixture through the trees, and my husband wants to point out that even in the summer, this is NOT an easy descent. The trail is brutally steep and does not fall into beginner hiking terrain. It is much easier to return via the same trail you hiked up. (And you can still detour up to Lake Agnes by going down the normal way.)

Descending very steep slopes down to the valley behind Lake Agnes (photo: Megan Dunn)

The walk through the valley towards Lake Agnes was also very pleasant (and is why I always choose this descent route.) You see nobody else when hiking this secret little valley and you won't meet a single other day hiker until you reach the junction with the Big Beehive and Lake Agnes.

There are a lot of fun rocks to scramble on at the back of Lake Agnes (if you haven't been hiking for 5+ hours already.) For us, we pretty much just continued going once we reached the lake.

Lake Agnes, finally!

Lake Agnes Tea House and Descent

We reached the crowded and touristy tea house at Lake Agnes. We didn't stay long because it was hard to be in the midst of so many people after being alone on the trails all day. We had some quick snacks, fed the kids their final sugar, and then proceeded to run down the stairs for the trail home.

Following the Lake Agnes trail to the Tea House

The final descent was a quick trail running affair, boys running down the trail hell bent on reaching Lake Louise. It took less than an hour to reach the lake and the kids passed many/most adults on the trail. We just tried to keep up.

Back on the Lake Agnes Trail (photo: Megan Dunn)

Special Safety Notes with "Winter and Shoulder Season Summits" 

As mentioned, St. Piran is exposed to avalanche risk and you shouldn't climb it when there is significant snow if you are not prepared or trained for traveling in avalanche terrain.

Right now it is advised that you check with an information centre in the mountain parks before attempting any summit in the Canadian Rockies. Traveling into avalanche terrain with children is not something I advise or practice.

Note that many/most summits you'd just calmly walk up in summer can and could have avalanche risk. So always ask and do your research before heading out!

As far as gear, our kids should have had winter boots on for this particular hike.

Shoulder Season Summits look a lot like this

Recommended gear for shoulder season hikes:

  • Winter boots or waterproof hiking boots (not low cut hiking shoes)

  • Layers of waterproof clothing, mittens and gloves, toques, and a Buff or something to cover the face when it's windy

  • Hiking poles for slippery slopes

  • Ice cleats or spikes. I like Kahtoola Micro Spikes personally.

  • Emergency gear in case something goes wrong and you have to wait overnight for a rescue. This should include a headlamp in case it is dark when you descend the trail.

Note that this list is not exhaustive. It's just a few top items that come to mind.

Family summit shot on St. Piran

 Additional Reading

To read about our previous "first summit" read  First Summits - Mount Fairview and Saddle Mountain, Lake Louise

 Another good read is First Summits - Tent Ridge Horseshoe, Kananaskis

To read about some of our other summits this summer check out my previous story on the East End of Mount Rundle. It has a lot of reflections in it, learned over the summer. It also has a complete link at the bottom to all of my "First Summits" posts.

Big thanks to Megan Dunn for collaborating with me on this with amazing photos. You can find her on instagram or at her blog here.

1 comment:

  1. Just completed this with my family, there has been still some snow past the shoulder. however snow or no longer we went to the summit ridge, however wind saved use from getting to the actual peak. Will do once more and wish for higher conditions on pinnacle.