Wednesday, June 27, 2018

First Summits - Mount Yamnuska Family Scramble (to the very top!)

I had to add "to the very top" to the title because I wrote another "first summits story" for Yamnuska back in 2015, a trip where we had to turn around at an exposed section with chains. This time we got past the chains, made it to the summit, and got to enjoy the awesome scree run down the front side.

Yamnuska Summit, Kananaskis Country, Alberta

Introduction to Mount Yamnuska 

The ridge of Yamnuska as seen from Bow Valley Provincial Park
Mount Yamnuska is a well known mountain near Calgary that most people will recognize by sight (if not by name.) Most hikers aspire to make it to the summit of Yamnuska, everybody wanting to see the famed "chains" and to test their bravery on the short exposed traverse required before the final climb to the top.

Yamnuska is located in Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park, Kananaskis, and is easy to find off the TransCanada Highway near the hamlet of Exshaw.

Camping can be found in the nearby Bow Valley Campground or in the Willow Rock Campground, both located in Bow Valley Provincial Park 5 minutes away from the Yamnuska Day Use Area.

Reservations are required to camp in the Bow Valley Campground (and car be hard to come by in the summer,) but Willow Rock is first come first serve if you're looking for somewhere to stay before or after your hike.

Yamnuska as seen from the Bow Valley Campground 

Stats for Mount Yamnuska 

Height gain: 900 metres

Distance: Approximately 11 km for the full circuit 

Suggested Round Trip Time: Suggested time is anywhere from 4-6 hours according to guide book writer, Alan Kane. As a family, I'd say 6+ hours would be more accurate.

Our family's Trip Time: We did the scramble with two 9 year old boys. It took us 6 hours total (4 hours up, 2 hours down) with plenty of stops and rest breaks. 

Trip rating: This is considered an easy/moderate scramble but that being said, it's an advanced hike. There is also significant exposure where you cross a cliff band using chains to assist you. A fall could be fatal here. For families, this is a fairly extreme adventure.

Resting on the initial hiking trail up Yamnuska (the mountain visible in the background)

2022 Trail Updates

As of 2022 the trail has seen some major updates, improvements, and upgrades to the trail.

Below are some of the highlights:

There are markers outlining the entire route, start to finish, now so you couldn't get lost if you tried. While this is still a challenging scramble (especially for families,) at least route finding won't be an issue.

The initial trail to Raven's End has been smoothed out a bit, widened, and generally repaired from years of heavy use. 

You'll be following markers like this the entire route from start to finish

Beyond Raven's End, the trail to the summit is the same. The only difference is that you'll now have blue markers to follow the entire time. Also, the route no longer climbs up to the skyline as soon as you climb around to the backside of the mountain. The new route stays lower, keeping hikers away from the exposed cliff face.

Should you decide to climb up to the ridge top here, please be careful of hikers below you because you are officially off route now. Also watch for climbers below you (on the cliffs) and don't knock rocks down.

There is lots of new signage on the trail to ensure hikers are prepared for their adventure! 

Signage has also been placed everywhere, and I mean everywhere, along the route to instruct and educate hikers of the possible dangers that await once leaving the end of the hiking trail at Raven's End. The sign above greets you as you arrive at the end of the official hiking trail, and before you circle to the back of the mountain to attempt the summit.

There are signs in high rockfall danger zones as well and I saw at least a couple of avalanche warning signs for those that might be doing this as a winter hike.

This sign greets you before you begin your traverse across the backside of the mountain

Finally, there is a new descent trail once you reach the West Col from the summit. The scree slope on the front side is no longer recommended. The new descent trail is actually quite lovely too and has the best grade I've ever seen for a descent trail on a scramble route. It's very comfortable and your knees will be quite happy.

Should you decide to do the scree slope on the front side, please bring helmets. Serious injury (and death) has occurred here in the past because of rock fall hazard.

The new West Col descent route (recommended way down)

The Initial Hike to Raven's End 

Turn right at the sign and follow the hiking trail
The trip starts out with a gentle hike to the base of the cliffs, a spot called Raven's End. The distance to this point is 3.5 km one way and you'll gain 520 metres.

I say "gentle" because you start on a good hiking trail. It's steep at the beginning but then the grade eases off and it becomes quite pleasant. There are good views and it's an enjoyable walk.

When my son was younger and we attempted Yamnuska the first time, he really struggled on this part because it wasn't exciting enough for him. A hiker he is not! He was only happy once we started the actual scrambling on the backside.

This time though he had a friend to chat with the whole time and it made for a much more pleasant hike. So follow our experience and bring friends for the kids. The hike will be much more enjoyable.

There are lots of gorgeous viewpoints like this on your way up to Raven's End 

Around the Backside of the Mountain and Up the Chimney 

So far, you've been hiking up the front slopes of Yamnuska below the cliff bands. You can see the cliff bands in the photo below. Once you reach the ridge top though (the treed ridge top that is, not the actual cliff ridge top) you have to make your way to the backside of the mountain.

Approaching Raven's End

From the end of the hiking trail you'll walk around the back of the mountain to your right and scramble up a short chimney. There are a few big steps but you'll always feel fairly protected with the walls around you.

And notice the painted blue square in the photo below. As of 2022 there are blue markers on sign posts too.

Scrambling up the chimney to the backside of Yamnuska 

Traversing across the backside of the mountain to the chains

You'll be following a fairly good trail as you traverse across the backside of the mountain making your way for the chains. 

Just follow the blue markers and you'll never get off route. 

Traversing along the backside of Yamnuska on scree trails 

The hiking here is relatively flat with little height gain. Just flat traversing for the most part.

Optional visit to the top of the cliffs:

Back when we did this trip as a family in 2018, the route climbed to the top of the ridge. The new route stays low as of 2022. And while I recommend following the new route, I'm keeping the description and photos in below because they were part of our original route.

If you want to visit the ridge top there is one short scrambly rock step where kids will need to use their hands a bit (and where you may need to spot younger kids.) It's short though and very blocky (lots of good hand and footholds.)

Rock step on the way up to the ridge top

Note this is not the high point of your day and you're not at the summit. You've reached the top of the ridge though and you can look down the cliffs that you were staring at from the highway.

Sitting on the ridge of Yamnuska, nothing but valley below! 

This is where my husband always gets nervous and you'll probably want to keep a careful eye on the kids (especially if you have a wife who's constantly trying to get photos as close to the edge as possible.)

This is a great spot to have lunch and to turn around if you don't think you can make the summit, you're short on time, you see a thunderstorm coming in, or you've had enough of the loose rock and scree.

When my son was 6 years old, this was his summit. We didn't reach the official summit on our first attempt.

How's this for a view?!! Yamnuska ridge top 

The Chains (Where you'll either turn around or continue on for the summit)

Continue to traverse across the mountain following the blue markers until you reach an exposed traverse along a narrow ledge with chains to hold on to.

We turned around at the chains on our first attempt of Yamnuska because we hadn't brought enough climbing gear with us to protect our son (and at age 6 we felt he should be protected with a rope.)

This time we were more prepared, still felt we needed to add our own extra protection, and were able to protect our son with some quick draws, a short length of rope, and his climbing harness. (A climber I am not so if you want more information on how we protected our son on this section please contact me and I can put you in touch with my husband to answer specific questions.)

Photos of the Chains: (Why you're reading the story after all!)

My husband leading the way across the exposed ledge with chains
Protected and not going anywhere if he falls
The kids thought the chains were awesome 
The ledge that you traverse with the chains 

And the question of the day - at what age can kids safely do this without bringing climbing gear along? 

That's your personal decision. The friends we went with decided their son could do it without a rope. And that was their personal choice. I know other friends who've done this without a rope as well, and others who've chosen to go the "cautious route" as we did.

You do whatever helps you sleep at night knowing you made the best decision for your children.

At age 9 we wouldn't let our son do this without a rope, but that was our decision to play it extra safe.

Whatever decision you make, know that there would be a significant fall here (possibly a fatal one) if something went wrong.

Very happy and in his element! 

After the flat traverse across the chains, you also have a short down climb section where  the chains continue. I find this part harder because I don't like down climbing.

I've included a couple of new photos from 2022 below that show what to expect on the entire chain section.

Crossing the exposed cliff holding onto the chains

The down climb after the chain traverse

Past the Chains and on to the Summit 

There's one tricky section after the chains (with one challenging step as shown in the photo below.) We thought about short roping our son across this section but my husband just held his hand and he was fine. (It's easier than it looks if you see people ahead of you on this section.)

The one tricky section following the chains 

Afterwards, there's a fairly loose steep section where you'll have to downclimb a mix of scree covered slabs and a rocky gully before reaching the final traverse to the summit. 

I honestly don't remember this section being too bad back in 2018 but this year, 2022, I found it nasty and extremely unpleasant. I suspect it's because the gully was snow covered and so we had to take slabs down covered in loose rock. Hopefully it's easier when dry.

Beginning the short downclimb before the final summit push 
Short downclimb before the final climb up to the summit
The end in sight! Final push up to the summit!

The Summit of Yamnuska 

It took us 4 hours, but we made it to the summit and knew that it would be a fast descent down the front scree slopes.

We stopped for snacks and photos before heading down.

Summit of Mount Yamnuska! 
My Boo and I on the Summit of Mount Yamnuska

From the Summit down to the West Col

From the summit there's a super fun scree run down to the West Col (the most amazing scree I've ever seen where each step plunges you gently down the mountain with no effort or stress to the knees.)

Descending scree from the summit down to the shoulder

2022 update: This section SUCKS. The new trail either goes higher of the good scree or else the good scree is gone. Regardless, if you follow the blue markers, you'll be descending a long loose slippery slope where every step threatens to slide your feet out from under you. I can't count the number of times I nearly fell down. 

It's endless scree covered slabs and hard dirt covered in small rocks. I had no grip at all.

The descent from the summit starts off pleasant

As of 2022 this is what much of the descent from the summit looks like

You'll reach the West Col at this point and then you have two choices:

A. Hike around to the front side aiming for the large scree slope that you can see from the highway and run down the scree. It's quick, effortless, and saves a good 40 minutes. It's also more dangerous, the scree isn't as good as it used to be, and there is significant rockfall hazard. (People have died after being hit by rocks from hikers above.)

B. Follow the new route down the West Col hiking trail. It is a lovely, gentle, relaxed trail, that takes you back to your ascent trail after passing by the cliffs on the front side. It's also a good way UP if you don't want to do the chains.

The shoulder of Yamnuska - hiking around to the front side

Scree Route:

We used the scree route back in 2018 because that was the official route. 

First of all, do not run down the first scree slope you see at the shoulder!! Keep traversing and wait until you're halfway across the cliff face before you go down. Descend too soon and you'll get cliffed out.  A very well developed "false trail" has appeared at the shoulder that gets people in trouble. You must traverse under the cliffs before descending.

Also, please bring helmets to protect yourselves from rock fall hazard on this section.

Traversing under cliffs to get to the good scree descent down the mountain

Running Down the Yamnuska Scree Slope (the fastest descent in the Rockies)

Traverse below the cliff bands until you get halfway across and start to see really long scree slopes. Pick one and descend. (best not to pick the first one you come to because it will be overused and the scree won't be as good.)

Running down the front side of Yamnuska

I'm not sure how much height you lose on the scree run, but it's a LOT. It took us 4 hours to hike up, and only 2 hours to hike down. Your knees will love this hike because you get to run down soft scree all the way to treeline far below.

Truly one of the fastest descents in the Rockies.

From the bottom of the scree run, there's a good trail leading left back towards the parking lot. You'll pass by a small waterfall and you'll be on a good hiking trail in no time.

And our boys were still running in the final 20 minutes before reaching the parking lot. Strong from start to finish.

The boys running down the front side of Yamnuska

West Col Descent Route 

There is a new descent trail once you reach the West Col from the summit. The scree slope on the front side is no longer recommended. The new descent trail is actually quite lovely too and has the best grade I've ever seen for a descent trail on a scramble route. It's very comfortable and your knees will be quite happy.

Comfortable West Col Descent Route

Recommended Gear

Dressed for success! (Helmet, bike gloves, and gaiters)
  • Helmets - you're traversing under cliffs, you're scrambling up a chimney, and you're traversing an exposed ledge. All good signs that you should be wearing helmets - even if nobody else is

  • Gaiters! You'll want them for the scree descent to keep rocks out of your boots. We put ours on at the summit.

  • Good hiking boots or shoes. This isn't exactly the kind of trail you use trail runners in unless you want the scree to tear them to shreds. 

  • Bike gloves for the descent. We swear by them when scrambling. Fall down and you won't gash your hands up.

You want your legs and hands protected before running down this slope

Recommended Prerequisite Trips and Suggested Reading 

Yamnuska is rated as an "easy" scramble but that's because there's only one exposed or difficult section (and it has chains.) Without the chains, this would be a difficult scramble (something you'd never do with kids.)

My personal opinion though, even with the chains, this is not an "easy" hike. It is a moderate scramble with hands on climbing involved, and you'll want to have reached some other solid summits first with the kids.

Yamnuska Summit Shot 

Try some of these trips below as you work your way up to Yamnuska (links go to the stories I've written:)

Climbing down from the chains on Yamnuska
Heart Mountain Family Scramble

East End of Mount Rundle Double Summit Day 

Nihahi Ridge to the South Summit 

Tent Ridge Horseshoe Hike 

5 Summit Day in Canmore (Ha Ling Peak to Miners Peak) 

Mount Lady Macdonald Hike, Canmore 

Little Lougheed, Spray Valley Provincial Park 

And for a complete list of scrambles, summits, and ridge walks my family has completed, read this story: First Summits for Families in the Canadian Rockies

Lower slopes on Yamnuska (a great hike!)

Buy a Guide Book! 

I encourage everybody to go buy a guide book and to study the route you want to tackle rather than just relying on blogs, trip reports, and photos from other people's climbs.

The best guide book for Yamnuska is this one by Alan Kane: Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies. (Amazon affiliate link.)

Parting Shot from Yamnuska

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