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. 

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. We could have done it faster but why rush when there are gorgeous views to enjoy.

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

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.

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? You'll be following these the entire way to the summit. (No idea who put them there but I guess they could be helpful.)

Scrambling up the chimney to the backside of Yamnuska 

Traversing to the Top of the Cliffs 

You'll be following a fairly good trail as you traverse across the backside of the mountain making your way for the ridge top. If you ever get lost (or wonder which of the many scree trails you should be on) just look for the painted blue squares. They are everywhere and always tell you if you're on the best path.

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.

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

And You've Reached the Top of the Ridge

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)

From the top of the ridge, continue to traverse across the mountain following the painted blue squares on the rock until you reach an exposed traverse with chains.

The photo below gives you a good idea of what you're traversing before you reach the chains.

A good look at what you're traversing on the backside of Yamnuska

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! 

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 one short downclimb (with some easy hands on scrambling) and then a final traverse to the summit.

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

Around the Shoulder back to the Front Side of Yamnuska

From the summit there's a super fun scree run down to the shoulder of Yam (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

And you can check out the video below if you don't really know what it looks like to run down good scree.

We expected the shoulder to be super loose (it used to be) but it wasn't so bad really, and before we knew it we were on the front side of Yam, ready to traverse under the big cliffs that you see from the highway.

The shoulder of Yamnuska - hiking around to the front side

BIG NOTE here - Do not run down the first scree slope you see at the shoulder!! Keep going 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.

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

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. The boys were both wearing Keen Kids Oakridge Shoes which worked well.

  • Bike gloves for the descent. We swear by them when scrambling. Fall down and you won't gash your hands up. (We like the Zippy Rooz half finger gloves.)

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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