Monday, August 12, 2019

Bow Hut Family Alpine Adventure, Banff National Park

The Alpine Club of Canada has an amazing network of backcountry huts and cabins, and we try to hike in to one new hut each summer as a family. We enjoy the remote locations for each hut, the amazing scenery that we get to explore hiking to our destination, and the comfort that comes with sleeping in a warm dry cabin.

The Alpine Club of Canada's Bow Hut, Banff National Park 

Searching for a New Backcountry Hut to Visit this Summer 

It's getting increasingly challenging to find new destinations close to Calgary that that don't require a multi-day road trip just to reach the trailhead. Many of the huts also require glacier travel or significant mountaineering experience, which eliminates them for the time being with a 10 year old.

 - To see a full list of the other huts we've already visited (with links to the stories I've written) scroll to the bottom of this guide.

One new hut that was well within our abilities with a ten year old child was the Bow Hut perched on the edge of the Wapta Icefield along the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper. And, we've actually attempted to reach this hut several times, but have always been rained out and ended up canceling. - which actually wasn't much different this time except that we gambled on a bad weather forecast, committed to the trip, and won with much better conditions than expected.

It was a soggy hike in, but we reached the hut in time for the sun to come out

Information and Stats for Visiting the Bow Hut

General Location: On the east side of the Wapta Icefield, above Bow Lake in Banff National Park

Trailhead: Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway

Hiking Distance from Bow Lake to the Hut: 8 kilometres one way with 400 metres height gain

Time it took us to reach the hut: It took us 4 hours to reach the hut on the way in (3 hours on the way out)

Hiking in on the Bow Lake Trail

Difficulty of the hiking trail: The approach is not a hard one, but you do have to cross a giant chockstone (the crux of the trail because a fall would be fatal) which you'll see a photo of below. The trail is also a mountaineering access route (the hut was built to allow climbers to reach the glacier and peaks above) so expect some route finding once you leave the official hiking trail for Bow Glacier Falls.

For a complete route description follow this link to the ACC website.

Crossing the giant chockstone en route to the Bow Hut

Cost to spend the night: $30 per night for Alpine Club of Canada members, $40 for non-members. Children are half price. A wilderness pass is also required for each adult at a rate of $9.75 per night.

Booking spaces: Follow this link to make a reservation. A booking can be made up to a year in advance if you are a member. (30 days for non-members)

Sleeping Capacity of the hut: 30 people in a shared sleeping room (the room is divided into upper and lower sleeping platforms - like large bunk beds)

Hiking up the rough trail above the Bow Glacier Falls turnoff 

Layout of this hut:

This is one of the BEST ACC HUTS for layout!! There are two separate rooms (one for sleeping, and one for eating/cooking/socializing) and they are separated by a long hallway to keep the bedroom nice and quiet.

Both rooms are on the same level so you don't have the issue of hot air rising and people suffocating in the loft while others are freezing on the main level huddled around the fireplace.

The outhouse is also reached from the inside just off the hallway so you don't have to go outside in the middle of the night.

The hut has two separate rooms for sleeping and eating with a hallway connecting them

What to bring with you: 

Guests at an ACC hut have to bring their own sleeping bags, food, basic overnight gear, headlamps, and slippers or inside shoes. Other than that, the hut comes equipped with sleeping mattresses, propane stove tops (with a full size propane oven) and lanterns, cooking supplies and all dishes, and the bathrooms were stocked with toilet paper. There is also a wood fireplace which helps to dry wet clothes.

Other than that, consider this a backpacking trip and plan your food accordingly. (There is no fridge at the hut.) You'll also have to boil water to drink or bring a water filter for the creek.

There were lots of creek crossings on the way in! 

Hiking in to the Bow Hut 

Our hike in took about 4 hours and was pretty soggy towards the end (we arrived at the hut soaking wet.) Honestly though, it could have been worse and it only really started raining in our last half hour.

Climbing the stairs up towards the Bow Glacier Falls turnoff from the lake 

My husband and I knew the route well so there were no challenges with directions, but we knew it would be a little scary getting our son across the giant chockstone, so we'd brought a short length of rope and his harness for this section. My husband belayed him across to ensure complete safety (you only get one shot at raising your kids and bringing them to adulthood in one piece.)

And while the chockstone may not look that "bad" from the photos, it's super hard to get up onto it from the approach side (as you can see the big climb up in the photo below) and a fall off the top would be fatal.

A photo of the chockstone crossing from our hike out 

Other than that, the only other challenge came with the frequent creek crossings but we were pros at this by the end. (I recommend good waterproof footwear and hiking poles!)

One of the creek crossings on our hike out 

Day Trip Plans from the Hut 

We were originally planning to spend two nights at the hut until the weather forecast convinced us to just do a shorter one-night trip. In hindsight, the weather ended up being better than expected once we reached the hut and we could have spent the full two nights.

In a full day from the hut, there are many options for exploring. We had been hoping to do an easy glacier traverse to summit Mt. Thompson (an easy walk up mountaineering objective) with another family. The other family pulled out of from the trip though after seeing the weather forecast, and so we chose to do something easier.

For families wanting to explore around the hut (without getting on the glacier) there are a couple of fun options which include visiting an ice cave and hiking to the top of a nearby family-friendly summit called the Onion.

There are several fun options for families wanting to explore around the hut without getting on the glacier 

Climbing the "Onion" from Bow Hut 

This is the most popular objective for most hikers looking for a non-technical summit to reach from the hut. Pretty much the entire group staying at the hut with us had made it up to the top at some point during their visit.

We arrived at the hut in the rain, but within an hour, the skies had cleared, we were dried off, and we'd had our first dinner. We decided to head out to hike up to the summit of the Onion before having a late second dinner. 

The sun came out and we climbed up above the hut to begin hiking towards the Onion

The Onion is located roughly 300 metres above the hut (making for a height gain of 700 metres from the highway.) 

It took us approximately 2 hours round trip to reach the summit, to stop at the ice cave on descent, and to make it back to the hut.

For us, this meant that we did a total of 6 hours of hiking on our first day and had completed the full 700 metres of height gain. For a more relaxing day I recommend spending a second night at the hut and hiking up to the Onion on your rest day.

Fun hiking on rock ribs towards the Onion 

The hike up the Onion is a "route" and there is no official trail. For that reason I suggest you talk with other visitors at the hut before heading out. Anybody at the hut will be able to point you in the correct direction to reach the Onion. 

Tarn, Bow Glacier, and Mt. St. Nicholas en route to the Onion 

Step one for reaching the Onion was to hike up above the hut, heading towards a small glacier tarn, and then making our way up lots of fun scrambly rock ribs on the lower slopes of the Onion past some waterfalls.

The rock was so much fun to scramble and we found these cool pools of water 
Lots of fun scrambling on rock up the Onion
This was some of the most fun scrambling I've done in a long time!
We were always rewarded with views of the Bow Glacier and St. Nicholas in the background (a peak I'm rather partial to after climbing it years ago.) 

And if you pay attention to the Bow Glacier in the photo below, that was our descent route off the Onion rather than scrambling back down the rock. 

Climbing above the Bow Glacier with St. Nicholas in the background 

I don't recommend following our descent option though unless you have significant experience on glaciers, and can determine if this section of the glacier is safe at the time of your visit (when we were there, there was significant snow coverage on the glacier, and it had been well traveled. We were very secure that we wouldn't be falling into any crevasses.) 

Also know that if you are going to descend the glacier, there is an ice cave at the bottom of it. You don't want to fall into the cave (which is full of water.) Make sure you know exactly where the cave is when choosing your descent line.

The views were incredible the higher we got! 

We continued climbing higher until we had the option to get on a snow field below the summit. When faced with snow Vs. rock, we always choose snow as long as it's safe to do so - and this snow was totally safe to be climbing. We were just on snow-covered rock here (not glacier.)

Climbing up the snow field below the summit of the Onion 

It was easy walking up the snow (and we had good boots that kept our feet relatively dry.) Plus, look how incredibly gorgeous this was!! I felt like we were on a mountaineering expedition just hiking up this snow - and now I totally want to go back next summer.

Climbing up a snow field above the Bow Glacier 

Once we reached the edge of the snow field, it was just a plod up rock to the summit where we found a large cairn overlooking Bow Lake.

Ready to start the final climb up rock to the summit 

The Summit of the Onion 

The summit was gorgeous looking down on Bow Lake. We didn't have a lot of time at the top though since we got such a late start, so I definitely want to return next summer. 

Looking down on Bow Lake from the summit of the Onion 
Onion Summit with my boys looking back on the Wapta Icefield 
Summit of the Onion 

Descending the Bow Glacier to the Ice Cave 

We wanted to go visit the ice cave on our way back to the hut, and since it was at the base of the glacier, there was no faster way to reach it than by running straight down the glacier. 

Hiking down the Bow Glacier back to the Bow Hut

We really did run down the glacier! It was so much fun!! 

The glacier was in great shape when we were there for a quick run down and the snow was nice and deep to cover anything up. - and running down this glacier was so much fun!! It was a highlight of our entire summer so far.

My husband loved leading us down the glacier
Approaching the tarns again and the ice cave at the bottom of the glacier

 The Ice Cave at the bottom of the Bow Glacier 

This is a short outing from the hut even if you don't want to go climb the Onion. You don't have to get on the glacier and it's a very short walk above the hut.

And no, you can not explore inside the cave. It's filled with very cold deep water.

We found the ice cave below the Bow Glacier
You don't want to be running down the glacier and suddenly end up falling through into the cave!

Back at the Hut and Hiking out the Next Day 

We got back to the hut, finally had an official dinner, and watched as it continued to "not" rain - the weather forecast totally changed once we arrived at the hut!

It was overcast but dry the whole night at the hut

The next morning it was still sunny and we had a gorgeous hike out! We definitely should have stayed for two nights!

It was a gorgeous morning for our hike out
Hiking down the steep trail from the hut 
Back to the creek crossings 
In this photo you can see the Bow Hut to the left and the rounded summit of the  Onion to the far right 

You can see the rounded summit of the Onion in the photos above and below.

Hiking down below the rounded summit of the Onion 
There is a lot of rock traversing on this hike (wear good hiking boots!)

The creek with the chockstone crossing 

 It only took us 3 hours to hike out and we headed straight to Lake Louise for lunch.

Hiking down the staircase below the junction with the Bow Glacier Falls Trail

Back at Bow Lake 

For more information on this hike or to make a booking for next summer, please visit the Alpine Club of Canada's website. 

Resources and Recommended Reading (other huts we've stayed at)

Family Backcountry Cabin Camping in the Canadian Rockies

 Backcountry Cabin Camping with Kids - Elk Lakes Cabin, BC  

Summer Backpacking Trip to the Asulkan Cabin, Rogers Pass  

Backpacking in the Bugaboos (and our first family glacier traverse) - Conrad Kain Hut 

Backcountry Cabin Camping  with Kids - Stanley Mitchell Hut, BC

Easter at the Wheeler Hut, Rogers Pass

The Easiest Family Winter Backcountry Trip (Wheeler Hut, Rogers Pass)

Winter at the Cameron Lake Cabin, Waterton Lakes National Park 

Easter at the Elizabeth Parker Hut, Lake O'Hara   

Winter Camping with Kids ( No Tent!!) 

Snowy Adventures in Elk Lakes Provincial Park

Raising Tough Kids - Our Annual Winter Backpacking Trip

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

The Ultimate Via Ferrata Experience at Mount Norquay, Banff

Living close to Banff National Park, I'm always looking for a new adventure or a new way to appreciate the incredible scenery around me in a fresh way. I want to see Mount Rundle from a viewpoint that's not plastered across Instagram every single day, and I want to get on top of the iconic peaks around the Town of Banff - without having to share those summits with dozens of other people.

High above Banff on the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata 

Mount Norquay's Via Ferrata Routes provide the opportunity to experience Banff in a unique way that will set your vacation, your photos, and your adventures apart from those of other visitors to the Canadian Rockies.

Introduction to the Via Ferrata Climbing Experience

Italian for “iron road”, a Via Ferrata is an assisted climbing experience where you get the unique opportunity to climb a mountain without needing to have previous rock climbing experience. (And when I say "climb" a mountain, I don't mean "hike up" a mountain on a nice trail, but I mean actually scale the cliff face of a mountain like an actual rock climber.)

Climbing the cliffs of Mount Norquay with a Via Ferrata assisted climbing route 

Via Ferrata routes use steel cables fixed to the rock face so that climbers can safely attach themselves to the cables without risking a life-threatening fall. Additional climbing aids along the route include iron rungs and pegs, ladders, suspension bridges, and other cable bridges.

Visit the Mount Norquay website to check out the routes and to learn more about Via Ferrata climbing. 

Ladder climb on the Summiteer Route of the Via Ferrata at Mount Norquay 

My Previous Via Ferrata Experience 

I'd previously completed two Via Ferrata routes in the Canadian Rockies, one at Mount Norquay Resort many years ago, and one at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden a couple of years ago. I loved both tours to the point where I'd say I'm a bit of a Via Ferrata adrenaline junkie (I could do a new one every month if it were an option!)

Climbing an exposed section of the Summiteer Route at Mount Norquay 

After completing the longest route at Kicking Horse, the 3-hour Ascension Route, I was left wondering what was next? Surely there had to be a route that was longer than 3 hours, that was even more challenging, more terrifying, and that would push me even further outside my comfort zone. Fortunately, Mount Norquay's newest Via Ferrata Route has succeeded in knocking those goals out of the park!

The 3 wire suspension bridge crossing on the Summiteer Route of the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata 

Taking it to the Next Level with the Mount Norquay Summiteer Route

When I decide to take the next step, man do I take a big step! From my previous 3-hour Via Ferrata tour I jumped all the way up to a 6-hour tour!! That's double the length! - and I don't think I really let that soak in until just now.

Mount Norquay has four Via Ferrata routes ranging in length from 2.5 hours round trip all the way up to the ultimate Summiteer Route at 6 hours round trip. If you haven't done a Via Ferrata Tour before, if you have a slight fear of heights, or if you aren't sure about your fitness level, I'd recommend starting with one of the shorter tours.

All of the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata routes include a suspension bridge crossing 

For me, the Summiteer Route was the "dream" I'd been waiting for! 

This is what I was looking for on my Via Ferrata adventure! 

What sets the Summiteer Route apart from other routes in the Canadian Rockies 

The length of the tour is the big one! 

No other route I've found is this long.

6 hours of delicious exposed climbing on the Summiteer Route of the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata

The unique climbing aids on the route! 

Most routes have one suspension bridge and maybe a short ladder. The Summiteer Route has a normal suspension bridge, two additional wire suspension bridges (one that you'll cross twice on your way out and back,) a long ladder to climb, and a short wooden plank crossing.

Crossing one of the suspension bridges on the Summiteer Route at Mount Norquay 

I don't know any other route with this amount of cool features.

Wooden plank bridge crossing on our Via Ferrata route

You'll reach an actual climbers' summit (that's not shared with hikers!) 

You'll reach a summit at Kicking Horse if you do the Ascension Route, but it's a hikers' summit that anybody can reach from the top of the gondola on a sightseeing tour.  (My son could climb to the top of it for example without doing the Via Ferrata Tour.) 

The East Summit of Mount Norquay that you reach on the Summiteer Route 

The East Summit of Mount Norquay is only reached by a small percentage of strong climbers or by those participating in a Via Ferrata tour.

East Summit of Mount Norquay 

And note that only the Summiteer Route at Norquay reaches this summit. The other routes reach the ridge top or one of the buttresses on the cliffs of Mount Norquay. 

We were pretty thrilled to reach the summit on the Summiteer Route at Norquay!

The Summiteer Route is the most challenging route I've done

Obviously the route is challenging because of its length and the sheer amount of time you'll have to concentrate on climbing. Aside from that though, I found it very challenging once we left the Skyline Route behind for our push to the summit. 

The three-wire suspension bridge was terrifying (I won't lie) and we had to do it twice because the final portion of the route to the summit is an out and back trip.

Doesn't this look fun? - and only the summiteer route crosses this 3-wire bridge 

The other tricky part was downclimbing the Via Ferrata route from the summit back to the junction with the Skyline Route. I joked that somebody was going to have to stand below me and guide my feet at all times. (I'm pleased to say that it didn't come to that, but I was certainly scared and took it very seriously.)

Downclimbing on the way down from the summit on our Via Ferrata route

There's actual scrambling and climbing on the Summiteer Route!

I've done other routes where I felt like I just had to follow the metal rungs and pegs the whole time, essentially climbing a ladder up the mountain. And while there's always delicious exposure as you traverse along the cliff face, it's not exactly "real climbing."

This looks like real climbing to me!

On the summiteer route I felt like I was using all of my experience from years of scrambling and climbing mountains along with the limited rock climbing experience that I also have. The iron rungs and pegs are there to assist you but you still have to find hand and foot holds, decide where to place your feet so you feel secure, and even find your own unique route up the cliff face if the pegs are spaced out too far for your height. 

You get to use and touch the rock a lot on the summiteer route! I really felt like I'd climbed a mountain. I appreciated the assistance of the cable, the bridges, and the metal aid pieces though because they kept me safe at times when the climbing was extremely exposed. Some of the route I could have done unprotected, but definitely not for 6 straight hours! 

Nice and exposed - and definitely using the rock on the route

The Ridgecrest Descent was absolutely gorgeous! 

My previous tour at Mount Norquay didn't include the new descent trail down the ridgecrest at the top. The new Skyline and Summiteer Routes get to descend this way and it was a highlight of the trip. 

I really appreciated the views of the Town of Banff from this ridge walk and it was nice to enjoy some beautiful high-country hiking before we left the top of the mountain. (I had a hiking pole with me for this part and appreciated it for the occasional steep bits.)

Descending the ridgecrest off the East Summit of Mount Norquay 

Lunch along with post-trip beverages and appetizers was included 

Hiking down to the Cliffhouse Bistro at the end
The Summiteer Route is the only one that includes lunch and snacks/drinks at the end of the day. We were able to pack our own bag lunch at the cafeteria before we started and then we ate it at various rest stops along the trip including the summit. There was a good variety of lunch options to choose from for all diets and restrictions as well.

At the end of the adventure we all headed into the Cliffhouse Bistro together at the top of the North American sightseeing chairlift. Here we were invited to choose a beverage (a few of us shared a pitcher of beer) and we each received a charcuterie plate. This was included with our tour.

I must say that this made packing extremely easy in the morning not having to worry about snacks or lunch. All I had to pack was my water. It's also great for tourists and travelers who may not have easy access to lunch and snack supplies.

- and on the topic of Norquay taking care of travelers, you can also borrow everything you need for the tour (including a backpack and hiking boots.)

Looking down on the Cliffhouse Bistro where we had drinks and appies at the end of our tour

Final Details for Those Wanting to Try a Via Ferrata Route at Mount Norquay 

  • All of your climbing equipment is included (along with your helmet.) You can also borrow everything else you might need (at no cost) so if you show up in sneakers, a pair of hiking boots will be lent to you. You can even borrow rain gear if you aren't prepared for the day's weather forecast.

  • Wear comfortable outdoor clothing as you would for hiking (no jeans,) and think "stretchy." You will want pants that allow your legs to move, to bend, and to take some big steps.

  • Wear good hiking boots with a sturdy sole. I don't personally recommend light trail runners for this.

  • Bring the normal stuff for hiking: sun glasses, sun block, bug spray if you want it (I didn't find it necessary,) your own personal snack items of choice if you want, layers of clothing including a warm sweater and a rain jacket, your own gloves if you want (or you can borrow gloves) - I used my bike gloves, lots of water!! (I recommend a platypus filled with 2L of water so you can quickly take a sip when you need it,) and a small backpack that will also fit your lunch.

  • If you want to take photos of the whole thing I recommend bringing a friend with you and swapping cameras or just having your friend take photos of you while you take photos of him/her. I had my cell phone in a zipper pocket and this worked really well to pull out quickly for tons of great photos. My friend used a point and shoot camera with a lanyard around her neck and a carabiner attached to her harness. This also worked well. Don't put your phone or camera in your backpack if you want lots of photos - you'll only get summit shots if you do this.

  • Ask your guide for help with photos. Our guide was great at un-clipping himself to get into some unique vantage points where he'd take photos on his own camera, and then he emailed them to us at the end of the day.

  • This activity is NOT CHILD-FRIENDLY. Sorry. Bring your girlfriends, grab a group of guys, bring your spouse or partner, but you'll have to leave the kids behind. They can ride up the chairlift though at the beginning to see you off or they can meet you at the top of the chair at the end of the day.

  • The minimum age for the Explorer and Ridgewalker routes at Mount Norquay is 12 (with a minimum of 88 pounds.) The Skyline and Summiteer routes have a minimum age requirement of 14.

  • As mentioned already, Mount Norquay has four Via Ferrata routes ranging in length from 2.5 hours round trip all the way up to the ultimate Summiteer Route at 6 hours round trip. If you haven't done a Via Ferrata Tour before, if you have a slight fear of heights, or if you aren't sure about your fitness level, I'd recommend starting with one of the shorter tours.

  • A good fitness level is required for the 6-hour route, but that being said, you only actually gain 360 metres of height on this route. Much of the time is spent traversing cliffs where you won't be exerting yourself in the same way as you would actually hiking up to the top of a mountain. I was certainly tired, but it was doable. We also had several rest breaks and the pace was never crushing.
Looking back on the suspension bridge that we crossed on our route 

You can also read more on how a Via Ferrata works, what to bring, route schedules, safety guidelines, and group policies. 

A fun adventurous day out on the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata

Disclaimer: I was hosted by Mount Norquay for the day with a friend so that I could provide this review. As always, all opinions and words are my own.

I've also used all of my own photos from the trip other than a couple I received from our guide.