We arrived in Canmore just after 2pm on Sunday, August 20th, just over 24 hours after leaving Winnipeg. I have to admit that I do enjoy the annual road trip, it’s a long drive, but I grew up with the overcrowded British road network, and its still a novelty being able to drive for hours at a time and not encounter any significant traffic. We broke the journey just east of Swift Current, pulling about 50 yards onto a narrow road just off the Trans-Canada where we spent the night in the truck, before continuing at first light to the mountains.
The cleaner was still working in the Boswell cabin when we got there, so we popped into Canmore and did a little shopping. The cabin is situated at the top of a short stairway at the back of the ACC clubhouse. It has running water and power, and the upstairs bedrooms are nicer than some hotels I’ve stayed in. There is also deck (complete with barbecues), which faces south and the 3 Sisters mountain range dominates the view in this direction. This is Canmore’s “signature mountain” – it’s on the front of the map, and seemed to be the obvious choice of objective for the first day of our stay.
The Three Sisters rest magnificently across from Boswell Cabin, Canmore, Alberta. Photo Credit : Michael Ducharme
Other members of our party started to arrive, and by the following day there were a total of 9 adults and 7 children present, the youngest being Kasia’s daughter Olivia at 10 months, a truly mixed-ability group.
My own daughter Antonia was the oldest child, almost 14, and joined Mike Ducharme and myself on the morning of the 21st to attempt Big Sister. As the name suggests, it is the highest of the 3, at 9,633 feet. The easiest route to the summit is via the SW ridge, which is not visible from the cabin.
A 15 minute drive down gravel hwy 742 leads to the parking lot by the 3 Sisters dam, and from here the summit cannot be seen, it’s an uninspiring view and doesn’t give much idea of what is ahead. It did look set to be a beautiful day, with a cloudless blue sky. There was one party of 3 just a couple of minutes ahead of us, and otherwise the lot was empty.
We crossed a dried up water course and headed into the trees, climbing steeply up an initially well-defined trail which switched back regularly, allowing us to make steady progress for the first hour. Here the trees were getting thinner, and we paused so that I could apply a dressing to the hot-spot that was forming at the back of Antonia’s heel. We noticed orange tape tied to several trees here, and realized that this marked a possible route turning off to our right. While we were stopped, another party of 3 caught up to us, and we queried which way would be the best. They suggested sticking to the ridge rather than leaving it and following the route to the right, so that is what we did.
As we left the tree line, we climbed a steep, clean and well-featured slab for maybe a hundred feet. The angle was high enough to necessitate using our hands, but friction was excellent and we made good upward progress. We could see the party that had been ahead of us at the parking lot – they were over to the right, above us in the gully, and several rocks came crashing down below them as they moved upwards – we had made the right choice it seemed.
How’s your slab game? Photo Credit: Michael Ducharme
We continued up more steep, broken ground to an overhang which barred our way. This was only about 8′ high, but we could see the guys that had passed us earlier away to our left, so we decide to follow suit and traversed away under the overhang. After a hundred meteres or so I was able to head directly upwards through boulders and scree, trending rightwards and eventually rejoining the ridge.
Here we paused again, this time to take in the partial eclipse. I was a little disappointed, as I had thought that it would go dark and become night briefly in the mid-morning, but this did not happen. There was so much light getting around the moon that the brightness of the day was unaffected. It was good to take in the views of the adjacent mountains though, and to appreciate the brilliant blue sky, perfect climbing weather.
We continued upwards on more solid ground to a notch in the ridge, with cairns either side. This marked the point where we had to make a very short down climb, not more than several easy moves, off the ridge. The way up was now over exasperating scree, and then rock debris on slab which felt quite unsecure given the angle of about 45 degrees. It was an obvious, but long hard slog to the second major break in the ridge at around 9,400 feet. Here the summit came into view for the first time really, and the only way forward was a near vertical down-climb into the notch.
Mick and Antonia making good work through somewhat technical scrambling. Photo Credit: Michael Ducharme
Antonia did not want to tackle the down-climb or push on up to the summit, so Mike kept her company while I dropped my pack and went for it. Fortunately the holds were huge, and the route took a 50 foot corner which minimized the feeling of exposure. Once down this, an obvious worn path tracked up under the base of the left side of an imposing rock face several hundred feet high. I moved quickly without my pack, gasping for breath, the air pressure here being noticeably lower than I was accustomed to. More scrambling then led to the summit ridge, and I stood at the cairn at 9633 feet at mid day. The views in all directions were awesome – as I watched, a tiny red and white helicopter took off from Canmore, rose and banked off into the 3 Sisters Pass, thousands of feet below me. I lingered for a minute or two, then scrambled off the summit ridge and back down to the corner. This was even easier going upwards and I was soon back with my companions.
Antonia had put on warm clothing but was getting a little bit cold sitting there. Fortunately, Mike wasted no time in visiting the summit while I waited with her. While he did this, we ate cream cheese bagels – normally the only food I take on a day trip in the mountains is trail mix and granola bars, but Antonia had insisted on the bagels. I was very glad that she did, because they tasted way better. Calories aren’t everything I guess!
Mike returned from the summit and I queried whether I should be feeling the effects of altitude at this relatively low level. He suggested that I check the back of my hands – they were indeed swollen, the ligaments from my wrist to the base of my fingers were no longer visible – I had not imagined my breathlessness as I went for the top.
Michael Ducharme at the summit of Big Sister near Canmore, Alberta. Photo Credit: Michael Ducharme
Hauling my pack onto my shoulders, we started on down. It sounds very easy to say that we re-traced our steps, in fact it was anything but. The steepness of the ground made for hard going, as did the loose, rough and unsecure rock. The angle puts a constant strain on quadriceps which work hard to control the rate of descent. Numerous slips, scraped hands and much swearing was the order of the day. Often the easiest way down a slabby section was on the backside and heels, or “butt-scooching” as Antonia called it. There are cairns dotted here and there, but the route is pretty indistinct, and the guide book gives dire warnings about the difficulties if you stray too far left into the gully on the way down. It seems like a long, long way when the urge to reach the summit has gone.
Amazing views of the Bow Valley near the top of The Big Sister!
After several hours, we inadvertently found a crux ahead of us, being a steep, wide crack which again necessitated climbing. It was only short thankfully, but felt very tricky to down-climb with a pack on. Mike went first, then guided me down, followed by Antonia, and I breathed a sigh of relief when we had had our feet on level-firm (ish) ground. “A bit marginal”, as a friend of mine would have said. Looking up, we realized that this crack split the overhang where we had traversed left on our ascent. I was carrying a short rope and enough gear to belay or rappel, and with hindsight I maybe should have used it here……..
There were several trees appearing dotted around now, and shortly we were back into the tree line, this time going to the left of the clean slab section. As we moved into the tree line, we picked up the trail again. Mike noticed a fork to our right, which led under a small rock face to the marked spot where we had stopped earlier to repair Antonia’s heel. We continued to make slow and painful downward progress, the unremitting steepness pushing feet forward and jamming toes hard against the inside of the front of our boots. I found it well worth using hiking poles – they can be bothersome to carry, but take at least a little of the strain off the knees coming downhill (and mine are not that good these days).
Suffice to say that we were more than a little sore and tired when we finally reached the car. It had taken longer to get down than it had to climb the mountain. Gravity does not always make things easier! Alan Kane’s guidebook grades this a “moderate scramble”. Well I guess that depends upon your ability……. it isn’t a hike that’s for sure.
It was a tough but very satisfying day, and great to be able to sit on the deck back at the cabin, sipping a cold beer and enjoying the view of the 3 Sisters from the north. We only saw 6 other people on the mountain all day. How very different things were at Lake Louise later that week, with the parking lot full by 9:30am, and crowds around the lakeside that felt more like Polo Park on Boxing Day than the mountains…….I know where I’d rather be.