The Bow Valley is an incredible playground. A landscape feature that follows the Bow River as it winds its way down from the huge Bow Glacier in the Canadian Rockies near Lake Louise, the Bow Valley wraps Canmore & Banff in pine forested valleys, and protects those iconic townsites with magnificent, towering, sawtoothed peaks like a fringe around its edges.
When it comes to playing in the Bow Valley, hiking and scrambling your way up Heart Mountain is a right of passage, sort of like hiking up Ha Ling, a popular hike that perches you high atop the Canmore Town site. Both are challenging as their elevation gains happen over very short distances, as the ravens fly.
Heart Mountain, and in particular, the more difficult Heart Mountain Horseshoe traverse, is better than Ha Ling. Hands down. With its spectacular views of the outer edges of the rockies extending in 3 directions, and views of the prairies rolling out to the east in the fourth, it is a far more fun “check-in” hike to do each year. It’s slightly more difficult (read that as seriously fun!) with climbing sections that have a bit of exposure…. making it way more challenging, and far more of an adventure than simply a grueling hike…. and it has the bonus of being less crowded, once you leave the Up-To-The-Peak-and–Back-Down-Again day trippers behind.
We were able to do this hike last year on Valentines Day in February, as we had very little snow that year. This year, however, is an entirely different story as we’ve had a tremendous amount of spring snow, and two very large recent snowfalls that make some areas of the mountains here still unsafe for hiking and biking, due to avalanches, this late in the season at the end of May! Ah well, that’s mountains for you!
The Heart Mountain scrambler’s route is relentlessly steep but that gets you up into breathtaking views very quickly (ok… sure… maybe the steepness of the ascent is the breath-taking part!).
You are essentially hiking up the shoulder-ridge of the mountain until you come to the really unique syncline feature of its peak…. a cliff band of rock that dips down, folded by extreme forces deep inside the earth, and then thrust up to look like a heart shape.
This hike has many sections where you can opt to scramble rather than hike up a steep and winding trail. And it is the scrambling, with hands and feet on the rock, that is the most fun.
I see the scramble spots as practice for the via ferrata we plan to do in Italy in the fall, though there you wear a harness and special carabineer straps and link into an iron cable that’s permanently affixed to the mountain. Here you can pick your own route… and it’s a seriously great time!
Scrambling up Heart Mountain, there are two “cruxes.” These are the more challenging, difficult sections that require you to tuck away your hiking poles, tug those back pack straps up tight, and then put all hands and feet on the rock as you climb up. If you don’t feel comfortable with this level of exposure, heights or this type of scrambling activity, don’t do this hike: there’s no way to get around the two cruxes. And don’t take a dog with you unless you are prepared to climb and lift at the same time.
To put it in perspective, the first crux, though short, saw us doing it in stages so we could lift and haul poor Seamus up. With Bill hoisting Seamus over his head from the ground below and me wedged into a good spot, half way up, giving a good yanking haul on Seamus’ harness, we got him up up. Seamus was a good sport about it, but really didn’t help much by going all limp, submissive noodle on us!
The second crux comes just after this where we had to climb up, w-a-y up a really fun, long section of cliff band.
Picture three layers of rock, like a grilled cheese sandwich: the melted cheese layer, slightly softer & more eroded, is held in place by the wonderfully crispy whole wheat (no, let’s say sourdough), layers. Up turn this sandwich on its side, and you have what we were scrambling up.
First, you climb a bit of scree… the cheese bits that have escaped the clutches of the sandwich. They are a bit loose, and a bit deep, but not a serious problem. Then you are at the base of the cliff on the slightly firmer crust layer of the sandwich, looking up at the cheese you are about to climb. Climbing up this section is really neat, and Seamus had no problem finding his way up on his own. As for us, we just chose our hands and feet carefully, making sure not to grab loose rock-cheese, sending it down onto people below, and it was all good!
Yup, that’s me, grinning from ear to ear as I scramble up this second crux… my favourite part of this hike.
Here’s Bill making crux #2 look easy-peasy.
Once up this second cliff section, you are on top of Heart Mountain. And this is where most people stop (though between you and me, I’d rather add 3 hours to our hike doing the entire horseshoe than down-climb those crux sections!).
Hiking the horseshoe, a “suggested route” versus a true trail on the Gem Trek map, you journey beyond the peak of Heart Mountain and walk along the narrow saddle that joins it to MacEwan Peak, the mountain that lies behind it. Bang that peak, and then you dip down onto the saddle that joins MacEwan to “Unnamed Peak” (seriously, I ask you, how can a mountain so majestic be unnamed!?). After ascending the third peak you head down its long, steep, crumbly ridge of a shoulder to the forest again. The entire route resembles, in its elevated section, the shape of a horseshoe.
The beauty of a hike that takes you along ridges is that you are in the views most of the time, and those views are really incredible. Come along with us on the rest of our journey from our lunch spot….
And that’s it! A long day’s hike & scramble, the first of the season, in our much-loved Canadian Rockies! We were soon back, exhausted but happy, enjoying a lovely drink on the deck with some much needed salty snacks.
There we plotted our bucket list for this coming hiking season… a little ambitious, to be sure… but there’s no point dreaming anything bit BIG!Happy Trails, wherever your spirit of adventure takes you… from me, Bill & Seamus.