Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Mt. St. Piran Circuit and Pikas!

From the parking lot at Lake Louise, Mt. St. Piran looks ominous.
Piran on the right. Note the teahouse in the trees on the left
However, it's just a simple uphill trudge with the first half on very popular paved trails inundated with tourists in Crocs and flip flops carrying small water bottles and headed for the teahouse or the lookouts at the Little or Big Beehive.

Of course you start from Lake Louise, which even on a bad day is beautiful.
The lake and the Victoria Glacier
The views on the trail up get better with altitude, but it's when you actually leave them and start the switchbacked slog up to the summit that the views really get better. That, and the trails up to that point are partially shared with horses and covered in "used horse food".
The trail zig zags up this avalanche slope
Don't believe the slope zigs up the steep slope? Here's a blow up of folks on that slope.
About 6 folks on the switchbacks.
Here's KC on the switchbacks.
Lake Louise & the Bow Valley in the background 
Higher up. Mt. Victoria in the background
With 200 m to go to the top the top, the trail basically stops and becomes a boulder field you have to pick your way though.
KC in the rockfield. The lake in the background 900 m below
The view from the top is pretty awesome, with sights back up the Bow Valley towards Banff...
Mt. Temple on the extreme right
...north up the Icefields Parkway...
The Trans Canada heads left to the Kicking Horse Pass.
...and due west, to Mt. Whyte, Mt. Niblock and our descent route.
Whyte (on the left) and Niblock. A nice German girl in the middle
There's a dozen cairns at the top, leading to interesting art shots.
KC among the inukshuks
Normally, people go back the way they came. But we took the back route down via the Niblock col. It looks fairly benign from above...
The col in the centre. Note the basin on the left
...but don't look behind you.
Yes, you come down this
In truth, there's a very obvious path through here, the rock is good and it's easier in a lot of ways than the front side. It was here, however, that things started to get interesting. The guidebook I was using (Popular Day Hikes 2: Canadian Rockies by Tony Daffern) warns you to stay on the right side of the basin in the photo two above to avoid nasty rockbands. However, at the col, the obvious trail continues straight down a dry creekbed.
Straight down and highly braided, but it's clearly a well used trail
Hoping to avoid the rockbands, we took Tony's advice and veered right well off the trail. Mistake (that's twice in 2 days). You have to cross a grassy, slippery, 30° to 55° slope on a slow diagonal that's FULL of the rockbands you're trying to avoid.
Part the way across. The creekbed is on the right

Even farther across
In fact, we ended on the top of a 60' rock cliff courtesy of this exercise. I strongly recommend sticking to the trail, which from below obvious navigates the rockbands while staying left. 

There's a trail at the bottom left of the basin. The basin's wonderful.

The descent comes in from the right
...with great views of Lake Agnes.
Lake Agnes. The teahouse is at the far end
The best part about this section of the trail is that it is infested with my favourite mountain animal, the Pika.
Hiding in the rocks 
Standing watch 
This guy just would not turn around
We saw at least a dozen, and heard a dozen more. We also saw the odd ground squirrel, including this guy up at the summit.
Just before he came begging for food

If you're up for a 900 m climb and a 16 km day, this is a fun route. I do recommend coming down the backside via the col. We were endlessly entertained by about 20 families of pikas, the basin is beautiful, the waterfalls near the bottom great, and the trail to the col and down low are good and obvious. However, I don't recommend heading right at the col as instructed, or following the mapped route, given the obvious (albeit steep) trail that has formed that is on the left. The only downside to that "trail" is that it's braided as all get out, being gravel, and its pretty slippery given how steep it is. However, it's obvious by the pole marks that everyone's using trekking poles, and that makes the down route much more stable.


Alexandra said...

I did this hike on July 24th and would like to have done the circuit but was not sure about that down portion off Mt Saint Piran. As it turned out, I was glad we went back the way we came because we met Craig & Kathy Copeland on the trail and chatted with them for awhile. I like this hike and would do it again with someone who could show me the circuit route.

RyderDA said...

I wouldn't worry about the circuit part so long as you stick to the obvious trail both down to the col, and down from the col. There's nothing tough about it (other than the steepness), and as I mentioned, the basin's great.

Turns out the odd trail we ran across down low in the basin are scramblers on their way up past the waterfall in the back of the basin to the summits of Niblock or Whyte.