BANFF NATIONAL PARK, Alberta – Three times, I’ve gone to Lake Louise with the hopes of climbing Mount St. Piran, an 8,690-foot massif that towers over the northern side of the lake above the Two Beehives. Twice, I was pushed back by crummy weather – rain, sleet, lightning, fierce wind, you name it. It’s Canada.
Once I get my bit into a mountain I really want to climb, I have a hard time letting go. I figured a third time had to be the charm. It almost wasn’t.
This latest trip didn’t appear particularly promising. I drove through sun and blue skies for 300 miles, but upon arrival at Lake Louise, it was cold and rainy, and when the top of Mount St. Piran did manage to poke through breaks in the dark clouds, you could see a dusting of snow on top. Because the weather was so dreary, there wasn’t much to do that day other than drive down to Banff and catch a matinee of the new Batman movie.
The weather tends to be lousy at Lake Louise quite a bit because of both its elevation – 5,700 feet – and a notch in the Continental Divide just west of the lake that tends to funnel a lot of systems through that area.
I’ve seen beautiful weather in Canmore and Radium Hot Springs, and terrible conditions as soon as you get to Lake Louise. I’ve learned the hard way you really have to pick your spots with the weather here and take advantage when you can.
The next day, when dawn broke, I looked out the window of my hotel and realized there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Here was my chance – finally.
One good thing about getting an early start: This is a very busy area of Banff, with visitors from around the world converging on Lake Louise. The trail gets extremely crowded by midmorning, especially on the first section between Lake Louise and the Lake Agnes Tea House. I found that if you start at 7:30 a.m., you will miss the crowds. Not a single other person was on the trail on the way up.
The hike climbs 3,000 feet from the shore of Lake Louise to the top of Mount St. Piran. It’s classified as a scramble in every book I’ve read about the mountain, but it’s mostly a very steep hike – at about five miles with 600 feet of elevation gain per mile.
Most hikers stop at the Lake Agnes Tea House. Some go to the Little Beehive or the Big Beehive, but only a handful make the little-known trek up St. Piran. None of the trail signs in the area show a trail to the top of the mountain; I only heard about it by reading a guidebook about scrambles in the Canadian Rockies.
To get to the St. Piran route, take the trail from the Lake Agnes Tea House east to the Little Beehive (the more spectacular Big Beehive lies west). About two-thirds of the way to the Little Beehive, perhaps 500 meters from Lake Agnes, is a nondescript sign for the Mount St. Piran trail.
Actually, Mount St. Piran has been scratched off the sign. I knew this had to be the trail, but seeing the name was scratched off still gave me a bit of hesitation. Was that a message not to head up the trail? Maybe the route had washed out.
The trail switchbacks several times up the steep slope of the mountain, and you get ever more spectacular views of Lake Louise, the Big Beehive, the Fairmont Chateau and Fairview Mountain to the south of the lake. At this point, clouds began rolling in, but I was still counting my lucky stars that any sort of actual weather was holding off.
Finally, I reached a saddle between two subpeaks. It’s a quick, easy walk to the lower subpeak, which offers fantastic views of the Bow Valley nearly 4,000 feet below.
I was slightly spooked by the route to the upper peak. As the trail switchbacks up, the two peaks appear to be of similar elevation, but as you approach the lower summit, you realize the upper summit is still another 200 to 300 feet higher. And the trail appears to peter out in the rocks and boulders pretty quickly.
I talked myself into trying it, not really feeling I was prepared for a scramble of 200 to 300 vertical feet over boulders with some fairly intimidating-looking exposure. But, it turns out there continues to be a very steep, primitive trail twisting back and forth through the rocks. It’s just invisible from below.
Frankly, I wouldn’t call this climb a “scramble, with a primitive trail going most of the way to the top.” The trail eventually does vanish, but at that point, it’s probably less than 50 feet below the summit and it’s an easy horizontal walk through boulders on the wide and round summit.
From the edge of the domed summit, there are views of Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau. There also are some spectacular views of the tops of 9,000- and 10,000-foot peaks in the area – Fairview Mountain, Mount Victoria, Mount Lefroy, Mount Aberdeen and The Mitre. Looking down, you will see a pair of massive glaciers, Victoria and Lefroy.
There also is wildlife: A pair of squirrels scurried through the rocks, eating wildflowers and I saw two hoary marmots near the top.
In an hour at the summit, the weather continued to hold and the sun briefly made an appearance, although it did go all to pieces late in the afternoon.
The mountain gets a little busier in the afternoon – about a dozen people were slogging their way up the trail later.
On the way down, the Lake Agnes Tea House is a great place to stop for lunch after all the hard work. The bread is all homemade and there’s a mean tuna salad sandwich.
Returning from Lake Agnes, you realize how important it is to get an early start to enjoy a “wilderness” experience. There were hundreds of hikers on the Lake Agnes trail, speaking languages from around the globe. (It is funny to see European visitors hiking up to Lake Agnes, a not-to-be-taken-lightly 1,400-foot elevation gain, in dress flats and Italian loafers.)
Assistant news editor Pierre LaBossiére can be reached at (406) 523-5258 or at email@example.com.