It’s an unsettling feeling on a steep mountain descent when the razor-sharp scree shifts from under your feet and you know you’re going down. You know for sure it’s going to hurt. You just don’t know how badly.
Your automatic reaction is to shoot your hands out behind you to catch yourself. I did that once years ago and the point of a rock punctured the palm of my hand, right through my leather glove.
Instead, perhaps, you could try to land on your bum. Of course, you would risk a fractured tailbone, and the rest of the descent wouldn’t be much fun after that.
Alas, you rarely have time to think about it. Once you start to fall, things happen far too quickly and your instinct will take over. You might twist and turn to try to salvage your balance, but most likely you’ll shoot your hands out behind you. Which is exactly what I did.
It turned out better than expected. My pack took the brunt of the brief slide. Only some minor scrapes on my hands. And I left a small chunk of flesh from my calf behind.
In fact, I have left little bits of flesh behind all over these Canadian Rockies. Even with the greatest care in where you step, even with the use of poles or an ice axe, you’re bound to slip from time to time. It’s the nature of scrambling.
Ah, but I get ahead of myself.
I’m here in Yoho National Park for three reasons: 1) to escape the heat of the Okanagan, 2) to prepare physically for my upcoming thru-hike of the Bruce Trail in Ontario, and 3) to continue my goal of climbing or hiking to the top of 100 mountains in the Canadian Rockies. However, when I arrived on the last day of the long weekend in August, I was overwhelmed by the number of tourists. I wanted to climb a few mountains in Alberta’s Lake Louise area, but the roads to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake were completely congested.
I drove over the Great Divide into British Columbia and the town of Field, thinking I could do some hiking out of Emerald Lake, but there were so many visitors that the cars were parked on both sides of the road for a kilometer from the Emerald Lake parking lot.
There was no solitude to be found here. The introvert in me was horrified.
I thought I might leave the national park by driving up the Icefields Parkway and heading east down the David Thompson Highway at Saskatchewan Crossing, maybe hike out into some of the more remote and rugged areas of the mountains there. But just as I drove past the town of Field, I noticed there were only a few cars at the Burgess Pass trailhead. So I pulled in.
It is said that only one percent of visitors to the Canadian Rockies will ever go more than 100 meters off the highway. For those of us who are rejuvenated by the solitude of the woods, that is a blessing. Despite the congestion of Yoho, I only saw three people over the next two days, and I had the summits of Mount Field and Mount Burgess to myself. It was bliss.
Well, except for the slipping down scree and losing flesh and all.
The access trail to these two mountains is excellent. It follows a well-maintained 7.3 kilometer path to the top of Burgess Pass, which will gain you 930 meters and earn you an excellent view of the President Range and Emerald Glacier for your efforts. If you’re not into scrambling, this is a good place to have your lunch, bask in the glory of Yoho, and turn around and head back to the trailhead.
If you are into scrambling, or are considering it as a hobby or as an extra hiking challenge, I’ll give you the field notes at the bottom after the photos. But truthfully, neither of these scrambles are much fun. Both require that you hike straight up sharp scree, and even worse, that you come back down it afterward. I slipped once on the descent of Mount Field as described above, and twice on the descent of Mount Burgess, where, by some miracle, all bits and pieces of me remained intact.
On some scree slopes, you can zigzag up and down, but the nature of these two mountains doesn’t allow it. On Mount Burgess, for example, the ascent takes you up a steep, narrow gully, where the scree is such that every step up is a half-step back. It’s just a slog.
Of course, the summit views are fabulous. But they’re fabulous everywhere in the Canadian Rockies.
If you are new to scrambling, it’s best to pick up a copy of Alan Kane’s book, Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies. He just had his third edition published. This is considered to be the sacred book of scrambling for this area. Pick a few easy ones, such as Heart Mountain, Yamnuska, and Ha Ling Peak, first in order to build up your love for these types of adventures.
• The Burgess Pass trailhead is located 400 meters east of Field on the north side (mountain side) of the highway
• For Mount Field, hike to the top of the pass, follow the sign to Yoho Pass, and just as the trail makes an abrupt turn left toward Wapta Mountain, you’ll see a small trail following the treeline up into the scree toward the ridge. Keep right of the gully to work your way through the rock band.
• For Mount Burgess, you don’t need to hike all the way up into the pass. Hike up the trail for about an hour at a fast pace until you see an unobstructed view of Mount Stephen to your right and a view of the gully leading to the summit of Mount Burgess to your left. There was a small cairn there this visit. Work your way up the gully and you’ll see the way to the top is obvious, albeit a real grunt.FIELD NOTES:
• The only water available is from a stream 25 minutes into your hike. Bring enough water to last your whole trip. I drank two full litres on both scrambles and the weather was not particularly hot. You may want to bring three litres if you can.
• Do what you can to protect yourself on the descent. You’re not in any danger of falling off a cliff, but a slide down sharp scree can ruin your day. Even if it’s a hot day, I recommend you wear pants, a sweater, and protection for your hands on the descent until you hit the main trail again.
• Put aside 5-8 hours for each of these mountains. I was up and down both in a little over five hours of hiking, but with breaks, it was closer to a seven-hour day.