June 15, 2019. An enjoyable and popular scramble to a pair of low peaks near Canmore.
- Distance: 8.2 km out-and-back*
- Total Ascent: 1038 m*
- Elevation of Objective: 2135 m (Heart Mountain) and 2149 m (Grant MacEwan Peak)
- Hiking Time: 6h 30m*
*I did this trip as part of a scrambling course, so we went back and forth on certain sections of rock and stopped frequently for discussions. As a result, the stats are distorted as compared to a normal trip. This is also why we didn’t do the usual loop route.
I signed up for a 2 day scrambling course but ended up being the only one signed up for the company’s June 15 offering. I was given the option to pay a little extra and turn it into a private day out with the instructor. Since I’d already booked the time off work and a hotel, I decided to go for it. It turned out to be a very enjoyable day with plenty of personalized instruction on safe scrambling.
The site for my lesson was Heart Mountain near Canmore – one of the most popular scrambling objectives in the region. Although there is a very well defined route to the summit, a number of lines are possible. This allows for a greater or lesser amount of hands-on scrambling depending on one’s level of comfort. Once on the summit of Heart Mountain a short ridge walk brings you to the summit of Grant MacEwan Peak, which is a little bit higher.
Access is straightforward. Clear signs on Highway 1 point on the Heart Creek trail head about 17 km east of Canmore. It’s accessed via the Lac des Arc interchange. If you search for ‘Heart Creek trail head’ Google Maps will drop a pin right on it. There’s a large gravel parking lot there with pit toilets and a map kiosk. Even arriving early in the day you’ll likely find plenty of other cars parked there.
To reach the scrambling route, we followed the hiking trail from the parking lot into the woods, paralleling the highway for about 700 m. The trail then enters a clearing and turns sharply right. There’s a sign indicating that the path straight ahead is closed (a casualty of the 2013 floods, I think). Going right, the trail soon intersects Heart Creek. Depending on the time of year, you’ll either be able to walk right up to a sturdy new bridge or have to hop a small portion of the creek before making it to the bridge. Beyond the bridge is a T intersection. Going right continues along Heart Creek. Left goes towards the Quaite Valley trail. We went left and soon encountered a big yellow sign marking the start of the route up Heart Mountain.
From there the way was obvious. The route is marked here and there with red diamond placards or flagging, though these are presently in various states of decay. Eventually a 3 m high bench of rock is encountered. There’s a red diamond marker drilled into the rock at the recommended ascent spot. Alan Kane in Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies 3rd ed. states, “You need not bother looking elsewhere for an easier place to ascend as there isn’t one.” Climbing up this little cliff is the crux of the trip. The passage of thousands of scramblers has smoothed the rock significantly, adding somewhat to the challenge. Getting up wasn’t too hard, but down-climbing here was far more challenging. Most people do this route as a loop, though, so that’s not a big concern for the majority of climbers.
Beyond the crux there’s a little more climbing to be done before reaching the summit. Up ahead, a slightly higher peak, Grant MacEwan, is obvious. A short walk along the ridge got us there. By the time we’d reached the second peak, there were rain clouds rolling in, so we discussed how best to proceed. Farther along the ridge there’s an interesting formation called Twin Towers. The way is guarded by a 5 m cliff band which is apparently difficult to navigate…but I had a certified mountain guide with me. My first instinct was to press on, but I decided to try to maximize my learning. Instead of the Twin Towers and instead of continuing to descend via the loop route (which follows the descending ridge from Grant MacEwan, eventually connecting with the Quaite Valley trail) we agreed to down-climb the ascent route and spend time practicing and discussing technique.
We were briefly rained on, but there was no thunder or lightning. We discussed down-climbing scree, slabs and step-like terrain. We talked about route-finding. We intentionally sought out tricky spots to descend. All of this was time very well spent. Down-climbing at the crux was particularly interesting. A fall there would only result in some bruises (maybe a minor fracture), so it was a good place to practice. For me this was a challenge. Soon enough we were all the way back down to creek level.
My guide did spend some time using other scramblers as examples of good or bad practices. He also mentioned that only a few weeks earlier a young man had fallen from the summit of Heart Mountain and died. A quick Google search also informed me that a party of four 20-somethings had to be rescued just last month after spending a night on Heart Mountain after going off course. They ended up spending the night in a snowstorm, perched above a cliff band. It’s something to keep in mind – Heart Mountain is declared “easy” in guidebooks, but you can still die up there.
Click on the pictures below for full-sized images.