After scrambling up Commonwealth Peak the day before, Keith and I found ourselves driving to the Mount Aylmer trailhead at Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park on Saturday morning, June 27 2009.
I should point out that we were fairly tired. And it wasn't because we did Commonwealth Peak in 3.45 hours the night before. It was because of the rude neighbors we had at the Spray Lakes campground! Keith and I are both very tolerant guys. We were fine with the youthful antics of our 20 year old neighbors till about midnight. After that the games of 'truth or dare', 'jackpot' and other drunken distractions got a little bit old. Our neighbors on the other side were actually pretty good till they started up a BONGO DRUM at 1AM!!!!!! I'm disappointed in the campground management, who should develop a sense of responsibility and courage to at least drive around at midnight and out of courtesy, shut down these inconsiderate people...
Ah well. Who needs sleep before doing a 30+ km day right? And that vertical mile of height gain? You don't need more than around 5 hours of shut-eye for that right? ;-) I was a bit concerned about the bike ride since the ride in and out of Commonwealth the previous evening had been my first time on a bike for the year. My butt was definitely not happy with me for the first few minutes of the Minnewanka trail!
We met Heather and Parry in the parking lot just before heading out. They were waiting for a couple of friends before embarking on the same trip so we bid them a "cya later" and sped off down the trail.
I've always enjoyed the Lake Minnewanka single track and this was no exception. My legs were surprisingly cooperative and Keith and I enjoyed the 8km ride to LM8 - the campsite where we ditched the bikes and prepared for our 15km hike into Mount Aylmer. After a paranoid Keith (he thinks everyone is out to steal his bike... ;-)) walked our bikes into the middle of the bush and locked them to a massive tree, we started up the steep Aylmer pass trail at around 09:00, an hour after leaving the parking lot.
The trail from here to the turn off gully is set at an unrelenting angle - UP. This is a good thing because even though the bike ride has gained you about 100-150 vertical meters you have also lost all that height gain and are looking at over a vertical mile from the bike stash to the summit! Trust me. It feels like a vertical mile too.
[The Aylmer Pass trail is inviting and relentlessly takes you up from the lake shore.]
After 2.3km we came across the trail branching to our right to the Aylmer Lookout. About 10 or 15 minutes past this spot we finally took our first real break of the day on some rocks near the trail. This was the first time we really had any good views since the bike ride as well. A cute Pika kept us entertained and the warm sun almost made us regret the fact that we still had so far to go.
A bit further and we were at the drainage where scramblers must leave the trail to gain the ridge that runs from Aylmer's upper slopes to the lookout. The drainage and the slopes above were riddled with Grizzly diggings. As we hiked up the slope we were amazed at how aggressive this bear was! S/he was on the hunt for gophers and must have been pretty hungry judging from the size of the holes! I would not hike this area alone during it's restricted season (July 15th to September) judging by the looks of these slopes this is one very active bear area.
After finally topping out on the ridge we could hear the voices of Parry and Heather's party down on the trail below. We caught a quick glimpse of them before tramping on up the ridge. We chose the moderate / difficult scramble route over the scree bashing hiking route to the high col from the ridge. It turns out that this was a great decision because the quality of rock on the ridge was much more enjoyable than the loose, wet scree on the hiking route.
[Pika's are extremely curious and very cute. They will also eat all your snacks if you let them! (Sounds like my kids...)]
[Here we've just left the Aylmer Pass trail and are going climber's right up the steep gully that Kane mentions. This whole area was riddled with Grizzly diggings all the way up to the col around the corner to the right.]
[What a glorious morning to be out in the hills!]
[Great scenery back down our approach valley - you can see why Grizzlies love this area.]
[At the ridge. You have two choices here. You can contour up the ridge, following either the brown scree or the snow gully which will eventually lead to some difficult down climbing or you can contour around the gray colored scree to climber's left, eventually bypassing the crux but spending a long time side hilling on loose scree. Aylmer's summit is a really long way from here, even though it doesn't look it. Trust me. Trust your altimeter watch. ++]
[On the ridge enjoying the views. Inglismaldie and Girouard are visible in the distant background above Lake Minnewanka.]
[Keith heads up the brown shale, we decided to stick to the ridge.]
[Awesome scenery continues on the brown shale. This is looking towards the Palliser Range which only has one named summit and many unnamed ones.]
[Keith nears the first (and hardest) down climb. The summit looks so close but it's still over 400 vertical meters away from this point!]
[Looking at the impressive valleys and summits of the Palliser Range to the north / west.]
[Looking west to Astley Peak]
[Mount Assiniboine looks very cool from this angle.]
After reaching the down climb we could see why it's rated moderate / difficult. The exposure isn't too bad (you probably won't die if you fall here), but it's very steep and over-hanging at the bottom. I was very happy with my 6ft frame as I stretched through the bottom move and exited the difficult down climb. Keith breezed down the climb in short order and after another moderate down climb we joined up with the easy route and trudged up to the high col.
Did I mention how long this scramble is?! From the high col I new we still had about 350 vertical meters to go (thanks to my altimeter watch I didn't get lulled into thinking we were closer than we were). The final section is nothing but a scree slog but thankfully we had a well-defined trail and some firm (fresh) snow to assist our ascent.
[Keith approaches the crux down climb.]
[Keith on the top of the difficult / moderate down climb. It had great (and fairly solid) holds but was over hanging at the bottom which made for some awkwardness.]
[Keith at the top of the second moderate down climb.]
[From a bit further on Aylmer's ridge you can see the entire difficult / moderate section of the ridge behind us and the impressive valleys to the north, including the impressive unnamed peaks of the Palliser Range. ++]
[Incredible views over our descent ridge and towards Lake Minnewanka. ++]
[Can you believe it?! Still not there.]
The summit sported an impressive view, although the thickening cloud cover was a bit disappointing - as was the cold breeze. We didn't spend a lot of time at the summit, choosing to do our relaxing on the way down in a warm spot out of the wind.
[Looking east and south off the summit of Aylmer. Costigan and Orient Point in the distance. ++]
[Summit panorama ++]
[This is a great view of Devil's Head in the Ghost area]
[Mount Hector at left.]
[Looking north towards Poltergeist.]
[Girouard and Inglismaldie]
Back near the high col we ran into Heather and Parry's party and after a brief chat continued down. We also encountered another couple who must have thought our packs looked immense compared with their small ones! They were in shorts and runners but were (sort of) enjoying themselves nonetheless. We could see them earlier on the crux section and it took them a while to navigate down it but to their credit they looked determined to make the summit they did!
[On the way down we spot two other people on the crux down climb section of the ridge]
[More scenery on the way down showing our ridge that we descended at center. ++]
[Looking back at the summit from the scree traverse that bypasses the crux. We wished we went back up and over the crux to avoid this section on the way down.]
All the way up we were debating taking the ridge descent to the Aylmer Lookout. My legs were feeling tired and sore and I wasn't sure about but it looked so pleasant and the day was so nice we decided to do it. It was a great decision! The ridge walk to the lookout is very pleasant. You have much better views than the hike on the Aylmer Pass trail and for much longer too. The only key to finding the lookout (despite what the Gemtrek map shows) is to stick on the sheep track all the way along the ridge. The few times we dipped off it to skier's right we almost got in trouble. You will eventually come to a very steep drop off into a rocky drainage, just after the weird burnt area. If you go on the skier's left of the ridge there is an easy trail around the drainage on the east side of the ridge. Follow this trail another 10 minutes and you'll see the obvious lookout.
[Starting the pleasant ridge hike back.]
[More of the ridge and views down Lake Minnewanka.]
[Where now?! There is a bit of route finding on the ridge.]
[A pleasant stroll through dead forest - an old burn site.]
[The fire lookout is just ahead with Peechee looming above.]
[Looking back at Aylmer from the lookout.]
I was expecting a fire lookout building but only the stone foundation remains. We hiked up to the lookout and spent about 2 minutes taking in the excellent views before heading down the trail again. The 'endless switchbacks' actually aren't too bad - there's only around 4 or 5 of them. It's the walking back towards Aylmer Pass up hill that's the issue! I'm not sure why there's a section of the lookout trail that goes in the wrong direction and up hill but it's a bit disconcerting. We eventually did reach the main trail and hoofed it back to our bikes.
[Great views up Lake Minnewanka towards Banff from the fire lookout.]
[Indian Paintbrush on the hike back out.]
The bike ride out was fast and furious. We passed two other bikers who had packs about the size of my scrambling boots - I think they were quite surprised to be passed by two guys wearing climbing helmets with alpine packs on! That was fun though.
A great trip, nice mountain to have done but I won't be back for more of this one.