Hiking Mt. Yamnuska- Come Blizzards, Pneumonia, or Babies

After a really busy two weeks of job hunting, house hunting and travelling back and forth from Saskatchewan to Alberta…twice, I was about ready to get out and enjoy the fresh mountain air. Me and a friend from Banff, Kelly, decided to call up Kelly’s friend James and go for a nice stroll among the trees. Neither me nor Kelly were overly ambitious in our hiking plans as Kelly’s 6 month old daughter was tagging along in her backpack carrier and I was recovering from a bad bout of pneumonia. As we pulled up to James’ house to pick him up, Kelly gave me a quick introduction to James and what to expect from him. After her description, we both decided on the nickname “Twenty More”. (I’ll let you see if you can guess how he got that nickname by the end of this story). Laughing to ourselves over the name, James climbed in the car and gave both of us confused looks.

As we stopped the car to grab a quick coffee before hitting the trail, we all looked out over the mountain and frowned over the heavy clouds rolling in, socking in the whole Bow Valley in fog, rain and sleet. Me and Kelly looked at each other, looked in the backseat at baby Katelyn, then looked at James, who would be our hiking guide for the day as he knew all the trails around the area. “I’m not taking Katelyn through that slush” Kelly stated, while I seconded her opinion with my own addition of “my tender pneumonic lungs are not going to handle well in the wet cold wind”.

The decision was made to drive out to kananaskis country and see how the weather was out there and do a trail out that way. So we hit the road, drinking our coffees and sharing some rousing and at times passionate theological debates. Once we cleared the Bow Valley, the sky opened up into beautiful blue skies and sunshine. And here is where “Twenty More” showed his first card. “We should hike mt. Yamnuska.” My first thought was, hills means harder breathing which means death right now, when walking up the stairs at my hostel sent me practically onto my knees in a coughing fit.

Kelly too was a little skeptical. Is it safe to take a baby up? *I will put a disclaimer here that Katelyn is not a normal baby, and has been going on hikes since she was about two weeks old, and Kelly is super mom who was out hiking within two weeks of giving birth, so “safe” is a relative term*. James, smooth as a politician stated that it was our decision but that he thought it should be fine. It was only a meandering trail through the trees up to the base, one narrowish gap to squeeze through to get around to the backside and then just a traverse across, and then back down a really beautiful scree field. All in all only like 5km, maybe 2-3 hours. And besides, if it gets too much, we can always turn around and come back the way we came.

a nagging voice at the back of my head told me not to trust Twenty More, but it was a nice day, I did want the fresh air, and if my lungs did explode out of my chest, well, James was a big enough guy to carry me back down the mountain to the ambulance. So we strapped on our bags, got Katelyn settled in her carrier and off we went. The switchbacks up the tree slope were steep enough in places to make me question my sanity in doing this with pneumonia, but the views, both floral, fauna and vista, made all the pain in my lungs worth it as we steadily climbed to the base of the rock face cliff that gave mt. Yamnuska its signature look.

Reaching the base, we suddenly found ourselves huddled in a nook in the rocks, doing our best to shelter Katelyn from a blizzard that had snuck up on us from behind the mountain. As the cold wind raked my tender lungs, I turned to the team and said, I think we should head back down. Kelly, who was already on the same track as me agreed. Twenty More said, well, let’s wait five more minutes, I’d hate to miss the whole mountain for a five minute weather system. Maybe it will blow over. But it’s your call. Well, how much more is there? We asked. The squeeze is right here, and after that it’s just around the back to the peak and

then back down. We meet up with the forest trail we just came up on the other side. It’s only probably about 5km more. Sure enough the system passed and we decided to just look around the corner past the squeeze, see how much more there was, and then decide from there. After all, we could always turn around and go back the way we came.

So with James in the lead, and me behind Kelly to help give her balance, we squeezed Kelly, the back pack carrier and baby Katelyn through the narrow slit in the cliff wall and rounded the mountain to the backside. The view was nothing short of spectacular. The path, while narrow and steep, was clearly marked and we could easily see the way to the summit of the cliff. We decided to continue on to at least there, stop for a quick break and decide whether to turn around there, or keep going all the way around.

Walking the path, it turned out was a whole different story from seeing it. Shaded from the full intensity of the sun, the path was still covered in patches of ice and snow which made for slippery scrambles up and across large rough scree fields with rocks that gave way under foot and hand. The path, which had been so easy to follow with the eye from a distance, disappeared up close as many paths merged and converged, disappearing and then reappearing suddenly several feet above or below you. While Katelyn is small and light, the backpack carrier was large and clumsy and the smallest gust of wind or shift of Katelyn’s weight would compromise Kelly’s balance. I spent most of the scramble to the cliff peak hawk eyed zoned in to Kelly’s movements, ready at the blink of an eye to catch her and the baby before they toppled over into serious injury.

But, awesome athlete that she is, Kelly handled the scramble like a pro and at long last we were enjoying our victory with breathtaking views. After a quick snack break, we once again consulted James. The peak is just around that corner. It will be just like what we’ve already done to get to the peak, then it’s just a quick run down the nicest scree field in kananaskis, and we are back down in the trees again. Once again repeating the old adage of we can always turn around, we pushed on. One corner, two corners, three corners, a cliff with a chain to traverse, and some bouldering down a steep narrow rock valley later, me and Kelly were both ready to throttle Twenty More. The peak was finally in sight, but the big snow covered ridge was firmly in front of us and the snow filled cold wind was bearing down.

We were now in too far. It was hazardous to go forward, but it was too dangerous to go back. Besides, it was five hours back or two to push on. Doing everything in our power to tuck in to the ridge to keep the wind sail of a baby carrier out of the gusts coming over the peak, me and Kelly scrambled, slid and pushed for the peak. We didn’t even slow down as we reached the top and kept right on going down the other side, racing to get Katelyn out of the blowing wind and snow. We practically dragged James away from another group of hikers who had come up the mountain backwards, when he stopped to talk to them. We ran down the scree slope (which for the record is one of the nicest scree slopes in Kananaskis) and finally found some relief from the cold wind and snow as we quickly lost elevation. Finally out of the danger zone, we tucked into some large boulders out of the wind

and stopped to eat some lunch. We decided nachos and an ice cold soda sounded great so we loaded back up and continued down the second scree field.

It was about here, as we were traversing a scree field that the path gave out under my foot and I fell, wrenching my hip and groin. Shaking it off, I pushed on, but it wasn’t long after we got off the scree field and hit the forest path that the combination of my hip and groin injury met with my old nemesis, downhill trails with bad knees. My hiking poles barely made a dent in my hobbling as I tried to put a brave face on and push through the pain, wanting nothing more than to get off the mountain and get Katelyn out of the cold. But between all the strain I had put on my ligaments traversing scree fields all day and the freezing cold stiffening up my joints, I could only handle so much before I gave into the excruciating pain and embarrassingly halted the group so I could massage and warm up my joints before descending a little more. I lost track of how many times we had to stop on the way down, but finally, the path levelled out and we were looking at the car.

By the time we got to the restaurant, it was already later in the evening around 8 or 9pm. The gentle hike I had planned on doing with pneumonia and a baby in tow had ended up being an 11km hike with a 900m elevation gain at 2232m elevation and between blizzards and injuries, the scramble had taken us around 7-8 hours. My nachos which had sounded so appetizing on the mountain tasted like sawdust in my mouth as nothing would taste better right now than a long soak in a hot bath followed by a long sleep in a warm bed.

Looking back now, I can say that bring back my pneumonia four-fold for the sake of that hike was totally worth it. And while I’ll never trust Twenty More James again when it comes to hiking directions, I can honestly say that he does know how to pick his adventures.

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Story Time
Have you ever hiked mt. Yamnuska? What’s your favourite hike in Kananaskis or the Bow Valley? What are some of the hikes you want to do this summer?

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