While technically not located within the boundaries of Banff National Park, Mt. Lady MacDonald in Canmore, AB, offers the area’s premier knife edge scramble experience.
As y’all might know from my last post, David and I are spending a month in the Canadian Rockies, and I’m writing some posts from the road for once. Lucky you! On our first full day in Alberta, David and I climbed Mt. Lady MacDonald, named after the wife of Canada’s first prime minister.
Mt. Lady MacDonald taught me that there is no such thing as a gentle trail in the Canadian Rockies, and ~1500 feet of gain per mile seems to be the norm around these parts. Mt. Lady MacDonald is ~4 miles round trip with ~4000 feet of gain!
The trail begins innocently enough along a dry creek and the first half mile is pretty much flat. There’s also a sign warning you of how cougars can murder your face (if a cougar attacks you, fight back!). The flat, cougar-warning section of trail is quickly completed, and then you’re in for a world of hurt :). After turning into the woods, the “up” part abruptly begins. The slog through the woods below treeline is relentless and sets your calves on fire (at least that’s what happened to me). The first viewpoint offers an expansive view of Canmore and mountains beyond, and motivates you to keep on truckin’ (maybe, if you haven’t already lost your will to live).
After what felt like an eternity, we popped out of the trees onto the ridgeline that leads to the false summit. Back in the day there used to be a derelict teahouse and a gazebo at the base of the ridge, but now there’s only a sad, ugly, platform that will pollute your view for the rest of the hike. Horray!
After you break out of treeline, the real fun starts. Scree, my favorite! Damn these shale-y Canadian mountains! We scree-slogged up the ridge as the trail got steeper and steeper, and I was TIRED, y’all. That whole “one step forward, two steps back” nonsense ain’t fun.
I actually had to sit down and take a ~20 minute breather for my sanity. The elevation might’ve also played a factor. Mt. Lady MacDonald is only 8,550 feet, but for those of us traveling from sea level, this can be high enough to increase the effects of fatigue! Oh yeah, and it was also 90 degrees because the area is experiencing a freak heatwave (which set the conditions for a lovely hail storm that dented the s*** out of David’s car and cracked the windshield, but that’s a different fun story of terror).
After my 20 minutes of wheezing and donut eating, we began again. And… I was tired 5 minutes later. The last few hundred feet to the false summit were reaalllllyyy slow going, but I somehow hauled my butt to the top. At the false summit you get your first real glimpse of the knife edge that leads to the true summit. The majority of hikers we encountered that day did not even attempt it.
The Mt. Lady MacDonald knife edge is the real deal, folks. This wasn’t a friendly, wide, Katahdin-esque knife edge. This was a zero-room-for-error with thousands of feet of drop-off on either side knife edge. I think I peed my pants a little.
I was so tired I wasn’t sure if I trusted myself to go across the knife edge at all, but after some rest I decided to walk at least a bit of the knife edge, if not the whole thing. We roped up because I am a wimp (DON’T JUDGE ME) and took turns walking across while the other person sat. It was very slow going for me, and sometimes incredibly vertigo-inducing. And sometimes I butt scooted across while straddling a leg on either side of the knife edge (DON’T JUDGE ME). After a few hundred feet I was again quite tired and had had my fill, so David continued on to the true summit (crossing the tricky terrain in about 10 minutes… maybe you should have some more fear of death, David) while I gingerly made my way back to the false summit alone.
After David made it back alive, we hung out on the false summit for a good long while before beginning the descent. Frequent readers of my blog will be aware of my generally horrible knees, and booooy howdy was that descent a doozy, y’all. Sometimes scree, sometimes just loose sandy trail (but ALWAYS steep), I hobbled my way down, having PTSD-esque flashbacks of King’s Throne. And then we ran out of water about 45 minutes before we were done, which was super awesome on a 90-degree day. Bring lots of water, y’all!
It’s gonna be a long month, you guys. But at least the pictures will be worth it. Maybe.
BONUS PICTURES: What hail can do to your car: