There are climbs which transcend normal appreciation of spectacular wilderness. On this day I also experience an amazing wildlife encounter that is absolutely magical.
Many times, throughout my many years of hiking, I have, for myself, or someone else, conducted a spiritual mission. This particular solo climb of Mount Rundle, is the end of a year-long spiritual mission for a friend.
A year earlier I performed this rigorous climb with my son, Bill, to place a laminated photo in a cairn at the 9,674 ft. (2,949 m) true summit of Mount Rundle in memory of a special woman who lost her physical presence to cancer. On this day I will attempt to retrieve that photo.
Following an early drive from Calgary to Banff, under the golden glow of rising sun on Mount Rundle, I arrive at the parking area adjacent to the Banff Springs Golf Course just beyond Bow Falls. Beginning elevation is 4,400 ft (1,341 m). The temperature is a comfortable 14° C (57° F). At 7:15 AM I am hiking in sandals on excellent trail past the Banff Springs Hotel Golf Course to keep my feet comfortable. The route is on Spray Lake trail, left on a fire road, then after 2.5 KM (1.6 miles), left onto the Mount Rundle trail and 5,200 vertical ft. (1,585 m) to achieve the summit. At 8:06 AM I cross the first small gully. At 8:09 AM I arrive at, and gain elevation rapidly on a dozen switchbacks with amazing views of the Town of Banff and Sulphur Mountain in the sun.
At 8:38 AM I cross the 2nd small gully, and at 8:43, I cross the 3rdsmall gully. I am making excellent progress, feeling good, and the temperature, at 8° C (46.4° F), is perfect for climbing. At 8:51 AM I arrive at the huge central gully and take a 10 minute rest stop prior to beginning the steep and relentless climb on the east side of the central gully.
The steep trail on the edge of the Central Gully is challenging with lots of tree roots and loose rock. I break the 7,800 ft. (2,377 m) tree line but keep the sandals on past the tree line and until 9,000 ft. (2,743 m) then change into leather boots for steep navigation in scree.
The lower scree is a mixture of everything from sand to gravel to small rock, sometimes with bedrock underneath that can compromise secure footing. Temperature has dropped to a comfortable 5° C (41° F). A breeze is building and the sky is becoming overcast.
I attempt a new scramble route on the ridge, different from the route Bill and I used a year earlier, past a weather monitoring station but I get stranded with no way to make the traverse to the true summit. A retreat is required and the 2nd attempt is successful. I am surprised to be alone on the mountain. There is not a soul in sight in any direction. It is peaceful and appropriately reverent. A 30 KM/HR (18.8 mph) breeze is building. At 11:55 AM I arrive at the summit. There is a significant wind chill so I layer up and don toque and gloves. The laminated picture is no longer there. I had a small hope but no expectation the photo would still be there. At 12:30 PM I scramble to a sheltered rock cove to get some relief from the wind. The sky is clearing. I am keeping an eye on Mount Assiniboine, about 30 KM (19 miles) in the distance, as a gauge for change in cloud height and direction, warning of potentially bad weather. Up high it can move in fast and furious but there are no problems this day.
At 12:55 PM I begin the down-climb. I take a few photos looking back at the summit and forward as I approach the Dragon Back. About half way down the slender spine of rock between two steep canyons (central gully on the right) I notice a sole mountain goat about 200 yards ahead. It continues to graze on sparse vegetation as I approach. It does not seem even remotely concerned about my presence and I take a photo about 20 m (67 ft) away with the belief this will be the last opportunity I will have before the goat disappears over the ridge. I approach slowly and sit on a rock perhaps only 20 feet (7.3 m) from this magnificent wild animal. Talking softly, I explain why I am on the mountain and make idle conversation. The goat seems to be listening carefully. Walking between a mountain goat and the edge of a steep precipice is not recommended. After about 10 minutes, this beautiful animal leaves the Dragon Back for the central gully. It is one of the best encounters with a wild animal I have ever enjoyed in the wilderness.
At 6:50 PM I arrive back at the apartment. Mission accomplished. I phone my son in Toronto, Ontario to give him status. He understands the climb and expressed prior concern about a solo attempt. It is done. It has been a long and arduous, but absolutely magnificent, day.