Mount Rundle Central Gully is a large canyon on the south face in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
The popular and moderate hike to the summit of Mount Rundle passes this large chasm in the monolithic, south face. The curious will find it natural to wonder what mysteries might be concealed there.
Today's mission will scramble deep into the Central Gully as far as possible and as safely as possible to answer that question.
In early morning, mountain rain forms a beautiful rainbow against the front of Mount Rundle on the entry to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. The front end of the Mount Rundle hike begins near the Banff Springs Golf Course on good quality trail past gully # 1, and then up 14 switchbacks over the cliff band to the horizontal traverse past gullies 2 and 3 to arrive at the huge central gully.
At trail-side, a handwritten and signed note is left beneath a stone. The note reads,
'I am scrambling solo deep into this gully. If you read this note before 5 PM please place it back under the rock and enjoy a wonderful day on Rundle. If you read this note after 5 PM please notify park rangers of my location. I may require assistance'.
Several people have died in this gully believing it is an alternative scramble route to the true summit of Mount Rundle. It is not. The summit is a technical ascent from the central gully. The scramble up is always easier and safer than the scramble down. The secret is to avoid getting trapped in a place where you can go neither up nor down. Common-sense and past experience are helpful.
Near the beginning, an easy scramble up a short incline on the left leads to exploration of a small cave structure which has been used for refuge in the past.
The day begins under cloudy skies with intermittent sun and the cool 30 KM (20 miles/hr) breeze through the broad canyon, directly towards the path of progress, is welcome relief against the effort of forward, upward progress.
Within a few hundred meters, there is a crossing over the tiny central creek for the climb over a large grassy mound which avoids scrambling a wet, rock ridge. Spring flowers are abundant and beautiful.
Returning to rock, the terrain is rugged but the ascent remains straightforward. Footsteps are cautious on shifting and sharp rock. Working the way back and forth across the central line is required to avoid water and wet rock. Frequently only one side of the canyon is available for passage. Hand holds are available and firm at the beginning.
The incline seems OK but rapid ascent discovers rock walls becoming more brittle and making hand holds tenuous. Each must be tested thoroughly in every direction before committing weight to them. Fifty percent of the time the hold breaks away from the wall. This is compromising when in flight at the time. There are an increasing number of isolated pockets of snow as altitude increases.
After two hours of energetic climbing, altitude is at 2,438 m (8,000 feet) beneath the dragon-back. Arrival at a 7.3 m (20 foot) vertical cliff with no reasonable side routes around it requires careful examination. Scramble routes up and over leave little confidence there is a safe route for retreat.
About a hundred meters back there is a place which will support an easy scramble in a zigzag pattern up onto a plateau to the left that might take me up around the obstacle in canyon central.
Upon achieving the plateau a small cairn is constructed to mark the route on retreat. This alternate route solves the first impasse but soon another unsafe obstacle appears which will compromise access to the next level. Further elevation gain will not be attempted solo this day.
The ascent portion is terminated and time is taken to rest in preparation for the descent. The ascent has been terminated about ¾ of the way to the end of the Central Gully. The descent will illustrate just how deceiving this large canyon can be.
The down scramble off the plateau is attention-getting but safely executed. On the route down the Central Gully, the scrambles seem more challenging. Safe hand holds are abundant but feet are difficult to stabilize and repeatedly lose traction. The seat of a previously good pair of hiking pants gets a fairly good workout on gravel and pea-sized pebbles over bedrock preventing stable footing.
Why is this down-side scramble so difficult? In a safe place, and seated in the sun on a tiny patch of grass for food and rest, there is an opportunity to ponder the situation. The top of the ridge on the other side of the canyon appears to be fairly level. From past experience, it is not. The trail to the summit of Mount Rundle is a fairly steep, relentless ascent surpassed only by the final scree approach to the summit.
Then, from this vantage point, it is apparent the strata in the rock walls opposite contour proportionately with the surface currently being navigated. The canyon is an optical illusion. The floor of the gully, which appears to be somewhat level, is actually steeper than the ridge above. The next hour is a challenging descent and a full body workout.
There are outstanding views of Sulphur Mountain on the other side of the valley. Arriving at the starting point into the gully the note is retrieved around 1:30 PM. Several people have signed it and included good luck messages. On the descent off the mountain muscles are complaining about being beaten up.
There are several people hiking to the summit. Many are not prepared for the climb. At about 1,829 m (6,000 ft), two young men in running shoes ask where they can find a stream to get water. There is none and the water would not be potable anyway. They press on with the eternal optimism and energy of youth.
The Banff Upper Hot Springs are not too busy and the best water jet in the pool is available. Spending an hour, in the sun, relieving sore muscles in warm 39 degree C water is nothing short of therapeutic in every way imaginable.
For those who wish to attempt the Central Gully, the following advice may be useful. Do not do it alone. The predominantly easy scramble is deceiving and potentially dangerous. Three people would be advisable. In the event of injury there is one to stay and one to go for help. If you do not have proper gear, and significant experience, I recommend you do not attempt it at all. A satellite emergency beacon like SPOT or InReach may be ineffective due to limited sky exposure.
Take sticky caving gloves and bandages. The rock is sharp and abrasive. This is a high effort, above average risk, relatively low reward climb requiring advanced knowledge and skill. It is NOT a first scramble.
Quite frankly, there is not much up there worth seeing. Better things to do.