The Gritty Grotto Mountain

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Grotto Mountain
Grotto Mountain. The summit is on the right.

This post about the hike up Grotto Mountain in Alberta Canada was originally published in 2007. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

Part of the joy of mountaineering is the sense of accomplishment and elation you get when you get to the top….and then back down to the bottom again safely. Inevitable at some point during the often exhausting journey in mixed conditions is the sense of “Why the heck am I doing this????” But of course, if you have the mountaineering bug, you always come back for more, and wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s amazing that we love to punish ourselves in this fashion.

See also: Climbing Mount Rothorn in Switzerland

Against the weather forecast’s better recommendations, I found myself on the road to Canmore Alberta (near Banff) on an Alpine Club of Canada trip to scramble a few mountains. On the agenda were Grotto Mountain on Saturday, and Middle Sister on Sunday; both mountains overlooking Canmore from opposite sides.

Scrambling is the term used for mountaineering without the use of any technical ropes or climbing gear, but something that is more than just a hike. You usually find yourself at some point using both your hands and feet to climb and “scramble” over the rocks.

After a Friday night drive to Canmore (time: 4 hours) under dramatic skies and skirting a few storms, we arrived at our campsite for the night. We were unable to connect with any other members of the club, so Bernie and I enjoyed a beer together before hitting the sack. My sack for the night wasn’t a tent though – since we arrived late enough and it was drizzling, it seemed easier to crash out in the upper bunk of his new VW Camper Van….it was quite the luxurious “tent”, to be sure!

Early Saturday morning found us at the Alpine Club Clubhouse on the outskirts of Canmore, at the base of Grotto Mountain. We met the remaining 6 members of the climbing team, donned our climbing apparel (with lunch, and plenty of waterproof and warming layers in our packs), and started uphill.

Initially, we walked through the forest up and down, and over a series of switchbacks that led us onward and upward. We had to stop quite regularly for one reason or another….one member had foot problems, another would have to use nature’s bathroom, and water breaks were quite necessary for everybody.

The stops were relatively welcome breaks for me, because just as I would start to get winded, somebody would request a break. Or it would start raining and we would need to dig our waterproof layers out of our bags. Or it would stop raining and we’d need to layer down again. There was plenty of layering up and down on the mountain as the weather and temperature changed (dramatically at times).

On yet another break, one of the members found an abandoned pack with an assortment of climbing gear and apparel in it. It had quite obviously been ditched (probably due to its weight and an increasing need to get off the mountain) a few seasons ago, and had since been mauled (likely by bears), since among the contents were….perfume. Who brings perfume on a climbing trip??? Yup – somebody who doesn’t know about bears. Yikes!

So between our many stops, gear discoveries, and water and food breaks, we were not progressing at a particularly quick pace overall.

a very foggy ascent of Grotto Mountain

Once we made it beyond the tree line, a new set of challenges lay in front of us: Glorious uphill rubble. And lots of it.

Hiking up large and small pieces of limestone rubble at a 70 percent grade isn’t the easiest of tasks. It takes a little while to get accustomed to how to place your feet so your ankles don’t twist, you don’t slip on the sliding scree, and you don’t tire out too quickly. Techniques like the “rest step” where you are actually able to rest your legs for half a second with every step you take, are endurance saviours for long and arduous uphill climbs.

Another challenge that often exists above the tree line is the absence of a trail. With nothing but rocks scattered around, even the mountain goats are hard pressed to carve out a game trail. So route finding can be tricky.

Hikers and climbers alike will often build cairns out of rocks to give other climbers landmarks and reassurance that they’re going the right way. However in a sea of rocks, identifying a pile 3 or 4 high are also pretty hard to identify.

Grotto Mountain trees bathed in fog

On this particular scramble though, route finding wasn’t too tricky, as there was really only one direction to go: Up. We beetled towards the nearest ridge, and then followed it as it rose and undulated over false summit after false summit. We would arrive at what felt like the top of the world, only to see that beyond it was further ridge and presumably a higher summit.

Which brings me to the last challenge we had, and probably the trickiest one: we were climbing through soup. The clouds (and rain) were ever-present on our hike, and we were surrounded by thick and blankety fog most of the time. So we were unable to identify the territory 15 feet beyond us at any given time, which made finding our route (and the peak) even more trying.

We were lucky to have Bernie with us, who happened to bring a GPS with him. What ever did we do in the ages before GPS and all the other pieces of technical gear we now carry with us? I guess we just bumbled around in the clouds for longer than necessary trying to find routes!

After many arduous hours, we did finally reach the summit. The sure sign was the summit register: a canister present at most commonly climbed mountains and affixed to the summit. Inside it was a small notebook and a few pens for successful climbers to mark their adventure and provide a few words of wisdom for future summit-achievers to read.

The view from the summit was….well….soupy. The clouds had yet to part, so like most of the climb, all we could see was each other and an eerie white blanket surrounding us on all sides.

After a short rest, it was time to turn around and descend.

You would think that achieving the summit is the pinnacle of any mountaineering trip, and it certainly is an accomplishment to be sure. However for myself, most of the trip upwards was accompanied by the thoughts “how the heck are we going to get down”? Hours upon hours of climbing steep muddy slopes, then slippery rock scree was hard enough going up, but going down presents a whole new set of challenges – the main one being how to remain upright and in control.

Luckily with the use of trekking poles (just like ski poles), it’s much easier to both climb and descend than it is with only the use of your hands and feet.

So the trip down wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had imagined it would be, and was even fun at times! Controlled slides down the scree and rubble were both effective and exhilarating. Controlled slides down the mud were just messy.

Without Bernie’s GPS, I could only imagine that finding our re-entry point at the tree-line would have been a real challenge. From above the trees and through the fog, the ridge along the tree line looked pretty unchanging. But just beyond it lay many cliff bands, and numerous “wrong” ways to go! One of the finer points of mountaineering is the ability to identify and follow a trail, even when there isn’t one. However the larger the group is, the more dissention there is among the ranks as to the correct way to go, resulting in the wastage of lots of time and energy. Since our climb was already taking longer than anticipated, I for one was thankful that Bernie could simply look at his magical box and point in the direction we needed to go!

view from Grotto Mountain on the way down

On our way back down off Grotto Mountain, the clouds parted for us to give us a view of what was around…..range after range of glorious mountains, and the ever-growing city of Canmore nestled in between.

During our descent and about an hour from the bottom, we encountered a couple from Toronto. It was truly a shame that they were from Toronto, because it is people like them that give Toronto a bad rep out here. They were arrogant, overbearing, and terribly unprepared for the mountains. And unwilling to admit it.

The woman was wearing nothing more than running shoes, a t-shirt and capris, and had a waterproof shell tied around her waist. The man was a little better prepared with mountaineering boots, and some (completely useless on this climb) rock shoes attached to his belt. Between the two of them they maybe had a bottle of water and no food or provisions or lights.

The view of Canmore

It was nearing 6pm by this time, and they were headed uphill, our first red flag. After some cursory conversation with them, it was quite obvious they had no idea how big this mountain was (and really, it’s one of the smaller easier mountains to climb in the area). Geared up as they were, and at that time of day, they actually expected to reach the summit and make it back down safely. The fact that we were on the trail at 9:30am and still descending at 6pm (a fact that we had to remind them of many times) seemed to escape them.

They then managed to insult most of us unwittingly by saying that we really didn’t know what we were doing, and that they plan to take a course at one of the premier mountaineering schools next year. This coming from a terribly ill-prepared over-weight couple trying to climb a mountain at 6pm. Sure.

Shortly after that I decided to bail from this spiralling conversation and return to my downhill descent, since I was starting to get hungry and quite dehydrated (one litre of water was not nearly enough to bring for the unexpectedly long day). I also didn’t want to be associated with this couple as Torontonians any longer. I was actually embarrassed. Such is the interesting rift that exists between west and east, and only now am I starting to understand why easterners aren’t always looked on so kindly out here. I never thought I’d understand that, and am frankly quite distraught by it.

Once back in the parking lot with sore feet, jelly-like legs, and aching everything-else, we took a time check: 6:30pm. We were on the mountain for 9 hours. And here we expected our day was only going to be 5-8 hours, and we didn’t even have any significant delays. Such is the dynamic of traveling in a large group; the more people there are, the longer the day is.

But just think if something had gone wrong: say we couldn’t find the correct route down and had to backtrack, or somebody twisted an ankle. We could easily have been there until dark, or even overnight.

As (inexperienced and unknowledgable according to our Torontonian friends) mountaineers, we all brought first aid provisions, extra layers of clothing, food, and headlamps for just such an emergency. It’s plain common sense to most people accustomed to the mountains.

But every year people get lost, stranded, need rescuing, and even die on fairly straightforward mountains like Grotto Mountain. All because they don’t respect the foreboding atmosphere and unforgiving environment inherent in the mountains. I didn’t even understand it myself when I first climbed in the mountains last year, and had to learn the hard way when I became over-exhausted near the summit of another climb and had to turn back down for a touch-and-go descent. I was almost one of those people that had to ditch their pack to get myself down safely (but luckily I persevered and was able to make it down pack and all).

Part of the appeal of mountaineering is that take-no-prisoners kind of situation. It’s about so much more than reaching the summit. It’s about the journey, the views, pushing yourself, and seeing just how far the envelope goes. At times, personal revelations occur on the side of a mountain, and I certainly have had a few of my own.

And as harsh as the mountains are, here I am right now faced with a weekend where I have business to take care of in the city. And something just doesn’t feel quite right. Home is where the heart is, and right now my heart is still on Grotto Mountain.

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1 thought on “The Gritty Grotto Mountain”

  1. Great writting Nora. Your style is very fun to read. Not surprised by the Toronto couple, but more often it’s been USA folks that i’ve had a hard time with….we’re all there for the same reason, can’t we just get along 🙂



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