Mt. Lady Macdonald
Time: 5 hours
Distance: 10.7 km (return)
Elevation Gain: 1200 m
How To Get There: When heading west towards Canmore on the Trans Canada highway, take the off-ramp that leads to Highway 1A. Turn left on highway 1A and then take another left on Elk Run Blvd. Follow this road until you cross over the Cougar Creek bridge. Park in the parking lot that is just on the other side of the bridge.
Don’t let the name fool you- this mountain is no lady. She’s tough as hell. And I love her for it.
I had heard about this hike when I was attending a Scrambling 101 Seminar (presented by Slow and Steady Hikers) and had kept it in the back of my mind just in case I ever ended up with a solo hiking opportunity during the summer. August 12th happened to be one of those days. So I packed up all of my stuff and took off towards Canmore with the weather forecast looking to be a bit more favourable than in past weeks. Sunshine and a small chance of thunderclouds- I could live with that.
The Canmore area is ripe with berries this time of the year so there are plenty of bears roaming the valley, looking to fatten up for the winter. For this reason, I made sure to have my bear spray locked and loaded. As I parked at the Cougar Creek Parking Lot, I immediately joined up with three other guys who were also heading for the summit.
We walked north up the 1 kilometre gravel covered trail before it finally veered slightly away from the creek and into the trees. From here, you walk past an area closure sign and then immediately begin gaining elevation up a dirt covered trail.
You don’t really stop gaining elevation after this point to be honest. Keeping a slow but steady pace, I continued past the three hikers and soon found myself on my own. That’s when I decided to start singing an off-key variation of Backstreet Boys songs. Let’s just say that it was probably a good thing I was alone after that. While singing, I climbed upwards through thick pockets of trees, every now and again using the protruding tree roots to propel me forward.
As I hiked, the switchbacks got shorter and shorter (and steeper and steeper) and the views of bow valley below got better and better.
The views really opened up once the large boulders began to make an appearance. The ground got looser and full of gravel, leading me up until I came into full view of a beautiful grassy rock-filled meadow.
After that, the trail leads right through a large pile of boulders. There were several moments where I lost track of the trail but there were many helpful cairns and orange ribbons tied to trees that helped me along the way. It’s a bit of a ankle-twister finding your way through and up all of the boulders so it’s important that you take your time and watch your step.
Gradually I made my way up and past the last boulder to a wonderful west view of Canmore and the surrounding valley.
Off to the north, I could see the high ridge of Lady MacDonald so I continued to the east, picking my way through the last of the forest until I was finally on the other side, staring down the small ridge that would take me to the helicopter pad. I had thought the views were amazing before but they didn’t hold a candle to this part of the hike. Once you get on top of the ridge that leads to the helicopter pad, the views of the surrounding mountains to the northeast are phenomenal. It would be worth it just to hike to this point.
But this wasn’t my main goal, so after I stopped for a quick snack break, I began making my way across the loose rock that made up the final section of the ridge just before the helicopter pad, leaving behind the remaining trees.
The peak of Lady MacDonald loomed large over me as I finally climbed on top of the helicopter pad. The pad itself is a bit worn out so I had to be careful where I stepped. There were two other hikers sitting and relaxing on the pad when I showed up and they were nice enough to take a picture of me at my newest stop. The helicopter pad offers panoramic views of both sides of the mountain and a lot of people use this as their stopping point.
But this still wasn’t my goal. I wanted to get to the top of Lady McDonald’s highest ridge, so I continued on. This is when the trail begins to get very tricky. It stops being a hike and turns into a moderately difficult scramble.
The scree is loose and deep and there are two large ascending hills to climb. The first hill is the shorter and easier of the two. While the entire trail is just scree at this point, the trail is still obvious where it is faded so I was able to follow it closely, using my hiking poles to help keep balance. There is a bit of a flat spot to walk and then you are faced with the second ascension. Climbing up this part is a bit of a slow process, as you need to be careful where you place your steps. One wrong move and you could end up sliding backwards which could spell trouble. I ended up putting my poles away after awhile because they were becoming more of a hindrance than anything since it was getting so steep.
After climbing around the west side (which has more slabs of rock and thus was a bit more difficult), I finally managed to reach the false summit where a cairn welcomed my presence.
There were four other hikers that had also reached the top, one of whom had just come back from the real summit. He told me that getting to the summit was incredibly tricky. The ridge gets very narrow and acts almost like a balance beam for about 30m before you reach the top.
It wasn’t something that I wanted to try. And I already had a panoramic view of the world from where I sat. So I decided that the false summit would be good enough and began to eat my lunch.
While most of the hikers headed back down the mountain at that point, one guy decided to stay behind and we had a good chat over sandwiches and carrot sticks. He told me about his life and about all of the various hikes he had done.
That is one of the things I love so much about hiking- people are always so friendly and willing to share stories about their adventures. We ended up exchanging phone numbers for future hiking trips and taking pictures for each other standing on top of Lady Mac and then I bid him farewell.
It was much easier going back down the scramble as I could just slide down the scree instead of climb up against it. There were some tricky points where there were hidden rock slabs underneath the scree but I managed to fall on my butt only once. The rest of the hike down is mostly a steep descent which was a bit difficult on the knees. It was definitely worth it though.
Getting up Lady MacDonald is a beautiful and worthwhile hike and scramble. The panoramic views of Canmore, Bow Valley and the surrounding mountains are absolutely wonderful. While it’s not necessarily easy, it’s worth every grueling step.