Big Sister
An awesome scramble to the highest of the Three Sisters

The route up Big Sister goes straight up the back side from Whiteman's Gap.
This is an excellent scramble, with mostly slabs and a couple interesting hands-on parts.

The first few hundred metres of ascent are below treeline, with decent trail and a few good slabs.
The trail climbs aggressively, and shortly we have nice views back to the Spray Lakes Resevoir.

Looking up the slope from trailhead.

Spray Lakes Resevoir from the start.

Mount Sparrowhawk down the valley.

Mixed terrain upslope.

Cool slabs at the break of treeline.

Viewpoint up the slope to scramble.

Rock across the gully.

After a little we break treeline, and the real fun begins.
There are two possible routes for a period of time - either a scree and light rock in a small gully, or slabs along a small ridge.
Most of the way up we took the ridge, which was mostly great slab scrambling, with a few small sections of hands-on.
Both routes join up near the top, with the crux of the climb, a few metre downclimb which is not terribly difficult, but somewhat exposed.

Marshall tries for the hard way up.

Jay tackles a hands-on bit.

Marta bounds up the rock slabs.

Laurier, Jay, and Marta walk some great terrain.

Marshall up the slabs.

Looking back down the ridge ascent line.

Marshall climbs along the ridge.

Goat Range across Goat Pond in the valley.

Lunchtime nestled in the rocks.

View back down again.

Peter continues up the steep ridgeline.

The group ascends towards the crux.

After the downclimb, the route ascends rock slabs and bits of trail under a row of pinnacles and up the last bit to the summit.
We had seen some bad weather passing through during our ascent, but it had blown north and missed us.
As we approached the summit, more clouds rolled in from the west, and although we did not suspect any major danger, we didn't hang around too long before heading down.

Jay starts the downclimb

Hiking up beneath the pinnacles.

Rainstorm passing by us in the north.

More clouds moving in.

Scrambling up as the pinnacles tower above us.

Peter and Laurier reach the summit.

Jay, Marta, and Marshall check out the view from the summit.

360 panorama from the summit of Big Sister (2936m).

As we started down the trail, the clouds struck us. It cooled considerably, and began to snow as we walked along the pinnacles.
By the time we reached the crux climb, there was light but steady snow. Though unpleasant, this was nothing compared to the thunderstorm that followed.
See full thunderstorm danger story at the bottom of the page, but for now, suffice to say lightning struck nearby and we ended up trying to hide out for a while before continuing our descent.
Attempting to break the true stereotype of never taking photos when the bad stuff happens, I managed a couple shots of the conditions while we waited.

Ridge leading down to Middle Sister.

Climbing up the crux in light flurries.

Waiting for the storm to move on.

Low visibility through the storm.

Thankfully for us, the thunderstorm lifted as quickly as it had come, dissipating completely from us by the time we reached treeline.
It left us a few slippy bits, and some very cool cloud effects as they rolled over ridges and down gullies as the storm moved on.

Peter and Marta descend after the storm.

Clouds lifting off the upper part of the mountain.

Sun burning off clouds in a valley across from us.

New snow dumped on Big Sister while we were up there.
Also visible in this shot from Canmore are the ascent ridge and pinnacles.

Peter, Jay, Marta, Marshall, Laurier, and Rachel, glad to have made it back to the car. Ascent route is the left ridgeline above us.

Leafy aster (aster foliaceus).

Photos taken by Rachel.

The full thunderstorm story

Although there were many clouds in the sky, and we had seen weather systems moving through all day, never had we seen or heard anything electrical. We knew we were in bad weather, but had not yet suspected that the snowstorm which hit us was, in fact, a thunderstorm. As we walked the steep, bare face along the wide part of our ascent ridge, the lightning hit without any thunder or in-cloud warning. I had trailed behind a little, and was alone for a distance when a bolt of lightning zipped past me and struck the rock just uphill. It manifested as a moment of stillness, which must have been instantaneous, but felt much longer. All sound seemed to cease for a moment, and then there was a loud snap or crack, and the lightning hit. Being high on a mountain, it seemed we were essentially inside the storm, rather than under it, and the lightning missed me by a couple feet, travelling horizontally straight through the air. Strangely, when it hit the rock just behind me, the charge moved in some strange way that i may never have felt it (or was in sufficient shock from seeing it as to not notice any feeling), but it travelled downslope where Peter, at the head of the group felt a buzz in the ground. Marshall, having seen the lightning, started yelling at the same time as me, and we all rushed as fast as we reasonably could on the terrain to get to someplace less exposed.

Being on a bare, open scramble, this didn't really exist, so we were forced with the choice of trying to hunker down somewhere *maybe* slightly more safe than everything else around, or continue down with the lightning striking again at any point. When we came upone the part of the mountain which breaks into high and low points again, we tucked ourselves in near a small escarpment, with some taller points off a little. I can't say whether we made the correct choice, but thankfully we got lucky with it and all were fine. As the storm went on, with us hearing occasional sounds of thunder, but thankfully not seeing any passing lightning, it became a question of unsafely walking bare face in the storm against unsafely staying put where we were as the temperature continued to drop.

We decided to continue at one point, only to see another bolt of lightning strike very slightly above us the moment the first couple people stood up. Taking that as a sign, we stayed for a while longer, until it seemed the potential dangers of cold were going to outweigh the potential dangers of lightning strikes. Although the snow had not abated, or the view cleared to give any sign of a lessening storm, we continued our descent, choosing to stay within the moderately low scree slope and off the ridge of our ascent.

With great luck or whatever other force in which you choose to believe, we were very lucky, and saw no further lightning on our descent. The storm continued to make visibility a problem, but the high ridge beside us was a good guide point for a while. As we again neared treeline, the storm lifted off us, and had moved on completely by the time we reached the bottom. The only hazards we had to navigate for the last part of the trail were a few slippy points as a result of the precipitation.

I think when stuck on a scramble in a thunderstorm, pretty much any possible response is wrong, and none much preferable to the others. We did what we thought best, and came out of it lucky. I can't say how i would choose again in the same situation, but the primary thing I gained out of this experience was greater caution. Feeling utterly exposed in a thunderstorm has made me more cautious about the weather in trips since, and I have backed off a couple mountains due to threatening conditions. I learned that thunderstorms can show up with very little classic warning, and I'd rather come back to try a summit some other time than to tag another peak and not make it back down.

Back to Photos on Foot Index
Back to Photos Index