Thoughts on latest incident on Mt. Fairview

Lake Louise. Fairview Mtn. is the mountain on the left. Note the formidable cliffs bordering the lake.

For those who have not heard, a hiker was rescued from Mt. Fairview (note: the mountain is actually called “Fairview Mtn.” not “Mt. Fairview”) in Lake Louise this past week. The Calgary Herald story (sourced from the Rocky Mountain Outlook) can be read here. For those of you who have been to Lake Louise, Fairview Mtn. is the impressive-looking mountain towering on your immediate left when you’re looking across the lake toward Mt. Victoria.

As a scrambler who has done Fairview once in the summer and attempted it in the winter, I wanted to offer some comment on this story.

Before I continue, a tip of the hat goes to the excellent job done by all of the rescuers to get this man safely off the mountain and to a hospital. These folks risk their own lives to save the lives of others, and everyone who visits to the mountain parks should be very grateful for their dedication, abilities and courage.

The main point that I wanted to emphasize is that this accident was completely unnecessary and senseless. Let’s consider the following factors known through the news story:

  • The party of hikers were in the vicinity of the Fairview Lookout.
  • The accident happened around 3AM.

Based on the first point, it cannot be determined from the story which trail this party was on. The Fairview Lookout Trail is a relative easy hike (about a 1 hr walk, one way, with minimal elevation gain). The area is largely treed, with no cliffs, so it is unlikely that the group was on the trail.

The route up Fairview Mtn., as seen from near the Saddle-Fairview col

More likely, they were on the Mt. Fairview scramble route (rated ‘easy’), which goes from the Sadddle Mtn. and Fairview col all the way to the summit via the gentle back slopes. This is a well-established route that usually takes anywhere from 4-6 hours to complete. Many children and pets (albeit, very fit ones!) have been at the summit, so it’s not an out-of-reach adventure for the average hiker. The route is supposed to be an “out-and-back” type, where the return trip retraces the ascent. However, there are some false trails going the opposite direction of the decent route that people have followed, thinking there is a shortcut to get back to the lake…except that there is *NO* shortcut!

Recall the famous and obligatory photo that tourists take when they’re at Lake Louise. Fairview Mtn. looks impressive because there are sheer cliffs that face the lake. It’s beyond me how someone could spend hours slogging around and up the back side of a mountain and forget that they went through that exercise because the ‘front’ of the mountain is a giant cliff face…except that this accident happened in the middle of the night.

What likely happened is the party left in the late afternoon or even early evening, managed to summit, but much later than they were anticipating. For whatever reason, they panicked and tried to abbreviate their trip by taking what appeared to be a shortcut, got lost and then a member of the party fell off the cliff.

Herein is why I say this incident is pointless. Most trail maps of the area have a bold warning printed on them cautioning against attempting any ‘shortcut’ that deviates from the known route. Hell, even the brief Wikipedia article notes the frequency of rescues conducted to retrieve wayward hikers. Provided a party has some form of illumination (unknown in this particular accident), the brief section of off-trail scrambling is likely ‘easy enough’ and short enough to be dealt with in darkness. (I say ‘likely’ because I haven’t, nor would I want to, try it in the dark.)

I think it’s safe to say they had little information about the route, no map, and no guidebook because, had they availed themselves of any of those three things, they would have been warned to not do what they did.

Moreover, I can’t see how anyone could think it’s a wise idea to be on a mountain late in the day, especially without any sort of navigational aids or  route information.

The final comment I wanted to make about Fairview Mtn. specifically is that Lake Louise is not an area to take lightly. It’s colder and wetter than  Banff and Canmore, it is less accessible and the mountains are bigger. I climbed Fairview in July of last year, and I encountered snow and strong winds. These differences from the front range areas of the Rockies make it easier for hikers–especially the inexperienced–to become scared, which causes lapses in judgement and puts people in danger.

Halfway up Fairview in July 2010. Look at all the snow!

Thank goodness that this injured hiker survived. I hope he and his party have learned their lesson and that the publicity of this accident will not only warn hikers about the dangers of this particular mountain, but about the need to be prepared whenever they are out in the mountains.

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About jbsantos
Polling, politics, PR and outdoor pursuits.

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