Summer vacation was nearing an end and I found myself in Banff. We
hadn't been doing much climbing and I was itching to get to the top of
something - sport climbing just wasn't doing it for me. Although
there are some really nice big limestone routes nearby in Banff, we
wanted to get into the higher peaks and reach a summit. Thus the
plan: the standard route on the Grand Sentinel near Lake Louise.
The Grand Sentinel is a 300 foot spire made out of quartzite that
marks Sentinel Pass above Moraine Lake. The first crux is the hike
in: the trail from Moraine Lake to the pass is pretty brutal but very
scenic. Greg Hager and I took a couple of hours to reach the pass and
see our objective. Unfortunately the rock isn't right at the pass;
you have to cross an endless slope of loose rock and traverse some
Of course we didn't have ice axes and I was wearing some crappy $20
tennis shoes. Using a sharp rock as an imitation ice axe, I slowly
crossed the first snowfield. Actually it wasn't too bad but I was
gripped. It was also unnecessary - we could have climbed down under
the snow but we were being stubborn. Greg had no problems and we
proceeded to cross a couple of more snowfields. Fortunately another
party had left good steps and it was mostly casual.
Some more loose scree and we were at the base. Another party was on
Cardiac Arete, a 5.10 sport climb, but there was nobody above us on the
standard route. This was good since I didn't have a helmet
(definitely a starndard piece of gear thereabouts!). Greg
wore my kayak helmet and was glad to have it when he was under me on
the belays. The first pitch was the worlds hardest 5.4 - although it
was pretty easy, it was dead vertical and a bit unnerving. I decided
to keep going onto the next pitch - 5.7 cracks leading to a huge
The hard part was finding the easiest line. It was obvious that you
could climb nearly anywhere on the well-featured rock but finding a
5.7 line was tough. I finally figured out that I had to follow the
chalk: it took me up, way left, up and right, and then through a nice
crack to the belay.
The next pitch was the crux: a vertical dihedral with a wide crack.
It turned out to be considerably easier than it looked: there were good
cracks in the sides so I didn't need any big bros or offwidth
technique. At the top was a small loose band and an improbable
overhang. It looked tough but proved to be fun and I was at the
The final pitch has two possibilities: a 5.9 crack and a 5.4
scramble. I chose the scramble. This was pretty cool - a chimney
that cut all the way through the spire. The very top was sort of
loose but easy and Greg and I were soon at the summit.
The views could have been better - many of the peaks were encased in
cloud and it was threatening to rain - but it was a completely
excellent place to be sitting. There was a party behind us so I opted
to rap the sport route on the arete. This proved to be as exciting as
going up: every rap was vertical or overhung and very exposed. But at
least everything was just 25 meters so a single rope sufficed. The
third rap was the worst: you had to swing in under a small overhang to
grab the chains. Cardiac Arete looked really nice although it's sort
of strange to see all those bolts right next to cracks in the
backcountry. I'll have to return and try it.
The return went quickly and we made it back to Banff in time to keep
our wives happy. Total time about 7.5 hours car to car, most of that
hiking. But since the hike itself would have been worth doing without
the climb we had no complaints. Definitely one of the really fun pure
rock climbs up in the high peaks of the Canadian Rockies.