Getting High on Mount St. Piran

Someday you will find me
Caught beneath the landslide
In a champagne supernova in the sky
Slowly walking down the hall
Faster than a cannonball
Where were you while we were getting high?

– Oasis, “Champagne Supernova”, 1995

My favourite rock star, no question, is Noel Gallagher.  For about three years in the mid-1990s, he walked around with great songs falling out of his ass.  Around the time that Oasis released (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, even the b-sides tossed off by Gallagher the Elder were often better than anything his Britpop contemporaries could muster.  The songs don’t come quite so easily to him today, but he still has his moments of brilliance.

What makes Noel such a cool cat isn’t just that he’s a great songwriter.  What makes him awesome is that he is completely willing to admit that his lyrics, like the one above, are complete fucking nonsense.  Like Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude”, they’re nothing more than words that sound good together.  But it turns out that if you wrap skillet-seared nonsense inside a warm tortilla of infectious melodies you may just score a hit.

It doesn’t hurt that Noel Gallagher is one of the most sardonically hilarious people on the planet.  He once described his perpetually petulant and angry little brother Liam as “like a man with a fork in a world of soup”.  Some day I’ll dedicate an entire blog entry to some of Noel’s best quips but, in reality, they could fill a book.

Like most Oasis lyrics in the stark light of day, “Champagne Supernova” reads like the ramblings of a fairly unimaginative seventh-grader.  But once you hear the words in an uplifting musical context, your pleasure centres fill with visions of the plasticity of time and space, of release from the drudgery of daily life, of reaching for great heights.  Whatever gets you high is usually cool with me – I’m certainly no prude.  If what you do on your own time doesn’t irritate or endanger the people around you, then have at it.  I personally choose to get my kicks ‘n’ giggles by hiking in the mountains – although a good bottle of merlot and listening to thought-provoking records certainly round out the Top 3.

With a burst of warm September weather in the forecast, your faithful correspondent set off for Banff National Park to do a couple more hikes.  You never quite know what you’re going to get in Lake Louise in early fall – it could be sunny and warm, but a few hours later it could be overcast and snowing.  The locals know to be prepared for anything, and to get outside and frolic while the skies are clear.

After zooming down to the campground and setting up the tent, I set off once again for the Lake Louise parking lot.  I managed to be on trail by shortly after 1 pm, which left me enough daylight hours to do the Mount St. Piran hike and still not have to cook dinner in the dark.  The trail to Mount St. Piran is classified somewhere between a tough hike and an easy scramble.  Over about six kilometres of trail, you gain 900 metres of altitude between the Lake Louise shoreline (1750m) and the Mount St. Piran summit (2650m).  In this photo from the lakeshore, Mount St. Piran is the barren second peak from the right, between the treed summit of Little Beehive and the rocky spires of Mount Niblock.

The first hour of the trail is fairly uneventful, as you steadily climb the well-graded trail to Mirror Lake.  Since this trail doubles as the main access to the Lake Agnes teahouse and the Big and Little Beehives, it can be fairly crowded.  In September, it’s not too overrun by the ‘Adidas and tank-tops’ crowd, but it’s still not a trail that solitude seekers would enjoy.  The shore of pretty little Mirror Lake is a nice place to stop for a snack and drink of water – just keep a wary eye on the local whiskeyjacks or else they might swoop down and commandeer your nuts.

The trail continues up around the right (east) side of Mirror Lake, constantly gaining altitude en route to the Little Beehive.  About a kilometre past Mirror Lake, the Mount St. Piran trail splits off to the left into the woods.  Someone has inexplicably tried to scratch the trail name off the Parks Canada signpost, but the turn-off is still pretty obvious.  If you miss it and end up at the Little Beehive viewpoint, just backtrack around 300 metres and watch for the branch.

From the signpost, the trail climbs through groves of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir.  About 500m later, you rise above the treeline and views open up in every direction.  Most of the trail to the summit is a series of well-graded switchbacks through subalpine meadows.  With every step, the views back to Lake Louise and up and down the Bow Valley improve.  It’s only when you reach the eastern false summit of Mount St. Piran, roughly an hour after leaving the Little Beehive trail, that this hike becomes a bit of a scramble.  A series of rock cairns guide the hiker across the rough boulder-strewn path to the summit, but anyone with basic route-finding skills should have no problem finding the way.

Once on top of Mount St. Piran, your effort is rewarded with a unique perspective on the Lake Louise area.  The glaciated face of Mount Victoria is mostly hidden behind Mount Whyte and the Devil’s Thumb.  However, you get to look across horizontally at virtually every other landmark.  The stark face of Mount Niblock stares back at you from the west, while Fairview Mountain and Mount Haddo to the south form a dramatic backdrop for turquoise Lake Louise.  Further to the west stand the glaciated slopes of Mount Lefroy and The Mitre.  Sneak over to the southwestern edge of the summit, and you can stare down at Lake Agnes and the Big Beehive several hundred metres below your feet.  Whichever way you look, the view is dramatic.

Some people choose to descend to the avalanche slope at the west end of Lake Agnes via the col between Mounts St. Piran and Niblock.  I had a look and saw a reasonable route down, but since it was late in the day I returned to Lake Louise by the conventional trail.   I didn’t particularly feel like being stranded in the dark above treeline if I made a wrong turn on the way down.  Perhaps on another day, when there’s a different champagne supernova in the sky, I’ll try the alternative route to the summit of Mount St. Piran

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