Boundary Peak

Aptly named, Boundary Peak straddles the border between Banff and Jasper National Parks. While the true highpoint is (I believe) technically in Jasper, it’s about as close as you can get to standing on a mountain summit in two of Canada’s national parks at once. Although it stands at 9,300’ (2,835 m) tall, Boundary Peak is dwarfed by neighboring Mt. Athabasca’s 11,453’ (3,491 m) summit. Standing in the face of Athabasca’s heavily-glaciated north face, Boundary Peak looks more like an anthill. But don’t let this one fool you… it is one steep scree slog to the top. And while Boundary’s bare summit itself may not be much to look at, the comparatively diminutive peak offers a stunning view of the massive glaciers that make up part of the 89-square mile (230 sq km) Columbia Ice Field.

The trail up Boundary Peak may be short – clocking in at just under five miles – but it’s far from a walk in the park. Gaining 1,000 feet of elevation (300 m) in just 0.3 miles (0.5 km), the trail to the summit is a wicked steep scree scramble. If you’re used to scrambling, there’s nothing technical or overly difficult about this summit. It’s just a heck of a lot of rubble.

For someone who hikes and scrambles regularly, this one probably won’t be much of a challenge. However, this peak became one of my redemption summits. Two summers ago, I missed my first ever summit in Montana. I had a totally unexpected moment of panic along an exposed ridge and bailed. It was a complete mental collapse that resulted in me retreating sheepishly down the trail gutted, ashamed, and crying into my PB&J.

In the twenty-two months since (but who’s counting), I’ve found myself intimidated by terrain that previously never would have fazed me. It’s beyond frustrating when psychological weakness overtakes physical strength and you find yourself repeatedly hitting that same stuck point – where turning back once makes you feel like you can never move forward again. I think it all comes back to that little shame-mongering sprite that thrives inside my head, constantly telling me I’m not good enough. I hate her. Someday, I’ll finally defeat that little demon once and for all. But for today, I’ll take one small victory atop the summit of Boundary.

Beginning from a small lot across from the Glacier View Lodge and Columbia Icefield Center, the start of the route is deceptively moderate and lackluster. The first half mile or so follows a gated shuttle road where buses shuttle visitors up to the massive ice cats that tour the frozen tongue of Athabasca Glacier. It’s pretty much the most underwhelming start to any hike. After the short, paved road walk, a trail to the east (hiker’s left) becomes apparent and begins climbing gently through a meadow for another half mile (0.8 km). As the trail gains a couple hundred feet of vertical, Athabasca’s North Glacier come into view and you can hear the roar of rushing waterfalls.

Eventually, the meadow gives way to boulders and scree, and you can make out a worn track making a straight line for the summit ahead of you. There’s a less obvious trail of switchbacks that heads up slightly south (hiker’s right) of the more discernible descent route, but we didn’t spot it. With the straightforward descent track in front of us, we said screw it and just went up that way.

The scree may have been brutal but it was manageable. Whichever route you select, you’re in for a super steep climb, gaining the last 1,000’ of vertical in less than 0.4 miles. For reference, it took us close to an hour to get up this final slog, and just 20 minutes or so to get back down (on shitty knees). Just before reaching Boundary’s highpoint, there’s a quick two- or three-meter scramble up a bit of rock to gain the 9,300’ (2,835 m) summit. After all the scree, clambering up some mildly-exposed rock felt like a gift.

As you make your way, take time to pause. The views looking back at Mt. Wilcox and Nigel Peak get better and better with every step. I think our shutter buttons were about as on fire as our legs.

Once you reach the top, you’re rewarded with a nice, wide summit bench with Athabasca’s North Glacier staring you right in the face.

If you can manage to pull your gaze away from the massive ice field, the views are pretty sweet in every direction. Just east of Mt. Athabasca is jagged Hilda Peak and the striking teal pool of Boundary Lake. To the north, you can look out over the Icefields Parkway and Columbia Icefield Center to Mount Wilcox, Wilcox Meadows, and Nigel Peak. Immediately west of Athabasca, Snow Dome stands crowned with Snow Dome Glacier. It was a gorgeous view and, as always, humbling to stand in the shadow of giants.

We found the descent much more fun than the taxing ascent, with the mounds of rubble now making for some nice scree skiing. Looking for even more fun, Stephan found a lingering snow slope that made for a nice ride down.

Of course, never wanting to be left out of the party, Sanchez just had to go for her own mini-glissade once he’d made his controlled descent. She was super proud of her little plow through the snow field, and immediately suggested her efforts be rewarded with a special trail snack (which, of course, they were).

Overall, this was a super enjoyable day on the trail. The weather was flawless and the route was challenging enough that you felt like you earned that view. Additionally, it seemed like the ideal trail for celebrating eighteen years of togetherness. I mean, could there be a more perfect metaphor for what putting up with me for almost two decades must look like? For me, it was also one more baby step forward on the path to regaining my confidence. For that, I’m always grateful.

Total distance:  4.9 miles (7.9 km)
Elevation gain:  3,040 feet (930 m)
Scramble rating: Easy

Side trip

If you’re looking for a quick add-on after your Boundary Peak scramble, Boundary Lake is just a few miles away off the southbound side of the Icefields Parkway. After spotting the glacial tarn off the northeast side of the peak, we thought we’d make a quick trip up to the quiet lake.

The roundtrip to Boundary Lake is an easy two-mile walk (3 km) with about 400’ (100 m) of vertical gain. There were only a few people when we visited and, if you’re bold enough to brave the cold water, it makes a nice spot for a dip after a sweaty scramble. Although she didn’t seem too keen to do much swimming in the chilly pool, Sanchez did have a blast exploring the lakeshore.

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