CASCADE, RUNDLE, SULPHUR:
ATHLETES TAKE ON
THREE PEAKS CHALLENGE
By Tera Swanson
OUTDOORS I SPONSORED
For most mountain enthusiasts, ascending a single peak in a day is a worthy undertaking. But endurance athletes have set their sights on three peaks accessible from the town of Banff for a multi-peak challenge, using their muscle and willpower to run and climb from trailhead to summit, and everywhere in between.
Mountain communities across the world have their own quirks, histories, and personalities that set their culture apart from others, and the same can be said for their local outdoor challenges.
Recently, Banff, Alberta, has developed a challenge of its own. Standing on Banff Avenue, on a clear day, you can see three of the region’s iconic peaks: Cascade, Rundle and Sulphur. Summiting all three of these mountains in under 24 hours – starting and ending at The North Face store – has become the Banff Three Peaks Challenge. That’s 25,419 feet of elevation gain in just one day, and a distance of 70 kilometres when athletes run from peak to peak.
THE ROOTS OF THE CHALLENGE: PAUL WATHAN
It all started when former The North Face athlete and ultrarunner, Paul Wathan, was visiting Banff on a working holiday visa in 2013. Originally from the UK, Wathan had completed the Canadian Death Race on August 3, 2013 – a 125 km race with 17,000 feet of elevation.
During his recovery period, Wathan talked to co-workers at The North Face Banff about other routes he could complete before leaving the area. Running Cascade, Rundle, and Sulphur was one idea that came up.
“I was doing a bit of research and noticed that nobody had actually summited all three mountains consecutively, with running in between as well,” said Wathan.
And so Wathan set out on August 21, 2013, at 5 a.m. from The North Face with a full moon illuminating his route towards Cascade Mountain – a mountain he had never been on before. He made it back to The North Face in 3h54m, less than half of the time suggested to complete the trail.
Though starting off strong, Wathan hit his personal crux of the route ascending the second summit.
“It was really hot that day, and it all went a bit wrong on Rundle,” said Wathan. “I was only carrying a litre and a half of water, and I’d gone through it about halfway up, so that was definitely the low point of the challenge.”
Dehydration set in to the point of blurring his vision near the summit, and desperate for any relief, he coated his tongue in Vaseline to prevent it from sticking to the roof of his mouth.
“Luckily, as I was coming back down, one of the guys from The North Face was on the way up with some drinks for me. Otherwise it might’ve been a cancellation at that point,” said Wathan.
With body and motivation refueled, Wathan continued up Sulphur’s summit before heading back into the Banff townsite, with his girlfriend accompanying him on the last ten kilometres.
BROKEN BONES AND BROKEN RECORDS: IAN MACNAIRN
Wathan held the record for the Three Peaks Challenge with a time of 15h32m, until Ian MacNairn of Calgary decided to take on the challenge later that year.
MacNairn’s start with ultrarunning was born from an undergraduate degree honour’s thesis project. After being hit by an SUV in 2006, MacNairn sought to study the process of his own body going from immobilization, through rehabilitation, and to the opposite end of the spectrum of mobility: running the Canadian Death Race marathon in 2009.
“In 2013 I decided I wanted to see how I could fare (competitively) in the sport,” said MacNairn. “I’d been participating in it in kind of a cursory way for the past three years as a researcher and observer, and I wanted to see how I could do as an athlete.”
MacNairn and Wathan met at the Canadian Death Race in 2013, where Wathan was competing and MacNairn was invited out as a journalist. MacNairn had spent the majority of his training time in the Bow Valley, yet had never been on any of the three mountains. After learning of Wathan’s challenge, he decided to make an attempt.
Having completed 18 races in 2013, MacNairn’s first window of opportunity to attempt the challenge came in the shoulder season, with fresh snow on each of the major summits. He set out on the quiet early morning of October 18, making his way up the Norquay basin and towards Cascade Mountain.
“Once I got out of the amphitheater and up to the false summit, I was quite surprised and a little deflated by the amount of snow,” said MacNairn. “I realized it was going to really slow me down.”
MacNairn’s troubles didn’t end there. After making it to Cascade’s summit in time for sunrise, and descending back to the highway, he fell and fractured his hand in two places. After setting his own left index finger and left pinkie back into place, he carried on. A pitstop at The North Face to refuel was all he needed before ascending Rundle, reaching snow once again at the Dragon’s Back.
“It got to the point where I was having to break away the snow in front of me with my hands, because it was too deep to even just step into,” said MacNairn. “Post holing is one thing, but this was quite a bit deeper than that; it was above my waist. That final 150 to 200 metres of vertical climb on Rundle was very slow, but eventually I got to the top.”
Exhausted but elated, MacNairn looked across to see that Sulphur was a substantially lower peak, and felt motivated to continue on, eventually completing the route in 12hr55min.
NEW TO BANFF AND A NEW RECORD: SEAN BRADLEY
Though a handful of athletes have attempted and completed the route, MacNairn’s record wasn’t beaten until the summer of 2015 by Sean Bradley from Edmonton. After befriending a Bow Valley local and fellow ultrarunner, Tom Amaral, they began teaming up for different alpine objectives in the Bow Valley area.
“We’d been doing longer and longer outings to prepare for his race, the Mont Blanc Marathon, and we were trying to get creative with it,” said Bradley. “The Three Peaks Challenge was one idea he suggested.”
With agreeable weather, companionship, and a fresh ascent on a new mountain, Bradley said reaching Cascade’s summit was by far the biggest high point of the route that day.
“It blew me away,” said Bradley. “I’d never been up there before and it was definitely my favorite summit in the area thus far.” “It gave me some perspective to learning about the mountains in Banff as a person who’s relatively new to the area.”
Although he prepared the night before by stashing water at different areas in town, and having a friend deliver snacks and water by bike, Bradley continued on to ascend Rundle solo without any further support.
“Looking back on Rundle it was super enjoyable, but at the time I just hated it,” said Bradley. “The constant climb up the Dragon’s Back is very mentally draining, and I made the same mistake as Tom when he attempted the challenge. I didn’t bring enough water and got pretty gassed. I thought about turning back at several points.”
Once Bradley reached within 500m of the summit, he knew reaching the top was realistic. Upon doing so, the adrenaline rush and quick descent motivated him to carry on. “I was still on the buzz of getting the peak in, so thought I may as well go for it,” said Bradley, later returning to The North Face with a successful completion of the route in 12h 15m. Bradley said the route was more of a personal goal for him.
“I was aware of Ian’s time and that he had accomplished something totally respectable, because he did it in shoulder season climate,” said Bradley. “So, I knew my time would be realistic when I had basically perfect conditions.”
Snow or sunshine, summer or shoulder season, by completing this challenge these athletes have further connected themselves to their community and the mountain environment.
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