Saturday, April 15, 2017

Banff Gondola

Trip Date: April 2017



In early April friends of ours from Regina were vacationing in Canmore and their twin boys, aged four, only wanted to stand on top of a mountain. We thought the easiest way to make that happen would be to take the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain in Banff National Park. Sulphur Mountain was named for the hot springs on its lower slopes, which were ultimately the birthplace of the Canada's national park system

Welcome to Above Banff; the interpretive centre inside the summit complex
The Banff Gondola is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the park and allows quick (only eight minutes) and easy access to a mountain summit that overlooks the town site, as well as six different mountain ranges. The original gondola officially opened to the public in July 1959, making it the first bi-cable gondola in North America and the first gondola of any kind in Canada. Over the years the gondola and the summit complex have gone through various reconstruction and rejuvenation projects in order to keep up with demand, offer world-class visitor experiences, and to maintain minimal impact on fragile alpine environments and wildlife.

The Mountaintop Boardwalk that leads to the weather observatory on Sanson Peak
Since it was early spring there was still quite a bit of snow at the summit, but the sun was shining and the temperature was mild, which made for an enjoyable experience. We started by walking through the interpretive centre, which offers an in-depth look at the history of the park and highlights many of the folks that helped lay the foundation for what Banff is today.

Incredible views from the boardwalk
From there we made our way outside where we hiked along the one-kilometre Mountaintop Boardwalk, which is a self-guided interpretive trail that leads to the Sulphur Mountain Weather Observatory. The stone structure was built back in 1903 and is perched on Sanson Peak; the highest point on Sulphur Mountain and is named for Norman Bethune Sanson who first climbed the mountain back in 1896 to record weather observations. Sanson manned the observatory for the next 30 years and hiked to the summit more than one thousand times throughout his career. Today you can walk in Sanson's footsteps and follow the Sulphur Mountain Trail (six-kilometres one-way and 750m gained in elevation) that switchbacks its way to the summit below the gondola line.

The interpretive sign near the observatory reads; 
"This weather observatory operated from 1903 until the mid-1930s. Norman Sanson, curator of the Banff Park Museum and the federal government's official weather observer, climbed the mountain more than 1,000 times to collect weather date. 
When Canada's meteorological service started issuing weather forecasts in the west in 1903, Banff was ready. The park's new mountaintop weather observatory helped improve national weather forecasting. Weather reports warned of major snowfalls, fires, droughts, and floods and helped farmers decide when to plant or harvest. 
Improvements in weather monitoring technology made this station obsolete while also making forecasts more accurate.
The Rocky Mountains separate the maritime climate to the west from a more variable continental climate to the east. This is why forecasting mountain weather is challenging."
The historic weather observatory on Sanson Peak
The boys had an awesome time as we reached the summit and once on top proceeded to have the world's highest snowball fight! We viewed the observatory and peeked through the windows to see it displayed as it had been all those years ago; almost like looking back in time. It's hard to fathom spending an extended period of time on the wind-swept summit inside this drafty building, dependent on a coal stove for heat, but such was life in the early 1900s.

Looking down a the Banff town site from the summit
In the mid-1950s Sulphur Mountain's summit was chosen as the site for a Cosmic Ray Station that was built in conjunction with the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958). The interpretive sign reads;
"Located at the top of Sulphur Mountain, the cosmic ray station was completed by the National Research Council in 1956, in preparation for International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) an undertaking involving 66 countries and a dozen scientific disciplines. The study of cosmic rays held a prominent place, with 99 cosmic ray stations (nine in Canada) in operation worldwide during IGY. Due to its high elevation Sulphur Mountain was the most important Canadian station. In 1960 the University of Alberta at Calgary took over the station, which was closed in 1978. The building itself was dismantled in 1981."
Today the spot where the cosmic ray station once stood is now a National Historic Site of Canada.

The summit complex as viewed from Sanson Peak
Weather Observatory
We capped off our time on the mountain with a cold beer at the Northern Lights Cafe, while looking down on Banff far below. We had a great time exploring Sulphur Mountain and learning about all the history associated with this prominent peak. In the end though the boys were able to stand on the summit and that's all that mattered!

There's also a set of Parks Canada's red chairs near the summit. Learn all about the red chair program by reading my previous story titled, Share The Chair.