Some days are thrown off track even before reaching the parking lot. Remember Cockscomb and the way it started (and ended)? Well, on Friday, August 26th 2016, Wietse Bylsma and myself started our day with similar missteps and continued to stumble and bumble our way towards and then up and then down and then up Mount Brewster. Ironically - or maybe not - Brewster is Cockscomb's twin across the valley and even has a campground named "Cockscomb" on it's lower slopes - I should have known it wouldn't succumb as easily as expected.
Our first misstep was forgetting a park pass. Dang it! After that little $20 snafu, we found ourselves at the very front row of the parking lot at the Norquay Ski Resort high above the town of Banff. We were armed with a recent trip report from the Rocky Mountain Ramblers and So Nakagawa's GPS track, along with Alan Kane's guidebook description so we felt very confident of a simple ascent as we left the parking lot in cool mountain air. As pointed out in the Rambler's report, the first navigation challenge is getting through the Norquay ski resort and onto the 40 Mile Creek trail. There are official Banff Park trail signs if you're on route, but they are far apart and there are a confusing number of clearings and possibilities within the resort area. In general you want to head past Cascade Chair and Spirit Chair before following the ski-out (58) trail above the Mystic Express base area and then out of the resort area (here's a map). You will be high above 40 Mile Creek.
A misleading sign points down towards the creek and Cascade Mountain. You want to ignore the big arrow and stick to the left here.
Thanks to So's GPS track we made it through this maze with no issues whatsoever. We were feeling pretty good with ourselves. (Such a bad mistake to get cocky so early in the day...) The next 1.5 hours were a pretty decent march along the obvious and excellent 40 Mile Creek trail. Yes - it was somewhat muddy and horse-worn, but it was also nice and soft and very easy to follow. We did notice some height loss on the approach which we were expecting. Our first surprise in relation to the route on Brewster was when we passed So's descent route and realized that Kane's gully is nowhere near where So descended. This was unexpected - for some reason we both thought that we'd be ascending So's descent route. (We didn't realize it but hours later we'd ironically be on this route but much higher up - and still not on the Kane route.)
The first few kilometers of the 40 Mile Creek trail are prime bear habitat with berry bushes growing on each side of the trail. We made lots of noise here!
This bear is obviously well-fed on berries...
The only bridge crossing along the approach trail.
40 Mile Creek with Mount Louis rising in the distance.
A gorgeous late-summer hike along the creek.
After hiking for around 1.5 hours we noticed debris near the trail - as Kane mentions - and found ourselves at a campground. As soon as I saw the name of the campground on the little sign I felt we were screwed. "Cockscomb"?! Seriously?! WTF!! Honestly, if aunt Edna were along I would have turned back already at this point.
Instead of returning to the parking lot, we foolishly kept hiking along the 40 Mile Creek trail. Yes. We continued hiking. Why didn't we leave the trail and start ascending here as Kane describes? Well, simply because we were nowhere near 2 hours or 8.5km from the trailhead! I had us at 1:40 minutes and 7.5km - so we promptly walked another 1km down the trail, looking for an unofficial "campsite" of some sort. Of course we didn't find anything and our day started to get seriously messed around as we frantically tried to make some sense out of all the various bits of beta we had. How the heck could we be lost already - on a good trail nonetheless? Thankfully Wietse had the Rambler's trip report on his phone and we soon realized that we should have turned uphill at the Cockscomb Campground. (Update: Multiple further GPS readings, including from Kane have put the distance at around 8.1km from the parking lot to the campground.)
FM-10, or Mt. Cockscomb backcountry campground. Or "the campsite". We marched right past it - as it is only 8.1km from the trailhead and not 2 hours either.
Gorgeous views of Louis (L) and Fifi (R) from our turnaround point where we realized we were now off route.
Back at the Cockscomb campground we carefully re-read the Rambler's report and noticed some slightly disturbing details. First of all, they seemed to take a long time for their trip. We noticed that they didn't summit until around 14:00 - hours later than we would have thought based on their departure time of 07:30. After getting messed around at the ski resort, they had somehow gone too far climber's left after the big rock and ended up having to traverse some tricky terrain to get back on route. Reading between the lines a bit it seemed like after that they still had some route finding challenges. Armed with this beta, and determined not to go too far climber's left, we started up the lower bushy slopes of Brewster behind the campground.
It didn't take long and we were looking at the obvious, giant boulder perched up to our left on grassy slopes. We hiked up the bushy gully beneath it and stayed far away from it - determined not to go climber's left! We ended up in some thicker bushes in the lower gully before finally topping out on rubble with the throat of an obvious gully ahead and above us in the distance. I led the way into the gully on loose rock and we simply pushed our way ahead, always taking the most obvious path of least resistance as mentioned by Kane.
In the correct SW drainage with the obvious "big boulder" landmark clearly visible behind us. An easier path here is to hike around the boulder and up along the edge of the forest before contouring climber's right into the gully higher up where it's less tangled.
Determined not to go too far left and get lost a second time, we stubbornly stuck right in the gully. ;)
Looking ahead up the gully towards the choke point exit off the main mountain. You can already notice all the ribs / cliffs that will cause us headaches in another hour or so.
A few things conspired to throw us off at this point - despite being in the correct gully. First of all, we were paranoid about the overall route - simply because of the route challenges we had already experienced, and the fact that we still weren't anywhere close to So's routes. Everything felt "off" at this point - a hard feeling to describe but it's happened to me before and it really messes with the decision and route-finding centers of the brain. Once we were in the middle SW gully - there are actually THREE gullies coming off the west side of Brewster - the path of least resistance wasn't at all obvious to us for some reason. There were steep, chossy ribs and ridges descending into the gully from all sides and to be honest, it looked like almost every single path would end at some sort of overhang or nasty down climb.
Looking back at Wietse and the big boulder from just below the choke point.
My lens started fogging up part way up the gully. This is a critical decision point - obvious with the balanced boulder. We should have deviated from the main gully here to the right and then traversed left higher up under the pinnacles at upper left. Instead we followed our noses and the path of least resistance.
Again - the obvious pinnacle that we should have shot for (before traversing under it to the left) is visible at upper right. But the path of least resistance is clearly left. So left we go!
With no cairns or obvious "easy" routes, I simply ascended the most obvious and easy gully that just happened to be a direct continuation of the main one - ascending straight up towards the summit. How could we go wrong? We kept spotting what looked like fairly recent signs of travel in our slab / scree gully and to be honest we were having a ton of fun in it. The slabs / ribs were very grippy rock and the climbing was quick and enjoyable on these solid ribs just climber's right of the loose gully. We commented more than once that more scrambles should be as fun as this one was turning out to be.
Wietse enjoys the slabs in our first ascent gully. We commented more than once that Kane should have mentioned the obvious "hand rail" cliff band that we climbed alongside.
Looking back through my legs as we continue to enjoy the dry slabs / ribs on ascent.
At this point I'm starting to get nervous as our GPS track is starting to deviate too far climber's left of the upper bowl. Still a ways to go before we exit our gully but the scrambling is fun and there's no obvious cliffs to the summit so we keep going.
As we climbed the gully I started to get a bit nervous and so did Wietse. Looking at the GPS, I could tell that we were going to top out west of the summit, on a ridge that looked to be fine on the map but didn't seem to align with any of the beta that we had. Hmmm. At this point we were high enough on the mountain that we'd be on the summit by noon, so I kept leading upwards until we were topped out of the gully. From here we ascended a steep, loose slope on the west ridge to our right - but our apprehensions increased at this point. We seemed to be ascending a narrowing scree / boulder pinnacle that had steep cliffs and drop offs on every side - and very likely also at the nose - our route to the top! Sure enough. As I crested the top of the slope my heart dropped. We were totally screwed. Somehow, by ascending the path of least resistance we'd ended up hopelessly stranded about 300 horizontal and 150 vertical meters from the summit of the mountain. :(
A pretty darn obvious gully, I'd say! The SW ridge rising from lower center to upper left. Norquay, Edith, Louis and Fifi (L to R) in the background.
Topping out of the gully - but looking at what we topped out under makes us nervous. Are we headed for a similar terrain trap?
Wietse comes up the west ridge with a pretty decent panorama opening up behind him. Including (of course!) Cockscomb Mountain at center.
Great views but we aren't going to be on the summit of any mountain today (Brewster out of sight at left here). We should have ascended somewhere in the slabby bowl at lower left. Our ascent gully is out of sight here, but there's yet another promising looking gully at center right.
Looking straight down the nose of our pinnacle - we won't be downclimbing that.
So very close. The summit is tantalizingly nearby, but cliffs / slabs and overhanging terrain is blocking any easy access from our vantage point in any direction.
So many different ribs / gullies and ridges on the west side of Mount Brewster. The blue dashed lines are So's ascent (R) and descent routes. You can see where we went too far up the 40 Mile Creek Trail, but then there's a possible gully route from near there (green line). We backtracked and ascended the middle SW gully, only to ascend it TWICE thanks to route finding issues. Our successful ascent line to the summit follows So's SW ridge descent. Confused yet? So were we. Obviously.
I'll admit that I was NOT happy at this point. Of course, neither was Wietse. We'd wanted an easy day in the mountains, with no difficulties and here we were, stuck on a pinnacle within throwing distance of the summit with no easy way to get there. Everywhere we looked was steep cliffs, loose ribs and overhanging rock. We could have tried traversing or descending either side of our slope but the terrain looked tricky and we weren't prepared for class 4 or 5 terrain on this particular day. I simply wasn't ready to give up just yet though. Wietse was FAR from convinced, but I pointed out that even if we had to descend almost 500m and spend an extra 3-4 hours attaining the summit, it was still quicker than coming all the way back on another day. Wietse didn't commit to re-ascend, but did follow me reluctantly back down our ascent gully.
Looking back up the false summit as we descend to our nice (and wrong) ascent gully.
Back down our ascent gully.
After descending at least 400-500m (we tried traversing several times before this but the terrain was never easy or moderate), we finally found a promising looking alternate gully to our left, the only other "path of least resistance" that looked easy / moderate to us from below. Wietse still wasn't convinced he was in the mood to re-ascend, but thankfully he did agree to put one foot in front of the other for an hour just to see where we got. Worst case scenario we'd discover the proper route for next time. I led up this shallower gully - being very careful to avoid going too far left again.
500m below the summit and it's time to try again! Spot Wietse traversing into the shallow gully towards me at far right - note the huge balanced boulder from earlier in the day just behind him.
You know what happened next don't you? Yep. We ended up too far climber's right of course! Wow. Sometimes I feel like such an amateur, despite hundreds of hours navigating throughout the Rockies. At a low junction in the new gully, we chose to go climber's right when we should have gone left under a prominent and obvious pinnacle feature that loomed high above us (more on the correct route later). The terrain to the left looked steep and unforgiving so we naturally went right - traversing some treed slopes before ending up on So's descent ridge. We now knew that we were off route yet again and trust me, we were very close to giving up at this point. The SW ridge (as So calls it) was pretty easy at this point however, so we decided to press upwards, counting on yet another "Hail Mary" to save us. So far the hail's hadn't worked out very well.
Taken on descent, this shows where we went wrong for the third time of the day. We should have trended up the left hand gully above, instead we went right and ended up on the SW ridge.
We are now on So's descent route and just starting up the SW ridge. This is looking down his descent valley - click the photo to view where we came up at far right.
Several times on the SW ridge we thought our day was over. The final straw seemed to be when we arrived at a narrow chimney / gully feature splitting the entire ridge with no easy way down or around it. I made a difficult and exposed scrambling move through the chimney and onto steep slabs on the opposite side but the terrain above me looked complex and difficult and to be honest we were tired and grumpy at this point. Wietse was finished with the mountain and I was right behind him. I had ONE more try in me before I was pulling the plug and giving up. From the top of the slope we were on, I noticed a possible ledge traverse about 50m under us that led into the gully and then up the opposite side on easier angled terrain than what I'd just tried. We descended to the ledge and found two rocks piled on each other (cairn?) and a moderate ledge leading into the gully. We scrambled up the gully and kept going up the SW ridge - always expecting to get cliffed out at some point.
Great landscapes on and off the SW ridge, but these same landscapes are problematic for a pair of scramblers trying to keep things 'moderate'.
Looking back down the SW ridge and over the chimney / gully that almost ended our day for the third time. We backtracked from here and found a way across about 50 vertical meters lower.
Now we're in the chimney a bit lower down where it's still a 'gully'. We will traverse out of it to the right here.
Once we were 150 vertical meters from the summit our focus changed. We were going to bag this damn mountain no matter what type of terrain we had to get up, over, around or under in order to get there! We knew there was an easier descent gully so we weren't worried about down climbing anything we'd gone up anymore. Our new attitude paid off and we finally managed to skirt over and around several ledges / drop-offs to the upper summit ridge before popping out on an airy traverse to the apex of Mount Brewster. Yes. We made it.
We find yet another escape off the SW ridge via moderate scrambling. Every time we thought we were going to be stopped, we managed to find a way through.
One of my favorite views from the ascent - nearing the main south ridge now (visible at left) but still not quite there. The gully system we'd use for descent is out of sight at lower right.
Looking up at the summit - still not in the bag at this point!
Yet another near-miss escape along the SW ridge.
The south ridge at left and SW ridge at center as we near the intersection of the two.
Still some side slogging and scree bashing along the south ridge to the summit.
Wietse traverses along the airy south ridge towards the summit.
The view west and north (R) from the summit - FINALLY!! Hours previous we were at the 'small' bump at lower center. The obvious gully at center is NOT the Kane gully but ironically does depart the 40 Mile Creek trail at around 8.5km and probably would work - it might well be the easiest line to the summit! Peaks visible (L to R) include Edith South and North, Cory, Louis, Fifi, The Finger, Cockscomb, Ishbel and Mystic.
Looking north (L) and east off the summit, over the Elk Lake approach valley with Elk Lake Pass at lower left and the huge Cascade Mountain massif filling the horizon. Mount Rundle and the town of Banff at far right.
Mount Rundle looms impressively over the town of Banff. Ironically neither of the Kane summits is the true summit of this huge chunk of Rockies rock.
From L to R, Cascade, Stoney Squaw, Rundle and Norquay.
I think this is Bonnet Mountain.
Distance Mount Ball.
Looking over the dual summits of Norquay at the distant, unique shapes of the Verendrye Range (R) and Split Peak (L).
The always dramatic and impressive Mount Assiniboine looms over everything with Lunette actually looking like a peak for once and Eon to the left.
Mount Aylmer is another lofty peak around Banff - rising over Lake Minnewanka.
First page of the register - a Kane entry, 22 years old.
It had taken us 8.5 hours to summit this "easy" peak. :| After snapping pics and signing a surprisingly full register (where the heck was the evidence from all these people?!), we started down the west ridge towards our cliffed out high point from earlier in the day - annoyingly close by.
Wietse starts down the west ridge from the summit - headed down towards our high point where we were stranded much earlier in the day. We will drop down into a bowl on our left, out of sight here.
From near the bottom of the cliffs that had stopped us earlier, we went skier's left into an obvious scree / slab gully system leading down the SW face towards our approach gully, which was well out of sight at this point. The key word here is "system". We always stuck to the easiest terrain in front of us and managed to find a path down and out into the lower gully without doing anything more than easy scrambling moves. There was lots of opportunities to get side tracked on difficult, slabby terrain. In general we descended straight down the obvious path of least resistance from the upper ridge until getting lower where we traversed climber's left on a goat trail towards our ascent route that had taken us onto the SW ridge. We noticed an obvious pinnacle rising high above us as we traversed under it and then down grass / treed slopes until we recognized where we'd earlier gone climber's right (to the SW ridge) instead of left, which would have led under the pinnacle and into the upper gully system / bowl.
Finally in the 'proper' easy descent gully on Brewster! And it IS very obvious on descent.
Looking up along the rock rib that eventually becomes our stranded high point (L). This is a great view of the easiest gully - but good luck finding it on ascent.
There are more than one possibility near the bottom of the upper slab / scree bowl on exit. We choose to follow easier terrain (and a goat trail) that led skier's left towards our earlier ascent line to the SW ridge and under the obvious pinnacle seen here.
Looking back up our descent gully from the same spot as the previous photo, except looking behind me rather than straight up above. Click photo for approximate route line.
A bit further along our descent / traverse, looking up at the pinnacles and back at our descent gully, now becoming quite distant. Click photo for approximate line of ascent.
Traversing along cliffs to skier's left. We could have likely stayed in the main gully to exit into the lower one, but we were following easy terrain and a goat path at this point. Eventually we will cross the treed slope at left and exit into the main approach gully at lower center here.
Looking back at the pinnacle from even lower on our descent now. Click photo for our approximate route line.
Looking up at the section just past the last photo where we made our second critical error of the day and ended up on the SW ridge instead of in the easy gully. Red arrow is aiming for the SW ridge, green is the easier traverse to the gully.
After finally bagging the summit and exiting the SW gully system we were relieved to be home-free. We checked out the giant boulder (pretty cool) before heading down to the Cockscomb Campground and following the 40 Mile Creek trail back to the parking lot.
Back in the main approach gully, looking up. The red arrow is the approximate route we took - the terrain is much steeper than it appears in this photo. The green arrow might also work - but make sure you get under the pinnacles at some point and traverse left into the easy upper scree gully. Note the large 'balancing' boulder just under the green arrow.
Looking over the main ascent gully from beside the big boulder towards Norquay, Edith and Louis (L to R).
Cool scenery around the big boulder - it's really big.
Looking up the main ascent gully from near it's bottom, just before we head back into trees to the Cockscomb Campground.
The 40 Mile Creek trail is soft and luxurious compared to hours of scree and slab - not to mention the almost 1900m of elevation we've already done today!
Our round trip time of 12.5 hours should be considered rather silly - most fit parties who don't get lost (TWICE!) should be able to crack 9 hours return on this mountain without trouble. We saw many ascent times of around 4-4.5 hours in the summit register. Despite getting hopelessly tangled up in our directions and doing 2000 vertical meters of total height gain on this trip, I had quite a bit of fun on Brewster. The approach along 40 Mile Creek is excellent and the views from the summit are pretty darn tasty. Just be careful with your directions and route finding on ascent and don't be dummies like us!