Cockscomb Mountain (Banff)

Summit Elevation (m): 2776
Trip Date: June 12 2016
Elevation Gain (m): 1400
Round Trip Time (hr): 8.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 15
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain your ego
Difficulty Notes: Pretty easy scrambling if dry and on route. Scrambling can get tricky in canyons and the approach is very rough. This isn’t your typical ‘easy’ Kane scramble that your dear old Aunt Edna would enjoy. You’ve been warned.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (3rd)
GPS Track: Download
MapGoogle Maps

Cockscomb Mountain has a few things going for it. No matter how many peaks you’ve done, as long as it’s more than one, you will have a “best” and a “worst” one. I never have to worry about my worst one now – I’ve apparently just completed it. Another thing in Cockscomb’s favor is that I will never have to repeat it. Yes – I enjoyed it that much! The first thing to note about Cockscomb Mountain is that despite Bob Spirko’s apparently easy and rather pleasant ascent back in 2006, this is not your typical “Kane easy” summit. According to me, an easy scramble should be one where you take your Aunt Edna for a day trip in the Rockies, where Aunt Edna is in decent cardio shape but isn’t a hardcore peak bagger or a secret lover of horrible approaches. Cockscomb is *not* a peak to take your dear old Aunt Edna on! Since 2006 there has been two significant events in the Ranger Creek area that have made the long approach must less pleasant and in my mind, much less “easy”. The floods of 2013 destroyed most of the excellent trail that ran along the left hand (climber’s) side of Ranger Creek and a forest fire in the area also didn’t help matters any either. Personally, I think the mountain is cursed since around 2013 – I know for a fact that it’s certainly been cursed AT many times since this past Sunday.

Cockscomb Mountain Route Map

As you can probably ascertain, Cockscomb doesn’t rank very high on my all time favorite mountains list. Phil Richards and I decided that for Sunday, June 12, 2016 we preferred an easy, shortish day in the hills and settled on Cockscomb. We knew some folks took 9+ hours to complete this trip, but we were pretty sure we could bang it out in around 7 with good conditions – and the forecast was looking surprisingly positive with mainly sunny skies and no chance of precipitation. We’re idiots. We only looked at TWN and forgot that it’s ALWAYS WRONG. I’ve done this with easy peaks many times. Somehow I forget to do my due diligence and don’t check SpotWX or more carefully research the route. Despite doing hundreds of peaks, I tend to leave my brain behind on “easy” ones. Which is supposed to be the whole point of “easy”, I guess. We started realizing our dumbness when driving to the mountains on Sunday morning. TWN was telling me that Banff was currently “mainly sunny”, when in fact it was covered in a solid gray bank of cloud which I could clearly see with my own two eyes! Also, fresh snow was visible on many peaks along hwy 1, and this was a surprise – and not the good kind.

I think Phil was taken aback by my complete lack of motivation as we prepared for the scramble in the parking lot near Ranger Creek along highway 1A. For some reason, the fact that we wouldn’t have great views and a pleasant, sunny day absolutely destroyed any mountain mojo that I might have had left. I was surprised myself by my complete lack of willingness to put one foot in front of the other – and this was in the parking lot already. What didn’t help any was that I brought my light scrambling approach shoes and wasn’t prepared for snow or slick conditions or even the long approach on uneven ground. I almost put my rigid boots in the truck that morning and then didn’t bother. Good thing I threw my toque and gloves in the pack just to add some weight before leaving home or I might have felt woefully unprepared instead of just regularly unprepared.

Somehow (and I seriously have no idea how or more importantly, why) I managed to get one foot moving after the other and before I could protest or whine about my life anymore, we were bushwhacking along Ranger Creek. Yep – bushwhacking pretty much right from the parking lot. Excellent. Stupendous. Delightful. Wondrous. Numinous. As the cloud bank settled even lower around us, the approach up Ranger Creek went from sort-of-interesting to please-end-it-all-now-can-I-drown-myself-in-the-creek and then back to sort-of-interesting again. The very short sections of trail on climber’s left of the creek were excellent, but way too short. The infamous ladder was very interesting – but avoidable by crossing the creek below and the section just before the ladder was not easy scrambling anymore – especially in non-rigid boots which had me weeping like a small child before descending to the creek and taking an alternate route up around it. Aunt Edna would have been calling for a helicopter rescue at this point or at the very least would be cutting me out of her will. And this was still the easy part.

As we ascended further up Ranger Creek, the conditions varied from great to horrible, all within a few hundred meters and only to be repeated dozens and dozens of times. The bipolar nature of the whole enterprise was thoroughly maddening. Deadfall log jams, loose rock slides, giant unstable boulders and a roaring cascade of water combined to make the approach feel purgatorial. The sprinkling of great views and lovely waterfalls were far too rare to undo the drudgery that came before and after. To be fair, Kane does recommend Cockscomb as a fall scramble for a reason. Ranger Creek is much easier to ascend when it’s almost completely dry (i.e. not a creek anymore). Surprisingly we always found a way over the creek despite the high flow rate. The rocks in the creek bed weren’t slick even when wet which helped immensely but there were some close calls with unstable ones that always seemed to wait for a fully committed lunge before showing their devilish hand.

This funky move can only end well. Right Phil? Cockscomb is the gift that just keeps giving…

As the creek turned right (supposedly a branch here according to my map but it’s not actually branched), the canyon narrowed quite a bit. We managed to stick in the creek bed but started to get impatient shortly after this section. Even with Bob’s GPS track, we started up right hand slopes way too early and had to traverse left through bush into the proper Kane drainage leading to the high col. The weather was still crappy and my motivation at this point was to bag the peak just so I’d never have to set foot anywhere near Ranger Creek again! It seemed like every decision Phil and I made on ascent was the exact wrong one – it’s all part of the Cockscomb curse, I’m sure of it. Going up too early was a particularly bad choice, because we found ourselves with a tricky descent into the correct drainage and then a tricky ascent to gain the correct ridge high above. We certainly weren’t on “easy” scrambling terrain in these sections! A slip in many places would have resulted in broken bones at a minimum – and a slip was certainly possible in the light weight shoes I was wearing. Aunt Edna would not have been amused here either.

For some reason, once we exited the Kane drainage and started up very steep grass / mud slopes to the NE ridge I began to feel a bit better. The views were opening up a bit (still low cloud) and I felt like we were finally on the mountain after hours of a monotonous approach. Phil followed me up to the crest of the ridge where we could see the false summit and naturally made yet another bad route choice – on par for the day. We tried following Bob’s GPS track and ended up traversing beneath the false summit on slick snow-covered scree and slabs for no reason that I can ascertain. I would highly suggest you simply go right up the ridge to the false summit and drop down the few meters before gaining the true one – don’t bother with any sort of traversing, it’s an absolute waste of time and energy.

The air temperature dropped precipitously once we got above treeline and the wind started to pick up until sleet / snow was blowing periodically against any exposed skin. My mojo plummeted along with the conditions and for the first time Phil’s mood was even lower than mine as we struggled for what seemed like hours in the cold / snow to the false summit. From the false summit the true one looked far, but I knew it wasn’t and grimaced my way over to it, delighted to finally be half done this crapfest after over 4 hours of interminable slogging. I looked back through the blowing snow at Phil on the false summit and was surprised to see him just sitting there in the snow and the cold winds. He told me later that his motivation was so low at this point, he was seriously considering not even bothering with the final 200m traverse to the true summit. That made me strangely relieved. At least I wasn’t the only one hating on this particular pile of moss ‘n choss. 

The view from the false summit to the true one. Mount Brewster somewhere ahead at center.

For a cloudy, cold, windy, snowy summit, the views actually weren’t horrible. We didn’t have much time to enjoy them, however, as various body parts were shutting down on each of us at this point, thanks to the chill. We hastily signed the register (first signatures in 2016) and leaned into the strong westerly wind, back down the ridge. Frozen rain drops furiously stung our exposed skin as we descended, which only increased our fun factor for the day.

Looking over the false summit towards Ishbel and Cockish Peak.

On descent we stayed on the ridge proper, following Bob’s GPS track more closely than on ascent. Aunt Edna would be seriously hating on you here as the slopes to the creek are incredibly steep and the grass only makes them slicker. Following the ridge directly definitely worked out better than our silly ascent track, but I could see the first few hundred vertical meters out of the creek being confusing for many folks. There was no trail here – not even a hint of one. No flagging or cairns either. All I can say is “good luck” swimming uphill through that bush. I would recommend going up Kane’s gully a short way before cutting up to the NW ridge on climber’s left. This will avoid most of the bushwhacking lower down. Kane’s descent gully from the high col looked horrible to me – but I’m sure the conditions we had didn’t help. The ridge is soft and relatively direct to the creek, so I personally see no reason to avoid it on descent but YMMV.

This is the best summary of how I felt on Cockscomb Mountain.

The long slog back to the parking lot was a long slog. We were happy never to have to ascend this way again and found ourselves enjoying not being in a blizzard of blowing ice chunks and having our various body parts thawed out in the warmer valley bottom. Our moods darkened again near the parking lot when we somehow stayed too long on the west side of Ranger Creek and found ourselves once again thrashing around the forest like a pair of drunken idiots without a clue. I’m not sure how obvious it is from this trip report, but unless you’re a peak bagger with a penchant for either lists or suffering (or likely, both), I would recommend you take a giant PASS on this particular “easy” scramble and instead head up a truly easy peak like Fairview or Piran both of which offer great approach trails, teahouses and incredible mountain scenery at a much higher rate of return than Cockscomb does! And if you by chance take your Aunt Edna up this peak, be ready for a good solid slap to the side of the head when you finally stumble back out of the bush to your vehicle at the end of the longest day of her life.

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