Summit Elevation (m): 2859
Trip Date: August 26 2016
Elevation Gain (m): 1350
Round Trip Time (hr): 9.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 20
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: A myriad of route possibilities with indistinct gullies makes this peak a route finding challenge. There are moderate and difficult ways to reach the top.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙁
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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!