Summit Elevation (m): 2642
Trip Date: Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Elevation Gain (m): 1700
Round Trip Time (hr): 9
Total Trip Distance (km): 25
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain your wrist
Difficulty Notes: Pushing your bike uphill to the crash site is probably the most difficult part of this scramble! With snow I had some avalanche concerns on the north side of the mountain to the summit.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (3rd)
September 2018 was not the best ending to a hiking and scrambling season that I’ve ever had – not even close. To be blunt, it was pretty crappy and the worst end of season so far for me! September is usually my favorite time of year in the Rockies. The touron hordes go home and even normally busy areas such as Skoki, Lake O’Hara and Assiniboine see less and less visitors and more and more yellowing larches and bright fall colors in the vegetation coating the mountains. The combination of clear blue skies (no more wildfires), snow-capped peaks and bright vegetation is usually what keeps me going for the next 5 months of winter. Not this year. In a clear sign of pending doom, I didn’t even bother heading out to the hills for the first few weekends of September! In another bad sign for this upcoming winter and likely my mental health, instead of planning my usual 2 weeks off at the end of September, I struggled to even plan a week off, considering the horrid weather forecasts that kept loading onto my various weather sites.
Eventually I realized that I was in danger of not hiking or scrambling anything at all in September, and decided to simply force myself to get out at least a few times and just book the last week of the month off and cross my fingers. I would still be somewhat limited on realistic objectives thanks to copious amounts of early snow on bigger peaks, but at least the southern Rockies seemed fairly dry and accessible. I’ve had peaks in the Flathead Range of the Rockies near Crowsnest Pass on my list for many years already, but they always get passed on for other areas and objectives. I really like the Crowsnest Pass area but I do find it a bit overused and full of OHV’s and guns compared to other more remote and peaceful areas of the Rockies. Phil and I decided that we’d be going to the Castle Wilderness on Wednesday, so I booked the Highwood Motel in Blairmore for Tuesday night, threw a lot of gear including my bike into the truck and set off down hwy 2/22 for the second time in a week – I’d been in Waterton with Hanneke the weekend before.
I knew from many other reports on social media that the Crowsnest area was still relatively snow-free but that Coulthard did have some snow. Based on photos I wasn’t too worried, but perhaps I should have paid a little more attention. I had no idea what to expect on the approach drive up the York Creek Road to the trailhead, but the road was in pretty good shape. I’m not sure why nobody online describes the access a bit clearer but I will. To access the trailhead for the various York Creek approaches, I followed 16th ave off the main Crowsnest Highway, heading west, into the town of Coleman. I then turned left on 81st street and crossed some railway tracks before another left hand turn onto 15th ave to 83rd street where I turned right and drove across a bridge over the Crowsnest River. A right hand turn onto 13th avenue put me on track to the York Creek Road which becomes dirt / gravel almost immediately. I passed a conservation officer part way up the road and inquired about where I should park. He mentioned something about going down a hill and crossing a yellow bridge, so I kept going. I passed the official York Creek Staging Area where I suppose most OHV users park, but I wasn’t at a yellow bridge yet, so I kept driving. The road did deteriorate a bit at this point, but was still very drivable – albeit potholed and muddy. I followed the road down a hill before coming to the North York Creek OHV trailhead to the plane crash site. And a “No Parking” sign (roughly 6.2km from where I turned onto 16th ave in Coleman)! Considering the officer told me to drive here, the no parking was a bit confusing so I simply crossed the bridge that was right there and parked on the far side of it where there was no signs of any kind. I didn’t get a ticket here so perhaps it’s all good? I’m not positive. I parked here again a week later for Willoughby without incident but remember, this was off-season and there weren’t many other people around. On a busy summer weekend, I’m still not sure where exactly parking is allowed.
After parking the truck near the bridge over York Creek, I had a decision to make. Bob Spirko is clear that for unmentioned reasons, he prefers the “York Creek” approach to the normally used “North York Creek” approach to the plane crash site. Since he doesn’t really go into details on why he prefers this approach and since So Nakagawa also used it, I decided it would be rather silly of me to ignore all that experience and advice and started riding my bike, continuing up the York Creek Road from the bridge. For the first 1.2km up the road, I seriously wondered why I hadn’t just continued along it in my truck! On hindsight, since I took the other route down the North York Creek track, I parked in the perfect spot, but on approach I was swearing a bit as I grunted and groaned my way up a perfectly drivable road before the route deviated onto a more “proper” OHV track within 10 minutes or so of leaving the truck. I followed the track, which was pretty darn muddy, for about 15min more before things got strange.
I knew I had to take all the righthand branches on the approach roads, but somehow my brain rewired itself and I started following the “black” line on the Gaia app on my phone, instead of the “red” one. The black line was, of course, just the rendering of the OHV track I was on – not the planned route line (i.e. red one) that I’d loaded up earlier! I blissfully rode past the correct turnoff and continued up the approach for Willoughby Ridge without even realizing it! The key word here is “UP”. I rode and pushed my bike for 2 freaking kilometers before peering a bit closer at the line I was following and wondering aloud why it wasn’t red anymore. Not happy times my friends, not happy times in Vern land at this point! I cursed my way back down the road to the proper junction before calming down a bit and reasoning that I’d only lost about 22 minutes with my foolish 4km diversion. Don’t worry, I removed this extra distance and elevation from both my stats and the GPS track for this trip!
Finally on route again, I was again very surprised by the lack of detail in other reports I’d read on this approach which pretty much skip over any details. Firstly, once I left the first OHV track for a smaller track heading south, it immediately deteriorated quite a bit and became so steep and rocky that I was having a hard time pushing my bike up the south banks of York Creek! After finally pushing up to a high point I was very surprised to see a long, straight downhill cutline track heading off towards North York Creek where it presumably rejoined the other approach trail. As I descended this fairly long section I was further surprised by the many huge puddles and potholes along it – so big that I had to get off my bike several times and push through vegetation beside the trail to skirt around the mini lakes! As I continued to lose elevation I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would prefer this route to the North York Creek, regular trail. I resolved that I would have to try the other one on return and compare them for myself.
Eventually the long straight downhill section joined with the North York Creek approach and from here the track started to get serious height. I managed to ride a few sections from here to the crash site, but not many! For the most part the next hour or so was spent pushing my bike uphill and hoping it would all be worth it on descent. Thanks to a lot of mud and frozen ground, there was a chance that the whole thing would get so soupy and muddy that I’d be walking sections back downhill too! (Thankfully that didn’t happen.) I was very grateful for a light dual-suspension mountain bike, I can promise you that! I’m not sure beginner riders should challenge this trail as there are significant risks of injury due to loose rocks, boulders, puddles and muck, not to mention extremely steep and rutted sections with tight corners and approaching OHV’s at any time… I was feeling it when I finally rode my bike to the crash site and locked it up to the sign at the end of the trail. When I looked at my stats, I knew why I was breathing heavy! I’d gone 12km and well over 500 vertical meters (remember that 4km extra peddle?!) already. Considering Coulthard is only around 1400m gain, being done 1/3 of that and most of the approach on the bike was very nice. I decided to save a visit to the plane crash site for my return and immediately started up an obvious hiking trail leading from near the picnic table at the end of the OHV track.
As I ascended into the cirque between Coulthard and Andy Good Peak, I noticed that it was fairly snowy higher up on the mountain and that it was bloody cold and windy up here. So much for a nice warm fall day, but I loved the mostly clear blue skies, so I tried to stay positive. I was a bit turned around a bit on the approach, and didn’t realize that you can’t actually see the summit of Coulthard until you’re already past the middle summit on the upper ridge. The only summit of Coulthard you can clearly see on approach is the westerly, lowest one and ironically the one that’s named on the map and the one I didn’t visit! 😛 I ascended the easiest looking slopes beneath the westerly summit until I realized that I’d screwed up and was now on the wrong side of a long, steep, rock-hard snow gully! In my approach shoes, with no crampons or ax I couldn’t bring myself to cross this obstacle. I tried several times but each time I turned back on realizing that a slip or small slide would carry me way down slope and not in a fun way. Finally I realized that I might as well just keep going to the summit ridge and see what happened from there. I didn’t realize yet that this would get me up on the middle summit, only realizing that as I looked back on the lower west one and was surprised by the higher and further east one!
At first the traverse from the middle to the highest summit looked daunting, especially with the snow, but eventually it started looking quite close. I descended in a stiff and cold wind, trying to ignore the knee deep snow drifts I was wading through in my approach shoes. Sure enough! Just as I suspected, I faced a tricky little exposed snow slope traverse to the base of the true summit, which was double tricky thanks to my shoes and lack of proper winter gear. I’m surprised nobody mentions this snow slope as a hazard, but maybe I’m the only one to venture here in winter conditions? Definitely not a slope to treat lightly as there’s considerable objective hazard underneath it. The little lake tucked against the north cliffs below was a nice little surprise for me.
Views from the summit of Coulthard were pretty darn sweet. It’s been a while since I had such clear and far reaching views. Even though there were no obvious larches on this scramble, doing it in the fall did produce some nice colorful scenes, especially towards Turtle Mountain, Hillcrest and Willoughby Ridge to the east. Also, the views over Crowsnest Lake to Phillips and Tecumseh were pretty good. The mountain that stole the show for me doesn’t even have a name, but it’s located directly south of Coulthard and north of Mount McGladrey. The combination of lighting patterns, fall colors and a dramatic east aspect kept me snapping photos. I quickly got cold in the strong wind (blowing snow) and decided to start heading down towards my second objective of the day, Mount McLaren. For some reason while Coulthard was in shadow most of the time, McLaren seemed to be bright and sunny.
On descent I went skier’s right of the problematic snow gully and was rewarded with an easy descent. This is the way I recommend going on ascent too. It looks steeper and slabier than it is. Soon I was much warmer and starting my traverse towards Mount McLaren – much higher than I first thought I’d be starting towards the second peak of the day.