Summit Elevation (m): 2301
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 are stupid
Difficulty Notes: The main difficulty on McLaren is finding the energy to tack it onto an ascent of Mount Coulthard after pushing your bike to the plane crash site.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (Hiking)
Whenever I looked into the Mount Coulthard scramble, I always ended up wondering why nobody seemed willing to combine it with its easy neighboring peak, Mount McLaren (not to be confused with Mount MacLaren in the High Rock Range further north). I decided it was time someone tried it and posted it as a good idea – provided it was a good one of course. As it turns out – it was a very good idea. Initially, I thought I’d have to start up to the Andy Good / McLaren col from lower down on the North York Creek Road, even lower than the plane crash site. This would give me well over 1800m of elevation gain for the day, when combined with Mount Coulthard. As I descended Mount Coulthard, however, I noticed a much more attractive option. It looked like I could simply follow a network of sheep trails from the cirque between Coulthard and Andy Good Peak to the col between Andy Good and Mount McLaren. I also spotted a pretty sweet line from McLaren, back down to my waiting bike and the Dakota crash site.
Despite appearances, the traverse out of the cirque was quick and relatively painless even on approach shoes. Finding the right sheep track was as tricky as usual – they’re obvious from 1km away but as soon as I got closer the tracks disappeared! Good thing I’m half-sheep because I always seem to find them back, as was the case on this particular day. At one point I found myself traversing up toward a very interesting looking little hanging valley on the north side of Andy Good, and had to descend a bit to find another trail leading to McLaren. Eventually I found myself scrambling through a few hardpan dirt and scree gullies – not much fun in approach shoes – before I was ascending very loose scree to the Andy Good / McLaren col. On the way I came across a herd of about 20 sheep. They weren’t as impressed with my route finding skills as I was.
From the col the route up McLaren was a pleasant stroll in nice warm sunshine with mid afternoon views all over the Crowsnest Pass area. Of course the nearby Flathead Range peaks were the most dramatic, but I really enjoyed the way the light was playing towards Sentinel, Sentry, Phillips and Tecumseh, along with the fall colors and Crowsnest Lake. I was surprised how prominent Tornado Mountain and Gould Dome were showing up beyond Crowsnest Mountain – I didn’t realize they were that far south for some reason. Many familiar peaks from the area showed up from Lightning Peak in the north to Table Mountain and many Castle Wilderness peaks to the south. The matchstick forest of dead trees to the east reminded me of the incredible 2003 Lost Creek Wildfire, which I remember driving through on route to southern BC with the family. It made me a bit sad to realize that even 15 years later, the forest is nowhere near replenished, which made me realize I will never again see Waterton Lakes National Park in her full glory after last years Kenow Wildfire there.
After spending 30 minutes at the summit of McLaren, it was time to head back down to my bike. The route I’d spotted earlier worked like a charm and soon I was checking out the depressing Dakota Plane Crash site, mostly consisting of mechanical detritus scattered in North York Creek in a deceptively peaceful scene of waterfalls and alpine forest. I’m not sure how I feel about the site but in the end people died a violent death here and it is a fitting memorial to that reality. There is little doubt as to the final moments of that doomed flight as it slammed into the rocky cliffs of the Flathead Range before plunging into the alpine forest below. One can only hope that nobody on that plane even saw it coming.
After checking out the crash site, it was time to test my riding skillz. I’d heaved, sweated and sworn my dual-suspension, Rocky Mountain bike up 500 vertical meters of gravel, mud, boulders and dirt. Now it was PAYBACK TIME! I was determined to try another route back to my truck via the North York Creek trail instead of the York Creek approach I’d used. The initial descent was very quick and a bit gnarly in places. I found myself hanging my butt over the back wheel of the bike to prevent a spectacular endo that would have likely felt much less cool than it would have looked! Thank goodness for good disc brakes is all I can say! Not everyone would enjoy this bike ride, but I most certainly did.
Once I reached the fork in trails at the North York Creek crossing, I choose to descend left, down the North York Creek trail instead of going uphill towards York Creek. There was nothing spectacularly wrong with the North York Creek (NYC) option and I still don’t know why Bob considers the York Creek approach so much better. Sure! The NYC trail was muddy and had some uphill sections, but nothing the YC approach didn’t have. Also, it didn’t have the huge muddy sinkholes that the YC trail had, which was a huge bonus IMHO. Put it this way – either trail is mucky and either trail has some strange elevation decisions. Both trails are subject to motorized traffic from dirt bikes to quads to freaking HUMMER trucks, apparently. I got lucky with zero encounters, being a weekday in the off season.
I was surprised to be back at the truck within about 45 minutes of leaving the plane crash site – certainly quicker than walking the 8km downhill in muck would have been. I highly recommend combining these two easy peaks in one trip – especially considering the relatively easy traverse between the cirque below Coulthard towards McLaren’s south ridge. If there’s snow, be cautious of the upper slopes on Coulthard. If you have a decent mountain bike, I would recommend riding (or more likely pushing) all the way up to the plane crash site. If you don’t enjoy gnarly downhill riding on very rough terrain, I would still recommend riding to the merging of the NYC trail and the YC trail.