Minster Mountain (Mount Harlan)

Summit Elevation (m): 3100
Trip Date: Thursday, August 08, 2019
Round Trip Time (hr): 11.5
Elevation Gain (m): 1900
Total Trip Distance (km): 34
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: The only difficulties on this hike are finding the motivation to cover the distance and elevation gains in a day trip – it would work great as a side trip from the GDT or from Pinto Lake as well. There is routefinding as well as bushwhacking involved if doing from the Norman Creek Campground.
Technical Rating: OT5; RE4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps

I am getting tired of FRA’s. Normally an “FRA” is a really good thing for alpinists as it stands for a First Recorded Ascent. In our case however, “FRA” stands for either Fourth or Fifth Recorded Ascent and Minster was yet another FRA for Phil Richards and myself. In 2018 I think we had 4 or 5 FRA’s. But I’m getting ahead of myself here so let’s step back a bit. In early June of 2019, Phil and I were throwing around ideas for semi-unique trips we should do and he came up with a long but relatively easy day trip of Minster Mountain from hwy 93. The thing that interested us was a possible second ascent of a fairly large mountain that should have spectacular views. I was intrigued by the claim from Jason Thompson that he had a first ascent of this peak in 1994. It seemed unlikely that nobody else had bothered with this relatively easy ascent, but who knows? Jason Thompson is the same guy that pioneered a scramble route up Mount Amery that Eric and I used in 2012.

Minster Mountain Overall Route Map
The approximate route to the summit of Minster Mountain in 3d.

After completing a two week father / daughter canoe trip and a week of family camping in July, I was ready for a long day in the Rockies and contacted Phil about taking advantage of a nice mid-week weather forecast. He readily agreed and we settled on Minster Mountain. I started my day at the bright and early hour of 04:00. After meeting at Phil’s house in Canmore he drove to the Norman / Pinto Lake trailhead and by 08:00 we were finally on our way up the steep switchbacking trail towards the Norman Creek campground. The last time I’d been up this trail was back in 2009 when I first met Eric Coulthard and we scrambled the lovely Mount Coleman and first noticed the spectacular Mount Amery. After a decade my memory wasn’t crystal clear but I didn’t remember the trail being the mucky mess that it was in spots. A recent heavy rainfall didn’t help matters – the vegetation was literally dripping wet and we knew we’d be soaked once our bushwhack started near the campground. Another thing not helping the trail condition was the copious amount of horse shit we were forced to wade through. We tried not to be too grumpy about the smelly trail conditions and within an hour we were finished the first 500 meters of elevation gain and marching along a much cleaner track into the Norman Creek campground with gorgeous views of Mount Coleman across the meadows.

Mount Coleman rises majestically over Norman Creek and the Sunset Meadows. It’s still one of my favorite scrambles in the area.

Phil had plotted a line from the campground following forest and “open” lines (as spotted on Google Earth) and this is what we generally followed. Views south to an impressive Mount Burwash (and “Sunset Peak”?) kept us entertained. The vegetation was literally dripping wet and soon we were soaked from the waist down and mostly soaked from the waist up. The bushwhacking wasn’t that bad at this point, we stuck to the older forest rather than the more open ground which was not open at all but covered in thick, soaking wet willows. After 30 minutes or so we were very surprised to stumble on a major trail coming in from the left. Hmmm. How had we missed such an obvious connector to the Sunset Pass Trail and why wasn’t it marked on our maps? We shrugged and followed the trail along a cheerful and energetic little tributary of Norman Creek and were quickly surprised yet again – this time by an electric fence protecting a massive camp of white canvas tents! Jeez. All these surprises and we weren’t even within sight of our peak yet!

We quickly realized why the lower trail was so messed up and why the connector trail existed. The Skyline Hikers had their annual Rockies camp set up in the Sunset Meadows accounting for the wear ‘n tear on the switchbacks (all the gear is brought to the camp by horses) and other obvious signs of increased traffic in the area. Despite having an impressive set of foundational principles to minimize their environmental impact, we noticed changes in the form of deeply rutted and braided trails and damage to existing trails from all the horse traffic. I am happy that many folks who wouldn’t otherwise enjoy a wilderness experience get to go home thinking they have. I am annoyed that Parks Canada apparently allows this kind of impact to the trails when they very actively discourage random camping in remote areas that see 1 or 2  humans every 20 years or so. 

Hiking along a beautiful tributary stream of Norman Creek.

We skirted the camp before looking for a trail on the other side that we hoped might lead through heavier forest and willows ahead. Alas, there wasn’t much in the way of paths after the camp, leading to the conclusion that the connector trail to the Sunset Pass trail was only there for camp access. We didn’t find a trail, but what we did find a TON of were relentless mosquitoes. We coated all exposed skin in a thick layer of deet before continuing our bushwhack towards a still distant “Goat Ridge” (we didn’t know the name at this point). The 1.5 hours following the discovery of the camp was the low point of the day. Normally Phil and I can find pretty efficient off trail lines but on this particular day everything was a “shit sandwich” to quote myself from an earlier trip on Mount Hensley this year. Ok ok, not quite that bad but it seemed bad enough at the time. Every time we’d find an open line it would quickly vanish back into either thick willows or a raging creek. We gave up on route finding for a while and simply walked right in the creek to avoid nasty bush on either side of it. Thankfully the sun was warm and the weather was beautiful as we continued to struggle towards Goat Ridge.

Aside: Where Exactly is Minster Mountain?!

Minster Mountain is an interesting peak. Not necessarily because it’s so difficult or even prominent but because there are several peaks in a small area between Waterfalls Creek and the Cline River that could all legitimately call themselves, “Minster”. After doing some research on the topic, Phil Richards and I decided that we would ascend the highest peak of the massif that Coleman named and we would follow Jason Thompson and others conclusions that this should be the peak labeled “Minster” due to its prominence over the others. No matter which peak you want to call “Minster”, of one thing there is no doubt. The peak labeled “Minster” on many maps, with an elevation of 3124m is well below 3000m and well below the peak we ascended which was around 3100m. This peak is labelled “Horse” or “Colt” on Bivouac.

ACC Article by Jason Thompson claiming the FA of Minster Mountain.
An article from Bivouac discussing the naming of Minster Mountain.
Minster Mountain – Which is the true summit?

The scree to the Goat Ridge wasn’t horrible (much better than bushwhacking) and soon we were nearing the crest. Our views of Mount Burwash to the south with its old and shrinking glacier were very impressive. Phil wondered aloud if there was “people hiking over there” and soon we confirmed his sighting. Three hikers were already up on the ridge and another was grinding his way up the scree just below us! Damn – were we really in such a popular area? We wondered where the heck all these humans were going and why they were on “our” line heading towards Minster Mountain. Was it possible that the mountain was so often ascended yet we could find no trip reports other than Jason Thompson’s FA account in a 1995 ACC Journal article? Silly I know, but it was jarring to see so many other people in this area when we were expecting to be alone most of the day. We could finally clearly see Minster from the ridge top and it looked huge and distant. It reminded both of us of Quill Peak – thankfully our skies were clear this time, and what we could see of the route looked dry and easy. 

Finally nearing Goat Ridge with only a “short” section of bush remaining. It didn’t feel that short. We avoided this on exit.
Mount Burwash is impressive to the south and the same height as Minster. Our approach at lower right. Goat Ridge at left.
Our first good view of Minster Mountain from Goat Ridge. Mount Stewart and Pinto Lake at left.
Looking back over the Sunset Meadow and our approach past the Skyline Hikers camp. Amery, Spring Rice, Castlets, Bryce and Mount Saskatchewan (R) in the distance.

The three hikers that were now sitting down for a bite to eat were along our route to the GDT col, so we decided to go over and chat. The three told us that this was “Goat Ridge” and they were part of the Skyline Hikers and the person coming up behind us was their guide. They were doing a loop from the camp down to Pinto Lake and back via Sunset Pass. When they asked where we came from and what we were planning to do they expressed a polite version of, “are you nuts?!”. We assured them it was no biggie and continued down towards the GDT col. Hitting the col was pretty easy following the most logical line while trying not to lose more height than necessary. The GDT comes through this col and the views are stunning in every direction. It’s places like this that make me wonder if I might become a long distance hiker some day. Cirrus, Stewart, The White Goat peaks and Mount Cline and Wilson stole the show but many other peaks were impressive as well.

Traversing scree slopes to the “GDT Col” at mid-center with Minster Mountain looming large at center.
At the “GDT col”, looking past Sibbald Peak to Minster Mountain at left including the SE shoulder in lighter brown scree.
Other peaks visible include, Christen (C), Gruff, Dasent, Unnamed, Cline (R).
On the SE shoulder of Sibbald with our scree ledge traverse to the Sibbald / Minster col at left and Minster Mountain rising at center.

From the GDT col we again traversed the easiest line, heading up to the south shoulder of “Mount Sibbald” that allowed access to the SW scree slopes of Minster via ledges below its east face. We were delighted to see an obvious and easy traverse line once we topped out. All we had to do now was find the energy and will power to put one foot in front of the other for another hour or so! We were almost 5 hours into our day with a lot of height gain and terrain to cover yet so we didn’t linger. After easily breaking through a low cliffband just under the shoulder, we used obvious scree benches to access the Sibbald / Minster col. Views improved steadily as we slowly ascended the massive low angle SW / W face and ridge to the broad summit of Minster Mountain. When we finally spotted the cairn I hastily dug out a PVC summit register in good condition and opened it to find out just how popular this darn peak was. 

Looking south from the traverse. Minster rises at left, Phil on the scree ledge traverse at right.

As it turns out, Minster Mountain is not popular. At all. We weren’t quite a 2nd ascent but we were the first in over 21 years to put our names in the register and only the 4th party to sign. Not bad for an easy and prominent peak that is very accessible from the GDT and Pinto Lake. The only other two ascents besides Jason and his mom in 1994 were in 1998 and of course one of them was Alistair des Moulins who cheekily quipped that this peak must be “Westminster” since the peak to the east was already named “Minster”… We sat down to enjoy a well deserved break after over 6 hours of steady and tiring hiking. Our views were stunning in every direction including many 11000ers and many familiar and unfamiliar White Goat and David Thompson Country peaks. The easterly peak that many maps refer to as “Minster” and as 3124m was very clearly much lower than ours and we measured our vantage at around 3100m. Whatever the name, we were happy to be right where we were. I fondly remembered many other trips on surrounding peaks and of course we started planning many others.

Incredible summit views include (L to R), Cornice, Slump, Horse, Colt (the lower version of “Minster”), Abraham Lake, Christen, Gruff, Dasent, Troll, Resolute, Cline and Owen (R).
Summit views looking west include (L to R), Chephren, Howse, White Pyramid, Wilson, Forbes, Erasmus, Burwash, Lyells, Amery, Alexandra, Spring Rice, Bryce, Saskatchewan and Mount Coleman (R).
Many maps label this peak “Minster” and have its height at 3124m. But we’re on a 3100m peak looking over it, so obviously something is wrong with the maps… Bivouac labels the left highpoint as “Horse” and the right one as “colt”. Note the impressively deep valley at lower left, draining to the Cline River.
The Cataract Creek valley at left with Mount Stewart looming large. To its right we have peaks such as “Metawampe”, “Cornice”, “Michaelis”, “Slump” and “Monastic” (R).

Believe it or not we got cold on the summit! Instead of putting on gloves and toques we decided to start the long descent and take another break somewhere warmer. The descent and traverse of the scree ledges back to the shoulder of Sibbald  and down to the GDT was easy and quick and soon we were quite warm again. We followed our own tracks in the soft dirt and scree back up towards Goat Ridge and took another short break there before committing to the bushwhack back to the Norman / Pinto Lake trail. We had decided already on our approach to try a line on the south side of the creek rather than the north. The south side was much less willowy than the north one and we even found bits of new trail (from the Skyline hikers). Eventually we lost the faint trail but still managed to avoid thick bush we’d approached in and were soon marching back around the Skyline camp.

Huntington Mountain (Cirrus) with its glacier at center. Cataract Creek and Mount Stewart at right.
Phil traverses scree slopes back towards Goat Ridge (C). The valley at center leads to Pinto Lake. Mount Coleman and Cirrus rise at center.
Mount Burwash with it’s shrinking glacier at left as Phil and I get ready to descend back to the Sunset Meadows from Goat Ridge.

We decided to take the Skyline camp connector trail to the Sunset Pass trail rather than bushwhack our approach line to the Norman Creek campground. While it was nice to be on a trail, it didn’t save us much time thanks to both its direction and condition. Horse traffic had resulted in a mangled track and a lot of trail braiding but we managed to keep a good pace. After intersecting the Sunset Pass Trail (there was no sign at the intersection which could be very confusing) we continued along it to the Norman Creek campground and from there proceeded to the steep switchback trail leading back down to hwy 93. The evening was gorgeous and warm and we had to reapply mosquito spray thanks to the aggressive and numerous bugs vying for our blood. (Whatever you do – do NOT forget bug spray if you hike this area!)

Back in Sunset Meadows with Mount Coleman rising at left and a very distant Minster Mountain at right.

The 500m+ descent to hwy 93 was quick and painful including a brief thunderstorm which seemed to come out of nowhere and disappeared as quickly as it came. Our 11.5 hour day ended with views of a beautiful double rainbow in front of Mount Wilson and some cold Cokes we’d stashed in a pond near the parking lot.

A great way to end the day in the Norman Lake / Pinto Lake parking lot along hwy 93. Mount Wilson at right.

I really enjoyed this outing despite it being so easy. Any time we can claim an FRA it’s a good trip unless the “F” stands for anything other than “first”, “fourth” or “fifth”. The views were stunning all day and it was nice to reminisce on so many other peaks in the area that I’ve had the pleasure of exploring and standing on including giants like Cirrus, Stewart, Cline and Wilson.

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