10 April 2015
Situated in the shadow of more famous Mount Lady MacDonald and Grotto Mountain near Canmore, Cougar Peak seems to be rarely ascended – perhaps because it is lacking an official name in published maps and books. There are only a limited number of reports online, most notably the one by Bob Spirko. I think Cougar Peak deserves more attention, and in fact it may well become more popular due to the ease of access and the short drive from Calgary. And best of all, you park right by the Iron Goat Restaurant (as for Lady Mac), so you can look forward to a nice cold beer at the end of your trip!
Cougar Creek is a breeze to hike along… 100 times better than the nearby valley that leads up to Mount Inglismaldie (now a huge mess after the 2013 floods). We were surprised how little deadfall and large boulders there are. The creek bed is mostly flat and wide, almost as if it had been flattened artificially.
Sticking to Spirko’s description, the ascent drainage was easy to find, about an hour and 45 minutes after leaving the parking lot. It was initially quite steep, but there is a faint trail on the left side of the gully and even a cairn. After the steep bit, we made use of all the snow that was still lingering on the slopes during this time in April. At first, the snow helped a great deal because we simply had to plod up the drainage, which soon veered to climber’s left where the terrain got steeper. The gully became more narrow and a layer of ice underneath the snow made us switch to rock slabs wherever possible, which offered far more traction and more stability than the slippery snow. There were two or three places where avoiding the icy gully required climbing up some steepish rock faces to the left, with decent holds but significant exposure. With an ice axe in hand, the climbing was somewhat cumbersome, but it was a necessary tool to stop yourself from sliding down a few hundred metres in case of a fall here. I would assume that during summer when all the snow is gone, there’s hardly any difficulty here as you’d be able to simply scramble up the middle of the gully.
The gully gets steeper and steeper and eventually tops out on a broad ridge where fantastic views of Grotto and Fable greeted us. From here, it was a mere 10 minutes to the summit where the views got even better: Goat, Hassle Castle, Morrowmount and Fable all vie for attention. Cougar Creek appears to the west, with Canmore behind, all looking tiny and much farther away than you’d think. There is a terrific drop on the east side of the summit ridge – plunging perhaps 1000 m straight down.
It was a beautiful Sunday, unusually warm and sunny for this time of the year, so the snow had softened up quite a bit by the time we descended in the afternoon. To avoid an involuntary slide down the steep gully, we had to carefully retrace our steps and slowly downclimb the same rocky sections. Further down where the angle eased we tried to glissade, but the wet snow made for bumpy stop-and-go rides. We got back to the parking lot after 9 hours of fantastic early-season scrambling that felt remote and full of adventure and challenge.
The trip is certainly more straightforward in the summer, but the drawback then is the tedious scree that was frozen and/or covered by snow when we went up. For an early season starter I can definitely recommend this trip and I might even come back one day and do it again. As always, careful assessment of avalanche risk is required before venturing out on steep, snow-covered slopes like this.
DISCLAIMER: Use at your own risk for general guidance only! Do not follow this GPX track blindly but use your own judgement in assessing terrain and choosing the safest route.