Thursday, September 17
Day 6 - Wandering the Norman Creek Drainage
We awoke to fairly good conditions - calm and clear and fairly light on the annoying-smokiness scale.
Since we had booked this campsite for two nights, we didn't have to spend any time breaking down camp - just breakfast, followed by a little bit of organizing ourselves for a day hike. We got out the topo map and surveyed the Norman Creek basin and the surrounding peaks.
Towering Mt Coleman, just to the north of us, was in my scrambling guidebook - but it was a high, demanding hard scramble, and so practically speaking, out of our reach. Instead we did some eyeballing and some close examination on the map. We thought that maybe one of the lower peaks near the upper end of the basin might be scramble-able for us, as was a lower subsummit Mt Coleman, visible to the left of the main summit. We decided that we'd just hike up the Norman Creek trail to the head of the drainage, take in the view at Sunset Pass, eyeball the peak(s) from there, and then decide what to do next. Gino was again looking for a way to avoid scrambling should he feel uncomfortable, and he voiced the possibility of him breaking off from Julian and I and visiting Pinto Lake, over in the next valley to the east.
For now, though, we were all one troop.
After Julian went through an exercise of foot repair (both Gino and Julian were experiencing some blistering and chafing from the four or five days of hiking we'd done so far), we were ready to head off in search of (local) adventure.
The smokiness level wasn't too bad this morning. We could see blue sky beyond a bit of high cirrus, and even the farther peaks, like tabletop-shaped Amery Mountain, were fairly clearly visible. Like most almost all of the days so far, it was calm and fairly warm. No breeze.
We headed over from our campsite to rejoin the Norman Creek trail. It lead up-drainage, briefly crossing through a band of trees, before re-emerging into an even wider expanse of beautiful golden meadow. The trail cut straight up this bigger meadow, a little earthy footpath cutting through acres and acres of knee-to-waist high shrubbery.
Heading out into NC Basin
Heading out into NC Basin
An hour of pleasant and very easy meadow-walking brought us to a point near the upper end of the Norman Creek Drainage. Here, a low and wide saddle of land (known as Sunset Pass) separated the drainage from a bigger and deeper valley to the east. The eastern boundary of Banff National Park ran along this saddle, and beyond was provincial land - the White Goat Wilderness area.
We briefly entered a band of forest near Sunset Pass, then emerged into a beautiful section of open alpine that gave us a nice, expansive look at the White Goat Wilderness area. Nestled below us was an azure-tinged lake -- Pinto Lake. There are backcountry campsites near or around this lake, and in fact for a while yesterday we had considered hiking in to the campsites around this lake (we didn't, because it would have been too far for us to hike to with our late-afternoon start).
Julian's Amery Instagram Shot
Observing the High Terrain
Patches of Fall Brilliance
After our stop on the overlook above Pinto Lake, it was time for us to decide what to do next. Gino had already decided that he wasn't going to split off from us and go down to explore Pinto Lake, so whatever we were going to do, it would all be together. Julian and I looked at a high subsummit of Mt Coleman that was towering right above us (something we had viewed from a distance back at camp and had thought might make a good scarmble), but here up close to it, we could see that it might be trickier and harder than an easy-grade scramble, and therefore we discarded it as an objective. Instead, we decided that we would take an off-trail highline route around the base of Mount Coleman itself, aiming to come around to its southwestern flank and see if we could climb the subsummit on that side.
Looking down on Pinto Lake
Starting Off-trail exploration
We struck off west from sunset pass, heading up and over a low bedrock ridge. Beyond, we discovered a large area of very flat high alpine meadow. Although there was no trail, it was quite easy to cross owing to the very low height of its vegetation. So far, so good.
Heading towards Coleman's Flanks
Next up, we came to a shallow, low-angled gorge (probably too shallow to be really considered a gorge) in which a small tributary of Norman Creek flowed. The clear water bubbling down this little creeklet, in combination with grassy banks, the warm sun, and fantastic scenery (the high walls of Mount Coleman now stretched skyward right above us) led us to stop here for a very relaxing, very extended lunch. After all, we had many hours left before sunset, we weren't all that far away from camp (and also the fact that our camp was already set up and waiting for us).
High-altitude Lunch Break
After a very leisure forty-five minute lunch stop, including a generous amount of napping and meditation, we continued on our highline track across the lower flanks of Mt Coleman. We were attempting to stay out in the open, above the treeline but below the technical terrain above. Gradually things changed from mostly flat to quite sloping, eventually getting to the point where we had to carefully side-scrabble along some steep (although fairly grippy and stable) scree.
Gino's comfort level went down in concert with the increasing side-slope steepness, to the point where he chose to take a somewhat lower line than myself and Julian. Eventually we traversed across this steeper side-slope area and arrived at the broad gully we had seen from down at camp. From here it looked quite straightfoward - a rounded U of scree, steeper at the top, and topped with a gentle high saddle from which we could likely easily gain the southern sub-summit we were aiming for.
Steepening Slope == Less Comfort
We started our ascent up the gully at about 2:45pm. It was a fairly rubbly climb overall, although with careful routefinding we were able to stay on little laneways of more solid dirt. At the top of the gully, the grade steepened, but never to something overly concerning. In an hour we arrived at the broad, smooth saddle, where a rugged view of bare, alpine scenery unfolded. It was less of a view than it could have been, owing to the fact that the damned forest fire smoke had started drifting back in more thickly, but it was still stark, bleak, and beautiful.
Gaining some good altitude
Julian in the High Alpine