Coliseum Mountain dominates the north horizon above Nordegg at the east end of Bighorn Backcountry in Alberta, Canada.
There is no way to anticipate this routine, straightforward, and modest summit bid will be far more exciting than could possibly be anticipated.
The two hiking routes to achieve the summit of Coliseum Mountain are the Ridge line Trail and the historic Coliseum Trail.
The Ridgeline Trail is a newer 7. 2 KM (4½ mile) one-way approach from the east. The trail-head for Ridgeline begins at the (closed) Nordegg Ranger Station on Hwy 11 east of Nordegg and climbs the ridge across from the Beaverdam Provincial Recreation Area. This route allows a traverse across the entire top of Coliseum Mountain. Caution: Trail access is confusing as shown on the Bighorn Backcountry Coliseum Area Map.
The most commonly used trail is the long established 6.5 KM (4.0 mile) one way Coliseum Trail. This trail-head is best accessed from Nordegg with a jog left (west) at Hwy 11 and a right turn north onto Shunda Creek Road. Signs provide direction to Eagle Road in Nordegg's rapidly expanding North Community. The trail-head kiosk and good parking are at the end of Eagle Road.
Initial trail is through tall grass and a short, casual ramp through prolific wildflowers leads to a dip into a drainage with an easy, small creek crossing. The more heavily used main trail is obvious. Subsidiary trails on either side of the creek drainage are not germane to the Coliseum Summit endeavor. After gaining a bit of elevation, the needle-covered trail flattens for a quick and leisurely kilometer through pristine and aromatic spruce forest.
Take a deep breath. The overall elevation gain is 680 m (2,250 ft) and most of the gain is on civilized switchbacks within about 2.8 KM of the first 4 KM. The hike is through magnificent forest enhanced by rich aromas from overnight rain. Trail quality is excellent on varied surfaces of dirt, gravel and occasional rock. The trail has been badly abused in the past by ATV traffic and hikers short cutting multiple switchbacks. Recent abuse is less compromising to future trail integrity and drainage, but still occurring. Many people are likely unaware of the consequences.
There is a three-way trail junction where an alternate downward path likely leads into private property and possibly the Nordegg Ranger Station. There is substantial continuing development in the North Community and large forested lots are occupied by an expanding assortment of modest to very elaborate and expensive dwellings. The situation is volatile.
Multiple switchbacks provide an excellent aerobic workout as elevation is gained quickly through forest. Gradually decreasing temperatures ease the impact of aggressively gaining elevation.
The trail encounters, then weaves its way through narrow fissures in large and impressive rock outcroppings. Elevation gain moderates as terrain increases in diversity. A pleasant trail extension through a mix of forest and meadow containing abundant and colorful wildflowers ends at the brink of the coliseum. Wow!
The crown-like summit at the north-west end of the mountain becomes clearly visible. The Stoney Nation call the mountain Yahareskin which translates to (The Mountain with the Cap On). Pleasant, sunny weather conditions are deteriorating and storms are forming up on both sides of Coliseum Mountain.
Coliseum Mountain is named for the impressive bowl separating the higher rocky ends. The ridges in the rock resemble the seating in an ancient coliseum. From a distance, the trees could be people and drainages appear to be the access to rows from top to bottom. It is an impressive sight.
Trail around the edge of the bowl is initially on fairly steeply-angled scree. There are a couple of short, sketchy sections where placement of feet is important. Rocks looming over the trail at awkward angles give the forboding impression of being poised appropriately to slide onto the trail and crush its impromptu occupants. Achieving the far side of the scree slope is comforting.
Rocky trail morphs to pleasant dirt path and passes an unknown but well-used trail intersection not shown on the map. It does not appear to be the intersection with the Ridgeline Trail unless the map is incorrect. The high altitude trail through forest and meadow provides tantalizing glimpses of surrounding scenery and the 2.0 KM (1¹⁄₃ mile) approach to the summit along the top of the mountain.
Cloud is gradually consuming blue sky. Beyond the Cap summit of Coliseum Mountain, the rounded and tower-adorned summit of Baldy Mountain is clearly visible.
Although Coliseum Mountain could be considered a decent-sized mountain by girth, it is not a particularly tall mountain. The summit peaks out at only 2,035 m (6,677 ft).
Coliseum Mountain is the location of the very first fire lookout in Alberta built in 1927 and reflecting the importance of the new coal mining area and supporting infrastructure. The lookout was constructed under the supervision of District Forest Ranger, Bill Shankland, with lumber carried up the mountain by pack horses.
A light rain begins on the final approach to the Cap. The umbrella is employed. Heavy weather is building on both sides. Lightning and thunder indicate storms 10 KM (6¹⁄₃ miles) to the right and 4 KM (2½ miles) to the left over Nordegg.
The summit of a mountain is not the best place to be with lightning storms nearby. There seems to be sufficient margin to assume the summit and get off safely. Adjacent Baldy Mountain (Shunda Mountain) is slightly taller and peaks out at 2,090 m (6,857 ft). The adjacent mountain is also adorned with lightning-protected communication towers and flawed but optimistic logic says this is the buffer more likely to take an unlikely lightning strike.
A sprint to the summit should do the trick. Sprinting to the summit on steep, rocky trail is like walking a bit faster with animated arm movements. Halfway up the Cap, a strong wind attacks from the north and the temperature drops instantly about 15 degrees C. This is unexpected.
The umbrella is stowed in a pants pocket. A glance right requires taking a moment to photograph the storm wall coming straight towards me. Where did that come from? The farthest storm has either changed direction rapidly or is expanding to consume the summit of Coliseum Mountain. I still believe I can make it to the summit with enough time to escape. Idiot!
As I top the trail, all hell breaks loose within 30 m (100 ft) of the summit. Sonuvabitch! Horizontal rain with small, stinging hail is driven by a 70 kmph (44 mph) wind. The backpack is quickly removed by kneeling on rocky grass and assuming the fetal position over top of the backpack. With fanny into the wind, I am able to extract my rain jacket from the pack and carefully slide it around me to get arms installed while preventing the wind from blowing the jacket away. It is a less than graceful exercise but the rain jacket successfully seals in the previously soaked clothing.
There is limited opportunity to take photographs and the camera is soaked but I manoeuvre to capture compromised photos of the summit cairn and the flat spot where the Coliseum Mountain Fire Lookout stood before it was replaced by the Baldy Mountain Lookout in the 1960s.
Then, rapid exit to quickly drop off the edge of the Cap. Baldy Mountain and the valley below have disappeared. It is exciting. I am pumped. The violent weather creates a memorable moment.
The storm departs as rapidly as it arrived. Such is the nature of mountain weather. It is fickle and progressively unpredictable as elevation increases. Seldom does it get this exciting at lower elevations.
There are no rules. Dynamic and powerful micro-weather systems can be exponentially spontaneous and virtually unpredictable as elevation increases. The experience is a reason to take the chance and not a reason to avoid the experience. What you get may be spontaneously different than what you expect. It is wise to be prepared for anything, anytime, up to and including a fundamental and comprehensive emergency kit in the event you are shut down completely and need to set up residence in a potentially hostile environment.
By the time my soggy presence makes it back to the bottom of the Cap, the rain and wind are virtually gone. Periodically, Mother Nature likes to remind idiots who is in charge.
Subsidiary trail to the north side of the Cap appears to be popular with scramblers and rock climbers. The location is very popular for paragliding and parasailing as well, so there is a labyrinth of trail around the base of the Cap.
The return hike by the same route begins under an impressive array of Mammatus clouds, and soon, surrounding sky begins to clear. Thunder and lightning activity from storms that have just passed continue in the distance and other storm systems are forming in the distance. Skies are animated and dramatic.
When the flat trail through forest and meadow open to clear views above the bowl, time is taken to stop and regroup. Wet clothing hangs over the branches of an evergreen tree to dry in the sun while I sit on a boulder in the warm sun and enjoy lunch surrounded by spectacular scenery. The view over Nordegg and the Brazeau Collieries is impressive.
The descent is rapid on the same trail used for ascent. There is a small lateral detour to an amazing rocky viewpoint over Nordegg and Brazeau Collieries in the expansive valley far beneath. The brief windy spell, combined with rain has dislodged a lot of spruce cones which make the trail crunchy.
The most memorable experiences are the challenging adventures offering diverse and unexpected conditions. They convert a day from ordinary to forever memorable. This has been one of those days. Another character builder. Put the rain gear on first.
The next morning, time is taken to resolve the access issue for the Ridgeline Trail. The Coliseum Area map for Bighorn Backcountry superimposes a trail from the Nordegg Ranger Station onto an aerial map. The trail position appears to be incorrect and deceiving. The approach east is best done along the ditch beside the highway before ramping up onto the Ridgeline Trail. An alternative may be parking at the Beaverdam Provincial Recreation Area and walking a shorter distance west to Ridgeline Trail access. If the Nordegg Ranger Station had been open to the public, this would have been resolved in minutes and prevented aggravation and a waste of time.
On a future visit, this mountain shall be topped again using the Ridgeline Trail. This alternative will provide an extended, higher altitude experience across the top of the mountain.
An entire day will also be allocated, and maybe two, for the walking tour exploration of the remaining Brazeau Collieries features above Nordegg.