This is a 4900’+/- total ascent day.
If late or early season, you will be forced to park at the first parking area before the gate. There are restrooms at this location and you are directly adjacent to the Elbow River. Find the trail along the river and proceed south to the suspension bridge. Cross the river and bike or hike approximately 11kms+ along the Big Elbow Trail to reach another bridge. You will pass the Big Elbow camp site on your left. After you cross this 2nd bridge, proceed up the steep trail until it levels out. You can start your off trail ascent on the left through the forest anywhere along the next kilometer. Your goal is to break out of tree line below the first northern ridge of Cougar Mountain. Cougar Mountain makes a horseshoe shape. If you ascend early, it means more bushwhacking. If you ascend later from the trail you will find an open avalanche gully earlier, but you will have lost some elevation on the Big Elbow Trail as well.
In either case, move in a southeastern direction at all times. If the wooded terrain you are on flattens out, move right again.
As you break through tree line (photo), Cougar Mountain’s north summit (false summit) comes into view. You will not be able to ascend the steep cliff bands protecting the north summit’s northeastern flank.
Instead, zig zag your way up talus and/or snow to the first north ridge, turn left and follow it along via mild scrambling, staying to the right side, until you reach a steep wall, then turn the ridge to the left and continue to its highpoint.
Towards the end of this ridge you will find one section of hands on scrambling to reach this first summit point.
From here (photo), proceed up the short broad ridgeline to the north summit of Cougar Mountain. Towards the end, turn the ridge on the left to reach the summit. There was a significant cairn on this summit in 2006. This is not the true summit of Cougar Mountain.
Continue southwest down to the col between the north and south summits. You will lose approximately 300’. Once at the col, start up the true summit ridge. I did this portion in snow conditions which makes for a difficult scramble. Covered in snow it is difficult to perceive the breaks in the ridge slabs and you end up on several snow- on-slab situations.
It is best to stick to the ridge as close as you can to the east side. From time to time, you can bypass more difficult sections by making out-sweeps on the east side. If in dry conditions, I cannot imagine this ridge presenting much of a challenge.
Return the same. It is easier to descend by circumventing the exposed aspects of the ridge to the east.
Of course you have to hump back up to the north summit. As you descend back to tree line, angle left into an avalanche gully to avoid some of the bushwhacking. When you are forced to re-enter the forest, angle back right on your descent to the Big Elbow Trail.
Essential GearBike or skis make this approach more bearable unless you are going to camp.
Helmet, Bear Spray, Hiking Poles, Gaiters, Alpine Ax if Snow Conditions, Possibly Crampons as well. I needed neither in October snow conditions. Heavy Boots to Protect against the Large Talus on Descent