Mount Murchison has been tempting Raf and I ever since we first got a really good look at her summit from across highway 93 while sipping Starbucks on Mount Sarbach in 2009. Already in 2008 my appetite for this mountain was wet by Andrew Nugara's trip report of him and his brother's ascent.
Murchison is a huge massif, covering a main mountain with two summits plus 7 other towers which are adjacent to the main summits. Something else that is fascinating about Murchison is that it's listed height (3333m) is actually not the true height of her highest (SE) summit. The first ascent party didn't actually summit the highest point and the first officially recorded summit of the highest point on Murchison wasn't until Rick Collier did it in 1996 and built the first cairn / register on top of it. (Collier tentatively claimed the FA but later learned that John Martin had summitted previously but left no cairn so Collier's group was probably the 2nd summit party but first 'official' one.) The amazing thing is that this huge brooding mountain is right by a major set of highways (93 and 11) and is photographed and gazed at by hundreds of people every day from Saskatchewan Crossing and yet it's only been ascended a handful (literally) of times. Why? Because it's 'only' 3333 meters high and with no published routes it sits in mountaineering obscurity (for now). But it's not 3333m high. It's higher than that. And it might just be high enough to enter into a magical height category which would dramatically increase it's traffic if ever proven definitively - 3353m or 11,000 feet...
This trip was very last minute - just like our Sarbach trip. Raf texted me on Wednesday around noon and asked if I could make room for a Murchison trip starting that afternoon! Obviously I somehow made it happen and by 17:30 we were departing from the parking area (Mistaya Canyon / Sarbach) along highway #93 and crunching up the approach gully, a rocky stream bed located a few hundred feet north of the parking lot. We decided to make our summit day much less stressful by bivying high on Murchison's SW shoulder. We knew we were pushing our luck since it took Collier's party 6.5 hours to reach the bivy and we only had 4 hours of daylight but we figured we could do it in about 3.5 hours - the Nugara's time. (They didn't have bivy gear though...) Raf pointed out that I was probably the first person to bag 3 of the 4 Saskatchewan Crossing peaks in the same year (Survey, Wilson, Murchison) and probably one of the only people ever to bag all four (Sarbach). I replied that this fact didn't make me feel any better about my sanity.
I was tired but feeling surprisingly good considering my lengthy Recondite Peak trip 4 days earlier. My pack wasn't exactly light either, containing bivy and basic climbing gear. We noticed fresh snow high on the north face of the mountain from the parking lot, so we packed axes and crampons. We also brought a 30 meter rope, some slings and basic rock pro just in case some of the 'scrambling' became more than that. Our idea was to use very limited beta we had from the Nugara trip report which hinted at avoided climbing (i.e. roped) terrain by heading straight for the NW / SE summit col rather than first ascending the NW (false) summit and then rapping to the col. From the col to the SE summit the terrain was supposed to be difficult scrambling to some 5.3ish terrain just before the summit.
We started off in the dry creek bed but soon found ourselves on climber's left (N) on steeply forested slopes. This was much easier than trying to duck under dead fall in the creek and stumble over fresh debris from the flash floods earlier in the year. Raf was immediately concerned about water sources since the creek looked very dry. I assured him that we'd be fine but in the back of my mind I was a bit concerned because both Raf and I weren't carrying nearly enough liquid to last 1.5 days! Water weighs a lot and I try to drink as much as possible directly from streams along the way to save my back / knees more punishment than they need. Turning back due to lack of water hasn't happened to me yet, but there's always a first time... Ascending the treed NW slopes worked very well and we gained height beside the stream quickly and efficiently. We passed two waterfalls (pretty much dried up) on the way to tree line. Near tree line we deviated from Collier's report and crossed the stream, accessing the amphitheater on climber's right of the stream, rather than directly above our ascent line. This wasn't necessary - we should have continued up in a direct line and worked left into the amphitheater from under the cliffs above. Oh well.
[Starting off in the rocky drainage near hwy 93]
[Mighty Mount Murchison looms over our approach along the N side of the creek. The amphitheater looks rather insignificant from here.]
[Looking down at the larger of the two waterfalls along the creek - this is why you might as well pretty much avoid the creek entirely by staying in the trees on climber's left.]
[From the bottom of the amphitheater looking back at Wilson and our ascent route. We came out of the trees on the right and crossed over left before going back right again! :) We should have stayed left and simply access the lower theater from that side. ++]
[Looking ahead to the giant staircase terrain to the upper shoulder]
I can't possibly describe the route from above tree line, through the amphitheater and to our high bivy with any accuracy. Since the mountain stole my GPS (!) I also don't have a track photo for you either. We picked our way back and forth across the main gully (some running water, thank goodness!!), always choosing the path of least resistance. There were some traverses along cliffs that I wasn't sure would work out but we always managed to find a way. I guess after hundreds and hundreds of peaks between the two of us, Raf and I are becoming like goats in some respects. "Young" goats? :) I am proud of the route finding we did - moving quickly and efficiently was the only way we could possibly beat darkness to our bivy site.
The terrain was mostly moderate scrambling but there were difficult parts too - we both expressed concern with down climbing some of them. At first we thought the huge amphitheater was like the one on Amery but soon we realized this one was slightly harder to navigate and much looser rock. In general we crossed the main stream / gully three or four times on ascent before accessing the final staircase on climber's left (N) under the towering cliffs coming off the NW summit. We worked our way along the walls up to climber's right until spotting a way through the upper cliff bands and onto annoying scree to the SW shoulder and bivy location. There were no obvious signs of previous parties anywhere on approach except for the odd footprint that could have been human or animal. I also thought I spied trekking pole marks (holes) but couldn't be sure - the odds seemed very low that we were following anyone.
[As you can see, the terrain in the amphitheater is huge. It's also EXTREMELY loose! I wouldn't go up this mountain with more than 2-3 experienced people due to rock fall hazards.]
[A glorious late afternoon]
[The terrain was very interesting and fun to work through with ledges and waterfalls and lots of no-slip zones.]
[Everything on this mountain moves if you pull hard enough - I mean that! The problem is that you have to pull on something in order to climb!! So you kind of end up pushing down and pulling at the same time...]
[Raf works his way up the narrowing gully]
[A great shot of the evening sun as we work our way higher and higher into the amphitheater.]
[The upper part of the amphitheater. You may be tempted to head for the ridge on climber's right but don't bother. You'll get cliffed out on the nose. Best to work your way up to middle near the top where you can break through to scree slopes.]
[The sun has pretty much set but we're not there yet!]
[Nice sunset looking down hwy 11]
[Looking back down our long and steep approach as darkness settles in. We are starting to realize how bloody high the bivy site is at this point! ++]
Darkness was setting in very quickly as we both expressed amazement at the great views of Wilson, Lyells, Forbes, Sarbach, Kaufmann, Epaulette, White Pyramid, Chephren and the Murchison towers from our bivy. We were surprised to discover we were already at 9,000 feet! I think we both got too optimistic at this point, thinking that the next day would be very short / easy with only 2,000 feet of height to gain. We both expressed the thought that Murchison might be better as a day trip but we loved the bivy location anyway and it couldn't hurt to have more time on route the following day. We made the bivy in 3.5 hours from the parking lot but that was moving through steep, loose and difficult terrain very quickly. I think 4-5 hours is not unreasonable with bivy gear. The wind was cool and steady way up on the shoulder so after taking some shots of the incredibly bright moon (no stars due to its shine) we turned in for the night.
[Finally on the SW shoulder scree slope! Wilson (L) and Cline (R) in the background and Saskatchewan Crossing below.]
[A pano from the bivy site. ++]
[Pano from L to R - Chephren, White Pyramid, Epaulette, Kaufmann, Sarbach. ++]
[Raf gathers rocks to ensure his tent doesn't blow away!]
[The moon rises over the Murchison Towers. From L to R there are, Southeast, Hall, Cromwell, Engelhard, Gest and Feuz Towers]
The wind was cool and steady over night and I was jealous of Raf's tent - I hate zipping up bivy sacks over my face as I'm slightly claustrophobic. The morning sky was clear so we dragged ourselves up at around 06:30 - there was no point in trying to negotiate difficult terrain in the dark. After taking some nice sunrise photos and packing for the day we headed off, aiming for a point slightly above us and around the SW scree slopes - hoping to find the obvious snow gully that led initial ascent parties to the NW summit.
[Early morning pano from the bivy. ++]
[Forbes (L) and the Lyells (R) with Glacier Lake glistening in the morning light. ++]
[Wilson is an impressive massif on the other side of Saskatchewan Crossing. That was a LONG bloody day too!!]
[Mount Cline with Lion and Lioness to the right. These are ALL long days around here - thanks to the low elevation of the crossing...]
[Raf packs for the day with our destination looming above. The summit is actually visible at center top here and is higher than the NW peak towering directly above us.]
Without gaining too much height we did find the ascent gully. There was some super-hard sn'ice in some places but it was mostly dry at the bottom. I had GPS way points roughly plotted to guide us out of the gully and to the NW/SE summit col to avoid unnecessary height gain and the rappel into the col off the NW summit ridge (we were hoping to avoid rope use if possible). We worked our way up the gully, avoiding the sn'ice by traversing onto the extremely loose slope on climber's right. Right away we could tell that this was going to be a long and delicate day! Everything we touched or stepped on was loose. Huge chunks of scree, rock and clay crashed down the gully as we went up. I can't imagine being here with more than 2 or 3 people due to rock fall issues.
[Looking ahead to our ascend / traverse slope. NOTE: Our route did NOT ascend the snow patch on lower right but that could be a workable route. Cliffs may block you higher up though.]
[In the steep and very loose snow gully under the NW summit.]
[The gullies on Murchison are extremely loose.]
[Looking back out of the ascent gully at two of Murchison's towers.]
[Traversing out of the gully on steep terrain.]
Eventually I told Raf that we had to start traversing climber's right (NE) away from the NW summit. We began our traverse and spent the next 40 minutes or so traversing almost straight east without gaining too much height, on easy to moderate shale slopes. Where the scree was soft, the going was fast and easy. Every once in a while we'd hit cement-hard scree and slow down, trying desperately not to slide down the dang mountain! We picked a great line, under towering cliffs above and over plunging cliffs beneath. I had a way point mapped out where I guessed there was going to be another gully leading to the NW/SE summit col. It took longer than I thought but eventually we traversed far enough to reach this gully. It was basically our last chance to reach the summit ridge high above and Raf was getting a it impatient to start gaining more height! Once we hit the gully it was a steep grind on shale, scree and snow to the col where we topped out between the rap section from the NW summit on our left and an impressive pinnacle on our right - followed by the ridge to the SE summit. The views throughout the scrambling so far had been incredible and we were feeling really good now that we were done the trickiest bit of route finding and had avoided all technical (5th class) terrain to the col.
[Traversing the southwest face.]
[The views aren't too shabby! :) ++]
[Great view of Chephren (L) and White Pyramid (R)]
[We traversed this terrain - you can make out the twin 'horns' high above our eventual ascent gully]
[We traversed several gullies before reaching the correct one. We left cairns to guide us back.]
[Note the pinnacles looming above us - this is the gully to the NW/SE col.]
[Looking down on a lot of peaks and we're not at the col yet! ++]
[Looking down the northeast side of the col - don't slip here!]
[The terrain that you'll have to rappel if you come down from the NW summit to the col.]
From the col the route is again, impossible to describe with great accuracy. There is certainly more than one way to attain the summit but all will involve fourth and low-fifth class scrambling on some of the loosest Rockies crud you've seen in a while. Lots of it is also quite exposed and a fall would have serious consequences in most places near or on the ridge. Generally we stayed on the ridge if the climbing stayed reasonable (4th to low 5th). If the climbing got too hard we traversed climber's right to look for ledge traverses and then steep gullies / steps back up to the ridge. This worked great until just before the summit where we spent a whole hour trying to find a non-technical route up a steep cliff. I think this is where Rick's report mentions;
Scrambling to 5.3 on true summit...
At the base of the second-to-last tower, one reaches a vertical and difficult wall: we traversed to the right on the S side, and where there are obvious breaks, scrambled up -- some people may want the rope here because of the exposure; a competent leader, however, will not require pro.
In any case, we didn't see a huge issue with ascending the terrain, it was more a matter of avoiding a rappel on the descent (remember, we were trying to keep things in 'scramble' territory if possible). Alas, eventually we kind of gave up and just picked a place to go up - steep and exposed but possibly down climbable. If not, I had lugged the rope a long way already so using it wouldn't be the end of things either. Once up this section we dragged ourselves over a few more bumps and found ourselves standing on top of Murchison - around 4.5 hours from the time we left our bivy. The summit views were stupendous - more than making up for some crappy views on Recondite's summit the weak previous.
[Impressive terrain along the ridge.]
[Looking at the scrambling on the ridge from the col]
[Route finding is key to keeping things 'easy' on Murchison.]
['Easy' is relative of course! Note the fresh snow on route.]
[Lots of fun, hands-on, exposed scrambling]
[Views off the ridge - the NW summit on the right.++]
[Wait a minute! This is starting to feel like an 11,000er... ++]
[Raf is having fun - he just wishes the rock was a bit more stable! ++]
[Looks like some level of exposed climbing is pretty much unavoidable to the summit. We contoured around the summit block on climber's right before ascending.]
[We spent almost an hour trying to avoid climbing this before climbing it. :)]
[Raf comes up towards the summit. ++]
[A view down off the summit ridge]
[What a day! Clearly the north summit is lower now. ++]
[Impressive summit panorama includes Corona Ridge at center left, Marmota Peak at center distance and the various Murchison towers to the right. ++]
[Hall Tower on the right and Marmota peak at center with Augusta and Recondite in the far distance over Marmota]
[Mount Hector just left of center]
[Looking toward the Wapta Icefields - even the Goodsirs are visible!]
[Zoom pano looking at Chephren and White Pyramid on the left, Epaulette and Kauffmann peaks in the center and Sarbach and Forbes on the right. ++]
[Looking over the NW summit at Wilson (L), Stewart (C) Cline and Resolute (R) and further north and east. ++]
[Vern is very happy to finally stand on the summit of Mount Murchison after dreaming about it for years.]
So now you must be wondering - how high did our GPS's measure Murchison's true, SE summit? Based on the register entries and our own readings, I think the summit is almost certainly very close to 3353 meters. Our GPS units jumped as low as 3352m and as high as 3360m while we were on the summit. Since I can't really 'claim' an 11,000er independently of the official list, I will only say the true summit is around 11,000 feet. I won't be surprised in the least if this gets changed officially to 11,000 feet or more in the future. It is most certainly well over the official (lower summit) height of 3333 - of that there is no doubt. In the end - who cares? It's a massive mountain with very few ascents, high visibility from and to everywhere around. It's fun, tricky climbing with a stupendous bivy site. What more does there really need to be? Making Murchison an 11,000 will result in much more traffic but won't change my experience on it at all.
[All the register entries since Collier first placed it in 1996 - we are only the 5th ascent party to ever sign the true summit register! ++]
I've spent so many hours day dreaming of Murchison's summit that finally experiencing it was surreal. I was really proud to be on top of this giant hunk of chossy, crumbling rock. The summit register contained a surprise too. Remember the possible tracks / pole marks we'd seen coming up the amphitheater? Well, after no ascents for 5 years since Andrew and Mark's 2008 entry, there are now two entries for 2013! We were beaten by a week to be only the 4th party in Murchison's register, but 5th still isn't bad... :) Jay, from Canmore, only took 6 hours to ascend from the parking lot - an impressive feat. Without bivy gear and with excellent route finding this is a good pace - count on longer if you're trying to day trip this mountain. After spending 45 minutes taking photos and enjoying the summit glow we reluctantly decided it was time for the real fun to begin - going back down all the loose crap we'd just ascended! ;)
[Looking over Howse, Chephren and White Pyramid.]
[Mummery on the left and Epaulette on the lower foreground, right.]
[Epaulette foreground left, Kaufmann foreground right with peaks like Coronation and Garth beyond.]
[Mount Forbes on the right.]
[The Lyells and their glacier rise dramatically over Glacier Lake. ++]
[King Edward, Columbia, Amery, South Twin, North Twin and the Stutfields]
[Great color and definition on Mount Wilson (L), Mount Cline (R) and the twin peaks of Resolute, Lion and Lioness.]
[Raf and I had a great day on Mount Sarbach in 2009 - another last minute trip.]
[Mount Wilson is another bloody huge mass of rock and snow. I still get tired just looking at it from other summits! :)]
The descent was, as expected, not much faster than ascent and tricky in places. When we got back to the crux, just beneath the summit we tried repeatedly to make the one awkward move necessary to reach a ledge beneath us but we just couldn't do it! There was a slight over hang and we knew we had a rope so we didn't want to be stupid about it and end up falling. Eventually we decided that a rappel would be safest and started looking around for something reasonably anchored to the mountain to use our slings on. The first few objects we tried were too loose and I started taking my pack off - volunteering to down climb without the pack, when Raf found a nice solid(ish) horn that would do the job nicely. We even managed to back up the horn with another reasonable anchor point / sling and soon we were down the crux.
[Down climbing to the rap]
[Raf rappels the crux on descent]
The rest of the descent to the bivy site was long, loose and tiring but also fun trying to find our cairns from ascent back and basking in the glow of a successful summit.
[Raf surveys our descent. ++]
[The terrain above Raf here, may have avoided our crux (out of sight to the right) but we're not sure.]
[Cairns we put up on ascent were invaluable for finding our way back again.]
[More steep terrain]
[One last look back at the impressive summit of Murchison]
[Note the steep, loose rock. You couldn't put full weight on anything without it crashing down the mountain from under you!]
[One of my favorite shots from the trip - coming off one of the ledge traverses under the ridge.]
[Looking back up the access gully to the NW/SE summit col]
[Back in the first 'snow' gully under the NW summit.]
[Back on the shoulder, contouring around to the bivy]
[Gorgeous views over some alpine tarns to the towers of Murchison, including Hall Tower at far left.]
[At least our bivy gear didn't blow away! Note Raf's tent at lower right.]
[Raf looks tiny next to the huge terrain]
Once back at the bivy we packed up and headed back down the amphitheater to the approach creek and highway. The descent of the amphitheater took longer and was slightly harder than I thought it would be. Thank goodness for cairns again (ours from ascent) because the route wasn't obvious and we forgot a lot of it, thanks to already spending over 8 hours on the mountain. It felt really good when we finally stumbled back onto highway 93. Our summit day took us around 11.5 hours so in theory you could probably complete a day trip of Murchison with good beta and GPS way points in about 12-16 hours. With a gorgeous bivy site and some of the best views around, I think it's worth spending a night on her shoulder - it's a nice way to break up all that height gain too!
[A beautiful afternoon pano of Saskatchewan Crossing and Mount Wilson. ++]
[A long way to go yet!!]
[Don't think the difficult stuff is done when you get back into the amphitheater!]
[Lots of slabby terrain with loose rock, but at least there's refreshing, running water.]
[Late afternoon sun on the amphitheater as we get back near tree line.]
[Now a distant memory, looking up at the amphitheater from the creek bed near the highway.]
Compared to many other peaks, Murchison is an interesting one for me to rate. The views rank it right up there with the best but the rock is so loose that I can't really say the scrambling / climbing was so good - it was more on the 'edge' than some of the other large peaks and 11,000er's I've done recently, even if technically it is rated easier. Still, it's a great peak to have done and with a 5th recorded ascent and one of my most anticipated summits, one of the highlights of 2013 for me.