As I drove out to meet Steven on Friday, August 7, 2015 I could see that we were probably not going to be climbing our original objective for the next two days. Originally we were planning to do Mount Saskatchewan but even as I drove past the Saskatchewan Crossing junction I could see that Mount Cline was plastered in new snow thanks to the system that came through the previous day. Sure enough! My first glimpse of the mountain showed a lot of new snow above 10,000 feet - way too much to melt off in the next 24 hours or less. When I met Steven at the Big Bend parking area we both agreed that we needed to change plans. After some deliberation and looking at maps, we decided to lug the bivy gear up Totem Creek and check out one or two peaks in the back country of the Siffleur Wilderness Area behind Mount Murchison. Corona Ridge would be our first objective, we hoped to still bag it on day one before bivying and attempting a second peak before coming out the next day.
Eric Coulthard and Phil Richards had just done Corona Ridge about a month previous, so we knew the route up Totem Creek. We hadn't done a ton of research but how hard could it be right? :) We knew enough basics. Head up Totem Creek on climber's left (north) side until above tree line. Pass Lower and Upper Totem Lakes to a high col granting access to Spreading Creek Valley on the south side along with a number of "Totem" peaks and Murchison Towers. After this we would traverse around an intermediate ridge before losing and gaining height around a bowl to the south end of Corona Ridge which we would then follow to the summit. Sounds easy enough.
[Our route up Corona Ridge from hwy 93 - Waterfowl Lakes parking lot. The extra 'dip' going southeast is where we came back and went down to our bivy site. Also of note, the distance and height gain is not the total from the road (add about 5km and 3 hours for that) since we bivied the first day.]
We started our day with an extra 1.3km hike from the northernmost parking lot along Waterfowl Lakes thanks to fresh road construction which made us nervous about parking along the highway. This turned out to be a very good idea later. It was the very late hour of 11:00 in the morning when we finally got our packs on and started trudging along the black top towards the Totem Creek drainage. The creek is drained through two huge culverts instead of a bridge, so many people probably don't even notice it as they drive past on hwy 93. We started off right in the drainage but soon directed to the north bank and a rough trail complete with fresh blazes led us upwards, high above the creek. I was sweating like crazy already - more than normal, although it was a hot day and we were leaving a lot later than I'm used to. The trail was faint but we followed it a ways before finally losing it in the bush. Thankfully the bush isn't too thick as long as you're well above the creek. A few times we got into pretty nasty bush but always got out of it quickly by ascending and traversing higher on the north side of Totem Creek along the SE slopes of Bison Peak. Thankfully some clouds started rolling in as we ascended and by the time we were side-hilling towards Lower Totem Falls, there was almost 100% coverage, keeping the temperature reasonable.
[It's a HOT morning - of course it's almost noon already now! The impressive cliffs on the left are the SE side of Bison Peak - another great hwy 93 scramble that I did with Wietse back in 2013.]
[There's a pretty good trail for the first 2km or so. Here we are high above the creek on an embankment.]
[Great views back towards Mount Chephren.]
[My favorite small wildflower - the Twin Flower]
[Make no mistake about it - there is bushwhacking involved in the Totem Creek valley! The faint trail doesn't last long. The good thing? It's Alberta bushwhacking - a piece of cake compared to BC.]
[Excellent view of an unnamed outlier of Totem Tower.]
[Lower Totem Falls is just visible in the far distance. The best thing to do at this point is stay as high as possible, side-hilling despite how painful it might be on your feet. If you descend you're in for some serious avalanche / bushwhacking hell.]
The side-hilling wasn't pleasant, but on hindsight if you don't like this easy stuff, you're really not ready for any of the peaks in the Spreading Creek area! Side-hilling is the action-of-the-day out here. Might as well get warmed up on the approach already. When we got to the raging falls we could spot some weaknesses to the left, above us. The rubble in this area is either ridiculously loose or concrete-hard. There's no compromise. On the traverse up and around the falls, we found both types of terrain. Hikers will not like some of the exposure here and we were very happy to have stiff mountaineering boots to delicately cross the concrete scree just above some of the drops. The falls were beautiful and the two lakes above them were even nicer. As we traversed over Totem Creek between the large upper and small lower lakes, we were mesmerized by the beautiful landscape we were now entering. I'm sure not too many folks have enjoyed these views, which only made them more special. We started around the larger lake on it's south (right hand) shoreline to the far end where we could see Totem Creek tumbling down from the Upper Totem Lakes.
[These flowers look like they're having a bad hair day.]
[Hope you like this! Kilometers of it ahead...]
[The few pockets of trees look innocent until you're caught in the thick of avalanche debris and thick shrubs.]
[Lower Totem Falls plunges down from the lowest of the two lower Totem Lakes. You can see the traverse here is fairly exposed and some of the scree is very unpleasant.]
[Looking back at Steven traversing above the falls on concrete scree.]
[The lower of the two Lower Totem Lakes is a tiny tarn. Chephren and Howse Peak in the bg.]
[Steven hikes towards the cascade coming from the upper Totem Lakes]
[Looking back over the two Lower Totem Lakes with Howse Peak (L) and Chephren (R) in the bg.]
After grunting up Totem Creek to Upper Totem Lake we were treated to even better views! As we worked our way around the lake, again on the south or right hand side, we spotted a glacier coming down from the very impressive Hall Tower - one of the seven Murchison towers over 3050m high. It was surprising to see a glacier tucked back here, but not after thinking about it long. Remember, Murchison and Cline are both 11,000ers and have glaciers and many of the peaks tucked in behind Murchison are over 10,000 feet high. After tramping around the Spreading Creek head waters, I now realize that this area was a pretty large ice field not too long ago. After filling our water bottles at the lake (no guarantee of running water past this point) we started up to the high col between an outlier of Hall Tower on the left and Totem Tower on the right.
[Grunting up to the upper Totem Lakes]
[Looking at the gap that is our col beyond the Upper Totem Lake.]
[A 'finding Nemo' rock!]
[Looking back at the two Upper Totem Lakes]
[Steven crests the col with Hall Tower and it's glacier on the right and Englehard Tower in behind. East Tower in the foreground.]
[Heading over the col into the Spreading Creek Valley. Spreading Peak at upper right and our access to Corona at upper left.]
Once over the col things got more interesting - route wise. Here we had to traverse up and left along a ridge coming off Hall Tower and interrupting a simple access to Corona Ridge. We dumped some unnecessary bivy gear under a rock to save on weight and continued on. We side-hilled along the south slopes of this ridge to its end before turning sharply east and north and descending a demoralizing amount into a bowl separating us from Corona's south ridge. This is where I started feeling ill. I've only scrambled once before, feeling this badly. That was on Mount Bell and it did NOT produce friendly memories for me of that peak! ;) My stomach was sore and I felt like I could throw up. Even worse? I had ZERO energy. It was clear that we had a very long way to go yet and with every step from this point to the summit, I honestly didn't know if I'd have the energy to continue, much less make it all the way back... This was a real test of will for me and honestly I can say that I was thinking that mountains and the pursuit of summits was about the dumbest thing in the world and was ready to stop ascending them permanently, more than once for the rest of the evening. It took us about 5 hours to this point and we were sure we'd be setting up camp in the dark, which didn't help my energy levels any!
The bowl after the ridge is a giant energy sucker. Man, this thing sucks. I don't care who you are, you are not going to enjoy this stupid bowl. First you have descend into it after gaining some hard-won height on the loose ridge. Then you have to boulder-hop across the bottom of the bowl before ascending some of the loosest, nastiest scree / boulders you've ever had the 'pleasure' of walking on to get up to the south end of Corona Ridge. After an hour or so of sweating (and in my case nearly throwing up every 5 minutes) you're finally at the same height on Corona as you were on the first ridge! Fun times my friend. Fun time. I can see why this is better than work...
[From high on the first traverse ridge a small tarn near our evening bivy is visible along with Spreading Peak at upper right.]
[There's a bit of bench on this ridge traverse, but it's still side-hilling no matter how positive you try to make it sound.]
[Steven traverses the first ridge with the Spreading Creek Valley keeping us partially distracted from the suffering with great views. Marmota Peak is on the left, Spreading Mountain and South Totem Tower on the right. Click the photo to see our planned route on Marmota Peak the following day. ++]
[Now we're finally crossing the east end of the traverse ridge and Corona is in sight on the left! We have to drop into the bowl on the left before we can access the south ridge of Corona however... Marmota on the far right now. ++]
[The energy-sucker bowl. It's far worse than it appears.]
[We've crossed the bowl - you can see the traverse ridge on the right with Spreading Peak peeking over it. Marmota is now at center and Steven is suffering his way back up to gain the south end of Corona Ridge. I'm literally sick of the whole thing - thank goodness for the sublime views. ++]
[Finally on the ridge leading to the south end of Corona - which is still a very long ways off (distant right). Note the remnant glacier and the striking form of Hall Tower on the left. The ridge at center is unnamed and lower than Corona Ridge. Corona Creek flows straight down the valley in front of me here - originating from this remnant glacier. ++]
When we finally grunted up to the ridge granting access to the south end of Corona Ridge I was seriously doubting my ability to continue, much less complete the seemingly enormous distance and height challenges to the summit from our location. I am stubborn though, and I figured I wasn't ever coming back so this was my chance and I wasn't going to drop it that easily. Wouldn't you guess it though - we had more height to lose to actually get onto Corona Ridge from our vantage! The views were awesome, especially Murchison's many summits and east towards unknown peaks (to me). We could clearly see the damage from the Spreading Creek Wildfire only about a month ago in the valley to the east. There were a few opportunities to scramble but most could be bypassed on extremely loose scree / boulders on climber's left. After what seemed like an eternity we found ourselves overcoming the final height dip and were actually on the final ascent to the summit of Corona Ridge - or so we thought.
[Looking back at Spreading Creek Valley with Marmota, Spreading Peak and Totem Tower along with our energy-sucker bowl on the right. ++]
[We're still not actually on Corona Ridge, but the terrain is interesting.]
[Mighty Mount Murchison and some of its many towers.]
[This is how I felt for the next few hours. Always behind Steven and I couldn't keep up - my energy levels were very, very low thanks to a slight fever and stomach bug.]
[Now we're finally on Corona Ridge, looking back at Spreading Creek, Marmota, Spreading Peak and Totem Tower. ++]
As we crested the final bump to the summit of Corona Ridge, we were surprised and a wee bit shocked to see that the north summit tower was clearly higher than the easy bump! Rick Collier must have been feeling bagged like we were (and he was in a summer snow storm) when he finally made this high point and decided to call it quits and built his register here. We could clearly see the north summit was higher, so we didn't even linger on the bump and grabbing the register, we plodded back down - yep, there's another height loss before regaining the true summit! The summit was easier to climb than it appears from afar and soon we were celebrating a rare ascent of Corona Ridge. According to Rick's register we were about the 4th party in many years, but how many actually ascended the high point of those that signed the register? Considering it's 8m higher - it certainly qualifies as the official summit. Rick didn't for sure. It's possible that only around 4 parties have ever stood on the true summit of Corona Ridge and we were one of them. A pretty cool feeling. After checking out the views and taking a ton of photos, it was time to see if we could make it down before dark and set up a bivy somewhere in the upper Spreading Creek Valley. At this point I was telling Steven that there was no way I had enough energy for Marmota Peak the next day, which was our newly planned destination after seeing it on approach. I agreed to see how I felt later but secretly I thought my trip was done after Corona.
[Corona Ridge is like a Canadian Half-Dome]
[A pano from the false summit includes Marmota, Spreading Peak, Totem Tower and the summits of Murchison including East, Southeast, Cromwell, Englehard, Hall, Gest, Bison, Feuz, Murchison (main) and Murchison (north). ++]
[The north summit of Corona Ridge is clearly higher. And clearly there's MORE height loss / gain to reach it!]
[Steven makes short work of the true summit block.]
[Looking north and east over David Thompson Country and down hwy 11. ++]
[Mount Cline with Dascent, Lion and Lioness (Resolute).]
[An infamous name in the register - only they didn't make the true summit this time... ;) They have now!]
[Only four entries since 2002 and not sure how many actually made the high point - Phil and Eric did though.]
[Looking over Corona Creek at the unnamed parallel ridge towards Mount Murchison.]
[Looking deep into the Siffleur Wilderness Area. From L to R the larger peaks are Perren, Antevs, Simpson, Recondite, Augusta, Crown, Willingdon, Clearwater.]
[Looking down hwy 11 at Elliot Peak in the sunshine and Whirlpool Ridge in the fg.]
[Impressive waterfall coming off the unnamed Ridge]
[One of my favorite shots from the false summit looking north over the true one.]
As it usually does, the satisfaction of a successful summit along with going down (mostly!) instead of up made me feel a lot better. As we descended my feelings towards Marmota Peak got more and more positive until I decided that since we were all the way out here anyway, I might as well give it a shot. I think Steven was somewhat relieved with my improving attitude since the next day was forecast to be even nicer than the current one. Descent was pretty quick as we were determined to set up our bivy before dark. There was lots of up and down and lots of cursing at the stupid energy-sucker bowl but eventually we made it back to our gear stash and loaded up our packs again. We headed off down-valley towards a waterfall that we could see in the distance. Marmota Peak looked incredibly far away, but we scoped out a nice line of traverse and an ascent gully that would put us high on a ridge abutting the west face. From there it looked like an easy scramble to the main summit. We got to camp around 21:30 with lots of time to set up on the gravel flats across from the waterfall with a nice stream flowing right through our camp. A delightful spot that made me even happier that I was pushing through whatever illness I was still feeling. A warm cup of decaf with supper went a long way to boosting our energy levels again. We turned in around 22:30 and set our alarms for 04:30 - we had a long day ahead of us on Marmota!
[It's shots like this that convinced me to give Marmota Peak (R) a try the next day. The evidence of the Spreading Creek Wildfire is obvious below.]
[Marmota Peak is a wonderful looking mountain. The summit is (of course) the furthest high point.]
[Heading down in late evening shadows]
[A last glance over the headwaters of Corona Creek at Mount Murchison.]
[Steven with the start of Corona Ridge's south end behind him.]
[Heading downstream to our bivy site.]
[We bivied here - Marmota stretches off in the distance with our traverse access along the ridge at center.]