Summit Elevation (m): 3353
Elevation Gain (m): 1800
Round Trip Time (hr): 15
Total Trip Distance (km): 10
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 4 – You fall you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: Steep loose terrain with many small cliffs and lots of exposure. Do not under estimate the size of this mountain, or its looseness and exposure to the summit.
Technical Rating: MN9; YDS (5.0-5.2)
Map: Google Maps
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 two 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 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 this remarkably accessible peak. 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.
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 of times. Why? Because it’s only listed as 3333m in height 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. (Update: As of 2017, Mount Murchison is slowly becoming an accepted 11,000er. Many folks are measuring it at or above 3353m with various devices, and it’s been added to the 2nd edition of the 11,000ers book.)
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, although they didn’t have bivy gear. 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 only 4 days earlier. My pack wasn’t exactly light, 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 our axes and crampons. We also brought a 30 meter rope, some slings and basic rock pro just in case some of the scrambling terrain 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 descending from there to the col. It’s along this descent that a rap is required. From the col to the SE summit the terrain was supposed to be difficult scrambling to some low-5th class terrain just before the summit.
Approach to the West Shoulder Bivy Site
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.
We picked our way back and forth across the main NW gully (some running water here, 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 perhaps? 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 NW gully three or four times on ascent before accessing the final staircase on climber’s left (north) 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 upper west 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 up this rarely ascended mountain.
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. 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. 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 loose, chossy 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.
Eventually I told Raf that we had to start traversing climber’s right (east) 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 “cheese grater” crap. 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 little bit impatient to start gaining height. Once we hit the gully it was a steep grind on shale, scree and snow to the exposed col. 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 terrain.
From the col the route is impossible to describe with great accuracy. There is certainly more than one way to attain the summit but all will involve fourth class scrambling on some exposed, loose Rockies crud that you must love if you’re bothering with this climb. There is some exposure in places, and a fall would have serious consequences in most spots near or on the ridge.
Generally we stayed on the ridge if the terrain stayed reasonable. If the scrambling 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 some time 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’s always the descent that is more problematic. Eventually we kind of gave up trying to find nontechnical routes 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 Mount Murchison – around 4.5 hours from the time we left our bivy. The summit views were stupendous – more than making up for some more limited views on Recondite’s summit the weak previous. 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 zero ascents for 5 years since Andrew and Mark’s 2008 entry, there are now two entries for 2013! We were beat 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.
So now you must be wondering – how high did our GPS’s measure Murchison’s highest 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 an official list, I will only say the SE 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. Of course, 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 scrambling 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.
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 overhang and we knew we had a rope so we didn’t want to be stupid about it and end up falling onto the icy ledge beneath. Eventually we decided that a rappel would be the safest option and started looking around for something reasonably anchored to the mountain to use. The first few objects we tried were too loose and I started taking my pack off – volunteering to downclimb without the pack, when Raf found a nice solid(ish) rock horn that would do the job nicely. We even managed to back up the horn with another reasonable sling and soon we were down the crux.
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. 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 the 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.
Compared to many other peaks, Murchison is an interesting one for me to commiserate. 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 that great. Still, it’s an awesome peak to have done and with a 5th recorded ascent and one of my most anticipated summits yet, one of the highlights of 2013 for me.