Summit Elevation (m): 3065
Trip Date: August 07, 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 1900
Round Trip Time (hr): 9.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 26
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something – i.e. your ego
Difficulty Notes: Some moderate scrambling and route finding. This is extremely remote and rugged terrain – you will not see anyone else in here!
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
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 backcountry 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 of the 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 peaks and the 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. It sounded straightforward enough…
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 steep Totem Creek drainage. The creek drains through two huge culverts instead of a bridge, so many people don’t even notice it as they drive over it along the busy Icefields Parkway. We started off in the drainage but soon directed ourselves up to the north bank and along a rough trail complete with fresh blazes leading us steeply upwards, high above the creek. I was sweating like crazy – more than normal, although it was a hot day and we were leaving a lot later than usual. The trail was faint but we followed it a ways before finally losing it in a thick stand of low shrubs. Thankfully the bush wasn’t too thick as long as we stayed well above the creek. A few times we got into pretty nasty ‘whacking 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 more reasonable.
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 lower Totem Creek falls we could spot some weaknesses to the left, high above us. The rubble in this area is either ridiculously loose or concrete. 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 more severe drops. The falls were beautiful and the two lakes above them were even more sublime. As we traversed over Totem Creek between the upper and lower lake, we were mesmerized by the beautiful landscape we were now traversing. I’m sure not too many folks have enjoyed these views, which only made them more special. We started around the larger middle 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.
After grunting up Totem Creek to the 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 headwaters, 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.
Once over the col things got more interesting – route wise. Here we had to traverse up and left along a ridge coming off of Hall Tower and interrupting a simple access to the south end of Corona Ridge. We dumped some unnecessary bivy gear under a rock to save on weight and continued onward. We side-hilled along the south slopes of this ridge to its end before turning sharply east and north and descending into a bowl separating us from Corona’s main south ridge. This is where I started feeling physically ill. I’ve only scrambled once before while feeling this sick. That was on Mount Bell and it did NOT produce fond memories 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 to our planned bivy. 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. 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 or enthusiasm for the whole business of bagging peaks that nobody else even knows about!
The bowl after the ridge is a giant energy sucker. Man, this thing sucked. I don’t care who you are, you are not going to enjoy this silly little landscape feature. 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 and boulders you’ve ever had the ‘pleasure’ of walking on. This will finally get you up on 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 as you were on the first ridge before the bowl. Fun times my friend. Fun times. I can see why this is worth taking time off work for. But can you?
When we finally ground up the scree slope 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 current set of coordinates. I am stubborn though and I figured I wasn’t ever coming back so this was my one chance and I wasn’t going to drop it easily. Wouldn’t you guess it – we had more f’ing height to lose to actually get onto Corona Ridge from our vantage! At least the views were awesome, especially Mount Murchison‘s many summits and east towards unknown peaks (to me) such as Peskett and Siffleur. 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 along the ridge but most could be bypassed on extremely loose scree and 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.
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 ascend the highest 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 highest point of Corona Ridge and we were one of them. A pretty cool feeling to be sure – especially after it was such a personal struggle for me. 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 plan after seeing it on approach. I agreed to see how I felt later but secretly I thought my trip was over at this point.
As it usually does, the satisfaction of a successful summit along with going down instead of up made me feel a lot better. As we descended the long south ridge of Corona 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 relieved with my improving attitude since the next day was forecast to be even nicer than the one we had just enjoyed. Descent was pretty quick as we were determined to set up our bivy before dark. There was lots of up and downs and lots of cursing at the stupid energy-sucker bowl but eventually we made it back to our stashed overnight gear.
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 experiencing. A warm cup of decaf coffee with supper went a long way to boosting up my energy levels. We turned in around 22:30 and set our alarms for 04:30 – we had a long day ahead of us.