Summit Elevation (m): 3022
Trip Date: August 13 2016
Elevation Gain (m): 2500
Round Trip Time (hr): 13.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 24.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something valuable
Difficulty Notes: Off-trail and fairly remote for a day trip with tons of elevation gain / loss. Moderate scrambling with exposure at the summit.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
There are some mountains that really stir my gut when I think about doing them. For some reason Molar Mountain has been one such peak ever since I first saw a trip report and the corresponding stunning photographs from Andrew Nugara back in 2007. Nugara’s online trip report is no longer available (he has added it to a recent guidebook – something I didn’t find out until after our trip) but Josee and Fabrice repeated his route in 2014 and posted it on their website which increased my interest in the lovely Hector Pass / Molar Creek area and in the mountain itself.
Graeme Pole and Rick Collier both have posted online trip reports, but on hindsight their accounts aren’t totally straight forward – although close enough. Graeme talks about “gullies not being as steep as they look”, and he’s right, but which gullies, he fails to mention. Rick talks about ascending a 5.3 gully up the summit block and descending a less steep gully on the “left-hand side” – but is that skier’s or climber’s left? With all the various beta available to us I wasn’t too concerned. We knew there was a moderate scrambling route – we just had to find it. It’s weird that a relatively obscure peak like Molar has so much beta, but it was the same for Mount Drummond which is ascended even less often.
After a long outing on Breaker Mountain the week previous, Phil Richards and I were originally thinking of a short, easy objective for Saturday, August 13. But every peak that came up in our conversations didn’t seem very easy! I suggested that we could try Molar Mountain via Hector Pass and possibly take in some leftover Perseid Meteors in the process and Phil was all in. We knew that this was not going to be a short and easy outing, despite the scrambling being only moderate. A quick mapping exercise gave us two options for approach. We could do approximately 40km+ round trip via South Molar Pass with ~2300m elevation gain / loss or we could do 21km+ via Hector Pass with up to 2600m elevation gain / loss. Either way was tons of elevation, South Molar Pass would be a lot more gradual on trail most of the way but much further. We settled on Hector Pass – a route that has taken folks up to 17 hours to complete! One thing each of us did different than usual was to wear very light shoes – I decided to try my new La Sportiva shoes. We also packed as light as possible.
We knew that we wanted to take at least an hour to watch and photograph the night sky in hope of bagging a Perseid Meteor or two, so we made sure we were at Hector Pass long before sunrise. This wasn’t so bad, because the route from hwy #93 to Hector Pass isn’t difficult and we’d both been through here many times. At least that was the theory. 😉 The route through the lower cliff band just out of the forest from the highway is always harder than expected, especially since we missed the branch to climber’s right that leads up right next to the falls, and instead we took the much more exposed route to climber’s left, well away from Hector Creek. We traversed back along cliffs towards Hector Creek before spotting the obvious moderate route that we’d missed. Oops. We made the very same mistake only a short time later – once again missing a branch in the scree and going too high on climber’s left before losing all signs of a trail leading towards Hector Pass. This was getting a bit frustrating since side-hilling in runners is even worse than side-hilling in boots. Once again, we managed to eventually get back on track as we continued our traverse along Andromache‘s south slope up to Hector Pass.
The late evening lighting was spectacular as we crested Hector Pass around 2 hours after leaving the highway. Hector loomed over us and Molar Mountain looked a million miles away – but as gorgeous as I remembered it. We couldn’t see the whole route dropping far down towards Molar Creek from the pass but we could tell it was a long way. It was neat to look all the way towards Red Deer Lakes and remember the great trip we did up Drummond, and recall the telephoto shot I took of Molar from the Red Deer Lakes – part of the inspiration for this very trip. By this time it was getting late and it wasn’t long before the sky was dark enough to start taking some Milky Way photographs and to hopefully capture some Perseid Meteors. Although we saw a few dozen spectacular meteors, it proved very difficult to actually have the lens open and pointed in their direction! I did manage to capture the Milky Way with Little Hector and a pretty good meteor with Molar Mountain so I was happy with that. All too soon it was time to start picking our way down from Hector Pass towards Molar Creek. We started in almost complete darkness, trying to time sunrise with treeline.
We couldn’t see much of the landscape as we descended Karst Pavement towards Molar Creek but we assumed it was pretty cool based on what our head lamps could pick out. We knew we’d see plenty of it on return. As dawn broke over Molar Mountain and the Molar Creek Valley beneath us we trended skier’s left just above treeline and found a nice avalanche slope cutting through a few hundred vertical meters of forest. Eventually our luck ran out and it was time for the ‘anticipated’ bushwhack to valley floor. It could have been a lot worse! We stuck to the forest, left (skier’s) of the raging creek coming down from the Hector Glacier, until we hit valley bottom and continued trending left towards Molar Creek, which we knew we had to cross. We didn’t bother getting wet feet, but simply walked through Molar Creek on bare feet before putting our shoes back on and turning towards our objective – now a ‘proper’ mountain again and looking pretty freaking high and distant.
We had two choices at this point. We could follow the Molar Creek trail for about 1km heading SE before cutting north towards Molar up an obvious gully, or we could start trending towards the mountain already from our current position in a more easterly and direct manner – but off trail the whole way. We chose the offtrail version for some reason and thankfully it worked out pretty good. The forest wasn’t too thick and the gullies we crossed weren’t choked with growth. On hindsight I wouldn’t bother with the approach we did – the trail / gully route is a bit easier and more straightforward.
Once we finally broke into the main ascent drainage leading directly to the lower cliff band on Molar we were near treeline and had mind-blowing views back towards Mount Hector and towards the Lake Louise peaks including Temple, Quadra and Bident. We were very confused about another glaciated peak until Phil finally figured out that it was the north side of Richardson! That aligned us with many other summits in the Skoki area. As usual in open terrain in the Rockies, the cliff band was foreshortened as we made our way up vegetated slopes / easy scree to an obvious break in the middle, right in line with the main gully. We knew that we probably had to go climber’s left to another obvious break but wanted to check out the middle part first. As expected, when we got close it was not moderate scrambling terrain, so we traversed under spectacular cliffs (they’re much larger than you’d think) to the break on our left. As mentioned in several trip reports, this break is much tamer than it appears from a distance and we groveled up loose scree / bouldery terrain, even passing the occasional cairn on the way through.
From the top of the gully through the lower cliff band, we made our way climber’s right and up into the large scree bowl between Molars two summits. In general sticking left on ascent and right (climber’s) on descent probably works best. I grunted and swore my way up the middle of the gully on horribly loose scree while Phil went more left and said it wasn’t as bad. The views behind us kept us motivated – as we got above South Molar Tower the scenery started to blow our minds. Deep greens, blue skies, unexpected tarns and streams and the snow / ice giants of Lake Louise in the distance all contributed their beauty to the landscape.
Near the summit block we both traversed climber’s right until we were at the bottom of an obvious gully splitting the upper mountain. I suspected we had to traverse further climber’s right – to the very edge of the east face, but we weren’t 100% sure so Phil advanced up the obvious gully while I investigated the terrain one gully to the east. The way ahead looked pretty fierce until I was right under it and noticed a moderate (exposed) line up and yelled back to Phil. Phil hadn’t found a scrambling route on his line and came back down and across to join me. The moderate scramble was a lot of fun on fairly solid rock with fantastic exposure and views opening up behind me as I ascended. Looking back at Phil negotiating the crux was awesome! Molar Tower was absolutely spectacular beneath us now, and a small, sparkling tarn surprised us under the precipitous east face of Molar in the Pipestone Valley. Molar Tower has likely only been ascended 3 times, the most recent two were via a stiff 5.8 route. I’ll pass. 😉 Speaking of the Pipestone – our views east were gobsmackingly good. Jaw dropping. Sublime. Ephemeral. Stupendous. Numinous. Religious. Choose your descriptive word. It will fit the views we got!
A short, somewhat steep and loose scramble from the top of the crux brought us finally to the apex of one of the best scrambles I’ve ever done. Maybe not the best scramble (because the actual scrambling was very short-lived) but certainly one of the best mountain summits I’ve stood on in a while. The combination of the effort involved and the views we got as a reward, made the whole experience very special. I found the summit register right away and was surprised at the few ascents recorded in it since Graeme Pole placed it in 1987. For such a prominent peak that has been featured in 3 or 4 online trip reports (and apparently is even in a guidebook now), I expected more folks would have summitted by now. We spent a good 45 minutes on the summit, taking in the views all around us which included the Pipestone and Mosquito Creek areas to the north and east and Skoki / Lake Louise to the south. Forbes, the Lyells, Willingdon, Cataract and the Louise peaks all displayed prominently. Mount Balfour loomed over Hector Pass to the west and reminded us of the long exit to hwy #93 still ahead of us.
Reluctantly, we tore ourselves away from the summit views and started down the loose slopes, working our way through the fun upper crux, down loose scree and then back through the lower gully to break the cliffs. From the lower cliffs we decided to try following the prominent gully right to Molar Creek rather than retrace our sidehill approach route. The gully started out beautifully with wild flowers and great views towards Hector. Eventually it became choked with bushes and very steep at which point we traversed to skier’s right and descended the nose of the ridge running down above the gully. Soon we were tramping across some swampy, open terrain. Not long after the swamp we arrived at the Molar Creek trail and turned up it, heading towards our route back to Hector Pass.
Here’s where I wish I’d looked in Nugara’s book earlier. He has an alternate ascent route to Hector Pass which would have been kind of fun and looks far less bushy than the descent route we took. Oh well. We retraced our GPS track from the morning. The creeks were slightly harder to cross thanks to a warm summer day, but eventually we found ourselves grunting the final steps to the pass. We both commented that we felt much better than we thought we would at this point. One terrain feature in the pavement that surprised me was the deep fissures / rock crevasses that we encountered. Some of them were easily 30 feet deep! From the pass we descended easily to the lower headwall where we descended across Hector Creek rather than the more difficult cliffs on skier’s right. There was still exposure here but not as severe as our ascent route. The final march through the forest next to Hector Creek was a very pleasant way to end our trip.
We read in the summit register that Nugara had approached and climbed to the summit in 5.5 hours from hwy #93! This is a phenomenal pace. In his guidebook Nugara states 11-15 hours for this trip and I would say based on our 13.5 hour round trip time that 11 hours is quite fast. We spent almost an hour at the summit but even then we were 12.5 hours and we weren’t moving slowly. I personally don’t give a crap how fast people do mountains (speed isn’t really the point is it?!) but you should be aware that 15 hours is much more reasonable to expect than 11, especially given the 21-22km distance and 2.5km of total vertical gain. I highly recommend this mountain for fit parties who want to see something a bit different and don’t mind getting some exercise in pursuit of some mind-blowing scenery. Just don’t pick a rainy or cloudy day or you might have to return! 😉