Summit Elevation (m): 2454
Trip Date: July 08 2017
Elevation Gain (m): 1600
Round Trip Time (hr): 7
Total Trip Distance (km): 13
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4 – you fall, you are almost dead
Difficulty Notes: Routefinding is key to keeping this scramble reasonable on approach. The final ridge to the summit is difficult, loose and exposed scrambling but pretty short.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
After enjoying a Kane difficult scramble on Divide Mountain with Liz and Mike on Friday, I choose to go solo on a Nugara difficult for Saturday, July 8 2017. Mount McGillivray has been on my hit list for many years already. I first heard of it in 2003 when the Nugara brothers attempted it from the east. Since then I’ve read at least 3 or 4 other reports, many of them either trying to avoid the side-hill slog via gullies on the west side of the peak or attempting a known climbing route up the east side. In 2005 I apparently had good intentions of scrambling it already and here I was a dozen years later and still hadn’t made the ascent! I don’t know how many times I’ve driven past the mountain over the last 14 years, wondering why the heck I hadn’t done it already?! It was time to find out…
Most (all?) trip reports on McGillivray agree that it is a side-hilling nightmare of scree, slabs and routefinding ending in a difficult summit ridge pretty much no matter which side you’re coming at it from. I’d always been attracted to the apparently short route from Skogan Pass that Sandra McGuiness pioneered and Ben Wards repeated (sort of) back in 2007. There was just enough unknowns – not to mention it still took Ben, Parry and Mike over 9 hours to do this “shorter” route, to make me second guess myself as I planned my own version of this mountain. When going solo, I always try to minimize complexities, which includes trying to get a clear sense of the route (i.e. GPS track) and taking the most straight-forward path to the summit. Steven Song was one of the more recent friends that had completed the Nugara scramble route, so I settled on using his beta and route as my main guide for the day. As with my recent ascent of Abraham Mountain, I could see no clear reason for the long times that many folks have had on a mountain with so much beta. Of course, the pioneers of the west side scramble route(s) had reasons to take many hours, but with a guidebook detailing the route for years already, and likely the hints of a trail forming, I was hoping to break the 8 hour mark, partly due to a threatening afternoon weather forecast.
The delightfully short drive from YYC reminded me how much less driving I used to do in my early glory days of bagging front range summits as fast as I could possibly nab them with two young kids and a full time job gobbling up most of my free time. With my daughter turning 18 this week, I’m starting to realize that life passes by extremely quickly. Priorities change. But here I was, still driving out to the same chossy Rockies all these years later! I must have a problem or something, but we’ll deal with that issue a bit later in this report. I whipped passed the small gravel connector to the trailhead on the TCH before realizing my mistake and using the next one to do a u-turn (not recommended on this busy road) and getting it right the second time. I was the only vehicle in the small gravel parking lot and the mosquitoes bombarded me relentlessly as soon as I stepped out of the truck. After a quick bug spray shower, I packed up and headed down the trail to the Trans Canada Trail just off the parking lot to the south.
A small sign greeted me at the Trans Canada Trail and I turned left, heading east for about 5 minutes before following Steven’s GPS track up through semi-dense bush heading SE towards McGillivray’s NW shoulder. There are smatterings of trails throughout the bush on the lower part of the approach, but I didn’t find anything concrete until I got a bit higher up. It was a bit frustrating because sometimes I’d be on a clear trail in the forest, but then it would completely fade out to nothing right under my feet! I didn’t worry about it too much, but I did manage to find more trail and less bush on descent – which is often the case. Despite the hoards of mosquitoes and bush, I eventually managed to stumble out on a rocky ridge within about 20 minutes of starting the bushwhack so that wasn’t too bad. From here I progressed through mixed forest / rocky ridge up the NW shoulder, following the odd cairn, my nose and Steven’s GPS track, depending on what made sense at the time.
I knew Steven took much longer than he expected – most folks do on this peak – so I didn’t have my hopes up on going any quicker than around 8 hours return. This slowed me down a bit and helped me concentrate on making the absolute best route choices I could. In the end this tactic helped speed me up. Funny how that happens. I wasn’t totally comfortable with tackling McGillivray on this particular day due to a forecast of afternoon thunderstorms. This forecast kept me going at a steady pace all day. Eventually I struggled through a section of annoyingly dense bush and escaped to a much clearer section on the shoulder, leading up towards the towering north buttress. I wasn’t done with the bush yet at this point but I started encountering more signs of passage including cairns, ribbons and snippets of trail which sped me up a bit more. Within 1.5 hours of leaving the truck I was finally grunting my way up beneath the north buttress on an open scree slope.
As I approached the towering north buttress, I looked carefully for any trail in the 1st scree bowl traversing under the face beneath it. Steven had mentioned the lack of a trail here, but I quickly spotted one running well back of the cliff face and set off to follow it. I was making very good progress across the first gully when I stopped and listened carefully. There seemed to be a ton of rockfall ahead of me and soon I could see scree, rocks and even the occasional large boulder cascading down from the cliffs and right over the trail ahead of me! Upon further visual investigation, I spotted the culprits. A gaggle of murderous sheep – who had likely been reading my many disses of their species on this blog over the years – were trying their best to either outright kill me, or at the very least scare me off their mountain. I’m not scared off that easily (they should have realized this) and simply waited 5 or 10 minutes for them to move on. In all seriousness, I was glad to have my helmet on and was even considering turning back if they didn’t clear off the cliffs above me – the rockfall they were propagating was very dangerous and unavoidable. After my first sheep encounter of the day, I quickly traversed under the cliffband they’d been on and soon found myself looking along the large 2nd scree bowl, running along the impressive wall of cliffs guarding the west aspect of the mountain.
I screwed up a bit at the start of the 2nd scree bowl by not ascending right to the cliff face above, before traversing the trail that runs along its base. I tried short-cutting up some pretty loose scree which wasn’t worth it. I spotted the chimney that is the Nugara’s difficult traverse starting point, but had no interest in tempting fate more than I had to on the brutally loose terrain. It was while I was traversing the 2nd bowl that the sheep tried killing me for a second time. On this occasion half the sheep were on the easier route that I was on, and half of the posse were above on the more difficult upper scree ledge. It was kind of neat to see the upper group waiting for the bottom one to get out of the way before they resumed trying to kill me – but it was also frustrating to stand there watching a good bunch of the upper cliff band come bouncing and bounding down over my intended route!! Once again I had to wait for the murderous horde to pass on – thankfully they were quick about it. From a distance the exit from the 2nd bowl looked pretty harsh, but as I got closer and lost more and more height I could pick out several options. I choose one of the more obvious ones in keeping with my theme for the day – keep it simple, stupid.
Reading Nugara’s route description helped me a lot after the 2nd scree bowl traverse. Despite having a GPS track, the terrain is varied and tight enough that it’s not always clear where the reasonable route goes. Nugara thoughtfully points out that once the easy traversing is done from the 2nd bowl, one should immediately turn one’s attention uphill to the left (east) to pick an easy / moderate scrambling line above obvious down-turning cliffs that otherwise block any route from the west, to the upper summit ridge. This is the key route-finding move of the day. It’s obvious once you do it, but not-so-obvious beforehand. I had to look hard up-slope to spot the escape bench and again on return I had to pay attention to find it back. There are cairns through this section but even then it’s not as obvious as you might expect. On ascent I ended up on moderate terrain but on descent I found an easy bypass. A cairn suckered me onto the more difficult option on ascent so beware that not all cairns are “friendly” on this mountain! Once over the cliffs I could spot a very obvious scree gully breaking through a “U” gap, up towards the summit ridge (still out of sight) about 300 vertical meters above me still.
Despite looking pretty awful, the next few hundred vertical meters were actually pretty quick when I got into it. There were just enough slabs on ascent (with scree beside them for descent) that I made some great time up the gully and through the “U” gap, moving on towards the summit ridge from there. As soon as I topped out on the gully, I noticed that the murderous sheep horde had made themselves comfortable on a little slide of sheep heaven below me to the east. Thankfully they wouldn’t be trying a third time to kill me! I was way ahead of schedule as I started up the summit ridge and even convinced myself temporarily that I had to go all the way to the higher (unnamed) summit laying just to the southeast of McGillivray. Soon I realized that I was, indeed, on the final summit ridge and got pretty excited.
I was looking forward to the difficult ridge just before the summit and it didn’t disappoint. Steven has some great shots of Neil on the crux – I would suggest you check them out before committing to this scramble as they accurately depict what you can expect. After a short, exposed slab traverse there was a few very exposed (on very loose terrain) moves to get onto the summit itself. Within only 3.5 hours of leaving the truck but over 12 years after first planning to do it, I finally found myself enjoying a cloudy, humid morning on the summit of Mount McGillivray. It felt pretty darn sweet.
The wind was suspiciously humid and cool at the summit and I even got an alert on my phone regarding severe tstorms developing for the Kananaskis area. Needless to say I didn’t feel that lingering at altitude was a good idea and soon started back along the crux and down to the scree bowl traverses. Even with a GPS track and having just come up the route, I still managed to confuse myself a few times on descent. Especially the section that breaks through the cliffband to the 2nd scree bowl is a little bit obscure. Thankfully there were just enough cairns and recent memories to guide me down it and soon I was starting the traverse back to the NW shoulder.
Another surprise on the way back was getting from the 2nd back to the 1st gully. I forgot that the terrain was a bit convoluted with slabs and drop-offs at the transition. Thankfully the GPS track and some well placed cairns helped me out here again. It’s really surprising how easy the navigation looks from afar and how confusing it is up close on this mountain. I think that probably explains a lot of the long times taken by many folks on it. I’m impressed that Marko found his way down the west scramble route without ascending it! From the NW shoulder the descent was bloody hot but quick. I found more smatterings of trail on descent than I had on ascent (as usual) and it was too hot even for the blood-thirsty mosquitoes which was a bonus. I met two scramblers well down the shoulder who turned back after realizing the mountain is much longer than it first appears – another common theme on McGillivray. I made it back to the truck 6 hours and 45 minutes after leaving it which really surprised me.
McGillivray Mountain surprised me on several counts, and that always makes a scramble personally appealing. Firstly, it was much shorter than I expected at under 7 hours return at a steady-but-not-crazy pace. Secondly, the route-finding was challenging at times, even with lots of beta and GPS tracks. Thirdly, the difficult section of summit ridge was a fun challenge but still ‘only’ a scramble – nothing too crazy. Fourthly, I really enjoyed the whole experience of McGillivray. This is how I know I’m a scrambler at heart. The fact that most people come off this pile of cliffs, slab and choss swearing at it, and I really enjoyed it probably says more about me than about them! 😉 The murderous sheep added some unwanted spice to the day – don’t forget about them when you tackle this peak. And don’t forget bug spray either! Just don’t blame me if you don’t enjoy it quite as much as I did.