Summit Elevation (m): 2840
Trip Date: October 7, 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 1800
Round Trip Time (hr): 11.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 42
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Mostly hiking on trail to the bump on the ridge. The traverse and ascent to the high point is easy scrambling with some route finding and loose terrain.
Technical Rating: TL2; OT4; SC5; RE3/4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Merlin Ridge is another of those peaks that has sat on my to-do list for way too many years now. For such a potentially easy objective it’s also kind of hilarious that I’ve made two serious attempts at it over the years. Back in 2017, Phil Richards and I made an attempt on this peak after a very successful couple of ascents on Cyclone and Pipestone in perfect fall weather. The last forecast we’d seen was calling for a collapse of weather at the end of our trip and when we woke up at 05:00 to harsh winds and wet snow we decided to bail on the ridge. It turns out we should have slept in and could have done it in nothing more than cloudy conditions but oh well. Sometimes you make a call and it’s not the most ideal. C’est la vie. Then on October 06, 2019 I was back for a solo effort of Merlin Ridge. Despite a ton of fresh snow overnight I thought I’d give it an honest effort until my bike seat snapped off while biking up the road to Temple Lodge, destroying my motivation and mojo. As a perfect larch season and fall hiking season slowly ended in 2022 I decided it was time for a 3rd attempt at the mysterious and elusive Merlin Ridge. Why mysterious? Read on.
When researching Merlin Ridge you’d think there’d be tons of beta from dozens of folks hiking it – especially from a basecamp at the lovely Skoki Lodge. You’d be wrong. When researching this ridge I couldn’t even figure out exactly where the heck the official summit was! To be honest with you, I’m still not sure Merlin Ridge has an official summit but as David Jones words it on page 288 of his Rockies Central reference guide, “The highest point on Merlin Ridge is located at GR596-074 and should not be confused with either Merlin Castle or Merlin Tower”. Most folks don’t go to the highest point and don’t call the highest point “Merlin Ridge” either. Most folks ascend to a bump on the ridge between Mount Richardson and the highest point (roughly at GR595-065) and call this bump the summit of the ridge. Reading Graeme Pole’s report on bivouac.com doesn’t clarify things – he clearly ascended the lower bump because nobody would use the higher one to access the Pipestone River valley. Rick Collier ascended Merlin Castle and named Merlin Tower in 1998 and mentions that “the guidebook” mistakes the highest point as Merlin Castle. Collier’s guidebook is the infamous “Rocky Mountains of Canada South” and it indeed mislabels Merlin Castle. I’m hopefully going to clarify where everything is in this report with the map below and my photos and am going to call the bump at GR595-065 Merlin Ridge and GR596-074 Merlin Peak. Merlin Tower is at approximately GR603-076 and Merlin Castle is at GR604-076. (Note: To further confuse things, apparently the Skoki Lodge refers to the high point as “the Sectional”. No idea where that comes from.)
We started out in 0 degree temperatures at 07:00 from the parking lot on our bikes – barely requiring our headlamps but wearing them nonetheless. The familiar ride up the Lake Louise ski-out up Corral Creek was quick and efficient and by 07:40 we were locking the bikes at the small shed just past the “no biking” sign. Thankfully my bike seat was still in one piece this time. From the bike drop I set a furious pace up to Boulder Pass. I was cold and trying to stay warm, plus I’ve done this section so many times that I was bored with it. As we crested the first pass our views over Ptarmigan Lake were hazy but wonderful as usual – the lake was extremely calm and reflective. It also became obvious as we walked through larches under the pass that they were past their prime, slightly orange and showing more brown than what we had on our Assiniboine trip a week earlier. This was to be expected for a week into October.
As the sun rose warmly at our backs we ascended to Packers Pass and took in the cool morning shade down the other side towards Zigadenus Lake. I remembered how magical the Skoki Lakes seemed my first time through them years ago. I’ve become a little bit familiar with them since then but they are still a unique and lovely landscape, especially in the fall with more color to compliment their blue colors. The rocks around Myosotis Lake were slick with morning frost as we approached the interesting headwall to the Skoki Meadows below the lakes.
It was a little depressing to hike below the larches through the Skoki Valley but soon enough we were at the Lake Merlin junction and starting our hike back up to a new set of lakes. Back in 2017 I had hiked this trail from Lake Merlin in the dark and never got to see the surrounding landscape, this time was quite different! (Phil and I had approached the lake from the other side of the valley.) In a nutshell, the trail from Skoki Lodge to Lake Merlin is very well maintained and easy. As it passes above Castilleja Lake towards the headwall it almost becomes a scramble but the trail is so well built that it’s all pretty darn straightforward.
From the top of the headwall we could finally spot Merlin Ridge and the other peaks (although we didn’t know it at the time) – all much higher and further than they appeared. I remember looking at Merlin Ridge from Cyclone Mountain and wondering if it was even worth doing – it looked so insignificant from that distance! My Gaia route line that I’d planned ahead of time followed a trail towards a small lake north of Merlin Lake before traversing alpine meadows to the ridge. When we saw how easy and scenic it would be to travel along Merlin Lake’s west shoreline we decided to do that instead. As we walked the shoreline we stumbled on a fairly obvious trail running the whole length of the lake. Views were stunning as the sun continued to rise over Pika Peak and Mount Richardson and the lake itself. This was quickly becoming one of “those” days. In a good way.
Near the south end of the lake we turned west up a shallow gully in the forest leading up to a giant mass of boulders. Originally we were concerned that we’d have to balance our way across acres and acres of rubble and boulders but we quickly realized that there was a perfect line up the edge of the boulder field and the forest. Travel here was easy, fast and fun and it didn’t take long until I thought we were just under the bump along the ridge. More concerning than the fact that everything here is foreshortened was the view of the high point’s south ridge – rated F 3rd in David Jones Rockies Central book. It looked somewhat harder than that. Future Vern problem. Once we were finally forced onto the rubble fields we were relieved to find a trail pretty much beaten up it, marked with dozens of well placed cairns.
It took a little longer and a little more effort than it appeared but finally, around 5 hours from the parking lot we were balancing our way across a slab to the top of the bump, aka, “Merlin Ridge”. Views to Richardson, Pika, Merlin Lake and across the Pipestone River valley to Hector and the Lake Louise giants were pretty sweet. Surprising to me was the fact that we were also clearly higher than Skoki Mountain and Oyster Peak – I wasn’t expecting that. I also wasn’t expecting to be higher than Merlin Castle already and almost as high as the east outliers of the massif.
Despite David Jones’ rating of F 3rd for the south ridge of the highpoint we both had our doubts. The ridge looked a little fierce, especially in two places with cliffs cutting across. I noticed a much easier looking line that traversed from the lower south ridge across the SE face before breaking through the cliffs to the east ridge. I’ve always been one to go for the obviously easier route if it’s not too far out of the way so that’s what we did. The south ridge quickly became a loose pile of stacked rocks and much steeper than it appeared, even lower down. We traversed carefully across the SE face – it was loose in places with limited exposure.
The east ridge to the small summit was quick and easy. We both agreed that our route was SC5 (easy) scrambling and almost certainly much easier and quicker than sticking to the south ridge would have been. Views were becoming a bit familiar by now but obviously they improved from this highest point of the Merlin massif. It took us just under 6.5 hours from the parking lot to this summit and we rewarded ourselves with a nice long summit break in warm, near-windless conditions.
Already from our traverse of the SE face of Merlin Peak I’d been scouting a possible alternate descent route taking us past the fascinating and scenic looking Merlin Tower and Castle. There seemed to be a perfect scree ledge leading right to the gap between the main east massif and the much smaller massif of the castle and tower that would give us some prime views of this mysterious chunk of rock with soaring cliffs and sharp edges. Since we were here to explore, Wietse agreed with the plan and we descended towards the traverse ledge off the east ridge. Everything clicked. Soon we were hiking across scree and rubble slopes to the intimidating NW cliffs of Merlin Tower with incredible views over Merlin Lake.
The next 30 or 40 minutes were pretty interesting hiking between the castle to our right and the eastern Merlin massif to our left. Wietse started out in the bottom of the gap but quickly transitioned to the right – hugging the Merlin Castle cliffs to avoid old glacial ice in the ravine. The cliffs of Merlin Castle were dizzyingly high and steep overhead and I was shocked to see rocks balanced precariously near the top – this is certainly not a good place to linger!
I was hoping against hope that we would be able to exit the ravine and hike easily down to the small unnamed lake with a trail above Lake Merlin. As we neared the end of the ravine we crossed over to the left hand side towards an obvious cairn. Once again it all worked out perfectly. We kept descending to our left until large rubble and boulders gave way to easy scree leading down to the lovely little lake sitting in warm sunshine. What a day this was turning into!
I knew there was a trail to the small lake and sure enough! As we hiked away from the tarn a trail formed in front of us until we were marching quickly along an excellent track again. Our average speed picked up as we descended through larches to Lake Merlin and from there to the headwall and down past Castilleja Lake. The sun was dropping fast as we descended to the Skoki Valley junction and started a long uphill grind to Packers Pass. Hiking up the Myosotis headwall was fun but the rest of the uphill hike got a bit old until finally we peaked at Packers Pass.
From Packers Pass we descended in warm sunshine before hiking along Ptarmigan Lake to Boulder Pass. I was expecting an endless march from here but the hike to the bikes above Temple Lodge was quick and relatively painless considering the 34 kilometers we’d just walked.
The bike ride was extremely fast – as expected. We swooped into the parking lot just under 11.5 hours after leaving it. On hindsight I’m happy to have “missed out” on my first two opportunities to hike and scramble Merlin Ridge. Both of those opportunities were in less than ideal conditions and very likely would not have included the highest point or the fascinating journey around Merlin Castle and Tower. I am still amazed by the conditions of the Rockies this late in the season – many of the highest peaks were absolutely bone dry and other than daylight hours it’s still go-time for hikers, scramblers and climbers. The fall of 2022 has certainly more than made up for the crappy spring we endured!