Kilmarnock & O’Rourke, Mount

Summit Elevations (m): 2875, 2570
Trip Date: Saturday, August 19, 2018
Elevation Gain (m): 2100
Round Trip Time (hr): 12.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 53.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain your wrist or you break something that you wish you hadn’t.
Difficulty Notes: A moderate scramble with some difficulties and routefinding down the NE ridge of Kilmarnock towards O’Rourke. Otherwise just a long hike along the High Rock Range and GDT.
Technical Rating: SC6; RE4
GPS Track: Gaia
MapGoogle Maps

If I’m 100% honest about it, I wasn’t really feeling like a long bike, hike ‘n scramble over the weekend of August 19th 2023. It’s not that I was tired after two or three decently long trips on Cuthead, Wardle and Puma but rather the idea of hiking in thick smoke and clouds had me less-than-normally-excited. But summer is short and Wietse had an objective in mind so what was I to do? Sit at home all day and wish I’d gone out? That wasn’t going to happen, so I half-heartedly packed my bag and ensured my bike tires had enough air for yet another mountain approach. Our target was going to be a set of peculiar peaks in the High Rock Range along the Great Divide Trail, NE of the town of Elkford in British Columbia which is arguably the smart way to access them.

Kilmarnock & O’Rourke Route Map.

Not being particularly smart, however, and having driven way too much already this summer, I told Wietse that one condition of me coming along and driving for this outing was that I was driving the least amount possible. I knew that leaving from the Cataract Creek trailhead meant a longer approach, but I didn’t care. I’ve biked some of these logging roads before and knew that it was relatively easy for at least 8-10 kilometers. Doing some quick math we figured that even if this approach was 2 or 3 hours longer on bike and foot that still put it quicker than driving all the way to Elkford or even approaching from the end of the Oldman River Road via Memory Lake. With our route settled we decided to continue being “not smart” and picked the cloudiest day to make an attempt. We were definitely batting 2 for 2 on this one before even stepping out of the house.

So what makes these two peaks peculiar? “Kilmarnock” is an unnamed summit and much higher (2875m) than Mount O’Rourke (2570m) but O’Rourke is often mistakenly labeled and placed where Kilmarnock Peak actually is. To make a long story short, it’s possible that Mount O’Rourke was put on the wrong summit by the original 1920 boundary survey but now nobody really knows where it’s supposed to go. The easiest thing to do is to leave it where the original map makers put it (on the smaller summit) and name the high point nearby after a local creek to the west – “Kilmarnock”. You can read more about the confusion in the Canadian Rockies Database entry for O’Rourke.

I picked Wietse up at 05:30 and by 07:00 we were biking through the gate blocking vehicle access down the Cataract Creek Trail. Thankfully the area hadn’t had quite as much rain as I’d feared and we quickly made our way past some confused cows. After 5.5kms of easy riding we arrived at a major split in the trail and the start of our route up Lost Creek. Reading Rick Collier’s report on bivouac, he’d had much fresher roads back in 1993 and again when he inexplicably repeated this excursion in horrible conditions in 1999. We were relying partly on Cornelius Rott’s description from his ascent of Mount Farquhar in 2019 and our Gaia base maps which showed the Great Divide Trail dipping in and out of the area. Satellite maps were a little more confusing, showing networks of new and old roads and trails and smoothing over a lot of low-level details that usually provide the most difficulties on trips like this.

After crossing Cataract Creek and getting wet feet thanks to a decommissioned bridge right where we needed it (!!) we continued riding up an excellent logging road. The smoke was thick and clouds overhead made the morning a bit dismal but it was dry and it felt good to be moving in cool weather for once. Fall colors were starting to sneak into the landscape as we biked past a few clearcuts and promptly up a hill that was off route. Oops! Thankfully we realized our mistake and after back tracking we continued along the trail marked “Oyster Creek Cabin”. (We never did see that dang cabin.) After 10 kilometers of riding on good approach roads, conditions deteriorated quickly. The creek decided to take over the road and the ride went straight into the crapper. We pushed on – literally.

After hauling our bikes through a ruined section of trail we were rewarded with another few kms of easy riding. This is why we don’t give up on bike approaches until we’re pretty much forced to. It’s almost always worth pushing through the first few nasty obstacles. We made another route error in finding the GDT. Instead of following exactly where the bright yellow arrow told us to go (left), we peddled up an obvious logging road to our right. We knew from our Gaia maps that the GDT intersected this road and this is where I had planned to start our hike. Alas, the Gaia base map has the GDT in the wrong place which caused us some early consternation that would have been avoided if we’d gone up the next road. Oh well. After ditching the bikes and thrashing around for a bit we found the Lost Creek camp and from there the GDT was obvious.

The next 2-2.5 hours were spent hiking a very well maintained GDT under a grey, viewless, smoky and cloudy sky. The temperatures were cool which was a good thing as the trail insisted on gaining a LOT of height and then losing a good bit of it before gaining it and losing it again. You get the idea. Whatever you do, if you’re silly enough to do this trip, don’t expect a straightforward uphill hike to the base of Kilmarnock. There’s a reason for the 2100+ meters of height gain for such a lowly pair of summits…

I’ll admit that the hiking was actually quite pleasant. If we were going to be anywhere on such a gloomy day, this was likely as good a place as any. As we got nearer and nearer to the Divide, the trail dipped and wound its way around a few final hills before we finally got our first views of the headwall under Kilmarnock. Thankfully there looked to be a pretty darn easy break through it and we wasted no time in starting up.

From the end of the GDT, our route up the headwall to access Kilmarnock marked. The peak is out of sight at upper right here.
Kilmarnock at upper left with our approach at center. The GDT runs off to the right to Memory Lake.
Outliers of Mount Gass rise behind us in the smoke and cloud as we start up Kilmarnock’s south slopes.

A quick and easy scramble brought us up the headwall south of our peak and we started towards it with intermittent views through swirling clouds and smoke. We were 3 hours from the bike drop as we started up south rubble slopes to the summit and only 35 minutes later we were standing on top with almost no views in any direction. Yay! We felt like real winners being out today. 😉

The wind was very cool and with no views we didn’t linger on Kilmarnock, signing the register (2nd this year with no entries in 2022) and deciding what to do next. You might think it would be obvious – go bag Mount O’Rourke! But the question was HOW would we do this? We didn’t know of anyone else who’d combined these two peaks before reading the register and realizing that Devan P. had also planned it – big surprise. We didn’t have his route and weren’t sure we’d want to follow it even if we did (!) so we onsited our own. Wietse had done some research beforehand and we were planning to try a descent of the north ridge into the headwater valley of Kilmarnock Creek to access Mount O’Rourke via the same route Rick Collier used. There were very few photos available showing this ridge and satellite images made it look fairly complex. The only other way to get to O’Rourke was to descend the south face of Kilmarnock back to the GDT and traverse in and back out from there – adding many kms and hundreds of meters of height gain to an already long day. Nobody liked that idea.

We started down the north ridge in cold wind and clouds racing over the cliffs from the east. I led the way down SC6 (upper range) terrain along the north ridge of Kilmarnock to the valley below. My previous 3 scrambles were all on similar terrain and was feeling pretty darn comfortable on it. Slabs with scree benches led fairly easily through the cliffs along the north ridge until I realized we were going to be just fine. I yelled up to Wietse that we were through and after descending the final cliff we remarked how bloody relieved we were. Going back down and around would have taxed us almost to the breaking point (i.e. not bothering with O’Rourke) I think.

Wietse exits the last cliff band along the north ridge of Kilmarnock with easy rubble descent slopes leading down into the headwater valley of Kilmarnock Creek below.

After exiting a long rubble slope down into the valley below, we traversed as efficiently as possible to the east face of O’Rourke. Despite looking steep and serious we knew from Rick’s report that this face was easier than it first appeared and started up on a mix of rubble and slab.

Mount O’Rourke rises over the headwater valley of Kilmarnock Creek. Mount Pierce nearly invisible at center under smoky and cloudy skies. Our route is skyline righthand ridge to upper face.

If the ascent of Kilmarnock’s south face was quick and easy, the ascent of O’Rourke’s east face was even quicker. Within 20 minutes of leaving the valley we were already approaching the cairn with a metal rod sticking out of it.

Sadly, Collier’s register was nowhere in the cairn and we were left with dismal views to pretty much nothing at the lowly summit. This certainly wasn’t going to be a highlight trip of the summer.

Views to unnamed summits to the NE.
Views over a small alpine lake to outliers of Kilmarnock.
Views over the pass that we’ll use on exit – Kilmarnock rising in clouds to the right, unnamed peaks at left.

We easily descended back down the east face before starting a rising traverse to the col and top of a steep headwall north of Kilmarnock, hoping that Rick’s moderate rating of its descent would be accurate.

Views back to Kilmarnock (L) and O’Rourke (C) from near the pass.
Views up the north ridge of Kilmarnock and our exit route back to the GDT at left.

It took a bit of hunting but we managed to find a reasonable exit down the headwall. We could have found an easier route but it involved more back tracking and ascent and frankly, we weren’t in the mood for such things. We spent the next hour or so working our way south to intersect back with the GDT. Finding a water source along the way was a highlight – there were next to no water sources since much earlier in the day at the Lost Creek camp.

Back on the GDT it was heads down hiking, back up and down familiar terrain and trying to stay positive despite the nagging feeling that today might have been better spent with family or on other pursuits… 

Some days in the hills turn out far better than expected given the forecast conditions. Other days turn out exactly how you thought they would given the forecast conditions. This day was one of the latter. We knew before getting out of bed that morning that we’d have clouds and thick smoke all day and yet we both still decided to go for it. Was it 100% worth it? Nah. Not if I’m totally honest. As I get older I sometimes wonder if I’m stuck in a pattern of peakbagging because I simply don’t know what else to do with myself. (To be fair, I tried golfing more this year and threw my back out!) On the other hand, I can’t say I hated this outing – it had moments of beauty and fun like any other.

In the end I won’t overthink it but I also will try to take the lesson learned that sometimes it’s better to simply stay in bed a little longer and do something else when the forecast promises doom & gloom.

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