Murchison from Saskatchewan Crossing

Mount Murchison may or may not be above 11,000 feet, and has a reputation for some of the Canadian Rockies’ worst choss (that’s saying something!), but it is short, and was right along the way north, so I chose to do it after Hungabee. I drove to the Mistaya Falls trailhead, parked right next to the road, and tried to get a decent night’s sleep despite the traffic and light lasting well past my normal bedtime. With over sixteen hours between sunrise and sunset, and nearly eighteen hours of visible light, it is hard to get enough sleep so far north this time of year. I was up again early, starting out somewhat after headlamp time to hike up the road a hundred yards and drop into a creekbed leading toward the peak.

First falls

I am not sure when peak flow occurs here, but the creekbed was perhaps ten yards wide and completely dry at the bottom, its polished rocks generally large and stable. Water emerged a short distance up, but it was just a trickle that did little to get in the way. Following it is far more efficient than ascending the woods to either side, which contain a fair amount of deadfall and a spongy carpet of moss. Unfortunately the creek contains a couple of waterfalls, which must be bypassed through the woods to either side, and transitioning between the two can be tricky, as the banks are either vertical or treacherous hardpack. The first waterfall was easily bypassed to the right, while the second required some more desperate scrabbling to the left. I returned to the creekbed too soon afterwards, and was forced to climb some sketchy outward-sloping slabs to get up a third step, then return via sketchier hardpack with embedded rocks. I made a mental note to do something different on the return.

Scree bowl

Above the last fall, the creek opens up into a broad bowl full of scree and small cliff-bands. I stayed generally right of the main watercourse, finding a bit of class 3-4 scrambling getting through one cliff band, and plenty of unpleasantness in the form of backsliding scree, hardpack dirt, and slabs covered in marbles. I made my way back to the watercourse for some easier, more scoured terrain, then had to traverse back right to escape where the bowl turns to cliffs. I found a couple of cairns here, and a scrambly bit getting through another rock band. Above, I enjoyed some easy compact gravel on my way to the only part of the mountain, other than the summit ridge, that would not slide if you put a tent on it. I could also finally see to the west, and enjoyed magnificent views of Sarbach and Chephren across the parkway and, farther away, Forbes and the Lyell Icefield.

South Murchison towers

But soon it was back to suffering, this time a long sidehill traverse to the peak’s southwest gully. Murchison is a small massif to itself, with many slightly lower towers surrounding a grassy cirque at its southeast end, and I distracted myself admiring them as I slogged onward. The recommended ascent gully was mostly full of snow, but even if I had brought crampons and axe, I would not want to have ascended it, because the snow looked rotten, and the gully subject to spontaneous rockfall. Instead I scrambled up scree and ledges to its left, where I found a few cairns. I eventually found a step that felt too sketchy to climb, and traversed into and across the gully.

Snow gully and upper mountain

Now right of the gully, I made my way up more loose terrain, eventually reaching steeper and somewhat more solid rock. Murchison has two summits, the southeast slightly higher, and Corbett suggests traversing right at some point to ascend a gully to their saddle. However, finally on decent rock, I climbed obliviously upward until, looking right, I saw the southeast summit a fair distance away, and realized I had gone too far. No matter: the rest of the climb from where I was to the northwest summit looked like more of the same, and the ridge connecting it to the saddle was supposedly moderate. I kept on straight up, and eventually emerged a short distance from the northwest summit.

SE summit from NW

I took in the views north to the Saskatchewan River, with glaciated Wilson and mostly-dry Cline to the north, and the Lyells to the northwest, then set off for the real summit. The descent to the saddle was somewhat trickier than expected, with a few steep steps to negotiate, but I reached the lowpoint without much trouble. From that point on I began seeing regular cairns, making the route feel easier. As advertised, it involved a series of steps, with the easier ones attacked directly, and the harder by traversing right to find a gully regaining the crest. Corbett’s route description had been fairly unhelpful on the featureless slog below, but was accurate and helpful here. With a final long bypass, I emerged just south of the summit.

Forbes and Lyell Icefield

Somewhat to my surprise, I found a register on top, with entries going back a number of years. One entry, noting a half-dozen entries that same summer, lamented the peak’s “crowding” and asked “what have you done, Billy?” Accustomed to the States’ much higher level of peak traffic, I found no grounds for complaint: there were no other people on the mountain on a perfect summer weekend, and few enough signs of previous traffic to force me to actually use my brain to find a route. I enjoyed the views for awhile longer, then began the dreaded descent.

Rock glacier, with Chephren behind

The first part down the summit ridge was easy, and I found a few more cairns plunge-stepping down a scree gully from the lowpoint. There was little to no boot-pack on the traverse back north to the snow-filled gully, and I mostly made my own way over various loose terrain. It was rarely deep enough to scree-ski or solid enough to downclimb, but usually somewhere in between, so little faster going down than up. I crossed the gully where I had on the ascent, then took a slightly different line back to the camping-spot.

Looking down bowl

The lower bowl went slightly better, as I found a bit of skiable scree, then traversed hard right to the scoured watercourse. Where it drops over a first cliff above treeline, I traversed right on faint game trails to the highest lone trees, then made a beeline for the forest, where the moss has largely stabilized the underlying rocks. My shoes were wearing smooth, so I slipped a few times on the pine needles, but found game/use trails and generally decent terrain taking me down to where I had left the watercourse below the second waterfall. From there I retraced my route, and returned to Mistaya Falls without further trouble. I think the downhill to Saskatchewan Crossing is a popular speed trap, and a cop was just finishing giving someone a ticket nearby. Albertans definitely drive well above the speed limit, and I have yet to figure out what is the accepted level of speeding, equivalent to five over in the States. There is no cell service along much of the Parkway, and I needed gas, so I drove into Saskatchewan Crossing to pay too much for a tank, then poached some spotty WiFi from the pub and wiled away the afternoon before heading north to finer peaks.

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