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Scorched Earth

The “Rockies Classics” thread on Biglines has always been a big inspiration to me. It really opened my eyes to the crazy stuff people were skiing and made me strive to gain the skills and experience to be able to chase the same sort of things in some semblance of safety. What exactly the ski legend Ptor was referring to by the “Nface of Murchison” always kind of irked me. My appreciation for the whole production of finding and skiing lines kept me from asking, and after enough research I finally figured out something that looked skiable.

So there I was at work, looking at forecasts of yet more stellar weather and wanting to go skiing. For some reason, of all the things I’ve got half-planned, Murchison stood out to me as the thing to go for. I was able to get the next day off, texted Ian and a couple hours later we were packing like madmen with the intent of approaching before dark to get a scope in before bed. Yeah, right!

Somehow, the five clicks of sledding on dirt last weekend didn’t sink in, and the expanse of brown in the Saskatchewan River Valley surprised me. Last-minute planning, trivial attention to detail. So I hoisted my overnight pack with the bonus of skis and boots ontop and started walking in my street shoes. Our intended route to the base of the north face was to head up the trail to Warden Lake, then up and over a treed shoulder continuing off the NE ridge of the Murchison massif, then along benches above Murchison Creek, descending to the creek only when it turned to placid river flats. This of course, turned out to be the worst way to go. The area burned just last summer, but I didn’t realize how far from the highway it stretched.

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The trail to Warden lake was good traveling through a desolate scorched landscape. Then after Warden Lake we had to enter that landscape for real. We followed a horse trail on a dry ridge on the north shore of the lake and swamp continuing after, cursing the frequent deadfall. Then we realized the trail wasn’t going to deviate away from the Saskatchewan River Valley, so we started SE toward our ridge, where we could at least see snow on the north aspect. After many clambers over logs and balance beam antics we neared the start of real elevation gain. Then posthole in isothermic snow for a long time while the snowpack built from nil to deep enough to cover at least the logs that weren’t piled on each other. We skinned over the ridge as the darkness descended and went along the benches as the crust started to grow. Eventually, we were exhausted and bedded down to allow the crust to grow from a hindrance to an asset. Before it’s supportive, the crust breaks on every step and serves only to trap your ski under the snow.

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Three hours later at 4am we were on the move again. I decided the burnt benches weren’t working to our advantage, and we dropped down to Murchison Creek, where we found fast going finally. Around sunrise we started up from the creek toward the face, details coming more clearly into focus with each step and each minute. I’d seen three possible routes from the summer images I studied, the serac bypass on the left, which with a bit of luck could possibly ski clean beside the serac from quite high on the face. Then additionally, a relatively straightforward couloir on the right which probably wouldn’t connect with ridgetop, and worst case a sneaky sketchy diagonal strip of snow in the middle of the face. On inspection in person, the diagonal didn’t look remotely sane and the right couloir definitely didn’t connect. The serac bypass looked like good skiing in the lower, and looked like it might have a possible route to actually do the deed of bypassing the serac. I took a picture and we headed onwards.

When it came time to dump equipment and start booting, it was much later in the day than the original plan called for. I decided to dump the rope and travel minimally, to partly balance the later hour of day and my more spent state than was planned. So we could only climb what we could ski, no rappel option. We started booting up on perfect snow, the elevation differential between hard crust and 20+cm of pow was all of 200m. The pow was an uncanny balance of ease of climbing and ski quality, a solid crust underneath a uniform, largely un-sluffed blanket of mature pow catered to both aspects of ski mountaineering beautifully.

First we climbed up a short step of rock that extended across the entire face low down. Then some straight up bootpacking led us to the left trending face heading toward the serac. Because of the off-fall-line nature of the face though, the serac was not a danger for most of it. My decision to leave the rope was based on a route I spied around the serac. The most obvious way was literally right beside the serac on some mixed climbing. It looked long enough to warrant belayed climbing, but with the serac beside belaying was not a pleasant prospect. And we only had two screws anyways. So I thought linking the short couloir beside the serac with some unsupported snow fields to gain the level of the glaciated shoulder would be the way to go. On the way up though, I mistakenly took the wrong couloir, a longer one to the right. I kept expecting to see some snow fields to traverse across on the left, but they never came so I kept climbing. At the top of the couloir I made a short sketchy traverse to try to figure out the nature of the next rock weakness across, was it a couloir leading to snowfields or sketchy rocky chimney. It was the latter, so Ian skied down and I eventually came to the same conclusion, worried about taking too much time trying to sketch together an even more convoluted route up.

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The ski down was awesomely exposed feeling because of the big cliffs in the fall line. Snow was great though so big fun turns were still had. A couple aggressive turns, then a bit of traversing you’d have to make anyways to reset the sluff equation, and repeat all the way across the middle face. Then great snow down the fall line and a little huck over the tiny cliff band running across the guts. Grab the gear at the stash, down the moraine and then perfect 3-4cm penetration on the now-corny crust, through a thin spot and to the creek. Not bad at all!

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On the way down we decided there was no way we were going through the scorched hell we came up. We made the descent from camp nearby one of the (as seen by Google Earth) worst looking features above the creek, and it didn’t seem that bad. It also seemed that the moisture provided by the creek was enough to keep the nearby trees alive, thereby avoiding some memories of my worst approaches, where the deadfall piles up in a steep walled streambed. Plus, shade of the terrain should keep the snow good to a lower elevation, and the crusts supportive for longer. It turned out to me a good idea, and after climbing to the benches to retrieve the overnight gear, we descended Murchison Creek. Slop skiing turned to streambed rock hopping all the way down to the Saskatchewan River. Then we walked the river flats to a point which was quite close to the Warden Lake trail and continued to the car, arriving before dark. 25 hours car-car, 3 of those asleep.

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