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Redux

I hate unfinished business. I’ve felt Murchison taunting me since my poor routefinding and sleep-deprived state nixed my first attempt. I thought the route to the summit ridge could be feasible but never got the chance to give it the full inspection up close to know for sure. So I had to go back and close the door on this beast, either finding a way through or knowing for sure it wasn’t going to happen.

I got out of Golden around the crack of noon and started driving. It was another beautiful day, and with awesome overnight recovery for the snow which I unfortunately wasn’t going to be taking advantage of with this objective. I packed super light for an overnighter, bivy sack instead of tent, no rope because who needs those,  and no skins because it’s a special kind of spring. With crafty packing I was able to get it and the skis and boots on and in my 30l pack, which is so much nicer for technical stuff than an underpacked 45l, my usual overnight pack. I walked up toward Warden Lake, then out onto the now-filling Saskatchewan River flats and then straight up Murchison Creek, as I found that was the right way to go, by a long shot last go round. Five hours car-camp at 1950m just at the bottom of the hanging valley below Murchison N face, on dry moss with flowing water nearby. What a strange spring.

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Up and on the go at 330am, walking on crust and postholing toward where the face started getting steep. Then up a ton of avy debris which was mostly hard enough to support my weight in a zigzagging bootpack, which helps to spread the weight over a crust when it’s not so steep to need to kick steps. Finally at the tiny cliffband crossing the bottom of the face it became steep enough to bootpack, and things became more normal. I trended left along the diagonal face, same as last time, but kept going right up to the seracs. Then I stopped to think out my ascent and descent route.

The climbers left looked pretty much as advertised below, a nice chute of solid ice, though the bottom was steeper than I expected, it would definitely be the steepest ice I’ve climbed. For descent, I was hoping to ski some shelves from the lookers left side above the ice chute across to the right side, where there was a strong hint of a short couloir from my pictures. Unfortunately, the couloir had a cliff between it and the shelves, not huge, but vertical with only some rotten looking ice on it. I loved the idea of climbing the left side, but didn’t want to descend it because downclimbing is always sketchier than going up, and the climbing itself was stretching my skillset as is. Also importantly, there was a lot of terrain that funneled right through it, quite easterly facing terrain. Climbing wasn’t an issue, but at the later hour of descent, there could be fairly regular sluffs pouring through. I decided I’d downclimb the right side on the way back down, and just pucker my way down the steep but short bit of soft ice clinging to that cliff.

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Cliffed out couloir and the rock nose

So I happily started plinking my way up the ice chute. Hot damn, this is fun! The ice was way better than the rotten crap I am usually on in the gully features skiers frequent, and after a few picks I realized just how much I could depend and weight each axe after setting. I kept it calm and careful though, this was proper steep ice and there was no belay to catch me, and if I was unlucky enough to tumble down and not arrest on the couple hundred feet of 50 odd degree snow below the ice chute, there was a great big ugly cliff. Focus, stop having so much fun with it!

Popping out on the top of the pocket glacier was refreshing, back to snow and rock, and what snow! It had slowly been changing, but now it was fully great, 20 some cm of fresh pow over a really solid pack below, just what you want to cover over rocky crap, which I was certain I’d be seeing a lot of on my way to the summit ridge. If it even went. I booted up through a chute cutting through the first of seven cliff bands, then cut left onto a flat ridge so I could get a good vantage a little ways back from the upper east face I was now on. All looked doable, all but the fifth and sixth cliff bands were clean skiing. For 5 and 6, it looked doable, but I’d have to straightline or sacrifice some ski edge to pay for entry. So I kept climbing and decided to figure out which specific trick I’d pull out of the bag later on. Downclimbing is always there as a worst case scenario.

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Upper east face
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Glacier Lake
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The peaks south of Murchison

Getting to the (south) summit ridge was easy bootpacking, and I was pleased to see that the ridge itself was broad and snowy, no tricks needed. Views were incredible, all the best lines on the Freshfields good and close, the massive bulk of Forbes, the impressive East Lyell Icefield. And since I’d already seen the NE side of the whole ridge, I knew there wasn’t any cornice to deal with for most of it, so it was just a carefree stroll on the top of the world. Eventually though, I did get to the part that concerned me, a little notch just before the summit. It looked like it might be corniced, so I kept to the rock while downclimbing into the notch. Once on the other side, I could get a better vantage, and it was indeed corniced. I was hoping to do a little sidestep up the snow on the skis, in order to ski all the way off the summit, but the only snow was overhanging, I’d have to climb back up the rock instead. I walked the final steps to the summit and started adze-ing around for the summit register after soaking in the views some more. Only eight parties have signed the register since it was placed in 1996, Rick Collier thinks it may be possible his party’s ’96 ascent might be the first ascent of the higher SE peak of Murchison. According to the log the mountain is a loose pile of crap to climb if you’re a climber. Fortunately, I’m not.

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Freshfields
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Looking down the N face, my route goes by the visible seracs. Camp down at treeline.

Nearly ski time! I walked back down to the notch and back up the other side before putting skis on, then had a very cool descent down the exposed green run of the summit ridge. Then into the guts of the beastly east face. The seventh step went easy, probably a 200cm choke, which I just made a big turn through onto the big white pasture beyond. Then the sixth, I’d been going through a few different ideas for it but there was exposed rock for a bit too far beyond the choke to do anything hero, I’d have to point it for too long to avoid all the rock. But it was open enough to sacrifice some ski and step my way down. The fifth choke was the real deal, 40cm wide with a good 20 feet before it became truly open again. Short enough to be doable with the exposure below, long enough to be interesting. Super fun, a little straightline then a turn to kill the speed. The rest went easy and I skied down into the big funnel toward the ice chute.

With all the little wet sluffs I was carving off, my earlier suspicions about the ice chute were right. So I went skiers left over the shelves toward the cliff couloir, hoping to see something from above that would grant easy passage. I stopped on a nose of rock between the ice chute and cliff couloir and examined it. The ice covered cliff I had been thinking of looked flimsy baking in the sun, more rotten useless ice I couldn’t depend on. I also wasn’t too stoked on the likelihood of natural sluffs from above in that area either with the ease the sun was starting to get the mountain to move. So I decided to go straight down the nose, between the two gully features, which was mostly small rock steps covered in snow. I prized and pried my tool picks in cracks between the rocks to give enough purchase to keep from falling over backwards, and made my way down. Nearing the bottom, my earlier reservations were confirmed as a heavy wet slide rocked over the cliff in the couloir on the right. I got off to the side at the bottom and changed over to ski mode again.

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Skiing was good on the diagonal face, where previous sluffs could only ruin a small portion of the skiing, but once heading straight down there was only avy debris to ski all the way to the bivy site. That’s the price of trying to drag out a season that just doesn’t seem to want to keep going I guess.

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