American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Murchisons Revisited

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  • Publication Year: 1940

The Murchisons Revisited

Georgia Engelhard

IN 1938, when Eaton Cromwell, the writer and Edward Feuz made the first ascent of the S. and N. Murchison Towers,1 we viewed with interest the three other virgin peaks of the district, and decided that at some future date they would make worthwhile climbs. On August 19th, 1939, Ernest Feuz, Francis North and I drove up the Lake Louise-Jasper road as far as Totem Creek at the 40-mile mark. Here we shouldered our packs and proceeded up through the open woods via game trails to our last year’s campsite in the last timber at about 6500 ft. The weather was warm and clear, so that sleeping tentless under the stars was a pleasure.

As we had only one day at our disposal, we chose as our objectives the steep and attractive S. E. Tower, ca. 10,100 ft., and the little tower on the W. side of the amphitheatre whose northernmost wall is crowned by the majestic S. Tower. The big N. E. Tower2 lying to the E. of this amphitheatre and forming the E. retaining wall of the Murchison Glacier we decided to leave for another year or another party. Although it is the highest in the group of towers and the approach to it is a long one, it will be a relatively easy climb.

We left camp at 5 a.m. and proceeded by last year’s route up the N. bank of Totem Creek, over the cliff-bands bordering the handsome waterfall, past the two turquoise lakes, and in a little over an hour we had reached the boulder-strewn Murchison amphitheatre. The sun was just gilding the sharp summit of the S. E. Tower as we turned up the scree slopes of its S. W. face. We worked rapidly up for about 1000 ft., finally reaching a couloir filled with old snow. Following its southerly edge we clambered up small ledges which provided interesting climbing in places. By 8 o’clock we had gained the base of the N. ridge of our peak. Here we paused to put on the rope and our sneakers and to have a bite of second breakfast, but as a bitter wind was blowing we hastened to get under way.

The climb to the summit was on good solid rock, remarkably so for that region. The ridge was followed throughout, except for two traverses on the W. face up almost overhanging 30-ft. pitches. The ridge itself was delightfully exposed, with a great sheer drop to the east onto the Murchison Glacier, but the climbing was never too arduous for pleasure. In 40 minutes we stood on the broad flat summit. Before us lay fine vistas of the Freshfield Group, the Lyells, the peaks of the Clearwater, Bow and Waterfowl Lakes district, while near at hand the S. and N. Murchison Towers with their sheer walls rose impressively above the Murchison Glacier, 3000 ft. below. From here, too, we were able to confirm our opinion that there would be no great difficulty in finding a route up the N. E. Tower.

We built a stoneman and hastened to descend to our boots as it was very cold and suspicious fogs were curling around the neighboring high peaks. We retraced our route of ascent to our breakfast place, using two rope-offs on overhanging pitches, and in half an hour were in our sheltered notch. From here we descended slightly to gain a ridge running to the base of the S. Tower, under which we traversed on broad ledges onto the W. wall of the amphitheatre. By now the wind was blowing so violently that it was difficult to navigate on the broad ridge. By following a goat trail on which we had spied big billy earlier in the day, we reached the eastern base of the little S. W. Tower (ca. 9800 ft.) whose summit rose only about 200 ft. above us. Alas, here we were to be foiled, as the rock was very friable, smooth and steep with hardly any holds, while its looseness made the use of pitons undesirable. We searched for an hour without success, but as our time was growing short we decided to give it up. We think that given more time, a route can be forced up this face, which is the only feasible one, as on the other three sides the walls are smooth and holdless; it is in a sense the Snowpatch Spire of that district.

We turned down over easy going on ledges and scree slopes and reached the amphitheatre floor in half an hour, and in an hour more were back in camp, eating a fine meal of steak and tea. We packed up and hastened down to the road, which we reached in an hour.

We can heartily recommend this district, for the bivouac place is a comfortable and sheltered one, the climbs on the S. and N. and S. E. Towers are worth repeating, providing good rock and enjoyable climbing with the possibility of new routes oil the first named, while the N. E. and S. W. Towers offer good first ascents.

 A. A. J., iii, 366.

2I.e., the S. E. peak (10,659 ft.) of the Murchison massif as indicated on the Banff Park sheet.—Ed.

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