I picked my good friend and climbing partner Greg Cutforth up at his house at 3:55 a.m. – it was an early start. We were going to climb Murchison Falls; it’s located on the Jasper Parkway about 8 kilomtres south of the Saskatchewan Crossing. We arrived at the drainage where the hiking starts at about 6:40 a.m. – it was pitch black. We left the truck at 7 a.m. and starting hiking up the approach trail – fortunately it was well trampled and easy to follow in the dark with headlamps. We arrived at the base of the climb 1.5 hours later just as it was getting light; we had gained quite a lot of elevation. The picture below was taken on our hike out (it was too dark to take a picture on the way in) and shows the route that we were going to climb.
The location of the belays for the route are shown by the red "x's"
We soloed the first pitch on easy ice and snow, and then roped up at the first red "x". The photo is foreshortened – in other words, the top pitches look shorter than the bottom ones, but they’re not. From top to bottom, the ice fall is about 240 metres high (or about 800 feet). The weather was reasonable – it felt quite cold when we left the vehicle, but seemed to have warmed up by the time we got to the climb (or we had warmed up).
I led the first pitch; a long pitch of relatively low angle grade 3 ice. The trouble with low angle ice is all your weight is on your calves; mine were burning by the end of the pitch. I set a hanging belay with 2 ice screws and brought Greg up.
When Greg arrived at my belay his hands were frozen – the pain of unthawing hands has to be experienced rather than described. They don’t call it “the screaming pukies” for nothing. Greg then got the next lead, which traversed to the right for about 15 metres and then tackled some steep wet ice for another 30 metres, followed by some easier-angled ice to the next belay.
Sunrise from the top of the first pitch
Greg did his usual admirable job of leading this pitch. After the traverse, he started to climb in a shower of water. The ice got a bit funky as well; forming in mushrooms, which are hard to get good sticks in with your ice axes, and also are hard on the knuckles (as you tend to bash them while trying to get good sticks). A solid grade 4 lead.
By the time Greg had arrived at the top of his pitch (a full 60 metres) I was frozen. I followed his pitch, and froze my hands. Why oh why do we ice climb? When I got to the top of his pitch and looked at the next pitch that I had to lead, we both thought it might go all the way to the top in one pitch, but that was deceiving. As I started climbing, I realized that the top was still a long ways off. My pitch was steep and fun (as only ice climbing can be) – it made you think all the way. As I passed the 40 metre mark on the rope I knew I wasn’t going to be making it to the top (I also only had a few ice screws left). I traversed to the left and set up another hanging belay - it was another grade 4 pitch. By the time Greg had climbed the pitch; his hands were also frozen. I had to give him a minute to himself to deal with the pain.
Greg led the last pitch, which was probably the hardest (Grade 4+) because it had a steep section of pretty bad ice. The adjacent picture shows Greg just as he’s starting into the steep section. Note the mushroomy ice.
Pitch 4 - the crux
Of course by the time Greg got to the top, I was frozen again. Following this pitch, trying to take the ice screws out with hands that barely functioned, wasn’t that fun. However, topping out was awesome. Ice climbers tend to have poor memories.
At the top of the climb there is a large hanging valley that is invisible from below. It's described in the guidebook as a “moonscape”, which is actually a pretty good description.
After enjoying the view from the top, we had to get down. Descent is via four very long (60metre) rappels. The rappels went more or less with no hitches. Although in one case, one of the ropes was too short so I had to down-climb to the rappel station (but Greg belayed me). We got back to the bottom at 2:00 p.m. – tired but extremely happy to have made such a great climb in a beautiful setting. As we walked out, we started to fully realize how much elevation we had gained; something you don’t really notice while walking in while it’s dark.
The only bummer about the trip – I dropped one of the new ice screws I had bought the day before – 66 dollars. Rats. Oh well, it was worth it.
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