I was back with the boyz from Edmonton for the September 2014 long weekend. Ben, Eric and Steven made the drive to Okotoks on Friday evening and had an interesting snooze in the McDonald's parking lot there. Sounds fun! NOT. Our plan was to scramble one of the easiest 11,000ers, Mount Harrison. While we were in the area we planned to also summit Mount Folk and Smith Peak. It's probably a good thing we were all too busy to do any additional planning or Splendid Peak would probably have been in the cards too. I have to stop hanging out with young guys. It's killing me! WAY too much energy. They need to get full time jobs, kids and families so they know what they're putting me through!
There were two upfront issues with climbing Harrison in late summer of 2014. We only knew about one of the issues before the trip, the other one was a surprise once we were 6 hours into the drive. The first issue was the closure of the Whiteswan FSR due to a bridge washout thanks to the 2013 spring floods. This meant that we had to plan our drive from the south along the Bull River Road instead of the west along the Whiteswan Forest Service Road (FSR).
The Bull River Road starts as the Wardner / Fort Steele road leaving Hwy 3 (Kootenay Hwy) just before it crosses the Kootenay River approximately 10.5 km past Jaffray heading NW. Just over 8km along this highway brings you to the Bull River Road going east (on your right). This is a paved road at first but quickly turns to gravel. We followed the Bull River Road for approximately 86km to the spur road leading to the parking area for Mount Harrison. (NOTE: You must drive past the 98km sign if coming from the south. If you go past km 99 you're too far). So far all the gravel roads were drivable with pretty much any vehicle. The next 10km along the spur road were typical back country stuff. Apparently some clearing has been done since we went up the road because we just made it around certain fallen trees and through some deep washouts in my Nissan xTerra 4x4.
You could just use a mountain bike from the Bull River Road. Be forewarned though - you'd be biking up at least 500m vertical with your pack just to get to the parking area. The floods of 2013 had certainly done a number on this spur road when we drove it and it hadn't been fixed up for us. We had to squeeze past a fallen tree (my xTerra had to literally scrape alongside the tree to fit past it) and negotiate some very rough washouts where stream beds were now cutting right through the roadbed. They were dry for us, but clearly had running earlier in the year. It took us about 6 hours to drive home to Calgary from the trailhead. On the way there it took us a wee bit longer because we didn't know exactly where the Bull River Road started and Eric wanted to explore a few cow pastures first...
I mentioned two issues with the approach, the first was the closure of the Whiteswan FSR but the second was only discovered after driving almost 6 hours from Calgary. We pulled over for a pee break near a sign post along the Bull River FSR and I noticed a small 8x10 notice on a piece of paper on the lower part of the sign with pink ribbons attached to it (supposedly to make it more obvious). It was a fire area notice from August 8th indicating that the area around Whiteswan Provincial Park, including Harrison and Folk was under a special notice. It didn't actually use the words closed or restricted but it definitely seemed to be suggesting that the area was off limits to hikers and climbers. This was a MAJOR bummer of course! Ironically if we would have stopped somewhere else for a break we never would have seen this notice. It certainly wasn't readable from a vehicle doing 60-80 km/h on the road! What were we going to do?! Eventually we decided that we wouldn't be crossing into any obviously closed areas. Any barriers, tape or more strongly (and obvious) worded signs would be the end of this particular trip for us. Thank goodness we didn't encounter any other forms of closure for our intended destination. The fires that caused the concerns were for the most part completely out, thanks to cooler and wetter weather in the area over the past week. I'm still not sure if the area was supposed to be accessed or not - the notice was very unclear about the length or meaning of it.
Since we were doing both Harrison and Folk, we decided to make a night of it and bivy up higher from the parking lot. The first 500m-1km of trail had been completely wiped out by a massive avalanche! I've never seen trees this big, simply ripped out of the ground and/or ripped down about 6ft off the ground. Getting through this mess was probably the crux of Harrison for us. On the way back down to the truck we followed ribbons down the creekbed which took some advantage of an old trail. This was the easiest way to go but be warned - it's not exactly "easy". Do some research on the route before you go to make your life a lot easier.
[Finally at the parking spot after almost 7 hours of driving! You should access the creekbed on approach by hiking straight down this path, cross the first stream and then follow flagging up the second one about 200m ahead, curving around to the right and then up the creek. We didn't do this, of course.]
[We followed obvious flagging up the wrong side of the creek. This flagging led us directly through the nasty avalanche path. On return we removed these flags and placed them correctly leading to the stream bed which is a much better path to follow.]
[Immediately we started encountering debris.]
[And then it got nasty.]
[I couldn't believe how big (and old) a lot of the trees were that simply snapped off at the force of the avalanche. It must have been at least size 3, possibly even larger.]
[Finally through the avy debris and now in the creek bed, heading up to the bivy.]
[There was a trail on the left side of the creek with flagging that we discovered on the way back down.]
[A neat traverse between rocks and trees - our bivy is about 500 meters ahead of this spot but we should have continued about another 500m before stopping.]
[Eventually we set up our bivy right here but we should have gone a bit further - at the base of the headwall in the distance.]
Roughly 200m higher than the parking lot we found a perfect little bivy spot just out of the trees, on a level gravel bar near the running stream. On hindsight we could have bivied under the cliff band before the waterfall but this was unknown to us at the time and is only a 5min walk from where we bivied so no big deal. It felt a bit strange to be bivying so close to the trailhead but it made sense given that we were ascending two peaks in the area and the nasty bushwhacking we had to do to get there.
[Home sweet home!]
After setting up camp we noticed something. We still had a ton of time left in the day and the summit of Harrison was not in the clouds. Because I do these trips with a bunch of young guys, the natural question came up.
Why not bag Harrison NOW?
So, that's exactly what we did. After securing the tents (mine nearly blew in the creek with a wind gust) we set off, up the creek. From the bivy site to the Harrison / Folk col was a scree slog, but very easy. Once at the col we could see the incredible effects of logging on the other side in the Thunder Creek Valley. Tidy little roads ran in cross-cross patterns on the slopes of the valley beneath us, the logged areas almost looked like a golf course for giants. Harrison rose up on one side and Folk looked pretty easy to summit on the other - but a fair distance away.
[Leaving camp and heading for the obvious break in the cliffs at center distance.]
[Delightful alpine meadows just past our bivy. The route goes up past the waterfall at the end of the rock wall in the distance.]
[This excellent bivy location is about 5 min from the one we picked. Oh well!]
[Just like any 11,000er, Harrison has some sublime scenery on ascent]
[Harrison looms above us on approach. There are two couloir routes on the north face, the east (L) is rated alpine III and the west (R) is rated alpine II. This is deceiving IMHO because the SW face is also rated alpine II and seems much easier than both couloir routes, especially later in the season when it's simply a scree bash compared to the ice in the couloirs. I've also heard that the route to the summit, especially from the west couloir is not as easy as advertised.]
[Looking back at our approach valley - note Steven for scale.]
[It's a grayish day, but nice for hiking. Fall colors are starting to show.]
[Looking down our approach route from near the Folk / Harrison col. Folk is on the left, Smith is on the right and our bivy is right in the middle.]
[Heading to Folk / Harrison col with some wild clouds adding atmosphere.]
[Pano from the col, Harrison to the left showing the steep traverse across its west face and Folk to the right. The Quinn Range marches north across the Thunder Creek Valley - most are unnamed except for Mount Mike (3300m) at distant left and a few others. ++]
We set off to the do the famous (infamous?) traverse across the two bowls on Harrison's SW face. This traverse gets a lot of negative attention and I can see why, but it's not THAT bad. The first bowl was downright easy, with a clear trail running through the scree. We all agreed that snow or ice would make it much less pleasant but it was still very easy hiking. The second bowl was a bit worse. Again, I could see that frozen screen, snow or ice could make these traverses a bit tricky. But if you think the side-hilling is bad on Harrison don't even think about Fryatt or Recondite! The biggest danger we had on this long, exposed slope was the objective hazard of falling rock from the summit ridge high above.
[Quite the drop to Thunder Creek to the west.]
[Mount Mike is one of only a few named peaks in the Quinn Range and is very close to 11,000 feet high itself.]
[Heading a short way up the west ridge before starting our traverse across the bowls to the right.]
[Mount Folk (R) looks fairly easy from this angle - and it is as we'd discover the next day.]
[The first bowl traverse wasn't that hard and pretty obvious where to go. It got slowly more exposed as we traversed it though.]
[Find Eric in this photo to give an example of some of the exposure on the traverse. ++]
[Again - find Eric for an idea of the terrain size on the traverse. The biggest issue isn't falling yourself, it's stuff falling on top of you from high above.]
[This exposure could be an issue with snow or ice on the traverse, but was no big deal with soft scree and a partial trail]
[Sticking close and trying to find firm footing is the biggest challenge on the traverse.]
[Slogging scree and gaining height.]
[Looking back at the traverse and down Thunder Creek at center.]
[The second bowl was a bit mankier than the first but still not bad. The headwaters of Thunder Creek at foreground in front of Mount Mike. ++]
After the second bowl traverse we started up the mountain, first on the SE ridge and then traversing across the SE face to a series of obvious, steep and loose gullies. We had bits of trail and the odd cairn but nothing really obvious to follow at this point. We chose the most easterly gully (furthest climber's right from the southeast ridge) and started up. This gully was fairly easy but very, very loose. Rock fall is a real hazard here and I wouldn't want to be with a large or clumsy group at this point. The gully reminded me of Devil's Head.
[Eric follows me up the SE ridge.]
[Gaining height just off the shallow ridge, starting to trend to the right towards some obvious gullies.]
[Now we're headed for an obvious steep, loose gully up to the summit ridge on the SE face.]
[A very steep, loose gully to the summit ridge.]
[Looking back out of the gully towards Mount Mike.]
[A handrail on both sides makes routefinding pretty easy at this point.]
[You need to trust your partners on these sections - one loose rock can kill or injure easily.]
[Nearing the summit ridge - note the snow that is the top of the east couloir route from the opposite side.]
Once we finished groveling to the top of the crappy gully we traversed nice open slopes to the summit. The summit views were pretty decent - better than I was expecting. Mount Mike dominated the skyline to the southwest with King George far away in the distance to the north. There were clouds around but they were higher than us and we felt lucky to have attained the summit on the first day already. I was very surprised by the sheer number of peaks around Harrison that are at least 10,000 feet high. It seemed that in every direction we looked, we were looking at a summit that was almost the same height as us. Speaking of summit elevations, taking multiple GPS (mine has a barometric altimeter) and altimeter watch (Suunto Elementum) readings at the summit produced some interesting results.
If Harrison is an 11,000er, it's just barely part of that club... I got one GPS reading of 3353m but every other reading I got was lower than that. This had me thinking about some other readings I've gotten on other peaks that have not yet made it into the 11,000er club including two that I am even more convinced than ever, should be;
Crown Mountain is a peak next to Willingdon which is certainly a separate peak (think Center Bryce, Center Goodsir or Lunette Peak) and is certainly over 11,000 feet. I know of at least 3 other people who have stood on Crown and ALL agree with me that their devices measured it well over the 3353m mark. As a matter of fact, when I measured Crown (same devices), my lowest reading was 3353m and my highest was 3360m!
Murchison is another peak that measured the same as Crown - multiple readings with more than one altimeter of 3360m and a lowest reading of 3352. The only reason Murchison isn't part of the 11,000er club yet is that map-makers label the wrong summit (NW) as the true one at 3333m.
I should also point out that after talking with Eric Coulthard of Summit Search extensively about the government topographic data, I realize how wildly inaccurate a lot of it is. He's encountered peak data that's literally hundreds of meters vertically wrong. I no longer trust that data. I'll do my own measurements, thank you very much.
[Heading for the summit in late afternoon lighting with great views to the south and west (R). ++]
[Folk Mountain is an easy peak that we'd do the following day before setting up a bivy on Mount Smith.]
[Looking west is a bit grimmer as the clouds are rolling in. Still lots of unnamed and fairly high peaks, especially at center - this is all part of the Quinn Range. At center right in the foreground is Folk. ++]
[Summit views looking east and south (R). Mount Mike is the highest summit on the right but many peaks look to be over 10,000 feet in this area. Mount Smith at far left. ++]
[Looking south along the Bull River towards Fernie. Peaks include Swanson and Washburn.]
[Rarely ascended Phillips, VanBuskirk and Herchmer at center distance.]
[Mount Hadiken at center distance in shadow.]
[Mount Abruzzi at distant right with Joffre barely visible at distant center.]
[Mount King George is just barely visible to the north just right of center with Sir Douglas even further right in shadow.]
[Flett Peak just left of center.]
[Looking over our approach valley - you can see the spur road that we drove in on - Folk at left and Smith at center-right. Mount Splendid at center. ++]
[Mount Mike is the tallest, nearest neighbor of Harrison and is 10,827 feet high.]
[Yes - the north couloir has apparently been skied! I just wonder how they got all the way into Harrison on skis!! Update: Trevor Sexsmith repeated this ski line in the spring of 2016.]
[A fairly old register, placed by Rick Collier in 1993.]
With day light fading fast we made a hasty retreat from the summit and got back to camp just as darkness settled in. Needless to say we fell asleep pretty fast after a long day, satisfied to have our main objective already on day one and two more days to go for smaller objectives in the area, including Mount Folk and Smith Peak.
[Dropping back down the gully from the summit ridge.]
[Delicate down climbing on wet slabs.]
[Carefully sticking close together to avoid rock fall incidents - a key factor to traveling safely down mountains in the Rockies!]
[Almost done the steep gully.]
[Late day lighting on the Thunder Creek Valley.]
[Descending under Mount Folk in fading light. ++]
[The sun dips under the Harrison / Folk (R) col. ++]
[Heading down from the col in growing darkness with Splendid Peak at center distance.]
[One of the benefits of bivying outside a park - a nice warm campfire at night.]
[We were hoping for clear skies for some astrophotography but this is as clear as we got.]
Overall, I can quite confidently state (now that I'm looking at this trip report a few years later) that Mount Harrison is likely one of the technically easiest of the 11,000ers. I personally found the SE face route technically easier than even Mount Temple. That being said, it is much more remote than Temple and much less ascended so the overall experience feels more "out there". Due to the logging in the area and the different terrain (i.e. no glaciers etc.), I found that Harrison didn't feel quite as pristine as some of the other 11,000ers nearby, such as King George and Sir Douglas. If you drive all the way into this area, you should consider adding more peaks to your itinerary like we did.