Visitors 150
106 photos

Distance: 50 km
Elevation gain: 3500 m
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A few years ago I learned of a commercial backpacking trip called the Elk Highline that traverses from Running Rain Lake to Carnarvon Lake in the Elk Range. Unable to find any route information beyond a few dozen photos in a single trip report, however, the idea of doing this trip myself was forgotten. Then recently I found myself planning two, two-day backpacking scramble trips into the Elk Range: One into Weary Creek Gap to tag Mounts McPhail and Muir and one into Carnarvon Lake to tag Mounts Strachan and MacLaren. In researching these two trips I started to realize that Mount Muir could be ascended via either the Carnarvon Lake or Weary Creek Gap side, and a check of that trip report I'd found years ago on the Elk Highline confirmed my suspicion that this portion of the traverse did indeed go from Weary Creek Gap to Carnarvon Lake by scrambling over Mount Muir. I immediately combined my two scramble trips into one big expedition, planning to enter the range via Weary Creek Gap and exit via the Carnarvon Lake trail.

Right from the start, unfortunately, this trip was fraught with problems. First, stubborn and oddly threatening cows refused us passage on the trail, although yelling and waving our hiking poles finally convinced them of our position on the food chain relative to theirs. Then, 2.5 km from the car, someone caught up to us and informed me of not one, but two stupid mistakes regarding my car. A quick jog back, adding 5 km and 45 minutes to my day, remedied them, but also created another that I realized that night and worried about for the rest of the trip! Thankfully we made it to Weary Creek Gap without difficulty, set up the tent, then started up Mount McPhail shortly after 4 pm. Rated as an easy scramble and just 700 m higher than camp, I figured we'd be back down by 7 pm. Unfortunately, the mountain consisted of the worst scree of all 99 mountains I've previously scrambled, and that up high was absurdly loose. The entire scramble was one epic rubblefuck and we didn't make it back to camp until well after 8, dead tired and sore as heck.

The next day we set off up Mount Muir with clear skies and a pleasant breeze. With heavy packs it was slow going, but nearly the entire ascent was nothing more than an easy walk, the one exception being the final 100 m to the false summit where very easy scrambling was required. We left our packs at the false summit and dashed to the real summit a short distance to the east, then returned to the false summit, traversed a bit further south along a ridge, and started our descent. The one report I had on this descent mentioned "lovely brown descent scree", but this had all washed away and formed a huge gully, presumably in the 2013 floods. Bits of good scree remained, but overall it was a tedious descent. (NOTE: Be sure you are descending at the correct point or you'll get seriously cliffed out!). After a very necessary lunch break in the meadows below we continued our descent, contouring around Mount Strachan to reach Carnarvon Lake. This section was incredibly tedious and involved horrendous bushwhacking, but better routefinding would probably have made it easier. As the campsites in the trees at the head of the lake were taken, we set up camp on grassy flats at the east end of the lake instead. A steady strong breeze kept the heat at bay here, but it got quite tiring when it didn't even let up during the night.

The next day, tired of the wind and rubble we'd been dealing with for two days, we decided to cut our trip short and avoid scrambling Mount MacLaren, opting instead to scramble Mount Strachan then pack up and head out. We started up Strachan in a moderate wind and forest fire smoke and were dismayed to find that what we thought would be an easy scramble was actually one big slope of small cliff bands and rubblefuck. We fought through, expending far more energy than we wanted to, and then headed back to camp, packed, and started our descent down the headwall.

And then things got really, really, epically bad. The headwall leading to Carnarvon Lake is about 3-4 stories high and has chains bolted to the rock to assist you. It's described as easy and "fun" in many reports and I'd seen dozens of photos of it and many people do it - even kids - but very, very careful assessment of the middle section revealed there was no way we were getting down. I mean no way. I've scrambled up 102 mountains and this was way, way, way beyond anything I would even consider doing. It is incredibly exposed and a fall would kill. I don't do that, chains or no chains. (So a word of caution: If you have a low or even moderate tolerance for exposure, forget about Carnarvon Lake). After careful and calm evaluation I returned to the top and informed Sandra just how screwed we were: We'd need to do the herculean and return the way we came. This would entail the terrible bushwhack back to the base of Muir, an ascent up the face of Muir that is actively discouraged in guidebooks due to the loose scree, followed by a long descent to Weary Creek Gap where we could camp for the night.

And so we set out. Thankfully the bushwhack to the meadows west of Mount Strachan went much better than on the way (we stayed a bit higher and I found bits of animal trail), and after one of many snack breaks we started the ascent up Mount Muir. We stayed to the right of the ascent slopes in an attempt to avoid the treadmill scree, but it was murderously steep and it took us an hour to ascend 300 m of rubble. The descent down to Weary Creek Gap was slower than expected, although following the trail through the trees down low was much easier in this direction, and by 4:30 we found ourselves by the tarn at the top of the headwall. We had planned to camp here for the night, but by this point had endured over 30 hours of continuous wind and so headed down the headwall to camp somewhere along the trail. We were also very eager to just get the heck out, and with only 14 km of gently downhill or level trail between us and the car we set into a death march to see how far we could make it. Amazingly, we managed 5 km/h and reached the Highwood River crossing - just 2.5 km from the car - by 7:30 pm! And it was blocked by those stupid aggressive cows again! This time they got out of the way, but not without one of the bulls actually pawing at the ground like in the movies. We reached the car with about an hour of daylight left after traveling 24 km, climbing 1400 m, and descending 1900 m that day, most with a heavy pack. We're tough, but intolerant of exposure!

Categories & Keywords
Category:Lifestyle and Recreation
Subcategory Detail:Hiking
Keywords:Carnarvon Lake, Kananaskis, McPhail Creek, Mount McPhail, Mount Muir, Mount Strachan, Weary Creek Gap, backpacking, hiking, scrambling