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Ascent of Mount Farnham on 2017-08-27

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Rob Woodall -- Trip Report or GPS Track
Date:Sunday, August 27, 2017
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Farnham
    Location:Canada-British Columbia
    Elevation:3389 m / 11122 ft

Ascent Trip Report

Useful Info:

Mount Farnham is not only a remote, difficult, and little-visited summit, it is also downright dangerous due to huge amounts of loose rock and steep slopes. I recommend a small party size (2 is best), wearing helmets at all times, and solid experience dealing with loose and broken talus/scree.

The Farnham Creek logging road provides relatively close access to the peak, and use trails and easy bushwhacking lead to the remote and forbidding Southwest Cirque, a moonscape of blocky talus with no good camping options. We found that climbing above the cirque floor involved difficult routefinding and nightmare rock, and we were stopped by sheer rotten cliffs at about 3400m that blocked all reasonable access to the final 100m to the summit.

Our Story:

On Saturday afternoon (August 26th) we left Invermere and took the Westside road north and then turned left on the Forster Creek Road, which eventually morphs into the Horsethief Creek Road. This is a well maintained, wide gravel road. At approximately Km marker 42, there was an unsigned fork—the left fork is the one to take for the Farnham Creek Road. We didn’t know that and went right to the Lake of the Hanging Glacier trailhead, and had to backtrack when we realized our error—my old BC Backcountry Map book was out of date.

The Farnham Creek road was in good shape and our rented RAV4 had no issues making it up to the flat area about 10 km from the fork where the creek from Farnham’s SW cirque came out. We had sketchy directions from Bivouac.com about a climber’s trail that started near here but could not find it by driving back and forth in the logical area. Eventually we parked at a wide spot in the road with logs and rocks (see GPS file waypoint) and set off into the “cut-block” (clear-cut) above to see if we could find it.

We hiked up a hundred meters or so to the top edge of the cut-block and there I went to climber’s right and Rob to climber’s left. I lucked out and found a clear footway, marked with red tape, heading uphill form the upper right corner of the cut-block. This was obviously our trail.

When we regrouped back at the car it was almost 7:30 PM, so we had no other option but to car camp and then start uphill at first light and do the peak as a day-hike. We were optimistic now that we had found the start of the trail, and the good road had already done most of the approach for us anyway.

On Sunday August 27th we started hiking at 6:20 AM and found the start of the trail I had located yesterday (although my GPS was not showing my track from yesterday). The trail was quite good, with logs across it cut somewhat recently. It ascended steeply and started to traverse right, but after only 100m of gain it came to a dirt slide area and a creek, were it pretty much disappeared. We crossed the creek and gave up trying to find the trail and instead bushwhacked uphill, mostly on a ridge between two creeks. It was pretty easy going in open forest, partly along an open rocky area north of the next creek over.

Soon we were in thinner trees and we broke out into the open alpine slopes, and these led uphill over mostly good talus and scree to a pronounced lip. Above that, the talus was huge jumbled blocks that led us northward into the SW Cirque, a hidden deep valley cradled by Mounts Farnham, Hammond, and Peter.

Our sketchy beta said that the “West Gully direct” was the “standard route” on Farnham, but it was very unclear where that was. Scree slopes led to a large, mostly-snowy shelf, and several steep and uninviting gullies led up from there. The alternate was to head up the gully to the Hammond-Farnham col—that looked much more straightforward and it was not hard to decide on that course.

There was hard icy snow in our gully, and we avoided it by staying to our left of it as we headed uphill. To avoid the snow and loose rock, we started climbing more solid black rock ribs on the left that paralleled the gully. But this soon lead to a dead end, and we realized that this black rock was horribly rotten. We didn’t want to downclimb the Class 4 stuff we just came up, so we started looking for a rappel station so we could retreat. But every rock horn we tried was rotten and untrustworthy, and we were in a precarious situation.

After some time we finally got our harnesses on, found a white rock horn that seemed solid, and rigged our rappel down to the floor of the gully. Rob went first and found the landing zone to be a steeply sloped hardpan slope leading to a scary drop-off, and he was able to guide me to the right place to get across it. We were back in the gully, but this misadventure has cost us an hour of time.

The floor of the gully was still gnarly, so next we tried climbing solid, smooth red rock on the right side. This worked much better, and we made good progress uphill on class 3/class 4 terrain. I didn’t see any places for protection or rappel anchors, though.

This good rock led us up above the Farnham-Hammond col and to a broad talus ridge, which we followed uphill, at first on solid rock fins and then on loose, annoying talus. This took us up to the summit block of Farnham, a sheer prow of fluted rock columns that blocked the final 100m to the summit. We were close and pleased with our progress.

Our description told us to traverse left around the summit block to find a gully to climb. So we set off, our left hands on the summit wall and our feet carefully negotiating very loose rock above a huge and scary drop-off below. The summit block was often overhanging above us. It was not long before we came to what was likely our gully—it was a big icy snowfield at our level, and turned into a very steep and narrow slot to get through the summit block. I knew right away that we were not equipped to climb it.

We studied the feature and looked for alternatives. We could have dropped a bit to go around the bottom of the snowfield, but beyond was just more cliffs. We had crampons but our boots were not good for front-pointing up an exposed icy slope, and we had no ice/snow protection. Even if dry the slot looked very iffy, given that virtually every rock on the mountain was loose. After a bit of debate we had no choice but to turn around.

We returned to the prow (where we had arrived at the summit block) and decided to explore to our right, where we might find the “central gully” normal route that could perhaps take us to the summit, or maybe to an easier route down. So we dropped some elevation and traversed the steep talus basin to the next rib, and then took another short traverse to where a very constricted slot split the summit cliffs.

Getting to the summit looked pretty hopeless from there, and it was now 2 PM, so we officially decided that the summit was not in the cards for us today. But we did head downhill in the basin to see if this “central gully” would work for descent. After getting some water from a snowmelt stream, we headed downhill—I took a bit of a tumble here when a rock I stepped on disintegrated, but fortunately did not travel far or suffer any major injuries.

The gully initially looked OK, but we had seen a huge rock spontaneously fall down into it with a huge racket a bit earlier. And once down a bit it looked like smooth, unprotectable rock with a waterfall running down it. And I was very nervous that it would leave us cliffed out—I was not 100% convinced that this was the right gully and there were no cairns or use trails. We soon decided to climb back up to the broad talus ridge and downclimb the way we came up.

This was OK at first—we traversed back across the basins to our upward route, and then climbed down towards the Farnham-Hammond col. But we did not want to downclimb the Class 4 red rock we had ascended, so we instead chose to cross a knife-edged snow cornice at the col to the other (Hammond) side of the col to re-enter the base of the gully. This was technically easy in our crampons, but nerve-wracking given the huge exposure to our right (north).

Once in the gully we tried to downclimb the center of it, but the rock was utterly crappy. I stepped off a giant refrigerator-sized block that went loose a second later, and shortly after Rob set off another one. Good thing we were the only people on the mountain this day. At this point we were mentally fatigued by our ordeal and were beginning to wonder if we would ever get off this peak alive—we just focused on each footstep, one by one, and on staying safe.

We soon left the base of the gully and retreated to the red rock we had climbed up, and we had better luck downclimbing that—it was stiff Class 3 for the most part but at least it was solid. We carefully made our way down, using butt-sliding, crab-walking, short jumps, and other techniques. We made progress and eventually came to an arm of the gully snowfield we had to cross. Putting on our crampons again made that easy, and once on the talus below we knew we were off the hard part of the mountain.

We then returned to the car by our upward route, mostly uneventfully. The small lake in the SW Cirque is in a deep crater, so we took a higher line to the blocky talus “dam” to avoid elevation loss. We also swung out to our right heading down from the lip to gain gentler ground. The last annoyance was the hardpan at the creek crossing just before the trail, were I slipped and got a bit dusty. We were back at the car at 8:20 PM.

Thoughts:

Farnham is certainly climbed, perhaps by one or two parties per year, but we are unclear what the best route through the summit cliffs is. Although we were there in late August in a summer with record-setting forest fires, it is possible that in some years there is no ice or snow in the summit gullies and that might make things easier. From what we saw, the rock was so rotten that protection and anchors would be very difficult, and the gullies looked very exposed and steep. We easily climbed YDS 5.5-rated Assiniboine shortly after this trip with no ropes or pro on the way up, so this peak definitely looked much harder than that.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:1998 m / 6561 ft
    Elevation Loss:1998 m / 6561 ft
    Distance:14.8 km / 9.2 mi
    Grade/Class:Class 4+
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Unmaintained Trail, Bushwhack, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Ski Poles
    Weather:Pleasant, Breezy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:1859 m / 6102 ft
    Extra Loss:139 m / 459 ft
    Distance:6.8 km / 4.2 mi
    Route:SW Cirque, Hammond Col
    Trailhead:Farnham Ck Rd  1669 m / 5479 ft
    Time Up:7 Hours 
Descent Statistics
    Elevation Loss:1859 m / 6102 ft
    Extra Gain:139 m / 459 ft
    Distance:8 km / 5 mi
    Route:SW Cirque, Hammond Col
    Trailhead:Farnham Ck Rd  1669 m / 5479 ft
    Time Down:7 Hours 
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
Click Here for a Full Screen Map
Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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