A Wedge-Currie Traverse: from Blackcomb to Pemberton by ski (Feb 3-5)

The moon is full, casting shadows across the frozen, snowmobile tracked Green river road. I skin along, my skis scraping whenever they cross over ice chunks separating car tracks from snowmobile tracks. It’s 2:00am and my mind is on repeat, bouncing between how much my hipbones hurt where my pack is rubbing, the raw spots on my heels every time I lift my feet, and the unsettling rhythm of skinning along flat ground with only one pole. Sam would later give me his two poles to speed our progress, but for now I stomped out an irregular rhythm. My stomach grumbles and my mouth is dry but I don’t drink the half frozen water dangling from a carabiner at my waist. I turn back to glance at a small wooden sign protruding from a tree: 5km UP it says, in FSR lingo. I must think about something to get through these last five km. Good things…..I’m working on the farm in Pemberton. The sun is hot but I’m harvesting strawberries and they are oh so juicy and good. Man, it would be nice to have a big fat juicy strawberry right now. Big, fat, and ridiculously juicy. Fat and juicy.

No! Think about something good but not something juicy.

…..I’m a kid at my Granny’s old house hanging out in the orchard. The grass is so green and my bare feet are in it and I am stomping on the mole hills. I reach up and grab a big fat apple from a branch. It is so laden with fruit that I am doing the tree a favour. Such a big fat juicy apple all red and green. So juicy and fat and good….

No! Think about things that aren’t juicy damn it.

My thoughts go on like this and so do my legs. Somehow.

This is all a result of a perfect weekend. Perfect weather. Perfect mountains. Perfect company. But the laws of perfection dictate that perfection is not continuous. And so Sam and I skin along quite comfortable in the knowledge that this is a small but necessary price to pay for an amazing 3 day traverse through an area that we have both wanted to explore for a long time.

Friday morning dawned sunny and bright in Pemberton. An ideal morning to fill up on blueberry smoothie at Sam’s place, where I had stayed for the night before, and head off to Whistler. Of course, nothing is quite that simple. Even catching a bus. And Sam and I soon found ourselves running down the road after it, gear flapping behind us. Heading out the door we did the regular check: skis, skins, boots, poles? Yes we had everything. Neither of us thought to question the less obvious stove.

As I filled out a trip plan at guest services in Whistler, I hastily circled the gear I had stashed in my pack. Shovel, probe, beacon, skins? Check. The lady asked to see my skins. As if a lack of skins might be my demise.

“Is the stove for emergency use or are you going to cook on it?” she asked.

I looked at her sideways wondering if it wasn’t allowed to cook in the Whistler backcountry or something. Airing on the side of honesty I answered that I was going for four days so yes, cooking of foodage was likely going to happen. She immediately took more of an interest and wished me a great trip. Funny, I thought, that she didn’t want to see my stove and fuel.

Off we went soaring up Blackcomb in the gondola. I felt utterly ridiculous with all of my backcountry gear sitting in a gondola. But I was certainly ok with watching the elevation fall away behind me through the frosted windows. Joining the early morning crowds accessing the backcountry from the top was another foreign experience, but I held onto the thought that we would soon be leaving them far behind. We gained the Blackcomb-Spearhead col. Kicking the trip off by standing on the summit of Spearhead, we watched skiers trickle down onto the Decker glacier. Stopping near the top of the glacier ourselves, Sam took some time to teach me how to rescue him were he to fall into a crevasse at any point. This I thought smart, because although I had some theoretical knowledge, theory is no substitute for experience and we soon had the rope out and an imaginary crevasse on hand.

Skinning down the Decker drainage, we watched loose, wet avalanches run down the sunny SW side of Wedge mountain ahead of us. From such a distance their slow motion flow was barely discernable, but one by one the plumes flowed downwards as Wedge sat there and baked in the sun. Following lynx tracks along the valley bottom, we descended into Wedge pass, dodging tree bombs and getting thoroughly rained on by the melting snow covered canopy heated by the sun.

Looking SW back up Decker drainage the way we had come. Photographer: Breanne Johnson

Working our way up Wedge creek we searched for Billygoat lake, stopping briefly only to wax our skins against the sticky snow. The shadow of the Spearhead range soon crept up behind us though, and we raced it up the mountainside from Wedge pass towards Weart glacier. Sundown finally caught up with us just as we reached treeline, and we opted to stop for “fake dinner #1” as we nibbled chocolate and trail mix surrounded by pink and orange glowing mountain peaks in the setting sun.The moon was nearly full and hovered just over our heads, so we continued skinning upwards beneath its light which outdid any headlamp. We eventually gained the col just east of Lesser Wedge at 8:00pm. Summoning the last of our energy for the day, we reached the flathigh pointof Weart glacier, looking forward to a warm meal and hot tea.

Sunset over the Spearhead range from treeline beneath lesser Wedge. Photographer: Breanne Johnson

From left to right: Peggy peak, Fingerpost ridge, Mount James Turner. From the approach to Weart glacier. Photographer: Breanne Johnson

Breanne. Photographer: Sam McKoy

Beginning to unpack the stove, I asked Sam where the fuel was. He looked at me distrustfully as if I was playing a joke on him.

“Where is the fuel?” I repeated.

“You don’t have the fuel?” he asked, still disinclined to believe that I was being serious.

“No”

“Ok, what can we do about this?” We both sat down in the snow as the implications of our miscommunication sank in.

Both too stubborn to turn around, we came up with a makeshift plan to melt snow in our nalgene bottles overnight, and stop on a rocky outcropping the next day for a few hours to melt water using the mid day sun. I had dark dry bags, ziplocks that might act like little greenhouses, a giant orange garbage bag, and a few veggies with water content. Sam had a black water bladder, the reflective metallic parts to his stove, and the ability to do just fine on about half as much water as me. Along with our creativity, this would likely be enough to work with. We also planned to cut all of the summits we had planned down to only mount Currie, in order to avoid dehydrating ourselves, and cut the trip down to three days instead of four in order to use the extra lunch as a dinner.

Night number one can only be described as ridiculous. We crawled into the tent thirsty and hungry and nibbled at the contents of our food bags like restless hibernating squirrels. This we dubbed “fake dinner number two.” Our stomachs grumbled but we were reluctant to eat much more than a pepperoni stick, a few snow peas, and a handful of trail mix since it would only make us more thirsty. Every few hours we unzipped the tent and grabbed some snowballs which Sam had pre-formed to fit into our nalgenes, take a few sips of water, a few bites of trail mix, laugh at how ridiculous the entire situation was, and snuggle back in with our ice cold nalgene friends right against our skin beneath our down jackets. It is incredible how having cold nalgenes surrounding you can effectively take all the joy out of spooning. We cursed the high specific heat capacity of water as it sucked all our warmth out of us only to turn out about 300ml of liquid on my part and 1200ml on Sam’s part, by the morning.

This, I promptly downed as we nibbled dry granola and watched the sun light up the surrounding mountains and expanse of snow. Despite our slight thirst, it was going to be an amazing day. Coming to the conclusion that nothing can be perfect, we settled on the fact that we had to forget the fuel in order not to break the non-continuous perfection laws of the universe. And this, we were ok with.

Lesser Wedge and Wedge mountain from the east. Photographer: Breanne Johnson

Skiing north down Weart glacier was glorious, and we even got a few nice turns in before ascending to the col north of mount Moe.

Turns descending north on the Weart glacier. Photographer: Sam McKoy

Skinning upwards popping snow chunks into my mouth, I was surprised at how significantly even minor dehydration can slow you down. Stopping on a South facing rocky outcropping, we settled in for some snow melting fun. We spread the garbage bags out and sprinkled a thin layer of snow over them with dark rocks on top, filled ziplocks with snow and dark pebbles, set the pots up with the stove reflectors directing sunlight into them, filled dark dry bags with snow, and put our nalgenes on Sam’s black jacket. We soon found that the rock itself was the most effective at melting snow. A tiny pool that could hold about as much as a cupped hand had filled up naturally from meltwater trickling off the rocks above. By sprinkling snow onto the warm rocks above, we could increase the rate at which the puddle re-filled. We took turns sitting next to it and slurping up the water every time it filled. Finally, we were so full of water we could barely move, but we kept drinking it since we couldn’t bear the thought of letting such precious liquid just run down off the rocks and get sucked up by the snow.

Melting water, with Eureka mountain and Weart glacier in the background. Photographer: Sam McKoy

Drinking the water from melting snow pooling in the rocks. Photographer: Sam McKoy

 

Sam melting water using stove reflectors, garbage bag, and dark pebbles. Photographer: Breanne Johnson

methods that we came up with to produce water to drink. Forgetting the fuel turned out to be quite the adventure. Photographer: Breanne Johnson

Sam contemplating mount Moe while waiting for the sun to melt our snow. Photographer: Breanne Johnson

Having rehydrated and filled all of our water carrying implements to capacity, we could move fast once again, and we were soon on the ridge west of Ure peak. This ridge was corniced all the way along, and very steep with exposed rock on the east section, making it difficult to find a way down onto the Mystery glacier. We ended up descending on its less steep, uncorniced western portion. Camping at 1900m below the glacier, instead of regaining the regular route up onto Hibachi ridge, we were able to collect enough dry branches off the stunted subalpine trees to start a small fire. Sam had the brilliant idea of starting it on top of a young tree itself, which allowed it to burn better than it would have directly on top of the snow. Wood was scarce and didn’t burn easily so the next hour or so was spent scrambling about trying to keep a flame going while juggling the pot over the hottest parts of the smouldering branches, inhaling smoke, and dodging sparks in our down jackets. I threw some couscous and soup into a pot of semi warmed water containing drifting pieces of soot and half charred pine needles and concocted one of the simplest most delicious warm meals I have ever eaten. Its tastyness due entirely, of course, to the situation. Entrée numero deux was a bit more difficult since we had used up the prime fuel in the vicinity, but we did manage to heat another pot and enjoyed mashed potatoes with an exorbitant amount of butter and half cooked peas. Having spent the past hour with 100% of our attention directed on that fire, we took some time to enjoy the view down mystery creek and of the mist shrouded Soo river valley in the bright moonlight.

Before descending onto Mystery glacier. The south face of Mount Currie from the ridge west of Ure peak. Photographer: Breanne Johnson

On day three we awoke set to summit mount Currie. It was again clear and calm and we couldn’t believe our luck with the amazing weather. We contoured the western shoulder of Hibachi ridge, our skis rattling over the huge balls of concrete avalanche debris snow on the avalanche paths we crossed. Coming across a hole in the snow covering mystery creek, we utilized yet another water obtaining trick. Climbing down the trunk of a tree which had perhaps kept the hole open, I used a pole and carabiners to reach the water and refill our water bottles. Then clambered back up the tree.

Stocking up on water from a stream far below. Photographer: Sam McKoy

Skinning up and out of the trees we worked our way up towards its south facing slopes. Removing our skis, we boot packed the last steep portion. The snow, becoming rotten and unpredictable near the top, had us floundering until we realized that the easiest solution was to crawl on top, distributing weight between knees, feet, hands, and ice axe. We reached the summit and stood blasted by the wind looking out over all the familiar areas surrounding us where we liked to go and many areas we still wanted to explore. We could see the Joffre group to the East,Birkenheadto the north, Pemberton valley and ice field to the North and West, Tantalus range to the Southwest, and the rugged peaks of Garibaldi park to the south. The view was nothing short of incredible, and it meant all the more to Sam and I who had both spent a lot of time staring up at Mount Currie and wondering what it would be like to stand on top.

Approaching the summit of Mount Currie. Photographer: Sam McKoy

Looking east from the summit of Mount Currie. The snow was trampled down by heli skiers. Photographer: Breanne Johnson

Pemberton valley under fog. Photographer: Breanne Johnson

Deciding it was too late in the day to attempt the W or NW summits, we skied the glacier down into Gravell creek. This would be an amazing 1000m run in good snow conditions. We followed heli ski tracks down to the valley bottom, through wind slab interspersed with old avalanche debris, and a few sections of nice powder lower down. Having lunch at the bottom, we expected the exit down Gravell creek to take only a few hours. Little did we know, we would be skiing into the wee hours of the wee moonlit morning, through wee spaces between not so wee trees in a very un-wee overgrown clearcut.

Reaching the clearcut was not so difficult. A steep section along Gravell creek sent me tumbling and claimed my pole permanently, as it tumbled out of sight through the trees on a slope I didn’t want to go hunting about on. Luckily a tree stopped my tumble and I didn’t follow the pole down. I felt completely naked without a pole, so I took revenge on the alder bushes in the next slide area and snapped off a branch. Turning it upside down, I had a functional pole, using the branching end as a sort of basket.

Crossing a tributary of Gravell creek into the clearcut, we found ourselves struggling through dense, young second growth forest, on a very steep slope. At the time, we thought this was steep and dense, so decided to head up to the top of the clearcut with the hope that there was an unmarked road there that they had used to haul the logs out. I was disinclined to follow this blind faith logic, but was swayed by the fact that it was indeed much easier to head uphill through this steep jungle than it was to head down. And so we started up. By this time it was dark, so we side stepped, slipped, hauled ourselves upwards using tree branches, and clung to everything we could reach to get to the top of that clearcut and the gap in the trees that suggested a road. We arrived at the top an hour or so later, maybe two. At this point time kind of lost all significance to me. We were fairly demoralized to find there was no road. I got my peanut butter out and focussed my thoughts on how delicious it was. Then my hit-the-wall emergency supply of chocolate. And life was ok again. But it was still virtually impossible to go downhill. The trees were so tight and bushy they were touching each other, the logging debris between them hid huge holes between uprooted stumps and piles of logs. Plus it was basically vertical where we were now. We tried to contour to meet up with a logging road that we knew would be at our current elevation further around the mountainside, but began descending into a steep gully that looked like it might have a stream at the bottom of it. At this point we had our skis off and were kicking steps into the slope, which was almost parallel to the tree trunks. We considered rappelling, but knew that going down into something like that would only mean bad news. We had to conquer the clearcut and get back down to Gravell creek. There was no way around it. We started heading back down in the general direction we had come up, but the only way to move through that hellish clearcut was to side step/slip, hanging over logs and jumping, putting your entire faith in the fact that there would be something to grab onto underneath. We juggled our poles from hand to hand, so that we always had one to grab onto a branch and swing downwards on. I got into a rhythm of grab, swing, crash, scuttle, haul myself out of a hole, untangle skis, kick turn….grab, swing, and so on. Often we couldn’t even see our skis, never mind what they were tangled in, because the headlamp would light up all of the branches in front of your face and hide everything below in darkness. We were in that clearcut for 6 hours before Sam somehow managed to lead us straight to the end of the logging road sometime a bit past midnight. It was late and we were utterly exhausted, but that logging road was so clear of brush and beautifully flat that I could have skied another 6 hours on it if we needed to. But we were down to theGreen riverroad in no time, and skinning the last 6km towards Pemberton in the early hours of the morning. Finally rounding a corner to see Gypsy the dog running up to greet us with a wet nose and Sam’s dad waiting with the car. It was probably one of the most incredible sights of the entire trip, but I was too dead tired to truly appreciate it in the moment. I just sat in the back and felt the utter satisfaction of the past three days sink in. And contemplated juicy apples and strawberries.

Fighting our way up the clearcut sometime late at night. Photographer: Sam McKoy

Evidently I had been quite thoroughly worn out from our previous day’s 18 hours of traverse, since I woke up at Sam’s place just past noon the next day. Sam on the other hand had been up for hours and was probably ready to head right back out on another adventure.

(More photos here http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/sets/72157629210537263/with/6833824675/ )

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