April 25-26 2015.
Participants: Caroline, Line, Jen, Isabel, Alex, Veronika, Erica, Anne, Caitlin, Breanne and Geneviève.
Ever since I moved to Vancouver, I have been dreaming of getting into backcountry skiing: combine downhill with nordic skiing and backpacking, three things that I love to do, and the amount of awesomeness can only be tripled, to the minimum. I had never been on an overnight backcountry ski trip before, but all stars aligned when April brought fresh layers of snow and I saw Caroline’s women-only ski traverse trip posted. Two days hanging out in the backcountry, surrounded only by gorgeous mountains and like-minded women, no boys (and for some of us, it also meant no babies), enjoying the fresh new snow and indulging in chocolate and Baileys? The idea was irresistible.
The original plan was to do the Callaghan to Brandywine traverse (or vice-versa), via the Powder mountain ice cap. However, early the week before the trip, weather forecast looked pretty ugly in the sea-to-sky, and it was decided that it would be safer to prepare for an alternate route at the pre-trip meeting, somewhere more inland where weather was looking more promising. Among the numerous ideas that flowed, Line’s idea of the Owl-Tenquille traverse near Pemberton got everyone excited about exploring a new area. But as we were getting ready for this new route, gathering GPS tracks and topo maps, the weather forecast started to look better and better, seemingly every hour, and there was no longer any reason to depart from our initial plan. There was a lot of suspense about the final destination as everyone was equally charmed by both the initial and the new destinations, and it seemed like none of us wanted to be the one to break the tie votes. But after a fair amount of email faff and Google spreadsheet editing, it was finally decided on Thursday night that we would go back to the original plan and tackle the Powder cap traverse, starting from Brandywine meadows.
Waking up early in the morning is never easy, but for me that day was an exception. Excitement, with a little nervosity mixed in, made it difficult to close my eyes, and I woke up a couple of times before my alarm rang. That is to say, I could barely handle my level of stoke, and that level got even higher as we drove along the winding Sea-to-Sky highway and I noticed all that white dusting on the mountaintops that wasn’t there just a few weeks ago. I couldn’t wait to get into my ski boots and start skiing!
The 3 car groups met at the old Timmy’s in Squamish. As we fueled up on coffee and breakfast sandwiches, we reviewed the route and sorted out the car shuttle from Callaghan. Luckily, there was no significant hiking in ski boots needed at the beginning as Line’s truck was able to carry all the ski gear and tough it out all the way to the upper trailhead despite the deep water bars and the steep road. We could start skinning right away from there. As somewhat expected, when we arrived the parking was filled with huge trucks hauling equally huge trailers carrying snowmobiles (which were also huge), and making a terrible amount of noise. At first it was intimidating, but somehow I felt more badass than them as I walked by carrying my skis, ice axe and big backpack. We were going to traverse these mountains and glaciers with our own leg power only!
We reached the Brandywine meadows in almost no time. The valley was filled with snow and bathing in sunshine. There were dark grey clouds rolling by, and the contrast with the glowing snow was mesmerizing. After an easy creek crossing, we started skinning up to reach the left ridge of Brandywine mountain. With the direct sun and all the snow reflection, it started to get hot, very hot, and I’d say our elevation gain progress was proportional to the number of clothing layers dropped…
When we reached the ridge, we were rewarded with glorious mountain views and a crisp, glacial breeze that felt incredibly good on the skin. Pure alpine bliss.
From there, we would mostly ski sidehill across the slopes, following more ridges towards the Powdercap. That was when I realized that skiing with an overnight pack was definitely not as trivial as I had naively thought. I lost balance a few times, but fortunately the snow was deep and heavy and would stop me from sliding farther downhill almost instantly.
There was one part where the ridge became very narrow for a few dozens of meters, with a big, impressive cornice on the right and a long, very steep slope on the left. Caroline was leading and breaking trail for the group. She swiftly skied across, at a safe distance right of the cornice, followed all the same swiftly by Anne. Looking at them crossing it with so much ease, it seemed straightforward, but as I got closer, I started getting nervous. And then I realized I was not moving anymore. I looked behind and the other girls had stopped to look at the map. For a second I hoped they had found an alternate route. But maps don’t lie and this was the best option. I saw Isabel smile at me and point with her pole, encouraging me to go ahead. Alright, I can do this! Focusing on moving slowly one limb at a time, I reached the other side before I even realized it, feeling epic.
After that we took off the skins for the first time. We had to ski down a small bowl filled with deep and heavy snow, which I would best compare to vanilla cupcake frosting (to keep things girly). It was not steep, but I had never skied in that kind of deep wet snow. I made my way down clumsily and I was almost at the bottom of the run when I hear a snowmobile approaching. By the time I realized it was coming very fast behind me, I barely had the time to turn and stop on the side to let it pass, hoping the guy would not decide to pass me on the same side, knocking me off. He then proceeded to make drifts in front of us. Perhaps he was trying to make an impression, but none of us was impressed, to say the very least.
Later, we had a quick lunch on top of a small hill, which had sweet views. As we were preparing to continue, Line walked a few meters away from the group to pee. Now, I hear you say: “ You know, trip reports don’t need to be that much detailed…”, but the funny thing is that, as she was in the middle of business, naked bum facing the slope below, we hear the roar of a snowmobile going up that same slope. It was too late of a warning and the snowmobiler’s confused look as he reached the top, facing Line’s derriere, was hilarious.
The rest of the day was mostly downhill skiing. We went 2-by-2 at a time, watching over each other at the end of each section of the route.
At this point, my boots were torturing my feet. What felt like a comfortable, tight-enough fit at the MEC store turned out to be cruelly too short and narrow around the toes after several hours of skinning. I guess boot fitting is somewhat like relationships: you can’t really tell if it’s going to work unless the boots and your feet have spent a considerable amount of time being intimate. Fortunately, we just had another small uphill section to travel to get on top of the ice cap where we would set up camp. I later found out when I removed my boots that my toes had swollen and there were large 4 cm-wide blisters behind each heel, ripped open. Ouch.
Our camp spot couldn’t have been more amazing. We were surrounded by the towering Mt Cayley and Pyroclastic peak, and in the distance, we could see the alpenglow reflect on Mt Fee and the surrounding peaks. It was a stunning spectacle.
In the evening, plenty of chocolate, alcohol and laughs were shared. I had brought a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates to share, but perhaps I should have thought this through because the cold soon turned them solid like a… rocher.
The sky was clear that night and we could even distinguish the Milky Way. I would have spent the whole night hanging out and staring at that sky if the cold and fatigue didn’t get the best of me. Before falling asleep, I realized how incredibly cool it is that I’m spending my Saturday night camping on an icefield at the foot of a stratovolcano… Never thought before I would someday spend my weekends like this! I guess this is how British Columbia spoils you for life.
I was woke up by the sun rays beaming on the walls of the tent and it made me happy to think there was another sunny day ahead. I told myself “just another 5 minutes of sleep and then I get up”, but I don’t know how much time stretched during that 5 minutes because when I got outside, the sun had completely disappeared and we were now in a whiteout. It was cold and windy so we finished breakfast and packed out camp promptly. Seeing Erica taking care of the hot spots on her feet reminded me I had to do something about mine. I joined her, and without asking for anything, Erica, Anne and Jen made me lay on my back, lift my feet in the air and put the most advanced blister bandages I ever saw. Thanks to this (and drugs), I almost didn’t feel any blister pain for the rest of the trip! I was so well taken care of, it left me without words.
We were now alone on the icefield and the only sign of snowmobiles was their frozen tracks from the previous day. It was such a drastic contrast from yesterday: silence, solitude and huge white clouds swallowing us. Visibility was poor at moments (we couldn’t even see Mt Cayley), but with so much experience, route finding skills and leadership in the group, we didn’t have any trouble making our way up Powder Mountain, and everything went smoothly.
The snow was breakable crust, but we followed the snowmobile tracks for most of the ascent, which saved us some energy. When we reached the very broad, flat, not-pointy-at-all summit of Powder mountain, we saw a bunch a mysterious wood boxes and other stuff wrapped in blue tarps dispersed around. At about the same time, a big cloud engulfed us and we couldn’t see any surrounding peak. One of the mysterious boxes was very large, and we took shelter at its base for a short break. The atmosphere was somewhat eerie. It all seemed like a strange dream. It reminded me of the TV show Lost: it was like if we had just landed on a mysterious island and some crazy weird stuff was about to happen.
With the body not moving anymore and the absence of sunshine, it started to feel cold. We didn’t lounge around for too long. Erica distributed another dose of chocolate to everyone, spirits were lifted and we prepared to ski down the mountain.
I had never skied on breakable crust and the experience was quite interesting. There were different strategies adopted. Some of us would make wide zigzags, stop sharply and turn the skis one-by-one to change direction. Others would just link beautiful tele-turns with the grace of a swan, like the breakable crust wasn’t even an issue! For a moment I tried to make regular turns, but was rewarded with my first faceplant on crusty snow. A good thing about backcountry skiing is that you have the whole slope for yourself, and you can make ridiculously wide turns without feeling judged like you would inbound and still be a cool kid. So I opted for that. The whole descent was actually much more fun than expected at first!
The next part of the route was almost flat and very straightforward. We had to traverse along the middle of the ice cap to reach Banner pass and then again, there were snowmobile tracks to follow. On this part of the terrain, you realize how immense the ice cap is and how small you are. The clouds were still low and everything around us was white and shades of grey. The only sounds were from the wind and the friction of the skins against the icy tracks.
When we got to Banner pass, clouds cleared up for a moment so we could see Mt Callaghan and its surrounding mountains and we seized the opportunity to take a group photo before skiing down the Solitude glacier. This ski run was my favourite part of the trip! Somehow, I had magically found back my balance, my pack was now just like another part of my body and I was no longer bothered by it. The snow just had a very thin crust on the upper part of the glacier and the lower part had none at all. For safety, we again paired up and skied down by groups of 2. The skiing down the glacier was pure type-1 fun to the point that when I reached the end of the run, I immediately wished I could climb back up and ski it down again. It was awesome!
After a quick lunch, some brief but exciting tree skiing and a creek crossing, we reached the Solitude loop cross-country trail that led us to the Callaghan Country lodge, which was then deserted. The trails were now unmaintained, and we didn’t see another soul until we got to the cars. It was fun to have the trails for ourselves and be able to ski at high speed without worrying about knocking off someone coming in the opposite direction. We followed the Wild Spirit trail back to the Alexander Falls parking and there was enough snow to ski until the 7 km mark.
We had to hike in ski boots the rest of the trail. It was quite a slog but with the great company and mutual encouragements, it wasn’t too bad. At that time, the only thing I wanted in the world was the opposite of Saturday morning: I could not wait to remove those ski boots! I felt like I had a wrench clenching on each of my toes and for the last couple of kilometers, I definitely had to focus all my thoughts and energy on reaching the next km mark. I wasn’t walking very fast but Jen stayed with me behind. As we got closer, we saw a heart drawn in the gravel with ski poles. And when we finally reached the parking gate, we were welcomed with high fives by the others. Walking over that gate felt really great.
The drive back to Vancouver was not uneventful: we saw no less than 3 bears and a deer along the road towards Squamish! Perfect ending to a perfect trip.
When I woke up the next day, with swollen feet, stiff legs, red eyes, and the face so tan I barely recognized myself in the mirror. But all I could think about is how awesome ski traverses are and how excited I am about the next one. It was a wonderful trip with a group of rad mountain women and I can’t wait for more trips like this!
Day 1: Distance: 9km, elevation: +1230m, -713m
Day 2: Distance: 27.8km, elevation: +1120m, -2220m