The week started out as usual, with a lengthy e-mail faff of a bunch of VOC’ers keen to get out skiing for the upcoming weekend. By Wednesday, the forecast had improved to the perfect conditions: low avalanche danger, firm compact snow, bluebird skies, and no wind. This is the only case where one would even pretend to consider climbing the mountain we all gawk at and fantasize about. Atwell. It dawned on me that this was the opportunity to climb one of the most aesthetic peaks around. By the time I’d messaged Skyler Des Roches, he’d already had the same thought and assembled a team to climb the East Face.
Without abiding to getting a rope-gun etiquette, I messaged Piotr Fiorysinski and Charlie Beard, and immediately, I had my own team assembled. After a bunch of people shuffling, weather scares, and reconsideration, up to the point of getting over the Lions Gate bridge, it was determined that Piotr and I would stay a third day to climb Dalton Dome and Garibaldi, while Charlie would escape on Sunday with the other team after our own Atwell attempt.
The skin up to camp on the Diamond Glacier went off without a hitch. We enjoyed lunch at Elfin, ripped some turns down from the Gargoyles-Columnar col, and got some adrenaline pumping skiing along the top of the knife edge ridge between Little Diamond Head and Atwell. All the while drooling at our imposing objective.
With a dark and early alpine start of 4:00, we were on our way up the headwall to the Garibaldi-Atwell col and to the start of our intended North Ridge route. We would coordinate Charlie’s descent via radio contact between our team “Charlie Foxtrot” (as in Clusterfuck), Skyler’s team “Photoslut” (backpack models), and Phil Tomlinson’s team “Made It Past Elfin” (who were attempting Garibaldi at the same time).
Right from the start of the actual route, our hopes were a bit hampered by nipple-deep light powder we had to literally swim through making the ascent horridly slow. We fought our way up, but just before where the East Ridge joins up to our route, the slope became a little bit steeper, and the snow a little bit more hollow, and everything a little bit more sketchy. We decided that we couldn’t afford to push on and waste a lot of time dicking around on the notorious summit pinnacle, to then backtrack over the big slope which would by then receive a lot of sun exposure. As we descended, we saw team Photoslut going down the East Ridge, which would give us both tracks and an alternate escape route, but it was too late at this point. Ultimately mountaineering is about making good decisions, and I believe we made the correct call.
Sending Charlie off with the Garibaldi-turned-Dalton Dome-team, it was only 11:30, meaning me and Piotr had the rest of the day to play in some gorgeous terrain. We bootpacked up Dalton Dome and were stunned by the 360 views, eyeing future destinations in the distance. We then traversed over to the couloir up the West face of Garibaldi to attempt o finish the route that Knut Kitching had just tried to climb. Having more time and more gear, Piotr managed to lead the 60 meter pitch. Not wanting to climb the thing with our skis and packs, we figured we would find a way to come back down the same way once we had the inspiration of being at the summit that’s been at the top of my climbing list for so long.
Taking some more photos and regretting the absence of our skis seeing the perfect tracks down the Northeast face, we dug a big snow bollard to rappel off of. Having only a single 60 meter rope, we would have to build an anchor half way down for a second rappel. Both getting into the couloir and hanging off of a questionable piton and rock nubbin, we failed to pull the rope. No matter how hard we’d tug, it would not budge. Piotr thus monkeyed back up the rope on a prussik and abandoned all of his rap-tat to rescue the rope. Down at the bottom after the second 30 meter rappel, I’d tried to recover the bit of cordellete by flicking the rope only to result in slapping myself twice in the face and slipping and bashing my knee on the only rock in the snow I was standing on.
On our way back to camp, having some daylight left, we were briefly inspired to go climb the Tent. As we started towards it, we realized that the only reason we were going for it was to toss it into our weekend bag of summits, and not to honestly have fun. We therefore abandoned the idea and went back to camp to get a better rest before the next day.
Along the way I snapped a few photos of Photoslut’s ski descent of the Northeast face of Atwell, which would prove critical the next day. As we neared camp, the East face proved to have avalanched all over the place, destroying the tracks we were hoping to follow the next day, making an attempt look unfavourable, but once at camp, we found a note from Skyler highly recommending the Central Couloir they had climbed, once again giving us motivation.
Starting out on our second alpine start, the weather was just as perfect as the days before. We trudged happily up the 50 degree snow face in the dark, but as we got higher and the sun came out, the seriousness of the climb set in as well. There are no mistakes to be made here. You make a mistake, you slip, you die. This caused us to dig a platform, build and anchor, and pull out the rope. From here on we would simul-climb with Piotr leading and placing whatever protection he could find and me seconding and cleaning.
Realistically, the protection we placed was mostly psychological. The pickets were garbage, the pitons were shaky, and the single ice screw went in only a few cm and had to be tied off. They held body weight, and maybe a small fall, but probably would mostly pull and leave us a precariously hanging bloody mess. Though it did allow me to feel more comfortable and climb with more confidence, it took a lot of time, and might have been better to just climb quicker.
Seconding also provided me with a whack of entertainment dodging and/or taking chunks of ice and rock off the helmet, hands, arms, and legs. When even the tiniest piece hurt like none-other (especially getting one directly on the nose), you can really feel your anus shrink when you see a larger chunker tumbling towards you. I minimized the damage by hugging the slope as closely as possibly, trying my hardest to hide all of me under my helmet. I would carefully look up to get out of the way of the bigger ones coming at me and would cringe each time one would flutter just centimeters away from my ear. The 60 meters is enough to get these things going super fast, and with everything funneling right at me being in a couloir, this was a fast paced game with no escape.
As we neared the sub-summit, we became enveloped in clouds. We would get an occasional beautiful glimpse of Mamquam mountain peeking out of a sea of white, but this didn’t change the fact that a bit of a situation was developing. Our perfect conditions were no more. We considered going down immediately, but given our proximity and elusiveness of the summit pinnacle, we decided that half an hour wouldn’t make a big difference since we were already in a whiteout. Luckily, the other team’s tracks along the summit and East ridges were still there for us to follow down. Otherwise we would have been boned.
Aside: this might have been a bad decision.. I’ve since been wondering how does one decide whether you should escape as fast as possible before the weather gets worse and shit really hits the fan, or if you can wait it out or bivy in hopes that conditions get better? The weather did clear up by nightfall, but that would have been a really long time and clear darkness is only a marginal improvement and turned horrible again the next day. Also, a stark realization of how self-reliant we were. Completely on our own. If something did happen and one of us got injured, no one was coming to help us. No SPOT, SAR, or VOC could save us then.
Back to the story: still rope-gunning, Piotr made quick work up the summit pinnacle, again placing as much questionable protection as he could. He claims some of it was fairly decent, but regardless, he slung the top of the mountain and got lowered down, cleaning most of the route. I then basically top-roped to the summit, stuck a couple of poses, and removed the rest of the backup gear on my way down. Kudos to Skyler for digging out the awesome trench through the rime that is blasted onto the pinnacle. Being just a choss pile, the true summit is rarely climbed, and is impossible without the right amount and the right consistency of snow. Pics or it didn’t happen? Well we tried to take some, but the camera would only pick up a faint silhouette of the overjoyed fellow mountaineer.
Successfully completing or secondary objective, we were on to our first. Getting off the mountain and surviving to tell the tale. Retracing the steps of the others before us, we regretted not being able to see anything, but were briefly happy not seeing the huge exposure of the route. That is until we came to the place where Skyler, Colin, and Fix skied from.
We could not see anything. The inside of a ping-pong ball doesn’t even begin to understand what white means. We imagined the face was steep, but for all we knew, it could have been going uphill, been vertical, or not been there at all. I tried to pole whack the cornice above the slope, but missed miserably as it turned out to be a foot closer to me than I expected. We were indeed in a bit of a pickle that would put any gong-show to shame.
After much discussion as to what to do, we decided to rappel a pitch onto the slope to get a better feel for its angle and snow stability. We built a bollard and backed it up with a picket. Piotr rappelled first, the bollard looked fine. I pulled the picket and rappelled down to him. Trying to pull the rope, I gave it a tug. One, two, three… and the bollard popped through. Great! I just rappelled off that shit!
Piotr, really not wanting to ski the steepness, built the next bollard and backed it up with two pickets, but as he weighed it, the rope cut through like a knife through butter. Solution? Dig deeper! But alas, the northern wind scoured aspect of the face, made for densely packed powder impossible to build bollards in, but theoretically great to ski. Even if we could rappel off of something, we would be there well into the night, with only 30 meter pitches and about 300 vertical to loose.
More discussion ensued. Piotr still didn’t want to ski the thing. I didn’t want to downclimb unprotected, especially since I feel more comfortable on skis. Being a more confident skier, on skis that I am used to, I convinced Piotr that we should just strap our skis on and go for it, and that I would ski-gun down as he rope-gunned all day. Considering that the others skied this the day before and looking at the rope lying along the slope, I was pretty sure I’d have no problem with it. How wrong I was…
Now on a scary steep slope, instead of the relative flatness of the ridge, we hacked away to make ourselves a platform to get the skis on and pack away the rope. With the rope gone, all concept of slope angle was gone. I decided I would traverse across the face to get to yesterday’s ski tracks and hopefully they would give me something to look at. I eventually found something that may have been tracks, but they were mostly gone from the snow sluffing from higher up, and the developing sideways snow falling from the sky.
Not seeing anything at all, and now being scared shitless. All of the sudden, the snow seemed more crusty and less powdery than before. I couldn’t force myself to initiate that first turn, which is always hardest. On top of that, images of massive avalanches came crashing through my head. That helped… I proceeded to side slip to what I would otherwise consider one of the best line I’ve ever skied. Piotr followed suite, trying to not go on top of me to not knock any snow on to me.
Some unknown part of the way down, we realized we had no idea where the fuck we were. In such conditions, there is no concept of perspective. I’d spot a couple rocks in the distance, only to realize they were just a few meters from me. I’d think they were right beside each other, only to take a step down and realize the second “small” rock was actually a huge cliff band way far away.
At this point, all we knew is that there were two bergrschrunds somewhere below us. No concept of how far away or how big. I thus pulled out my camera and looked at the snaps from the day before to try and match the couple of black spots I was seeing to locate us in the slightest. That improved the situation marginally as I told myself I knew where we were. Down we went until we spotted several gaping holes in the snow below us. Hourray, we reached the schrund! Now what?
Normally, I would just huck it. Love to huck stuff on skis. Now, I wanted to be off this damned face. Not knowing how wide it is, or how far the drop is, or how fast I’d tumble into the next schrund below. We considered briefly leaving a tricam in a crack in a cliff above us and rappelling over, but didn’t want to faff around there any longer. We decided to just send it. But who to go first? Only the logical game of rock-paper-scissors could decide that. I will again emphasize, rock always wins… good ole’ trusty rock.
Turned out to be less than a foot of a drop, and completely snow covered. So much for that. And just as suddenly, the slope mellowed out slightly, and again turned to powder. I even got some incredible turns in. But we were far from home free. We were still on a glacier with big crevasses inside a jug of milk. We found the tracks and tried to follow them as best we could, but they would appear for one turn and disappear indefinitely. Couple of scary turns into the abyss, and we’d be overjoyed to spot another trace.
This went on for a while until we hit the track super-highway and zipped back down to camp. Ahh… camp. Only 1000 vertical meters of crust, Ring Creek, Paul Ridge, and a bobsleigh track back to the cars. Once we’d packed up, it was 18:45. All my aspirations of a quick summit, nap in the sun, and breeze out back to town for the 19:00 climbing competition were shattered. I guess a serious mountain tends to derail perfect plans. And let’s be honest, no one just Atwell just like that (unless you are Skyler). In comparison, we started at the same 4:00 as team Photoslut and spent 14 hours on the mountain, descending for 6 of them. The others were back at camp before 11:00. What a difference a whiteout makes.
Escaping was no walk in the park. Skiing down into Ring Creek would have been easy if the slope melted under the sun. There was no sun, remember? Bulletproof curst it is. Going through the floodplain, I accidentally hit the other’s lunch spot (aka holes in the snow), leaned forward, lost balance, hit a rut, got flung out, did a full frontflip, and landed in another rut. Getting out proved difficult with so little energy left. One of those things where your brain tries to convince you that it is a great idea to just lay there and wait till morning.
The skin out Ring creek drained us completely and by the time we got to Elfin Shelter, it was too late to keep going, so we decided to spend the night and ski out early in the morning so I could get to work. Turned out to be lab clean up day and I spent the whole day sorting screws; good thing we got a third straight alpine start and hurried our asses…
But as we drove down the highway and back to urbania and the real world, it finally hit me. We did it! We conquered the Garibaldi Massif!