Spearhead in the White March 26-27

It’s amazing how different a traverse like the Spearhead when you do it in whiteout conditions compared to fair weather. As anyone who did it the weekend previous can tell you, this trip report will probably sound quite different from what you experienced.

After a high pressure system the previous weekend (see http://www.ubc-voc.com/2012/03/30/snowzone-channel-creek-march-24-25) Michal Rozworski and I justified to go for a Spearhead Traverse.

With hasty planning we realized neither of us had stove fuel or a GPS. Michal decided he could swing by and pick some up on his way in from Vancouver.

The weather forecast was interesting, a new light system was forecasted to bring 10km/hr winds at 2000m with 1-4cm throughout the day for monday and tuesday. This system was wedged between the high pressure system sitting over the interior and a heavy system coming from the SE bringing as much as 20-30cm of new snow. We felt that with little wind and snow in the forecast that we could navigate with simply a map, compass and a skin track route left from the hoards of skiers who did the traverse over the weekend.


With a sunny morning things were looking good. We started up the Blackcomb Excallibur Gondola at 10 30, running a bit late due to parking issues and difficulties finding gas. By the time we were making our way up the Showcase T-Bar a high cloud was breaking in.


Starting up the Blackcomb Glacier at 11:30am and made our way up the highway route to the col between Mt Spearhead and the Peak of Blackcomb. From here we glanced at the start of our route and decided that we would focus on speed and distance over summits and skiing. This was not a hard decision as most summits had clouds as hats and the skiing had deteriorated, a bulletproof melt freeze crust covering almost everything.

We quickly made our way over Decker glacier and down onto Trorey Glacier. With nothing but high clouds (and the occasional lower ones), flat light and light snowfall, things were going smoothly, the weather being exactly what we expected.

Michal before lunch on Trorey glacier with Pattison to his left

(Each link is to a short, shaky, bad quality video that does a better job of capturing the trip than do photos. Excuse their poor-ness.)

Eyeing the cool blowhole next to us we boot-packed up the short section to Pattison col, shrouded in clouds. From here we looked around and saw (or couldn’t see) that our route along Trorey glacier was shrouded in clouds. Not unexpected. We harnessed up and skied onto the glacier, each ski turn was a turn into an unknown blanket of white. Often I had to pause and poke around as my eyes played tricks as to the grade of the slope and possible imperfections on the white canvas in my sight. On the flats of Tremor Glacier we decided to rope up, just in case, and we navigated by compass and following some of the many ski tracks.


It wasn’t too long before we made it to the Tremor-Shudder col. From here we continued to ski out onto the Platform Glacier while roped up in nothing but more whiteout. The exact route skiing off the col was uncertain and as we made our way down we were hearing faint voices. I had to make sure I wasn’t the only one hearing it before deciding to head in the direction of the voices. It wasn’t before we were 10m away did we see this group of 4 heading back towards Blackcomb. We continued to navigate across platform glacier, pulling out the compass repeatedly when there were no tracks to follow and eventually we stumbled upon the blowhole leading to the Quiver-Ripsaw col. We thought about camping there briefly but the clouds were opening up.

Myself, photo taken by Michal.

Michal. A break in the clouds!

Skiing across Ripsaw Glacier took mere moments and as we worked our way onto Naden Glacier, the weather was drastically different, we had descended below the top layer of clouds and had views towards the McBride range, a much appreciated break from the white room.

We had thought to camp close to Curtain glacier so that we had it as an escape option the next day if we woke up and the weather was bad. In the present good visibility, we cruised on down McBeth Glacier.

Traversing from McBeth glacier to Iago glacier proved a bit troublesome. The traverse had been sunbaked and we sloughs and pin wheels had fallen over the icy track. Falling meant sliding down a n icy, rough, avy debris slope. And overhead were looming cornices. I shouldn’t complain though, those that crossed that slope in heat of day over the weekend must of had a scare with everything moving on the slope.

With fading light we camped at the top of Iago glacier with a great view down the middle of the valley above Fitzimmons creek. A low cloud creeping cloud filled the valley above Whistler. Looking at Fitzimmons Glacier’s icefall brought on a sense of scale, the ice looking quite impressive.

We shovelled out a nice spot, built a wall along a rock where the light wind was coming from and put the vestibule so that it faced the other way. Stupid mistake. Michal cooked dinner in the vestibule and we ate and drank to our fill, quite pleased with our day. We only melted about a litter of water each for the night with the notion we would melt the rest in the morning so that it might be warm longer. Next stupid mistake.

The night was short for me, heads down, pass out, and alarm ringing as if no time had gone by. As we lay in our sleeping bags I noted the wind and the snow against the mesh door at our heads. Damnit. The wind had done a complete 180 degree turn and was blowing from the NE, directly at our vestibule. In the light wind, I had done a shabby job of weather proofing the front of the tent and everything was buried in snow, boots, packs, pots, everything left out. We had hoped to cook in the vestibule but now the cold wind was forcing it’s way directly into the tent. Not a pleasant morning, especially when it’s a 5am wakeup.

Tent in the morning. You can see the gap between the vestibule and the snow. Should definitely of done a better job.

Today I had to be at work by 3 with a bus at 1pm sharp. Considering the distance travelled with the late start yesterday, we figured this would be no problem with an early start today.

In the end we cleared our stuff off the tent floor and melted snow inside the tent, keeping gaps open for fresh air. Carbon monoxide poisoning is no joke and we were wary. As we melted snow the insides of the tent were turning white. White white white, everything white. From start to finish, we would barely see anything more than white.

Without wanting to melt more water for my breakfast oatmeal, I stuffed a few peanuts in my mouth and we packed our stuff. We started moving at first light, with fingers freezing in the cold, strong wind. It was snowing strongly now too. Our forecast proved wrong and the upcoming storm moving faster than scheduled was breaking into our smaller system, still wedged behind the high pressure system.

Michal ascending Diavolo Glacier.

Despite the whiteout, the map indicated few crevasses and we skied down onto Diavolo glacier. Keeping the rope in our packs, we made our way to the Iago-Fitzimmons col following ski tracks. Rather than attempt to traverse over the crevassed Fitzimmons glacier in a whiteout, we decided to circumnavigate the usual route by going up Diavolo galcier to the Benvolio-Fitzimmons col. This is where we got lost for the first time. We ended up too far south without even realizing and started skiing down west below the Diavolo-Benvolio col. I stopped and had to examine the map because it just didn’t seem quite right. A GPS would have been useful but instead we took turns looking at the map and then compass. For a few moments I thought maybe the compass was wrong, maybe it’s pointing at some ore in the mountains. I mean, how could my internal compass be so off? Thankfully I knew better to think myself better than my instruments. You have to be pretty damn sure of yourself before you decide a compass is wrong. After our correction we skied down onto Fitzimmons glacier.

Snow blew strongly new in the wind obscuring our view even more.

Michal with Overlord's NW Face

Looking out along Overlords NW face.


We were ecstatic about finding ski tracks again and we followed them to the base of Mt Overlord. Here we got a look at Overlords impressive NW face and the ski tracks that traverse at it’s foot. Spindrift and sluffs were coming off the face and bergshrunds at it’s base and crevasses visible at in gaps in the weather lower down on the glacier. We took caution, spreading out but nerves were on end. It took a lot of examining to determine wether that blue thing was a cornice chunk or a deep gaping hole into a glacier. At one point I looked back at Michal and saw a substantial loose snow avalanche come streaming down the face. “Avalanche”, I yelled somewhat weakly. “What?” answered Michal. I was already turned and moving away as I yelled “AVALANCHE!” angrily. False alarm, it fanned out and swept across the slope behind us helplessly but this didn’t help our nerves as we glanced up the face again and again in worry. Eventually we were clear of overhead hazard and looking at Refuse Pinnacle.

We quickly lost the ski tracks and got disoriented in the storm. I was constantly glancing at my watch. I was going to be late if we didn’t hurry. Not showing up to work and disappointing my boss and the librarians I work with on my 2nd last shift was not something I wanted to do.

It wasn’t long before we hit another setback, we thought we had made it to the col between Fissile and Whirlwind too early and started skiing down into Refuse Creek. Again, we had to repeat the same procedure. Stare at the map and compass for a while, ponder at it’s accuracy and finally decide to put our skins on and work our way up.

When we were back onto the flat of Overlord glacier, we didn’t realize how close we were to stepping off the glacier and skiing down the exit towards Russet lake. Wind lips and small cornices made things challenging. Getting around them caused us to get all disoriented. At one point I walked over the edge of a small cornice without seeing it and caught myself with my hip and legs dangling over the edge. Thinking it was a crevasse things got a bit scary. Michal who didn’t know what happened came up close behind before taking my back off and retreating from the edge while I clambered back up. He suggested it was probably the same windlip we had clambered over earlier and it turns out he was right.

Eventually we came upon a downsloping glacier that we mistakenly assumed to be our escape between Whirlwind and Fissile. As we worked our way across and down, large crevasses became visible. Those weren’t supposed to be there. We didn’t take the clue that we were going the wrong way but instead tried to find a way around them. Going left we approached the flank of Fissile (which we thought was Whirlwind). As we looked for a way down large crevasses opened up in front of us and we stopped, side stepped up and crossed back to the other side. On this side things were much less visible without any mountain to give us reference points. By now I had pulled out my probe too and was watching the wire from the end brush the surface of the glacier to give me an idea of what was ahead. As I made my way across a large crevasse was open right before me only a meter in front of the 2m probe I was holding. On top of that I was standing parallel to it’s shape, perpendicular to the flow of the glacier meaning I probably on a snowbridge. “Don’t come here!” I yelled at Michal, “What?”, “There’s a crevasse right in front of me, don’t come here!” “Oh shit.”

We turned around and back tracked again deciding to hug Fissile so that we could at least have definition along the glacier at it’s flanks. As we made our way down, things were looking good until we hit the icefall. By following the flanks of Fissile (which we still thought was Whirlwind) we had ended up over the largest part! I walked over a snow ledge to see if it would go. Michal stayed where he was and I didn’t want to inspect further and be out of his sight. I could’t of seen from where I got to but had I looked further I would have found out that we could have traversed the bench out to ski out the lower half of the N face of Fissile. That would of been the smart and fast thing to do.

I had already missed my bus and was counting the minutes till my next one which would only mean being an hour late. Still we had barely stopped for nothing more than a quick snack.

Thinking that the bench ended in cliff, we decided to continue to ski down next directly between Fissile and the open crevasses. We slowly made our way partway down and we couldn’t see around the corner in the mountain. Would or route go? We skied down the steep 45 degree pitch and stopped on 45-50 degree section only to see what lay below us. A shoulder width gap between a blue chunk of ice and black chossy stone. I looked down feeling the exposure as sluff ran down into the gap and below to who knows what. Michal soon joined me and there wasn’t much to be said in the frustration at our situation. With 30m of rope, a rappel would only take us down 15m and there was no way of knowing if that would be enough. We decided to take our skis off and here I buckled on my helmet. Determination and anger in me to get this fucking thing over with was boiling, I had had enough with stumbling in a white room with blue crevasses opening up before me and little to no food. Let this end. Voilé strapping our skis and poles together, I lead the bootpack up a narrow gulley, at one point too narrow to hold skis horizontally, the process became plant skis, punch punch, kick kick. On a few occasions, my foothold gave way in the rotten snow and I sank to my knees with snow up to my chest on the steep slope. I could feel myself tipping backwards before catching myself with my arms. With some use of the rock, breaking off loose bits, we made it up the couloir.

Finally visibility was improving. We could see more of the glacier and we sat above the couloir next to the glacier looking at the crevasses. I spotted a gap that might be skied and that’s what we decided on. The gap which seemed small from the side was all that seemed to work. Myself needing a break from wandering first across glaciers asked Michal to lead the way as I directed him from behind. Our traverse across the glacier towards the gap was precarious. 40 degree slope with crevasses above, crevasses below and new snow on top of a melt-freeze base that might at any moment avalanche us over an icefall or worse, pack us into a crevasse. When we made it over our line, I agreed to ski first determined to go fast so that I might skirt over anything that might be open or weakly covered. As I linked turns I could see snow sluffing beneath me, outlining the slope and I noticed none of it disappeared into a hole. This inspired confidence and I skied one of the most relieving runs of the year. I looked back up the icefall as Michal was working his way down, extremely happy to be out of there. In the end our line between the crevasses was much larger and safer than we had thought, it was fortunate that we could see it in the improved visibility. I could also see where we had previously stood against Fissile and it was a good thing we didn’t try to rappel. It also became painstakingly clear where we had ended up. I knew exactly where we were now! Of course!

When Michal joined me we celebrated a bit, slapped a high five and admired our run and how good the snow was. Then we skied down before being within trees again below Russet ridge. It felt good to be off the glacier and have trees around again. It also became apparent that the the mountains behind us had been retaining the clouds and storm when everywhere else weather was what it should have been. It was slow skinning up to Russet Ridge, we were tired and a solid melt freeze cut didn’t accept our ski edges as we tried to sidehill and switchback up.

Michal on top of Cowboy Ridge

Eventually we made it on top of Cowboy ridge and skied down into signing pass. By now it was a half hour past five and not long after starting down Singing Pass I continued on ahead, saying my goodbye’s to Michal as I raced ahead to catch the 6 10 bus to Pemberton.

I pushed hard to make my bus, the flat sections aggravating me as I willed my skis to go faster on the sticky snow. Pushing with my arms and skiing without stopping the entire time, I arrived in the village 5 minutes late… My next bus not for another 3 and half hours. I hate the bus schedule…

Wet from all the rain coming down singing pass, I elected to walk over to McDonalds where I spend the next 3 hours watching the sports center on tv and ate my days worth of calories.

And so concludes our Spearhead Traverse.

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