Pemberton Icefield traverse
May 20-23, ~60km, lots of elevation
Mike Cancilla, Luca Malaguti, Ross Campbell, Birgit Rogalla
Following an email discussion, preparations for this trip started on Monday night (May 16th) when we all met up at the Veenstras’ place to look at maps with Christian and get advice (thank you!). By Thursday morning with hard work from Mike we had all the requirements; especially two cars for the traverse. Thursday evening it was time to load Mike’s borrowed car with skis in sunny, warm Vancouver. Funny and maybe a bit foolish. The car shuffle was uneventful other than some rough logging road driving for a 2wd in the dark to Callaghan. Having dropped off the smaller car, we loaded into the other car and drove to Harrison where we slept by the 2wd parking lot.
Quote of the trip: “This is the most free-heeled AT skiing I’ve ever done.” ~ Ross
Day 1: Bootpacking and postholing to Harrison Hut (12 hrs)
The goal for the first day was to get to Harrison Hut. By the time we got up, the rain had disappeared and a few cars drove by, presumably logging workers. In the daylight, the next section of road appeared to be in great shape, presumably fixed up by the logging company. With Mike behind the wheel, the car made it close to the 4wd parking lot, to all of our (and our feet’s) happiness. By 9am we were near the trailhead and ready to start the long day of bootpacking. Our packs filled with food, tents, skis, etc. some of us (me) needed assistance to get our packs on without falling over. The trail was in good condition (thank you for all the work!) and we could see trees marked in preparation for the logging this summer. We ate distance slowly but steadily with entertaining obstacles such as logs.
Upon hitting the logging road, Luca realized he had lost his pole basket sometime after lunch, so while the rest of us napped and lazed around he went for a fruitless search.
Snow patches started after crossing Pika Creek. We were happy to see the snow, expecting to be able to start skinning in a little while. How naive. If only we knew then that the snow would be the start of our problems. The rest of the trail (especially after Barr Creek) generally looked something like this:
What followed was two hours of ankle to knee deep postholing. We had to work our way around and out of tree wells, struggled to get out of some collapsed snow, there was plenty of (Scottish) cursing, and a failed skinning attempt. Twelve hours from the start, Ross efficiently conveyed our arrival at the hut with a loud “YIPEEEE” as he spotted the last creek crossing (with a snow bridge that held our weight). According to the Hut log, only two groups had visited Harrison since last September. The New Year’s group had had an even tougher time and took 13.5 hours to get to the hut. We probably were some of the last few people to use the trail and hut for the next while because of the logging closure starting June 1st.
Day 2: Skinless skiing and Squamish Glacier (11-12 hrs)
The biggest day. Our alarm went off at 5.00am to get an early start. The first section of the route involved travelling from Harrison up Le Flume Glacier. It was icey and the sun was warm/intense. Surely the start of some impressive sunburns. Every now and then small rocks loosened from above and wizzed by, rapidly picking up speed as they travelled unimpeded. Mike was on fire and machined up the glacier, while others like me cursed our skins which had accumulated large snow clumps within minutes. I silently vowed to minimize the use of skins at all costs. At the top of the pass we could thankfully de-skin before passing to the right of The Three Stooges and skiing down into a small plain. The snow was challenging to turn in and the temperature very warm in the wind shadow. By this point Mike and Luca had replaced there skins but, likely thanks to a combination of aging wax and a buildup of tree sap from a midweek ski at cypress, me and Ross were traveling quite efficiently skinless. We began to refer to our setup as “Glacier skis”. How far could we go? After a slight uphill, we skied down onto the Pemberton Icecap, feeling the true remoteness of our location.
We paused for lunch at the far end of the plain, overlooking the giant Ryan River Valley. The next section involved going up the pass between the Consciences. On the right were some impressive cornices with long avalanche debris paths.
After some discussion we chose to head down and straight up the glacier to avoid this. The glacier was at the perfect maximum angle to go up with our Glacier Skis, so me and Ross successfully shunned our skins for the rest of the day. The crest of every rise seemed to extend much longer than upon first appearance. Not so great weather was coming in from the West and threatened with the occasional snow flakes; but the Consciences held it back long enough for us to reach the top of the pass with visibility. At the top we were treated to an incredible view of the Squamish Glacier with Little Ring, visible at the far end. We were stoked!!!
After those with skins on transitioned, we skied down with Ross in front. Given how successful his Glacier Skis had been going uphill he was rather skeptical that they would be so great going down. To compensate for this he decided that B-lining down the glacier without turning was the most efficient way forward. In the end, the skis were sliding just fine and our progress was unimpeded until Ross came to a fairly innocuous roll up a head. There seemed no real danger but, we were on a Glacier, and you couldn’t quite see the terrain below this roll, so Ross decided to traverse right for a better view of where to go next without really thinking much of it. After a few moments he looked back at the “gentle roll” to see something that the word crevasse doesn’t seem even close to being sufficient to describe. “BLOODY HELL!!” This colossal chasm, this gaping void in the earth, this endless abyss could have swallowed Vancouver whole! After being slightly puzzled where Ross was heading we each individually saw this bottomless fissure and had the same reaction. The skiing down was great, and there weren’t many open crevasses to worry us, but we were now certainly all keeping a watchful eye out just to be sure. Eventually, with lots of whooping from enjoyment, the downhill turned to flat. We had just traveled about 10 km in 40 minutes! Had we had poor visibility this would have became a much longer trip!
The clouds were threatening and recalling the weather forecast we chose to setup camp nearby the end of the glacier, before the ‘storm’ would arrive. As we set up our tents and kitchen, we noticed ice worms everywhere the eye could see; hundreds within every couple of square meters. After some attempts to remove them from our water, we accepted the addition to our diet.
Day 3: White-out, Little Ring, and camping halfway up the pass (10 hrs)
After having had another 12 hour day and content with the distance we had covered, we happily (and ignorantly) slept in until 8. Opening our tents, we woke up to a complete whiteout (see pictures below). Fortunately we had an InReach with a track on it, as well as maps and compasses.
Combining the various methods of navigation, we set out:
About 5 minutes away from our camp, we came across tracks of what we think must have been a wolverine:
It was a quick ski to the end of the glacier, avoiding the various crevasses signifying the break up of the glacier. Determined to continue skinning without skins, Ross and I did some of the flattest switch backs you have ever seen, with still hilarious faceplants, before conceding that skins were necessary.
We skirted around Little Ring, staying near the creek. The snow was much wetter than the day before. From here we headed up Little Ring to then traverse around at ~1750m. There were a couple of ‘interesting’ moments as we were sidehilling on steep, wet snow (with cliffs below). The glue on both Ross and my skins proved useless and the skins were just hanging underneath the skis by tension from the clips. One of my skins decided to come entirely off (while reinforced with voile straps), the clip broke*, and I slid a little ways. Ross foresaw similar problems so we both bootpacked straight up Little Ring while Luca and Mike switchbacked up. On the other side of Little Ring, white-out conditions returned and we attempted to find the route to the “magic bench” leading to Ring Peak. As we were debating whether to go down steeply, Ross said, “Mike, should we be losing elevation?”, and Mike said “I DON’T KNOW, I think we need lunch.” Mike was thankful that Ross had reminded everyone to confirm the route and not just motor on like zombies. Then we realized it was 4:30pm. A magic boulder appeared which sheltered us from the wind/rain-snow and even had soft moss to sit on. This afforded us a nice break to assess our route. With Ross setting a compass bearing, we found the magic bench and completed some creek crossings where Luca’s basketless pole became a useful snow bridge probe.
We decided to go as far up Ring Pass as we could and camp to make the next day easier. Unfortunately by now Luca had joined the skinless struggle as the wet snow had rendered the glue on his skins useless. After more flat switch backs, all of us except Mike chose to bootpack. Our final destination for the day was a clump of trees near the top of Ring Pass. It was sheltered and even had a rock patch for cooking. It was like Pride Rock overlooking the Squamish River valley (Lion King reference). Luca even managed to make a fire! The fire dried and melted skins as well as clothing. It rained all night. Ross’s tent was not that waterproof.
Day 4: Ring pass, frozen lakes, tough cars, and bears (8 hrs + 8 hrs of car faff)
The last day started off around 6am (although actually 5.30am due to a trick from Mike). Along the way up Ring Pass, Ross entertained us with Scottish songs of mothers throwing lunch out the window to their children. By 8am, we were at the top of the pass and skied down to Ring Lake. Ring Lake appeared frozen enough and we all made it across safely.
From there the route followed a downhill treed section and the steepest skiing of the trip. For some of us this involved tree hugging and an accidental 360/cartwheel/somersault.
At the bottom, the trees opened up into a meadowy area with a creek and we soon made it to the cross country trails. This led to a snowmobile road to the Callaghan Lodge and from there a steady rolling trail to Callaghan Lake.
A decent chunk of the logging road was ski-able after which we bootpacked. An older couple drove by in a living van and I’m not sure whether they laughed in pity or entertainment at our hitchhiking attempt with skis/boots. Although the arrival back at Luca’s car proved the end of adventure for us, it did not prove so for the car. Four people with packs and skis were definitely packed in the tiny car; the folks in the back had to share a seatbelt and rotate being squished for two hours.
Luca was carefully navigating the waterbars with his low clearance vehicle when we all heard a loud crunch. We piled out and Luca peered under the car and declared, “There’s a rock stuck in my car!”
Do we leave it in? Is it like an arrow?
Do we take it out? Will it cause more damage?
We ended up deciding to take it out, it was quite wedged in there, but if your going to wedge a rock inside your car it was in a great place, in between the frame and exhaust.
With the rock debacle sorted we were in Meager Creek a few hours later, and Mike and Ross hiked/ran the logging road to retrieve the first car seeing two bears. With both cars retrieved we ate our last dried dinner while comparing blisters, hearing the sound of a bear, and eventually seeing a third bear. The car shuffle and drive back ended up taking ~ 8 hours, with a classic return home between 1.30-2am.
Overall, some of us managed glacier tans, while the rest of us managed with glacier burns that still remain as a reminder of the trip. Thank you to everyone for being great and making this such a wonderful trip! We were so stoked to be able to take on this route with support from the club and friends, a great team, and a dedication to some suffering.
*disclaimer: this was definitely the maximum abuse club telemark skis, boots, and skins will take; not recommended.