Participants: Old, flappy Jeff Mottershead and Devlin Mottershead
I’m supposed to be a climber, but even in the middle of summer my son, Devlin, would rather hike up to some random snow patch or glacier and get some turns in than climb, so for the past five years I’ve appeared to be a skier who climbs occasionally.
We end up doing Red Heather a lot, because it’s close and alpine starts for eight-year- olds only seem to work properly if there’s a chair lift. Our standard pattern is to skin up to the warming shelter at a reasonable pace, Devlin eats a bag of rehydrated pasta primavera because change is highly resisted, and then gets the post-meal lethargy. I always have plans about doing something more, like up Garibaldi a ways, some laps on Paul Ridge or something, but negotiations go poorly in the post-lunch coma, and we end up compromising on going up to Paul Ridge, close to the warming hut, and trying to find a line that’s at least steepish and usually really short because there isn’t anything halfways steep that isn’t super short up there.
The night before, I set the alarm on my early 2000s flip phone for 5:00, got distracted by the internet, and left the phone by the computer. At 6:30 I woke up bewildered that I didn’t hear the alarm, found my phone, felt dumb, and started packing. We were out the door and on the road by 7:30. At around 8:15 I remembered that in my discombobulation I’d left the skins on my bed, so we circled around and got them.
Just as we got into Garibaldi Park we were flagged down by the park ranger.
“Sorry to stop you, but do you have chains?”
“Yes—yes, we do.”
“Are you going to put them on?”
“Do you know where to put them on?”
“At the sign that says ‘Chains Mandatory,’ before the hill where people slide backwards and go into the ditch at the corner and call a tow truck that also ends up in the ditch while trying to pull it out.”
“So you’re familiar with the problem. That’s great. Have a nice day.”
We started as we normally do, except a couple hours later, with Devlin getting a head start as I clean up the breakfast dishes and faff around with my pack. As he’s gotten older the distance he makes it before I catch up with him has gone from about fifty metres to about a kilometre. There were shockingly few people on the trail, and almost all of them were in this tour group of snowshoers with very vocal guides. They were in the parking lot giving a speech about how critical it is that they never lose sight of their buddy as Devlin cut through them and started up the trail. I was worried that one of the guides would feel compelled to raise a ruckus about that so as not to look like a hypocrite, but they minded their group’s own business.
We were expecting the warming hut to be almost empty given the scarcity of people on the trail, but we had no such luck, as all of the guided snowshoe group was there. Not that they were bad people at all, but they had no idea how to share space in a hut, and Devlin and I ended up huddled in a corner cooking pasta primavera while the tour group leaders loudly announced the many winners of the raffle they were having, using as many different sentences that mean the same thing as they could in order to try to keep the excitement level up. We finished eating as they finished raffling, and then one of them came over to us and asked if Devlin would like to come outside for an AvaLung demo. I think in general the answer would have been yes, but we’d had it with people and politely declined.
As we stepped outside, we bumped into another skier who looked frazzled. We had a brief conversation, and she expressed a desire to get as far away from the warming hut as possible. Ideally we would have loitered a bit to give Devlin a chance to digest and recharge, but it was intolerable in there, so we took off.
“I can’t. I can’t go anymore. I’m never going to make it.”
“Just take the rest you need. It’s always like this after you have a huge meal, and like always your energy will come back.”
“I need human fuel.”
“You’re full of human fuel. It just needs time to do its thing. Right now your muscles have no blood because your stomach is using the blood, but soon it’ll be full of energy coming back to your muscles.”
“I can’t. I can’t go anymore. I’m never going to make it.”
We did that for a while, and then he picked up steam again, and we got to the eastern tip of Paul Ridge. Last time we were up there, we’d trudged up this open slope, gone right, and tried to find this steep area. Because there’s lot of trees at the top, it’s hard to tell where you are and we didn’t go far enough and came down a shallower line than we wanted to, so this time we trudged a bit farther.
I got myself rotated by about 135 degrees, so instead of aiming north by northwest, we were south by southwest. After going down some steep treed nonsense, we ended up in some more trees. For a while I’d been holding out that we were going to reach the open steep slope I was trying to get to, but after going down a ways, I pulled out the compass and detected that we on course for Narnia.
I told Devlin to go right as much as he could in the hopes that we’d be able to circle back to somewhere reasonable before we ended up too low. The skiing transitioned from a few inches of powder on ice to completely snow-bombed and refrozen nonsense with bent-over saplings and logs sticking out everywhere.
We eventually broke into an open area that I didn’t recognize, which looked to be powder. It wasn’t particularly steep, but you could imagine it avalanching if it was having a really bad day. I got Devlin to explain the avalanche search procedure to me so I was sure he remembered everything and then told Devlin to cross it and then wait in the trees on the other side. He had much more of a time with it than I thought was realistic, and I wondered if he was on his last legs. As soon as he finished and I started, though, the problem became obvious. It was actually burnt lasagna camouflaged as powder.
We took another look at the compass, and I told Devlin that we were really getting into stupidity, that we hadn’t seen another track since the top of Paul Ridge, and that it was only going to get worse from here if we didn’t skin to the northwest.
“What happens if we keep going down?”
“If we keep going to the right enough, we’ll probably connect up with the trail, but if we don’t make it we’ll either get to the road and have to walk up or run out of snow and then we’d have a long skin up or a nasty bushwhack.”
“I want to go down.”
“Do you promise to keep on skinning up without complaining if we get stuck in the middle of the night?
I wanted to avoid the gamble and just skin up, but I figured that if we went down as requested he’d either learn his lesson or we’d make it to the trail, but if we did what I wanted he could easily stop and complain every two steps until we had to bivy, so down we went.
If we were trying to head more or less straight down, we could have found a route that didn’t involve too much of a fiasco, but since we were trying to get as right as possible, we ended up sidestepping up an awful lot. We’d drop off a log, skitter around on refrozen death cookie, ram through some shrubbery, sidestep up a log to the right, and repeat.
As we got lower it went from all refrozen to a mix of frozen and still-soft craters reinforced with vegetation. I caught a tip and did an inverted aerial a couple times.
We started to run out of snow. The average depth was still pretty deep, but there was enough junk sticking through it that things were going to start getting hard soon. The sun was setting.
We came to a creek. It wasn’t far across it at all, but there was a big drop-off on our side, and it was steep enough on the other side that attempting to jump it would likely have resulted in falling back into it. Devlin said he couldn’t make it across. I did some stomping around the edge, which pushed more snow into the gap and made the drop-off shorter. It took Devlin a while to muster up the nerve to cross, but it eventually happened.
There was considerably less light than when we started the crossing. We dropped through a few more trees. I was starting to weigh the pros and cons of bivying where we could still dig a shallow cave but for sure spending the night vs. going down further and maybe making it or maybe bivying in the mud. Devlin was getting ahead of me as I was thinking these thoughts.
“I can’t see it. You’re ahead of me.”
“Is that the trail?”
“I don’t know.”
“It is! It’s the trail!”
As it turned out we’d just caught the last switchback. We arrived at the parking lot with only a couple vehicles remaining. Two ladies were there, and they were very glad to see us, as they’d parked way down, outside of the park and had gotten a ride up with the ranger that morning but had been waiting for a while for someone that could take them down.