“You should turn back now,” the passerby said in a thick Russian accent as he watched me wallowing helplessly in the snow “you will die here”. That was more than 10 years ago, on my first trip into Garibaldi Park. Like so many people’s first ski trip on the coast Roland Burton had taken me up to Red Heather to witness winter in the mountains. I’d asked him if I could do it on my XC skis, which I’d brought with me from Ontario when I moved out here to start grad school. “If you’re tough” was Roland’s response. Up the firm track up the old jeep road they were fine, but now, just above the warming shelter they were worse than useless. Not wide enough to provide float the skis even prevented me from pulling my feet back up out of the snow to posthole effectively and my party had disappeared out of sight ahead of me. Having never even downhill, let alone backcountry, skied in my life I learned a lot about it in that first year; in particular I’ll never forget Craig Alfredson’s very helpful advice – “You’re supposed to turn from side to side as you go downhill, to control your speed. That’s the point of skiing.”
Although certainly good advice, in the beginning “the point” of skiing, for me, was to simply get around and explore new places. Eventually I did get good at skiing, simply through mileage, and learned to enjoy the turns. But now, as various priorities compete for my time, “the point” has returned to that first principle – to get out and explore. I started getting into the idea of “speed traverses”. It was challenging and it fit my priorities – I could still get out and cover a lot of terrain, yet spend time with my family. For a few years now I’ve been dreaming of linking up the Wedge-Currie, Spearhead, McBride, and Garibaldi Neve traverses – essentially doing the entire West side of Garibaldi Park in one long push.
The backbone of the traverse – the McBride Range – has been done “quickly” a handful of times already. In 2009 Keith Reid, Alex Wigley, and Craig McGee showed the world it was possible when they did it via the shortest variation from the top of the resort on Blackcomb to exit out via Garibaldi Lake in 18h 21m. I, like many others, was blown away – the McBride range had a reputation for it’s remote nature, difficult navigation, and lack of escape options (I think aptly demonstrated by Lee Lau’s famous TR). In many ways reading that trip report opened my eyes to the possibility of covering real terrain in a short amount of time. Later that same year Andy Traslin skied between the same endpoints, solo, in ~41 hours. In 2015 Bruno Bagneres and Geoff Dunbrack did a longer variation from Brohm Ridge in to Whistler in ~28 hours. Finally, just last year (2016) Eric Carter and Nick Elson did it in 15h 36m, starting at the bottom, not the top, of the chairlifts on Blackcomb and exiting via Garibaldi Lake. Just a few weeks ago I went a little further and did it solo from Red Heather to Whistler Village in ~29 hours, getting caught in a whiteout while crossing the Spearhead portion.
As far as I know, although all the pieces have been done, nobody has ever attempted to link all this terrain together as anything other than a long expedition-style traverse. Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis by John Baldwin recommends 14 days and describes it as: “a longer route traversing the full length of Garibaldi Park … a strenuous undertaking of 100 km with an elevation gain of 8400 m. It has only been repeated a few times.”
The week leading up to the trip was a busy one: I logged 53.5 hours on my timesheet at work, which included commissioning/calibrating some instrumentation I designed on Monday night, packing it on Tuesday, then taking the redeye to Edmonton to train some of our staff there how to use it safely. I exchanged a few emails with good friends Nick Matwyuk and Lena Rowat from my hotel room – the weather looked like it might be suitable, and they were keen. They would attempt the traverse leaving on Friday. I would catch up to them Saturday, ski with them for a bit, and then continue when they stopped to camp Saturday night. It wouldn’t be so dissimilar from that time we did the first speed traverse of the Pemberton Icecap + Squamish-Cheakamus divide together. I flew home Friday night, but Saturday morning the weather appeared bad and the forecast pushed the clearing trend to later in the week. I slept in a bit and drove, with all my stuff, to Whistler where I managed to get ahold of them when they got cell reception. I suggested we cut things short, ski the Blackcomb-Currie opposite each other, and trade cars. They said “no way – we’re going for it! The clouds are keeping things firm making for fast travel, and the visibility isn’t too bad most of the time. You should at least come up and see how things go.” I called home to my wife, and she agreed with them.
So I did go for it, and they were right. Despite starting pretty late in the morning I had good conditions basically all day on Saturday – although I’d missed the hard morning crust it never got really hot or mushy. And although there was some poor visibility there was never a real whiteout. The terrain flew by – up the Mt. Currie trail, across the headwaters of Mystery Creek, past Mt. Moe and The Owls and down onto the Weart Glacier. Everything went super-smooth until quite low on the descent down to Billygoat Lake / Wedge Pass when I had some excitement getting boxed in between two rivers in steep terrain and had to make a bit of an interesting crossing – managed to keep my boots dry, though. The crust reformed for the evening during the 1200 m slog back up to the alpine and I summited Shudder to beautiful clear skies just after sunset (after a short detour back down to retrieve my sunglasses, which I dropped while taking them off and putting on ski crampons – I watched them slide away and skitter down the glacier to my horror, but fortunately not go all that far).
I caught up to Nick and Lena after crossing over the Spearhead portion and dropping down the Naden Glacier. They’d set up their second camp beside some running water and invited me into their megalight where I hung out for a bit while I fixed a broken ski pole basket using the (pretty substantial) repair kit I’d brought and finally had an excuse to use. It was nice to sit for the first time since I’d left the car, and chat with my friends – the first people I’d seen since I left the 4×4 rally on the logging road by the Mt. Currie trailhead. Unfortunately, they hadn’t made it far enough that day and knew they wouldn’t be able to finish and still show up for work on Monday in decent shape, so would be heading back out to Whistler after all. They invited me to set up the sleeping pad and quilt I’d brought (just in case) and join them but I was still feeling super strong so I continued for the Upper Cheakamus River and the McBride range under a half-moon.
I was lucky to cross the Upper Cheakamus on some avalanche debris after not too much bushwacking along the North side, and enjoyed quick travel and dry boots on the South side. The > 1000 m slog up the McBride Glacier was quite enjoyable at night, and I was able to cross over Sir Richard and pass The Gatekeeper before twilight. Navigation became easier again as dawn broke somewhere on the Snow Bowl Glacier and I was in full morning sun by the time I had looped around Fake Peak and hit Drop Pass and Sinister Ridge. Sinister Ridge caused me some difficulties a few weeks ago, and didn’t let me pass by without a fight this time either… aside from being a convoluted mess of blowholes, cornices, and steep rock I think that thing generates it’s own cloud cover. Just like when I crossed it a few weeks ago the only clouds in the area seemed to be forming in the bowl to the East and drifting up over the ridge. During Eric and Nick’s FKT of the McBride they also had some whiteout problems on that portion. But travel was quick again afterwards passing by Hour, Isosceles, and Luxor and the long descent around Gray Pass to the base of the Phoenix Glaicer used up the last of the morning crust.
Pulling up onto the Phoenix Glacier, in the full heat of the sun and after ~25 hours on the move, I started to feel the effort for the first time. My body refused to keep eating – everything, including water, started to taste bitter and acidic and I felt nauseous. I couldn’t really tell if I was under-hydrated, over-hydrated, lacking salt, or just too hot. I seemed to be able to eat snow, though, and putting some on my neck felt good, so I went for that. I didn’t really notice a lack in performance, but I became really worried about the possibility and dialled myself back accordingly. The now-mushy snow didn’t exactly make for fast travel anymore either. Coming around the corner by the Glacier Pikes and looking out over the Garibaldi Neve I felt home-free, just as if I was looking at the carpark… but then I realized I still had to cross it and, yeah, it’s actually still kind of far.
Fortunately, as I crossed the Neve, clouds rolled back in and gave occasional bouts of shade. I was able to stomach an energy gel or two and a bit of water. I saw two other skiers pass under the Gargoyles just as I crossed Ring Creek, and made an inefficient navigation of the confusing forested micro-terrain between Ring Creek and Elfin Lakes (just like always, it seems). Passing Elfin Lakes at ~28.5 hours I thought for sure I’d finish in under 30 hours (my estimated time), since I have routinely made it (uphill) to Elfin from the carpark in 1.5 hours. But, even with a second-wind, the overall downhill, and skinny skins the mushy snow got the best of me and it ended up taking slightly longer. It didn’t help that the snow ran out before the carpark… but at least I was able to make use of the crocs I’d brought for the occasion.
I called Nick and Lena from the carpark – they’d just finished their day and were in Whistler. A cousin had picked up their car earlier, and they were going to drive it over to pick up mine for me! Sweet! And I was able to bum a ride down the Red Heather hill from a pair of hikers. I grabbed some dinner in Squamish and fell asleep on the lawn outside Canadian Tire while I waited for them to arrive.
- Total Time: 30h 18m 30s, June 3/4 2017
- Distance (30s smoothed GPS): 104 km
- Elevation Gain (30s smoothed GPS): 8700 m
- Brought: skinny and full-width skins, ski-crampons, home-made whippet attachment, helmet, crevasse self-rescue gear, stove/pot, sleeping pad, quilt, extensive repair kit, extra socks (so good!), crocs for hiking, 1.8 kg food, capacity for 1.8L water
- Ate: 1.2 kg food, Drank: ~6.5 L (all found along the way, except for 0.5L of juice I started with)
Thanks so much Nick and Lena for making this trip possible – you convinced me to give it a shot after I’d given up on the weather, gave me some tracks to follow for a portion of it, a cosy tent to raise my spirits mid-trip, and even picked up my car and drove my unfit-to-drive self back to Vancouver afterwards. And to my wife Line for supporting my strange desire to do things like this. I felt surprisingly good again on Monday, although I had a tough time squeezing my slightly swollen feet into my cycling shoes for the bike-commute to work (and somebody passed me on the way!).