Nick Hindley, Duncan Pawson, Tobias Huxol, Jack McCutchan — 17-21 February 2018
Photos: All the good ones are probably Nick’s
I was back for my second season in British Columbia, Canada, to do as much backcountry skiing as I could fit into two months. Nick, Tobias and Duncan all had reading week off in February towards the end of my trip, so we’d set our goals high. After an incredible amount of snow over January which, while providing some great neck-deep powder skiing in the trees around the Duffey, had made accessing the alpine too dangerous to consider for most of the month. Luckily, our week of opportunity coincided perfectly with a band of weather coming down from the Arctic, promising clear skies and cold temperatures all week. This was shaping up for something big.
Planning: Cheap Beer and Expensive Dreams
Our target: Icefields in the Coastal Range, usually only accessed by air in Spring or Summer
Our goal: Semi-technical ski mountaineering routes in winter snowpack conditions.
Planning for this trip involved a healthy dose of expectation management, with ambitions far loftier than our meagre means would allow. Plans started out grand, involving float planes, then helicopters, then boats, then snowmobiles. But as the pitchers neared empty, our plans became more grounded, until we were left with the option we’d been avoiding as long as we could: Harrison Hut. I’d made the mistake of going last winter and had told myself I’d never go back.
For those who haven’t been, the hut itself is inoffensive – maybe even homely – with a good wood stove and an incredible location at the foot of the alpine at the Northern end of the Pemberton Icefield. But what gives it such a reputation is its soul-destroying approach, particularly in winter. Once a popular destination, a large landslide in 2010 wiped out a key bridge across the Lillooet River, adding hours onto the trip when the new summer trail was cut. My memories of the hut were on one of my first VOC trips – of a 10-hour slog, post-holing through fresh snow into flowing creeks and an endless final kilometre through dense forest on slopes too steep to skin, all just to head back to the car the next morning. Adding to this, in winter the summer trail can only be accessed via 30km of unplowed logging roads, meaning this wasn’t an option this year. Instead, we would take another forest road on the far side of the river, maintained throughout winter for the Lillooet hydro power project, then find a place to cross the river to access old logging roads that would get us up to the summer trail.
Day 1: The Wet Slog
We left Vancouver early, leaving sealed roads in the early light. Despite a good 15cm of fresh snow on the forest roads, we made it up to our start point without a glitch (bar one solid impact with a rock and a worrying drip from the car’s front differential). With the recent cold weather, we hoped the river level would be low enough to cross. Finding a section that looked the most shallow and slow-moving, we were able to negotiate the crossing without stripping past our underwear. Only Tobias was smart enough to bring neoprene shoes, so the rest of us slipped our way across in bare feet, knowing that any kind of fall would require a trip back to McDonalds to warm up, ending our trip. Somehow, the water was even colder than we expected and the pain of reheating our whole legs – usually reserved to the tips of fingers and toes and known as “the screaming barfies” – was so intense that it bordered on narcotic. Shrieks and manic laughter have ruined all video footage we have of the event.
The mental crux of the mission behind us, our route headed up the snowy flood banks of the Meager Creek, making for easy going other than a few small creeks we had to negotiate in precarious style. A series of “robust” conversations were had about crossing Meager every time the way became difficult, Nick liking the look of the far side while the rest of us refused to take off our boots again. Two hours after the river crossing, once our toes had regained some circulation, we passed an abandoned excavator and arrived at the old bridge across Meager Creek to the hot springs. All the roads out here are now disconnected and inaccessible, so the area has the feel of an old ghost town, with signage and a warming shelter at the once-popular area still in perfect condition. We were still in the early stages of our day, but we decided we had time for a soak in the hot springs, even if it meant a couple more hours of travel in the dark later on. A resident mouse must have still remembered the glory days of the area, demonstrating a keen sense for finding our food, as well as a devil-may-care attitude towards our discouragement.
Over the next ten hours I think we all learnt something about ourselves, the trail to the hut seems to have that kind of effect. It sidles through steep forest, with a bulletproof ice crust putting our edges to the test as we inched our way forward. Through this section we averaged under 1km/h despite taking only brief snack breaks, simply slowed down by fatigue, difficult snow and searching for elusive trail markers. Only finding ourselves on the marked route for brief moments, some sections near the hut involved climbing up on tree branches with our skis to gain any elevation in the steep forest. A plentiful supply of caffeine pills kept us pushing to the hut late into the night, arriving shortly before midnight.
Day 2: Frozen Rollercoaster
Flattened by the exertion of the previous night, there was no movement in the hut until past midday. Water bottles had all frozen overnight despite leaving the fire burning. While we’d hardly managed an alpine start, we figured we needed to get out and find our bearings in the area. We headed straight up from the hut onto the Rollercoaster Glacier, which gave us an opportunity to get a perspective of our planned objectives for the week, while staying on mellow terrain to assess the snowpack. Strong winds were forming thin wind crusts on a surprising variety of aspects, with prevailing wind directions swinging a full 180° within the same valley. While our thermometer showed -21°C, with wind chill it felt closer to -30°C. We’d gained about 700m above the hut, but once we’d left the glacier and were looking up at Zygo Peak from a small col to its North-East, none of us had much desire to push much further in the conditions. With buffs frozen to our cheeks and a distinct crunch in my exposed earlobes, we made an early retreat to the hut. Cold temperatures had chilled the snow to the point that even with our skins removed we were unable to slide downhill on small gradients, so we pushed our way down a good portion of the glacier. It was lucky the views were so good, because the skiing was terrible.
Day 3: Four Stooges in the Gates of the Kremlin
They say best ideas often come to you on the toilet, so we had to assume as much when an obvious couloir presented itself at the morning pit stop. A straight shot down from a buttress of the Kremlin to the South-West of the hut, it was an inviting line disrupted by a small band of rocks near the entrance. While we weren’t sure if it would be possible for us, it was attractive enough to seem worth a look. As we skinned away from the hut, I took my toothbrush out of my mouth to ski down a small hill; ten seconds later it was a lump of minty ice. An easy climb up over the Two Doctors and a traverse along the top brought us to the top of the Kremlin, now wishing we’d kept the outhouse door open to the cold a bit longer to scout our route more thoroughly. After cautiously poking our noses around the top to avoid the large cornices at the summit, we delicately hopped our way down to the buttress.
Below us was the couloir we’d seen, looking surprisingly plausible, a steep snow slope boxed in on each side by tall rock walls. A steep entrance led to a rocky choke, then 150m of couloir gradually opening up onto the glacier below. Tobias boot-packed into the top to assess the snowpack, finding a thin wind slab on top of a hard crust. Definitely not ideal, but manageable. I slipped my way down slowly, one axe in hand, the slab breaking away as I went. As I dug my edges into the ice to traverse through the choke, I remembered all the rocky abuse they had suffered in the early season and wished that I’d invested in a tune before this trip. I kicked in a small rut for myself, 1… 2… 3. As I lifted my boot after that last kick I watched my ski slowly roll off my boot as my binding released. I watched it tumble over the rocks below then turned my attention to kicking my boot into the ice and removing my second ski. Luckily, when I looked down again, I saw my ski hadn’t travelled too far down the couloir so after a delicate couple of steps, I was able to down-climb 20m to reunite with it. Thankfully the others made much less of a meal of getting through this section. From there, the skiing wasn’t as great as we were expecting, but we managed to find a few choice turns between hard crust. It’s a nice enough line that it must have been skied before, but with no records in the hut log book, we decided to call our couloir the Gates of the Kremlin.
All feeling a little rattled and worn but not ready to call it a day, we made a final climb up and over to the Three Stooges. The sun already falling low and snacks running out, we decided to designate a sub-peak as the Fourth Stooge to justify our decision to turn downwards. Cruisy turns down towards the hut were a welcome relief.
Day 4: Overseer Peak
I’d slept downstairs by the fire overnight to keep it fed into the early hours, hoping to reduce the pain of an early morning start from the hut. We set off in the alpenglow, enjoying a relatively balmy -15°C temperatures for a change. We hit the sun at the top of the Rollercoaster Glacier and taking a moment to bask, we eyed off our route up Overseer Peak. It’s the highest peak of the Pemberton Icecap region and dominates its surroundings. We chose to forego the more “aspirational” West face lines that Nick had scouted on Google Earth, instead focusing on the Class 3 scramble up the South ridge. The route was catching the full force of the sun but wind and cold kept the snow surface stable for now. Accordingly, we stayed out of a clear snow path to the summit, choosing instead a more technical scramble to the right. This gave way to a brief flat, then a final climb up to the summit on firm snow, all imagining ourselves as Ueli Steck, racing up it in fits and bursts in 4WD mode – crampons and axes pedalling upwards. Obligatory summit photos were had, the huge scale of the region laid out in front of us. It certainly hadn’t been easy to get to where we stood, but now there was a whole landscape of possibilities laid out in front of us. While on the first day we were talking about “never again”, now that we were standing on the summit of Overseer, our conversations turned to “next year”.
The descent down the East face was a lot firmer without so much solar radiation, but as we traversed back around to the South we to periodically slice out the top layer of sun-softened snow as we came down. Climbing up and over the shoulder of Frozen Boot Peak to get back to the hut, we found the closest thing to powder snow so far on the trip on the sunny slopes above the hut, necessitating another lap above and below the hut to finish off our tired legs for the day.
Tobias had been complaining about our diet for a few days now and I was starting to see his point of view. The daily ration of oats, pasta, instant mash and Clif bars, which I had been supplementing with copious amounts of butter and olive oil, was not to his tastes. On our last night, we examined the bottom of our food bag, calculating exactly what we would need to get us back to the car tomorrow and eating the little that was left. Some combination of the diet, the exertion and the cold left Tobias five pounds lighter by the time we were home.
Day 5: Downhill Should Be Easy
We left the hut early, turning off our head torches as we arrived once again at the col above the Rollercoaster. A couple of Immodium pills had held the team together on the climb up and now we were thankful for the views we had yesterday, since the way down was hidden in thick cloud today. Skiing down the top of the glacier into the South Creek drainage was slow and difficult, feeling the gradient out with our skis and trying not to collide with avalanche debris in the whiteout. Throughout the week we had experienced wind slabs on a variety of aspects such that we knew what we were looking for, feeling a layer sliding out under our feet but not yet holding together with enough strength to propagate. Seeing a large dip in the glacier in front of us I chose to skirt around the side to avoid it, instead putting myself above a small snowfield. As I crept out from behind an outcrop of protective rocks, the crack in the snow under my feet started to creep away in front of me, stretching out 20m before releasing the slope onto the glacier. It was hardly surprising given the conditions, but a good wakeup call, reminding us not to take shortcuts even though we had a long day ahead.
The way out was a long traverse, initially still struggling to slide on the cold snow, eventually putting on skins to avoid descending too far into the creek. We were aiming for old logging roads that had also been lost to multiple landslides. Just before reaching the road, feeling confident that we were making good progress, we decided that some of the snow pillows to our left looked too good not to try skiing down. Formed by copious snowfall onto a large boulder field, the pillows towered above us like huge frozen waves. We quickly picked our way up the maze to stand on top of the largest one, now realising how silly the idea was. These pillows, normally only ever skied when soft, hid a hard ice crust under 30cm of fresh snow. Driven by an unhealthy dose of Kodak Courage, the results were predictably poor but thankfully didn’t result in any major equipment or bodily damage.
Once we reached the road, we knew that the only thing separating us from the car now was hard work. There were no river crossings, no more avalanche exposure, no more navigation, just a good hard slog. The headphones went in and away we went, all our minds on the burgers at Mile One in Pemberton.
The car had thankfully been shuttled by Nathan and Esther after their trip to Keyhole hot springs, so we could complete our loop without a second river crossing. However we did have to leave a full page of instructions on how to open and start my temperamental Jeep so there was a lingering fear that it wouldn’t be there when we arrived. But there she was, after 40km of skiing from the hut, right where we expected. The car even started by itself, not quite on the first go, but with a little tinker and some love it was spluttering away happily and we knew we’d pulled it off. We decided Mile One burgers wouldn’t be enough, so we made a short pit stop at McDonalds as a warm up.
Would I do this trip again? Probably not. But that’s certainly not because I didn’t enjoy it. The ridiculousness of the winter approach via the Lillooet River, the mind-numbing slog through endless trees and the biting cold of the alpine have only confirmed to us that so much more is possible in the Coastal Range if you’re willing to put up with those things. There’s more than enough people complaining about the overcrowding of the area as more and more people enter the backcountry, but we found out for ourselves just how much more of that skyline is accessible under our own steam, as a young group who are willing to try things out and accept the risk of failure. Next time we’re looking over the maps again, I think we’ll be looking into the next valleys over, venturing a bit further into our unknown.