A four-day long weekend sounds like a luxury here in BC, that’s why we thought it was about time to make the most out of it and celebrate Easter touring around Garibaldi Provincial Park. On paper, our plan involved driving up to the Elfin Lakes trail head on Thursday, April 18th and camping outside Red Heather shelter to be warmed up for Friday when we planned on passing by Elfin lakes, across the Diamond glacier, and camping at the base of Mt. Garibaldi. Saturday would be our big day climbing up the North East face of Garibaldi, skiing the aspect and exploring the area seeking for some interesting terrain, while Sunday we would traverse the Neve glacier back to Elfin lakes where we would sleep and prepare to get back to civilization on Monday morning. This was our plan, but now let’s get to what really happened.
Nick, Freek, and I (Luca) left a rainy Vancouver on Thursday, April 18th in Nick’s newly purchased Santa Fe (“Patricia” – homage to the soon-to-be-deceased “Pete”) which proved to be a solid vehicle on dirt roads. Also, its back seats proved to be very comfortable since they rocked Freek into a quick but intense afternoon nap. After a stop in Squamish to get a few slices of pizza and picking up a mini Fireball plastic bottle, we headed up to the trailhead and started skinning up from the parking lot – yes, the trail was almost all covered with snow!
After skinning for more than one hour during a cloudy and at times rainy evening, we arrived at Red Heather shelter where we set our camp and took advantage of the indoor kitchen to warm up the saffron-mushroom risotto I prepared the previous night. Despite its delicious taste, a slightly burned and indelible risotto crust was left on the bottom of my pan which proved (again) my poor risotto cooking or warming skills. The evening was then spent in the shelter playing cards (Donkey Butt!), consuming moderate amounts of our cinnamon flavoured whiskey and eating less moderate amounts of candies from Freek and Nick’s supplies. Our calories balance for that day was definitely positive, but we decided it was worth stocking up on energy in preparation for the next long day.
At 7am on Friday morning the alarm went off and a large breakfast set up our spirits and bodies for what should have been our longest day in the Garibaldi provincial park. The marked trail took us to the Elfin Lakes shelter
where we decided to take a long break to eat a snack and refresh our glacier rescue skills: our self-built pulley mechanism proved to be quite efficient in reducing the force needed to pull fish-Nick towards fisherman-Luca!
At this point we felt ready to face any obstacle in our way and confidently headed out towards the Diamond glacier and Mt. Garibaldi base, but our plans literally faded away after only a few kilometers. In fact, we found ourselves immersed in constant, thick clouds and we could advance another couple of kilometers only by blindly following the accurate directions of Nick’s GPS device (Garmin InReach). While checking our GPS location for the n-th time, our attention was caught by a small, naturally-triggered avalanche which was enough for the fearless Freek to exclaim: “let’s get the heck outta here, guys!”. Everyone was on the same page and we headed with good pace towards ridge between the Columnar and the Gargoyles. Once here, we literally couldn’t see few meters ahead of us, the terrain was getting harder, avalanche hazard was definitely considerable and after a quick briefing we decided to stop and wait for the sky to open up a bit.
We knew the weather forecast for the afternoon was sunny and were expecting the clouds to disappear from one moment to the other, so we thought to kill some time by having an early lunch while sitting on Freek’s all purpose sleeping mat. However, the clouds really did not want to leave us and our spirits went from cheerful,
to “when are these clouds going away?”,
to “let’s juggle with snowballs since it’s the only thing we could do right now”.
During that afternoon, we also started contemplating the idea of coming back home on Sunday and skipping the “skiing around” part of our plan.
By 5:30 PM we decided it was worth setting up a tent in that spot, calling it an early night and preparing for the 4 AM alarm the morning after. Little did we know that one hour from then clouds started to open up and blue sky was finally out! After a group discussion we realized it was too late to re-pack everything and keep moving, since the sun would have gone down one hour after. The only thing we did that night was cook Nick’s pasta and add at the end some magic cheese sauce blended with three tuna cans: a flavour hard to distinguish from dishes you can order at original Italian restaurants on Commercial! After that, our stomachs needed a digestive drink before lying in our sleeping bags for a full night and decided to go for an Earl Grey decaffeinated tea with some Fireball added to it: a smooth mixture that made us sleep tight.
The morning after came quickly, and waiting time was compensated by a stunning view of the valley in front of us! Full of energies, we headed towards the Diamond glacier where wind-affected, hard-packed snow and open panoramas already made for that day.
Freek’s probe was frozen in the extended position, so we set out like this:
At times, traversing steep icy slopes was quite challenging for my dull edges and slowed down the team, but overall we were making good times.
On our way, we had to gather a couple of times to take group decisions. Firstly, we had to get to the other side of this very long cornice which was “mellowing out” only in one section, where it looked more like a half pipe ramp with some chunks of icy snow in the middle of it. Nick took the lead and dropped in with elegance, but during the couple of next turns through icy avi debris, one of his skis popped out and he was bound to follow it some meters below. After making sure he was ok, Freek and I descended as well in the same bowl and traversed it staying higher than Nick to avoid that chunky stuff. Once regrouped, we decided it was time to rope up and adventure into the glacier which was anyways fully covered except for a few giant, spectacular crevasses.
Probably our decision was very conservative, but at least we had a feeling for what it means being in a roped party: skiing down a very short section, I felt like a puppy dog on the leash being pulled from behind, while Freek was in the middle of the party and learnt that keeping his skis off both sides of the rope isn’t such an easy job. Also, I’m sure that Nick had some good times silently laughing at both of us from behind.
By now it was close to noon and we started skinning up what felt like a 30-ish degree slope facing the sun: its consistency was similar to mashed potatoes and we were sliding every third step, but we also realized that this layer was only few centimeters thick and even the worst case scenario would have had little consequences . We quickly made our way up to a flat area, sat on the snow, had our deserved lunch break and scouted with our eyes the best ways to get over the next ridge. From a distance it looked quite steep and hard to get over but after reaching the middle of that slope we realized it wasn’t as difficult as expected, and it looked like the best situation to test our gear.
Nick pulled out of his backpack a pair of shiny new ski crampons which he mounted in 2 minutes and quickly disappeared beyond the ridge as if he were climbing the easiest bunny hill. Freek also realized the slope was relatively easy and boot-packed his way up without problems, while I wanted to feel the crampons sticking on the snow and had the longest and most unnecessary boot-pack climb. Despite our difference in approach, we were all quite pleased to be seeing the big rocky South face of Garibaldi a couple of kilometers away from us, and immediately went back skinning towards it, and then around it.
Here we were, on a blue day with no clouds in the sky and a 250m tall face in front of us. I admit that my heart was a little speeding from the excitement and adrenaline of being there, and all I had to say was: “so guys, do you still want to do it?”. There’s no need to say what the answers was… the next thing I know is that we were unpacking our backpacks to leave most of our stuff in two big black garbage bags, and be lighter while skinning and boot-packing the North-East face of Garibaldi. Overall I think it took us around 40 minutes to reach the top, and was actually easier than expected: first off, we did not see the bergschrund which was clearly all covered and therefore not a concern during our way up or down. Moreover, we had 15 cm of nice powder for 95% of the face, an unexpected present that pumped up our spirits during the climb.
In addition to that, the view from the peak was incredible: on the one side we could see Squamish and the Howe Sound, while on the other side it Whistler and its slopes were peeping out from behind, with all the other classic destinations of the Garibaldi area such as Garibaldi lake, Black Tusk and Panorama ridge…a real blast!
We took a couple of pictures with the sharp Atwell peak lines on our background and put our skis back on for the descent down.
Atwell peak and its sharp lines. Photo credit: Nick
The snow was as good as expected, and we had such great turns on that face, even after refilling our backpacks of our belongings and descending more down into the South-East side of the valley: yes, here we started skinning on the Neve glacier! That feeling of accomplishment was accompanying us along the long way back towards Elfin lakes, amidst incredible views of our morning route, the far away Garibaldi face and unexpected downhill sections which are always fun even if the snow is a little heavy.
At this point, we have however to take a chronological detour (aka flashback) to talk about the condition of Freek’s feet: definitely not good. On the day of our departure from Vancouver, Freek had rented some shiny AT boots from the VOC since they looked better-fitting than his own old boots, but little did he know that they would have been the cause of multiple, continuous blisters on both feet! He had been stoic throughout the whole trip, suffering in silence and asking for some blister-tape only during few breaks. But now, on top of the “regularly painful” feet, a feeling of continuous dizziness was now stuck in his head and belly, and we needed to stop and have a water break. Meanwhile, the sun was going down and snow started becoming more and more harsh to skin on. Once we crossed a small creek, we were facing a decently steep section (maybe around 25 degrees) which for the sake of good manners I’ll call “the Witch”, but really you should read it with another consonant.
Nick was leading the group 20 meters ahead of us with his ski crampons on while at some point Freek and I got stuck on some icy section. Every single step felt like an extreme challenge and after gaining only few feet in distance in a few minutes we realized we could never make it to elfin lakes, and decided to camp in that area. Nick was literally 20 meters ahead of us, but the trail condition were so bad that we were either slipping at every step, or sinking and falling. A series of unfortunate mishappenings in these very last meters involve: trying hard to skin up without any success, bootpacking up, coming down to pick some leftover gear, Nick dropping a helmet 150 meters behind and go retrieve it, and cutting my hand with my own ski blades. A good 20 minutes for a 20 meters witch section! Exhausted by the last events of the day, it was unanimously decided we would have prepared a pesto pasta dinner ASAP and make it in our sleeping bags to end up our longest day of this “winter”.
That night was not as comfortable as the previous one in that two-people tent, and despite having set an alarm at 7 am we all slept in for another almost until 9 am. Freek’s blisters were still there but overall he was feeling much better and the snow was providing good grip since the sun had time to warm and soften it, both favourable conditions for a quick and easy walk up to the Elfin shelter, and later to Red Heater shelter. Here, we decided to stop and cook what was supposed to be our fourth dinner, which instead turned into our third lunch: Nick’s delicious falafels! He brought up a bag of chickpeas and spices to be mixed with water and then fried in the pan, something I never thought could have been cooked in the backcountry.
After eating the falafels and other leftover sandwiches, cheeses and salami, it was about time to head back to the car by skiing down the last 5 km of logging road. The snow coverage was much worse than three days before and we had to take off our skis several times and walk few minutes to reach the next snowy section, and ultimately got back to the car.
Compared to our original plan, the route we took was quite similar but our timings were totally off. We basically had 2 and a half easy days and an incredibly long Saturday when we crossed two glaciers and summited Mt Garibaldi. It all worked out perfectly since the weather conditions were fabulous and we still managed to mitigate avalanche risks by skiing a North-East aspect in the afternoon. We also got to test our ski mountaineering gear and refresh some glacier travel tips from previous courses. Overall, this turned out to be a great three-day trip that called for the end of the 2018-19 skiing season, at least for me, and even had time to get our lives together at home on Easter Monday before another working week starts.
PS: On Tuesday morning I had a kickoff meeting at work for a new project in collaboration with a professor from Uvic – whom I never met personally – and her graduate student. I was waiting for them to come at the entrance of our lab, and when the receptionist called me to greet them I hardly could keep a serious face. Two seconds after shaking hands to personally introduce ourselves I needed to ask the professor: “pardon my frankness, where you at the Red Heather hut two days ago?” she couldn’t help but laughing: “were you one of the three skiers making falafels in the hut?”. Another lesson learned is that the world is smaller than we imagine.