8 days of ski mountaineering in the Manatee range. ‘Snow is just powdered water’ -Will Day 1 The trip began as these things always do. Nick was late. Instead of spending the day before our departure packing for the week long excursion, Nick and I had taken a day trip down to Mt. Baker to sample the recent dump. As a result we were wholly unprepared come nightfall. I opted to stay up until the wee hours of the morning, while Nick chose wisely to sleep. I headed up to whistler early the next morning for one last day of lift accessed skiing, and Nick and Tobias prepped for the trip. We collectively decided to begin the tour before nightfall to ensure that we could complete the first few tricky kms with light, so we agreed to start skinning by 5 pm. When 5 pm rolled around, I was waiting in a parking lot in whistler, while Nick and Tobias approached a few hours behind schedule. And so it goes. We repacked into my car and set off to Pemberton as the daylight began to fade. After our obligatory McDonalds stop, during which Nick fired off emails full of trip details and verified that our SPOT beacon was actually functional, we started the drive up pemberton meadows and the sun finished its downwards transit of the horizon, pitching the world into darkness and increasingly unfavourable touring conditions. Yay. We planned to drive up the Lillooet FSR North fork until we reached the base of Mt. Meager, then cross the wide floodplain left by the 2010 landslide, since the only bridge to take us in the direction of the Manatee range had been obliterated. When we reached the fork, Nick popped the question; What if the south fork (which would allow us to skip the floodplain) is ploughed? 15 minutes later we had our answer. It wasn’t, so we returned to the north fork a little bit further behind schedule. We were making short work of the long, winding, icy FSR, watching the temperature hover around -7 for the better part of an hour, when I had a disagreement with my wheels about what direction we should be moving. I proposed we make a gradual left turn around an approaching corner, while my car argued that we should continue straight forward. My car won the debate, and soon we were outside in the cold, digging the wheels out of a snowbank and collecting pieces of plastic strewn about the road. Once the car was back on the road, I surveyed the damage and applied duct tape to the most important looking bits of the engine. Turning the key confirmed that the car had accepted my diagnosis and band-aid application, so we continued on into the night. The time was fast approaching 9 pm. After a short period of faff at the trailhead, we began skinning on the icy road, making our way towards the floodplain. We airmailed our gear across a few creeks, and found ourselves in the wide open river valley, hearing the distant sound of running water. We approached the crux of the tour. With the bridge long gone, the only way to cross the floodplain is by fording the Lillooet river on foot, a feat accomplished the previous year by Nick, Tobias, and company. They were seasoned pros, but I was a frigid-river-crossing-in-the-snow-carrying-absurdly-large-backpack-and-skis virgin, so we graciously let Nick (literally) test the waters. On the list of things I like to do when I’m outside in the snow, in the middle of the night with the temperature dropping below -10, ‘taking my pants off’ is close to the bottom, far below ‘going home’. Yet somehow, I found myself standing bare-legged on the snowy banks of the river, fully bundled up in Gore-tex and Merino wool above the waist, with only boxer shorts and neoprene booties below. And so it goes. Exposing your skin to the elements turns out to be a great strategy for this particular activity however, since by the time Nick had found a shallow path across the water and I prepared to follow, my entire lower body had gone numb, and stumbling across the river was painless. One by one we reached the far side, removed our rapidly solidifying booties and transitioned back onto skis. What followed was a long, straightforward lesson in how not to prepare for a day of skinning, as I discovered that lack of sleep combined with 5000 meters of resort skiing does not encourage exercise. We slogged through the night with Mt. Meager illuminated brilliantly by moonlight, and eventually reached the Meager hot springs site. Earlier in the day there had been talk of awaking at 5 to start the next day of skinning, but after cooking dinner and prepping our beds in the hot spring changing hut at 3:30 am, we elected to adjust our wakeup time to whenever the fuck we felt like waking up.
Breakfast and lounging in the hot springs was an excellent contrast to the frigid soak of the previous night, and our late wake up was so pleasant that we debated cancelling the rest of our plans and spending the entire week in the tiny warming hut. Unfortunately our ambition prevailed and we packed up our temporary camp by the early afternoon. At its peak, the sunlight shone down through scattered clouds and glistened off melting frost, as billows of steam gently wafted upwards from the hot pools. It was a truly gorgeous sight, natural wonder with just a touch of human craftsmanship that blended together exquisitely, a reward made even more enjoyable by our isolation and the effort it had taken to reach. This experience was somewhat tainted, however, by the arrival of a helicopter full of out-of-shape but thick-of-wallet tourists, who spared no time setting up their folding picnic tables on the poolside pathways, seemingly unaware of our enormous, teetering bags as we squeezed past on our departure. After chatting with the pilot briefly we set out on the next leg of our journey. And so it goes. The ethics of bringing dogs while touring is a hot debate, and despite not seeing a single skin track on the logging roads, we noticed that we were sharing the path with puppies of all sizes. There were even fresh puppy tracks following our skintrack from the night before, clearly the forest was filled with friendly dogs who had smelled our food and wanted to say hello. Sadly we never got to meet any of the friendly dogs, but we decided to hang our food at the end of the night to ensure that none would get sick from all the chocolate we had packed. Due to our late departure, we only managed to cover ~10 km of logging roads and landslide debris before making camp. Day 3 While planning the approach route for the Manatee range, Nick had plotted a course that followed ~20 km of logging road until the reach of industrial civilization ended, before charging into the alpine wilderness. At the boundary of these two environments was a steep wooded hillside that would bring us from the valley floor to the base of a series of rolling glaciers that we would follow to our basecamp. We took to calling this section of the route ‘Misery trees’ after Nick’s one-word description on google maps. We were relieved to find that the Misery trees involved very little misery after all, and soon we were basking in alpine sun. Basecamp was now about 12 km away as the crow flys, and only a couple hours as the kook slogs. For the third day in a row, the sun set long before we reached our destination, and we were blessed by clear skies and a bright moon as we made our final push to camp.
After 3 big pushes spread over 48 hours, we had finally arrived at our basecamp site; a few disconnected groves of trees perched on a hillside. There were a couple possible sites to make camp, and we briefly meandered in a few short circles to check out the options. At this moment I discovered the limits of my mental endurance; I had no problem skinning with my absurd backpack for hours on end when I know it is required to reach a far-off destination, but my patience evaporated immediately when we switched to faffing in circles. After expressing my impatience with a few choice words, we settled on a camp and I was hard at work sitting motionless in front of a stove while Nick and Tobias excavated our tent spots. I enjoyed the first of several ‘big boy and mash’ dinners, a traditional dish that roughly translates to ‘dehydrated potato flakes with a large summer sausage’. It was a triumphant night; finally after 3 days of hard work, we had finally reached the bottom. Now the fun could begin. Day 4 Alpine start: when you start in the alpine Continuing our long standing tradition of being cold and tired in the morning, we awoke early on our first summit day, and remained in bed for several hours upon realising that all our possessions had frozen solid from the combination of sweat, water, and -20 temps. Once the sun exposed itself to us, we slowly emerged from our tents, laid our gear out to thaw, and thawed our innards with breakfast. The appeal of trekking to the Manatee range was largely due to its obscurity and inaccessibility. Nick had laid eyes on it the previous year during his Harrison Hut debacle; a massive alpine playground featuring granite spires, steep snowy peaks, and fractured glaciers, all of which had become very difficult to reach when the 2010 landslide had knocked out the main access route. It was likely that these peaks had not seen winter ascents in a decade, and we had poured blood, sweat and tears into reaching the area. Naturally, we were delighted to hear the pulse of an approaching helicopter, depositing a group of heli skiers near one of the range’s mellower peaks to poach our turns. And so it goes. We took some solace in the fact that the group was likely promised an untouched wilderness experience, only to find a single skintrack snaking for a dozen km across an otherwise pristine glacier and ending at a pair of unnaturally coloured tents. The pilot, who we had met a few days prior at the hot springs, had noticed our camp on the approach, and rendezvoused with us briefly while the clients enjoyed stealing our snow. When they departed soon after, it would be our last contact with the outside world for 4 days. After successfully defrosting our boots, we set off to tackle our first objective: Dugong Peak. Our skintrack followed a rolling glacier as it approached the mountain, before lunging up the steep face through icefalls and very firm snow. Upon reaching a slim, 4-inch wide crevasse in our path, we peered down into the belly of the glacier. ‘Looks deep’ we remarked, because the crevasse looked very deep. ‘Better not fall in’ we remarked, because we decided that it would be in our best interests to stay on top of, rather than venture inside the glacier. With great confidence in our conclusions, we continued on our journey upwards.
After a final section of very firm bootpacking, the summit surrendered itself to us. After soaking in the view, I peeled the skins off my skis for the first time in 4 days, and revealed a hidden feature of skin glue. Given enough time/cold/sun thawing/neglect, the glue will permanently attach itself to the base of your ski, so you never have to worry about skins falling off. This feature has the unfortunate downside of making it very difficult to slide on snow, but thankfully the descent route was almost entirely edging on ice while avoiding death pits on the glacier. We picked our way down to the flats and cruised back to camp as the sun dipped below the horizon once more. After a very exhausted dinner, we packed in to bed. As is inevitable on these trips, we were adopting a 12/12 sleep schedule. Day 5 The day to tackle the titular peak had arrived. After repeating the slow, delicate morning proceedings of the previous day, we set off in the opposite direction, reaching the outflow of the Manatee Glacier and following its undulations southwest towards the towering Wahoo Tower, which towered above the massive icefield like the tower of a large castle but made of ice and rock instead of just rock. Upon closer inspection, we plotted a course through the icefalls and up the final 45 degree face. Navigating our path was a delightful mix of steep skinning and bootpacking, which allowed us to utilize the crampons and ice axes we had lugged for 5 days, as well as granting some variety in photo opportunities.
The final bootpack snaked through a no fall zone of rock and snow, then deposited us on a ridgeline with a small alcove for shelter just steps below the summit. Tobias, who was moving faster than Nick and I, was waiting in the alcove for us to arrive. We wasted no time dropping our bags and sprinting past Tobias to claim the summit first for ourselves. The icy polar wind howled around us as we braced ourselves, crouching with poles and ice axes, which made us look very alpine, so we snapped a few pictures before losing feeling in our hands and deciding to descend. Back in the alcove, we attempted to transition back to downhill mode while the wind attempted to redistribute our gear across the glacier. After fumbling through this task, we strapped ice axes to our poles for extra cool alpine points, locked out our toe pieces for extra spice, picked our way back down the no fall zone and retraced our tracks downwards, wary of pockets of windslab that we had noticed on the ascent. Once again, when we reached the base of the tower and regained the glacier, the sun dipped below the horizon and darkness began to chase us back to camp. As we meandered towards food and sleeping bags, the dying light achieved a state of perfect flatness. The glacier stretching out into the distance blended perfectly into one whitish tone, and I adopted the optimal skiing position for such conditions; knees slightly bent, weight too far back, arms vaguely stretched out, eyes squinting in the wind, confused expression on my face. Luckily, the visibility soon disappeared completely and we followed Nick’s bright headlamp back to our exit from the glacier. Between us and dinner, there remained one short section of skinning to regain a ridge before a flat slide back to our camp. As the darkness became even darker, we debated who would set the skintrack for this last push. As a general rule of thumb, I had two reasons why I thought Nick should set the skintracks on this trip:
- I’m tired
- This was all Nick’s stupid idea
Thus we started up the hill with me picking up spots in the middle/rear of the three pack, and before long we were back at camp eating large bowls of various types of hot sludge. Day 6 After our 8 pm bedtime and following the 12/12 sleep schedule, I awoke on the 6th day, peered out of the tent, and immediately returned to my sleeping bag. In contrast to the chilly, bluebird mornings we had experience so far at camp, this day greeted us with a calm but rapid downfall of snow. The three of us each reached the same conclusion alone: it was not a day for alpine objectives, or much movement of any kind. While Nick and Tobias slumbered on through the morning, I found it difficult to fall back asleep after already getting my full 12 hours, so I decided to complete a small task I had to finish before our departure. This was the longest trip that any of us had ever planned food for, so naturally we were nervous about accidentally starving to death. I managed to plan my dinners and snacks perfectly, but had overpacked on peanut butter for lunches and coconut for breakfast, which meant that I would be carrying a couple hundred extra grams back to the car. Being the serious weight watching alpinist I am, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and mixed the two ingredients together to produce a thick, extremely high calorie dense paste, and spent the morning in my sleeping bad, spoon feeding myself mouthfuls of the fatty concoction. It wasn’t until about 1 pm, when the weather let up, that we managed to stumble out of our tents. ‘I just slept 15 hours straight’ said Nick, who had just slept 15 hours straight. We poked our way through some lunch, and eventually willed ourselves into our boots to do a few laps of the hill by camp. Some fresh tasty snow was found, and for the first time we returned to camp before dark. That evening we polished off as much food as we could manage, and did our best to deplete the alcohol reserves.
Day 7 We rose from our final night at basecamp and began disassembling our camp back into our bags which were depressingly heavy, yet not quite as depressingly heavy as they were when we arrived. The mood was bittersweet as we departed; the trip was coming to a close, but it meant that we were one day closer to experiencing clean bodies and air temperatures above 0 degrees. After swiftly dispatching the rolling 12 km glacier slog, we reached the top of the Misery Trees once again. After transitioning and beginning our descent, we made a fascinating discovery about the woods. The previous day’s snowstorm had deposited a thick coating of snow in between the tree trunks, transforming the forest from a collection of trees with a mix of ice and snow on the ground, to a collection of trees with a knee deep layer of what some people call..”powder”. After spending so much time in the windswept alpine we were initially confused, but soon were hooting and hollering our way down the hill, obliterating pillows and slashing turns as our gear dangled off our bags in pursuit. When we finally reached the bottom there was even talk of turning around for a second lap, but the call of the hot springs was too great and we instead set off towards warmth.
The rest of the afternoon was filled with a steady slog, interspersed occasionally by snack breaks, and slowly but surely we churned through the kilometers separating us from our last night of rest. Although we saw a great deal of tracks, once more we sadly did not meet any friendly forest dogs. Aside from one last shortcut resulting in multiple bails, we made it back to the hot springs in one piece, and collapsed for the night. Day 8 The Meager Creek hot springs are startlingly hot as the name suggests, and even after a week of frigid nights, longing for heat, I could only withstand a few minutes of submersion before my body reached dangerously high internal temperatures. To fix this, I developed a technique wherein most of my body remains just above the surface, kept warm by the rising steam and a few odd bits of limb heating my blood under the surface. As I lay on the ground, sprawled out on the dirt, completely naked like a wild animal, I contemplated never returning to civilization. I could live the rest of my life here, at peace with nature and cocooned with warmth. Unfortunately I was completely out of food, so after a few hours of silent, motionless meditation we packed our bags one last time and began the last slog home. As we approached the floodplain, we encountered a group of snowmobilers on their way to the springs, who were bewildered to see 3 ski tourers emerge from their destination. We were relieved to find out from them that our neoprene booties and beach towel, which had been hung from a tree beside the logging road, were still there waiting for us. With this additional spring in our step, we cruised down the remainder of the road, retrieved our swimming attire, and set off across the plain.
With the midday sun above us, temperatures at the beach were balmy and we all excitedly stripped down for another dip in the river. After stopping in the middle for a few photos, we dried off and completed our transit of the plain. One more quick bushwack put us back on the logging road, and a few minutes later we were back at the car, which thanks to the duct tape was still operational. We drove, slowly this time, back to pemberton.