No tent poles, not enough fuel, a couple detours = Good time to be had!
(P.S. This report was not reviewed by my trip partner. Certain facts and events might have been exaggerated for entertainment.)
Mamquam had always been on my to-do list. With my skiing ability improving, I think it’s time to try this classic spring ascent. Julien wanted to go back there again. We were chatting about doing something together over Easter, the first option was to do the Exodus Traverse over four days; however, we only had three days of good weather window (when you are an unemployed bum, you only go out on bluebird sky days to have Type I fun, preferably over weekdays to avoid the weekend warriors crowd…) so we decided to do Mamquam and explore the icefield over those three good forecasted days.
During our trip planning email faffs, a few route variations were discussed: I wanted to do a loop — going up from Darling Lake, dropping down from the north end of the icefield near Trick Peak (or even Super Couloir), traversing back south via Eanastick Meadows while checking out the Eanastick Plug; Julien wasn’t sure about the snow conditions lower down on the meadows and in the forest on the low traverse, and convinced me skiing Super Couloir with an overnight pack would not be fun; we decided to make things simple not doing a shuttle to Elfin, and evaluate options along the way depending on the conditions we see.
I picked up Julien on a beautiful morning at sunrise. In our half asleep mode, he asked me: “How much fuel (my responsibility, tent is his and more on that later…) did you bring?” I said: “A full bottle of that medium size 591ml MSR fuel bottle.” He hesitated and replied: “Hmm, are you sure that’s enough?” He does a lot more winter camping trips than I do so I trusted him and said: “If you don’t think that’s enough, do you want to bring your little bottle to make sure?” The response was: “Meh, we’ll probably camp at Darling Lake tonight with fresh water.” A little surprised, but I did not challenge him, fully aware that was probably one of those “last famous words” situations, and we started driving.
An uneventful drive on dry roads took us to the final steep slope before the winter access to Watersprite Lake, where the snow started at about 800m elevation. Since we still have more than 4km to go on the FSR, we decided to put chains on and give the slope a try. After a couple of attempts and failed to go over the deep ruts created by previous vehicles spinning on the same spots, we gave up and put on our skis. The rest of the FSR was still well covered by snow and we made to the summer trailhead for Watersprite in about an hour.
With a couple recent reports, community discussions from recent history, and Julien’s personal experience a few years back, I was fully prepared to suffer through some Type II+ fun crossing multiple creeks and being topped off by whatever Paranoid Creek is offering us at the end. I thought about bringing my almighty Crocs but Julien told me he and Caitlin crossed Paranoid Creek in their ski boots shells last time so I reluctantly left them behind. We must have hit the jackpot for the perfect condition combination of snow-bridges-in and alder-still-mostly-buried, as we only needed to take off our skis a couple times to walk through trickling streams. The new foot bridges across a few creeks must have been put in in recent years after Julien and Caitlin went through there last time — thanks to BCMC and the popularity Insta-Watersprite got.
We were not going to laugh too early though, knowing the real test of Paranoid Creek is still ahead. The dense connector trail between the two old roads was the first real battle: spring snow coverage in the forest that was isothermal so I really had to fight through a few parts with tree branches belays. After we emerged from the worst part onto the higher road, we came across a couple guys on their way back. They told us one of them was not comfortable crossing Paranoid Creek so they turned back from their day trip, but said two other groups went through. We bid farewell to them and marched toward the crux of the trip that’s not far ahead, cautiously optimistic. We even had a lunch break at the end of the road before the creek to fuel up our courage. Belly full and ready to give it our all, we gingerly moved up the icy snow, following some sparse flaggings and random foot/ski tracks toward the creek. Before we even started looking for options to cross, we were standing on fat snow pillows across like on a highway and were already on the other side. We looked at each other bewildered and wondered where those two and some other people went. Different perspectives, maybe? Thanking to our luck, we didn’t even bother looking for the usual “big log” and the hand-line-assisted crossing we heard of. Breathing a sigh of relief, we put on ski crampons and started trudging up the steep forest to the alpine, ignoring the thoughts of probably having to ski down the frozen slopes on the way down.
We made it to Darling Lake shortly after 3pm. The views were spectacular to the Garibaldi Massif and the Neve. Since it was still early, we decided to continue to camp on the icefield. Agreeing that we probably have just enough fuel to melt snow, we filled up our water reservoirs with fresh water from an opening on the lake. The temperature rose rapidly with the glorious sun, and my skis were getting snow glops and icy chunks under the more used parts of the skins, which made the gliding more difficult and I started to slow down. Over two and a half more hours later, we were on the Mamquam Icefield and found a spot around 2150m with 360° views for camp.
Even with the perfect weather forecast and mild wind, Julien insisted on building snow walls for the tent. So we spent the next hour digging snow blocks and finding some intriguing layers. After the wall was up and the bedroom floor was flattened, I was getting hungry, so I went to make the kitchen and started cooking dinner while leaving Julien to finish setting up the tent. Just as I was about the start my Dragonfly and kill the tranquility, I heard a loud “F*** F*** [email protected]#%^^*$&^%!$^…” I turned toward Julien and he told me he didn’t bring the poles for the tent (because “Caitlin started a new way of storing the tent with its body and poles separated.” — yes, we decided to blame the gf…) Nothing we could do then and knowing we would probably be fine with the good weather, I left Julien to engineer some kind of a shelter with his imagination off the materials we had and started making dinner. The time and energy we spent building those snow walls turned out to be much needed after all. With his meticulousness, Julien built us a more-than-acceptable 4-star shelter and we were late asleep after a colourful sunset and a gourmet meal.
Neither being an early morning person, we needed the beautiful alpine sunrise helped wake us up. I downgraded my hot breakfast to a quick cold one to save fuel, chilled in the morning sun, and waited for Julien to come out from his “post-breakfast digestion nap”. (He had a cold cereal in the sleeping bag and thought I was going to have my hot breakfast anyway.) It quickly became a t-shirt weather day as we got ready and headed to our main objective of the trip: Mamquam Mountain. We bootpacked from the high col to the final bit of the summit block and unfortunately found brittle, sugary, rime snow/ice. Julien went ahead to investigate and sank to his upper thighs every step he attempted with no solid ground to purchase on. We only brought a rope with no protection gear, so after a short discussion, we decided to pull the plug. Although a little disappointed, especially this close to a classic, I’m quite satisfied these days not to stand on the summit of anything if the conditions were not right. The views were stunning and just being there was a treat.
After some fantastic turns from the summit col, we had a quick break and pondered our options for the rest of the day, and decided to do a big loop walk around the icefield and see what other things we could get on. We continued skiing with some glorious mellow turns all the way down to ~1850m and then walked back up on the wide ramp on the north side of the icefield.
Julien wanted to give Trick Peak a try, but its large south face had been baked in the hot sun for the entire day with cliff bands at the bottom, which made any incident probably high consequence albeit low possibility. We did not like our theory, but still decided to take a look because we will have a good reference slope at the bottom before even gaining the larger face. After getting on the slightly steep slope at the bottom, Julien performed a quick hand shear test — the top 20cm slid right away without much resistance. We simultaneously had a laughter “NOPE” together and turned back. After a quick peek toward the exit of the glacier on the west side of Trick and saw some tracks from the previous day (we couldn’t figure out where they went — the two guys we met the day before told us the groups ahead seemed to be on a day trip — they must be doing a fast long day trip!), we slogged up toward the middle of the icefield hoping to get on the 2370m summit in the centre of it. It started getting really hot and we were able to melt snow in our Nalgene for more water. At 4pm, we finally got on top of something with unobstructed 360° views — not too shabby.
We were happy to call it a day and a quick ski brought us back to our camp. Weighing my fuel bottle again, I convinced Julien that we had enough to melt water for dinner and rehydrate. Who wants to go back to Darling Lake while we had that view on the icefield and a fortress built already to protect us from any invasion!? I started melting water to take advantage of the heat during the remainder of the day, and Julien decided to spend some time to upgrade our shelter to 5-star luxurious resort standard. The rest of the evening went smoothly and we were to bed early after another nice sunset.
The next morning, we pretty much silently agreed to return the same way we came and not to entertain any more adventures over the loop through Eanastick Meadows. With some tears in our eyes, we sadly flattened our two-night double-wall “Taj Mahal on the Icefield”.
Skiing down the couple sections of steep bulletproof concrete ice walls to get off the icefield was more than a warm-up I asked for to start the day. We took a break at Darling Lake and boiled some more water for a warm breakfast and tea. After admiring one last time of the views, especially the lenticular, artistic, fairytale looking cloud forming on top of the Garibaldi Massif, we headed down to the real testament-of-will on this trip: that steep icy forest. It did not disappoint — I pretty much side-slipped down half of the way while resting every other turns. We again crossed Paranoid Creek at the same spot like walking over a highway bridge, sending some prayers to the fat pillows that endorsed our pleasant journey. The dense forest connector trail was not bad this time either as the snow was completely frozen, so we just carried our skis and walked through it. We reached the summer trailhead to Watersprite Lake with a relief, and anticipated the hour or so walk on the road back to the car. Little did we know, a lost glove and a “shortcut” detour which turned out to be a dead end (unless you want to balance walk or à cheval over the giant IPP pipe) made the walk a little longer…