The idea of spending a week in the mountains alone had been tempting me for nearly a year. I had heard about Sam Viavant’s two weeks at Phelix and a week at Burton alone. After his trips, Sam asked me if I had ever spent a full day completely alone not speaking to or seeing anyone. I was not sure if I deliberately had. Towards the end of March, I decided to stop just thinking about doing a trip like this and set off to NoFrills to buy the food I would need to spend the following week in the mountains. Burton Hut seemed like the most accessible but also a quiet hut to spend a week at. To avoid needing to have a car parked at Rubble Creek all week, I coordinated with Tom, Ross, Haley, Andrew and Shuyu for rides to and from the park – Thank you!
Planning a trip alone takes a certain type of commitment to yourself but once I had all my food, camping fees and rides planned, I started to get excited. I was finally going to have a week alone to observe the mountains in winter!
Haley, Ross, Shuyu, Andrew and I skied up to the Garibaldi Lake Campground late Friday afternoon. With 10 days of food and extra fuel, the switchbacks felt long and we arrived after dark. The next morning, we skied up towards Mount Price but the visibility was poor. We were all somewhat glad when our turnaround time arrived because we were tired after doing the switchbacks late on Friday. Back at camp I packed up my 9 days of food, tent, stove, etc. and said “Bye”. Andrew helped me lift my pack on. It took two of us to get it off the ground.
Below are the notes I took while on the trip.
Saturday March 27th evening
When I started across the lake, I could see nothing but white in every direction. Eventually it cleared a bit and I even saw the sun for a moment which was inspiring. The trek across the lake felt long. I tried to ski quickly since my pack was heavy and I could not easily take it off until I arrived. Near the hut, I dug a well-protected tent spot and settled in for the storm that was supposed to arrive. Right as I got my tent up, it began to snow. It feels strange to be alone in a storm.
Sunday March 28th afternoon
I woke up a few times in the night to brush off the tent. It kept snowing all night and all day. In the morning there was about 30cm of fresh snow and by now in the afternoon nearly 60cm of new snow around the tent. When a break in the storm came, I was very happy to see the sun! I got water, dug out the tent and outhouse. Everything is silent and covered in fresh snow. This afternoon, I finally moved into the hut to cook because it has started snowing heavily outside again.
Another short break in the storm made the sunset beautiful. I cooked dinner and tea inside but ate them up on the moraine. Watching the stars come out is peaceful. I hear a bird that sounds like an owl from off in the direction of Gentian Peak (Oohoohooh).
It is snowing again this evening so I will spend tonight in the hut. Walking back from the outhouse, I am swamped with memories of Steph, Neil and Carl Douglas*. It almost felt as though they are there walking in the snow near me – which is very strange. It is so quiet with no one else around. You notice much more. In the hut, the only sound when I quiet my breath is the solar lighting timer ticking away and the snow blowing against the windows.
* Stephanie Grothe and Neil Mackenzie died in a climbing accident in January 2015. They were both important leaders in the VOC and welcomed me into the club when I first joined. Carl Douglas took me on my first ski traverse (across the Neve). He died in a scrambling accident in the Rockies in 2016.
Monday March 29th morning
Last night, I finally fell asleep in the hut watching the moon rise over Mount Carr. I woke at 7am this morning to perfectly clear skies. From the moraine by the hut, I watch the sun hit the tops of the peaks. The Tantalus Range in the distance is beautiful. A light fog covers the lake. Until now, it has felt warm (-5C) but this morning it is much, much colder. Everything in the hut is frozen and my hands stick to metal outside. To warm up, I will ski up towards the Bookworms.
I skied to just above the upper lake (not quite onto the glaciers). The views and fresh powder snow are spectacular! The snow geese have been flying over the lake. I think I have seen nearly 100 birds today. There is not much else that moves around here.
This afternoon it is warm in the sun. I spend it thinking about my PhD and reading some of the old VOC journals in my tent. Every time I experience or realize something special, I turn to share it, but no one is there. The glacier routes up Deception and the Bookworms look beautiful – covered in powder snow. The warmth of the sun feels amazing after the storm. I am worried that tonight will be very cold with the clear skies.
Tuesday March 30 11am
Wow it was cold last night! I woke up to the sun rising over the mountains and watched the ice crystals on the outside of my sleeping bag melt. The sunset last night was gorgeous. It turned all the mountains a brilliant pink. At one point in the middle of the night I got out of the tent and stars lit up the whole sky (the moon had not quite risen yet). It is so beautiful yet also harsh here!
Over the last couple days, I have really learned the importance of going to bed and rising with the sun. It is all about solar radiation! I had considered fasting to clear my mind (and not need to bring as much food). However, I am realizing that any attempts at fasting while out here must wait for a summer version of this trip. I am constantly hungry – probably because of the cold.
What a beautiful day! I skied over to Sentinel Bay and the glaciology huts. They are not in great shape anymore. One is missing a door. I saw snowshoe tracks but no signs of any other people on the Neve.
From the huts, I watch a solo day hiker cross the lake to the moraine by the hut. They take a selfie and endless photos – reminding me what a beautiful spot we are in. By the time I return to camp, the day hiker has left, and it feels extremely warm. I dig a hole in the snow on the ice and take a bath. It feels so good to get clean and dry off in the sun! For the first time on the trip, I feel slightly sunburnt even though I had on lots of sunscreen on while crossing the lake.
There are mink tracks, and a little mouse is exploring outside the hut. As I write this, he is running about on the snow in search of food. I really hope he does not find my stash hanging in the hut. It is so wonderful to watch all the animals come out in the evenings. They walk around me like I am not there. There are clouds on the horizon again, but it is still mostly clear. I wonder if another storm is coming.
Wednesday Mar 31st 11am
Last night, I ate dinner on the moraine watching the clouds drift by overhead until I was so cold, I could not feel my hands and feet. While sitting on the moraine I think I heard a train whistle in the valley below.
Although it did not feel quite as chilly as the night before, I wake to everything in the tent covered in frost again. Maybe I am adjusting to the cold. The mink and mouse explored all around my tent last night. I could hear them all night but thankfully they did not get into any of my food. The sunset and stars were beautiful again (it stayed mostly clear all night). I must acknowledge that so far, although very beautiful, camping alone in winter is not an entirely relaxing holiday plan.
It is so quiet here. With no one else around and no wind, all I can hear is my heartbeat and breath. It is different than being in a forest or in a storm where you can hear the birds, wind moving branches, drops of rain. Here, almost nothing moves. There is a deep silence to winter. While I have breakfast, the mouse curls up in a ball next to me enjoying the sun. I can see it breathing but nothing else around us moves.
It is wonderful to have seemingly endless time to just sit and watch the mountains. I feel at home here in ways I have not felt in a very long time. Even though the nights are unbearably cold and harsh, I feel strangely safe. Sitting in the sun during the days has provided much needed time to remember, think and rest. I realize being here, away from the rush of the city and society, how stressed and busy I have been for no real reason. I should remember to set aside time to just sit and appreciate the world.
I ski across Garibaldi Lake and back for some exercise. In the sun it is so hot! I am sweating with just a base layer on by the far side of the lake. Halfway across the lake, I spot some mink tracks and follow them to the mink’s home under a large snow-covered boulder on the edge of the lake (near the rangers’ boat house). After eating a bit of food and listening to voices from the main Garibaldi camping area, I decide to head back. I am tempted to go talk to someone but decide to appreciate the rare time alone that I have had since Saturday.
Two skiers arrive this evening after crossing the Neve and are staying in the hut. It feels awkward to talk to people. I think they are puzzled as to what I am doing here alone. I wonder if Tom et al. will arrive on Friday or Saturday – it almost seems too soon. Vancouver feels like another world now.
My stove is not working this evening which is a bit scary, but some shaking seems to have fixed it. Mac Cheese for dinner!
Thursday April 1st 7am
White Rabbits! Tom sends a text saying he will come up to meet me on Saturday. He mentions that 30cm of fresh snow is expected by Saturday. With another big storm coming in, probably tomorrow I will just sleep and eat all day in the tent.
Last night, I spoke to the two skiers who came off the Neve for awhile. They were thinking about doing the McBride but the weather is not in their favour. It turned out that they are ACMG guides (from Canmore and Whistler). It was strange to talk to someone again. I realized in a conversation I stop paying as much attention to the present aspects of the world and focus on the conversation topic. Talking to the guide, I was swept from the silent peaceful landscape I had been living in, to the world of skiing. It was his first time in the area. I named the peaks for him and described for him the route up the Bookworms, Deception, Sphinx. We discussed guiding a bit. I wonder if I would like to be a guide. I love taking beginners on trips, but I think it would be strange too if they were paying me to take them.
A storm approaches from across the lake. The guides head off to do some quick touring before heading down. I get water, soak some rice for lunch and make some noodles for breakfast before the snow starts. I am not paying attention while lighting my stove and the arm of my jacket catches on fire. I do not notice until I see the flames which scares me. I wish I had someone to laugh it off with.
When I crawl into my tent as the snow starts, I realize how exhausted I am. Being in the cold and alone all the time is tiring when anything goes wrong. In the tent, it is warm enough that I can finally take my rain pants and some jackets off. I lay down and listen to the snow hitting the tent. Each type of weather has its own sound. Until the wind picked up again yesterday, I had not realized why it had been so, so quiet. For days there had been no wind. In the winter, on a calm day, it feels like you can hear for a very long way in every direction. The wind is louder now and breaks up the silence.
Listening to the wind, I fall asleep and wake in a nearly dream-like state. The guides are gone. I briefly wonder if I had just imagined them. At lunch, I watch the clouds move across the sky. I wonder about the power of our imaginations. When you are alone, it seems easier to question reality.
One night earlier, I was remembering Steph. It was very windy outside the hut and I had just watched the full moon rise. I wondered if the people who die in the mountains continue to walk in them sometimes. Now, in the full light of day it seems silly to even write this, but I want to remember my thoughts during these days in the mountains.
I stop writing and take some time instead to draw (as I did not bring my camera)– something I have not done since high school.
Friday April 2nd 12:40
Today I get up and have oats. The storm surrounds the bay, but overhead is clear skies. After breakfast, I decide to ski to the upper lake before it gets too stormy.
At the upper lake the sun comes out, lighting up all the peaks around me. I take my jackets and pack off and skate ski around the lake. I feel like I am dancing on a stage with the mountains as my audience. After one lap, I go for another and then another. The mountains spin around me! I watch the dark storm clouds move up the bay. It is so special but difficult to put into words. I arrive back at my tent just as the snow starts. Time to sit out another storm.
Saturday April 3rd 9am
After some brief snow, it stayed sunny for most of yesterday and then started snowing overnight. I read my book and nap in the tent. The sunset last night was a beautiful pink, lighting the clouds on fire. Tom sent a message saying that he and Ross are heading up. It will be very strange but nice to see people again. I have missed them. I want to record my memory of this trip before I get talking to everyone again so here is my summary.
I write this as I sit in a tent at Sphinx Bay in a blizzard. The last 8 days have been memorable. I came here to sit, think, read, write, and ski. I am all alone but not lonely. This trip is a reminder to focus on the present moment. To remember dancing under the amphitheatre of mountains and watching the clouds drift across the sky. To soak in the spectacularly bright starry nights, the absolute silence on a clear windless day, and the sound of snow softly landing on the tent. I see why people say winter is hard. The silence, the long nights, and deep cold make it feel like everything is asleep or dead except for you. This trip has shown me both the beauty but also the strength of mind needed to live alone in the winter. I am in awe of the people who can live for months alone in the dark and cold of the North. I have learned the importance of other people. They do not always need to be there, but friends give us the courage to go explore the unknown.
After writing the above, I left the tent and skied across the lake through the whiteout. On the far side of the lake, I met two people heading to Sphinx for the weekend. A little farther along a group of five people were talking and laughing on the trail. I stopped to listen to the sound of other voices. Then, I sped down the trail and met Tom and Ross at the top of the switchbacks. We went to the hut and shortly afterwards were joined by a group of another eight VOCers. When they arrived, I was overwhelmed by all the movement, sounds, colours and voices. The next day, the weather cleared, and we all headed across the Neve. The VOCers kindly lent us their car to shuttle back to our own so we could head back to Vancouver on Sunday. Around 1am, we got back to the city. A warm shower and soft bed felt amazing!