Authors/trip participants: AJ Dreher, Joe Meyer
AJ and I had been gunning to go to Sphinx hut for a while. One of the main objectives was to ski the Sphinx – an iconic mountain towering above Sphinx Bay, visible from the hut. AJ also had never been to the Sphinx hut and was excited for the experience of crossing frozen Garibaldi Lake while enjoying the beautiful views of the mountains. We saw we had a short weather window at the end of reading break 2023 so we decided to head up. It was supposed to be sunny the first two days of our three-day trip, it hadn’t snowed recently, and avi was Moderate/Moderate/Low.
To get up to Sphinx, the route begins with an ascent of the endless switchbacks of the Rubble Creek Trail. Since the Rubble Creek Trail starts at quite a low elevation, and the snowpack this year has been dismal, there was barely any snow at the bottom of the trail and we had to bootpack a fair bit of the way. As if carrying overnight winter camping packs with mountaineering gear and skis A-framed to them and hiking in ski boots wasn’t hard enough, the bootpack was made even more difficult by the sheets of ice covering the trail. It was terrible plodding on our way up, and it was so slippery that both of us came close to falling several times. It took us about 1.5 hours to bootpack 2 kilometers on the ice because going any faster would lead to a fall.
It crossed my mind that it would be quite hard to get down the ice, although at the time the main danger seemed to be falling on our asses – not necessarily falling off the trail, so the risk assessment part of my brain said it was okay to keep going. At the same time, AJ was also thinking about how difficult the descent would be, and she considered bringing up the question of whether we should go back to the car and go somewhere else. But she’s a tough and stubborn person and was very excited to finally visit Sphinx, and didn’t want to bail, particularly after another pair of people hiked past us on their way to ski Taylor Meadows for the day–if they could do it, surely we could too…
Once we were able to put skis on and start skinning (at around the 3-kilometer mark), we got going much faster and made it to Garibaldi Lake in a reasonable time. I should also note that it was very cold and windy that day. We’d been warned by a couple of groups that it was ridiculously windy crossing Garibaldi Lake, and we could see the gusts creating tornadoes of snowflakes out on the lake and rippled, wind-affected snow on the peaks surrounding it. But we were prepared to endure the wind and assess wind-slab avalanche risk when attempting our objective the next day.
We took a long lunch and recuperation break in the warming hut at the Garibaldi Lake campground before making the trek across the lake. The wind was blowing perpendicular to our path, so it wasn’t as bad as it would have been if it was blowing straight into our faces. With the sky completely empty of clouds and the sun shining on the mountains, the crossing was definitely a highlight of the trip. All the same, it had been a long, cold day of travel and we were grateful to arrive at the hut, which was empty.
We settled in and noticed that the outhouse door was not closing properly because of snow that was jamming the doorway (we shoveled it during our visit so it closed properly), and that the door to the hut was also having some issues closing – two heavy buckets were placed in front of it to keep it closed.
I can’t remember exactly how cold it was, but I remember AJ saying something along the lines of “feels like -25” on the way up, I think it was around -15 with windchill down to -25 while we were up there. Needless to say, it was a cold night, and we were the only two in the hut so we didn’t warm it up very much with our body heat. We didn’t bring white gas to use the white gas heater so we had no means of heating the hut at all.
Because of how cold it was, keeping our water in a liquid state was a constant challenge. During our trip, we had to dedicate lots of time to melting snow for water or chipping holes in the lake, and at night we kept our water bottles in our sleeping bags so they wouldn’t freeze. The cold also made our stoves less efficient, unless we cupped our hands around the fuel canister to warm it.
Though our sleeping bags were warm, I realized my feet were quite cold and numb the following morning, which is a bit odd because they normally warm up in my sleeping bag overnight, but I didn’t think too much of it.
We were out of the hut and skinning by 8:00 AM, plenty of time to summit The Sphinx if conditions were right. We skinned through the nasty alder and strip of forest, and up to the split with the Bookworm corridor and Sphinx Glacier. AJ did a great job keeping us out of the crevasses on the lower Sphinx Glacier (they were very easy to avoid tbh). On the upper part of Sphinx Glacier, there were no open crevasses or scary convexities that might have contained hidden crevasses, so we cruised up to the Sphinx-Deception col. Everything was ridiculously wind scoured. We spotted some cornices hanging off the rocky ridge to our right but weren’t particularly concerned. It was cold and even if they fell they wouldn’t have fallen on us.
Once we reached the Sphinx-Deception col we evaluated that the next bit of the climb was sketchy – the runout was dangerous and it was definitely avalanche terrain. Everything we had seen that day was crazily wind-scoured so we weren’t too concerned about wind slabs there, but this slope was on a different aspect and had been slammed by the wind instead. Not too far from the col, I saw some snow slab off when I did a kick turn, although at first it seemed to be a relatively benign wind crust. As we got a bit higher and on another kick turn, the ‘wind crust’ slabbed off pretty badly and propagated about 2.5 meters, and it slid down to cover the skin track. At this point, both AJ and I were too uncomfortable to keep going so we transitioned as fast as possible and skied back to the col. We both agreed that it had been unwise to travel on that slope and that if we had dug a pit before going past the col we would have seen the way the snow was behaving and not gone on the slope in the first place. It was a bit discouraging to turn back when we were so close, but when you hear the mountains telling you no, you listen.
We skied down the Sphinx Glacier, which was an amazing setting to ski, being so wide open and surrounded by beautiful mountain peaks. The sun had softened the snow surface a little bit since we had ascended but it was still not the easiest or most enjoyable skiing (did I mention wind crust???).
Once we got back to the hut around lunchtime, we got nice and warm in our sleeping bags and read some of the old journals at the hut. Reading the old journal dedicated to Steph and Neil was particularly meaningful to me, I’d never read fully through the memorials before. Around 4:30 we were considering going for another quick lap on the Garbage Pile or something close by, taking in the sunset and hopefully finding some halfway decent snow. My toe was feeling weird though so I decided I better take a look at it. When I saw my bluish-tinged and numb big toe, I realized that a quick evening tour was definitely not in the cards for me.
AJ skied out over Garibaldi Lake to appreciate the mountains, and look for Anton’s group that was supposed to show up that day and help them if they were struggling. We had communicated to Anton about the icy conditions on the Rubble Creek Trail the previous evening an InReach, but even with the slow going on the trail, they should have shown up by then. Turns out they bailed for various reasons so we were once again the only ones in the hut. AJ returned to the hut after watching a beautiful sunset from the middle of the lake and we commenced with making dinner and melting more snow for water.
To help with the frostbite, that night I switched my socks out for ones that would compress less and restrict less blood flow to my feet. I also wore my pants (which don’t have any insulation, but they were at least something), and my puffy to sleep which I hadn’t the night before. My feet stayed nice and toasty.
We got up and left the hut not too terribly early the next morning for the ski out. My toe, AJ feeling sick, and the prevalence of clouds disgorging snow meant we weren’t going to try to ski anything on the way out (otherwise we might have considered bagging Deception or Price). We made it across Garibaldi Lake before visibility got too bad and transitioned at the Taylor Meadows junction. Skiing down the upper part of the Rubble Creek Trail was crusty and slow.
Eventually, the thinning snow coverage on the trail made us fear for our bases and we stopped to put the skis on our packs. I made the dumbass move of removing my ski leashes before getting out of my bindings. I slipped a little bit on the ice and sent my ski plummeting down the steep slope. I was convinced my ski was lost forever (which was very demoralizing because the skis were new and this was the second time I had used them, the first being the best powder I’d ever skied earlier in reading break in the Duffey), but AJ kept reminding me that we would find it. Thankfully a few switchbacks below where the ski fell, at one point my eyes snapped up to see that sweet sweet black diamond logo sitting in the snow. I cried like a baby being once again reunited with my favorite toy.
We both thought this would be the most trying part of the trip, oh how wrong we were…
Remember that ice I talked about? Well, it was still there. Going down was even more difficult than going up, particularly because the ice now had a thin covering of snow on it so it was hard to see where the most slippery places were. Even though the trail isn’t very steep, the ice was so bad that on some sections we were on our hands and knees.
Roughly 2km from the parking lot, we were crawling slowly backwards with an ice axe in one hand and a pole in the other over a particularly icy section. AJ was sliding very slowly but uncontrollably backwards so I grabbed onto the ski on her backpack to hold her in place (I was anchored pretty well onto a tree root at this point). She said that I could let go because she thought she was once again in a stable position, but once I let go she couldn’t find a good spot for her ice axe and was getting no purchase with her pole or boots, and she slowly and agonizingly slid off the edge of the trail, pulled down by her heavy pack. She slid really fast 50ish meters down the slope, and I yelled after her but felt helpless and a little bit responsible. I should have shouted down to see if she was okay first, but being panicked at seeing what just happened, I dropped my pack, kept my ice axe, and went down after her. I was expecting snow next to the trail, assuming the ice on the trail to be caused by hikers, but the ice continued (I assume it rained then refroze earlier in the week) and at a very steep grade. I lost control almost immediately and slid down right after her. Thankfully neither of us was particularly injured – AJ banged her knee but could walk using it with no problem. I went up and grabbed both of our Ice axes, which had been buried somewhere on the slope, and got my pack then very very slowly and safely made my way back down to AJ digging the picks of both ice axes in as much as I could and kicking into the slope with all I was worth. We talked it out and I remember AJ saying “there’s no way I’m heading back to that trail”, so we decided to try bushwhacking for a bit.
it’s hard for me to revisit my memories of what happened to write this because it was absolutely terrifying. I remember being on my hands and knees on the trail, and suddenly I was slowly but uncontrollably sliding backwards on the ice. Once I went over the edge of the trail I immediately began sliding incredibly fast. I had no way of stopping myself; even if I had not had my ice axe ripped out of my hand I would have not been able to arrest the fall given how icy and steep the slope was, the speed at which I was sliding, and being slammed around by the tree debris on the ground. I was screaming in a way I’d never screamed before because I’d never before in my life felt like I was going to die. I’ve been in a handful of situations where things were getting scary spicy and I was freaked out, but this was a new level of terror. I knew there was a creek somewhere down below me and as I was sliding I was waiting for the moment when I hit rocks and cold water. But I was very lucky where I fell. There was in fact a creek down below, but well before I got there the slope mellowed and got snowier (and therefore less slippery) and I was able to grab a branch that was overhanging the slope and stop my slide.
I’m not going to pretend I was okay. In fact, I was hyperventilating with shock and fright. I yelled to Joe that I stopped sliding, took off my pack (one of the skis had fallen off), and began examining myself for injuries. It came to me that I had read somewhere that when people are in shock or full of adrenaline they sometimes do not feel that they are injured as badly as they are. I had pain in my right knee, so I experimentally bent and flexed it and tested my weight on it. Everything seemed to be in working order, so I figured I had just slammed it on the way down. Miraculously I had no other injuries. At this point, I heard some crashing and saw Joe sliding down the hill with his ice axe almost as quickly as I had. Suddenly I was more frightened for him than I was for myself, because I didn’t want him to get hurt in his attempt to get to me. Once he got to me we calmed down and made a plan for what to do. I would not even consider going back up to the trail. I had slid off of it so easily, from a position I thought was stable, and there were still 2k of icy trail to negotiate and I was terrified of going over the edge again. Besides, I wasn’t even sure if I could climb back up, especially with my pack on, and I was not about to let Joe take the risk of ferrying both his pack and my own up and down the slope.
We ended up walking down a pretty mellow wide slope with sparse trees just downslope of the Rubble Creek Trail. Our plan was to head back up to the parking lot/trail later. We got to within around half of a kilometer from the parking lot but were on the wrong side of Rubble Creek, and the slopes heading up back to the trail were too steep even with ice axes, and had cliffs. We were boxed in. It was about 3:00 at this point, and this is when we decided to press the SOS button on the InReach. We figured that it was smart to let SAR know we were in trouble sooner rather than later, so perhaps they could get to us before night fell if we couldn’t get back to the trail. We gave the emergency responders some info – our coordinates, and that we did not have a bivy as we had been staying at the hut, and we didn’t have very much food and water. It was about 3 pm, snowing very hard, and I was worried that if we were going to wait for Search and Rescue we’d be waiting until the next morning. Standing around even for just a few moments made me realize how wet my gloves were and how cold I was becoming. I remembered farther back up the way we came there were a couple of large tree wells that would be okay for a makeshift bivy or snow cave, better than where we were at the moment. I was also confident that If I needed to I could get back up to the trail and to the parking lot, the issue would be getting our packs, along with an in-shock AJ along with me. I’m pretty proud of the fact that we were both able to keep cool, not panic, and were thinking pretty straight throughout the entire ordeal (except for when I went off the trail after AJ).
Not too far back up from where we were stuck, I spotted a slightly less steep slope on the map that would lead us back to the trail. I thought that trying to make our way up that slope was our best option. AJ was more hesitant because she was still freaked out from the fall and a little shaky, but agreed that this was the best idea and that she would give it her best shot. We walked back to the base of the slope and notified SAR of our new coordinates and that we were trying to get back to the trail. We went very slowly, as we were both drained as fuck (we hadn’t eaten lunch, and our water was frozen), there were lots of brush and trees to contend with, and falling here and getting injured would be really bad. I was nervous but could see AJ getting more confident using the ice axe to ascend the snow/ice/dirt/root/stick/moss slope, and after some very slow and deliberate route finding we finally reached the trail again. We were .8 kilometers from the parking lot, and the ice here was not the kind that sent you off a cliff, just the kind that sent you onto your butt.
We got back to the car and I took a much-needed poop. My dad called me while I was on the shitter after I texted him, as he’d gotten a call from the SAR guy and was nervous about me. While getting my boots off, AJ called the SAR guy telling him we’d made it back to the car. It turns out that they’d had a team ready and were waiting to hear from us as to whether we’d made it back to the trail, so they probably would have gotten us out that evening anyways and we wouldn’t have had to makeshift bivy. The SAR guy stayed on the line until we got the car started, which it did.
While I was driving, AJ Googled what to do about frostbite, and it said to go to the emergency room, so we b-lined it to the ER in Squamish despite atrocious road conditions. We sat around for a while, still with no water until we pleaded with a nurse for some (apparently you aren’t supposed to have any food or drinks before seeing the doctor). Thankfully I had warmed my toe up in time and only had Type II frostbite (no removing of tissue necessary, but I will have to wait for the end of my toe to slough off and regrow, the blisters might turn black too! Yay!). AJ also got her knee checked out and everything seemed fine, just a really bad bruise.
Sunny Chibas is right across the highway from the hospital so we annihilated some massive burritos before braving the sketchy road back to Vancouver. It took us an hour and forty-five minutes to get back from Squamish despite no traffic, the snow was terrible, but we made it back home safe and sound though.
A couple takeaways:
- SAR are the greatest.
- InReaches are encredibly helpful (bring them, the club has two).
- Tell roommates/family where you are going even if they aren’t your emergency contact. (we did have an emergency contact, of course)
- We probably should have turned back seeing the icy conditions on Rubble Creek without microspikes, we made a mistake here because we were objective-blinded.
- We probably should have dug a pit or turned back, seeing the sketchy slope up Sphinx
- Communicate well with your adventure partner(s), and keep a cool head. This is one of the things I think we did well despite making some bad decisions, and it made a big difference in an unlucky and scary situation.