Canada's Valleys Of Ice; Backcountry Ski Touring the Coast Mountains
Words and Pictures by Mo Rasiah
Published February 2006
11pm Whistler, Canada, April 2005
Five months of planning and you thought we would have known better. Trying to move out of your house, put all of your shit in storage, shop and pack for a two week ski touring expedition… in one day. Yeah, right. Our lounge is an explosion of gear and food. More Zip-Loc bags than a skunk dealer. Two weeks worth of food is to be divided up, and checklists to be checked. Have we got enough toilet paper? Is all this going to fit in the chopper? What’s our weight quota? Shit!
5am. We load the truck. It’s so heavy it looks like it’s going to pop a wheelie with gear, skis and food supplies packed in to the brim. Adios Whistler! We start the 12 hour journey north, but drive south (go figure!). With the Coast Mountains behind us, we head east to the Fraser River valley, then north towards the Monashees, and then further north towards the Cariboos. As the sun begins to set, we bank west again. Under alpenglow we once again see the magnificent Coast Mountains and our first glimpse of the Waddington Range. Excitement stirs in the truck. We can see the reason why we’ve come.
In darkness we try to find White Saddle Air Services in Tatla Lake. After banging on some farmer’s house we get rough directions to where we are going. We finally find our man…or so we think. We are a day early. Our pilot has decided to go snowmobiling. When do we fly then? We camp on the side of the airstrip and spend our first night in the tents.
When morning arrives, we make contact with our pilot Mike King. A pioneer and legend around these parts, Mike’s company specializes in transporting skiers and climbers into the deep backcountry of the Waddington and Pantheon Ranges. Despite our unexpected early arrival he agrees to let us fly. He has a new Bell Long ranger, only a few weeks old.
Game on. The gear explodes from the truck. We play Tetris, trying to squeeze everything in to the chopper. Packing, then repacking, nervous about trying to push all our gear in without scratching the brand new machine. We sign the waivers, detail our plans, and are briefed about how to contact base for weather, or in the dreaded case of an emergency. Transceiver check, harnesses on. Who’s sitting shotgun!? It’s my turn isn’t it!? We wedge ourselves between our sprawl of gear. The machine vibrates as Mike fires up the bird. We say goodbye to civilisation and enter the bliss of an alpine world.
The 45-minute flight is breathtaking to say the least. Gorging our eyes on terrain only before seen in maps and photos. Glaciers flowing down from the range in all directions, eventually merging into rivers of ice literally running as far as the eye can see. We fly over the Scimitar Glacier, up and over Fury Gap, and onwards to the bottom of the Dais Glacier. Camp is perched at 6560ft (2000m), from here we have planned a series of ski touring objectives varying in length and difficulty.
After unloading, we shuttle loads from our landing zone to our proposed camp. Baker, one of our party wants to ski a line…now. We argue that setting up camp is more important. Shelters must be built to prevent our tents from becoming kites. A kitchen has to be dug into the glacier and shaped. An alpine lavatory to be sculpted with the best view in the world!
We hear the echo of the helicopter bounce off the walls of the valley. Mike has come to drop off another group. Our hope of them choosing another camp vanishes. Oh well, there is room for all of us. More than enough room. We take advantage of the chopper’s presence, and radio Mike to see if he can drop us on Regal Dome, a nearby peak. 15 minutes later we are clicking on our skis. Behind us is a 600ft (180m) drop onto the Dais Glacier. In front of us lies a 2500ft (760m) corn run! Nice to start the trip with a drop!
The sun’s heat is intense. We each get on with our tasks. Finally Baker cracks the shits and wants to go ski. We make a compromise. Geary and I assume the chores. Baker is on cook duty tonight. As the sun begins to set, Geary and I sit contently in our newly built home. We watch, green with envy as Baker rips a line off Mt Cavalier. A tiny moving speck against the vast expanse of the glaciated peak. The sun sets to our right, the moon rises on our left.
We awake to clear skies with morning winds. After much debate during dinner, it is decided that if we have the weather, the opportunity should not be wasted to attempt our primary objective; the NW summit of Mt Waddington. Research has shown us that the weather in this region can be unforgiving. Open windows of weather are scarce.
We sleep through our alarms and leave camp late at 6:30am. We skin up the Dais Glacier, and rush up the Dais Couloir. Solar warming is strong. Chunks of ice and loose rock bounce off thewalls of the couloir. We are regretting sleeping in. Following this climb, the vast Angel Glacier is revealed.Hanging precariously from the summit of Waddington, it is our crevassed path to the summit.
It is now nearing 4pm. We are tiring. Winds are increasing, clouds lingering. Something does not feel right. Geary and I decide to start the descent 650ft (200m) short from the summit. Baker soldiers on a little longer but also turns back shy of the summit. We ski some good quality winter snow down Angel Glacier. While roping up to cross a crevasse on our ascent back to the Dais Couloir we witness two serac falls - huge isolated blocks of ice that are formed when the glacier’s surface is fractured. A cloud of snow is seen running out below from the avalanches they start. The mountain talking confirms our decision to leave. At 6pm we prepare for our descent of the couloir having waited for conditions to firm up after the days warming. We roll into camp at 7pm, tired after a long day.
After what sounds like some rain during the night, we awake, sleeping in after yesterday’s tiring summit attempt. We decide to spoil ourselves and cook up one of our bacon and egg breakfasts. After only two days, the sun has melted our windbreaks at camp. They lean over, almost touching the tents in parts. The walls of the lavatory have collapsed. We repair camp, re-dig the floor in our kitchen, and spend a few hours melting water.
In the afternoon we make a 16km loop to Mt Finality and to a landmark known as ‘The Tit’ (named so for obvious reasons). Wet snow avalanche activity is still present. Not always within sight, but always within earshot. It is so quiet that you can hear everything that happens in the valley.
After a late start, we spend the day moving camp. We plan to make the Ice Valley our new home in order to attempt the summit of Mt Munday, and to do some skiing. Winds are moderate, the sun is again in full effect. After making a new camp, Baker and I ski a line off Ice Valley Peak. The north aspect provides some good corn snow. We retire to our new camp and watch a beautiful sunset. In the distance we can hear rock fall off Mt Munday as night sets in.
4am. Skies are again clear. Contrary to our research we wonder if there is ever any bad weather here. However, winds are strong, more so as we gain elevation. Following the route up Mystery Pass, we top out at the central summit of Mt Munday, continuing to the North summit. From here we see the Tiedemann Glacier running for what seems like eternity. Geary needs to take a dump. He scares the shit out of himself digging into a crevasse while making a hole to poop in! Realising the possible consequences of his actions, he quickly relocates to a safer place to make his deposit - a ridge with a rocky 200ft (60m) drop behind him!. We ski a really steep line dropping us onto a SE Glacier of Munday. The snow is sketchy. Rock hard, but softens as we descend the glacier. We are flanked by a spectacular glacier dropping 1000ft (300m) to our left.
After some time to rest, we ski another line off Ice Valley peak. Content with our day, we play a spot of alpine frisbee golf, then check out a crevasse near camp. Clouds begin to gather in the evening.
The stir of a strong wind rattles the tent. The temperature has dropped significantly. Our plan today is to ski a north facing couloir off the summit of Ice Valley Peak. But, due to the cold temperatures and wind, the snow has not yet begun its normal corn cycle. We aren’t keen to ski a steep line in nasty boilerplate conditions so we decide to return to our original base. We break camp and once again argue about who is carrying what. We reverse our route down the Ice Valley Glacier, up the Corridor Glacier, and over Jester Pass. We return to Dais camp to find our original site totally melted. We build a new home. Baker and I set our sights on a steep northwest face on Mt Cavalier. After a sketchy bergshrund crossing, (the crevasse that separates flowing ice from stagnant ice at the head of a glacier) we get ready to ski our line as the mountains turn orange in the alpenglow. A steep 50 degree pitch, dropping onto a rolling glacier. One of the most scenic runs of the trip.
Skies are clear, the sun shines bright. From the comfort of camp we can tell there is a strong wind about the peaks. Things are calm as can be at camp. We set out to ski a couloir we have been eyeing up all week. Directly across the Franklin Glacier from camp is Mt Brokenhead. The wind keeps the snow firm. Our hope is to have some nice snow seeing the couloir is east facing. It will have had a full morning of sun.
However, once in, we discover we have 1500ft (460m) of steep crusty snow to deal with on top of the vertical gullies formed by rain and solar radiation. Exhausted, we are relieved the snow improves once the terrain mellows out. We radio base and get the first report of bad weather coming in a few days. Finally a rest day? Once again we repair our melted camp.
Sunny skies….again. Winds are light. After a bacon and egg breakfast we tour down the Franklin Glacier to an unnamed glacier leading to Whitetip Mountain. We boot pack up to a false summit and view down to the head of the Franklin River. We see trees for the first time in a week. Following this, we follow a ridgeline to Peak 2411. We ski a north facing shot,dropping us onto a glacier after a small bergshrund crossing. We pick our way through the crevasses until we pop back out onto the Franklin Glacier. As we roll back into camp, cirrus clouds are forming. Winds pick up. The weather is changing.
Finally the weather has turned. Skies are obscured and it is snowing lightly. We call a rest day and finish off the last of our bacon and eggs. Visibility is in and out. We play cards, sleep, and play cards again. It snows 15cm through the day. At 11pm, it looks like the weather is clearing.
We awake to broken clouds, winds are calm. Visibility is patchy, the sun shines periodically. Should we radio the base to get pulled out? We’ve been lucky and bagged a lot of skiing, but we want to hit Bella Coola for a few days seeing we have some extra food. Decision made.
Our last objective is a couloir on Mt Chris Spencer. After touring up to Fury Gap, we ski the couloir and pick our way through a line scouted en route on the Fury glacier. We ski powder for the first time since Day 2. Our snow spraying turns are the last for this trip and leave us with smiles wide.
The chopper echoes in the valley once again. We break camp. Everyone is quiet on the way back, reflective perhaps. Maybe just really tired. 3 guys, 8 peaks and 10 days of great weather. Could it get any better? We camp next to Tatla Lake, make a fire, and dive into the crystal waters. Our holiday is over…or is it?
Next stop, Bella Coola.
Mo Rasiah has been living an endless winter for seven years. Skiing has taken him to over ten countries on four continents and there are many more to come! He is based out of Whistler BC, where he teaches skiing to pay for his habits. Now a life long student of the mountains, he hopes to eventually become a ski guide and continue to share his love of skiing with others.