Sometimes in life you get a chance to do something that you've always wanted to do but scares you a little at the same time and you have a choice to make. Is it one of those moments that you jump in or jump out?
Monday May 7 2012 I was presented with such a chance. Since our failed attempt at Mount Columbia in February, Ferenc and I had been planning a repeat 2 day trip to get redemption. Our plan was to wait for optimal conditions in May before our next attempt. TJ was also keen on Columbia so I agreed to keep him in the loop. We all agreed that the weather was setting up quite nicely for the end of the week of May 7 and started throwing around some ideas. The forecast became so promising that soon TJ was proposing we take as much as 5 days and 4 nights off to bag as many of the northern Columbia ice fields peaks as possible in one nice push. Jason Wilcox (JW) was added to the email chain as another interested and very fit and experienced mountaineer.
(NOTE: TJ is a super-fit aspiring ski guide who, unlike Ferenc and I, doesn't have a wife and kids yet - so he didn't realize that he was asking us to miss Mother's Day and what a huge ask this was on our part!! ;-))
Because of the weather forecast, the excellent snow coverage this year and the fact that we'd have experienced and strong partners in both TJ and JW, Ferenc and I decided that it was worth bringing the idea of the trip up at home with our families. Hanneke graciously agreed that this was a unique opportunity for me and obviously Ferenc received the go-ahead too and before long we were preparing for the trip. I've done some remote trips in my lifetime and planned some physically aggressive days in the mountains and what experience has taught me is that sometimes enthusiasm for a trip overcomes the realities of actually doing the trip. More on that later, but I believe this happened somewhat on this trip too. It's so easy to sit in a comfortable chair in front of a keyboard, planning summits and days on a glacier but the reality is that the summits we were planning on are all over 11,000 feet and even our approach day to base camp was nearly twice the distance most ski parties make in a single day push.
The plan was quite simple. Thursday, May 10 was looking like a mix of sun and cloud with the odd flurry thrown in. This was a perfect approach day (we reasoned) as the seracs falling off Snowdome would be less active than on a sunny day and we were only setting up base camp anyway so we didn't need perfect weather. Most parties give up after 4-6 hours of lugging a heavy winter pack up the glacier and set up camp kilometers away from the peaks at the northern end of the ice field, but for fit parties it's highly recommended to get as close to North Twin as possible in a single push. From Friday-Sunday we hoped to bag as many 11000ers as the weather and our conditioning allowed. The big dream was to get all four Twins (South, West, North and Tower) and the two Stutfield peaks at a minimum. Monday would be our exit day.
With an obvious high pressure system building on Thursday night and lasting until at least Monday or even longer, we felt pretty psyched about the next few days. One of our key strategies was traveling as light as possible while maintaining safety. This meant absolutely no extras;
One pair of socks (yes, for 5 days!)
One shirt. (Tip - Merino wool apparently doesn't retain smell like the synthetics do.)
Light carabiners and gear (aluminum crampons, light axes etc)
Minimal shelters. For example JW brought a four season tent, but only took the outer shell, poles and ground cloth (not the main tent). TJ had an even more minimalist shelter, the Mega Light from Black Diamond, a tarp-like shelter with no poles, no floor and no extras.
Enough food to survive, but not enough to live too comfortably either - no baking pizzas on back country ovens on this trip!
Small packs are essential for packing light. If you use an 80 liter pack, you'll fill it. I had a 55 liter pack which fit everything inside while JW had a 38 liter pack but he had to attach stuff to the outside.
I got up at 0300 on Thursday and met the others at 0400 at our meeting area. We quickly piled our gear into JW's deluxe "approach tank" and off we went! We used the snow coach road to get us and our gear as far up the Athabasca Glacier as possible before skiing which meant dumping our gear at the snow coach parking lot and waiting while JW parked at the climber's parking lot about 1km back down the road and walked back up to us.
[JW gets his skis ready in the snow coach shelter before we head out to the glacier. As you can see, it's a pretty grey and blustery morning!]
The weather wasn't ideal as we started our trip with a steep walk down the gravel road to the Athabasca Glacier. The air temperature was fairly warm but there was wind driving snow into our faces and very limited views around us. As we skied up the snow coach road I wondered what our day was going to look like considering how ugly it was this low already. Once on the main glacier we realized that there were no tracks to follow thanks to the wind and snow and so we decided to trade the climber's left approach through heavily crevassed terrain for the route under the Snowdome seracs instead.
(FYI - The route on climber's left is generally considered a bit safer for ascent if you know where you're going because the route under the seracs could result in a house-size chunk of ice on your head without any warning. For descent the serac route is usually a better option because you're skiing downhill and race under the ice fall in about 60 seconds as opposed to picking your way through the more crevassed route.)
Since only JW had been up this approach before, we relied on his memory for the correct route. We couldn't see very far ahead, which didn't help any. JW has a good memory and did an excellent job guiding us up a few steep snow ramps to the serac fall zone. On a cloudy day such as ours the seracs are generally fairly inactive. On this particular day we witnessed 2 small ice falls and a small avalanche in the 5 minutes we were waiting to cross! All the ice fall activity made us nervous enough to consider descending and trying the crevasse route instead but eventually we worked up the nerve ("let's just go a bit further and see how it looks") and raced through the ice fall runout zone in about 5 minutes - thankfully no activity started up while we were under it. The risk was minimized by going climber's left almost out of the debris field and we still had the issue of not knowing the exact route through the more heavily crevassed terrain, so I believe we made the right decision on ascent.
[Snow and ice come tumbling down from the seracs overhanging our route from Snowdome as we debate whether to go through this route or back down - we chose to go as far below the serac debris field as possible rather than risk the crevasses of the other route.]
Our trip continued up the ramp to the main Columbia neve. Near the top of the ramp we ran into a couple of guys returning from a two day attempt of Mount Columbia. They looked pretty tired with huge packs and told us not to follow their tracks since they'd gotten a bit lost in the whiteout depproaching from the mountain. They never did get up Columbia due to the high winds and snow. Things were looking good for us already! :-)
[Past the seracs and part way up the ramp to the Columbia Glacier neve. We're still smiling at this point...]
[We stop to talk to a couple of guys coming out from an attempt at Mount Columbia. They were thwarted by high winds and lots of fresh snow and warned us of slabs on lee slopes and getting lost on the neve.]
We contoured up and around Snowdome's lower south and west slopes on a bench plateau, using TJ's excellent GPS navigation skills which he'd recently honed in whiteout conditions on the Spearhead Traverse near Whistler, BC. The weather was rapidly deteriorating the further we went.
[The last picture I have from Thursday - just before heading into blizzard conditions when the only thought I had for about 3 hours was getting to camp.]
By the time TJ was getting dizzy from staring at the GPS and then trying to peer into a world of grey and white, I was questioning why the heck I wasn't at home playing a round of golf in balmy 15 degree temps or at work sipping a Starbucks! Nobody was having much fun as we slogged our way along the endless stretches of the icefield in extreme gusts of wind, icy snow sandblasting exposed skin, glasses fogging up from trying to breathe into face masks and all this while carrying packs and trying to avoid skiing into crevasses which you couldn't see until they were literally right under you!
On hindsight there's some humorous moments that I remember from our approach. In one of them TJ is completely disoriented. He's absolutely convinced that we are standing in a crevasse field and going the wrong way. He repeatedly stares at the GPS and then peers into the white void, desperately trying to pick out any land feature, but all he sees are gaping holes all around. Up seems down and down seems up. He skis forward a few feet but then stops and repeats the confusion. We have to yell in order to hear each other even though we're only a few meters apart and this complicates things. I stand there in my own little world of grey imagining what my family is up to right now. Maybe I do have a problem that I insist on joining trips like this... Eventually we figure out that TJ's 'crevasse field' is really just some snow drifts (!!) and JW takes a turn at lead with TJ on the back of the rope with the GPS, yelling directions at the top of his lungs. This leads to another humorous moment.
JW was convinced he was skiing in a straight line ahead of me at the front of the rope. This would be fine except for the fact that I could clearly see from behind him that he was curving hard to the left!! I kept yelling, "more right!" but he kept insisting he was going perfectly straight! Finally TJ confirmed my analysis and told us to keep at a certain contour level on the slope rather than trying to navigate perfectly. Ferenc wanted to pull out a compass but this wasn't going to work either, since our route wasn't in a straight line and we would spend a lot of time navigating off a map in a full-on blizzard which is never fun.
As the day progressed we got more miserable (except for TJ who doesn't get miserable unless he has nothing to do... ;-)). By the time TJ suggested we stop and set up camp I was exhausted and seriously questioning my own sanity. Exposed skin was numb from the blasting snow and we couldn't see anything around us, never mind any of our destination peaks! Other than the GPS info, we had no visual confirmation that we were anywhere near our mountains! All we knew was we were tired, cold and wet and needed to dig in our shelters and get some warm food in our stomachs.
Setting up camp was another adventure. Since both shelters were minimal, they did require some extra work to set up properly. After probing for crevasses we figured we only had about 3 feet of snow on the glacier so we took care with how deep we dug. We built a quick snow wall for some (limited) wind protection and set up the tents. TJ's mega light was set up first and he started boiling water in the tent while JW and Ferenc set to work on the other shelter. I was completely toasted but when JW yelled for help I went to assist. I was shocked how windy and cold it was outside after spending 30 minutes in the tent. After a hurried supper (warm food was excellent) we made preparations for Friday and turned in for the night.
Sleeping was an issue for most of us. TJ slept pretty well with his ear plugs in but my sleeping bag was so crammed with stuff that I was trying to dry out that I was feeling very claustrophobic in it (boot liners aren't small). Add to that the condensation from the inside of the tent snowing down on me all night and the furious wind threatening to the tear the tent in half and creating a din that made it hard to ignore and I got maybe 3-4 hours of restless sleep on Thursday night. Combine this with the 4.5 hours on Wednesday night (we got up at 0300 remember?) and I was lacking a bit in the rested department by the time the sun was shining into our tent on Friday morning.
But at least the SUN was shining!
Eating is never easy at higher altitudes and since our camp was just shy of 11,000 feet it was especially nasty trying to choke down breakfast, especially while trying to stay warm and out of the wind which was still blasting away at us. I was a bit tired after the efforts of the previous day but Ferenc seemed especially out-of-sorts.
[Vern is happy the sun is shining Friday morning, after a tough day the previous 24 hours!]
We decided on the Stutfields since they're technically very easy and can even be done in full whiteout conditions via GPS. We had great views of North Twin and Twins Tower as we dropped to the North Twin / Stutfield col from camp. Our camp was nice and close to all of our objectives - we felt pretty good about making it so far in such daunting conditions the previous day! My gut tightened at the sight of Twins Tower with it's super-exposed snow arete stretching thousands of feet above the valley floors beneath! I couldn't quite believe that I might be on that snow ridge some time in the next few days...
The ascent of Stutfield Peak was straight forward. We had a great snow pack so no crevasse issues. The going was slow - Ferenc had a hard time with the pace, pretty much no matter how slow we went. I figured he was just tired from the previous day and I noted that he hadn't eat much that morning either. The views of North Twin, Twins Tower and Mount Alberta were simply stunning from the summit of our first 11,000er of the weekend!
[TJ and JW on the summit bump of Stutfield Peak.]
[Mount Columbia - I was part way up that ridge over 11000 back in February!]
[The stunning exposure of Twins Tower as seen from Stutfield Peak]
[Summit panorama looking west including (L to R), Columbia, South Twin, North Twin and Twin's Tower. ++]
[A closer view of the other 11,000ers in the area. ++]
[Ferenc on Stutfield Peak]
[Mounts Woolley and Diadem on the left and Thorington Tower on the right]
After trying to soak in the views and ignore the biting chill of the ever-present wind, we turned our attention to the next mountain, Stutfield NE.