Summit Elevation (m): 2580
Trip Date: Saturday, December 16, 2017
Elevation Gain (m): 1000
Round Trip Time (hr): 6.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 21.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain your wrist
Difficulty Notes: Avalanche terrain up to moderately steep on the final summit block. Otherwise a very tame backcountry ski trip.
Technical Rating: OT6;
Quartz Hill has been on my radar ever since I first skied the Sunshine Meadows way back in 2007 with a large group trip up Twin Cairns. Well, almost exactly a decade later and I was back for my first real attempt. I briefly considered scrambling up the ridge while backpacking along the NE face of it on my way towards Howard Douglas Lake and Citadel Pass back in the fall of 2016 but a closure forced me to reconsider that idea. I believe that there is now an annual closure in the area, restricting any off trail travel near Howard Douglas Lake and moving Quartz Hill and Ridge towards winter-only (legal) ascents. Healy Pass Peak has this same type of annual closure going on, presumably to protect the fragile alpine meadows which do not easily rebound from human tracks.
Wietse and I agreed that we would start early enough from the Sunshine Ski Resort parking lot to avoid most of the crowds up on the hill. By 07:30 we were skinning up the ski-out, which was looking a bit thin on snow to be honest. For the next hour or so we skinned up in the dark as dawn reluctantly broke around us and the resort started waking up. It was a lot colder than we were used to, given the amazingly warm temperatures YYC has had over the past month or so. It was around -15 at the parking lot and a stiff breeze didn’t warm things up any! Finally, as day broke over the resort and people started up the first chairs of the day, we slowly ascended the Citadel Pass route along the Strawberry Lift and made our way to the Sunshine Meadows boundary rope.
From the Sunshine Meadow boundary, we followed a myriad of ski tracks out onto the expansive, hilly terrain. Fresh snow facets greeted us with the early morning sunlight and as usual, this place provided a magical experience for us as we slowly worked our way towards the lower Quartz Ridge. We stuck to skin tracks where possible, following our noses and the least hilly terrain in an attempt to make the ski back easier without skins. My new Pomoca skins behaved very well, I was duly impressed with them all day. The forecast on spotwx was calling for clouds around noon, so our goal was to be on the summit before then if possible in order to have decent views. Quartz Hill is a funny little beast, in that we received a few dire warnings about it’s summit block and avalanche exposure. We carried axes and crampons to ensure safety on possible hard snow and were happy to have a “low-low-low” avalanche forecast.
As is normal for the Sunshine Meadows, the distance to Quartz Ridge was much further than it first appeared. By the time we finally got to the NE end of the ridge we were both ready to start gaining some serious height again. Due to the low avalanche risk and rating, we ascended a pretty steep slope up the NE end of the ridge until it eased off and we started threading rocks towards the summit of the ridge. Once again, the apex of the ridge was a bit further than anticipated. Wietse dropped his skis a bit earlier than I did but eventually even I gave up threading all the visible rocks and hard pack snow / ice and started boot packing up to the summit.
As I took the last few steps to the summit of Quartz Ridge, I was surprised to see another person standing there! I recognized her almost immediately as someone I’d never met in person but many times virtually, on Facebook. Alison Sekera does a great many interesting trips and it was very nice to finally meet her for real. Wietse and Alison already knew each other from other trips they’ve done. We chatted in the very cold wind about continuing on to Quartz Hill. In the bitterly cold wind, I have to admit that I briefly wondered if it was worth continuing on. The hill looks a bit exposed from the ridge, but I was encouraged to see old tracks ascending it and on closer inspection it started looking easier and easier until it was silly not to try. Remember – Wietse and I were loaded for bear and had our crampons and axes along. Alison was hesitant at first, but she was game to get her nose into it at the very least. I knew she could easily do it and told her so.
We easily descended from Quartz Ridge to the col with the Hill before Wietse and I donned our crampons (the wind was bitterly cold at the col!) before trudging on towards the NW ridge of Quartz Hill. As expected, the ridge wasn’t nearly as difficult as it first appeared. The partially filled tracks helped, especially on the upper section where the track was over knee deep. In considerable or high avalanche conditions, this ridge is a good place to get into trouble as it’s both steep and broken by rock bands. Also, as expected, Alison had no trouble following our kicked steps even without crampons. We were glad to have them for the lead though. We summitted in oddly zero wind and managed to take a few minutes to drink some warm coffee and take in the wonderful views around us which included the Citadel Pass area and the incredible burnt landscape of the Simpson River, Surprise and Verdant Creek valleys to the south and west. The big “A”, unfortunately, chose to remain hidden in the growing cloud cover.
After taking in the excellent views, we turned back down the ridge under growing cloud cover. The descent went quick and easy and soon we were regaining the ~65m back up Quartz Ridge. On hindsight we could have carried the skis over the ridge and skied down from the col between the Hill and the Ridge, but oh well. The snow wasn’t that great anyway. We managed to slip and slide our way down Quartz Ridge and soon were making our way back along Sunshine Meadows to the ski hill. The weather was changing behind us as we finally got back to the resort and started the quick trip down. We stopped in the lodge for a quick drink and break before taking the marginally snow covered ski-out back to the parking lot.
Quartz Ridge is dead easy and can be done safely during any avalanche condition – taking care on its steeper east aspects obviously. Quartz Hill surprised me a bit, despite knowing from friends that it has a bit of bite. It’s still pretty darn easy for anyone with snow climbing experience, but for someone who is expecting a “hill” experience, ala Prairie Mountain or the like, it will come as a bit of a shock when you see the summit block. With stable conditions, stick to the ridge and avoid cornices and you should have no trouble with it. The views are definitely worth it so make sure you catch it under clear skies if possible.