The Ledge has been on my mind ever since the Sea To Sky Gondola opened. The majority of people in the Squamish / Whistler area probably don’t know of it’s existence, but you can see it from many points along Highway 99, including the Tantalus lookout. It’s also visible from the gondola. But only the upper ledge is visible, and the lower 2/3rds of the line remained a mystery to me. After summiting Sky Pilot two months ago I started to piece together the two ramps that comprise the bulk of the business. Although I scanned what few pictures existed online, nothing could have prepared me for seeing it head-on, in the flesh.
To cap off a lackluster winter, my spring was mostly spent at the computer. Got things backwards and ended a major work contract just as the season is about to end. I knew there was some quality corn up in them hills, but couldn’t be bothered with the extended low snow approaches. Enter Eric Carter, who just got back from 3 months rando racing in Europe. He got me off the couch by suggesting Sky Pilot’s northwest, which I hadn’t skied in over 15 years. Don’t know what’s scarier: skiing a face with full double exposure to cliffs, or being completely out of shape and heading into the mountains with one of the fittest guys in Canada, who also happens to be wearing a speed suit. Certainly the latter.
After arriving home from the Weart mission, I wanted to take a day off and then do another mission before the forecasted storms changed the snowpack. Unfortunately the weather seemed to be coming earlier than expected, and Sunday was the last perfectly clear day. For my ski line I needed all of the sun’s energy to convert that thin sheen of ice into slightly softer hardpack.
Update: This is a good reminder why I write these stories down, otherwise I forget. Ptor Spricenieks and I were skiing around the Weart zone last year and he mentioned a solo descent he did way back in the 90′s. Anyways, I totally forgot about it. I sent Ptor an email at the beginning of the week, but he was in the middle of nowhere in Asia. But just got an email back. He soloed from Blackcomb, climbed the same route we did, skied the South Face line, then hiked out the trail. He met Jeff Holden who was coming up the trail (who was about to do his solo on the Armchair), and they smoked one. Classic!!
While climbing the North Arete on Wedge, two days prior, I snapped some photos of the boys behind me. At home, I saw the South Face of Weart and zoomed in. There was a very exposed and intriguing line hidden on the face. Something you’d only see if you were on Wedge and had a telephoto or some quality binoculars. The day temps were finally rising and the South faces were corning up nicely, so I recruited Julian Stoddart for an early morning Saturday mission. My legs were still sore from the Currie-Blackcomb, so it would be good to have a fresh ski partner to chase up the steep Wedgemount trail.
Lots of hours on skis this past week. It started last Tuesday night, with an old friend Cooksie, inviting me on a Mt Currie heli-drop. It was such short notice, I didn’t have time to say no! Met Cooksie, freeskier Matty Richard, and Pro sailer Curtis in Whistler. While stopping at the coffee shop in Pemby, I came across rando boys Brad Schalles and Stano Faban. We’d been looking to fill extra heli seats, so they jumped in with us.
Wrote some of this when Fransson died. But these last few months have been chaos filled with endings and new beginnings for me, all capped off by an unplanned, life-sucking house reno. Lately I haven’t even been able to contemplate skiing, let alone finding the motivation to search for the next beautiful ski line. Doesn’t help that Squamish broke a December 9th temp record of 8.9C from 1991, with a staggering 15C.
But that’s where guys like Fransson come in. Fallen comrades who lived such amazing lives, with a seemingly endless thirst for skiing. Inspiration that helps you reset your course, get your priorities right, and reignite your love for the mountains regardless of whether you’re skiing something steep or just going on a walkabout.
Note on photos: It was so cold Tobin’s camera never worked the entire day, and mine would freeze up periodically. Many of the photos are a bit soft because my viewfinder and my automatic focus was frozen (so I just had to put the focus near infinity and hope for the best).
Summit day – Tobin and I wake at 6am. The last 2 nights have been torture. As soon as I lie down and try to relax the subtle suffocation begins. Breathing faster to get more oxygen in, the mind begins to obsess about breathing and the lack of oxygen. My mind can’t distract itself by daydreaming of better days, because it doesn’t seem to have the ability to hold a thought or image. When I wake I have a splitter headache and immediately pop some advil. The condensation inside the tent has created 1cm thick surface hoar on our sleeping bags. The weather is perfectly clear, but it is probably the coldest morning I’ve ever had to operate in. 2 merino undershirts, my ultra-light puffy and my light down jacket are all compressed under my slim-fitting Gore-tex shell. My liners are frozen and refuse to conform to my boot shells. Jon graciously warms them in his sleeping bag while I finish packing. Soon we’re skate-skiing across the vast expanse of the summit plateau. The route starts to climb and traverse above and below seracs on the flanks of the west summit. Without Rich’s route description, we’d have no idea whether the east, west, or main summit is highest. They all look so similar.
So we were at the base of Canada’s highest mountain with no map, no route description, no idea of how many camps were possibly needed, or how long it might take (had a malfunctioning GPS with a tiny screen). All I knew for sure was that my gloves were pathetic, my down jacket wasn’t full of enough down, my sleeping bag was over 15 years old, my TLT6 liners were unproven in extreme cold, and my 35L pack could barely fit my sleeping bag. All my gear worked fine at -15C, but -55C with wind-chill seemed a bit unreasonable. But changing gear wasn’t an option, so I focused my attention on strategy. With the Inreach, we got weather forecasts, number of camps, camp elevations, and how long the average tourist took on Logan. It was something like 16 days, which didn’t really help us since we only had 5 days until the next major storm came in.
“Extraordinary circumstances . . .” was the phrase I seemed to mutter, when we pulled the plug on our first mission. We knew that this area didn’t break world-snowfall records, but this was ridiculous. Back at camp we formulated a plan B and C. Plan B was to call the pilot and get the hell out (not a bad option considering the state of the crevasses). Plan C was to head to higher ground. We chose the stick it out. We were relatively low in elevation, so conditions might improve as we headed up onto the icecap. Furthermore, Mt Logan is just around the corner (35 to 40km away), and as Canada’s highest peak (5,959m – 19,550ft) it might hold some snow somewhere on its flanks. If all else failed we would at least be able to escape via the King Trench landing zone (near the base of Logan), which is at 9,000ft and frequented by our pilot.
Since there are only 35 million Canadians in the world’s second largest country, you could probably say that the opportunity for adventure is higher than anywhere else in the world. With this in mind, I decided to stay in my own country for my yearly expedition. There are many ways to have an adventure (this trip report will be proof of that), and finding areas that haven’t been explored with skis is my favourite. Jon pulled an objective from a hazy memory bank, but after spending the Autumn searching in vain for any photos that would confirm the quality of the area (I guess it was too remote!), we quickly switched focus when Tobin spotted some lines on Google Earth. I contacted the pilot in the area, and was pleased to hear that no one had ever landed a plane there. So the ingredients for our adventure had been chosen: 3 weeks in an unskied zone in the St. Elias.