The epic high pressure continues . . .
After a week of sunny skies and melt-freeze temps, the snowpack has settled nicely. During the week’s two previous missions we tested the snow pack and it was time for something bigger.
After years and years of skiing the steeps, the adrenaline certainly doesn’t surge like it used to. But when the North faces set up like this and I begin to realize the possibilities for ultra-steep descents, I feel something akin to nervous giddiness. The stability, the angles, the exposure . . . oh the places I could go.
Luckily some friends pull me back to the land of ‘regular’ descents. Jon Johnston has something big cooking. No firsts, but nevertheless an adventure as long and steep and sustained as anything out there. The North Face of what some call Shangri-la.
From Pemby, we’re accompanied by Tobin Seagel and Chris Christie. The sun’s long gone, as we snake our way deeper into the range. 50km of backroads and logging roads leads to snow. From there we jump on sleds and head even further upcountry. We finally stop at an old open-air A frame crawling with mice. I choose to bivy on the snow. The stars are insane. Sleep is difficult with an almost 7000 foot steep line looming.
At 4am, we crawl out of our bags and begin the morning routine. Tobin pulls out a giant bag of Nester’s hot-cross buns. He’s obviously travelling in style.
Soon we’re heading down another logging road, negotiating forests, avy paths, glaciers, and finally boot-packing the steep South Face. On the summit, the spectacular 360-degree views include the king of the Coast: Waddington. We talk of history. Legends like Beeker and Jack Hannan, who were integral for us to be here.
We skate-ski across the perfectly flat summit. With the steep roll-over looming, it feels like dropping off the edge of the Earth. The 6000+ feet of steepness before us nullifies perspective. Average backcountry descents clock in at around 2000 feet, so it was useless to access memories and compare with other mountains. A huge mid-fifties spine-riddled face leads to cliffs, ramps, glaciers, and then thousands more feet of cliffs, dead-end couloirs, fluted faces . . . all random chaos spilling out onto the mellow glaciers beyond. Taking turns, everyone heads down while I just enjoyed my position, perched on a powdery spine. Conditions made the turns easy, so it was time to relax and truly enjoy one of the great descents of my life (obviously not too relaxed!). We meet up at a steep arête. Jon signals for me to traverse higher. He just laughs as I inch my way towards the precipice. Words can’t describe what it feels like when confronted with a view like this, in conditions like this. High fifties spines melting into a perfect face. I’m soon linking turns . . . turns that should only exist in Alaska. My sluff quickly accumulates to a thunderous roar. “Enjoy the playground but keep it under control, since this playground sits many times higher than the tallest skyscraper.”
We all swap turns, smiles on our faces. At each stop, I crane my neck searching for the steepest available spines. A quick traverse, and I’m on another mind-blowing adventure. More spines, faces, and gullies finally lead to the exit slopes. We hit some stiff snow on occasion, but otherwise it’s powder to the bottom, and creamy corn snow on the sun-affected slopes back to the logging road. Usually faces of this magnitude have lower slopes decimated with avalanches and rock-fall. Somehow it’s been perfect. On my way back to Squamish, my old beater of a truck breaks down on the highway. I have to laugh. All that perfection had to balance out at some point.
Was down at the VIMFF for the ski film night. My little Dynafit edit was showing, and it was the first time seeing myself ski on a very big screen in front of a big audience. The feature of the night was TGR’s latest AK romp, The Dream Factory. It was a very interesting movie about the history of Alaska skiing. Had a cool segment about local legends Eric and Trevor, honing their skills on the Coast and taking it to the big powder faces of AK. But as so often in the movies, filmmakers take a great idea and sort of drop the ball. The film attempted to show the progression of ski mountaineering on the Coast by showing current rippers hucking and straight-lining massive airs. Would’ve been way cooler to show the current generation of ski mountaineers in Pemberton, following in Eric and Trevor’s footsteps. So on that note, it was great to come home and practice my own version of the Coastal ski progression.
If you ski tour on the Duffey long enough, at some point you’ll come across views of this remote monster. I’d known of its existence for quite some time. But without heli-cheating, motivation for the approach slog was always minimal. The mountain isn’t the highest or the steepest, but the terrain just begs to be skied. Jon Johnston had an inkling of how to approach this sucker, so we headed into the rainforests and made our way through the maze of logging roads. Another Pemby shredder named Delaney was game for the adventure as well.
After some help from the chainsaw and a very wet river crossing, we gained our valley. At least we were pretty sure we had. With a dense fog, all the forested ridges and valleys looked the same. As the fog started to lift, we soon realized we were touring right under the face in question. But the weatherman’s prediction of sunny skies was still grossly exaggerated. A hundred or so meters up a snow face, a band of steep treed cliffs, ice falls, and gullies began. Above that was a bunch of sub alpine tree spines pillows and more cliffs. Above that were couloirs, with entrances shrouded by clouds.
We rolled the dice and decided to tour around and drop in from the back. Being in a new zone for all of us, the route finding was interesting. We were soon on the South face, skins being nullified by a stiff crust under 10cm of powder. Jon was a little sick and didn’t bring his climbing plates. I’d just got mine up and running, so I threw them on with my crampons and began the wollowing faceted slog up around mellow slopes and cliffs. Unfortunately the weather never cleared. All we saw was a ridgeline with the faint outlines of cornices. I was fully expecting a retreat. We had no landmarks in the valley to confirm our couloir’s location. Many of the lines end in huge yawning cliffs, so our decision was a crucial one. In the end Jon and Delaney grew confident of where our line was. Since I had the climbing plates, the logic was that I could ski down and turn around and climb out if the shit hit the fan.
A steep entrance slope lead to a safe spine. Suddenly the valley cleared! We were good to go. The boys dropped in and we swapped turns down the line. The turns were still committing since the light was so bad: hard to judge steepness in that muck. Things turned gorgeous in the sub-alpine tree zone. After dodging some cliff bands I had the most amazing spine feature. Total playground! Bigger trees, a steep entrance to an amazing gully, more tree skiing, and a final uber-steep pillow line led to the bottom snow face.