Atwell is a stunning peak. Its pointy summit, which is mistakenly attributed as Diamond Head, can be seen from all over Squamish and Howe Sound. It’s part of an ancient volcano, and because of this it stands isolated on its own. Its volcanic rock is horrible for climbing, but has created amazingly steep pitches for skiing. The West face is it’s longest and most technical face, providing about 3000 feet of some of the Coast’s most committing lines. Although it is relatively close to Squamish and is easily viewable from Brohm Ridge, the heinous approach has repelled many parties. It was first climbed via the Siberian and Armenian in 1985 (during a -30 degree cold spell – hence the name Siberian), and skis touched these same routes in 94 and 92 respectively. While possibly being climbed several more times, the West face was not skied again until ten years later when I soloed the Siberian in 2003. After this descent, I headed to the Himalaya for a year, and the Rockies after that. With the taste of bigger mountains, Atwell faded from my mind. It was another ten years until my interest peaked again, and I began to frequent the face.
Here are some memories of these lines. The descriptions are short and the various approach routes non-existent, in order to keep some of the adventure alive.
Siberian Express (May 2003)
One of the most infamous lines on the Coast, probably due in part because if its name. It is the most attempted line on the face and has repelled a handful of parties. In 2003, I accessed the face for the first and only time via bushwhacking 7 hours up the valley from Cat Lake (just off Highway 99). I began at 7:30 pm after work, and reached snow at 2am after down-climbing jungled cliffs and ascending the sides of waterfalls well below treeline. Punching through the 4 foot cornice on top, and feeling the sun on my face was an experience only trumped an hour later by dropping back off the cornice and landing my skis onto the 55 degree slope. 24 hours after starting, with very few rest breaks, I arrived back at my car. Might not have been repeated since.
West face: Cheekye Glacier (April 2011)
This is the only line that can be seen from Squamish. During a circumnavigation of Garibaldi, I stumbled upon the idea of dropping in on the West face (the only line I did not climb beforehand). I was soon arcing turns in between the massive vertical walls of Dalton Dome and the 100 foot seracs of the Cheekye Glacier. It was a huge run with minimal steepness, but with significant exposure to rockfall, icefall and avalanches.
Georgian (Feb 2012)
Skiing this was a total fluke. Terrain spotting from below is very difficult on Atwell, and I ended up climbing the wrong line. About halfway up I realized I was on the wrong part of the face, but forged upwards. I climbed steep terrain to gain the Georgian spine, one of the most striking skiable features on Atwell. From the top of the spine, I literally tunneled my way around this overhanging rime feature to get to the summit ridge. Transitioning from climb to ski mode was difficult on my two-foot ledge above vertical rime. The top involves some of the steepest skiing around! To exit the bottom of the couloir, I inched my way down a 2 foot wide, 50 foot long ribbon of snow surrounded by 6o degree ice.
Squamptonian (Feb 2012)
The line I originally intended to do. I headed there the day after the Georgian. From across the valley the top pitch looked almost vertical. A beautiful couloir climb, with a crux of steep ice and rock halfway up. This was bypassed via a snow-covered ramp running diagonally through the rock band. The line steepened considerably until it climaxed at the summit ridge. The skiing was amazingly steep for the first hundred feet. The top of this pitch would be near vertical early season. Even after exiting the couloir, there’s still a couple thousand feet of 40 degree skiing through seracs. I was lucky that there was no cornice at the top, since a five-foot cornice materialized just a week later.
Canadian: Armenian variation (May 2012)
It’s a roll of the dice when it comes to deciding what the most epic line for me was. But this variation of the Armenian probably takes the prize. The massiveness of the lower couloir with the huge upper face stacked on top is impressive. You then climb a ridge with several thousand feet of cliff exposure on the Southwest face (can be seen from almost anywhere in Squamish), which leads to the South ridge. From there a moderate ski can be had off the South summit. Skiing back on to the exposed Southwest face, and then dropping in on the 60 degree upper section of the West face is one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had on skis.