WARNING: As with most things I do, I highly recommend you do not follow my lead. Take lessons, get experience, be confident in your ability to deal with the worst case scenario. I have survived for months in some of the most inhospitable and challenging conditions and because of this I am comfortable suffering due to my lack of experience and knowledge. It may not be the best approach, but to me it’s worth the sacrifice. Safety first!
When you hear of someone attempting to ski across the Rockies and the rest of British Columbia you would likely think that the person is a bit nuts and also a very experienced skier. Upon hearing that I was fairly inexperienced the “bit” was lost and to many people I became just nuts. As with lot’s of the adventures I go on it’s easy to uncover the fears of people who don’t have the experience, the health, or the toughness to do what I do. It’s much easier to find people to discourage you from taking risks than it is to find people who say “go for it! You’ll be fine.” Those words often come from an experienced person who will also offer some advice on how not to kill yourself or do it more comfortable etc…I love these people and wish there was more of them everywhere I went.
Thankfully I found the perfect person in Canmore. As mentioned in this previous blog Don Gardner hooked me up with some essential knowledge and advice. MEC supplied me with the essential gear and I was soon ready to head up into the Backcountry of the Rocky Mountains. I could have walked or skinned straight from the door of my buddy Christian’s place in Canmore but instead I was easily convinced to borrow a friends friend’s fat bike. I rode up 40 or so km and saved myself a day or two of tough skiing. Not to say the bike was easy.
I arrived at a lodge where it was planned I would leave my bike for a friend to come get and return it to Canmore. It worked out that someone from the lodge was on their way back to town and tossed it in the back of their truck. Big thanks to all involved in that smooth transition.
The moment of truth had arrived. I put on my skis and off I went into the previously unknown world of long distance solo cross mountain range ski touring. I was yet to learn how to telemark apart from some silly youtube videos. Now I was going to learn the hard way with a backpack and unpredictable terrain days away from the nearest help. My plan was to take it slow, avoid steep slopes and avalanche terrain. Whether I had the knowledge and navigational skills in order to do this effectively was yet to be decided. I felt pretty good and confident though.
Usually at the start of a backpacking trip you are quickly left wondering why you are carrying so much weight. In this situation I was left wondering if I was carrying enough weight! My backpack was very light. 30lbs. Would I be warm enough? Did I have enough food? Had I estimated my travel time correctly? Would my sense of direction be good enough to get me over these mountains in time to meet my friend and not starve to death? These questions were present but not overwhelming. My overwhelming thought was one of relief and pride in making this leg of the trip a reality. I didn’t have a doubt that I would succeed. The tough part was over. I had now started to ski across BC.
Was I scared? Yes. I was in a very unfamiliar situation by myself. I felt at home in the mountains but I had never spent much time surviving in them in the winter. Now I was planning on doing just that in a way that very few people do. No tent. No stove. Just a bivy sack, a warm sleeping bag, an air mattress, and a pot to put on the fire that I hoped to start every night and most mornings.
The first night worked out well. I found a nice spot under some trees without too much snow and was able to quickly start a fire. I cooked up some pasta and passed out. My heat reflective air mattress inside my bivy (bivouac sac) and a sleeping bag rated to -18 kept me toasty warm. The next morning I would quickly discover the main issues with bivy sacs, condensation. I woke up with a layer of frost on the outside of my sleeping bag but still inside the bivy. This would be a regular occurrence for the rest of the trip and a potentially dangerous one. If I wasn’t careful I could quickly end up with a wet sleeping bag. Sleeping in an ice cube doesn’t work very well.
While still partially in my sleeping bag I put on my clothes and stuck my warm feet into my frozen boots. A memory of my first (and only other) winter camping trip flashed back. It was also in the Rockies and the temperature had unexpectedly dropped to -25 in October. I had learnt (through discovery and necessity) to build a wall on the other side of your fire to reflect the heat back at you. It was a fun trip and I escaped with only some very minor frostbite on my toes. I also learnt to make a hot water bottle and keep it at your feet when you sleep. My feet get cold…
I left my campsite looking like nothing more than a patch of ground where the snow had melted. Take only photos, leave only footprints. I skied off down the trail for another km or so to where I came to a fork. The well skied path went right. My path went left and was free of any tracks. You might think that it would be nice to have your own fresh snow to travel in but that’s really only the case when your going downhill. There was a short uphill to start and I spent more energy going up the 10 metre slope than I had over the whole past km. This was not going to be easy.
On the flat ground I was able to get a smooth rhythm going and felt good about my progress. I was feeling free and wild but I also had a bit of urgency to my step. Knowing just how slow progress could be in uneven terrain I knew I had to move fast or starve. Why didn’t I pack a few extra energy bars…
The trail soon opened up into a large snow covered meadow. It was nice to have a view. Unfortunately I didn’t have a view of where the trail continued to after the meadow. I must have gone back and forth 4 times on trails that lead me into streams or thick impassable forest before I decided to navigate down what seemed to be the best option. I was far from lost, I just didn’t know where the trail was…
I knew I had to go up the valley into another meadow so I just started up what looked like the most promising open patch of forest. Not a great idea. I should have looked a bit better for the trail. It was fine to start but after climbing over a few downed trees with skis on it was clear that it would have been much much faster to stick to a well cleared trail.
I eventually made it up through the forested hillside and into a clearing. It was a relief as I was sure that the trail passed through what would be a beautiful alpine meadow in the summer. I found some flagging to confirm that I was on a trail. It was cold and windy at this altitude. I was forced to decide whether to continue up and over a pass or to find shelter nearby. The thought of sleeping somewhere exposed to the wind and without a fire made the decision easy. I found some big trees nearby and started to shovel out a spot to lay my bivy sack down and start a fire. By the time my dinner of noodles and vegetables was ready to eat I was feeling nauseous with an upset stomach. I had pushed myself hard that day and had drank some reishi mushroom tea mixed with chocolate. I figured my body was a bit confused.
I slept heavy that night and awoke to a thick ice blanket on my sleeping bag. It didn’t bother me much as I was still warm and cozy. I needed to get moving though as I was down to my last day of food and had many km’s to cover. I followed the trail out into the meadow and searched for where it returned into the forest. It wasn’t easy to find. After going back and forth several times I decided on what looked to be the most clear opening. The trail immediately started switchbacking as it climbed up towards a ridge. It was steep enough that it left me with loads of doubt about whether it was actually the trail or just a mountain goat path. Then for the first time in my life I was very delighted to see a sawed off log. It was a clear sign that this trail had been cleared by humans and I figured it was unlikely there would be randomly cleared trails leading to somewhere other than where I was heading. I breathed a short sigh of relief.
It was not long before I was searching once again for the trail. It took too much energy and time to not be directing my energy in exactly the place I wanted to be heading. I decided to rely on the compass in my head and used the terrain as a map to guide me up over the pass and down into the steep valley on the other side. I was slightly nervous and excited for my first real downhill of the journey. Cautious not to gain too much speed I started down in fresh powder. Unfortunately the open terrain quickly closed up and I found myself on a narrow trail running along side a steep gully. Having never telemark skied before I found it tricky to turn and slow down on the open slopes, now I would have to figure out how to slow down on a two foot wide path. I realized the best approach was to put the skins back on my skis in order to slow my downhill progress.
It was working well and I thought I was on the trail until I approached a steep and cliffy section that dropped into the gully piled high with ice and a small stream running in the depths. A fall or slide into it would be disastrous. If I didn’t hurt myself on the fall I would certainly be soaked with icy water and it would be a challenging climb to get out of the icy depths. I managed to successfully traverse an avalanche path and return to the perceived safety and protection of the forest.
The downhill was not nearly as fun or as fast as I had been looking forward to. This trail was never traveled in the winter and was not maintained in the summer. Every 100 metres or so a large tree had fallen across the trail and I was faced with a challenging climb with skis flailing all over the place.
It took many more hours than expected but I finally came to an opening in the forest. It was another first for me. The first time I’ve ever been happy to see clearcuts in the forest. I would now have the chance to ski downhill on forest service roads. Stoked. I started downhill feeling rejuvenated and comfortable about the open skiing prospects ahead. It only took a few minutes for those feelings to be shattered. To my dismay the forestry operations were still active in the middle of winter and a truck had recently scattered rocks all over the road in order to make it safe for trucks to drive on. Thankfully it seemed that the rocks were only on the steeper hills on the road, unfortunately that is when I would be going fastest and a fall would be more disastrous.
At first it was manageable as the rocks were black and clearly visible. Then they switched to white and the light of day was fading. It would have been best for me and my skis to walk the downhill portions but I couldn’t afford to do that as it would have taken way to much time. I was set on arriving at the lodge where it was planned that I would meet my friend Todd. I skied on. At one point on a steeper downhill my right ski caught a large rock that whipped the ski behind my back and threw me off balance. I went careening into the ditch and ended up with one ski in front of me and one behind my head. After the shock and frustration faded I was amazed. Miraculously I wasn’t hurt. I continued down the excessively logged valley.
I made it to the bottom of what seemed like the final significant downhill for the day just as it was getting dark. I felt like I had made it through the worst but I still had 25km to ski and I was already running on reserves. I skied up and down the road as it paralleled a large river. It quickly became dark. I was out of water and had a small bag of candy to sustain me. I started having small tastes of snow as I slogged along towards the lodge that I hoped would appear around every corner. I passed a sign saying that I was now out of the avalanche danger zone. Good to know I was out of the zone. I didn’t know when I had entered it.
Hours later as I was estimating my location and distance traveled I started questioning whether I had accidentally passed my turnoff. I was mustering up all the strength I could to keep moving and that seemed to mean that my head was often looking down at my skis and potential hazards. I was exhausted and was close to rolling over in the ditch and falling asleep in my bivy sack for the night. The thought of seeing my buddy, a warm bed, and a feast kept my head up and moving. I then saw what looked like a light far off in the distance and it appeared to turn off the road. I seriously wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating. I was alert enough to question the fact but not alert enough to know for sure. I skied on.
A couple kilometres down the road I saw another light appearing out of the forest. To my delight it was my buddy and the owner of the lodge on a quad coming to look for me. I was brought to tears. I hugged my buddy and refused the offer for a ride to the lodge. I was clearly a bit out of it as they kept asking if I was okay. I may have been hallucinating but I wasn’t about to get on a motorized vehicle.
Big thanks to MEC for their expedition support! MEC.ca was the only place around where I could find what I needed to make this happen.
Huge thanks to Nipika Mountain Resort and my buddy Todd for giving me a destination that night. It's a great place to visit www.nipika.com