Utah part2


We woke up from our desert campsite ready to tackle the legendary slickrock trail.  The trail started just a few meters from the tent so we slowly unthawed ourselves and made some coffee and porridge on the camp stove.  The trailhead has pretty imposing signage just in case you still had any confidence left after thinking about this trail for the last month!


Above:  You can see the “bread-crumb” paint trail showing the way back to the road.  You also get a good look at the undulating slickrock.


Above:  Suz bails on a climb and pushes the final wall.  Going down steep grades like this tests the skills as there are many bumps, trenches and dips to trip you up.IMG_1642

Above:  A good look at the slickrock as I cautiously approach the rim of a massive canyon.  Below:  The trail in places got a little too close to the lip this canyon for my taste.  Gorgeous to look at while standing still but not to be flying headlong at on a bike.


This trail’s worldwide reputation seems well-earned. It seems all like something out of a dream.  After scaring ourselves sufficiently, we spent the late afternoon hiking in “Devil’s Garden” on the north end of Arches National Park.

The Devil’s Garden is a place where the sandstone layers have been tilted vertical allowing thin weak layers to erode forming massive fins across the landscape.  Mixed in are towers and blobs of rock all painted a wild orange.  What makes it even more incredible is the junipers, pinyons and cacti scattered about as though placed by a master gardener.  Every square inch your eye falls on is absolutely amazing.  I took several hundred pictures while hiking in and around the fantastic rock forms.  Every turn is a surprise.  The other thing I liked about it was the scale was very human.  Often around here you can find yourself looking at massive walls of uncomprehendable size, or gargantuan volumes of space.  In the Devil’s Garden, you can climb up around and over things and really get to know the land a bit.

Below: Fighting a strong desert wind, Suz and I cross a fin on our way to finding a dozen or so famous landforms. From someone who traverses unknown terrain by map for a living and for recreation, I can tell you that getting lost here is easier than saying “Wow!”



Above:  “Double Arch” hidden in a landscape imagined by Jules Verne.  DSCN8265

Above: An exploratory scramble.  Suz wanted to have lunch under one of these but for some reason, I found it hard to linger under these massive stone doorways.  I took some ribbing for this but later found out that one of these massive arches collapsed just a few years ago in the night.  My report did little to keep her from poking fun at my spidey-sense.DSCN8184

Above:  “Pine Tree Arch” seems ready to exfoliate a few thousand tons of rock but Suz posed for a picture anyway.DSCN8240

Above: “Navaho Arch”  I loved this spot which was like the ruin of an ancient cathedral whose roof had partially collapsed.  The eroding sandstone leaves a floor of perfect beach sand raked smooth by the wind.DSCN8300

Above: “Private Arch” on our way back through the maze of fins and slots.DSCN8320

Above: climbing over some fins on our way back to the road…Below: There are so many distinct places that seem completely separate and isolated from everything else.  Like walking through an IKEA store with its showrooms of living rooms and bedrooms.  This spot below was its own unique place complete with its own little garden, lighting, loft, patio and yard.  Yet walk 50 yards and it is all hidden, replaced by some other totally different sights and forms.  Click on the pictures for a better view.IMG_1654


Above:  Hope the car is through here!  Another incredible day!  DSCN8199Above:  We watched the sun set on “Landscape Arch”  the longest arch span at 300 feet and impossibly slender.  After two long days of hiking and biking, we opted to check into a motel for a much-needed shower.  We had been through a bit of a sandstorm in the afternoon that the motel merchants must have colluded in delivering.  So we ate a late supper and retired to the town of Moab.


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Utah part1

We just returned from the Colorado Plateau area of southern Utah.  Having been very fortunate to see many natural wonders on this earth, it’s no idle remark to call this place one of the most incredible I have ever seen.  We live in a beautiful place that people come from all over the earth to visit, yet Utah blew my mind. We ended up driving down  and taking our high performance mountain bikes with us.  The Moab region is the center of the universe for mountain biking.  The “Slickrock Trail” is the apex of what can be truly called epic mountain biking.  Driving also allowed us to bring all our camping gear so we could camp out to cut costs.DSCN7990Above: After 18 hours of driving and setting up a tent in the dark, we awoke to this vista.  Sunrise and sunset bring out the reds in the rock to a point that the world no longer seems real. We decided to start with an easier biking trail to get our legs under us.  We drove north to a place called Klondike Bluffs where we could get some easier slickrock experience.  Slickrock is a sandstone rock that forms a smooth but undulating pavement as though a storm at sea were suddenly frozen.  It is very “sticky” under your tires unlike dirt which loses traction on steep hills.  The sticky rock allows you to climb crazy steep pitches at all kinds of angles that make your brain hurt when your eyes tell you it should be impossible.  Your limitation is no longer friction but your own strength.IMG_1627 Above: Suz and I start up the trail.  Trails out on these vast rock plateaus are marked with paint applied right to the rock.  The open rock allows you to pick your line in any whimsical way that suits your ability and mood.  The usual confines of a single track mountain bike trail down a mountain were suddenly lifted allowing total freedom, limited only by your ability and risk tolerance.


Above: Not a great pic of Suz but you can see the slickrock with its undulating waves, water-worn trenches, and sculpted surface.  The shrubs are all growing in carved out bowls in the rock.  This rock  formed from massive sand dunes along the once gigantic inland sea that stretched across N America.  The other big difference riding here is that if you fall, you are falling on rock.  There’s a pretty steady stream of broken collar bones, wrists, and legs coming out of this place.  DSCN8010

Above: After a lengthy climb, we reached the end of the trail where we left our bikes and scrambled up the rocky bluffs to a lookout.  The rock formations look merely imagined they are so foreign.  I was in awe with the opportunities to explore the millions of pillars, towers, canyons, slots, cliffs, canyons, ridges, spines and hidden corners and secret places.  We scrambled back to our bikes after getting our fill of surreal views and enjoyed a fast ride downhill back on the slickrock.

Utah is a place to carefully plan your sunrise and sunsets as the light is so fantastic.  For the evening light we went to Arches National Park and did a few quick hikes.


Above: “Park Avenue” in Arches, Utah.  See close up below.DSCN8026

Above: For scale, those rock shards are 500 feet tall and impossibly thin.  Keen eyes will recognize this spot as the opening shot of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.vlcsnap-15519904

Keeping with the Indy theme, we also saw “Double Arch” which is also in the opening scene. IndianaJonesLastCrusade Though unlike the movie, I discovered there is in fact no cave to be found there. Below is a more distant view (see people for scale!) Strangely, no one was running down the rocks recreating the opening scene for their own amusement.




Above: Centre of panorama is a feature known as “The Three Gossips.”  These are a few hundred feet tall and certainly well named.


Above:  “Balanced Rock”  This 120 foot high rock seems like it has been poorly glued to its foundation by a child giant.  Unlike most of nature, the entire Utah landscape  has a distinctly anthropomorphic quality to it.  Every wall looks like its been sculpted, every odd formation bears the hallmark of intention.  The dry and clean desert air gives a clarity to everything.


Above: Suz tries to take in “Turret Arch” one of over 2,000 arches throughout this area.


Above:  One of the thousands of narrow canyons.  The eroding sandstone makes a wonderful beach floor to many canyons.  The colour of the rock is so warm and inviting that I found it not confining or claustrophobic considering how narrow they get.  At the end of this canyon was “Sand Arch” (below) and as the light got low on the horizon, it positively glowed.DSCN8098


To end the day, we hiked up Cash Creek to gain a reverse view of the iconic “Delicate Arch.”  This arch is the unofficial symbol of Utah as it adorns their license plates and everything else you can imagine. DSCN8120 For scale there are some people in the top right corner.  In my never ending picture taking, I often was telling Suz to get in the photo for scale.  She was starting to feel a bit like a ruler till she realized the being my “ruler” had some good literal possibilities as well.DSCN8137

Above:  Driving back to our tent up on the Sandflat area above Moab.  A long day nearly exhausting our senses.  Sleeping in the tent gave us a keen appreciation of just how cold it gets in the desert.  We were in our winter parkas before our flashlights got turned on!



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Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight…

Just returned exhausted from a climbing trip on the Wapta Icefields.  We gave ourselves three days up there to hopefully get some good weather and get some summits.  Mt Olive, Mt Nick, Mt Gordon and Mt Rhondda would be our ideal list if the weather was good.  Joining me was my usual trip partner Randy and an old friend of his Toby, an experienced  mountaineer from the UK.

The weather did not look promising but I was excited enough as I left bright and early at 6am.  We chatted in the car a bit on the way.  Toby is in the RAF and on leave, so he has a certain military bearing about him and on first impression possessed a quiet, calm English manner.  I  wanted to get on the same page for any possible emergency response so we discussed crevasses rescue techniques.

We pulled the car off the Icefields Parkway and got suited up.  The winds usually funnel off the icefields here presenting you with an icy wall for a greeting.  But for the first time it wasn’t bitterly cold which I took as a good omen.  Day one’s objective was to haul our supplies up to the hut on the glacier then try for a quick climb up either Olive or Nick.

Heavy snow had been falling lately and there was no trail leading up to the hut as there often is.  Breaking trail always sucks energy out of you.  Apart from the extra physical energy it takes to climb through calf deep snow uphill all day with a big pack, there is a mental fatigue as well.  Following a trail allows your mind to drift a bit.  Figuring out where to go is not the hardest task in easy terrain but it draws energy from you continuously.  We shared the task of leading through the snow.  The person leading would go until they were exhausted then fall in behind for the next person to lead.  Hopefully you would be somewhat recovered by the time it was turn to lead again.  The big challenge was the final headwall before the hut.  I was secretly thinking how hard it would be and how much I wanted to break trail over it to see how my cycling training was paying off.

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Above:  I started a turn just before the headwall and managed to climb the whole steep pitch through knee-deep snow.  I thanked my spin classes and gasped for air at 8000 feet. Here Toby (yellow pants) and Randy make their way up following my trail in the deep snow.

Many people report that the hut at the foot of the Bow Glacier has some energy sucking force in it.  Both Randy and I were familiar with this and intended to try not to spend any time in the hut.  It’s not supernatural or anything it’s just that there is usually a blizzard out and the hut is out of the wind and calm and once inside, it becomes difficult to face the environment again.  We therefore rushed to ditch sleeping bags, food, extra clothes and such in the hut and get out glacier and climbing gear.  After 5 minutes we were in our climbing harnesses and out the door with weather getting worse.

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Above L/R: Toby and Randy on our way up the glacier to make an attempt on Mt St Nick in the background.

As we climbed up the glacier, the snow depth increased and with the combined altitude, slope steepness and wind, our pace dropped down.  I found myself counting my steps and noticed that Randy was giving up lead after exactly 80 steps down from 100 and then from there down to 50.  He must have been counting as well.  I was by now fighting to lead for 40 steps before keeling over and letting the next in line bash up the snow for as long as they could.  Continuous probing of the snow depth was telling us it was time to put rope on as we were leaving a deposition zone where the crevasses were well bridged.

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Above:  With weather getting worse, the latest probe tells us to get out the rope and tie in.  You can see the collapsible 3m graduated probe in right of picture we use for measuring snow depth on the glacier.  Below:  Toby ties in and gets his equipment organized.Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 6.48.32 PM

The rope complicates our trailbreaking system.  It becomes impossible for the middle person to take their turn leading without everyone getting off rope and tieing in at a different position.  The rope makes quick turns at lead difficult.  Rope travel is slow to begin with since you must always keep the correct tension on the rope.  If you fell through the snow into a crevasse, the more slack between you will increase your fall force.

As the weather got worse for climbing, we could at least be happy knowing we would be enjoying an amazing ski through perfect powder on the way down to the hut.  Below:  I’m a bit disappointed in the weather.  Between my climbing harness, pack and avi beacon, I seemed to be quite tied up!Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 10.00.28 PM

Randy and I like to make a habit of thinking out loud in the backcountry.  We find that by always saying what you’re thinking, you can hopefully avoid missing some sign.  We pretty much have an ongoing conference mentioning every observation and clearing any decision made while leading.  We were now at the point where whiteout conditions seemed to be with us for a while.  Toby was up for making an attempt even in the whiteout or calling it quits.  I suggested that while summiting in a whiteout was theoretically possible, we may as well do blindfolded jumping jacks at the hut for 4 hours then stick our heads into the snow for a similar but safer experience!  We discussed whether it was safe for one person to ski down and for two to continue but we ended up not needing to decide that as everyone thought it was a bad idea to try to summit.  We coiled up the rope and skied 1200 vertical feet back down to the hut.

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Above: Randy enjoying some “magazine cover” skiing back down the mountain.  People pay thousands of dollars to go heli-skiing with guides for this kind of experience.  We ski it for free the hard way.Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 9.17.09 PM

Above:  I’ve mostly forgot my disappointment as I blast through perfect, untracked snow on a mountain all to ourselves. (Toby’s photo)

Back at the hut we cooked supper and each ate like two people.  We shared the hut with two seasoned vets from Kimberly, BC who were trying to get to Mt Balfour but had been storm stayed for two days.  We talked for a few hours telling mountain stories.  Toby spent two months in Antarctica working on a British science mission and had many amazing tales from his experience.  Our new friend Alan from Kimberly told a great story of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro and Randy recounted a climbing trip in Borneo.  The two vets from BC asked if we wanted to share trailbreaking the next day by working together.  We liked them already so it was easy to say yes.

Like the night before, I felt as though I got no sleep.  The wind blew in gusts that were loud enough to startle me even with earplugs.  The hut is bolted to the rock with metal cables but it rocked from the storm winds all night.

We woke to a continued blizzard but we thought we would make an attempt anyway.  We could navigate by compass bearing in the whiteout untill the technical part of the climb.  Then if it let up, we would be well positioned.  We geared up and began the long, tough climb.Screen shot 2014-03-09 at 9.41.26 PM  Above:  Toby grabs a picture of Randy breaking trail and me close behind as we climb up the glacier towards the Olive/Nick Col.  Unfortunately, the other rope team of Alan and Rob couldn’t keep up to us even following our trail so we ended up breaking trail ourselves.  The blizzard would let up and return in waves getting my hopes up and then dashing them.  

After ascending the glacier we were suddenly stopped short by a crevasse that appeared right in front of us.  The blowing snow waned and we could see it blocked our path for several hundred meters.  We changed formation on the rope and tried to bypass it when we were confronted by another system of crevasses.   We seemed to be hemmed in.  After much discussion, Alan and Rob finally caught up to us and had a look for themselves.  They quickly decided to retreat and thanked us for the trail anyway.  Below:  Rob and Alan pulling the pin.Screen shot 2014-03-09 at 9.53.08 PM


We tried to find a way around the crevasse system.  The best way seemed to be heading straight into the blizzard to outflank it, but this meant getting more disoriented on the vast blank whiteness of the icefield.  The better visibility way was to try and squeeze between the crevasses and the rock face.  I felt this way was inherently dangerous as the glacier was under stress as it curved around the rocky outcrop.  The safer way would be to try and outflank it.  But wandering in the whiteout trying to pick our way seemed unsavoury.  Under blue skies we could easily pick our way through it I’m sure.  After a half hour of dipping our feet in each pool we decided to admit defeat and head down.  I found it difficult to make that call with each of us yelling our opinions and suggestions across the howling blizzard.  We had to be roped and spaced due to the crevasses danger so it was exhausting yelling to the other end of the rope through the storm.  The conditions that forced our defeat were also giving us amazingly fun skiing on the way down.  Below:  Toby enjoys some knee-deep powder skiing back to the hut.Screen shot 2014-03-09 at 10.09.05 PM  With near zero visibility, you really couldn’t tell if you were moving or not.  Luckily I’ve had plenty of experience skiing like this so you just trust yourself.  Though when you get to the bottom, you almost always fall over because you realize too late that you’ve stopped and then you just topple over!

Another night in the hut awaited us.  Alan and Rob melted some snow for water for us and did our dishes in exchange for our trail breaking that day.  It was very nice to show their gratitude.  Everyone was in their sleeping bags early ready for another attempt the next day.  Randy and I ended up talking late in to the night.  The barometer was rising and the weather was supposed to be improving so I was excited to perhaps get one of our intended 4 summits!

We awoke the next day to the same wind and snow!  We decided we would make an early dash up and if the weather cleared we would try and summit St Nick race down, pack up the hut and make the trek down.  Needless to say we had the same battle up the glacier in a whiteout before giving up.Screen shot 2014-03-09 at 10.24.43 PM

Above:  Randy and Toby leaving the hut on the last day.  Conditions don’t seem so good!

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Above:  Packed up and heading off the glacier and back down to the highway.  Our thoughts turned to getting down safely and chocolate milk at the gas station.  Toby on the left wears a high definition camera on his helmet.  I’m looking forward to getting some of his video

As always, I’m so grateful for such great partners who are both trustworthy and fun.  And for the wonderful people I meet in these places.  These hidden jewels of the earth are not free to seek.  They are seen only in trade for hard work and much learning, all which I owe to others.

Below:  Starting the 2 hour ski down to the highway.

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Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight…

So says the picture that Suz hung in our bathroom.  A very appropriate description of my relationship with Mt St Nicholas.  A brief pictorial summary of the attempts over the last 3 years:

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Above: 1st attempt with Peggy, Randy, Hugo, Emil.  A blizzard forced us down within 100m of summit.  May/12

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Above: 2nd attempt with Randy, difficulties negotiating ice on the glacier caused us to miss our window of opportunity. Jan/14

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Above: 3rd attempt with Randy and Toby.  After gaining over 1000 vertical meters, a  blizzard forces us down. March 5/14

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Above: 4th attempt with Randy and Toby.  Unexpectedly hemmed in by crevasses.  Bad weather makes it difficult to safely find a route through them. March 6/14






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Gearing Up

For our sins, Suz entered us in the 2014 SaltyDog Enduro mountain bike race in Salmon Arm, British Columbia.  The way this race works is rather than a set distance, the race  takes place on an 11km mountain bike course and you must cycle as many laps as you can in 6 hours.  We’re entered in the team category so when Suz crosses the finish line, she tags me and we alternate.  Checkpoints along the way record the final distance.Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 9.59.46 PM

Above:  From the 2013 Enduro.  (Not my picture)

Since the race is May 11, which is still skiing season here, we have to do some dry land training to get ready.  And well, we just have to train in any case!  So Suz hit upon the happy thought of hiring a trainer to get us ready.  Suz selected her spin instructor Betsy, who is also an accomplished biathlon athlete and coach.  She sat us down at the gym and did an assessment and then built an individualized, daily training schedule for each of us.

So far, training has been a good experience.  Last Saturday night Suz and I were getting our cardio credits by going cross-country skiing up at the Nordic Centre.  It was a full on blizzard with driving winds but we were committed to fulfilling our training obligations.  We met the wall of wind and snow and as we were putting our skis on, two girls approached ready to hit the trails.  One laughed and asked us about the weather.  I thought it was typical of this town that we weren’t the only ones out for a ski in the blizzard but Suz noticed it was Liza Pye who I’ve run into in the mountains before (see post here) before doing insane feats of endurance.

To get my biking legs seasoned, I went to my first “spin class.”  Suz is a veteran of this torture but for me it was all new.  The class consists of being on a stationary bike and you must maintain a specific rpm and gearing.  Betsy then commands you to increase the gears  and up the rpms on her cues.  There are no rest breaks other than a half minute cycling at low gearing between the ramp ups.  Interestingly, four people out of the ten in the class are training for this same race.  It’s incredibly grueling.

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Above:  This is our instructor competing at a biathlon race.  I found this image hard to get out of my mind when she was yelling to “Add another gear!! Increase rpm by 10!! One more minute!” when I was rubber legging an hour into the class.  It’s hard to ignore a girl who can shoot your eyesballs out from a hundred yards.

I’m finding it an interesting challenge.  Out in the world, I can look at a headwall or some other obvious obstacle and tell myself to push hard and get up it.  My efforts are a function of my environment and are very tangible.  In the spin class, it just gets harder with no visual clues or spatial reward.  I found it much harder to dig down and find that extra energy without any obvious purpose for summoning it other than to complete the ambiguous task of obeying the instructions of a firearms expert!

The experience is a win-win as it’s hopefully paying dividends in all my mountain activities.  I’m off next week on a multi-day, mountain climbing expedition on the icefields so I’m hoping to notice some early benefits. It’s also given me even more respect for Suzanne who is soundly beating me in several training exercises!

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Ice Climbing

My morning coffee routine when I’m at home includes pouring over the daily satellite data and watching the ice processes at the poles.  So I guess it was only natural I would end up trying ice climbing.

Previously, I have found climbing even short bits of ice a little unsettling.  This fall while on a course in the Columbia Icefields, I learned some rudimentary techniques which improved my confidence.  I’ve seen people climbing frozen waterfalls with ice shards cascading down from their axes and it all looked very dangerous and precarious!  In my inbox a few weeks ago though, I got a message from the Mountain Skills Academy offering me a discount rate to fill  any last minute opening on their 2 day ice climbing course.  I put myself on the list and lo and behold I got in.  It seemed scary but I thought I would at least try it.  Banff and Norway are the two biggest spots in the world for climbing frozen waterfalls so it would be silly to not try.

Luckily, the three of us in the class had not only world-class Eric Dumerac as guide and instructor, but an apprentice guide Nino to help as well.  That meant almost constant 1:1 instruction.  We went to the waterfall that drains Grassi Lakes just on the outskirts of Canmore.  I run past here on occasion  reminding me just how convenient this activity really is.  When the falls are frozen, they are referred to by local ice climbers as “The Junkyard.”

Day one was dedicated to  learning proper climbing techniques while day 2 focused on learning how to build proper anchors, belaying, repelling, and leading.Screen shot 2014-02-02 at 10.24.12 PM

Above:  Me climbing up the upper falls.  Nino stands on a secure ledge ready to brake the rope if I slip.  When you first throw the ice axes into the ice, it shatters and breaks off leaving you quite nervous.  This is known as “dinner plating.” But when you feel it go into a solid hold, you really can trust it.  Something I never felt when watching others do this.  The front points of the crampon also get a hold that you can really feel when it’s secure.  To go up with confidence was all about not committing to anything until I got that good “bombproof” hold.  Then the climb becomes a geometry problem.  The instructors constantly improved our form and corrected our body positions.  I had some difficulty extending my left arm straight up due to its reduced mobility, but I made out okay.Screen shot 2014-02-02 at 10.28.20 PM

Above:  While taking a rest on a ledge, I snapped this pic of my classmate Jordan climbing beside me.  In the lower background you can see the main flow of the falls roaring unfrozen.Screen shot 2014-02-02 at 10.30.49 PM

Above:  Dealing with reduced dexterity with the left hand. Some hikers past underneath us and stopped to watch for a while so I asked if they could snap this picture with my cellphone.

I had taken this course  to learn some technical skills and ice anchor construction so I was surprised when it was over to discover I really enjoyed Waterfall climbing for its own sake.  For a second, it can feel like everything in the world but you has  stopped in a moment of time.  It’s also an opportunity to really see up close something that you could only ever see from a distance.  The textures and morphology was fascinating.  Another good winter activity for when the skiing is not as good!

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Martens and Mountains, Unexpected Adventure.

Suz and I were enjoying some fine hospitality at our friend Hugo’s place.  Moose and rabbit tourtiere brought from Lac St Jean, QC for a main course and blueberries cooked in maple syrup completed the traditional Quebec meal.  Our friend Marc came in and asked me if I could go up to the Asulkan tomorrow for a 3 day trip?  Someone canceled in some group or something and all the permits and travel were paid for.  Phone this guy Neil and leave in the morning…

So I packed up my touring gear along with backcountry supplies for three days and off I went not really knowing what exactly was going on.  Other than I was going to a place I have dreamed of going for a few years.  The aptly named  “Seven Steps Of Paradise.”  Neil picked me up, we shook hands and as I loaded my skis and backpack into his truck I asked sheepishly, “So, what’s going on here exactly?”

Well, it turned out Neil was the Alpine Club’s backcountry hut custodian and he needed to do two hut inspections and couldn’t get in by himself for safety reasons.  His regular partner had to cancel and Marc gave me a good recommendation as a safe, reliable partner and there we were.  Oh yeah, and we had to haul a trap up to the Wheeler hut to trap a  marten that was causing havoc in the hut!

The four hour drive into the Selkirk Mountains of BC was a real pleasure as we both told stories of our experiences on every mountain we passed.  Neil has summited nearly everything and he is 59 years old so he’s accumulated more great mountain stories than you can imagine. We arrived at Roger’s Pass and parked the truck off the highway and headed up to our first destination, the Wheeler Hut.  The marten trap was loaded onto a sled apparatus and we skied up to the hut.Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 7.43.13 PMAbove:  The Selkirks get about 30 feet of snow per year making Wheeler Hut very cozy.

Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 7.42.29 PMAbove: Carrying the Marten trap into the hut.  It’s baited with a slice of delicious looking bacon.  Our plan was to hopefully catch him that night and ski him back to the road and release him down the road somewhere away from human food.

The hut is a base for the many mountain climbers and skiers that come here from all over the world.  Around the fire that night was a trio of climbers from Austria, a 6 man team from Italy, two legends of mountaineering from the UK and ourselves.  After getting the stories from the day, the talk drifted to where have you been what have you done.  The stories were incredible as everyone took a turn recounting an adventure from some far flung part of the earth.  I told some bear stories which were of keen interest to the foreigners who all have “bearanoia” when in the Canadian wilds.

Having accepted too much tea around the fire, I had to go to the bathroom.  With my headlamp on I put my ski boots on and hobbled out the door only to discover the marten was right there eating something.  He wasn’t scared so I went back in to get the others out to have a look at some good Canadian wildlife.  Suddenly the tone of the Italians got quite riled up.  “Our fish!” he finally yelled in English.  It seems they had hung $30 worth of salmon up from a tree for the next night’s meal.  Neil and I knew the marten wasn’t going to get caught in our trap with a tiny piece of bacon in it now that he had a hunk of fish twice his own size!  Even the Italians who were out a meal, eventually saw some humour in it.Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 7.43.46 PM

Above:  Our would-be quarry dragging his Italian meal away.

In spite of the prospect of a very early morning and massive climb up to the Asulkan glacier the next day, I ended up talking late into the night with Gordon and Stu from the UK.  They were explorers in the classic sense and they  had the reserved wit and understatement of the stereotypical British temperament.  They had been up Everest’s north face back in the 80′s before it was commonly done, they had first ascents in Greenland, the Urals, Turkmenistan and Antarctica where they had the luxury of naming several peaks under the authority of the Royal Geographical Society. Perhaps more incredible than their stories was the fact they were 70 years old and still climbing!  They too were going up the glacier tomorrow so I was looking forward to more stories the following night even though I was a bit skeptical they were going to make it up there!

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Above:  Neil climbing up steep terrain to the Asulkan Glacier.

The next day, Neil had several custodial duties to attend to, checking the hut conditions and just a bit of cleaning so I had a casual start to the day.  Our weather was supposed to be sunnyish with snow coming the next day so we weren’t feeling rushed to climb the 3000 vertical feet up to our next objective, the Asulkan Hut.  Neil is a great person in the backcountry as he doesn’t get stressed about anything and has an infectiously positive attitude.  At 59, his endurance, and physical fitness can hardly be believed.  I generally feel pretty good about my capabilities but I could tell he could have gone twice as fast if he wasn’t matching his pace to mine!  He does portering for mountain guides so a 12 hour day carrying an 80lb pack up a mountain is just a day’s work.  I’d probably feel better about my fitness if I didn’t keep bumping into these supermen!

The final wall up to the hut is very steep and I could really feel myself being pushed to power through it.  I pretty much imagined that Stu and Gordon would have got part way up this wall and thought enough of this and turned around passing us unseen through the trees lower down.  One section seemed as though the snow was just glued onto the face.  In my part of the Rockies, the snowpack is quite dangerous on such steep slopes.  Out here with different weather and snow morphology, it is more stable.  It was difficult to shut off my “Rockies eyes” and traverse across the face of such a wall.  I was kicking myself for not bringing crampons but endured the best I could with Neil’s occasional encouragement.Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 7.48.13 PM

Above:  Our home for Day 2, the cozy Asulkan Hut perched at the edge of the Asulkan Glacier.

I was more than a little relieved to pop up the face and see the hut greeting me as dusk fell and the visibility started to deteriorate as the snow moved in.  Even better was the door swinging open and there was Stu and Gordon, combined age 140, with a rousing hello telling us they just put a big pot of tea on for us!  These two men were made from a stuff so tough I have not met the like of it.

Also in the tiny hut was three energetic Frenchmen, Pierre, Ivan, and Francoise who together had the joie de vivre of ten ordinary men greeting us with large chunks of freshly sliced brie.  They had been there for several days summiting everything nearby.  We made supper together and talked into the long, winter night.  Ivan described a trip he had done 50 days solo across the Pyrenees mountains from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.  Gordon and Stu recounted spending 15 days in a tent on Mt Logan (2nd highest in N America) while a blizzard prevented their pickup by helicopter.  And on and on!  I told my own adventures on the Wapta Traverse which is on many international mountaineers list.  Everyone impressed on me how lucky we were to live so close to these wild places, and what a great job the Alpine club did maintaining the system of huts and shelters.  I couldn’t agree more with being grateful but not the least for such worthy company.  Not only accomplished but just warm, friendly and caring people filled with happiness.

As the forecast for the next day was snow and likely whiteout conditions, I anticipated not being able to do much besides help Neil do a once-over to the hut.  I woke early in the cramped sleeping loft and packed up my sleeping gear.  Whiteout conditions reduced visibility to zero.  We all had a casual breakfast and kept an eye to the sky.  With a slight break appearing around 10am, I made my best weather guess that a brief window was opening up.  “Time to go,”  I announced.  I was trying not to show any impatience but I was really hoping to get up the “Seven Steps of Paradise.”  This was a famous ski line down Youngs Peak.  The Frenchmen decided to follow suit and Stu and Gordon seem to draw energy from some hidden source and they decided to come too.  Neil unfortunately was going to work on the hut so he stayed behind.Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 7.52.35 PM

Above:  A Sundog lures us up the Asulkan Glacier.

Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 7.55.13 PMAbove:  Sig itur ad astra:  Thus is the way to immortality.  Climbing above the clouds while Mt Rogers, Swiss peaks, Sifton and Ursus form a chain in the background.  Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 2.34.39 PM

Above:  Mt Sir Donald in the background is the biggest prize up here.  Clouds and light are making picture taking a big distraction.Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 7.54.20 PM

Above: Our newly formed international team heading up the glacier.  It was fun being the youngster of this group though you will notice everyone is ahead of me!Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 2.36.27 PM

Above: Racing to the front of the pack to get some pictures back down the valley.  Right to left, Mt Uto and Mt Avalanche make fierce rivals as clouds hide the valley.  It quickly becomes obvious up here why the climbing world comes to these mountains.Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 2.37.18 PM

Above: Silhouettes of Gordon and Stu crossing the Asulkan Col.Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 2.35.41 PM

Above:  Jupiter Mt rises up wreathed in a treacherously crevassed glacier.Screen shot 2014-01-31 at 12.33.37 AM

Above: Final climbScreen shot 2014-01-30 at 2.39.30 PM

Above:  New friends. Summit shot left to right, Pierre, Ivan, Gordon, Stu, Me, Francoise.  I felt so proud to be up here with such people.

We enjoyed the view though it was pretty cold and windy.  Everyone wanted their picture taken with Stu and Gordon.  A pretty good bonus for a marten-trapping trip!  We chose not ascend the final headwall on Youngs Peak so we ended up skiing down the “6 Steps of Paradise” rather than Seven.   An amazing ski descent down the mountain left us at a complete loss for words.  As quickly as the clouds had parted for us, as we got back to the hut, the clouds closed back up to a whiteout.  Amazing timing!  I just had time to capture the two lower “steps.”  Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 2.41.44 PMScale is lost but you can see our uptrack winding upwards and some of our turns coming back down.

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Above:  As if the weather was saying “It’s time to go” the clouds lower and erase our paths.

It was late afternoon when we returned and Neil was finished with the hut.  We said our goodbyes as the rest were all staying a few more days at the hut.  From the Asulkan hut, we descended a thousand vertical meters through the clouds with the third day drawing to a close.  Another 8 km down the valley, we stopped at the Wheeler hut to collect our (still) empty marten trap and haul it back to the highway.  The best unsuccessful mission ever!

A wonderfully unexpected adventure with great people.  I just don’t have enough gratitude for the people who make these adventures worth having.



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Bow Glacier

Just got back from a short, two day adventure on the Bow Glacier.  The avalanche hazard of late has made it impossible to get up in the mountains. After a warm couple of days, avalanches were blasting the mountains with special warnings all over the news.  The good news for us was that many of the dangerous slopes were “fixing” themselves by ripping out the dangerous layers.  Randy and I spent the last week texting back and forth trying to figure out if we could get up safely to the Bow Glacier.  As we watched the changing conditions and weather, we made it a go.

In addition to our own objectives, we were taking some staff from the North Face up to the hut at the foot of the glacier.  We spent some extra time doing some avalanche rescue work with them but assessing the avalanche hazards along the way would be up to us.  At various points along the way we explained our observations and assessments which we do out loud anyway.  I also wanted to try building a snow shelter, and even if I didn’t sleep in it, I thought I would learn a few things about it in an easy, non-emergency situation.

I left Canmore at 6am, picked Randy up and met the others at Bow Lake.  We were relieved along the way to see that nearly every steep slope had already avalanched.

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Above: Sunrise over Bow Peak is so different every day.  The wind had randomly scoured the snow off the lake revealing a black and shiny, marble-like surface that looked like open water from afar.   A few from our group were a bit nervous as I skied straight towards  what seemed like a hole in the ice.  I knew that after the two weeks of -35 over Christmas, the ice was several feet thick. DSCN7672

Above:  Very, very slippery ice made skiing a little difficult but the beauty of the clear ice more than made up for the slower travel time. DSCN7684 Above:  Skiin past an unconcerned and invisible Ptarmigan.


Above:  A massive chunk of ice calves off the Bow Glacier and avalanches nearly a thousand feet down.  Randy and I were waiting for the others as we wanted to lead everyone quickly on the correct line past this face and on to our ascent ramp.  Suddenly we watched a bus sized chunk of ice drop.  The sound was tremendous.  The low roar really vibrated your stomach!

Everyone else saw it too and when they caught up, we had a quick conference explaining that we would be going past this face but well back from the danger zone.   Since the slope had already avalanched a few days before, the impact of any ice falling wouldn’t remote trigger an avalanche on the nearby slope we would be climbing.   In fact, in this picture, Randy and I are standing on the avalanche debris.  Had we been standing here a few days before, the impact of this icefall would have triggered the slope and the avalanche would roll right over where we’re standing.  That is why we don’t venture up here when slopes are touchy.DSCN7693

Above:  After some hard won elevation gain, Randy drinks in the view of the Crowfoot Glacier.  I opened up the Alpine Club hut and got some snow melting for water then went out looking for a place to build my snow shelter.  I had previously been reading up on various designs and was anxious to get started.DSCN7703

Above:  I picked this spot on the lee side of the drift.  After an hour and a half of work, I had a pretty comfortable shelter built.  Inside temperature according to my thermometer was a very cozy zero degrees.  DSCN7705

Above: Most sources agree that a smooth, sloping roof is critical to avoiding dripping from above as the space heats.  I brought in my sleeping gear and had a half hour nap as a proof of concept and considered it a success as I had learned a few things along the way I would do differently had this been an emergency bivouac.DSCN7706

Above:  My “glacier Hilton” even has a nice view!

After spending the night in the hut, I woke at 5:30am, made breakfast and watched the weather.  If the visibility was poor, Randy and I were going to depart along with the others back down.  If we had a good, clear window, we would make an attempt at a summit. Since we were the only ones with glacier experience, and gear, we would go by ourselves.   As Randy got up, the fog was starting to lift a bit but he was exhausted and wanted to go back to bed!  Randy is a new father so sleep is not in surplus recently!  The previous day, on our final ascent slope, the snow had been polished to an icy hard  sheet.  I  delicately clinged to the slope while I hacked out a ski-width ledge all the way up the final wall so the others could follow without fear of falling to the bottom.  As we sat in the morning darkness, we wondered if there was any point in trying to make the thousand foot climb up the glacier if it was going to be a similar sheet of polished glass?

I suggested we harness up, put our glacier gear on, rope up and check it out.  If we couldn’t easily climb, then we would just turn around.  Our goal for now would be Mt Gordon, the highest mountain around here.DSCN7710

Above:  As light breaks, we first check out the glacier with a probe to test the thickness of the crevasse bridges.  Randy reports over two meters of very dense snow meaning the crevasses are bridged very solidly.  We stay roped up here anyway.  I lead us best as I can looking for the lowest angle possible.  Unfortunately, an overnight skiff of snow has hidden the smooth icy parts from the rougher drifts.  It was only a matter of time before I found one and slipped.  I was falling down the glacier at a moderate speed before the rope tightened up and held me up.  Without ski crampons we weren’t going anywhere.IMG_1555

Above:  If you look carefully, you can see our tracks attempting to climb the glacier and then abandoning the route.  Incredible light and mind blowing scenery make every trip a success, even if your plans fall through.  Mt St Nick was catching first light like a lighthouse.  The whole place seemed like a fairy tale.

As a consolation we decided to skirt the edge of the glacier and try and follow the rock up to a mountain called “The Onion.”DSCN7713

Above:  Early light gives a pink hue to the mountain tops.DSCN7718

Above: Light and clouds on Mt Olive and St Nick.DSCN7728

Above:  Mt Olive was so captivating that we decided right then that we would come back in April to climb it.IMG_1559

Above: Scale is impossible to judge up here and photos are just as bad.  Randy starts to get smaller as we climb up “The Onion.”  Incredible weather with a rare clear sky allowed us to see many peaks and routes hidden to us on past trips.DSCN7736

Above:  At the top with an amazing view west towards Mt Collie and the Yoho exit.  The mountain just over my head is Mt Collie and Mt McArthur.  Without reference points, they appear close but they are 15 kilometers away!  Had plenty of slapstick moments trying to use the self timer on the camera as I couldn’t move very quickly in my AT boots.  Behind us, the spire of Mt St Nick (out of frame on the left) casts a shadow on the icefield several kilometers long!DSCN0004

Above:  Telephoto shot of distant Mt Collie named after Norman Collie, a mountain climbing pioneer who did many first ascents and was the first to explore the Columbia Icefields and climb its highest peaks.  I recently read his journal and he quickly became a much respected person to me so I really enjoyed  finally seeing the mountain named after him.  I was glad to see that his name is lent to such a stunning peak.  On the wide open blank canvass of the icefield, it  attacks the sky and declares itself with not a single rival to compare itself to.DSCN7733

Above:  We pulled out the map and took advantage of the cloudless sky and 360 degree view to identify every peak and route through this area.  From this vantage we even saw an easier way to get to Mt Gordon, our intended peak.  Oh well, next time.  After making some future plans it was time to go.  Places like this are hard to get to and even harder to leave!   At least we could look forward to a long ski run of 3000 vertical feet under a bluebird sky.DSCN7750

Above:  Enjoying a nice long ski down with nothing but our own tracks for miles.  Skiing with a big pack and harness isn’t easy but you get used to it.  I got a chuckle from this picture as the extra gloves in my pockets make me look like I have a big gut.

A great trip with plenty of surprises.  Considering we didn’t think we would even get into the back country any time soon due to dangerous avalanche conditions, this trip seemed like wining the lottery.


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