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.Above: The Selkirks get about 30 feet of snow per year making Wheeler Hut very cozy.
Above: 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.
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!
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.
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.
Above: A Sundog lures us up the Asulkan Glacier.
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.
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.” Scale is lost but you can see our uptrack winding upwards and some of our turns coming back down.
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.