Wapta Wanderings Part III
(First published in Outdoor Exposure in 2006)
I believe every skier has a dream. It hits you early in the morning. You get yourself out of the hut, while the sun is still just a pale glow behind a distant ridge of mountains, and the air is brittle, as if a loud noise will shatter it, sharp against the skin and in the lungs as you breathe it in, breathe it out again and watch your breath hang in the stillness. You look up to the glazed peaks around you as you unfurl your skins, crispy and crunchy where the night’s cold has frozen them in the shape you hung them, and you work quickly with ungloved fingers to stop your hands freezing, stretching them over the smooth bases of your skis and clipping them into place. Your heart beats a little faster as your skis drop to the snow with a soft whumph, the loud clack as your boots clip into the bindings, the rustle as you nestle your poles into your gloves and adjust your pack. You’re ready. Your buddies are ready. But you’re not really talking too much.
You’re still dreaming of that descent.
It’s an elusive dream. You’re floating, just beneath a cloudless sky. Beneath your skis is a crisp sheet of cold, light snow, flawless, split into two by your blades, barely a whisper as it churns out behind you, your wake. The air is so clear you feel you can reach out and touch the peaks in front of you. The wind bites into your cheeks, the legacy of speed. Your heart is hammering, your chest heaving. Beneath you stretches out a vast sloping field of untouched powder, just waiting for you, and it’s all yours, acres and acres and acres of it, gleaming so white in the sunlight that it hurts to look at.
Someone coughs. You’re still standing at the base of the mountain, outside the hut, geared up and ready to go. But this is what passes through your mind’s eye. This is what you’re looking for. This is what you hope the day will deliver. Your raison de randonée. The dream.
Of course, days don’t deliver like that. Not often. Not to me, at any rate. But it’s what gets me going. And on day three of our tour of the Wapta Icefields, its what got Mackie and I out of Bow Hut before the rest of our bunkmates, while the air was still a razor-edge above fifteen below, and the hues of the snow in the shadow of the mountains were more blue than white. It was a spotless morning, as if God had swept the sky during the night, and the tip of Mt. St. Nicholas’ fin-like peak was gleaming as the early morning sun kissed it. Like a beacon. Saying, come this way, boys.
The ascent seemed to go quickly. It was the third time we’d done it, so we knew the routine. Pausing at the top of the ridge beneath St. Nick’s awe-inspiring rock face, I glanced back as the sun began to break into view, and could make out a couple from the hut slowly making their way up behind us on the zig-zagged slope that led up to the ice-cap, mere silhouettes in the light. We turned left and set off across the icefields. There was no getting lost today. Only the faintest remnants of mountain fog clung to the edge of Mt. Gordon off to the right and swirled above Vulture Col ahead of us. But for the rest, we had what felt like a million acres of smooth, untouched ice-cap to ourselves.
It was an easy trek, and after a while we angled left. The face of Mt. St. Nick, off to the left, was now a vertical rock wall, slowly sinking to a col, the low point in the ridgeline before rising again to the peak of Mt. Olive beyond. From below, there looked to be snow on the far side of that col. For sure there was some on this side. So we made for it, eventually finding ourselves cutting kick-turns into the wind-scoured wall below the col, then pausing for a photo opportunity just a few feet below the top of the rise, St. Nick’s ridgeline stretching away behind us for a glorious backdrop on what was a glorious morning. Then we looked back down the climb we had just made. The snow was too perfect, too beautiful to pass up on, despite the effort. A bird in the hand and all that. So we ripped it, slicing high-speed turns as the powder flew, making the most of the short slope, hooting as we rode the runout to a standstill. Finally, invigorated by our brief flirtation with adrenaline, we turned and slogged a steady path back up the col. The snow had been good, a worthwhile trade-off. The way we saw it, even if the slopes on the far side of the col yielded nothing, we could happily come back here and spend the rest of the day running up and down the short descent.
We topped the col.
The Dream was waiting for us.
The ridgeline from Mt. St. Nicholas and Mt. Olive curves round to form a partial bowl, a wide open sloping basin draining out far below beneath St. Nick’s peak into a steep roll-over that drops back down onto the toe of the icefield. The same scouring wind that had stripped snow from the top of the climb up the col had taken a break as soon as it had crossed the ridge, dropping its load of granulated snow in a soft blanket that coated everything in sight. Beyond the basin, on the far side of the valley, we could see rows and rows of peaks, shark’s teeth in a crystal-clear sky, gleaming in the bright sunlight. The wind was still at work, and from beyond the curled cornice of Mt. Olive, microscopic grains of ice blew over, hanging in the air and glistening like suspended crystals, the colours of the spectrum swirling in a speck.
There wasn’t much to say. We climbed. We clung close to the ridgeline, staying high, watching the snowfield grow beneath us, pausing only for a snack to get our energy up in the cold air. We were a little below 10,000 feet, and the atmosphere was so clean it could have burned us. There was an energy in our ascent, an eagerness, an expectation. We knew what was coming. We could feel the snow beneath our skis, light and cold and dry. There were no tracks. This was our little corner of paradise.
Towards the top of the ridge there was a spur, a small elbow of the mountain jutting out, and we made it our launch-pad. It was steep, thick with powder, and as I made the first ascent, Mackie waiting below with the camera, my switchbacks grew shorter and I floundered in the deep snow. About halfway up, I got my bearings and felt momentarily vulnerable, checking my AvaLung was easily accessible to my mouth. The quality of the slope felt so ethereal it was hard to believe it was even supporting my weight, and I had visions of simply slipping beneath it as it dissolved around me. I eventually removed my skis and simply waded up the last of the spur, past my waist in snow. With some manouevring I stamped my way back into my bindings, and then I paused. The world shone. The snow beneath me was untracked, steep and deep and everything I could possibly have asked for. I allowed myself to breath in and out for a few moments. Filling my lungs with the place, as if by absorbing its oxygen I could maybe take a piece of it with me after I left. Just enjoying the feeling. Making the most of the promise of what was to come, that pause before lifting the veil.
I skied. Launched myself into the deep and accelerated through the white, letting gravity take me while snow parted with barely a whisper around my knees, around my thighs. I turned, not because I had to but because I wanted to, letting my momentum carry me, feeling air like a cushion beneath my skis, as if I wasn’t really touching the ground at all but was simply floating. Like I was moving on a fluffed-up down pillow. Loose chunks of snow leapt up and struck me on the chest, in the face, dissolving into sprays of sugar as they touched me, their impact like a breath of breeze, like a gentle kiss. Wind cut into my face, forced its way into my lungs as I remembered to breath. The world slipped beneath me effortlessly and I glided, as close to flying as I could possibly get with my feet still in contact with the planet. It was a beautiful moment. For those few seconds, those seconds that stretched out so that I could feel each one slipping past in sharp detail, each breath, each beat of my heart, and yet were over far too quickly, for those few seconds I truly knew what it meant to be skiing. I had found my dream.
The runout was long and smooth and gentle, and in the deep snow I decellerated quickly, returning to relieve Mackie of the camera so he could have his turn, the least I could do as he had given me the privelage of making first tracks. He didn’t dissapoint. More adept than I in the pow, he was a joy to watch. I have a vision in my mind’s eye as he drops, as he leans into the slope, dropping to one knee to make his tele-turns and then quickly upright, ready to drop again on the other side. Each time he kneels, the snow is almost up his chest, and as he stands, a spray of white erupts past him, hanging in his wake, the intensity of every turn evident in each movement he makes. I can’t get past the image of flying powder, chunks of it blowing past his shoulders, swirling in the wake of his arms. When Mackie finally makes it back to me, he is grinning and there is snow sprinkled all the way up his chest. A great deal of our vocabulary during this time consists of, “Dude…”, and then a shake of the head. Words really don’t mean too much out here
My next descent of the spur is not as glorious. Mackie has the camera, ready to shoot some video, but as I begin my descent, he yells, “No! Wait!” He has failed to work out which button sets the thing rolling. It clicks alive just as I put on the brakes, wanting my ride captured for posterity. Instead there is grainy footage as I slip sideways beneath the blanket of powder, losing control in my effort to stop and vanishing in a puff of white that buries me to my neck once it settles. I am unhurt. It is like falling in a bed of goose-down. But it takes me some time and considerable flailing to get upright again in the deep. Mackie’s second descent is much like his first, and although I am only watching him, it is a joy to observe as fine drifts of powder snow hang in the air behind him, back-lit by the blue sky above the ridgeline.
Mackie and I would happily have skied that spur alone all day long, but this was day three, and we had commitments in Calgary, and so it was with some sadness that we dropped below Olive’s face and began to make our way towards the drain that led back towards the hut. We reached the level of the col where we had entered our personal heaven and paused. Beneath us, all the way to the base of Mt. St. Nick, a gently-sloping field of snow, acres and acres of the stuff, perfect and white and unskied just as far as we could see. Again Mackie let me deflower, perhaps in consolation for the earlier debacle with the video, and I obliged. After a moment’s pause to make sure my boots were comfortable and my pack in place, I dropped onto the slope and headed down.
There is footage of me skiing down towards St. Nick. It is taken from behind as Mackie watches me, and all that can be seen is my back, slowly receding down the mountain slope, a small spray of powder in my wake. The camera can only take thirty-second bursts of film, and by the time the thirty seconds is up, I am still skiing, a small dot far away, lazily carving sweeping turns into the mountainside. I remember the ride. It seemed to go on and on and on. An endless field of powder snow, gently rolling on into infinity, steep enough to keep momentum rolling, an effortless ride.
But it didn’t go on forever. Like all good things, it came to an end, and I waited in the sun at the base of St. Nick for Mackie to catch up to me. Beneath its slopes, the mountain once again dwarfed us, and we felt small on the open slope, hovering tentatively above the roll-over that would take us back to the glacier. We had scouted it from below, knew to keep to the left of a widget of rock or risk dropping over some extremely steep terrain that gave no semblance of stability or safety. There was more crust here, and we skittered and flailed our way down into the shadows below the rock face where the snow softened up, and fast sweeping turns were cut into the steep mountainside, a last burst of excitement and adrenaline before the now-familiar return to the hut, and the long trek back out to the car before the day’s end. As on both previous days, the little face directly above Bow Hut once more proved to provide some of the most reliable snow in the area, and we left our S-turns alongside those of the two days before, and those of our invisible mountain companions living their own dreams elsewhere in Wapta.
I have not skied since that afternoon heading out from the Wapta Icefields. I live in Australia, where snow and mountains are not what they are in the Canadian Rockies, and I have spent much of my time since then in Africa with my job. It is not for want of wanting that my touring skis remain zipped in their canvas bag. But I often find myself back on that slope below Mt. Olive, living those turns in my mind, feeling the cold snow strike my face, feeling the gasps of ice-cold air searing my lungs and reminding me what it is to really suck all the juice you can get out of life as the mountain rushes upwards beneath me. I close my eyes, sweating beneath a faltering air-conditioner on the edge of the Sahel, and I can feel my heart-rate pick up a little, and if anybody is watching, they’ll see a gentle smile cross my face.
Heading down from Bow Hut in the warm spring sunshine, we didn’t linger beneath the Vulture Glacier, we made our quick passage back out through the Mousetrap, we slogged our way back out across Bow Lake, layered down to our thermal vests and sweating the dirty sweat of the exhausted and well-worked. Within the sadness to be leaving such a gorgeous place behind was a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, the knowledge that we had set ourselves a challenge and returned, and that we had found, if not what we were looking for, then something that had more than satisfied our hunger. For my part, I had lived my dream- or one of them. Gearing up that morning, and my vision for the day had been fully satisfied by what we found on the slopes above Mt. St. Nicholas. But maybe that’s the great thing about dreams. They expand with your experience. And now that I’ve been there, my vision has gotten that little bit bigger, my hunger that little bit broader. I dream of something new now, something I know must be out there, and it’ll be waiting for me the next time I strap on my skis and pause in that cold, biting air as the morning sun strokes the tips of the mountains, and I let my imagination fly.