Wapta Wanderings Part II
(First published in Outdoor Exposure in 2006)
There is something about being caught in a snowstorm that I love. I don’t think I’m unique in the outdoors community in this regard. It’s a beautiful sensation, an isolation from the rest of the world, where the white envelopes you, cold and heavy and tangible. Chunky flakes of snow drift past, occasionally picked up and whipped by a churning wind, biting into your face as you retreat deeper into your mountain clothing. Sound becomes muffled. Your world shrinks to a small sphere beyond which all is lost to the grey. Nature reaches out and wraps around you, and for a few minutes, you might very well be the last person alive on the planet.
Of course, on a ridgeline at ten thousand feet overlooking a glaciated valley, these rarified senses tend to be usurped by one specific, very pertinent question: How the heck do we get down from here?
Day two of our Wapta Icefields tour had dawned nippy and fresh, and Mackie and I were the first out of Bow Hut, gearing up as quickly as we could in the unforgiving shade. Pausing for a tranceiver-check at the toe of the first ascent, we noted a school of ski mountaineers starting their climb a short distance behind us. We made fair time up the slope towards the ice-cap, though we were porting a fair whack of gear- down jackets, harnesses and a rope, not to mention our regular array of avalanche survival gear, food and layers of warm clothing. I never cease to be humbled by how hard people have to work to stay alive in the mountains.
Towards the top of the first pitch, we paused for a rest, blood now flowing hard, forgetting the cold of the morning start as we layered down. We were to the right of the slope as we climbed. Behind us, we were looking across the flat top of the Onion. The team of ski mountaineers- there were nine of them- were slowly ascending a little lower than us on the far side of the slope, dwarfed beneath the magnificent cliff-face of Mt. St. Nicholas. Ahead of us, just a little further, the gradient rolled over and we would be onto the glaciers themselves. White fluffy clouds blew past, periodically obscuring our view of the peaks around us. The team of climbers we were watching gently faded into a bank of fog, and we pressed on.
We were heading for Mt. Balfour, due north of us. As we reached the gentle dome of the Wapta Icefields, we could see the pyramid of its peak some good distance ahead of us. To our immediate right, Mt. St. Nick and Mt. Gordon dominated the view, themselves seperated by a broad flat-bottomed plain of snow-coated ice that eventually leads to Vulture Col and through to Balfour Hut. We stopped to rope-up. I understood the logic behind this. If I were to punch through the ice into a crevasse, Mackie- who is both much bigger and much more experienced than I am- would be able to haul me back out. If Mackie were to take the fall, I would go straight down with him with barely enough time for a grunt of surprise. This scenario worked for me as well. There was no way I would want to head back down alone and have to explain to his wife what had happened.
The fog moved in quickly as we set off across the ice. We had probably been going for less than fifteen minutes when the world went white, and although the sun could be seen struggling to punch through the low-level cloud wrapped around us, we quickly lost sight of anything more than fifty yards in any direction. It was disorientating, but not disturbing. Wapta is a vast expanse of gently-sloping ice with few natural hazards immediately apparent. The brief glimpses we could catch of the surrounding peaks- our only points of reference- served to confuse us, but we had our tracks behind us which would lead us back to the hut, and enough gear to survive- albeit coldly- a night on the ice. We pressed on, occasionally pausing to discuss navigation, or to peer through the fickle cloud at a patch of something darker; was that a rock-face, or just a thick block of fog…?
A mountain materialized out of the mist, slowly, the grey-white of its slopes gradually filling in the gaps between dark chunks of rock-bands that gave away its form.
“Is that it…?” I asked hopefully. Mackie nodded. Mt. Balfour seemed to have come upon us very quickly, but I wasn’t in the mood to dispute the fact that it just didn’t feel right. Quickly was just fine by me. We stopped for a snack, warming ourselves up by digging a snow-pit to get us out of the wind before hunkering down together and chowing down our wrap sandwiches.
Above us, a line of ski-mountaineers, nine of them, slowly traversed the face on their trek for the summit.
“How…?” I looked at Mackie, but we both knew the answer. This was not Mt. Balfour at all. In the whiteout, with no point of reference, we had managed to swing through ninety degrees and ended up at the foot of Mt. Gordon. We didn’t waste time discussing it. We were here. There was a mountain to climb, and turns to be earned.
The snowpack was solid as we ascended, scoured wind-crust with a stable base towards the cold ice beneath it. Our skin-covered skis cracked through into soft powder beneath, but the ascent was neither technically challenging nor physically exhausting. Just a long, steady slog uphill. Near the summit, the ski mountaineers returned, carving sharp turns above us before pausing to exchange pleasantries and wish us luck. The wind had picked up, and the temperature had dropped, and we paused again just below the ridgeline to have another snack, wrapping ourselves in down to stay warm. We could see down to the icefields below, largely clear of cloud, though the peaks surrounding the glaciers were still intermittent, sometimes visible and sometimes cloaked from our view.
The summit of Mt. Gordon stands at a little over 10,000 feet, and on a good day offers a breathtaking vista of Yoho National Park and the Canadian Rockies, snow-capped peaks stretching to the far horizon. Preston and I stood there, ski-tips hanging over the void, and through the haze could just make out the shapes of rocks and the suggestion of peaks hundreds of feet below us. We did not linger. Snow was starting to fall, and visibility was getting worse. During the morning’s ascent onto the icefields, before the whiteout, we had taken a brief look at Gordon’s south wall, facing Mt. St. Nick, and thought there might be a line we could take off the ridge which would offer us some good turns. We slid our way cautiously off the peak and along the broad ridgeline, looking for our route.
We were now in unfamiliar terrain. During the whiteout on the glacier, the terrain had been flat and not a great hazard. For the ascent, the clouds had lifted, and we had been given a good view of our route, both up and down, and the weather hadn’t worried us. But as the visibility worsened, a sense of foreboding settled over me. We were descending very slightly as the ridgeline sloped down, making slow, controlled turns in alternating powder and windcrust. To our right (north) was a sheer drop-off, jagged rocks nestled at the bottom of several hundred feet of air. To our left, where we wanted to descend, we knew there were cornices. What else remained to be seen. But even in the few short minutes that we descended along the ridge, the grey deepened, and our visibility reduced. I could still see Mackie up to a hundred yards away, his red Gore-Tex shell muted in the swirling cloud and falling snow, but the texture of the ground itself was lost to me after a few paces. We edged testily towards the lip that rolled over into a white void.
“I think it’s just down here,” Mackie pointed with his pole. I hung back. I could sense the hesitation in him too. We both wanted to ski the line- if it was there. It would be a quicker way back to the icecap, and would give us something to talk about later on, far more adventurous than retracing our route down the front. But even twenty feet from the edge, we could still see nothing. We each had visions of thousands of tonnes of cornices crashing down around us, and did not approach closer. My heart was pounding at the prospect of trying the route. The world around us was muffled and empty, making it quite clear that the decision was for the two of us to make, and we alone would bear the consequences.
In the end an uncharacteristic bout of wisdom won us over. Turning back from an interesting line is not something that came naturally to either of us, but as we trekked back up to the summit, we had still not managed to identify where we might have been able to safely drop down to the descent, and we both knew we’d made the right decision.
We were rewarded on the far side of Mt. Gordon where we dropped back down the route we had ascended from. Visibility was clearer on this side, and I could see down to the valley below. Pausing just long enough to tighten up my boots, adjust the straps on my backpack and check out my line, I hopped off the ridgeline and sunk into soft snow. The face was steep, and in no time at all I had gathered speed and was riding, leaning just slightly back and letting the rhythm of gravity dictate short, bouncing turns. With snow riding up around my knees, I was barely aware of the icy blast of air pressing against my face and filling my lungs with oxygen. Only of speed, of the controlled movement of my legs and hips, and of a smooth gliding sensation as my ski-tips floated on a cushion of powder. Here, I am as close as it is possible to come to flying, though my feet never leave the ground. These are the moments I live for. We all do.
At the bottom of the slope, the powder gave way to wind-crust, and I carved a wide, awkward arc into the surface, skis skittering as they bounced off the hard, unforgiving ice. Mackie followed me down, and we finished our day’s trek as an afternoon sun warmed us, kissing the sheer face of Mt. St. Nicholas while we, like specks, picked our steady path across the icecap beneath it, reminded again just how puny we were in this landscape of giants.
It was not until the next day, standing on the col between Mt. St. Nick and Mt. Olive, that we had the chance to look back to the Gordon ridgeline and eye out the route we had been searching for the day before atop the whited-out ridgeline. Sure enough, the snow looked deep and smooth. But above it on both sides hung deep, curled cornices, the sort of formations that big-wave surfers dream about, only these were the size of tower-blocks. Beneath the route, crevasses were gashed into the base of the slope, open slits which we could see from our vantage a couple of miles away. There was a single, narrow path between the hazards. In the snowstorm, only sheer luck would have kept us safe if we’d tried to make our way down. We had made the right decision to walk away and play again.
Above Bow Hut, we again rode into the slope, ironically finding the best turns of the day not at 10,000 feet but just five hundred feet above our bunks. The school of ski mountaineers had been through and left a swathe of S-turns technically far more perfect then either Mackie or I could hope to lay out, but we gave it our best shot anyway. We enjoyed it so much, we turned around, hiked back up, and did it again. Mt. St. Nicholas watched over us silently as we signed our presence in the hillside. And we looked up at it, a towering, dramatic peak backed by a deep col of thick, rich powder. Our destination for tomorrow was an easy choice…