“S-E-S-Q-U-I-C-E-N-T-E-N-N-I-A-L! Spells sesquicentennial!” Blares the goofy, sing-songy voice on a radio program called The Irrelevant Show. Greg and I cringe as the supposed-to-be-funny song drags on for minutes after it lost its last ounce (sorry, gram) of comedic value. But, as my van lacks a CD player, tape player, and an auxiliary cord, this cacophonous Canadian is our only option for entertainment as we speed through the rural mountains of southern British Columbia. And honestly, I think I prefer this awkward novelty show to the 24/7 media circus that is the US politics clogs the airways with anyway.
Greg and I were on our way to the Canadian Rockies, hoping to find some quality early-May skiing in the corridor between Jasper and Lake Louise. We only had a week in the region, as Greg has taken on some “grown-up” responsibilities like a full time job and law school applications, but the psyche was high and the weather looked… decent.
Our first objective of the trip was to climb and ski Mount Columbia, the highest peak in Alberta and second loftiest in the Canadian Rockies. Unfortunately we hit our first setback just north of Lake Louise, where we discovered that the highway to the Columbia Icefield was closed due to an avalanche that had buried the road under 30 feet of snow! The only other way to access the Icefield would be to make a long loop through Calgary, adding another five hours of drive time.
We also learned that there had been a massive natural avalanche cycle in the previous few days, in which warm temps had reactivated depth hoar from the beginning of the winter and resulted in hundreds of wet slabs breaking to the ground. We began making the drive around the mountains, noting the need for extra caution throughout our trip.
As a result of the detour we arrived at the Columbia Icefields Visitor Center mid-morning the next day, rather than the previous night as we had hoped. This was probably a blessing in disguise, as we had been leaning towards taking two days to ski Mount Columbia anyway. This gave us a great excuse not to go for it in a single push. We packed for a night on the Icefield and left the trailhead midday.
After a kilometer of walking over loose moraine in ski boots (not the most enjoyable activity) we reached the toe of the Athabasca glacier. We spent the next few hours weaving our way through a few ice falls and avoiding overhanging seracs, all while taking in beautiful views of Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, and the rest of the surrounding area. At around three o’clock we reached the top of the Athabasca Glacier, where it meets with the much larger Columbia Icefield; we promptly got a taste of how large the scale of the icefield actually is.
We felt as if we were standing on the shore of a vast, white ocean, as the nearly featureless snow slowly gained elevation in front of us until it eventually met with the horizon. We had assumed that we would be able to see Mount Columbia once on the Icefield, but the large, gently-sloping hills in front of us blocked our view like large waves seen from a kayak.
“I think we need to go this way,” said Greg.
“I thought it was more this way,” I replied. “I bet we’ll be able to see better from the top of that hill.”
We picked a direction in between our two guesses and began walking. Half an hour later we didn’t appear to be any closer to the top of the hill than when we had started. “Maybe it’s more this way,” we decided, and changed course in accordance with our new hunch. We set our sights on another hill, and half an hour later it again felt like we had made zero progress. “We know it’s generally this way,” we thought, “so we might as well keep going until we can see more.” An hour later we crested the top of one of those hills that had initially appeared to be no more than 20 minutes away and were elated to see that we had been going in, generally, the right direction. With Mount Columbia in sight and approximately half of the approach complete we decided to dig in for the night.
Given the cold temps and relatively high elevation of the icefield we decided that an alpine start wasn’t necessary, and started walking at eight the next morning. It took us an hour to cross the remainder of the icefield and reach a large gully between the icefield and Mount Columbia known as the trench. From here the base of the face looked quite close, but the scale of the area was playing another trick on us. Two hours of skinning across a broad plateau brought us to the base of the 2,500 foot East Face. On a positive note the snow seemed perfectly stable and, though a bit wind-jacked, consistent enough to ski well.
The face soon steepened to the point where we decided to throw our skis on our packs and bootpack to the top. From a ~30 degree apron the slope gradually ramped up to the top where it maxed out in the low 40s. It looked like it would make for some fun skiing! We pulled over a small cornice at the top of the face, and there we were. The summit offered incredible views of the surrounding mountains, with steep, craggy peaks sprawling in every direction as far a we could see.
The snow on the face sported a mix of wind-scoured sections and thin pockets of wind loaded snow, with a bit of suncrust thrown in for good measure. Luckily it was firm enough to be consistent, and I’ll take firm and consistent over soft and punchy any day. Greg and I yo-yoed down the face, and for once I wasn’t jealous of his “light and fast” ski setup. My mid-weight skis seemed to handle the conditions better and, at the end of the day, we do this for the skiing, right? Skinny skis or fat we both got to the bottom, high-fived, and were happy to have skied such an aesthetic face.
Though we had just summited and descended the majority of the quality skiing, we still had about twelve miles of mostly flat, rolling terrain between us and the trailhead. As I spend most of my time skiing in the Wasatch, where a fall from the top of many classic ski descents will land you on a highway, the concept of an approach is still a little new to me. Mount Columbia was willing to give me a crash course in the subject, as it took us four hours of skinning and route finding (made harder by some swirling fog that covered the featureless Icefield) just to make it back to our tent.
We packed up camp quickly, knowing that giving our blistered feet a chance to cool down would make them hurt that much more when we started moving again. Luckily it was mostly downhill from our camp back to the trailhead. We skied back to the head of the Athabasca Glacier, moving cautiously with our heavy packs, flat light and fog, and a punchy sun crust. We moved a bit faster down the headwall of the glacier, as the seracs hanging above us motivated us to keep the mountaineer’s version of Russian Roulette as brief as possible.
Below the icefall we found corn snow on a broad, gently angled glacier, and were able to cruise to within a kilometer of the trailhead. Which left us with a delightful 20 minutes of hobbling on bruised feet in ski boots back over the moraine to our van.
In our planning we had hoped to ski some other inspiring descents in the Icefield region, but a group of skiers that we met in the parking lot told us that they had found those lines sporting a thin crust covering a snowpack of wet facets. That report combined with the plethora of natural avalanche crowns we had seen in the past couple days was enough to make us back off, and we decided to drive back to the Lake Louise area in hopes of finding better snow.
Our next objective was the classic (verified by Chris Davenport in 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America) Aemmer Couloir on Mount Temple. The forecast called for a clear, relatively cold night followed by a clear warm day. We hoped the line would sufficiently refreeze overnight, and figured that its easterly aspect would cause it to warm early in the day. We went to sleep early, planning on a 4am start.
Mentally I prepared myself for another one of those weird “approach” things. When 4am came I closed my eyes, put one foot in front of the other, and 3.5 hours later we were at the base of the line. As we started booting up we realized that the snow in the couloir was still completely boilerplate. There were a few clouds in front of the sun preventing the snow from warming, and we decided that it would be best to descend to the base and wait for the snow to begin to soften before trying to climb again.
To keep ourselves busy we skinned up a small adjacent mountain, claiming the first known (known to us) ascent of the spectacular Unnamed Peak. While we were busy progressing the sport of ski mountaineering, some intermittent sun and clouds had allowed the couloir to soften just enough for us to feel good about going back up. We started climbing again, optimistic that our timing would be better this time.
Unfortunately when we were about a third of the way up the couloir the clouds fully socked in, the temperature dropped, and it began to snow. Within half an hour the snow had refrozen into boilerplate and enough new snow had accumulated on the rocks above us to produce some sizeable sloughs. Time to go down!
A thousand feet of survival skiing put us back on (almost) flat ground where, after taking a little more time to watch the weather, we decided to call it a day. Skiing out past the base of the North Face of Mount Temple, a 4000+ foot rock wall with couloirs and snow ribbons filling in the cracks, was a fine consolation prize for the pure, aesthetic value.
The forecast said that we had one last day of clear weather and, hoping that this prediction would verify better than the sunny day we were supposed to have in the Aemmer Couloir, we planned our last objective. Another early start would hopefully set us up well to climb and ski the North Face of Mount Hector. While this isn’t a very steep or technical route, it looked like it would provide a few thousand feet of fun skiing in wide open, rolling terrain from a beautiful peak.
One last “approach,” in which involved a bit of bushwhacking, a scramble over a waterfall, and lots of skinning through avalanche debris led us into a beautiful alpine zone. The last hundred feet to the summit involved some mixed scrambling over snow and rocks, and provided the only technical challenge of the day. From the top we had unobstructed views in every direction revealing hundreds of mountains, most very remote, with many lifetimes of potential ski terrain. It felt like the perfect way to cap off a trip in which we made a tiny scratch in the vast surface of the Canadian Rockies.
We skied down the North Face in firm but enjoyable snow conditions, making fast, carefree turns on the broad, rolling snowfield. Lower on the route the snow softened a bit more as we skied back into the valley. We even found a sneak to get around the waterfall on snow with our skis on! We ended up being able to connect patches of snow through the woods all the way back to the highway, a nearly 6000 foot descent!
Our week in Canada felt like a success, and with tired legs and sore feet we pointed the van south again. We had one last stop we had to make, and pulled into the first Tim Horton’s we saw. Nutella-filled pastries fueled our travel back to the border, where a classically not-so-friendly border agent grilled us about our trip, our jobs, and our relationship. Not finding a reason to keep us any longer we passed back into the states, where The Irrelevant Show promptly faded and was replaced by our choice of country music or religious talk radio. After our trip, despite what you may hear coming from the White House, I am convinced of one simple fact. Canada First!