Story and Photos by Brett Carroll
A Guide to Hitting the Wall for Dummies
“Why am I doing this?”
Sweat beaded on my forehead as the sun, feeling too intense for it to be January in British Columbia, turned the snowfield into a solar oven. But every time I thought about taking my last layer off a winter breeze would blow in from the north, triggering instant shivers. Normally my body would handle these challenges without a problem, but now I felt so depleted that I was unable to balance the two extremes.
I stopped on the skin track, having completed another cycle of ten steps separated by pauses to catch my breath. I looked up and saw Caitlin and Julien as small black dots on the ridge above me, still moving efficiently towards the summit of Garibaldi (Nch’kaý). As I started plodding along again I had to wonder, what had gone wrong?
That night in camp, once my hydration and blood sugar had returned to healthy levels, I was able to reflect more clearly on the mistakes I had made. And that reflection provided the inspiration for this: a how-to guide for bonking in the mountains, for those looking for a character-building beatdown.
I am American, but was able to spend nine weeks living in Squamish (Stá7mes), British Columbia this winter. You may wonder how I was able to pull this off, as Canada has blocked non-essential travel across its COVID-ridden southern neighbor. Well, I’m lucky enough to have a Canadian partner which, minus a two-week quarantine on arrival, allowed me to spend two months exploring the beauty of the Coast Mountains in winter.
A spell of high pressure and stable avalanche conditions towards the end of January provided an opportunity to push deeper into the mountains, and I ended up making plans with a couple of friends to attempt the Garibaldi Neve Traverse. The Neve Traverse makes a horseshoe around the volcanic Garibaldi massif, a collection of peaks that tower over the town of Squamish, rising over 8000 feet directly from sea level. The north and east sides of the massif are the source of several glaciers and permanent snowfields that are crossed on the route. We decided to spend one night out, in hopes that this would give us the opportunity to summit Garibaldi as well.
How to Bonk, Step 1: Go With People Who are Faster Than You.
My friends for this adventure, Caitlin and Julien, are both crushers. Living in Vancouver (Xwáỷxway), they spend most weekends in the winter and spring on big overnight trips to some of the most remote summits in the Coast Mountains. They’ve spent enough years doing this that long days in the mountains don’t seem to phase them; they’re in their element. And while I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains myself, I knew that I would have my work cut out for me just trying to keep up with them.
Step 2: Create a Time Crunch.
The first day of our trip was forecast to be beautiful and sunny, while a small storm was set to move in overnight and last through the second day. Based on this we decided to try to complete most of the traverse (nearly all the elevation gain and over half the distance) on the first day, and also summit Garibaldi before dark. We would then camp below Garibaldi and ski out, likely in a whiteout, the next day. Getting to our camp below Garibaldi would require about 12.5 miles of skinning and 6000 feet of elevation gain, with another 1700 feet of climbing required to get to the summit. No easy task!
As Caitlin and Julien had to drive an extra hour from Vancouver, the earliest that they were willing to get to the trailhead was 8am. With the short days of a Canadian winter, complete darkness would arrive just after 5pm. This gave us nine hours to make it all the way from the Diamond Head trailhead to the top Garibaldi. Caitlin and Julien felt confident and, with their fitness, they might have made it. But I was definitely a bit intimidated by our ambition.
Step 3: Go Too Fast.
This is really a product of steps one and two. Aware of our tight schedule, I decided to keep up with my friends rather than stick to what I knew to be my all-day pace. The difference between those two speeds was marginal, and I was able to match them for about six hours. But there’s a reason that they call it an all-day pace, not a six-hour pace. Eventually that small difference added up, causing me to burn through my energy reserves and run out of gas.
The first three miles of the route follows an old logging road to a warming hut, and is one of the most popular ski tours in the greater Vancouver region. The next 3.5 miles gains and follows a broad ridgeline just above treeline to an overnight shelter at Elfin Lakes. The ridge provides spectacular views of what I think is one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world. The Coast Mountains sprawl all the way to the horizon to the south, east, and north, and the dramatic Tantalus Range (Tsewílx) thrusts upwards to the west. The Howe Sound (Àtl’ḵa7tsem) snakes its way between these mountains where it meets the Squamish Valley. And Atwell Peak, the southernmost summit of the Garibaldi massif, dominates the view to the north. Atwell also provides a sense of how far we have to go, which is far! We completed this first 6.5 miles in around 2.5 hours.
Step 4: Don’t Eat Enough
At Elfin Lakes we took our only true snack break of the day. Our awareness of the dwindling daylight hours motivated us to keep moving. From Elfin we traversed and descended frozen avalanche debris to Ring Creek. Luckily that same avalanche had buried the creek, creating the only safe crossing within sight. Once over the creek we began a long uphill slog, side-hilling across the bottom of Opal Cone, to gain the edge of the Garibaldi Neve. At this point we were fully in the alpine zone and had left the weekend crowds behind us, following only a skin track set by a party of two earlier that day.
We crossed the flat expanse of the Neve and began climbing the broad Northeast Ridge shared by Garibaldi and the Tent. On this climb around 2pm, six hours after leaving the trailhead, my tank ran dry. My pace slowed, my breathing became heavy, and I watched Caitlin and Julien all but disappear into the distance. Our chances of making it to the top slipped away with every pause, and every belabored step, but my mind couldn’t make my legs move any faster. My body had had enough, and was now stubbornly resisting anything besides rest. A quick bar and some sips of water were enough to get me, slowly, to the base of the headwall on the Northeast Face of Garibaldi, where the three of us regrouped.
The mountain cast its long shadow over us, and the clouds to the west took on pink and purple hues. With just an hour of light left, Caitlin and Julien wanted to make a last effort at reaching the summit. A small spark of ambition in my mind tried to convince me to join them, but was outweighed by the full-body fatigue that had crashed over me a couple hours ago. While they dug a hole to leave their overnight gear in, I unstuffed my sleeping bag and pad and settled in to wait for them. While they were gone I melted some snow on the stove and ate a couple homemade muffins that I had packed. An hour of food, water, and sleeping bag time took the edge off of my exhaustion. When Caitlin and Julien returned, having turned around below the top, I was ready to move to our bivy site.
We decided to camp on a flat bench just a quarter mile away from where I had rested during their summit attempt. We figured that if the incoming storm didn’t materialize as expected, we could give Garibaldi one more shot before heading out. Darkness had fallen so we built camp, with a tent for Caitlin and Julien and a small snow shelter for me, by headlamp.
Step 5: Carry Too Much Stuff
As we settled into our kitchen, protected from the building wind by our walls of snow, I noticed one more component that had led me to bonk that day; my pack was heavy! As I mentioned, Caitlin and Julien go on this type of one or two-night trip into the mountains all the time. Their kit was dialed; exactly what they needed and nothing more. My ski mountaineering experience has primarily involved either day trips or multi-week expeditions, with little in between. In packing for a single night out I had brought too many puffy layers, overboots, and a heavy stove. Sure, I was the most comfortable person hanging out in camp that night, but I would have been okay with less. And the five pounds I could have saved may have made a difference over the course of a nine-hour day.
It snowed a few inches overnight, and we awoke to whiteout conditions. No summit for us. On the bright side, my small snow shelter had kept me dry! As we packed up camp we decided that we would traverse over to Brohm Ridge to exit, a variation from the standard traverse that crosses Garibaldi Lake. We had seen yesterday that the lake wasn’t fully frozen yet, and were not excited about navigating up and over Mt. Price in a whiteout. Exiting via Brohm would be another 12 miles, but involve little elevation gain and an easy ski down a groomed snowmobile trail.
After some initially tricky whiteout navigation our exit went quite smoothly, and we made it to the trailhead by two o’clock. My partner was kind enough to run the shuttle for us, so we donned masks, cracked the windows, and made the short drive back to Squamish.
Looking back it is easy to see how the combination of all these factors led to my crash, but in the moment each step was harder to notice. It felt easy to be optimistic about our ability to complete most of the traverse and summit in nine hours on that first day. Then I was able to convince myself that I could maintain the pace we were setting for a full day, as it was only a hair faster than what I knew I could comfortably do. The hours ticking away felt like good reason to minimize breaks, even if that meant reducing food and water consumption. And, in hindsight, I know that I packed gear more appropriate for staying comfortable on a long-term expedition rather than a quick overnight.
All that said, it was a lovely two days in the mountains. Our weather the first day was perfect, and most of the terrain we travelled through was new to me. I also think that there’s a lot of value in experiences that push me to near my limit, as understanding how far I can push my body will help me make decisions on future mountain adventures. And, there’s something character-building about continuing to put one foot in front of the other when everything in your body and mind is telling you to stop.
So, if you’re looking to have a type-2 fun, character-building experience in the mountains, just follow these simple steps. If you’re looking for a higher fun to suffering ratio, try to avoid these mistakes. Whatever style of adventure you choose, any time spent in the mountains is a gift.
This experience took place on the ancestral and current home of the Squamish (Skwxwú7mesh) people.
I’ve not had the “pleasure” of fully bonking, getting to my physical limit, until experiencing it vicariously just now. Thank you for that! Beautiful scenes; pure and majestic. As always, your articles describe in such a way that I feel like I’m there.