I watch helplessly as my slr camera bag tumbles out of my backpack. It slides briefly on the supportive crust before rapidly gaining speed and falling into an irregular and hypnotic rhythm. Tumbling and flipping, the bag is at the mercy of chance as gravity’s relentless pull is countered only by the occasional instance of friction. It follows the contour of the fan below the couloir I’ve just exited and all I can do is hope it gets hung up on a tree before falling into the creek at the bottom of the valley. It drops out of my line of sight leaving me alone to clumsily close up the backpack and put on the soft shell jacket that had sprung the camera bag free. I just bought that damn thing – I hope it’s going to be ok, but at the moment it’s not my biggest worry.
This winter has been one of the best yet. A handful of partners with generally similar fitness levels, objectives, schedules and skills has produced months of exploration, and when the mountains permitted us, access to aesthetic lines and first descents. We’ve grown together these past few years from what is sometimes derisively referred to as meadow skipping to something different – something which to us feels better – it’s less runs and more lines. There’s more focus on exploration, and less of the same old, same old.
It’s April Fool’s day and I am joined by Adam – a long time partner and his dog Nel. We’re bending the rules on dogs in the park, but with it being Easter Monday, we’re not expecting many people. Things have been warm, but have frozen over night. The forecast is calling for a warm and sunny day. We know this park very well and are keenly aware there aren’t many options for shady snow and we soon settle on one of the north aspect options.
Adam’s yell reaches me mere instants after the sickening sound of a cornice failing. It looks small, but it’s rapidly getting bigger; Adam will later tell me it was about the size of a couch. He is maybe 50 feet above me, but in a tightly walled couloir like this, it’s a whole world away. The cornice has broken from above and beside him on one of the walls. With very little time to react, I do the best I can to brace myself. I have an ice axe buried to the hilt, a ski pole and crampons to gain purchase with. The spring snow is crusted over even up here in the shade and midpack underneath is fairly supportive. I opt to challenge the sliding cornice head on. The decision is largely made for me, but I’ll second guess my actions of the next instant for quite some time. I lower my head and brace. The impact is strong, fast and hard. Unlike many lithe mountain enthusiasts, I’m more linebacker than lightweight endurance artist and in this battle of physics that’s set to occur, I’m prepared as best I can be. The cornice has split into a few large chunks, but is largely intact. Perhaps aided by the surface area added by the assembled splitboard strapped to my backpack, along with the additional leverage it represents beyond my center of gravity, the cornice wins convincingly.
I’ve not only fallen in a no fall zone, I’ve been flipped over backwards and am being pushed downhill rapidly. I fight in vain to arrest the slide, but I’m tumbling chaotically. Within seconds, I’m slammed into the first dogleg. I’m still sliding on snow, so I know the what’s left of the cornice and I have made the corner. The next dogleg is the one that I’m worried about though. It was the allure of this line and without stopping my descent, I’m headed towards a large rocky and icy ramp above a cliff. A few more bounces and I do my best to turtle. I protect my head with my arms and hope for the best. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die. My thoughts are with my family and friends but it doesn’t matter because they won’t know unless I live to tell them. Not like this I tell myself. Not today. I’m out of control but hope I’m not out of luck. Suddenly it’s quiet and I’m flying through the air. Seconds later I’m once again rag dolling down the apron, but things are slowing as the slope lessens. I’d prefer to stop before I hit the trees above the creek or splash down into the creek itself.
I’m lying on my back and my face is bloodied. I fumble with the straps on my backpack, taking some time to realize the upper chest strap has been ripped off. I soon find the waist belt, release myself and am relieved to find out I can stand. My head hurts and feels wet, and my one arm won’t straighten. It feels broken, or at least what I’d expect a broken arm to feel like – I suspect my lucky streak of having never broken a bone is over. Being the squeamish type, I try to ignore the red stained snow around me. My axe and leash are gone along with the pole I’d been holding and the one which was in my pack. I yell up to Adam but don’t hear a reply. He’s 1,000 feet above me and unlikely to be able to hear me.
I pull off my thin merino base layer shirt and and wrap it around my head, tying it as tightly as I can. I remove the splitboard from the pack and attempt to strap in while still wearing the crampons. My mind apparently is a bit cloudy, but I’m singular in my goal – get to the vehicle. With about 200 feet to gain on the opposite side of the creek, through snow that’s been in sunlight and is likely isothermic, I’m aware that surviving this far is only part of the battle. I need medical attention and burdening Adam with hauling my ass out of this isn’t going to help. After removing the crampons and strapping in, I decide riding bare chested might not be the best idea. I retrieve my soft shell and that’s when the camera bag escapes.
I stand up and start a heel side slip when I notice the nose of my board is broken. It protests but holds enough of an edge for me to control my descent. I shouldn’t be worrying about the camera, but I can afford a slight detour to check on it before traversing over to the creek crossing. By following its track, I find it where the terrain benches out above the creek. I put it in my pack and slide the few hundred meters down stream to the point where we’d crossed in the morning and set about converting over to ski mode.
I’m putting skins on when Adam arrives. He immediately takes control of the situation using the first aid kit I had ready to patch me up. He sells me on the idea of using his unbroken board, but I refuse to let him carry my pack. He wants me to wait until he’s ready, but I’m clipped in and crossing the creek. Always closer to the goal, keep moving. He’s rightfully worried about me falling off the snow bridge or it collapsing. I’m a very short way up the other side when he catches me. Heel risers are put up and Adam takes the lead. The snow is thankfully not entirely mush despite the low elevation and direct sunlight. Slowly and methodically we climb. We don’t often chat while skinning but we’re veritable chatter boxes. We both know why but it’s largely unspoken. At the top of the climb is the summer trail that leads the 2km back to the vehicle. It’s mostly downhill but was very hard and icy this morning, so much so that we opted to not use skins and simply walk on it. As it is mostly through mature forest, there’s a good chance the shade has kept this snow cold. It could be a luge track.
I refuse Adam’s second pole as my left arm still doesn’t feel right and my hand is quite swollen, leaving us both with a pole for our downhill side. We decide to split ski the exit with skins on. I’m thankful this is something we do with some amount of regularity. Bare spots on the banks coupled with snow ranging from sticky to icy make for a difficult exit. We ski the shit out of it because we have to. A couple of side steps around some steeper corners and we’re back to the vehicle.
In 10 km we’re back in cell phone coverage, but there’s no point in calling anyone. The drive to the hospital is another 55km and with the patch job Adam did at the creek continuing to hold, the anxiety level lowers.
Did we make mistakes this day? Were we fixated on a goal? Would it have been safer to ascend from the other side and drop it blind? Should we have roped up? Moved faster? Started earlier? Turned back? Could I have moved to the side quickly enough to dodge it? Could I have slid down and tried to arrest my way into a safer spot? Would being lower and dealing with smaller chunks have turned out better than the larger chunks?
What role does chance play in our lives? Much like the camera bag, my tumble was out of control. Each bounce, jostle or arrest attempt impacting the next event. I am lucky to be alive. I am lucky to have suffered only the injuries I did. A more serious injury could have made self rescue impossible or exceedingly long and difficult. At some point the axe and leash were ripped from me and thankfully avoided impaling me.
How much difference would have a minute one way or another made? When we stopped at the first dog leg, which is marked by a cliff above a drift that forms a small cave, we had a short snack. Tick, tick, tick… Then Adam’s sunglasses tumbled into the cave requiring retrieval. Tick, tick, tick… We stopped for a couple of photos on the way up. Tick, tick, tick… We stopped at the final dogleg and briefly talked about a retreat. Tick, tick, tick. Just beneath the crux, nature called. I asked Adam about some toilet paper. He had some but was 20-30 feet above me already. Not wanting to make him down climb and also seeking immediate relief, I opted for mother nature’s bidet. Tick, tick, tick…. I was tucked in under a roof beneath the narrow crux. We paused to joke about naming this the Poop Chute, which is funny because this has happened in the past. It’ll be Poop Chute 2, PS2, hahaha! Tick, tick, tick…Relieved, but not before taking some more photos, I started up through the crux and was facing small shrapnel tumbling down on me from Adam’s step kicking. We paused and chatted about moving to a safe spot. Deciding there really wasn’t one, we pressed on. Tick, tick, tick…
A few minutes one way or another and maybe the failure happens at one of the dog legs where we’re protected from above or maybe Adam is above me and we’re both hit. Or maybe we’re on top when it happens. Or maybe it happens during the descent. Or a few minutes after we’re at the bottom.
I received 17 stitches to my head, 5 to my elbow along with a pulled groin, cuts, scratches and bruises, a chipped tooth and bitten tongue. All x-rays came back negative and I was fortunate to not have received a concussion.
They say you won’t live long enough to learn from your own mistakes, so hopefully this gives you some reflection. We were aware of the warming forecast, but didn’t realize the exposure this line had from corniced walls. The top of the line itself was not corniced.
However, if you take nothing else away from this, remember to poop when you need to, as long as it’s safe to do so! Neither your partner(s) nor the rescue folks nor the medical people want to help someone who’s shat themselves! I had a safe poop zone in the PS2 couloir where I could have watched countless cornices slide past and that saved me from (likely) soiling myself whilst tumbling down the mountain.
Q: What’s the difference between a Swiss guide and a large pizza?
A: The pizza can ski fall line
We heard this riff on the usual joke about the difference between a guide and a large pizza from the lips of a guide who will remain anonymous during this past week. The punchline to the usual joke, (of course), is that a large pizza can feed a family of four.
For the past few winters, Adam and I have followed through on our plan of a trip to a new backcountry lodge each year. We like the variety and this year it was time to try Selkirk Mountain Experience. We knew of one person who’d been there personally and the rest was internet hearsay along with the infamy of the Craig Kelly avalanche on January 20, 2003. Rumours and whispers had suggested owner and lead guide Ruedi Beglinger had made an error in judgement that day. Some say he killed those seven people. It was a place that had a reputation for many things, including mandated splitboard riding with poles in hand, but we tried our best to keep an open mind.
A very early departure was preceded by a strict weigh in where almost everyone’s bag was over the allotted 30 lbs. With a twinge of irony, the long haired, bearded and generally dirt bag looking splitboarders followed the rules. We put our excess stuff in the vehicles to be left behind while it seemed all the older, upstanding folks just simply put their box wine, booze and other luxuries back into their packs after the scale was put away.
A low ceiling had the bird taking the long route in but soon we landed in at the Durrand Glacier Chalet nestled at the top of a treed rib north of Revelstoke. Fresh baked goodies awaited us and after everyone arrived we were orientated and introduced by Ruedi who said he’d be taking the week off and there’d be three other guides leading the groups. He briefed us in the infallibility of the provided ABS bags (98% effective apparently) and soon we were led to a couple hour long game of beacon practice on the nearby “football field”. Observing the other guests during this we felt a pang of worry. Oddball questions uttered by newbies along with an unsuccessful search by one group should have been cause for worry. How will these people ever find me if I’m buried? Then I remembered the 98% effective ABS bag strapped to me and the worry was over. SME markets itself as a place for experienced and fit backcountry enthusiasts. Fears were compounded when we watched a couple of clients skinning fully bundled and goggled. Had they any experience? What was their fitness?
Day one anywhere in a guided operation is a crap shoot. Guides and clients are feeling each other out and aside from groups of people traveling together, the resulting groups split amongst the three guides were random chance. We quickly realized fitness variations but opted to remain silent and to have faith the next day would be better. Some downhill issues were identified as as well and these caused greater worry as we were on very mellow alpine terrain. If you’re having trouble managing this…
For the next couple of days it snowed. Usually with wind. Accumulation kept the snow shoveling slave busy and you’d be forgiven for thinking we were kept busy playing in the trees. You’d be wrong though. Each day we battled mother nature and dared her to yield. She never did and we’d slide down through the soup into the upper portions of the trees. There we’d stop and then try mother nature again. Always back up into the alpine. There had been a fairly high rain level that meant turns got worse as you got lower, but at least you could see. Would you rather make 500 foot laps in the trees with great snow and visibility or 1,000 foot laps with 500 feet of low angle snow with terrible visibility and then the 500 foot tree lap? As the week wore on the snow piled up over the rain crust and we rode to the valley bottom a couple of times.
Twice during the week, the skies parted and we had blue skies, but they were wasted on flat runs and uninteresting summits. In frustration I split skied a couple of these runs much to my own amusement. The three guides were continually walking on eggshells around Ruedi and even over the radio by him. Instructions and criticism were routinely overhead on the radio. On both of the blue days he came out, but took over the “glory role” of lead guide. It is his operation. He can do whatever he wants, but it is a business and you’re in business at the grace of your clients. Some clients might take objection to his taking the slowest group and going first with them for almost the entire day. He is fit, but he is getting up there in age. His claims of seasons in excess of 1 million feet were apparently one of the motivations of Greg Hill to document his million foot season. Watching the pace at which Ruedi broke, I question whether he managed the 7 digit club and reading online, I’m not the only skeptic. Ruedi has accomplished a lot in his life. He’s built a place in the mountains and raised his family there. He’s skied a long list of firsts and was an early adopter of splitboarding.
The chalet is very nice. The food, as prepared by chef Englebert was outstanding. The hot running water showers were fantastic. 50% indoor plumbing was a nice luxury, even if we had the bedroom beside the pisser. Number 2′s happen outside in the honey pot. The price for a week of guided and catered accommodation is towards the upper end of the spectrum. Bringing your own crew to fill a hut is always the best practice, but we felt pretty confident that the randoms would be ok. Overall they were maybe a bit fitter than you’d find elsewhere, but certainly not to the level we’d anticipated given the reputation for this hard Swiss guide and his clientele seeking big days. With around 40,000 feet for the week, the days were just above the quoted minimum of 5,500 feet/day, but Adam and I were left wanting more. More vertical, faster pace, etc. We often fought boredom on the climbs as we shuffled along. The motivation is always stronger when the turns are worth it. Starting from treeline in mid March is better than from the valley floor and any turns are good turns, but at $2,500/week, expectations are high. Should you decide to follow our footsteps, I hope you have a better experience than we did at SME. As for us, there’s a lifetime of lodges to be explored. Stay tuned!
Several weeks ago while enjoying the views from the top of the town line, we saw a couple of twin lines off the shoulder of Buchanan Peak. They have occupied my thoughts and dreams ever since. Shane and I got close, but were turned away and then yesterday we ran out of daylight and energy while doing the Carthew Alderson traverse.
Adam woke up crazy early because of the time change and joined me for breakfast as the restaurant opened. The temperatures were forecast to be warm so we wanted to get a jump on the 7.5 km and 3,000 foot skin to the base of the twins. Layers were peeled off and shades were donned as a blue day unfolded before us.
We first spied trouble from the ridge of Buchanan Peak and it didn’t take long for the howling wind to bring in some cloud cover. Soon the skies were obscured and the wind was whipping up loose snow. We had barely started up the fan before the googles went on. Would I be turned away for the third time? There are some consolation prizes up here, but most of them require good visibility. Hanging out in the defined walls of the objectives was one of the few feasible options.
We soldiered on and soon encountered the worst boot pack ever. A variable thickness crust/hard slab would alternate between supportive and not, seemingly with each step. One step you’d be on your toes and the next you’d be thigh deep with the other knee touching your ear. Was the mountain really turning us away again? We dug a pit and were satisfied with what we found. The apron fanned out gradually to a small tarn so an unplanned ride would have been exciting but (probably) not devastating.
For several hours we fought our way uphill dodging rivers of sluff that seemed to appear out of thin air. Was the spindrift being deposited at the top of the col? It wasn’t coming off of either wall, so where else could it originate? Even within 20 feet of the top, we still couldn’t identify its source, but soon it didn’t matter. Rivers of sluff were replaced with the kind of wind that makes you consider how much stronger it needs to be before you’re blown off the ridge.
We lingered briefly and enjoyed the views across the valley to the usual playground. A brief recon revealed the entrance to the right twin was beyond our climbing skills – meaning another struggle if we wanted to bag them both. The long climb from town was the alternative if we wanted to return another time. Both of these thoughts were tossed aside once we pointed it downhill. The harder the struggle, the sweeter the reward.
I was second to drop (third if you count Nel) and pulled under the right twin. Adam reluctantly followed me over from his safe spot. We both knew this was better than coming back again, although descending in shorts on corn was briefly discussed. A few steps in we realized this line had slid a while back. The climbing was easy and about 2/3 of the way up we encountered the crown. A bit of wallowing soon led to the top of the line, which was about 25 feet short of the ridge. It was protected by an ominous gravity defying pillow the size of a refrigerator. We snapped a couple of quick photos before pointing it down towards the prairies. A handful of fluffy light turns were followed by some icy hops down onto the apron.
After a short skin across this upper valley, we changed over to descend to the summer trail. A final look back revealed blue skies above the Buchanan Twins. Timing is everything and we’re confident this was the first time these lines had seen tracks.
We arrived early one morning to find six other vehicles already in the parking lot. This small park we call our own is becoming increasingly busy and the low lying fruit is often plucked – though never clean. Having done some route and line investigation from the town side, I suggested we tick off one of the “Triple Crown Hikes” as a traverse. Incidentally: I’ve done the Akamina Ridge in winter, but getting across the rarely frozen Upper Waterton Lake to gain access to Crypt Lake would be a challenge in itself.
Due to the barricade on the road, this already long route would have been made 2.5 km longer, so we opted for a bit of a short cut. We recycled the previous day’s up track to Too Tight Ridge, dropped down the Thong, then regained the ridge where we had a view over to the Moose Bowl and Moose Peak. A descending traverse off the shoulder of Mount Carthew brought us to the point along Carthew Summit where we rejoined the traditional summer route.
We found some soft northerly aspect turns down to the Carthew Lakes. A longer descent could have been achieved but I had plans for three lines, so I wanted to save time and energy. In fact, I split skied these shorter pitches to push the pace.
A bit of route finding brought us to Alderson Lake where the first objective came into view. Shane and I had confirmed this line a few weeks ago while getting turned back from another objective. Despite a decent sized head start, it didn’t take long for the Moose to catch and pass me. I “sprinted” him for a bit, but he quickly put time into me. 1,500 feet later, we topped out on the Alderson Col. Given the remoteness of this line, I can only assume it’s a first snowboard (ski for Blair) descent.
On the way down the valley towards town, I attempted to convince the crew into a sideline to finish off the unfinished business that Shane and I had left on the table, but daylight and energy were both starting to dwindle. The “exit” back down to the townsite isn’t a gimme either as it’s not entirely downhill. There are numerous up and down sections that make skinning downhill the most efficient mode. Blair attempted to ski out and while he was quicker in some sections, he gave up time bootpacking or side stepping the inclines. Once around the final corner, it’s finally consistently downhill so the last kilometer or so is a welcome break.
At around 20km, this a traverse worth attempting. A variety of terrain and views that very few people get to see in the winter. It requires a second staged vehicle and good visibility as a large chunk of it is in the alpine.