Summits and Alpine Beaching: The Bow Hut (Part 2)

This is the second installment of the write-up about my recent adventure to the Rocky Mountains, more specifically the Bow Glacier and its surrounding peaks, with my friend and mentor Finbar O’Sullivan. You can read the first half of it here.


Numerous pairs of skis, poles, and boot liners were lined up around the Bow Hut’s main entrance. Finbar and I added ours to the mix, leaning them against one of the big propane tanks. We stepped into the hut’s common room to find two other groups to share this amazing space with – a group of Japanese men all the way from Hokkaido, and a group of young Canadians (mostly engineers) who seemed to have met each other back in college. The latter group was practicing crevasse rescue outside on the deck, trying to haul a full and heavy pack with a z-drag. Finbar promptly stepped in and showed them the ropes (literally). He also showed them his emergency rope rescue kit (something I am in the process of putting together for myself): 30m of 8mm static rope, several nylon slings, 2 Petzl Tiblocs (which are basically mini emergency ascenders), a pulley and several mostly oval-shaped carabiners.

As the evening hours rolled in, we prepared dinner – whole-wheat pasta with peppers and mushrooms accompanied by some ginger tea we spiced up with rhum – and reviewed our personal highlights of the day. There was not much to disagree on; both Finbar and I could not get over how good the snow and skiing was on the main face of Mount Gordon.

I awoke on Monday morning after a rather restless night’s sleep. Sharing sleeping quarters with so many people and being the only girl made it impossible for me to get any tight shut eye that night. Needless to say, I felt groggy. The hut, however, was buzzing with life. The other two groups were already packing up their gear for the day. The Canadian group packed up everything – the boys were advancing to the Balfour Hut and spending the night there. Their initial plan of completing the full Wapta Traverse had been thwarted by the weather, just like ours. Instead, they were going to travel back to the Bow Hut after their night at Balfour, and exit the area from there. The Japanese group was going to ascend Mount Gordon.

And our plan – well, what was it? We roughly knew that we’d try to go for Mount Saint Nicholas and Mount Olive. It was, however, a pretty loose plan. Since we had so much daylight and did not have such a big approach to get to our objectives – Saint Nick and Olive both flanking the east side of Bow Glacier – we could afford to not stress ourselves out.

In the end, we took it so easy that we were alpine beaching for a full hour and a half.

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Finbar skinning onto the glacier a little ways ahead of me.

We left the hut some time after the Japanese group and yet again skinned up onto Bow Glacier. Just like the previous day, the dazzling landscape of massive snow fields glistening in the sunlight left me speechless. We then made our way across the glacier. However, this time, we did not steer toward Mount Gordon. We remained slightly closer to the eastern edge of Bow Glacier, moving south. We passed Saint Nicholas and the ramp leading up to the col between it and Olive, evaluating the terrain – the top part of the ramp was melted off – as we were going to tackle it later in the day. Eventually, we reached the bottom of our objective: a westward-looking, snowy face sitting right between Mount Olive’s main North Summit and its less popular South Summit.

We decided to take a break then and there. It was almost lunchtime. From how the snow had reacted under our skis until then, the crust of ice had not melted off yet. We were better off waiting for softer snow in order to make the ascent easier.

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Relaxing done right. Brought to you by Black Diamond Equipment…

And wait, we did. More like, we were utterly relaxing, laying on our packs and drinking tea, as we were waiting for the sun to do its job (we almost dozed off for a while). Furthermore, another party came our way and promptly started ascending our objective, thereby snaking our line right in front of our eyes. In most other situations, I would have been upset about it. I mean, we were there first, right? It’s pretty much first-come, first-serve in the mountains. However, since we were waiting on the snow conditions to improve, it did not matter that this group went before us. In fact, Finbar and I had front row seats to watch their struggle as they made it up the still-icy face. They ended up bootpacking most of it. Then, they took a breather at the top.

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It was steeper than it looks.

When the other group finally skied down the west face of Olive, it was our time to shine and make it up there in turn. Just as we had hoped, the sun had softened up the surface of the snow – we were able to set a steeper and more efficient skin track than the group before us, gaining more elevation while having to do less energy-consuming kick and step turns. We made it about two-thirds up the face when we decided to take off our skis, however. The slope turned out to be too steep to be able to continue to skin up properly. We fastened our skis to our packs and made our way up the remainder of the face, step by step.

A fall in this situation would not have been severe. But it would have resulted in sliding back down most of the slope and having to do it all over again… That was not something I intended to do. I knew that if I thought about this possibility too much, it would lead me to eventually lose my balance. I had to let go of this little fear of mine and tap in to my (rather weak) confidence. I focused on the task at hand – walking up the slope, carefully placing the foot at each step, kicking in the step a bit deeper into the snowpack if necessary – and managed to ignore this stupid fear of falling that so often grips me in various situations (I don’t even have to be particularly exposed in order to sense it).

When we finally made it onto the col between Mount Olive’s two peaks, we realized that it was only a short and mellow ridgeline scramble on scree to get to the main summit. This was an opportunity we could not ignore. We left our packs and skis at the col, grabbed our ice axes and started hiking up. After a mere five minutes, we made it to the top. At this point, it had become a common theme that the views were extraordinary everywhere we went, but this was something else. There was so much to see; the Balfour glacier, Mount Saint Nicholas, the tiny Bow Hut, the Bow Lake and Valley in the distance, Bow Glacier, Peyto Glacier, Mount Gordon and, of course, our gorgeous lines from the previous day. I felt much more accomplished standing on this summit than on Gordon, actually. Whereas Gordon is a massive, plateau-style mountain, Olive’s summit seemed more real to me – more prominent, stronger, and more impressive.

 

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Mount Gordon and the face we skied to the day before – if you squint you can make out our lines.

We scrambled back down to our gear, put the skis on, and were ready for our first ski descent of the day. Finbar got the honour to go first. After all, this slope was his main objective of our trip – as much as he’d been in this area many times before, he had never before managed to ski it. I knew this moment meant a lot to him. Then, it was my turn to come down. The snow wasn’t as nice as on Gordon the previous day, but the descent was fairly long, the steep and constant slope angle making for a good ski.

Once we found ourselves back on Bow Glacier, we steered towards the snowy ramp which leads up to the col between Saint Nicholas and Olive. I found this feature of the landscape to be truly amazing. It is very conveniently placed for those wishing to adventure and explore this fabulous place. Of course, even without the ramp it would still be possible to get up to the col. But it would not be nearly as easy as a little skin up a little snow ridge and a walk over rocks for less than a hundred meters. It always amazes me to discover what Mother Nature comes up with.

In the end, we skipped the summiting of Saint Nicholas – Finbar’s kidneys had been hurting and sore ever since we made the initial ascent to the hut. We did not want to push too far under these circumstances. Instead, we simply skied back to the hut from the col, taking our time as we slashed tight turns through the wet snow right below Saint Nicholas. We knew those were going to be visible from the hut – we wanted our lines to be pretty.

And pretty, they were. I rarely felt more accomplished as an artist (and I used to draw and paint, mind you) than when I looked back at the face we had just skied and saw the most gorgeous line I had ever traced onto winter’s blank white canvases. Finbar’s line was nice, too, but I definitely think mine was better – tighter turns and all.

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Our beauty lines below Saint Nick – mine are on looker’s left, Finbar’s on looker’s right.

The Japanese group was already back at the hut, and they turned out to be our only other hut companions for the night. We talked about gear, Finbar again demonstrating his rope rescue kit. We had more pasta for dinner, this time with bacon, accompanied by ginger tea and rhum. As night drew her dark curtains across the sky, we went to sleep in a much less crowded sleeping quarter.

The following morning, we made a point to get ready fairly early. It was Tuesday and we were going to tackle the awful slog back out to the car. We were hoping for the snow to have a stable enough surface crust to support our weight without us crashing through it. To maximize our chances of encountering such conditions, we had to leave early enough in the morning, before the sun would have any serious chance to melt off the crust. We basically reversed our strategy of the previous day.

The first part of the descent could be skied and was therefore straightforward and easy. As soon as we encountered the first rock gardens, however, we strapped our skis to our packs and proceeded to walking on eggshells – on rocks in order not to slip, on snow in order not to sink in. Our plan was to stick to where the summer hiking trail would be for the entirety of the way out instead of going back down into the canyon like we did on the way up. We knew the hiking trail went along the rim of the canyon. However, there was still enough snow in places to confuse us and lead us to lose the trail several times. Furthermore, our plan to not sink in did not work out as well as we hoped. We moved as carefully as we could, trying to put more weight on our ski poles in order to reduce the pressure we inflicted on the snow at each step. However, we were unable to avoid a fair amount of postholing. We both got stuck so badly several times that we had to wiggle ourselves out of the holes by removing our packs and using our arms and hands to free our legs out of the thigh-deep, heavy snow.

Fortunately, as we slowly and painfully came lower and lower, the snow became less deep and softer, making it easier to navigate through it. It also became patchier, enabling us to stick to the summer trail. The end of the adventure was drawing very near…

It was about 1pm when we finally made it back to the car under what felt like sweltering heat (we had, after all, just hiked for several hours with ski-laden packs, snow pants on our legs and ski boots on our feet). Then and there, reality struck: the adventure was over. However, I know that this finite feeling would only be temporary, as I was instinctively already loosely planning out another attempt – let’s hope for a successful one – of the Wapta Traverse for the coming season.

This adventure gave me the bug for summits, ice fields and big mountains and the confidence that can go out into these vast and unforgiving playgrounds. For that and for all the wisdom I gathered from Finbar not just on this trip, but over the past years working as his apprentice, I am eternally grateful.

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