What do you call it when you decide to go on a glaciated mission to hunt for August corn skiing with two guys you’ve never actually met face to face before?
A gamble, to say the least.
Social media is puzzling. Its influence on our daily lives goes way beyond anything we could have ever imagined a decade ago. While its ensnaring gravitational pull is deplorable in many ways, it’s also easy to flip the coin and see all the benefits modern society’s web of virtual connections can offer. For example, it enables people sharing similar hobbies and interests to simply bridge geographical barriers.
Wiggles – or Wigley, or actually Michael (I’ll mostly stick with the former, though, because it also so happens to be one of my favourite words of the English language) – and I had been following each other on the usual social media channels for a little while. He had sent me a friend request on Facebook which, after an initial reaction along the lines of “who dat?!” I figured I’d accept. Yeah, cool, he splitboards, he’s rad; basically, he doesn’t look like a creep. Mutual following on Instagram followed. The sharing of some of my mental struggles really got the ball rolling and we started talking. I am still amazed by how much people have reached out to me after I decided to lay my thoughts bare for all to see. But I digress.
Anyway, we figured that we should go on a summer skiing mission. To tell the truth, throughout most of the summer I had little to no desire to ski. But seeing Wiggles get after it at least once a month every year (he’s been getting at those turns year-round for over four years) was slowly but surely rekindling and awakening that burning passion I normally have during the winter months. When he asked if I wanted to join him and his buddy Trevor on a mission to hunt for some August skiing fun, I was immediately on board.
I had no idea what the exact plan was until a few days before the chosen dates – but I think neither had they. Classic last-minute adventure planning – a true feature of the laid-back, western North American lifestyle.
But here it was: glacier camping on the Columbia Icefield, with a ski descent of Mount Columbia, the Canadian Rocky Mountains’ second-highest peak, to boot. Up and back out over the Athabasca Glacier, the iconic tongue of snow, ice and crevasses that comes right down to the Icefields Parkway, mid-way between Lake Louise and Jasper.
Right on. Rad. Last time I had spent extensive time among the giants of the Rockies was over two years ago, with my mentor Finbar. It was high time to head back that direction.
For someone who really, really enjoys her sleep, the logistics surrounding the mission were super intense. I spend my Thursday getting my supplies in check: skis, skins, avalanche gear, glacier gear, camping gear, food, etc. I decide to bring my 0°C synthetic sleeping bag, as there is no way I am going to schlep my gargantuan winter bag up that glacier. However, the forecast calls for below freezing overnight, and I sleep cold. Okay – time to mentally prepare to freeze to death overnight.
I try to hit the hay at 5:30PM, which obviously doesn’t work. The boys and I are communicating back and forth, scrambling for a potential plan B, as Wiggles is stuck on a rerouted Greyhound and doesn’t know if he’ll make it in time to catch his bus to Revelstoke. However, the stars align; he doesn’t miss his connection, and the initial schedule remains in place.
I wake up just before midnight, grab my heavy pack and skis, and head out the door. I pick Wigley up at the Frontier just on the edge of town. 12:00AM at a makeshift Greyhound station – a great way to finally meet someone in person!
We stuff his bags in the car and hit the road. We cruise through the night and make it to the Columbia Icefields Centre around 5:00AM mountain time (unfortunately you have to travel an hour into the future going east). Our timing is perfect as Trevor gets there at the exact same time as us. It’s dark and windy out. Wiggles has to rummage through all his stuff and actually pack his bag. I go on the hunt for some toilet paper – an absolute essential on any overnighter.
Eventually, we’re ready to go. I have a hard time hoisting my pack on my shoulders as it’s unthinkably heavy with both skis and ski boots strapped to it. Alpine weight training extraordinaire – there we go.
We head up the road to where people board the giant Ice Explorer busses – monster-truck wheeled vehicles that take people onto the Athabasca glacier. While I definitely cannot say that I am fond of this tourist attraction (I mean, come on – a bus that takes people on a glacier in a national park? What is this, an amusement park or an area of incredible environmental value that needs to be protected for time eternal?), the ice road up onto the glacier has its uses as it enables us to cover quite a bit of distance on the glacier without having to switch to ski boots and crampons. Eventually, though, it is time to don the hard plastic shells that my feet have definitely not missed. Combined with the weight of my crampons, I feel like the biggest klutz – but at least my pack is a little lighter now.
The Athabasca Glacier is made up of three distinct ramps. As areas of high tension, these are extremely broken up and crevassed. The plan is to stick as far looker’s right as possible for these first two giant steps and head straight up the middle, on skis, of the third one, there being an obvious snow ramp.
Getting up the first ramp, while obviously requiring navigating between gaping death holes and walking among rubble and rocky debris (walking on rock-covered glaciers in crampons is a recipe for broken ankles, really), is pretty straightforward. No need to rope up, as the crevasses are laid bare in the beautiful golden morning glow that now caresses our tired, sleep-deprived faces.
The second ramp is the crux of the ascent. The gravel-covered ice gets really steep, and after Wiggles has a bit of a bail on the incline, we decide to get the ropes out, put some protection in, and have some mixed snow, rock and ice climbing fun. Trevor leads the way up like a pro and belays us other two up from a picket he rams into the upper part of the now snow-covered slope. We could have probably omitted these extra precautions if our packs did not weigh as much as four statues of rollerblading elephants made entirely out of lead.
Travel to the base of the third ramp is quick. Trevor and Wiggles rope up to travel across the flat, snow-covered section of the glacier. To speed things up, I simply follow behind in their footsteps instead of roping up with them. They test the waters, and I get to frolic around behind them. Well, not really – we are trying to be quick as we are scooting along the massive rockwall of Snow Dome. Its gargantuan seracs are hanging above us like Damocles swords. With the day progressing and thus the influence of solar radiation increasing, this is no place to hang around for a picnic.
A lunch stop later, we are skinning up the snow ramp to finally get onto the Columbia Icefield itself. Finally all three of us roped up, with Wigley in the lead, we skirt along incredible spears, towers and sculptures made of ice – enchanting, frozen death traps of otherworldly, morbid grace. We snake around many a crevasse and here and there, Trevor sticks wands in the snow to make navigating easier for the way out.
Finally, the incline evens out, and we find ourselves on an almost uninterrupted expanse of snow at the edge of the Columbia Icefield. Looking back on the valley below, I wave at all the people far below us, most of whom will never experience how awe-inspiring it is to travel over glaciated terrain of such magnitude. Andromeda is in full view from our vantage point.
From then on, time seemingly stretches into infinity. It feels like it is taking forever to reach a relative high point on the Icefield. I want to see all peaks surrounding us! But the effectively rather monotonous nature of a big, barren névé, without much in the realm of reference points, plays tricks on our minds. Eventually, though, Mount Columbia comes into view, and with it Castleguard, Bryce, the Twins, and heaps upon heaps of other beautiful mountains, lining up, assymetrical row after assymetrical row, all the way to the horizon. It is absolutely breathtaking.
We set up camp right there, on a sea of ice and snow, amidst giant spirits of rock, millions of years old. It is windy and cold; we dig holes and build walls to shelter our sleeping quarters from the wind. Trevor sets up his bivy sack. Wiggles and I are sharing my 4-season tent. While he has a bivy of his own, I only have my orange caterpillar of a tent, so he was nice enough to forego his lighter option and share the sleeping space, as well as the carrying of it, with me.
As the air is getting colder and my body with it, I cannot shake off the fear that this might be one of the worst nights of my life. Mind you, I’ve spent nights outdoor in sub-zero temperatures before. I know how awful they can be if you’re too cold to sleep. The problem is that it is not only cold – it is windy. This makes me shiver all over. After Trevor heats up some more water and I arm myself with a warm cuddle bottle to help fight the cold, I have to crawl into my sleeping bag. The boys soon do the same. Luckily, the snow walls around the tent make it much, much nicer inside it.
Screw the sunset, I guess. Instead, Wiggles teaches me how to play crib. It was more than high time that I learnt the ropes of this game that is oh so cherished and embedded in Canadian culture. It is more than a mere card game, really. It does contain a little of the essence of what Canada means. At least that’s what I believe.
Surprisingly, I do not freeze to death over night! Sure, my feet were a little too cold for most of it for me to actually be able to sleep properly, but the body was fine. It honestly got pretty toasty in the tent – relatively speaking, of course. It’s good to know that with a few tweaks, even I can, in relative comfort, go beyond the actual temperature rating of a sleeping bag. Achievement unlocked.
Everything is totally frozen over in the morning – a telltale sign that the night was cold. It is absolutely gorgeous. The peaks are lit up in a fiery pink, while we are still sitting in the shade. Not a single cloud hangs in the sky.
We take our time, as we decided to drop the initial plan to ski Mount Columbia and ski Snow Dome instead. The former is simply too far away – while right there for us to look at, the mountain sits all the way across the Icefield, beyond a rather hazardous area known as the Trench. We simply do not have enough time to travel that far. Furthermore, the glacier covering the face is laying bare, ice glistening in the morning sun. This mighty peak is not to be skied anymore until snow returns. Snow Dome, on the other hand, is easily accessible, covered in snow, and offers itself up as a good consolation prize. The apex of the Continental Divide, from where waters head off toward three different oceans, it is entirely covered by the Columbia Icefield. Sitting at 3,456m, it is still a high peak and a very worthy objective.
We pack up and head to the base of the ascent. We lighten up the load considerably, leaving behind most of our gear to pick up once we get back down. Boy, does it feel good to skin up with a normal amount of weight on my back! And yet again, we move unroped, as the terrain is mellow and thus very easy to navigate safely. As we head up, we get engulfed by clouds and wind. With whiteout conditions, it all looks the same, so Trevor starts placing more wands for visual cues. While the terrain is easy-going where we are travelling, getting off-route could be fatal. He actually runs out before we reach what seems to be the summit (it is so round and wide that you can only really notice it using GPS). However, we are so incredibly close that we keep going. As long as we don’t lose sight of our tracks for this section, we should be good.
At the summit, the clouds get blown away at incredible speed long enough for us to enjoy the view and get our bearings straight. A couple photos and a transition later, we are finally ready to do what we came for in the first place. Skiing – in August. I’ve never skied so far into the summer before. At this point, I am beyond stoked, quivering with excitement.
The descent is long and magnificent. We slash turns through summer corn amidst one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes I have ever laid my eyes on. Picking up the little wands on the way, we make our way back down to our gear, and back out into bluebird conditions, while clouds keep whirlpooling around the top of Snow Dome. After a well-deserved snack, it is time for us to ski some more – down the Icefield and down Athabasca’s snow ramp. The going is harder now that our packs have regained full-weight status. Falling is not an option as we pick our way through the crevassed section at the top of the ramp – and not falling skiing while carrying a heavy load is not as easy as it looks.
Once we reach the bottom of the ramp, it’s time for some high-fives. We realize that we got to ski a good 1,000m of vertical descent, which is huge considering that it is, well – summer. Nothing can keep our stoke levels from being high. Not even the prospect of having to put our skis and boards back on our backs for the way out.
While we put crampons back on, we watch as a bus-sized chunk of ice breaks off from Snow Dome’s serac and crushes into the slope below, the force of impact echoing through the valley.
We travel back down Athabasca Glacier the same way we came up. We rappel down the second ramp, leaving an ice screw and a carabiner behind in the ice. But, hey – safety first. Trevor, as always, is quick and swift at navigating through what we dub “grown-up mazes” of crevasses. Wiggles slows down as his ankles are giving him trouble, especially walking over those pesky glacier sections covered in loose rock. Eventually, we are back on the last, long, flat section of the glacier, as time moves into the golden range of late afternoon. The valley bottom is back in the shade until the morrow, while the peaks around us are awash in gleaming rays of liquid gold.
We get back to the car at 9:00PM, exhausted, sweaty, and incredibly happy. A group of climbers heading up Mount Athabasca the following morning share brews with us. Talk about well-deserved swigs of beer!
It is dark by the time I part ways with these newfound friends, incredible human beings, and amazing adventure partners. Trevor is heading back to Canmore with Wigley in tow, who is flying to New Zealand in the coming days on a quest for Southern Hemisphere pow-slashing. I head back West, mentally preparing myself for a sleep-deprived day at work the following day. But even I, who loves a good sleep, knows that this is something worthy of sacrifice.
Did the gamble pay off, then?
Well, did you see those photos?