Skis in the Thicket: A September Attempt

Mountains are among our greatest teachers. As such, no day spent among them is ever a waste. Even when a plan doesn’t fully unfold, a mission remains unaccomplished, and a goal isn’t reached, it is still worth it. For failure is one of the most valuable lessons to be taken away from the teachings of these great giants of stone; keeping us humble, grounded, and more experienced for when we try again.

I’ve just come back from a bit of an adventure which highlighted this truth.

I had hatched a plan to go hunt for September turns. Skiing. The Purcells being off-limits due to wildfire-related backcountry closures, the initial idea to check out Farnham glacier, as per Wiggle’s and Trevor’s recommendation, had to be set aside. Thus, I needed something else; ideally closer to home to avoid ridiculous amounts of driving.

After scouring Google Earth akin to a hawk scanning the landscape below in search of breakfast, I had found a promising location in the Monashees. It seemed to match all of my criteria: a relatively big and rather flat glacier to increase chances of still-decent snow coverage while reducing risk of towering ice and crevasse formations, and a short enough approach to get above treeline.

Now, even though I had ticked off all these boxes, I still had no idea what I was getting into. See, I was only judging off of satellite imagery. I had no actual, factual beta on the feasibility of it all. Would the road, or what I thought to be one, be driveable all the 39km up the valley? Would there actually be enough snow left on the glacier to do anything resembling skiing? (That, it turns out, I’d never find out.) Really, it was all a pretty big question mark. But, hey, actually getting off the beaten path and throwing yourself out there is as raw a learning experience as you can get.

I convinced my friend Inuk easily enough to accompany me on this trudge into the unknown. We left Revelstoke at 6am with a plethora – a kaleidoscope, even – of gear: skis, boots, crampons, rope, ice axes, sleeping bags, a small camp stove – even mountain bikes. I figured that in case we encountered a washed-out section on our drive in, we could swap the car for its eco-friendlier, two-wheeled alternative, strap everything necessary on there and keep going on what seemed to be relatively smooth terrain with only a gentle grade. It would slow us down considerably, but at least we would still get somewhere. Take it as an added insurance, if you will.

Luckily, though, the logging road turned out to be in mint condition and we marvelled at the beautiful mountains framing the valley as we drove past in their cold morning shadow. We made it easily to what I’ll call the trailhead – an old section of logging road going straight into the undergrowth. We strapped our skis to our packs and started walking up this old remnant of clear-cut logging operations.

It turned into a fully overgrown path almost immediately. I knew we’d have to walk on it for less than a kilometre, gaining little elevation. So it should have been a quick one. However, have you ever tried squeezing yourself through alders with skis and ski boots protruding from a heavy pack?  Let me tell you this: it’s not easy, and it takes way longer than you think. You have to put your head down and imagine yourself, at times, a rhinoceros charging through vegetation. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to think yourself a little grey mouse squishing itself through the tiniest openings. And if that doesn’t work – bring a machete (an item I obviously neither brought with me or own in the first place).

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Oops.

The overgrown road was only an appetizer compared to what was to come. Once Inuk and I reached what we thought was the end of it, we shot as straight up the mountainside as possible, clawing our way through pines, firs, alders, huckleberries, devil’s club, fern, and the like. The forest physically and mentally engulfed us. Not only that, but it was also relentlessly steep.

A hiking trail of the sort is hard enough, but at least you’ve got a path to follow. Now, imagine the steepest trail you know of, and take the man-made ribbon of dirt, direction and relatively safe passage away. A lack of path is daunting and intimidating not only for humans, but many animal species as well. In that regard, we are made of the same star dust that relies and thrives on the establishing of trails, or paths of least resistance, and following of tracks, footsteps, or scent trails of those that came before.

It was gruesome to gain a mere 500m of elevation trudging through this thick, Canadian forest. Inuk mostly led the way, his tree-planting experience having accustomed him to bushwhacking in all types of terrain. He stopped often as to enable us to keep our bearings, and make mindful and concerted decisions on which section of undergrowth seemed easier to claw and grunt our way through (hint: that’s how you know you’ve chosen a good adventure partner, as communication in the mountains is key). We knew from topographic maps that it would all level off at around 1600m, hopefully opening up into more enjoyable, subalpine terrain.

Fortunately, our guess was a correct one. After bushwhacking for about four hours – a seeming eternity for the human mind having to put itself through such situation – we popped out into a small, beautiful meadow. What a relief! Lush, green grasses were trampled here and there – bears must really like this spot, too.

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Finally, some breathing room!

While we were finally done with all those trees, boughs, branches, twigs, and sprigs, we still had about 400m of ascent to conquer before topping-out in the alpine, on a would-be high plateau with several little lakes and that glacier we’ve been schlepping our skis around for. We advanced into a subalpine bowl and the terrain around us and ground beneath our feet changed as we started making our way through fields of boulders and talus.

Unfortunately, the steepness made a quick return and while we were able to advance faster than in the midst of the woods, I still noticed myself slowing down. The added weight on my back and morning spent lunging, pistol-squatting and bush-scrambling was taking its toll. Exhaustion started to spread through my body while I started to realize that our day’s objective would certainly not be met. Our turnaround time kept creeping closer. While I am known to often stretch this concept to its breaking point, my guts told me that this was not the time to do so. After all, we still had to bushwhack back down the mountain. Plus, even if we made it to the plateau, we’d have to spend at least a couple more hours to get to skiable terrain. Our goal could not be met without us plodding back in total darkness. Inuk agreed.

Descending back through the boulders was more a stumble than anything else, with the skis getting caught on what felt like every single rock. Those scraping sounds, all too familiar to us skiers, sent shudders down my spine and almost sent me flying face-first many times. I was hard-pressed to keep in mind that skis are tools, not jewels.

As much as I had been dreading the bushwhack back down from the minute I dove into the jungle that morning, it turned out to be a fun and, literally, straightforward affair. Gravity was helping immensely as Inuk and I more or less slid our way down along the ridge we had taken so long to travel up. The downhill-facing branches of alders and the like turned from encumbering hurdles and barricades to pretty ideal ropes to more-or-less rappel down the mountain. It almost felt as if the forest was rewarding us for our morning’s efforts, lending us a reconciling hand.

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It probably took us half as long to descend back to our car and finally leave the thick undergrowth behind us – not a minute too soon. We wanted nothing more than to eat and finally shake off all those evergreen needles that kept finding their way inside our clothing.

After scarfing down some grub, we hit the road and headed even deeper into the bush, toward the second objective. Because, yes – I had another plan: an even bigger glacier, right across the valley from where we were bushwhacking. Satellite imagery had shown me a road of some sort leading to 1,750m from which we could, hopefully, mostly traverse over to this second icefield on easier, more open terrain. The latter had been teasing us all day long, brightly visible against the bluebird sky from our side of the slopes. It was sitting atop gorgeous, smooth slab formations holding it aloft like the fingertips of seasoned waiters carry plates of immaculate, pale porcelain.

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The road to get there, however, was of another caliber entirely. Narrow to begin with, branches were overhanging on both sides of it. The middle strip was pretty overgrown with tall grasses and the occasional wild berry bush. With this reduced visibility, it was hard to discern any bigger rocks my Subaru could bottom out on.

It was my vehicle’s turn to bushwhack.

I put my (apparently pretty good) logging-road driving skills to the test as I part gently drove, part sent it up steeper sections without any visibility. It was getting dark. Bigger rocks started to appear among the many, many plants, as well as ditches traversing the path. The steep slope of the road had me chase my car up in almost utter blindness. After half-driving into the ditch on the side and bottoming out in the process (there’s a limit to how well I handle my car when I can’t see), I had reached my limit. Suddenly terrified of destroying my car in the pursuit of driving up 16km, I had to stop. Inuk was getting scared, too. The road up ahead was even steeper and rockier – getting past that section would have required me to speed up ever more, thus not being able to anticipate whichever obstacles (may it be more ditches or rocks slicing open the skid plate of the vehicle) would follow. Nobody wants to break down in the middle of nowhere.

We maneuvered around, found a flat spot to park, and spent the night. The starry sky was absolutely gorgeous this far away from any manmade light. The following morning, our gut feeling made us decide against trying our luck on bikes. Considering our position and (at least my own) exhaustion from the previous day’s mission, it was highly likely we’d be dragging our skis around for naught once more.

I think I learned a great deal from this adventure. First off, you can’t always get what you want. It is good to hatch plans and dreams, and chase them with passion. But, sometimes, it’s equally just better to walk away from an idea altogether – you can trust your instincts.

Of course it sucks when you can’t make it. But, then again, it doesn’t. Failing keeps you humble and, in the mountains, likely alive for longer. It keeps your ego in check.

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And, you know what? An adventure like this reminds you to have fun with what you’re given and just enjoy it. I could have complained the entire time we were drowning in a sea of green. But I didn’t. Because, in its own bizarre way, this time spent bushwhacking was amazing. I had good company, I pushed myself, I expanded the limits of my comfort zone. All in all, I just gave it a shot. I tried.

Sometimes, that’s really all you need.

 

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