The Spearhead Traverse: Lessons in Humility

Luke has worked his way roughly two-thirds up the headwall when he stops, looking on. Suddenly, a small slab releases several metres in front of him. A few switchbacks below, Kyle, Julien and I scramble to get out of harm’s way. Luckily enough, the slide doesn’t travel very war. Still, this has not been the only evidence of snowpack instability we’ve come across that day. A bit of new snow and winds overnight, avalanche control on Blackcomb Glacier that morning, a skier-triggered size 2 on the east-facing ridge south of Blackcomb Peak – and now this – are more than enough reasons for backing off and instead contouring Mount Pattison from the south. Sure, it’s longer than heading up the saddle due north of the summit, but it’s not as steep or wind-loaded.

What is is, though, is that it is stuck in a cloud. A thick one. The four of us make sure our maps and other navigational tools are ready, and set out into the whiteout.

Exactly a year ago, I was seemingly spit out of the Coast Range backcountry, a stinky, sweaty, and utterly exhausted mess. I had just completed the Spearhead Traverse with three good touring buddies and excellent partners for this trip – Kyle, Julien, and Luke. I’ve been wanting to write a trip report of sorts about this adventure ever since. Yet, it has taken me an incredibly long time to get around to it. I can’t quite put the finger on the exact reason for it. But every time I would write a paragraph or two about it, it didn’t seem quite right. Mentally and physically tough as it was for me, I may have just needed an entire year to disentangle the emotional from the objective and take a more level-headed look at the remaining memories I still hold very dear to my heart. Also, let’s face it, publishing this on the trip’s one-year anniversary gives me just the motivational push to sit my butt down in front of my laptop and actually write something, for once. This text is a mix between paragraphs written only a few weeks after the traverse, others written down more recently, and whatever I am spewing out right at this moment to try and string them all together in a more or less cohesive unit.

What was my experience on the Spearhead Traverse, if not one of having the mountains, a sudden lack of trust in my own skiing skills, and the heavy load on my back beat me into a sort of quiet and humbling submission?

It’s interesting how the force of gravity can shape and dictate our ability to move through tough landscapes. Of course I know that light is might and I tend to consider myself a bit of a weight weenie. But just how utterly exhausted I could be from carrying a few days’ worth of food, camping, glacier, and ski gear – it’s something I thought I’d knew. I mean, I had done it before. Yet, the Spearhead taught me otherwise.

I’ve had a good roll that season. During a two-week high pressure window that December, I suddenly found myself diligently ticking some objectives off the bucket list. As an ex couch potato that is still wondering how she managed to stumble head-first into this life, I felt almost apprehensive at how far I was able to push it. But at the same time, finally being able to confidently refer to myself as a reliable adventure partner instilled a new sense of pride in me. Still, those reached summits and that one day I cracked 3,000m of elevation gain meant nothing as I dragged myself up toward the Tremor-Shudder col, my exhaustion and frustration pushing me ever closer to the absolute brink.

In hindsight I can blame my physical state on that first day of the traverse to our rushed demeanor and subsequent lack of fueling. Our late start forced us to keep the pace up. Without adequate food intake, I just hit the dreaded wall. Not the one Trump wants to build to keep out fictitious “bad hombres” but the one endurance athletes fear; no matter how fit and strong you are, you cannot go on anymore. Unless you snail-pace it. And as much as I know that I reached that point because of poor planning more than anything, in the moment I felt weak as I lagged behind my friends. They had already crossed over the col! As this most dreaded feeling of mine (that I am holding the group back) settled in, I felt overwhelmingly disappointed at myself.

That same morning, despite an early wake-up in some snowmobile club’s gravel parking lot, we didn’t get to the top of Blackcomb’s Showcase T-bar until about noon. Figuring our way around an unfamiliar, busy place and trying to figure out where to park – a rather unnerving task when you don’t want to come back to a towed vehicle after 3 days spent in the mountains with no means to change out of your ski boots – took way longer than we thought. We felt rushed. There was no way to leisurely enjoy the walk that day. Luckily a trail was broken in for us until we reached Trorey Glacier. Then, it became up to us to put down a track. This happened on the west side of Mount Pattison where we tried to take a shortcut via a small col to reach Tremor Glacier. The small slide that Luke set off brought us back onto the usual route, contouring the mountain from the south. The absolute whiteout we then entered made navigation difficult. It also made it much more stressful – traveling through white clouds on white glaciers is by no means a fun time. We eventually reached what we thought was a ridge down onto Tremor Glacier. Luckily, we were bang on, and we fully left this shapeless, timeless space and returned to a looming end of day which showed us the way up and over the icefield and to the next col, the sunset in our necks.

Do we really have to go in there?
The last climb at last light.

Hitting the wall hard right off the bat on a multi-day ski traverse is, looking back at it, definitely something I do not recommend. Without being able to really recover at all over night due to the reality of glacier camping at 2,600m above sea level (on Platform Glacier to be exact, roughly the highest point of the traverse), this just set the tone for the rest of the trip and I carried the exhaustion with me like some kind of additional weight.

A cold morning with giant peaks all around us.

Despite it all, the second day was amazing. Without a single cloud in the bright blue sky, we were basking in the incredibly rugged and grand mountain views while our sunscreen-lathered skin was basking in the powerful glacial sun rays. It felt absolutely humbling to be these tiny moving specks traversing glacier after glacier, from one serrated ridge to the next.

We made a few navigational mistakes. We dropped too low on MacBeth Glacier and ended up east of Couloir Ridge. After getting our bearings straight and reaching the proper MacBeth-Couloir col, we skied down onto Couloir’s southwest ridge. There, the second route deviation happened. Normally, you would follow that ridge to get onto Iago Glacier (which we later discovered as we looked back and saw a lone telemarker, out for a little day walk by himself, break trail across the terrain feature) as saves you from a big climb. Instead, lured by the prospect of skiing some mashed-potato snow that had been baking in the sun all day, releasing some wet slides in the process, we dropped too low.

On the climb up to the top of Iago, I was beating myself up again. Hard. I just couldn’t keep a consistent, slow walking pace. I’d go a hundred metres, then stop. Go another few, then stop again. I was unable to dial down the speed enough to move continuously, and the boys were marching on, lengthening the gap between us. Here I was again, disappointed that I was going to hold back the group which would have to wait for me at the top of the climb (thinking about it now, this gave them at least a nice lunch, pee, and number 2 break on top of a mountain). This time around, it was also incredibly hot, which slowed me down even more. However, upon checking my GPS watch to keep track of my progress, I discovered that I was still averaging a pace of roughly 300m of elevation gain per hour which is considered to be average ski touring speed. Maybe I wasn’t that terribly slow after all – the boys were just really fast. That didn’t change my attitude, though. I couldn’t really reason myself out of wanting to keep up with the other three, no matter how physically impossible that was.

The snowpack confirms; it was hot out.
Spires on top of Iago

Something else became apparent when we then skied down the south face of Iago, toward the vast glacial expanse north of Cheakamus Mountain. My skiing didn’t feel right. It felt sloppy and far from inspiring confidence. Sure, it was harder to ski with a big lump of weight on your back. But it felt as if I was skiing with my boots in walk mode, thrust into the backseat. Suddenly, the thought of skiing anything steeper became scary. I was losing trust in my skiing ability. To this day, that trust hasn’t fully returned, even though I discovered a couple months ago that the plastic shells of my ski boots were to blame, as they had fatigued and become way too soft.

We left Cheakamus behind as we crested the col between Fitzsimmons and Benvolio and contoured the interestingly named Overlord Mountain from the north. With the day’s end in sight, I was getting more relaxed. However, I didn’t count on Overlord’s northwest ridge to throw such a scary crux at us. We had to descend onto Refuse Glacier through a narrow choke in the cliffs. It was reached by sketchily traversing a sliver of skied-out snow which tightly hugged the rocks above a considerably tall cliff band. I went through it last. There was practically no snow left as I resorted to remove my gloves to grab onto the rocks for dear life as I moved over to the little snowy choke, my skies scraping on bare rocks and my body absolutely gripped with fear of exposure. To put it mildly – it was awful. It also sucked the last bit of energy out of me. I was done. I let the boys climb to the top of Whirlwind Peak to enjoy a longer sunset descent to Russet Lake, while I just barely ascended a little above the Whirlwind-Fissile col.

Cheakamus Mountain
We started to the right of Tremor Mountain (off-centre to the right) that morning.

Fortunately, the last descent of the day was just the kind of mellow I needed to cap off a day full of highs and lows – from the towering peaks and breathtaking views to the pits of my confidence and exhaustion. Even better yet, there was more than enough room for us to sleep in the now-gone Russet Lake cabin (it got replaced by some fancy hut). That evening, I crawled into my sleeping back, the most exhausted I have ever felt in my life.

On the third morning, I was waiting at the cabin as the boys went up Fissile Peak to ski its banana couloir. Thinking about the walk ahead and how I had felt the previous day, I decided against joining them. Even with the possibility of traveling light, leaving most gear at Russet Lake, I couldn’t possibly see myself making it up the prominent peak, down some slightly more serious line and then all the way back to Whistler. The sun baked us again that day as we inched toward the resort boundary, four lumps of sweat and stinky clothes. Eventually, though, we were sat at a bistro in Whistler Village, wearing normal shoes and eating copious amounts of pizza.

From a cynical’s perspective, we really put in a lot of hard work just to avoid a record-breaking Gondola floating hundreds of metres above the valley floor to connect our start and end points. But it was about more than that, of course. It was about adventure and experiencing one of Canada’s classic high-alpine ski traverses. It was about crossing 14 different glaciers and feeling really small.

So, to echo my words from earlier: What was my experience on the Spearhead Traverse?

One hell of a valuable and memorable learning experience? It was that, but also much, much more.

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