After many spring seasons engrossed in guide training programs, work trips and prescribed itineraries, I’d grown increasingly enthusiastic about re-connecting with the type of mountain experience that can only be found in a wilderness context. Don’t get me wrong; I certainly appreciate and indulge in carafes of vin rouge and personal/family sized portions of Rösti in my ski touring scene, but I’m also a firm believer in the power of the real connection that disconnectedness can help facilitate. It just so happens that I know of two co-conspirators, Josh Hirshberg and Chris Wright, who have a notable tolerance for mountain adversity and an affinity for steep skiing.
Inspired by an early 2012 trip to the Selkirks, my self prescribed necessity for a grand introduction to what is soon to be my home range (more on that eventually), and the ultimate goal of experiencing some of the wildest terrain that the Selkirk Mountains have to offer, we built our itinerary based on a basecamp/traverse hybrid style. Our hybrid style, at least in theory, would allow for ample ski mountaineering opportunities in phase I coupled with the wilderness adventure and the good old fashioned suffering of a long traverse in phase II.
Mt Sir Sandford and the Great Cairn (Ben Farris) Hut
So, on April 28th Josh Hirshberg, CJ Wright, and I were shuttled into the Great Cairn (Ben Farris) Hut by Alpine Helicopters of Golden, BC. We brought with us; a dismal forecast, positive attitudes, and a shared love of particularly slutty meals. Also accompanying us was filmmaker, Chris Alstrin, who joined us in hopes of videotaping some of our peculiar mountain behavior.
The Great Cairn Hut is a very small but extremely charming stone shelter placed between Mt. Sir Sandford and the Adamant group. For the glacial spire climbing aficionado, the Adamant group is rivaled only by destinations like the Bugaboo Spires or Aiguilles de Chamonix. One key difference being only that the Adamants are far less accessible and subsequently have seen far fewer ascents.
Anyhow, with no time to waste because of approaching weather, we made a rather audacious attempt at skiing Mt Sir Sandford. I call it audacious only because it seemed somewhat improbable (not to mention a bit pompous) to think that we would just ditch our gear at the hut, then send and ski the highest peak in the range. Things were progressing nicely as we had nearly surmounted the “hourglass” feature when we experienced a rumbling and highly unexpected collapse that necessitated a hasty retreat and immediate change of undergarments.
Feeling small high on Mt Sir Sandford photo: Hirshberg
After our attempt on Mt Sir Sandford, our reasonable weather window had come to a close and we spent the next three days attempting some big lines in complete whiteout. On the fifth day we headed into phase II of our trip, which proposed 50 miles of traversing to Mica Creek via the Fairy Meadow hut. Unsurprisingly we spent most of our first day skiing in total Ptarmigan (white bird) conditions up and over the ambiguous Azimuth Notch, Thor Pass and finally over Pioneer Pass where we intersected the terrain of the famous Fairy Meadows Hut. With some of the best visibility since our flight in, we made the most of our route toward the hut by skiing a nice variation next to Pioneer Peak. Skiing the steeps off of Pioneer pass was excellent, despite the weight of full overnight gear.The Excellent North Facing Terrain of the Granite Glacier and the Fairy Meadow Hut
The terrain at the Fairy Meadow hut is absolutely some of the best ski mountaineering terrain that I have experienced. I had honestly always thought it was probably over rated, but there is good reason that there is a yearly lottery system to gain access to the relatively modest hut. Speaking of modesty or lack thereof, we were reacquainted with our rather elaborate food cache and quickly jettisoned kilos of “extra” weight. After a fun night in good company (stuckintherockies.com, bluebirdguides.com, zoyalynch.com), we set off on our journey. Some more ptarmigan navigation followed by a breathtaking descent into Austerity Creek reminded us why we’d come all this way just to travel across this particular swath of terrain. Well, aside from the obvious reasons of gorging ourselves on Maltesers and Coffee Crisp and singing Yacht rock.
Magnificent skiing and tempting alpine rock into Austerity Creek
Elated by the first really big descent of the trip and anxious about our re-entry into the below treeline zone, we encountered our first major crux of the trip. Austerity Creek.
Chic Scott, in his Summits and Icefields; Guidebook to the Columbia Mountains describes this traverse (well, the full version from North to South) in a style that we had grown to love. Instead of camps and a detailed camp to camp itinerary, Scott provides only objective info and a few grid references. This section of the itinerary mentions traveling North following Austerity Creek for roughly 8 miles. In our world, 8 miles of creek slogging is just that, an unpleasant but generally unremarkable plodding. This occasion encompassed 13 hours of every spring mountain problem imaginable. It was awesome and a grand schlep in every sense of the word.
one of the dozens of massive wet avalanche debris piles from a previous shed cycle in Austerity Creek
The rest of the traverse consisted of four more huge days in succession. We encountered everything from isothermal below treeline heinousness, to house sized cornices threatening our ascent routes, to absolutely blower 1000m runs of hero snow. Generally, each day consisted of crossing high cols and descending into low valleys. The descents were huge and glorious, and the valleys were even bigger and more arduous. A few times we employed a siesta strategy that had us up in the dark, lounging during the heat of the afternoon, then traveling again in the evening. Because darkness arrives late (9:30pm) we had plenty of daylight in which to slog our brains out.
The constantly psyched Josh Hirshberg, the delirious Chris Wright, and sunscreen mustached Mike Bromberg arriving at Mica Creek
In the end, we didn’t get to ski any of the proudest lines in the range, but the journey was worthy and inspiring. If you are feeling yourself getting soft from too many croissants or heli lifts, maybe it’s time you explore some of the best wilderness ski terrain in North America.Logistic and Trip Resources:
Alpine Club of Canada – information on the Great Cairn Hut from the Alpine Club of Canada
Summits and Icefields, Chic Scott - Chic Scott’s Summit and Icefields of the Columbia Mountains Guidebook describes the Northern Selkirks traverse (among many others) although from North to South.
Selkirks North, David P Jones. Although this is a climbing guidebook, we found it hugely informative for terrain photos. The American Alpine Club library (still the best resource for planning an expedition) has copies available for check out.
Click above for the Google Earth KMZ file of our journey. You’ll note that the KMZ file does not include daily itineraries or camps nor does Chic Scott’s guidebook.
When I contacted Chic to report a few variants to the route (mostly due to some large cornices that I am still having night terrors about), I also thanked Chic for his deliberately vague route description. He replied: “Not a lot of detail is given in the descriptions as anyone who can actually do the trip can probably find their way without a description.”