Skiing in British Columbia's Remote
by Stan Wagon
I am a very traditional telemark skier.
For me, skiing has always been about getting from one point to
another. Thus I stay away from ski areas, preferring to spend
time in remote and beautiful settings, even if it means that
improvement in my ski technique is slow. The upside is that I
have been able to visit some amazing places.
In 1990 I heard that it was somehow possible
to ski from Rogers Pass to the Bugaboos, nearly 100 miles. Being
familiar with both ends of the route from climbing trips, I looked
into it and found two guides
(Chic Scott and Roddy MacGowan) willing to guide Tom Whitesides
and me on this now-classic route. It was difficult at times,
but we completed it in 14 days with one rest day and one moderately
large avalanche. Two years later we did a similar trip (10 days)
in the southern Cariboos. Such long traverses, guided or not,
are hard work, and in April 2001 I and a group of Colorado friends
started doing shorter traverses in the Columbia Mountains that
allow time for layover days to ski in the amazing terrain that
we find ourselves in.
Our main guidelines have been:
- Seven- to ten-day trips; no caches needed.
- Helicopter assisted, so as to avoid slogs
at low elevations. Our main man here has been pilot Don McTighe
of Golden with whom we have worked well to select landing and
- Plenty of layover days so that we can
go skiing and rest from the travel days.
- A nice starting location so that we can
stay there for a couple days to enjoy the skiing and lighten
The next desideratum is not always possible,
but when we can pull it off it makes the trip much more memorable.
- End up at a lodge and spend a week there.
Very little in life that can compare to pulling into a remote
ski lodge on foot after a week of hard work, where good food,
friends, and a week of good skiing await. Such a finish is infinitely
better than rushing off to the airport for the return home.
After a long trip to Mt. Logan in 2000,
some of us decided that shorter traverses in B.C. would be more
appropriate to a group that puts skiing quality first. So we
started in 2001 and have now done five of these trips; all of
them have been memorable. I'll list the itineraries here, with
grid references for some spots. If any reader wishes more detailed
route information, he or she need only ask me via email,
or consult my web page at stanwagon.com.
Ski Camp (GR 365155) to Fairy Meadows Hut; 8 days, 3 travel days.
Ski Camp to Sorcerer Lake Lodge; 7 days, 4 travel days.
Glacier (GR 958491) to Mummery Glacier (GR 130253); 9 days, 5
Ocean (GR 702320) to Battle Abbey; 8 days, 4 travel days.
Range of the Monashees (dropoff GR 903877; pickup GR 908703);
10 days, 4 travel days.
Katie Larson (4), Bob Portmann (4), Rob Nachtwey (4), Mike Anderson
(2), Leslie Ross (1), Jonathan Kriegel (1), Phil Williams (1),
and me (5).
Keep it light. Springtime temperatures and conditions are moderate
in this range. The North Face VE-25 tent has served us very well.
We use MSR stoves, with a menu that includes a couple of fully
dehydrated meals. Ice axes can be useful, though it is very rare
that we use them. We have never used crampons (and no longer
carry them). The light 30-meter randonee ropes (one or two, depending
on size of group and expected conditions, such as rappels) are
just as good as the traditional 50-meter glacier rope, and lighter.
All of these trips have been super and
I will list only some of the highlights here. As for the downside:
Well, carrying heavy packs uphill, and down, is an acquired taste,
and as I get older it becomes, obviously, harder. But all the
other aspects of camping and skiing on these trips have been
great. Once in a while, at a low elevation (meaning below 6000
feet) we have run into rain. It was snow a few hundred feet up,
but no one likes rain on a ski traverse. Avalanche conditions
have generally been very good. The wet avalanches caused by sun
are fairly obvious and we have seen hundreds, but we easily avoid
those slopes. On steeper slopes we have almost always found fine,
This was our first traverse, but I was familiar with the Great
Cairn Hut area from a 1994 visit. We were confined to the tent
on a wet day at Moberly Pass, and the local pine marten population
must have gotten some information about our arrival from a group
of their relatives at Argentine, which group did in fact make
off with one cereal bag. Anyway, these creatures are amazingly
bold, coming right into the vestibule to check out the stove
or scraps of food. Great Cairn Hut provided a welcome shelter,
but low visibility, some rain, and the warm weather avalanches
caused us to put off our last travel day for one day. That last
day was memorable as we started very very early and made our
way through two difficult sections: Azimuth Notch and Thor Pass.
At the top of Thor we learned that the maps are not always reliable:
we expected a 500-foot drop but the land continued to slope up.
Later we saw a new TRIM map put out by the BC government, which
was much more accurate.
The descent to Fairy Meadows was exhilarating.
The helicopter had just finished its last drop-off and was about
to fly back along our route to check for us. But pilot Don McTighe
saw us within seconds after lifting off as we cruised happily
into the hut. Seven more days of skiing with good friends and
guides Tom Raudaschl and Robson Gmoser made for a memorable two
weeks of skiing.
Since we had knocked off a very small section of the Northern
Selkirks Traverse in '01, we figured we may as well knock off
another very small section in '02. So we flew to the same spot
and headed south. On this trip we had superb weather, climbing
Argentine Peak on our first full day. Subsequent travel days
were uneventful except for the very end. As we faced the "Heinous
Traverse" into Sorcerer Lake Lodge we had to evaluate avy
conditions, as the route went under a large face and there had
been a day or more of heavy snow just before.
As we pondered the situation, and a possible
alternate route down into a creek, we saw one avalanche release
naturally into the creek. So we decided that it was all too risky
and made a long detour, climbing 800 feet to the north before
getting down into the creek, which then offered a 1500-foot climb
to the lodge. The highlight of the lodge week was a ski to the
summit of Iconoclast.
Right: Sorcerer Lake Lodge, with
various summits of Nordic Mountain behind. Just above the chimney
is the true summit with a steep ski run called The Ultimate on
its face. The funny rock bump at the right is called Escargot.
(Photo: Stan Wagon)
Above: Bob Portmann
descending the north face of Argentine Peak, located halfway between
Fairy Meadows and Sorcerer Lake Lodges. We have almost always
found excellent powder on these late April trips.(Photo: Stan
This year we tried to do a very small section of the super-long
Rockies traverse from Jasper to Lake Louise. Several of us had
already done the Wapta Traverse, so we chose the section north
of that, from the Mons Icefield to a pickup on the Mummery Glacier.
The heli flight in was amazing: Don flew through valleys totally
new to us and tried to find a good landing in cloudy conditions.
Finally he dropped us off at the edge of a cliff and we had to
spend some time with the map to figure out where we were. We
spent three days at that spot, exploring the Mons Glacier, which
was a little familiar to us from a summer climb of Forbes.
then climbed 2500 feet to a great
high camp on the icefield. We spent a rest day there (low vis)
and the following day crossed the Helmer-Gilgit Col to a pickup
at about 7300 feet on the Mummery Glacier.
When we started to travel we had some excitement,
as the rappel after passing Forbes was difficult. It took us
about six hours to negotiate it. It was a double rappel, starting
at the bottom of a steep snow slope, and with a nasty arch in
the middle of it that made passage of packs and skis difficult.
The next day (and the previous day) had
high winds, so we decided that the avy danger at Niverville Col
might be too great and made a detour via Forbes and Freshfield
Creek. This forest travel was tedious, but we were rewarded with
a tremendous view when we finally left the woods and faced Freshfield
Lake and Peak. We sprinted across the lake, and
After a day in the woods Freshfield
Lake and Peak were welcome sights, as the route up the glacier
at the end of the lake is straightforward and scenic. People
have skied from the summit of
Freshfield Peak. (Photo: Stan Wagon)
The skiing on this trip was not outstanding
(Rockies vs Selkirks?) but other factors made the trip memorable.
The most noteworthy was an opening in the ice on the Mons Icefield
that turned out not to be the expected cave, but a 60-yard long
ice tunnel that we could follow through to its end an amazing
place. We followed the traverse with five days of excellent skiing
at the Stanley Mitchell Hut.
Above: The awesome
ice tunnel on the Mons Glacier. This was one of the most amazing
mountain places I have ever seen, as we could enter a large cave
in the glacier and walk through for about 60 yards to the other
end, which is pictured here. (Photo: Mike Anderson)
This year we tried something new: a route that, as far as we
knew, had never been done. We wanted to reach Battle Abbey from
the south. We had a drop-off at a heli-ski run called Snow Ocean,
and had a superb and exciting eight days following that. We knew
that getting through the Wrong Icefall would be tricky. The descent
by the seracs was steep, but we found an easy and clean exit
just after the icefall that brought us to one of the greatest
camps of all, Oasis Lake. There we took a ski day and put in
multiple runs (14) on the north face of Goodrich. The following
day was sketchy as we had to get around the Billy Budd massif
to Houston Pass. We finally found a way through the heavily corniced
transverse ridge, reaching the pass at 4 pm, and descending to
a camp by a lake. Next day was a storm day, but then we had a
nice route to Battle Abbey via the west side of Typee. The week
that followed was warm, but that meant a chance at some nice
summits and on this, my third trip to the Abbey, I finally got
to climb Mt. Butters.
This view from Typee
shows the traverse route over the Wrong-Vistamount col (rear,
left of center). It then sneaks down to viewer's right of the
spectacular Wrong Icefall. Oasis Lake is below and right of the
icefall and the north face of Goodrich -- excellent skiing --
is on the right side of the photo. (Photo: Stan Wagon)
Several months after the trip I met Sam
Silverstein, who had climbed in the region in 1959, obtaining
many first ascents. He was also responsible for naming the Wrong
Glacier, which arose after a misplaced airdrop.
Sam had a fine climbing career 40 years
ago (including first ascents of Moby Dick, and of Mt. Vinson
in Antarctica) and it was a pleasure to meet him.
It turned out that two other parties were
also traversing in this area this season, and all took different
routes around the difficult sections. Our report on this route
appears in the 2005 Canadian Alpine Journal.
Right: Oasis Lake Camp, below
the seracs of the Wrong Icefall. We spent two days at this lovely
site, which had open water and great skiing. From here we went
around to the west into Houston Pass and Lake, and from there
we could easily climb to the slopes near Battle Abbey, marking
the end of an exciting 8-day traverse. (Photo: Stan Wagon)
The transverse ridge
on the west side of the Billy Budd massif. We found the small
gap without a cornice in the center of the photo that allowed
us to traverse into Houston Pass. This was the crux of our trip
into Battle Abbey. (Photo: Stan Wagon)
No traverse this year, as we opted to visit Olive Hut, just south
of the Bugaboos. There were too many avalanches (2) and too many
snowmobiles (lots). But the hut is in a great spot and we skied
many nice lines.
Back to a traverse as we headed to the Jordan Range of the Monashees,
a route first done by Ruedi Beglinger in 1993. We allowed 10
days for this, which is a lot. The upside is that we had many
days for pure skiing and this terrain offered us more good descents
without heavy packs than the other trips. On our dropoff day
we summited and skied Pyrite Peak. Later we had excellent runs
on the Big Eddy and Frisby Glaciers, and near the end of the
trip we got near the summit of Tour Ronde and descended its large
south face. Its north face, on the other hand, was one of the
most awesome faces I have seen. Surprisingly, the highlight of
the trip had nothing to do with skiing: On day nine Katie spotted
a wolverine and we could follow it up a broad couloir. We had
seen many tracks over the years, but this was our first sighting.
Another highlight of this trip was the location of the camps:
all just at treeline facing alpine bowls with many possibilities
for ski exploration.
Above: Pyrite Peak
offered a fine ascent and descent on the afternoon of the helicopter
dropoff. (Photo: Phil Williams)
Above: A day spent
exploring the upper part of the Big Eddy Glacier was most enjoyable.
This slope is just below the high col between Egghorn and Schrund.
(Photo: Stan Wagon)
What goes down must
come up: Rob Nachtwey approaches Egghorn Col with a heavy pack.
These trips have provided adventure, skiing,
companionship, and much more. As Chic Scott has observed, one
need not be a super-athlete to complete a rewarding ski traverse:
a coherent team, good planning, and mountain sense are what you
need to make the most of this range. One often gains experience
at huts and lodges, so I'll close with a few notes on that :
You are probably familiar with the fact
that this range is home to several great lodges and ski huts.
People are often asked to compare them but, really, they all
have their own personality. Battle Abbey has some superb long
runs and terrain with a real alpine feel. Sorcerer Lake is situated
near a perfect glacial basin for skiing, and the many north-facing
runs are great for a late-season visit. Fairy Meadows is much
the same. We have also visited Mistaya and Campbell in the Rockies.
The latter is in the middle of some large mountains, which means
that skiing takes place in great alpine locations. But those
huge cliffs do eat up real estate, as they cannot be skied. Mistaya
is nearby, but the peaks are smaller, and one can reach many
summits with long ski runs down. Huts we have visited are Great
Cairn, Olive, and Bow, Balfour, Scott Duncan, and Stanley Mitchell.
Great Cairn is really more of a climbers base than skiers. The
others all have great skiing, but perhaps Stanley Mitchell has
the best, a problem being the long ski in (about 14 miles). Here
are some of my favorite runs: Pequod Pass at Battle Abbey; East
Peak of Mt. Alan Campbell at Campbell Chalet; Grindl Peak at
Mistaya Lodge; Nordic Summit (true summit) and also Iconoclast
at Sorcerer Lake; Pioneer Peak and Pass at Fairy Meadows; Mt.
McArthur at Stanley Mitchell Hut; Alpha Centauri at Olive Hut.
There are other lodges too, and Chic Scott's book "Alpine
Ski Tours in the Columbia Mountains" is the place to start
if you are looking for ski adventure in this range. We have some
videos for the later trips; contact Rob Nachtwey (firstname.lastname@example.org)
if you want to obtain one.
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