Across the Ice


Episodes from a ski traverse in the Canadian Rockies

In the end, to ski is to travel fast and free—free over the untouched, snow-covered country. To be bound to one slope, even to one mountain, by a lift may be convenient but it robs us of the greatest pleasure skiing can give, that is, to travel through the wide wintry country; to follow the lure of the peaks which tempt on the horizon; and to be alone for a few days or even a few hours in clear, mysterious surroundings.
—Hans Gmoser

Assistant guide Chris Girard below the Guy Hut

1. Fear

Vulture Peak Looms overhead. Five days ago, a huge avalanche swept down these cliffs, and our guide Ken is threading the safest path through the debris. Skiers use the phrase “big country” a lot around here—a shorthand for how tiny and fragile humans are, compared to thousand-foot cliffs or ten thousand tons of ice falling from above. 

I am afraid, but Ken’s obvious concern and care make me feel better. I trust he will achieve the primary goal of this trip, keeping us all alive. It’s challenging, as the snowpack is unusually unstable and unpredictable—the last few weeks have seen the largest natural avalanche cycle in living memory. 

God, it’s beautiful here. We’ve left the last trees behind, and the world is snow and ice and rock, cloud and sky. 

Ken crosses avalanche debris below the headwall.

This is where the debris came from, five days earlier (photo via ACMG MCR blog) 






2. Love

On Christmas Day 1990, friends in Estes Park, Colorado took me backcountry skiing. I was twenty-eight years old, and not a skier, but I became instantly obsessed, and skied fifty days that season. That March I drove to the Canadian Rockies for the first time, and it was love at first sight.

I kept coming back. After a couple of trips to the Wapta, and a few visits to Mistaya Lodge, I started pondering a more serious icefield trip, and dreamed of the Bow-Yoho traverse, skiing from Bow Lake all the way to the Stanley Mitchell hut, the spiritual center of Canadian Rockies skiing. So I signed up for the trip in 2015, and it was cancelled. I signed up for the trip again in 2016, and it was cancelled again. Screw that! I arranged for a private trip with Kirsten Knechtel, but then the Alpine Club of Canada hired her to lead the same trip for them, so I signed up. Sadly, Kirsten wasn’t able to guide the trip, and so I found myself at Bow Lake with guide Ken Bibby, assistant guide Chris Girard, camp manager Brenda Crichtley, seven fellow clients, and porters Neil of Steel and his friend Marc.

Lead guide Ken Bibby at the trailhead

Skiing across Bow Lake







3. Chaos


The Bow Hut is a busy place. It’s a short, if serious, ski from the road, and the starting point for the popular Wapta Traverse. The hut has been loved too much, too many people showing not enough care. Sleep is not easy, with sleeping bags elbow-to-elbow on giant mats, and even earplugs do little to silence the thousand varieties of snoring. Nose plugs might come in handy, too.

4. Windy White Wapta

We ski on a literal field of ice, the Wapta Icefield, a collection of glaciers that extends over eighty square kilometers. The glaciers are full of crevasses, but conveniently enough there’s something like 3 meters of snow covering all the slots. Nevertheless we ski roped together for safety, more to keep us from disappearing into the clouds than into the ice. It’s cold, windy, and white—a typical day up here. I take no photos as we ski up and down Mount Gordon; there is nothing to see. As we ski down, Chris trails sixty meters of yellow rope behind him; this helps us see where to go, and where the slope is. We are cats chasing a string. 

When we get back to the hut, we practice crevasse rescue techniques, as it’s much easier to learn when you can feel your fingers and toes. 

John is rescued from a “crevasse” in the Bow Hut

5. This is Why I Train

On Wednesday we venture into the white again, on our way to the next hut. It’s not quite as cold, not quite as windy, not quite as white—we occasionally see giant peaks through the clouds, providing clues to where we are. 


We’re roped up again, moving more easily if less happily than yesterday, as two of our group had to return home due to illness. 

We ski up the headwall, across the icefield, and then up, up, up to the shoulder of Mt. Collie. As I slog up and up, carrying the big pack, I keep thinking this is what I was training for, this is why much of my winter was spent carrying bags of rice, rocks, or bottles of water up and down my local ski area. And I think of my brilliant physical therapist, who has kept my damaged hip going in spite of the demands I make on it.

Days 3 and 4 drawn on the map in pencil

6. Boom

It’s been a long day; I’m ready for it to be over, but the complicated part is upon us, trying to find a safe route down to the Guy Hut. I’m third in line skiing along a rocky ridge behind Ken and Damon, when I hear a cannon blast and the ground shakes. Gene saw a flash of blue, as a cornice fifteen feet away broke off and triggered another massive avalanche. We didn’t see how massive until the next day.

The avalanche we triggered. It’s so much larger than it looks in photos.


7. Richard and Louise Guy

Somewhat shaken, we ski and walk down the ridge…

You can see the hut in the center right of the photo. This photo was actually taken the next day, when visibility was better.  

…to the new hut, finished only last year.




We have found Shangri-La, albeit hidden in the mist. We are safe and happy. 

8. Skiing is Fun

Sunrise on The President

We awake to a most astonishing view, blue skies and mountains in every direction. Yoho Peak, The Vice-President, The President, Mount Marpole, Isolated Peak, Mt. MacArthur, Mt. Des Poilus, Mt. Collie, on and on. There is no place like this in the world. This vast wilderness, mountains as far as the eye can see, this infinite variety of peak and ridge and glacier—these are the most beautiful mountains in the world.



And we get to go powder skiing! We skin up Mt. Yoho right from the hut, although Ken has to shovel a path through huge drifts on the ridge. We ski from the summit, glorious deep powder, floating and flying, surfing and sliding, that dance with gravity that we all live for.


Yoho Peak, with our tracks barely visible along the left-hand ridge


9. Sun, Snow, Sky.


As we ski back up the Yoho Glacier, we see huge snowflakes against the blue sky, illuminated by the sun. 

10. Awe and Terror

Friday morning dawns clear; we pack up all our things to ski to the next hut. It’s tricky to get down to the frozen lake below; the hut really is in an exposed and serious position. 

And we find ourselves in a magical valley, the “big country” we crave, there is even an ice cave. There is nothing to say, but everything to see. We are awe-struck.






Bruce and Damon

Rob

Dave



We haven’t seen trees since Monday. Being in the forest feels good.


Approaching the Whaleback
We are in the forest, but we’re not out of the woods. We are crossing massive avalanche paths. There is overhead hazard everywhere. Threading the needle means finding the needle’s eye, and Ken explores several dead ends. Finally he finds the safe path, but it’s not the easy path. This really is survival skiing, sideslipping through dense forest, the steepest terrain I’ve ever skied. I am terrified, but the time for choices was long ago, and so I must go over the edge. 

I vow to kiss the hut when we get there. I do.

11. The Holy Place

Little Yoho Valley


Ken and I in front of the Stanley Mitchell Hut
The Stanley Mitchell hut is the spiritual center of Canadian Skiing. Nestled in the trees in the Little Yoho Valley, 23 kilometers from the road, people have been skiing here since 1940. Everything here feels right. I remember watching home movies made by Hans Gmoser, the inventor of heli-skiing, here in the 1950s—long wooden skis, thick woolen sweaters.

Above the fireplace is the motto sic itur ad astra, “thus one goes to the stars”


We have one more ski day, but the high hazard and poor visibility keeps us close to the hut. The skiing was fun anyway, and we’ve become a very cohesive group. Today we tell jokes at every transition, but nothing is as funny as Ken telling stories with a Swiss accent modeled on the infamous Rudi Beglinger.

Casual Chris

12. Suffering

Twenty-three kilometers to the cars—a few kilometers of silky gliding down the trail, combat skiing down the headwall, and then the road, made endless by our failing wax. My kingdom for some universal klister! Instead I slog with skins, crash and curse with skins,  flail and suffer without skins. But the kilometers go by, and we reach the cars, and it’s over.

The Long Road Home

13. Aftermath 

We have climbed the mountain. 
There’s nothing more to do. 
It is terrible to come down 
To the valley 
Where, amidst many flowers, 
One thinks of snow, 

As formerly, amidst snow, 
Climbing the mountain, 
One thought of flowers, 
Tremulous, ruddy with dew, 
In the valley. 
One caught their scent coming down. 

It is difficult to adjust, once down, 
To the absense of snow. 
Clear days, from the valley, 
One looks up at the mountain. 
What else is there to do? 
Prayer wheels, flowers! 

Let the flowers 
Fade, the prayer wheels run down. 
What have they to do 
With us who have stood atop the snow 
Atop the mountain, 
Flags seen from the valley? 

It might be possible to live in the valley, 
To bury oneself among flowers, 
If one could forget the mountain, 
How, never once looking down, 
Stiff, blinded with snow, 
One knew what to do. 

Meanwhile it is not easy here in Katmandu, 
Especially when to the valley 
That wind which means snow 
Elsewhere, but here means flowers, 
Comes down, 
As soon it must, from the mountain.

—Donald Justice, “Sestina: Here in Katmandu”

14. Coupe Danemark

For the last three days, Ken was talking about the Coupe Danemark at the Outpost Pub in Lake Louise—the best dessert ever.


It was delicious.

15. Gratitude

Ken’s entry in the Stanley Michell Hut Logbook

Thank you, Ken, for shepherding us across the ice, under difficult circumstances, with such care, concern, skill, and grace. 

Thank you, Brenda, for taking such good care of us on and off the ice, and for being the very model of the skilled, happy winter traveler.

Thank you, Chris, for the infectious good cheer, the indefatigable trailbreaking, the rambling jokes, and the “sad trombone” sound.

Thank you, Gene, for good vibes and good conversation. I hope your next traverse went well!

Thank you, Bruce, for the crazy stories, and reminding the rest of us we lead boring lives.

Thank you, Damon, for the good humor, showing incredible determination in the face of adversity, and upholding the proud tradition of Eastern skiers.  I hope your calf heals quickly! 

Thank you, Rob, for doing so many dishes, and reminding me why I love Dynafit :)

Thank you, John, for reminding us all of why we seek out the winter wilderness. I can’t wait to see your photos. 

Thank you, Nicole, for the note and the beer, and for showing us what it means to be both tough and smart. I’m sorry you had to leave us—I hope you recover quickly. 

Thank you, Luke, we hardly got a chance to know you. 

Thank you, Neil and Marc, for literally shouldering our burdens, and sharing your love of these mountains.

Thank you, Crystal, for making this all happen. 

Thank you, Michelle, for keeping my leg attached to my body.

Thank you, Jonathan, for keeping my skis attached to my boots.

Thank you, Sarah and Cristopher, for letting me go and welcoming me back. I love you both.

16. Dreams

Photo from http://www.explor8ion.com/climbs/columbia.html

I’m already thinking about the next trip. Columbia Icefields, anyone?

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