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For All The World's A Run, and All The Men and Women Merely Skiers: 17 Days From Kinbasket Lake to the Columbia Icefield with Ramblings up Mount Clemenceau, Tusk Peak, and Castleguard Mountain

Difficulty: 
Complex Glaciated Ski Tour
Round Trip Distance [km]: 
161.0
Net Elevation Gain [m]: 
1800
Total Elevation Gain [m]: 
11400
YDS Difficulty: 
5.4
Bushwhackyness: 
Some Tedious Bush To Ascend From The Wood Arm
Tripdate: 
Wednesday, May 3, 2017

 

For all the world's a run,

and all the men and women merely skiers.

They have their exits (for us the Columbia Icefield), and their entrances (for us, the Wood Arm of Kinbasket Lake),

and one man in his time skis over many rocks.

 

After having skied from the Mount Fitzwilliam Trailhead (on the Yellowhead Highway) to the Wood Arm (of Kinbasket Lake) over the past 10 days Liam, Josh, Zak, and I stood on the beach as our resupply boat rolled into the arm.  The last 10 days were a different tale (see here if you are interested), and it really felt like the start of a new trip. Liam left on the resupply boat, and James arrived.  This leg would be a 17 day journey from the Wood Arm to the Saskatchewan Glacier, including the regular Central Great Divide Traverse, along with ascents of several peaks.  After getting resupplied, our first night was quite luxurious with steaks and beers, great comforts compared to some points on the rest of the trek!  Our line to reach the Clemenceau Icefield (the regular start of the Central Great Divide Traverse) was to ascend old logging roads to reach Cummins Lake Provincial Park and then gain the Cummins Glacier.  On the map this seemed pretty reasonable.  In good weather it would be pretty reasonable. In large we did not have the greatest weather.

 

The boys enjoying the comforts of the camp on the end of the Wood River.

 

The Wood Arm is a very interesting sight!

 

The fire may have been a bit large at times.

 
Leaving the Wood Arm we were first struck by the fearsome weight of our packs.  Taking breaks every 100m of vertical and stopping for a victory beer (the last for each of us, remenants from the glorious struggle of man versus booze the previous night) when hitting snowline helped to keep morale up.  Above our camp there was a warren of logging roads and which to choose was not always obvious. I had noted the key junctions from sat maps but the older and smaller road that lead highest briefly iluded us (forcing some gnarly travel in the bush that would have been lovely to avoid).  After some harrowing log and creek crossings we came to a nicely filled in drainage that sped up warmly (there was quite the toasty sun) up to our camp, a few km below the pass to enter Cummins Lake Provincial Park.  That night was the first (though very much not last) rain of the trip, and at times it was coming down in sheets (though sealed up in the might fortress that is The Great Gazoo, the name Liam and I decided on for my new green tent, no drop reached James and I!).

 

Not even a hint of snow near lake-level.

 

Continous snow higher up, very glad to get the skis off.

 

Many hours later, on a snowy creek heading up (a highway compared to travel in the bush below).

 

Our first camp away from the Wood Arm, no lawn chairs and tables here.

 

Very peaceful lighting.

 

The next morning, things seemed a little more upbeat but a grim forecast (read as, "more rain") kept us from getting too confident. Approaching the pass, rain started first as a refreshing mist which soon escalated into a bone chilling downpour (made all the more frosty by winds channeled through the pass). I'm sure the pass itself has lovely views in good weather but our thoughts were focused on heading towards the sheltering canopy of treeline as quick as can be!  Thankfully Nature did take some pity on us, and after a bit of downhill the rain abated and even some blue sky and sun made an appearance.

 

Josh working his way up towards the pass before the rain rolled in.

 

It was actually getting quite warm before the rain.

 

Not the greatest visibility for what would be a very scenic area.

 

Looking down towards Cummins Lakes (and ice?).

 

The Cummins Lake area is a pretty neat place and I am quite glad that it has been made into a provincial park.  Visiting the lakes themselves would be a neat summer trip in the future. Visiting the lakes in winter could have interesting ice climbing potential.  After weaseling down around treeline towards our access to the Cummins Glacier, we made camp on the north side of the valley out of hazard from the numerous (very much active) avi slopes in the area.  Digging in a camp we were getting stoked to get on glacier until the weather forecast came in via Inreach.  "20 mm of rain over the course of the day".  We interpreted this as, "man, that is going to be a lot of snow coming down".  The forecast was far too true, it was a lot of rain (closer to 30 mm based upon how much water we managed to collect through pots left outside the tents).  Suffice to say we spend all of thirty or so minutes outside of the tents that day.

 

A bit more clear as we worked out way down.  Lots of neat peaks!

 

Not a bad place for a camp.  These slopes would be very active in the rain the next day.

 

In the tents we go, not to emerge for a dayish..

 

The next morning we were hopeful that we could start making progress and reach the Clemenceau Icefield itself.  After having endured the monsoon of the previous day we were fairly confident that any slope which could have slid, did slide given all the rain that came down.  Making our way up traipsing above what look like a series of lovely tarns based on the map (less lovely in the winter but the other surroundings are certainly scenic).  Travel was actually quite good and we made quick progress switchbacking up thinning trees towards the edge of the glacier.  One last stumbling block remained, a steep slope beneath the moraine guarding the edge of the glacier.  It was kind of funny the tricks that perspective cause on slope angle for snow.  From far away the slope seemed fearsome, a little closer it seemed better, and then traveling closer the ferocity redoubled!  Thankfully, when we were at the base of the slope itself it seemed like it would be skinable (but just barely).  I bashed an uptrack weaving between the rock and avi debris with what was some very tiring progress.  Eventually we topped out on a rocky highpoint with good views of the glacier below.  We were also a good 95 m above what the map suggested for an elevation, interesting!

 

Working our way up towards the glacier.

 

The terrain looks much more reasonable close up.

 

The boys with more of Cummins Lake Provincial Park in the background.

 

Our last challange to get up on the Cummins Glacier.

 

James surveying the glacier.

 
Our access to the upper glacier was a ramp pretty much making a line between Tusk Peak and Cummins Lakes.  From far away there were certainly some holes, but thankfully very wide bridges too.  A very toasty ski down the glacier brought us to the base of the slope, and an equally toasty ascent up the ramp popped us out at an excellent spot for a camp.  Last time I was up on the Clemenceau Icefield we had camped below the steep lower cliffs of Clemenceau itself.  While this is nice for ascending the peak, it was too close to actually appreciate just how large the mountain is!  This time around we were nicely situated with a front and center view of both Tusk and Clemenceau.  While working our way to the icefield I had a talk with the boys about which order we would tackle the peaks.  Mount Clemenceau is by far the 'big prize' in the area, fourth highest peak in the Rockies and a lovely mountain visible from far and wide.  Having already ascended Clemenceau in damned-near perfect weather and conditions on the 2014 trip, I was trying to convince the others to try for Tusk first.  After having seen Tusk in person, the boys agreed that it is a most-excellent peak as well and we gave the go-ahead to Tusk and then Clemenceau (thank you guys for that!).  The next morning would prove to be the clearest weather of the trip to that point, with an almost perfectly clear sky and a good overnight freeze the ascend of Tusk looked like it was good to go!
 

Up the steep part of the ramp, very tropical temperatures out here.

 

Our home for the next few nights, not a bad view.

 

A cool view of Clemenceau (right) from camp.

 

Evening glow on Tusk Peak from camp.

 
Working our way up the glacier to the Tusk/Irvine col was actually quite nice.  A good freeze decreased our worry about weak bridges and we managed to do the entire ascent without putting on the rope!  Coverage was quite good and before we knew it we were at the base of the col, and kicking steps skywards.  The views from the top of the col were actually some of the best on the trip.  The icefalls descending off of Mount Shackleton are incredibly scenic, and make the trip up Tusk well-worth the effort.  Things were doubly pleasant as after topping out of the col we were in the sun.  Fun in the sun indeed!  The regular summer route for Tusk ascends a low 5'th rockband to reach the upper ridge while other sources reference a bypass lower down if snow was good.  In our conditions there was certainly enough snow to go around so the bypass was our plan and it worked out wonderfully.  Skiing down (due to lazyness kept skins on) while looking towards the icefalls was a pretty surreal experience.  After losing around 150 meters we could skin back up the other side and regain the summit ridge, just when a white-out started to move in! 
 

Up fairly early to head up Tusk.

 

Quite possibly the best weather of the trip so far.

 

Up at the Tusk/Irvine col, very cool views.

 

Josh looking over the Shackleton Icefall.

 
The rest of the ascent would be in partial to full-white out navigating mostly by any rocks that could be seen and an altimeter which would click upwards painfully slowly.  For the final slope to the summit we ended up booting straight up a thin snow-covered rock section (as that was all we could see), in better visibility a nice thick snow slope was directly climber's right of the peak and would have been much nicer (and allowed for skiing directly off the summit!).  James did some excellent leading traversing the thin snow to the summit-proper where the clouds would briefly part enough for us to see a glimmer of how awesome the views from Tusk would be in clear skies!
 

James looking very stoic on the summit.

 
On descent Josh and James tossed their splitboards into snowboard mode (the first time on this leg of the trip) and shredded some 'sick gnar' along the summit ridge and then down to the bypass.  Zak and I had a less enjoyable time trying to turn through the fierce crust on the sun blasted (flat light) slope but made it down eventually.  During the descent, snowfall had been picking up and it was a full-on blizzard by the time we made it back to the col.  James and Josh boarded down the col, while I 'skied' (far from the most glamorous turns though..) and Zak booted down.  Light was pretty flat for the ski back to camp and there were quite a few times where gauging speed was quite tricky!  Lower down the snow was actually awesome for turns and we had a great time working down towards camp.  Back at camp stoke was high and we eagerly awaited the forecast for the next day to get a chance for Clemenceau!
 

Zak contemplating many things around camp.

 
The forecast came in and things looked 'warm'.  Downright tropical to put it more accurately (given that we were on an icefield of all places).  Steep snowy slopes are best tackled when they are frozen and it did not seem like that would be the case.  Regardless we agreed to wake up at 330 and see how the snow looked.  Suffice to say there was no real freeze and we went back to sleep and had a rest day, pretty much a day at the beach given the temperatures.  By 1120 it was 18C in the sun and shirts (sometimes as well as pants) were coming off to take in the heat.  After a bit of a discussion in the afternoon we reckoned that heading over to Tsar as we were hoping for the next few days probably wouldn't be in the cards given the forecast so Clemenceau had another chance.  The weather forecast for the following day was cloudy and coolish, so if there was a freeze overnight it would probably stick around.  It seemed worth a try so we got to sleep early and woke up around 330 again.  The freeze seemed better, still by no means great, but then again we had a long way vertical to go and it was not going to be a bluebird day like the previous one so off we went.
 

It was very warm on the weather-day.

 
Leaving camp there were certainly clouds, as the forecast called for, and a partial white-out descended upon us.  Having no real motivation to be up in complex glacier in a full-whiteout (especially having gone up the peak in great conditions before) I asked the boys how they would feel about turning around if we got to a full whiteout.  We agreed to carry on as long as it was safe and we could see possible holes in front of us.  Thankfully, things did get colder higher up and the cloudy skies kept the snow from getting spooky.  The downside of the clouds was quite tricky routefinding.  I remembered roughly where our route went last time but piecing together whiteout navigation from memories of bluebird skies is quite tricky!  James lead a great line up a steep snow slope which actually bypassed some of the icefall complexities of our line last time and then a long traverse took us to more familiar terrain near the west ridge of the peak.  During the traverse great leviathans of ice would occasional appear and vanish out of the most above us.  One ice cavern in particular looked like something out of a movie, and the whiteout gave the impression that the ice would stretch upwards unending.
 

After the first steep slopes things briefly cleared.  Above here visibility was very minimal.

 
On the 2014 trip, we reached the west ridge and were able to kick steps nicely up near the ridgecrest eventually reaching the summit.  This year lots of snow and intense winds had cooked up a different set of conditions, namely gargoyles.  Big ones.  We ended up having to traverse a long way climber's right to get around the beasties and then after breaking through kicked up, up, and up to reach the true summit.  While views on the summit were intermittent at best we did get a glimpse of the panorama, and the boys were super stoked to be on the summit.  This may have been the high-point of stoke for the entire trip.  Mindful of the warmer temperatures below we didn't stay at the top that long and kicked our way back down to our skis and then dropped back down into the clouds to find our tracks had been erased.  A GPS track from our ascent line proved quite helpful with getting back down to the lower mountain where we eventually dropped below the clouds and came upon some excellent soft snow for skiing.  Back at camp the mood was pretty buoyant, both Tusk and Clemenceau on a self-propelled trip is not a bad achievement.
 

A brief break in the clouds, we could scry a line and head towards the summit at last!

 

I belayed Josh to the utmost summit, quite a bit higher than the Wood Arm!

 

Lower down we ended up dropping beneath the clouds, time for skiing.

 

Josh and James enjoying the views and the skiing to come.

 

Nice moist snow for playful turns!

 

Good end to a kind of stresful day.

 

Back at camp for some well-deserved grub.

 
The next morning we would have to leave our home below Tusk and start the traverse eastwards (mostly towards our food cache at Snowy Pass!).  The day started off actually quite nice, with sun and blue sky as we rolled our way down the Tiger Glacier and over to the Clemenceau Glacier (which oddly enough is not connected to Mount Clemenceau itself!).  Things might actually have been too nice, as the warm temps started releasing a great deal of moisture into the air.  As we worked our way up towards Apex Peak, some nastier clouds started to build and the winds started to pick up.  There was a storm a 'brewin!  When the rain started we hastily set up camp not wanting to be caught in a downpour.  The rain kept going for quite some time as we dug in and resigned ourselves to more hours in the tents.  Around dinner time we were treated to an unexpected thunderstorm.  It was kind of funny as with the first flash everyone thought someone else turned on a headlamp or something.  When the rumble of thunder came roaring after we were all feeling mighty nice to be on a big flat icefield with stong metal poles holding up our tents!  Thankfully the storm came and went without incident and we got some sleep before a trying day in the morning.
 

Crossing beneath Tusk Peak.

 

Our wizard surveys Clemenceau and the route ahead.

 

The boys with the Duplicate-Shackleton Icefall in the background.

 

Looking back at Clemenceau.

 
On the 2014 trip, getting up to Apex Col was pretty trivial.  We had good visibility and good snow so could pick our line up from kilometers away and leisurely head up.  This time around we had a 10 foot visibility whiteout which meant compass navigation with lots of stops for corrections, and very slow travel.  By the time we made it to the base of the slope to access the col there was just enough visibility to see bare ice and some giant holes that prompted us to wait it out (for possibly better visibility, or courage, or both!).  All of us taking shelter in James's sil tarp (a two person, or as Josh said a "European four man") was cozy but much warmer then the storm outside.  We did have a brief window of clearing that let us see the slopes above, things were not as fearsome as it looked and we could work our way upwards.  Atop the col, the weather moved in again and we cautiously crept our way along the side of a massive cornice to reach the glacier below.  After being exhausted from slow whiteout travel, we made came pretty much at the same place as on the 2014 trip and got ready for navigating to Eden Col the following day.
 

Not the greatest of visibility (this was the best it was for hours though!).

 
Weather for the next day was more of the same, blowing snow, very low vis whiteout (the type of conditions where you can't really tell if you are going slightly uphill or downhill or flat!).  As with the previous day we worked our way slowly towards the base of the col and were confronted by a massive wind scoop, some crevasse-looking features, and not much else given the whiteout.  Again we waited it out in the sil tarp for a while until things cleared and then set off upwards.  Eden Col was a very different experience this time around, lots of new snow made for slow travel across the flats where previously we had glided across a hard crust in seconds.  With another whiteout and wet snow/almost rain coming down we set up camp a little ways away from Chaba Peak in what would be an excellent base-camp location for peaks on the Chaba Icefield.
 

Amazingly weather for the next day was actually quite nice in the morning, and we were able to make good time being able to see where we were going!  Below Chaba Peak we came across a recent campsite from another group along the Central Great Divide Traverse line who must have been troubled by the same whiteouts that we were.  Heading up to the Chaba Col rap was a steep as I remembered but thankfully less crusty (not to say "not crusty" by any means, just a wee bit less).  The rap itself went quite smoothly with good snow (albeit steep snow) from the end of our rope down to the Wales Glacier below.  Being only a stones throw from Snowy Pass and our cache we reckoned to ski down to the pass and stay there for the night.  On the 2014 trip, we took a line that skirted the edge of the lower Wales Glacier dodging through a few crevasses but nothing too sketchy.  I picked a line that cut skiers right a bit too quickly and ended up plunging us deeper into the crevasse-field requiring breaking out the skins and trudging back up.  This was very much not a popular route-finding decision.  After the detour, we got down to Snowy Pass and set up camp pretty much right on the AB/BC border.  We had planned for a half rest day the next day for unearthing the cache from its snowy tomb and doing an exploratory side-trip to the valley to the East (the lake below False Chaba Peak looked super cool on maps and we were all keen to check it out while in the area!).

 

Actually good visibility in the morning, how novel.

 

Nice views below Chaba Peak.

 

James looking over the Chaba Col Rap.

 

Looking back at the boys below the Chaba Rap getting their skis on.

 

Skiing down the northern Wales Glacier.

 

Snowy Pass, with lots of snow (seems fitting).

 
Snowy Pass is one of those places you see on a map but very rarely visit.  Admitably the approach is quite long (from any way you would go to get to the Pass) but if along the GDT line a brief detour seemed like a good plan.  Dropping down to the lake (in a whiteout of course, it was the theme for this half of the trip...) we briefly lost James as we skied off a wind roll that had a 1.5 meter drop.  Not the greatest to see your friend skiing then vanish!  Lower down we were treated to some really neat views that felt more like they should be in Baffin Island or a fjord in Norway.  We scouted a little bit further down the valley to check out how the route between the valley bottom and the Pass would go and then stopped for lunch on some bare rocky patches that were bathed in sun.  Returning back to camp, sure enough it started to snow again and a whiteout rolled in, back to winter.
 

This was a typical level of visibility for much of the trip.

 

East of Snowy Pass on our scouting side-trip.

 

Neat views looking towards more familiar peaks down east.

 
The next day optimism was pretty high: one, we were working our way up the southern Wales Glacier towards a camp below Mount King Edward, two, we actually had a forecast that seemed like an ascent of King Edward (King Eddy to its friends) would be in the cards, three, we had all gone a little bit crazy and though that we were due some good weather at some point!  There is a lot of elevation to gain to reach the upper part of the icefield where our access col to the Columbia Icefield and Mount King Eddy awaited.  Sticking with the weather theme for this year there was a lot of wind affected terrain by the col and a quick steep downclimb was required before reaching the other side and skiing down onto the Columbia, our last icefield for the trip!
 

Cool sunrise views from Snowy Pass.

 

First good view of Tsar for some time!

 

Tsar is a very striking peak.

 

Looking back up the Wales Glacier towards the Chaba Col Rap.

 

On the southern Wales Glacier.

 
With ominous weather starting to build and our plan for ascending King Eddy the next morning we reckoned make camp on the flattest near spot possible and set up shop at a good viewpoint for King Eddy, Columbia , Bryce, and the surprisingly impressive Warwick Mountain to the North (see image below, this particular aspect is quite striking).  That night we received a less than ideal forecast, weather was moving in and our window for King Eddy might not be as ideal as we expected.  With even less ideal weather on the horizon (and needing good vis to get to the upper Columbia we downgraded our stoke for the ascent from 'full on' to 'only if the weather is really good in the morning' one needs to always keep some stoke while in BC).  Weather in the morning was indeed less than ideal.  Intense winds had hammered our camp overnight possibly making some fairly fearsome slabs up on the face.  We bailed on the ascent and made our way towards the upper Columbia Icefield, aiming to camp at a comfortable clump of trees below the southwest face of Mount Columbia.  We had camped at the trees back in 2014 and it would be cool to head back there and see how the views have changed!  Traveling over to the trees took a bit of time and was quite toasty for the initial traverse to reach the southwest face of Mount Columbia.  Just before we started to descend, clouds rolled in and the light became very flat.  It was so bad that even rolling snowballs to try to gauge slope angle wouldn't work (the snowballs would vanish into the white after about 3 or 4 feet).  Eventually Josh picked a way through and we made our descend to the moraine directly above the trees.  While only a few meters of vertical to regain the crest of the moraine, the ascent was horrible with alternating rock hard and surprisingly soft snow.  Cursing and sweating all the way up we made it to the top of the moraine where a short run led us down to the trees. 
 

Very close to Mount King Edward.

 

Stopping for a break before dropping down to the patch of trees.

 

We came across an old camp (likely the same people who dug the walls we found below Chaba Peak) and decided to take advantage of the dug out kitchen to save some effort.  A bit of greenery was actually a welcome change from the wintery icefields over the past few days, enough to make me write a short poem as the last rays of the setting sun were gracing our very tranquil camp.  
 
A Verdant Reprieve
While ice may glitter and frost may salve
the sores one bears from skiing around,
A patch of trees, so thin and sparse,
can raise one's hopes, and lift one's heart.
 

Cool to be back in these trees again, very impressive icefall above.

 
The next day the forecast did not look very optimistic but we reckoned we could probably push a way up at least part of the Columbia Bypass, so long as temperatures stayed fairly cool.  We broke camp amidst a wet snowstorm and were pretty un-stoked about conditions. Once we actually hit the snow 'ramp' to reach the upper slopes all traces of stoke evaporated, the snow was soft, really soft.  To be fully unstoked on a ski traverse is a most-perilous state.  The first steep snow slope was of relatively low consequence so we carefully kicked up and then opted for a scrambly bare rock line to ascend the next cliff band rather than tempt the steeper slopes with worrying runout on the regular route.  There were a few 5'th class moves (which always feel trickier when hauling a big pack with skis on it, let alone ski boots) and some very slushy post holing later on.  Past that section all that remained was one last snow slope and then we were on glacier and much much more solid snow.
 

Far from pleasent conditions.

 

Josh glad to be getting back onto glacier soon and out of the slush.

 

One last slope between us at the glacier.

 
Pretty much right when we got back onto glacier the sky started to clear and things started to heat up.  This could actually have been a worrying development had things been slightly warmer.  Given that the snow was still quite firm, and air temperature still below freezing we reckoned that we had a few hours before the Bypass started to turn into a full on Danger Zone (I had the Archer version of that song stuck in my head for a lot of the trip oddly enough whenever we would come across conditions that were less than ideal).  What followed was approximately 700 meters of crevasse-ridden elevation gain with only one short 5 minute break.  We were all dog-tired by the end of the push, but we had made it up to the upper Columbia Icefield without any avalanches and with no crevasse incidents (much better coverage on this section than back in 2014 when I fell into a crevasse about 150 meters shy of the upper icefield).  Back on flat terrain another whiteout rolled in complicating our last bit of routefinding to reach camp.  All we could see is that following the GPS to the flatest section of glacier (i.e. travelling in a straight line) had huge crevasses, so we did not go that way!  In the end, we carried on towards the base of Columbia gaining elevation until we had a good view of The Twins from camp.  Getting to this camp really felt like the end of the 'cruxy' parts of the traverse, even in poor weather we could cross the Columbia and slide down the Saskatchewan Glacier with relative ease.  It was easy to get a good night sleep knowing that the trickiest stuff was over.
 

James surveying the rest of the bypass route.

 

Very big terrain up here.  Mount Columbia on the left.

 

Our camp below Mount Columbia.

 
The next morning we aimed to give Mount Columbia a go.  When you camp practically at the base of the second highest peak in the Rockies, barring a monsoon or a full-on whiteout, it is worth a try!  We ended up having the latter, with a partial whiteout soon turning into a full-whiteout about 15 minutes after leaving camp.  After a quick group discussion, we headed back to camp and waited out the whiteout resolved to break camp during the next clearing and make our way across the icefield.  A revised short-term weather forecast arrived in the late morning promising clearing skies at around 3 pm.  We slept, ate, and read until about 2 pm, sure enough the sky started to clear and before long we were crossing the icefield towards The Trench.  For those who have not been on the Columbia, The Trench is exactly what it sounds like, essentially a broad tube cut into an otherwise 'flat' icefield.  Skiing coming down The Trench is just the right angle that you can fool around with quick turns in almost any type of snow.  We all enjoyed some good skiing to get down to the base and then skinned up the other side towards the base of Castleguard Mountain.  This would be our last camp for the trip.
 

Mount Bryce may be one of the best views from the icefield.

 

The Brother's Dunn enjoying the last night of the trip.

 
Where the weather forecast for trying Mount Columbia was questionable, the forecast for ascending Castleguard Mountain looked very premium (the best weather of the trip actually).  With a camp right below the peak, we had excellent views of many peaks including some distant giants to the west such as Mount Sir Sandford.  Our mood in camp was actually quite somber.  We would have our last dinner of the trip, and then sleep our last night of the trip, and in the morning pack up our tents for the last time in the trip.  After 26 days, each of us agreed that if we had another food cache we could just keep going.  Heading back to town seemed a far away and foreign thing for being tomorrow.  For the last night of the trip we were treated with clear skies for sunset, and countless stars cascading above overnight.  This was winter camping at its finest.  The morning of Day 27 dawned spectacularly with a pure cloudless sky allowing for a radiant glow to reach nearby Mount Bryce and Mount Columbia.  I must have taken 100 pictures during the ten or so minutes of alpenglow as the colors of sunlight made their progression from vivid red to mundane white.  After eating the last of our breakfasts, we set off heading up Castleguard Mountain itself.  Named in 1918 by Arthur Wheeler, first president of the Alpine Club of Canada, Castleguard stands sentinel on the southern part of the Columbia Icefield and was reported by Conrad Kain himself to have one of the best views in the area.
 

Best sunrise of the trip!

 

Castleguard, and Bryce make for quite the frame.

 

I may have gone a little overboard with sunrise images...

 
Working up the lower slopes of Castleguard seemed to stretch on for quite some time but eventually a sea of peaks crested over the horizon and there was not much more mountain left for us to climb!  The upper slopes of Castleguard were quite steep but still very skiiable.  In the end we managed to make it up to the summit skis on foot and came across one of the nicest views of the trip.  Castleguard is not a very hard peak to asend.  There are glacier hazards and avalanche hazards but those are well-worth the views from the top on a clear day.  There were smiles all around and the while breathing in the views the moment was all the sweeter given the days of whiteout, centimeters of rain, and days of travel it took to get there.  Gobbling down a few more snacks we switched into downhill mode (Josh and James rocking their boards) and had an excellent run back down to camp.
 

James with the upper mountain of Castleguard.

 

Castleguard is a great viewpoint!

 

Looking south from the summit.

 

The boys on the summit, good way to end the trip!

 

Josh getting his board on.

 

James getting a bit of air too!

 
After breaking down camp, the run down the Saskatchewan Glacier was lovely.  Excellent views and soft but supportive snow made for effortless quick travel.  This was the sort of travel you dream about on big traverses.  We skied on snow (with patches of ice near the snout for some variety) right to the end of the glacier where skis were put on packs and we switched to boot travel back to the highway.  After 27 days of seeing no other people except for the two folks on the boat our first encounter with the outside world was a group of German hikers who were day-tripping the toe of the Saskatchewan Glacier.  In an awkward conversation we tried to answer their questions as to what we were doing without sounding prideful, we were just out for a ski after all.  The flats between us and the road were quite dry and the rubbly terrain made for decent (but somewhat slow) travel.  With a few breaks we made it to the trees and the old road behind the group of hikers who had managed to cut the remaining knee deep snow along the road into something resembling swiss cheese.  Such tracks on the only remaining snow made for very tedious skiing, dodging deep holes in very wet unsupportive snow (mixed with patches of outright bare gravel for variety).  Despite these less than ideal conditions this was still a ski traverse, so ski we did right until the highway was in sight and snow patches well all truly ended.  With no real need to keep our boots dry, we crossed what becomes the North Saskatchewan River river in boots, bibs, and all.  Timing was actually surprisingly great as we reached the highway at the Big Bend just as Raquel (Josh's girlfriend) drove up to pick us up.
 

The Brothers Dunn with Castleguard in the background.  You can see our tracks in the full version!

 

The four of us at the highway, quite a difference to be back!
 
It felt strange to be back in a place where cars can whisk you around at 100 km/h.  We had some whiteout days where 8 km/day was our pace.  On the drive back to town we caught up on news and various happenings around town and the wider world.  Many jokes were cracked about our shared memories (which I'm sure sounded fully incomprehensible to Raquel at the time).  While stopping for a quick break along the Athabasca River.  The sun was beaming down, the air was warm, and there was more flowing water in a minute than a man could drink in a year.  Valley bottom life is certainly easier than life on the Icefields, but are the best things in life the easiest ones?  Long trips, and I do mean long trips (at least two weeks), help to give perspective to the world in a way that weekend adventures never do.  What is important to you, what are people really like, what do you miss about the rest of the world.  There are many answers that a long stretch of time in the wilderness can provide but moreso there are many more questions that you learn to ask yourself.  
 
Thanks to my fellow trip-mates and very much to Raquel for providing us with weather forecasts.  I guess I'll have to start thinking of what to do for next spring's trip now.

 

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