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Facets and Solitude: Winter Camping at Elysium Pass

Difficulty: 
Easy But Lengthy Ski Touring
Round Trip Distance [km]: 
38.0
Net Elevation Gain [m]: 
1000
Total Elevation Gain [m]: 
1600
YDS Difficulty: 
2
Ascent Time: 
8:00 Car to Pass
Bushwhackyness: 
Not Bad On The Trail
Tripdate: 
Monday, February 5, 2018

 

Near the end of the annual caribou conservation closures in Jasper a man can be driven to odd destinations.  With little easily accessible ski terrain some of the less ideal objectives, places that start low and require considerable approaches start to look more appealing.  One such are is the southern portion of the Victoria Cross Range around Elysium Pass.  Having been in to Elysium two times in the winter on snowshoes I was keen to give it a go on skis and maybe even ramble up a nearby ridge if conditions aligned favorably.

With a three day weekend doing a trip up around Elysium is a bit tight.  It takes a decent day to get to the pass in summer and adding trail breaking into the mix can add a considerable amount of extra time and effort.  I knew that Kat, one of the other patrollers up at Marmot, had made it to the pass a few weeks previously and was hopeful that her tracks might have compressed a bit of the bottomless facets making up a standard Jasper snowpack.

Leaving from the trailhead the first challenge is crossing the railway tracks.  The (now disavowed and not officially maintained) Elysium Pass Trail shares the same approach as the popular Dorothy and Christine Lakes trails, all of which require crossing the tracks with no under or overpass.  As luck would have it just as I had all my stuff out of the car and ready to go a train rolled by.  With the air temperature a brisk -26, slurping down a few sips of coffee in the car with the heat blazing seemed prudent rather than waiting outside!

 

Not a whole lot of snow, or tracks near the road.

 

Decent coverage on the bridge near the Elysium/Dorothy/Christine junction.

 

Once on the trail there were no real fresh tracks, and after reaching the junction where the Elysium Trail branches it seemed that Kat was the last person on either trail!  Progress in the first leg was reasonably steady with a few deeper places but mostly 20 cm or so of powder to stomp, so not the worst trail breaking.  About twenty minutes past the junction an underground spring made a skating rink across the trail and might have made a small ice line on the nearby slope (have to check that out later).

 

At the junction, no mention of the Elysium Pass Trail as an option on signs nowadays.

 

Quite a bright day, especially with so much snow sticking to the treetops.

 

Without signs from Parks distance markers have a more rustic look.

 

Working upwards the snowpack steadily increased in thickness.  20 cm became 30, which worked up to 50 before becoming properly deep as the trail teased the edge of the alpine below Emigrants Mountain.  There are a few places along the trail where the route takes unexpected turns, especially near treeline when passing through two prominent avi paths.  I had to break out the GPS to look back at the track from Eric and I's (less snowy) trip up Mount Oliver to find the proper course and was soon breaking fresh trail near waist deep into facets.  The last bit of trail breaking seemed to drag on and on, but eventually the trail rounds the shoulder below Emigrants Mountain and Elysium Pass itself comes into view.  A quirk of the trail is that you actually have to descend down into the pass, losing 150 vertical meters in the last half km of distance.  In the end it took a little over 8 hours from car to Pass, which seemed pretty decent given snow conditions.  After setting up my tent I was pretty sleepy and with temperatures plummeting back down below -20 cooking in the vestibule to at least be out of the wind and on a thermarest seemed like a solid scheme.  The upside of the frosty temperatures was a very clear sky which made for excellent star-gazing!

 

From here on out the trail felt properly wintery.

 

It would be a bit of a limbo-move to go under that ringed tree!

 

The lower parts of the trail are well-marked with blazes. 

 

Near treeline the views really start to open up.  Emigrants Mountain is visible just right of centre.

 

The trail can be quite narrow in places.

 

Not far too the pass now!

 

Looking down towards Elysium Pass.  Elysium Mountain is the peak in the middle.

 

Zoomed in towards Mount Griesbach (right).

 

No sign of any clouds overnight!

 

The next morning waking up around 0700 things were properly chilly out.  The frosted over thermometer I left outside was reading -27 and with no one else around to complain I hunkered back down in my sleeping bag until the sun was out and the temperature was a more reasonable -23 degrees out!  With a lazy late start the original plan of heading up a ridge north of Monarch Mountain was no longer in the cards so I reckoned I would simply ski down towards Monarch Meadows and try to find the most ideal line for the next time up to the pass (all the while scrounging whatever deadfall I came across for a fire later in the evening).  Winter is a good time to visit the Elysium Pass area as the many marshy patches of wetlands that dot the landscape become clear open snowy fields (great for touring across with ease).  Glancing at the map I was actually quite close to a survey site (proclaiming the area to be 1885 m).  Sometimes survey sites can be in interesting places so I reckoned a detour was in order.  I'm sad to report that the site is right in the midst of a dense clump of trees, not much to see at all!  Turning around heading back to camp there were a few great dead branches right off my tracks that were too good not to scavenge.  Back at camp a cozy fire helped to dry out a few pieces of gear, and the warmer temperatures helped to catch up on sleep.

 

The morning brought pretty views and chilly temperatures.

 

Once clouds started to roll in the Pass became a lot more monochrome.

 

On the way towards Monarch Meadows, Monarch Mountain (left) dominates the skyline.

 

Quite a few of the open patches around here would be great for a winter camp location.

 

Zoomed in towards the east face of Monarch Mountain.

 

Back at camp, no snowfall, and a whole lot warmer than the previous night.

 

A quick fire to dry out some gear.

 

The next morning a storm had rolled in (which was actually given the full 'winter storm warning' treatment by environment canada) so getting an early start leaving camp and heading down the trail seemed key.  Probably the most arduous part of the deproach was the climb to regain the trail above the pass.  Snowshoeing down the trail the previous two times up around the pass I did not really notice how many small bumps and hills the trail winds its was over.  I kept my skins on until the lower avi path to make travel more efficient.  Below that path off came the skins for better gliding down the long gradual stretches of track through various densities of tree and shrub.  As the trail bounces back and forth between downhills and flats quite often I made the bold (read as 'probably foolish') choice to stay free-heel and walk-mode boots to make for quicker transitions (the downside of this being that turning is not really an option...).  Even with a few close calls almost coliding with various types of foliage it was actually quite a fun time skiing down the trail!  In the end it took 5 hours from the pass to the trailhead, taking my skis off only once on the truly horrible hill south of the junction with the Dorothy/Christine Lakes trails.  The last five minutes of skiing was a fairly desperate affair, with only about 5 cm of snow to ski on.  Getting back to the train tracks I was fairly annoyed to see a train crusing by, but not even a minute passed before a rear engine car roared past.  Not much of a wait at all!

 

The red tree marks the way!

 

Looking across at one of the confusing bits where the trail crosses an open slope.

 

Quite frosty down below.

 

Still sunny out... kind of...

 

A wee bit thin for skiing on the last descent down to the Miette River.

 

Thankfully not that long of a wait at the tracks!

 

Someday it will be nice to head back up around Elysium Pass for a solid week in the winter.  Monarch Mountain itself would be a very worthy objective for focusing a longer trip!

 

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