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South by Southeast: Yellowhead Lake to The Wood Arm on Skis via Fraser Pass and Athabasca Pass

Difficulty: 
Complex (Non Glaciated) Ski Traverse
Round Trip Distance [km]: 
117.0
Net Elevation Gain [m]: 
1800
Total Elevation Gain [m]: 
7450
YDS Difficulty: 
3
Bushwhackyness: 
Quite Tight In Places
Tripdate: 
Monday, April 24, 2017

For the past few years the end of April has meant the start of a ski traverse of some sort. Longer days, yet still decent snowpacks make this time (Iate April and early May) prime season for both long distances, and tall peaks.  After throwing around some ideas for trips with Liam we eventually settled on a 'different sort of North/Central Rockies Great Divide Traverse' (a rather lengthy term, an abbreviation was in order at some point!).  Liam, Jake, Meghan and I had skied the 'regular' line from Chic Scott's book back in 2014 (as part of Liam and Jakes walk from Jasper to Mexico) and we were anxious to head back and check out some of the terrain to the west of the regular line including Fraser Pass, Athabasca Pass, and the Wood Arm of Kinbasket Lake.

After throwing a flurry of emails to and fro to interested parties, we came up with a somewhat complicated scheme with five people on the trip but only four at any given time. Complicating matters were Liam's trip to South Africa in early May which required an early exit before the Columbia Icefield (the end of the Central GDT route).  Thankfully, this worked out great with another friend, James, who was planning on joining later due to a trip up in Alaska.  Combined with our serendipitous route choice of travelling to the Wood Arm of Kinbasket Lake (which allowed for a boat to do a pick up/drop off) this plan seemed pretty decent.  Our crew would then be Liam, brothers Josh and Zak, and myself for the first half from the Yellowhead Highway to Kinbasket Lake and then James, Josh, Zak, and I from Kinbasket Lake to the Columbia Icefield.  For the first leg of the trip we planned on ten days from the Mount Fitzwilliam trailhead to a camp at the outlet of the Wood River and the Wood Arm of Kinbasket Lake.  There would certainly be some interesting terrain in store for us and lots of neat scenery!

 

The crew leaving from the Mount Fitzwilliam Trailhead on the Yellowhead Highway.

 

The route for the first part of the trip for reference.

 

Leaving the trailhead near sunrise on April 24, we were happy to find that snowline still reached down to 1300 m so we did not have to carry our skis for that long.  Few things are more tedious than carrying skis with already heavy packs!  Liam had explored part of this area with his dad in a winter many moons ago and it comforted us to know that both our line would work, and also there would be some neat views ahead.  Working our way around the Fitzwilliam Group we were fixing to camp somewhere past Clairvaux Pass but heavy snowfall (S3!) made us camp early before the worst of the forecasted storm arrived in all its flurry.

 

Still a bit of a walk to snowline.

 

Working our way beside Mount Fitzwilliam along somewhat frozen wetlands.

 

Quite a bit of snow coming down!

 

The next day we skied amidst sun and cloud through some very remote feeling parts of Jasper National Park (to the North of the Tonquin Valley). Temperatures were decent and stoke was high as we made our way over a duo of passes to drop into the Tonquin-proper and reach our destination of the Wates-Gibson Hut.  Travel was actually quite good with the exception of a short cut ("short cuts make for long delays") trying to make a direct line over Surprise Point but staying too low along the ridge.  That night there was some interesting drama in store for us.

 

 

Breaking camp heading up to Clairvaux Pass.

 

Cool views of the Fitzwilliam Group and further towards BC.

 

The crew at Clairvaux Pass.

 

Fun in the sun.

 

Back in 'Berta, very interesting ski terrain around here.

 

Josh doubles as a wizard thanks to his sun hat.

 

Working our way into the Tonquin.

 

Sure enough we had to aim right for the least friendly looking weather!

 

The boys ready to drop in to the Tonquin.

 

Ramparts ahoy!

 

Josh and I had been up at the Wates-Gibson a couple weeks earlier testing out some gear and getting a feel for snow conditions.  When we were there a pair of meddle some pine martens had taken residence in the hut.  We had hoped the beasts we would have been evicted over the time we were gone but sadly they remained. We did manage to have a fine feast (Liam even made apple pie from scratch!) and lay out our things before the fell critters reentered the hut.  Thus began what we were referring to as 'The Ricky Marten Concert' for the rest of the trip, with Ricky the pine marten making terrible screeches and banshee cries as he battled his way back into the hut.  Eventually when he did get back in he crawled onto the high shelf and slipped on a book tumbling down to the floor below when someone shouted "I hope you hurt something serious!" to the beast.  A few hours later things were somewhat less quiet as the critters had moved upstairs.  We stayed on the lower level catching maybe two hours of sleep (good thing we had a long day of travel the next morning...).

 

The Wates-Gibson is a pretty nice hut.

 

The next day four bleery eyed skiers left the hut and set off south to the Simon Creek drainage.  Peaks in the area like Whitecrow Mountain and Needle Peak are inspiring sights which took our minds off the intense solar heat and depressingly sticky snow.  Descending the trees from the pass to the Beacon Creek drainage was some of the hardest skiing on the trip. Heavy packs, variable snow and patches of dense bush make for interesting skiing at the best of times and downright fearsome 'movement on slippery planks' (I hesistate to call it skiing) at the worst!  Camping at the outflow of Beacon Creek we were glad to find water and had a cozy fire to celebrate the lack of snow.

 

Heading up towards the pass in a clear warm sun.

 

Pretty fabulous conditions in the morning.

 

The boys leaving the Tonquin.  Josh doing his signature magnum look or maybe blue steel, I get them confused.

 

Liam descending down into the Simon Creek drainage.

 

Zak with some interesting skiing to get down a cliffband.

 

Needle Peak (right) is a most-impressive peak.

 

Camp for the night amidst a (very fire-safe) patch of rock surrounded by creek.

 

Sunset in the Simon Creek valley.

 

The next morning was one of the big unknowns of the trip. Ascending Beacon Creek to reach Beacon Lake seemed feasible from the map but you never really know until you are right in the terrain.  The creek was decently covered (with one notable soggy exception) and we worked our way to treeline just as a chill wind and whiteout rolled in (excellent timing as seeing views from Beacon Lake was one of the sights we were most looking forward to..).  The headwall was steep and the snow wasn't the greatest but Liam pushed steps upwards and eventually we crested onto the Beacon Lake shore amidst an arctic gale and near zero visibility.  

 

The one soggy bit, Liam and I stoicly (read as 'foolishly) kept our skis on, its a ski trip after all!

 

Looking up towards the headwall, its in the cloud somewhere.

 

The crew taking a breather before scooting up the headwall.

 

Fine views indeed!

 

Crossing the lake by compass alone moral was low but soon a glimmer of sun poked its way through the clouds. What was a glimmer became a sunbeam and soon the sky had cleared and a spectacular sight greeted our weather-weary eyes.  Beacon Lake is a very special place and to a man we all agreed we should come back in summer.  Leaving the lake our route drove us onwards into BC and towards Fraser Pass.  The weather window at the lake proved to be short-lived with more flurries rolling in and grim clouds flowing south from the Yellowhead Highway.  We made camp near treeline to the North of Fraser Pass and made plans for the first peak of the trip, The Cube Ridge.

 

Zak cresting the headwall to reach Beacon Lake.

 

A little bit of snow coming down, not the greatest views to say the least..

 

And then things cleared, very cool lake!

 

Back down in BC, a foul storm rolling in from the North.

 

Our camp near Fraser Pass, quite cozy.

 

Pretty much a five-star resort here.

 

Named in 1921 by the Provincial Boundary Survey Commission (run by Wheeler and Cautley), The Cube Ridge is a curiously named peak north of Fraser Pass. While not a long day from camp an early start seemed prudent (which led us to the adage, early bird gets the whiteout).  The route from the camp seemed decent with overhead cornice being the only real concern.  Speeding out of camp, Liam, Josh, and I left Zak sleeping hoping there would be a cozy fire and coffee for us when we got back.  As often seems to be the case in traverses, you have to make the most of the weather you get. Having flat light and then a whiteout made for adventurous routefinding but not the greatest views. I'm sure The Cube would be an excellent viewpoint, but that will have to be a story for another day. Even with low visibility skiing down to camp was pretty great with easy turns and even a few jumps. Funny enough Zak was still sleeping when we got back!

 

Josh and Liam a couple minutes from camp, lots of snow coming down.

 

Josh probing for the edge of the summit cornice at the summit of The Cube Ridge.

 

Back at camp many hours later, a nice view from my tent.

 

A moon rises over The Cube Ridge.

 
The next morning, it was time to leave Fraser Pass and head south towards "historic" Athabasca Pass (anyone saying just 'Athabasca Pass' was promptly rebuked).  The most direct line towards the pass travels south over an unnamed col west right to the of Mallard Mountain.  A little before the trip we found out there is actually a lodge up this valley (Mallard Mountain Lodge) and were curious if anyone would be around when we passed through.  On a funnier note, I had actually sent a resume to the lodge for possible hiking guiding work in the summer.  After heading this the boys were very insistent that if the owners were there I would have to say hi with "I am here for the interview" :)

 

Saying goodbye to the Fraser River valley.

 

Near the pass-proper.

 

Descending from Fraser Pass was actually pretty fun, with snowy boulders giving lots of jump potential and then decent tree skiing down to valley bottom.  We worked up the creek heading to Mallard Mountain Lodge which was nicely filled in (but with sticky wet snow).  Liam and I must have been carrying around an extra 2kg with all the snow stuck on our skins!  We came across the lodge (more of a cabin seemingly) and found it deserted.  After availing ourselves of the front stoop for a break from a chill wind we headed on towards the head of the valley and the col.  

 

Liam about to start down towards Hugh Allen Creek.

 

Big packs can make even the strongest skier feel like a turtle on their back at some points.

 

Liam with our first look at Mallard Mountain Lodge.

 

Certainly not a bad place for a cabin!

 

The slope between the lodge and the col was a bit of a wildcard but looking up at it things looked steep and corniced, but not double-especially steep and corniced.  Through intermittent whiteout and chilly winds, we battled our way twards the col which seemed to be steppening rather than the reverse.  Josh and Liam were in front to tackle the beastie and hooked a line trending up left where there seemed to be a break in the cornice.  Our luck with weather on the trip held true and just as things were getting trickier a rime-ice laden arctic gale started blowing which would cover glasses or skin in mere moments. The breeze was also blowing straight from where we needed to go making for very slow progress!

 

Gandalf leading the way upwards to the Pass of Carradras.

 

Cool lighting, very, very bright though.

 

Looking back towards Fraser Pass.

 

Nearing the col.

 

Eventually Josh cut through the cornice using his splitboard as an axe-like weapon and the rest of us made our way upwards.  Rime like icy daggers greeted us at the top of the col but thankfully it was short lived and a nice continuous run down to treeline warmed us up swiftly.  Athabasca Pass is a pretty cool place to see from above and the col near Mallard was quite the vantage point with the Hooker Icefield looming above.

 

Josh and Liam working under a large cornice to break up to the col.

 

At the top of Mallard Col, very windy!

 

The Brothers Dunn very stoked to be seeing Athabasca Pass.

 

Liam's glasses were showing how quick (and how much) rime was building up.

 

Descending down to the summer trail had some very character-building tree skiing through heavy wet snow and steep rocky bands.  After much ski-sticking and falls all around we came to the valley bottom and more conventional touring up towards the pass.  Finding the actual trail (let alone the actual campground) seemed exceptionally difficult and we ended up camping on a small rise near the best patch of open water we saw.  After setting up camp a gloomy forecast came in via Inreach, we would not be heading up Mount Brown the next morning as planned. On the upside, a (fairly) rest day was a welcome brake and let us tour around the pass with light packs.

 

Lots of ice climbing potential up around Athabasca Pass.

 

The boys less than stoked about Mount Brown not working out.

 

The next day, mostly a rest-day doing a bit of skiing up to the pass-proper (Mount Brown looming above).

 

The boys about to drop in to the Committee Punch Bowl.

 

Quite a deep snowpack around these thar hills!

 

Leaving (historic) Athabasca Pass was a sad yet exciting moment. Crossing into BC meant that the first leg of the trip was nearing its final stage. It also meant wandering into new terrain none of us had travelled before, much to look forward to!  Descending from the Pass we were kind of surprised to come across well flagged trail and even fancy BC Parks 'Athabasca Pass Heritage Trail, 1811.  BC Parks, Best Place on Earth' signs.  "1811. 1811. Heritage!" became a solemn chant throughout the rest of the trip to Kinbasket Lake.  Travel down Pacific and Jeffrey Creeks was better than anticipated with snow down to almost 900 m as western slope cedars and western slope hemlocks rose skywards above us. Very interesting forest to ski through.  There were also numerous copses of devils club which thankfully were still hibernating.  Hitting the bottom of the valley we emerged on the Wood River and felt a little like David Thompson himself setting up a good camp with a cozy fire taking in the sights.

 

Crossing in to BC.

 

Coming across a food cache another groupu had placed and picked up recently.

 

Very nice travel for the upper part of the descent.

 

Lots of signage around here.

 

One of the smaller signs along the trail, they were much larger below.

 

The skiing became interesting at times.

 

A cool tree/register with an old trap attatched to it too.

 

Liam at a crossroads before hitting the Wood River.

 

Eventually any hope of skiing was abandoned.

 

The boys glad to be out on the Wood River flats!

 

Quite a nice place for a camp.

 

Josh using an all-natural backrest.

 

The next day was the last of the first half if the trip. Having skied from the Fitzwilliam Basin Trailhead to the Wood River all that remained was a half days walk down logging roads to reach the edge of the Wood Arm where our resupply (which was also Liam's ride out and James's ride in) would be showing up in a days time.  Not knowing for sure if a bridge remained at the end of the arm, we forded the river and took the FSR on the south side (later learning that the bridge did indeed still exist).  Quiet conversation amongst friends took us along the road and eventually dropped us off at an informal campsite someone (likely hunters given all the camo) had set up.

 

Breaking camp about to cross the river.

 

Very recent usage on these logging roads.

 

The bridge at the end of the river is in quite good shape, good to know!

 

At the camp on the edge of the Wood Arm.

 

Surreal views with old logging and a 'new' lake.

 

Having a fully afternoon ahead of us we took to readying some firewood and exploring the beach. After days in confining ski boots being barefoot on clay and mud was a treat. The experience was made surreal by the lingering stumps from logging in the 1960s stretching all along the arm. Kinbasket Lake is actually a reservoir and nature is still coming to terms with adjusting to the wealth of water over what was once forest.  After having our own private time on the beach it was back to camp with one topic in mind 'is the boat going to show up?'.

 

A good place for personal reflection.

 

The Brothers Dunn being boys at the beach.

 

An odd, and sad but beautiful landscape.

 

Our last fire for the first leg of the trip.

 

The next day with nothing really to do we ate, talked, and slept whilst waiting for the boat.  Around 3pm some crackles started sounding over the radio which eventually sounded like James, the boat was only minutes away!  Liam went to go grab his stuff and the rest of us gathered packs to stow the grub, booze, and gear that was coming in.  On the shores of the Wood Arm we said goodbye to Liam and welcomed James on to the next leg of the trip. 

 

The boat from Valemount pulling in to the Wood Arm.

 

Quite cool that the boat drop worked out!

 

Josh giving Liam the royal boat-washing treatment before sending him on his way to South Africa.

 

That night back at the camp we feasted on steak, and drowned in beer. Life is good.  The next leg of our trip started the following morning and would first travel through Cummins Lake Provincial Park to reach the Clemenceau Icefield, and then follow the Central Great Divide Traverse line to reach the Columbia Icefield.  That is a story for another trip report (look for a link once I have finished writing it).  Rest assured there were good views, horrible weather, and awesome times over the following 17 days!

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