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The Great Divide Traverse (North Section, With An Ascent Of Mount Clemenceau)

The Second Part (From Mount Clemenceau to The Columbia Icefield) is here.

In the early part of this year I received an email from my friend Liam who was looking for a replacement fourth member for a grand month-long adventure going for the Great Divide Ski Traverse (skiing from Jasper to Lake Louise along the band of icefields and glaciers to the west of highway 93). After much deliberation (mostly on the fact of my less than ideal downhill ski-ability in non-ideal snow) it seemed that timing with finishing my PhD would be too good to pass up (my thesis would be submitted to my committee right at the start of the trip which then needs a 6 week waiting period where I don’t have much to do so might as well be out in the bush!), with aiming for a real-job after who knows when I would be able to take a month off in the foreseeable future. Once the all-important “I’m in” was given the real planning for the trip began including sorting out four food caches (each of which took 2/3 day trips to ski-in place the cache and ski-out), route-planning, permitting, and everything else that is essential to a successful trip. Due to scheduling concerns we planned to start the traverse from the Portal Creek trailhead in early May and aim to arrive at Lake Louise in early June. For Meghan and I this alone would be quite the long trip but pales to Liam and Jake’s plan… walking from their front doors in Jasper to Mexico by December-ish (more on that on Liam and Jake’s blog http://adoorstepadventure.com/ ). Unlike some of the other groups reported to have done the traverse in the past we were all heavily focused on ascending some of the awesome (and remote) peaks along route while we were there. Heading up peaks necessitated additional gear from what Chic Scott recommends in his guidebook (steel crampons, ice axes, extra screws, pitons, pickets for the whole crew) which gave our packs an appreciable bulk and weight (Jake’s pack when he left his house was recorded to weight around 100 lbs, though that was with skis/water/both stoves and the big Hilleberg tent…). In any event, that is enough about logistics, on to the trip itself.

On the evening of April 26’th Meghan and I met up with Liam and Jake (who had left from their front doors in Jasper, scorning the mechanical assistance of a car ride up the Marmot road) and after some refreshing beverages to fortify us for the coming trek we were off to sleep for a long day tomorrow. Waking up bright and early (we weren’t on “alpine-time” yet and were still waking up at the reasonably normal hour of 6 or so) we donned our skis and headed up Portal Creek with the aim of reaching the Wates-Gibson hut at a reasonable hour to enjoy a night of tent-less accommodations, camping for each of the next 22 nights would be tent-based. We took the bypass route over the cols between Mount Maccarib and Oldhorn Peak which proved to be a pretty decent way to travel (stay low after the first col to avoid some very awkward descending through rocks). Once on the second (more westerly) col the views down to the Tonquin Valley were quite impressive and helped to offset some of the strain of our fully loaded packs (8 days of food by itself weighs a lot!). Descending down to the valley gave me my first taste of downhill skiing with a really heavy pack, suffice to say I found it exceedingly difficult and on several occasions had very close encounters with several quite unaccommodating trees (on the upside for the other guy at least they could take a bit of a break waiting for me to weave my way down). There was no sign of the summer trail to the Wates-Gibson, but we had a GPS waypoint for it so after a bit of searching the hut was sighted and we retired to a delicious meal of sunflower-seed pesto pasta and crème brule. A constant of the trip is the fact that Liam, Jake, and Meghan are all excellent backcountry cooks and dinner was invariably delicious (after learning some more about proper grub de-hydration I don’t think I’m going to go back to my usual commercial freeze-dried heavily salted meals again!).

On the next morning we went from the hut up towards the Fraser Glacier (wasn’t much sign that the route we took actually was on the glacier this year but that’s another story), contoured around some slopes above Simon Creek to a camp near the upper reaches of the trees in the valley. Much more up and down to stick to this route than we anticipated! The next morning we repeated our up and down routine going over Needle Col (which also took longer than anticipated) to a camp down by the middle Whirlpool River. An early start on the next morning would take us out of spring and back into summer after ascending another ridge and reaching the flats before the Scott Glacier temperatures were exceedingly tropical and there wasn’t a hint of snow at ground level (meaning it was time to carry out skis). After a break to wash our feet and enjoy the views in the river it was time to walk across the flats to the base of the Scott Glacier.

The ascent of the Scott Glacier was the biggest delay we faced on the trip. When we first arrived temperatures had spiked to ~20C at the valley bottom and even in the alpine things were toasty. The result of this is that overnight we could hear a constant roar of serac fall and avalanches (despite a completely clear sky) so trying to attempt the glacier the next morning would be a death-trap, so we decided to wait. We would end up waiting for four days. The first weather day wasn’t so bad, things were quite warm and clear skies so we could wander around taking pictures and enjoying the views. I even broke down and wrote a poem on the first day…

Scott Glacier:

Icefall gleam in crystal light,

as moving thunder flows in sight.

In the camp life is slow,

lack of knowing where to go.

In weathers turn our fate remains,

hope beyond the steep moraines

 

The second weather day changed matters as a storm rolled in bringing torrential rain and negligible visibility, this continued the third day as well, with both days spent entirely in the tent. The fourth weather day saw a brief reprieve in the morning so we could leave the tent (at last!) and dry out some of our soggy gear. Sure enough though visibility wasn’t good enough to risk navigating thorough the crevasses and we were now faced with a difficult choice, even with having been on half-rations for all of the weather days our food supplies were stretched exceedingly thin (Gatorade soup doesn’t quite hit the spot..) and we decided that either way we would have to either carry on towards the next food cache (at Fortress Lake) or head back down the Athabasca Pass trail the next morning. As this trip report is not even half done the attentive reader has no doubt already concluded that we kept going.

To ascend the Scott Glacier we booted up the moraines on the climbers left up to reach a bench above the lowest band of seracs. From there we weaved up a steep broken slope roughly aiming for the end of the ridge of Mount Ermatinger. Once properly on the Hooker Icefield the weather turned into intermittent white-outs but we still had enough of an idea of our routeline from Ermatinger’s ridge (and compasses) to know where to go. With daylight dwindling we were keen to descend to the lower reaches of the glacier SW of Serenity Mountain but were unable to get there based on the initially planned high routeline. We ended up camping on a bench at about 2900m which had remarkable sunset views (see images below).

The next morning saw more complications with trying to descend to the lower glacier. Traversing the high-line along Serenity’s ridge would have worked but involved steep boot-packing (with the side benefit of getting us within spitting distance of Serenity’s summit) but it was decided to backtrack and kick down a steep slope instead. Once on the lower glacier views to the south were exceptional and spirits were high. From the lower glacier it was only a quick roped romp up to the col beneath Serenity’s summit and then a delightful ski down the Serenity glacier (well delightful until we hit the terrain by the creek which was out of the sun and resulted for me having a sustained 30 minutes of side-slipping). Once down by Serenity Creek the bush was surprisingly open (which didn’t prevent me from having some more close encounters with some unsavory trees) and soon enough we came upon a nice campsite on the north bank of Wood River. From this camp, our food-cache was less than 5km away (and a flat 5km at that!) and dinner-time talk was all about the deliciousness that was in-store for the day after.

Getting to the food-cache was lovely. There was a good freeze overnight and most of the terrain was open allowing for skating across hard snow making for excellent travel times. Reaching the cache we were very pleased to find it fully intact and quickly packed it up and headed back to our camp to do some laundry, and then have a feast! A three course meal ending with smores in the bush after being on rations for many days made all of us remarkably content (a good thing too as the next couple days would be ‘character building’).

Leaving our Wood River we followed the guidebook directions and traversed along the slopes beneath Ghost Mountain (keeping above to mess that is apparently down in the valley bottom). Travel conditions were fierce, and progress was exceedingly slow. With dense bush skis quickly became a hindrance but the snow was too soft to reliably boot around. Additionally maintaining our elevation sometimes requires kicking steps up steep snow and traversing hard icy avalanche debris. Kicking steps with 10 days of food on your back and skis on the side of your pack was exceedingly draining (I couldn’t even pick up all 105L of my pack to put it on, I had to put it on the ground and fall into it like a WW2 paratrooper!). Having travelled only ~7km that day we made camp for the night at a creek and had a fire with the last of the smores to rekindle our resolve. The second bushwhacking day went considerably better (mostly as we had reached the edges of a large burned section which made for comparatively excellent travel). By early afternoon we were free of the bush and down on rock and gravel and about to reach a difficult time for group dynamics.

At the base of Clemenceau Creek there was a section of navigation challenges to contend with that wasn’t covered in the guidebook (possibly just due to snow levels when we were there). In short there were three options to continue, bypass Clemenceau entirely (heading up the other side of Apex Mountain), go through a long narrow gully which was a textbook mousetrap with looming icefall and avi slopes above, or kick up a short but steep snow/rock slope with poor snow conditions and a bad avi runout. After some deliberation it was decided to go for the snow/rock slope in the morning (with a veiled hope that a bit of a freeze would firm up the snowpack). Sure enough the snowpack didn’t change significantly which set the stage for a disagreement which I will not elaborate on herein other than it lead to splitting camps for a day with us dudes carrying on to the high camp below Mount Clemenceau.

Above the rock-step the terrain got big fast. Tusk Peak pierces the sky with magnificent splendor while the broken glacier beneath Mount Shackleton has enough texture to mesmerize a man’s eyes for hours. Simply put, views were good. We followed the moraines for as long as possible and then stuck on climbers left of the (Tiger?) glacier until we reached a campsite below Mount Clemenceau at the base of the route described in the 11000ers book. For Liam, Jake, and I this was the best campsite we had been at so far with remarkable views, comfortably temperatures, and was swaddled in the blissful cloak of peaceful silence. For anyone contemplating Clemenceau or Tusk I highly recommend making the approach on foot/skis, it will increase your appreciation for the splendor of this icefield immensely! That being said, we did notice in the distance beneath Tusk Peak two large rectangular pillars (very 2001-esque) which are probably landing markers for air-assisted trips. We went to sleep exceedingly early and would aim to be a good part of the way up Mount Clemenceau by sunrise in the morning.

I think the ascent of Mount Clemenceau will stay in my memory as one of my favorite summits for a long while. We roughly followed the 11000er route starting by crampon-ing up steep hard snow and avalanche debris to gain the first layer of seracs. Due to snow conditions skis (even with ski crampons) were not that effective and about 30% of the way up the route we tired of hauling skis on our packs and left them for a swift run down later in the day. The ascent went according to the guidebook except for two complications. The first occurred when trying to find a way past a section of broken glacier which required cutting steps into a hanging snowpack above a lovely looking ice-chasm (see pictures below) and the second a wrong detour kicking steps up a slope which would have brought us onto the heavily corniced summit ridge (at the last bench before gaining the west ridge stick to the steeper slope on climbers left even though it looks like you can cut back on the climbers right side slope higher up). One on the upper reaches of the peak we could see the final bit of ridge (which the guidebook says skiers may have to walk up anyways) and were mere minutes away from the summit of the 4’th highest peak in the Rockies! The summit was only large enough for one person at a time so we alternated anchoring/belaying each other to take in the views. I must have taken 200 pictures while up there, views went off into the horizon and our summit time was just right so that the sun wasn’t overexposing any one particular direction. I have nothing bad to say about the views from Mount Clemenceau. We were still only half way done the day and our descent was carefully made crampon-ing back down to our skis and then enjoying fabulous snow conditions for skiing back down to our camp (an already set up camp with tea water already melted too, what luxury!). Getting back to camp relatively early made for a few nice hours of lazily drying our gear, eating dinner, and taking in the sights. The next morning we would descend back to the moraines and get the group back together. As the guidebook lists this as the end of the North Section of The Traverse I’ll end this trip report here and write up the Central Section separately.

 

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