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The Great Divide Traverse (Central Section)

Sunday, May 11, 2014
The First Part (From Jasper to Mount Clemenceau) Is Here.

Difficulty: Technical Expedition

One Way Distance (Clemenceau to Big Bend by GPS): ~83km

Central Section-

This trip report starts of right at the end of the North Section one, so you might want to have a glance at that first to get proper context. In any case, after summiting Clemenceau the day before we descended back to the moraine and after some debate worked out a compromise which would get the group back together. While descending we had noticed some intermittent ski tracks (which we ended up coming across a couple times a day for the rest of the trip all the way to the Columbia) which we figured were from a group who flew in to the Clemenceau for the Central Section less than a week before we were there. To get up to Apex Col after traversing the lower (very flat) glacier we followed to the climbers left of the upper (very broken) glacier and until the terrain eased up several 100m above. Weather was nice, views were great, and snow was still in decent shape for travelling. We didn’t bother roping up until getting to some more technical slopes just before the col. At the col we took a quick break and sorted out if we were going to head up (very nearby) Apex Peak. Thankfully everyone still had energy and after ditching our packs we started wandering up the slope. I’d highly recommend anyone on the Central Section to head up Apex (if conditions allow), it is less than an hour detour up to the summit (and very quick descent if the snow lets you ski all the way back down) and has remarkable views. Getting up Apex from the col is a simple matter of just following the ridge up snow/scree, it gets quite steep near the top and taking skis off before then is probably a good plan. After taking in the views (and very much enjoying time away from our packs) it was time to descend back to the col and hop over the other side to find a camp for the night.

Apex Camp would have been a nice place to hang around for a bit as there are plenty of peaks that look ascendable and lovely sunrise views. We were on a schedule though and had to make it down the Chaba rappel today so no time for bonus peaks. Getting over to Eden col was straightforward and quick (if a little bit arduous as the entire distance was spent traversing on edges to bite into the very firm snowpack), ski crampons were essential to get up to Eden col. Once at the col it was time to switch out of skins and enjoy some quick travel down towards Chaba Peak. I am known for doing a lot of snowshoeing but descents like this really make you appreciate skis. Once we had a better view of the route up Chaba (and realized it was still quite early in the day) we decided that the peak was too good to resist and switching out our big packs for summit packs (dry sack packs big enough for a jacket, crampons, and not much else) it was time to go. It was at this point that one of the main problems of the trip occurred, one of Jake’s bindings was broken (and not one of the parts that could be simply replaced with a repair kit). The binding might have been broken for some time but didn’t reveal itself until trying to switch on a heel lift. Jake rambled back down the hill to try to see if he could improvise a temporary solution to last the rest of the way to the Columbia with some sturdy wire and epoxy (oddly enough it did work out!). The rest of us kept trudging up the face of Chaba weaving between two large crevasses before heading up to the somewhat rocky ridge where I switched to boots. At this point Chaba seemed very similar to Apex, simply wandering up snow/scree until the summit but Chaba did have one trick up its sleeve, a long corniced ridge. Switching out into crampons and sticking a little low we trudged on towards the summit and were shortly taking turns admiring the views from the top (which was only large enough for one person to stand on at once). The views from Chaba Peak on a clear day are probably motivation enough to go for the Central Section of the traverse (see picture below!). Descending back down the way we came (much quicker for being able to ski down) and meeting up with Jake we were delighted to learn that his binding seemed (at least transiently) stable and would hopefully last to the Columbia where everyone would descend and we could switch out for some equipment with the outside world.

From the base of Chaba Peak to the Chaba col isn’t that far distance-wise (or height-wise really) but it does require contending with one very steep slope right before the col. The ascent of Chaba took a little longer than expected and with the softening snow this was a little bit on the sketchy side of things but we spaced out and rambled up. The Chaba rap itself doesn’t seem that sketchy from the top peering over the side (I’m sure some exceedingly crazy skiers might even just ski straight on down) but it does have one factor which complicates matters. While rapping you will have a heavy pack with skis on it, which does wonders for your centre of mass and balance… Sure enough when I was heading down I ended up briefly tipping over (curse my heavy skis) after my foot slipped off a rock (yay for autoblocks!). The easiest way to get out of that problem was to just let more rope out, slip off the ledge I was on and come out right-side-up. This looked exceedingly award to the guys above but after they yelled down a quick “are you allright” they seemed placated and I kept on heading down. Our rope (one 30m 8 mm and one ~40m 8mm tied together) was slightly too short to get all the way to the flat-ish terrain so the last bit ended up involving going off rope kicking steps down. Thankfully this didn’t take too long and quickly enough skis were back on feet and it was time to glide down a little ways into the sun to wait for the rest of the crew. Don’t underestimate how long it takes to descend the Chaba rap (especially for the last guy bringing down the rope too), rigging up some way to have your axe handy once off rope could be an asset too. Once everyone was down the rap the sun was setting and after descending a short ways we made camp with marvellous views of Mount Columbia and Mount King Edward in the (relatively near) distance.

The next morning we awoke to what would prove to be quite a long day, heading from our camp below Chaba Col to a patch of trees down near the valley to the south west Mount Columbia. The first part of the day was weaving down glacier to “Snowy Pass” which went quite quickly given the icy snow (too quick in places as my legs could attest with much snowplowing and side-slipping). Once down the glacier it was time to wander up towards Triad Col (keeping climbers left on the moraine to avoid another broken glacier, a theme for this part of the trip). As it turns out the newest version of Chic Scotts guidebook lists the wrong waypoint for the way down to King Edward via ‘Triad Col’ (which was kind of funny as we ran into the tracks of the previous group heading up, and then down the slope exactly as we ended up doing), the proper place to cross over is about 500m to the south near 52.154° N 117.564° W (which involved a short bootpack along a ridge rather than an exceedingly steep traverse over a massive slope, see pictures below). After crossing over to the King Edward side of things there was a brief reprieve from any navigational challenges with the goal of ‘get around King Edward, don’t drop too low’. King Edward itself didn’t look like that hard of a route (from what was visible), have to head back sometime later, it must have some sweet views! Once almost around the bulk of King Edward crevasses started to appear aplenty and it was time for very careful navigation (many thanks to Liam for threading a way through) much of which roped downhill skiing (which always creates logistical issues). Carefully we made our way towards the prominent gully beneath Columbia seracs, hopped over to the eastern side and descended down to an oasis of trees between the two gullys/drainages/garbage chutes, whatever you want to call them. During the last couple hours it had started raining, having all of us pile into the Hille in case the storm escalated. I was supremely exhausted and was asleep right after diner.

The storm kept on going overnight which resulted in a very weak snowpack. We knew that this next part of the route up to the Columbia Icefield had very steep slopes and so after our usual 3am wakeup weather-check everyone went back to sleep until the more civilized hour of ‘very bright out’. So began another weather day, at least the morning was warm and bright enough to dry out our gear. The afternoon was wet. Overnight the sky cleared and froze the snowpack to a good imitation of rock, we could get going the morning after.

The day we were to gain the Columbia Icefield started off with a lovely sunrise (see picture below). Heading from camp we followed the guidebook description aiming for a prominent snowline bridging the glacier to the valley beneath (crossing exceptionally icy slopes to get there). Once at the base of the snow and switching out into crampons, it was time to start kicking upwards, this continued for some time. Getting back onto good ol’ reliable flat snow took a while but soon enough we had gained the lower edges of the glacier and could switch back to skis. From here we had to decide to take the high road (far climbers right) or the low road (more central) to get around a prominent rock ridge, the high road seemed much more reliable. Don’t underestimate this part of the route, there are tons of holes around here (plenty of which could easily gobble a car let alone a skier!). After weaving back and forth up some steep slopes we were approaching the edge of the icefield traversing above two large crevasses was all that stood in our way. The first of these traverses was downright treacherous. I don’t have any pictures of the slope as it was a rather tense time, but it involved carefully picking a way across steep very frozen avalanche debris with the gaping maw of a crevasse a few feet away. I was the last person on the rope and after having seen the trouble the other guys were having crossing I was getting kind of worried (having the worst skimanship of the crew). Thankfully the guys on the other side of the slope had a double anchored belay in place so when one of my skis inevitably slid on the icy debris and I plunged towards the crevasse I (oddly enough) was safer than I had been for most of the trip! Due to the awkwardness of a big pack and interesting ski placement getting up was difficult (many thanks to Meghan for walking back and handing me a prussik to gather up my skis and the rest of the guys for an excellent belay). After huffing and puffing to turn around and a bunch of kick stepping I was able to cross the slope and get the ascent back on track. At this point we were mere minutes away from gaining the Columbia Icefield. At this point it seemed as good a time as any to fire up the Inreach and get a weather report. We were in an interesting place as everyone had ascending Mount Columbia on their mind, but our food cache was on the opposite side of the trench leading to the question of where to camp. The weather forecast would decide for us.

Suffice to say, the weather forecast was horrible. From the info sent to us there was a beast of a storm coming in forecasted to dump 30-40 cm of new snow on the Columbia Icefield starting tomorrow late pm. After some deliberation, we set off for our food cache deciding to wake up unbearably early tomorrow and see if we could beat the weather to get up Columbia. If weather didn’t look good at any point we would backtrack and all descend down to the road for Meghan and I to exit and Jake and Liam to swap out gear. Getting to the food cache was delightful and after a delicious meal of chips with hummus, falafel with rice, and most of a bottle of port for desert it was time to take a nap.

Waking up bathed in moonlight is always refreshing and that morning was no exception. After an exceptionally quick breakfast we were off towards Columbia. We turned around at the trench when unfriendly clouds were starting to obscure the top of Bryce and the sky to the west was looking inky black. Thus ended our attempt on Columbia. At least on the upside the turbulent weather made for some marvellous views at sunrise! Shortly after we returned to camp, packed things up for the last time and got ready to head back to civilization. While packing the storm ended up blowing in (much quicker than expected, good thing we turned back!) forcing us to take the slow lane down the Sask glacier down instead of the AthaB expressway. Travel down the Sask itself was surprisingly good. A nice firm snowpack let us glide semi-effortlessly down the glacier to the moraine and mudflats below. Walking from the glacier to the road was a long tiring (and for me very muddy) slog. The Athabasca does certainly have its advantages… Eventually we were onto the old road near the big bend and slapped on our skis for one last descent. A mere 5 minutes from the highway I ended up taking a tumble skiing onto a surprisingly soft path of snow just off the trail and losing a ski pole into the bush. After spending 10 minutes trying to track it down with no luck I took this as a sign that the trip was indeed over, and single pole ‘canoe paddled’ my way down to the road. Once at the road our fellowship divided with Jake and Liam heading to the icefield centre to rendezvous with a friend carrying new supplies for the rest of their ‘ski traverse to Lake Louise and then walk to Mexico plan ’ and Meghan and I heading back to the real world.

All in all, this trip was great and it was good. Great in the dictionary sense of ‘an extent considerably above the normal’. Good in the sense that it was a fun time with boatloads of excellent memories. Being out in the bush self-contained for 22 days was an eye opening experience and certainly gave perspective on the differences between ‘fast-and-light’ weekend trips to ‘sustained expeditions’. It is a shame that Meghan and I didn’t go for the Southern section of the traverse (have to save that for another year) but we still went through some magnificent terrain and were able to take in the splendour of rarely seen parts of our country. Above all else I would like to thank the rest of my group for inviting me along for the trip, this truly was an exceptionally awesome adventure!

If anyone reading this is contemplating the traverse and has any route questions about the North or Central Sections, or other general questions feel free to send me an email.


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