Whistler and Blackcomb: stitched together on the Spearhead ski traverse

by Raymond Parker on April 7, 2011

in Adventure, Photography, Skiing

spearhead-topo Spearhead Traverse Topo (click to enlarge)

 
“I think I’ve gouged out my eye,” I told Carrie Frechette, as she skied toward me.

I was holding my hand over my eye-socket, afraid that if I took it away my eyeball would plop into the snow at my feet. I could feel the blood, warm against the chill mountain air, oozing between my fingers.

“You’re going to have to move your hand, if you want me to take a look,” Carrie said calmly.

As I gingerly pulled my hand away, I could see (through my left eye) that Carrie was not pleased with what she saw.

“Well, it looks like your eye is in tact,” she reported, “but you’re going to need some stitches.”

We were on a steep, corrugated snowfield resembling a wave-sculpted white beach. The crests of the “waves” were frozen, the hollows filled with powder snow. Such formations are known as sastrugi.

I’d caught a ski under the icy crust and the weight of my 35-kilo pack had driven me hard onto a ski tip. It had pierced my face, above the cheekbone.

Carrie did a temporary repair with our first-aid kit.

Inauspicious beginnings

This was not the best beginning to our planned multi-day traverse of the Spearhead and Fitzsimmons Ranges, a horseshoe of high peaks and glaciers arcing around Fitzsimmons Valley, dividing Blackcomb and Whistler Mountain ski areas. We were crossing the slopes of Blackcomb, just hours into the trip.

This debacle followed close on the heels of another downfall, a day or two before. Fellow expedition member Marty Young and I had stopped into Mountain Equipment Co-op—where we worked—to pick up some last minute items.

“Finding what you need?” asked the new floor manager, a recent graduate of a Toronto business school.

“Yup, thanks.”

“Good. By the way, you guys are fired!”

Other words were exchanged.

At the checkout, colleague Barb Turner asked what the commotion was about.

“He fired you on your holidays?”

She rang our purchases through, then strode over to the unpopular boss.

“You’d better fire me as well,” she said.

Barb became the fifth member of the team, including Marty and I, Glenn Nolan, and Carrie, another MEC employee.

My focus, such it was, shifted; work worries blurred, the expedition goal receded; reaching the nearest first-aid station—down in Whistler Village—eclipsed lesser affairs.

Dumping my pack, I made my way to the the ski area and telemarked 1,590 metres (5220 ft.) down to the village. With five stitches closing my wound, I caught the last lift of the day, back to the top of Blackcomb.

Glenn met me there and led across, in the dying light, to the base of Decker Mountain, where the rest of the team had pitched camp.

The first order of business on a mountain in March hinges on stoking the inner furnace with food and drink. We took advantage of the firewood at treeline, building a roaring fire right on top of the snowpack. We huddled around, drinking hot chocolate until the lure of tents and sleeping bags overtook the tribal bond of the campfire.

The luxuries of Camp II

The next leg began with a steep slog over Decker Mountain, through a notch dividing it from Mount Trorey, to a corresponding descent on the steep and icy north face.

We called a halt below the col separating the Decker and Tremor Glaciers, yet worked overtime to build a luxurious camp with table, benches, and windbreak, carved from the snowpack.

We prepared a lavish supper on frozen kitchen “counters.” With bottoms insulated by foam pads from the icy benches, we sat down to a casserole of macaroni, fresh vegetables and tofu, washed down with endless cups of steaming tea.

In the last light, I scrambled to the col with my Nikon, eager for a glimpse of tomorrow’s challenges. Our little camp snuggled among the wind-sculpted waves of the Decker Glacier. With my “focussing eye” patched, I squinted west over the vast crumpled terrain of the Coast Range, toward the Pacific Ocean.

Day of the many glaciers: towards Gumby Camp

We were in the thick of it—tiny, insignificant ants in a Brobdingnagian landscape so broken and complex that topo map and compass became our most valued tools as we made our way around and over summit after summit. Our ski tracks creased no less than eight glaciers, including the Trorey, Tremor, Shudder, Platform, Ripsaw, Naden, Macbeth and Iago, with a very steep descent onto the vast Diavalo Glacier, site of Camp 3.

The drops between summits tested our equipment, not to mention skiing skills, to their limits. We were evaluating new skis (an assignment assumed before the sudden termination of our services). Our boots were prototypes, created by this team, that the Co-op would later market as Frank’s Ski Boot.

The most intimidating descent swept into the great chasm separating Mount Macbeth and the soaring northeast wall of Overlord Mountain. Glenn initiated the run with powerful telemark turns, mixed with tight parallels on the hard snow. It was the kind of slope and surface condition that won’t tolerate a tentative approach.

At the bottom of the defile, a narrow ridge leads to the Iago Glacier. We removed our skis and sloughed our giant packs. It was time for an afternoon snack. The McBride Range dominated the eastern sky, split by a valley wending to Lillooet Lake. The green oasis—what a long, nasty bushwack that would be—was the last “escape” route before we committed ourselves to the Diavalo.

As if these views weren’t spectacular enough, Carrie treated us to a more astounding sight, disappearing before our eyes. “Whoa!” We peered into the hole marking her last position. Carrie’s upturned face, creased first with with concern, then merriment, was a metre below the snow surface.

“Holy shit! Are you OK?”

Luckily, the crevasse was shallow, bottoming out on the ridge and Carrie was unhurt. Even so, our laughter was nervous. A small mishap can soon turn tragic in a remote place like this.

It had been a long, exhausting day. Perhaps this is why the work of establishing camp turned into a Monty Python sketch.

“Doctor!”

“Hello!”

“Are you the brain specialist?”

“No, no, I am not the brain specialist! …. Yes, yes, I am!”

“My brain ‘urts!”

Somehow, we managed to overcome our delirium, feed ourselves and crawl into our tents. The black sky hung between circling peaks like a shroud leaking electric sparks. Inside the frost-lined tent, I wriggled into my pile suit, then my eiderdown mummy bag.

I slept deeply until midnight, when I awoke in a suffocating sweat. The temperature had soared and the sky was now leaking something less celestial. Wet snowflakes rustled the tent fly as I shed polyester to shiver under damp feathers, sleeping fitfully until awakened at first light by the boom of an avalanche.

Escape from the Diavalo

We were in a dicy position, with no way out of this great amphitheatre of ice but up steep slopes. The new snow was not very deep, but it was laid on top of a hard base and packed by wind—classic slab avalanche conditions.

Examination of the snowpack called for caution but not terror. We began the trek up the Benvolio Glacier in whiteout conditions, toward the col between Mt. Benvolio and Overlord. We could barely stand at the col, as a white wind tore around us.

The conditions did not dampen our spirits. We stopped for a snack and to slide on our backs from the Benvolio summit, onto the pocket glacier.

A more sober mood accompanied the traverse of Overlord’s northeast shoulder. There is no way to avoid the overhanging cornice. We hurried through gigantic ice blocks—evidence of earlier cornice collapses.

A steep couloir descent and southwesterly crossing of the Overlord Glacier took us to the Whirlwind-Fissile Col, on the parapet of the Fitzsimmons Range.

We were tired, but not beyond admiring the imposing south-west face of Fissile Peak, as we schussed down to Russet Lake. We whooped with delight, tumbling into the primitive luxury of the The Himmelsback Hut. In the logbook, we recorded our presence: “The Separation Pay Traverse, from Blackcomb,  March 22, 1983.”

A falafel feast readied us for extraordinary powder skiing on Fissile the next day, unencumbered by expedition backpacks.

The crossing of the Fitzsimmons Range was a pleasant roller coaster, up and down the “Musical Bumps”—Oboe, Flute and Piccolo—to the Whistler Ski Area.

The ski hill was a rude reintroduction to civilization, with the rudest award going to a chap who accosted me demanding to know why I was bearing a huge pack.

We’d travelled from Blackcomb, I explained, pointing over to the Spearhead Range. “Oh yeah; how did you get across Fitzsimmons Creek?”

“We didn’t.”

Afterword

This accessible ski traverse remains a classic. Sadly, it is not as remote as it was 28 years ago. We are lucky to have experienced it before ski lifts were extended to the Blackcomb Glacier bowls and the invasion of helicopter ski operations now plying the area.

The dangers should not be underestimated, however, despite the relative proximity of Whistler and (perhaps especially because of) the confidence inspired by cell phones and GPS technologies. Escape routes are few.

Avalanche beacons were the only advanced technology we carried, which have advanced considerably since.

We met no other parties on the route—a rare occurrence for skiers today.

Vancouver Outdoor Club Wiki | Whistler/Blackcomb

Joanne April 9, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Great story and photos Ray, I remember this time so well. Crack me up that first shot of y’all, Ray the mustache!!! It’s like yur the Village People ;o) must be the 80’s! Thanks for the wonderful adventure.
Love Jo

Raymond Parker April 9, 2011 at 5:15 pm

I was the Walrus
Goo, goo, ga, joob!

Matt April 21, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Sounds like some serious back country, Good photos too.

Raymond Parker April 21, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Thanks, Matt. There’s a whole lotta backcountry out there.

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