Attempt on Atwell Peak, November 1981

by Raymond Parker on November 14, 2011

in Adventure, Climbing, Photography, Skiing

“Atwell Peak is the southwest summit of Garibaldi … sometimes called “Diamond Head …. ridges are sharp and exposed, its faces steep, loose and avalanche-prone, and its summit quite rotten. Climbing Atwell is not recommended without snow or ice covering the rocks. Helmets are highly recommended.” ~Jeff Smoot, Climbing the Cascade Volcanoes, 1992


Momentarily, the white void tore apart, revealing a green expanse of snowless valley, hovering below us like an alien planet.

Under snow-burdened trees and the white sky, we skied downwards, following our outbound tracks, eager to reach camp before they were obliterated by the driving blizzard.

Beyond the tips of our skis, it was hard to tell where land and sky parted company.

After a long, bone-numbing day of slogging up Brohm Ridge, North of Squamish, British Columbia, Bryan Beard and I had to admit that our chance of reaching our objective, let alone climb it, had receded into the surrounding white-out.

We had failed to reach and make a winter ascent of the then-unclimbed 1,000-metre northwest face of 2620 metre (8600 ft.) Atwell Peak, an outlier of the Garibaldi Massif, infamous for its friable volcanic rock. Our chances of surviving an attempt on the avalanche-prone face, loaded with a metre of fresh snow, were not worth risking.

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Garibaldi Massif, from Paul Ridge (Nov. ’82)

It was one of those climbing trips that contained within itself the seeds of failure. The guidebook—Exploring Garibaldi VII—was out of date, as was my decade-old memories of the area. Extensive industrial logging had rearranged the landscape. We wasted hours route-finding on the lower slopes.

Against wet, wind-driven snow we pitched the tent by headlamp, on a forestry (sic) road, at the edge of a clearcut. We brewed tea and boiled a tuna casserole, coating the inside of the wind-raked tent with condensation. We were acutely aware that its thin nylon barrier was all that, relatively speaking, protected us from the hostile environment outside.

We arranged our sleeping bags around puddles collecting on the bathtub-floor of the tent.

Before sunup, Bryan lit a candle. The flickering yellow light illuminated a meteorological phenomenon I’d never witnessed before, and have never seen since: a small cloud hovered just above our heads, inside the tent.

We made appropriate grunts of awe. Bryan extinguished the candle with damp fingers and we buried ourselves deeper into our soggy sleeping bags.

At 8:30, we shivered over a steaming brew. During breakfast, we discussed logistics: Could we pull off an ultra-light blitz of the face? Would a bivouac without sleeping bags be survivable? How about we try to get a look at our hidden foe; see how fast we can travel.

Not too, as it turned out. We took turns breaking trail through the deep, fresh snow.

Ten years before, I’d chosen this ridge as my first mountain hike. It was summer, but things didn’t go any better. Without a tent, my companion and I were attacked by hungry mosquitoes. We reached the abandoned faux-Bavarian ski development looking like pox-ravaged hoboes. Our appearance didn’t bother the man who welcomed us there, into his spartan hut.

Pierre was caretaking the bankrupt resort—a perfect job for a self-described hermit. He lifted a trap-door in the floor, pulling out cans of “Man-Handler” stew, which we heated on a propane stove.

Although it was unlikely, I was hoping old Pierre was still there … with a good stash of hearty stew.

According to the altimeter, and Culbert’s Guide, we had another 300 metres to climb before that dream would either be realized or dashed. The higher we went, the thicker the snow fell.

Even half-buried in snow, I recognized the site. There was Pierre’s hideaway, and the fading frescoes, peeling from white undercoat on the buildings.

We met a local snowmobiler (this trail a long-time favourite with the ski-doo set) who told me that poor old Pierre, back on the hard streets of Vancouver, had succumbed to alcoholism, nine years ago.

Despite the chance that the following weekend, an ascent of Atwell’s impregnable face might be claimed by another team—possibly by competing colleagues at Mountain Equipment Co-op—we had to admit that our boots were not going to meet the mountain on this trip.

A cackling raven met us back at camp, where we brewed up at the entrance to the ice-encrusted tent. What little remained of our resolve dissolved as we surveyed the squalid conditions. The thought of another night here chilled us to the bone.

Guided by headlamps, we stumbled back down to the “approach vehicle,” my Chevrolet van, which demanded yet more ingenuity to coax back to civilization.

The NW Face was eventually climbed by Perry Beckham and John Howe, in 1985. They faced extreme temperatures, naming their route up the central couloir the Siberian Express.

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