Exploring the southern reaches of the Pemberton Icefield

by Raymond Parker on April 16, 2012

in Adventure, Environment, Photography, Skiing

(Click to enlarge)

According to a yellowed journal, I spent my 29th birthday telemark skiing the slopes of Whistler Mountain with my friend Blaine Powell. In between blasting through waist deep powder snow, we planned a ski touring traverse of the Pemberton Icefield. Drawn from that same journal, here is the story of the adventure, launched just 10 days later, on April 15.

The cloud parted for a moment, revealing an ice-encrusted volcanic peak, before closing again, leaving us in a whiteout.

There were five of us—Gordon Pidgeon, Blaine Powell, Barbara Chin, Gary Lum, and myself—gathered around a topographical map, wielding compass and aneroid altimeter.

As far as we could tell, we were nearing the head of the Squamish River Valley. Was that Ring Mountain, or the more northerly Little Ring Peak, playing hide and seek?

We decided it was the latter and began angling upward through a tangle of “slash”—wasted timber from recent industrial logging operations.

We balanced on skis over the top of abandoned logs, weaving through the snarl, falling to our armpits, cursing the hinderance to our progress and the environmental disaster it represented.

In the week preceding it had fallen to me to liaison with Weldwood, the company who owned timber rights in the valley. Engineer Gord Prescott was courteous and helpful, arranging for us to follow the first company truck on the appointed day, along the logging road to Mile 37, from where we would begin our trek to the great Pemberton Icefield above.

Also known as the Pemberton Icecap, it is a landscape worthy of the name, covering approximately 300 km2 (120 sq mi), between the head of the Squamish River Valley, to the south fork of Meager Creek, location of the famous natural hotsprings, a perfect spot to soak tired skiing muscles.

Shortly after parking our van and beginning to hike, we came upon the first of a series of massive washouts, each of which took great care and precious time to ford.

Once-shaded streams were now, and for the geologic future, boulder-strewn surge-channels, scoured by a recent “Pineapple Express” storm that had blown in from Hawaii. Without forest canopy to slow it down, the runoff and snowmelt had coursed down mountainsides, turning minor streams into canyons of ruin, choked with wood debris.

The weather was as melancholy as the demolished landscape, with steely grey clouds swirling through the high passes, throwing out rain squalls and angry winds. Afternoon resembled evening and, as the cloud lowered around us, we threw up a hasty camp off a logging spur, put on a brew, and huddled in our tents.

When, the next day, we finally climbed above the man-made disaster zone, we entered a beautiful realm of widely-spaced cedars and Douglas fir, towering giants draped with witch’s hair lichen. We attached mohair climbing skins to our skis and made a nearly straight line upwards.

After an hour of labour, we reached a level promontory. The fog parted, affording a magnificent glimpse of the great icefield snaking northwards, and a nearer volcanic cone, identified as Little Ring Peak. Immediately to the south, rose the north face of Ring Mountain; we had climbed up into the col between it and the Mount Callaghan Massif, far short of the main icefield. We pitched our tents right there.

Over a tuna casserole, we admitted that our original plan to traverse the icefield to its northern terminus with the Meagre Creek Valley, was now logistically infeasible. Slowed by the ravaged approach, we had used precious food rations and errant navigation had taken us too high on the western slope. Gaining the contiguous route would require another day of travel. That, we estimated, would put us three days behind schedule. With no supply buffer, none of us fancied the odds, should another Pacific storm blow in and pin us down, high on the icecap.

That fear seemed without foundation the next morning when we poked our heads into the blinding sunlight. Tent flysheets sparkled with frost, along with the surrounding snowscape; the surrounding peaks contrasted against deep blue skies.

As a consolation, we set out to reconnoitre the ridge running north. Contouring the western slopes, we zig-zagged upwards onto the crest until the vast, glacial panorama lay at our feet. The white desert amplified the midday sun to retina-frying intensity, making ultra-violet filtering glacier glasses, not to mention sunblock on exposed skin, vitally important. Even so, a biting arctic wind buffeted against us, reminding that outside of the body heat generated by our labour, there was little more than polyester pile and Gore-Tex jackets between hairless mammals and hypothermia.

We took refuge in the lee of a rock outcrop, hunkering down for lunch in the wind-sculpted snow well at its base. The temperature change demanded different ski wax. Hopefully, the chosen formula would work for the whole descent.

That afternoon, we basked shirtless on sleeping pads, daubed in sunblock, admiring the wide figure-eights we had carved on our telemark descent back to camp.

This kind of torpor proved attractive and endemic. On the fourth day out, but for a few ski runs in the morning, the team took to sunbathing and snoozing in tents.

I was eager to climb Mount Callaghan and appealed to my colleagues. Gary Lum showed some interest, but by 14:00 was snoring contentedly in the tent. Finally, at 16:40, after badgering on my part, we departed, climbing east along the south-facing slope above camp, carrying little more than avalanche beacons and chocolate rations.

The former were most important we were reminded, as the snowpack settled audibly underneath us and shed pieces of cornice from the ridge crest.

Above, the angle of the terrain moderated and, unencumbered by expedition packs, we raced towards our objective, bathed in golden alpenglow. We reached the summit, measured at 8,000 feet by Gary’s altimeter (actual height 7,904 ft [2,409 m]), at 18:00, having ascended 1,850 ft. in 80 minutes.

This, literally the high point of the trip, offered vistas of crumpled planet in all directions, including views east all the way to Whistler, Blackcomb and the Spearhead Range.

A difficult run down through breakable crust—how fast snow conditions can change!—tested our skills, but we thrilled at the challenge, as powder we raised sparkled pink in the evening light.

As the moon rose over the outliers of Callaghan, we feasted on soup and Spanish rice. My companions propped open their eyelids long enough for me to prepare cheesecake, which needed chilling in the snow to set.

As we settled into our sleeping bags, a rambunctious wind flapped the tents and we noted a dramatic drop in barometric pressure. Would we awake to snow?

As it turned out, another relatively clear day dawned, but with a sky streaked by tell-tale mackerel clouds. The weather held as we descended, ever so carefully over icy slopes created by the melt-freeze cycle of the preceding days. The green scents of spring rose up from the valley bottom, Nature announcing her defiant return.

Expedition Members.

(Click to enlarge)

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