From pretty much the first day of the ski season, my friend Justin & I had in mind to plan a long spring traverse. As it is good to set yourself goals, this was definitively one of mine. As the months went by, the plans became clearer. After hours of preparation, cooking, baking, packing, the trip finally came together. We left Revelstoke on a nice sunny spring day direction “ Columbia Icefield” with big smiles and promises to have a great time no matter what.
Following is my travel journal from our 2 weeks spent in the mountains!
We left town mid-day to meet with Troy and Tina as West Louise, we left a car behind and drove to meet the 5th team player Mark and Bow summit. We drove to Welcocks Campground and set up camp in the parking lot. The nigh was fresh and besides from a bit of attitude for showing up later then expected, everyone was laughing and pretty excited for the days to come. We had some great food and wine just to start the trip well and thenwent to bed at 2am…just like kids on Christmas Eve!
Up at 7am sharp, the sky was clear and the views of Columbia Icefield were breathtaking! We took quite some time packing and making sure we had everything. By 9:30 we drove back a way to the Big Ben to leave a car behind and start our long walk towards the Saskatchewan glacier. We walked the valley, then jumped on the glacier and found a beautiful camping spot where we built a sun pit and enjoyed an early dinner. After food, we decided to go for a ski without the heavy packs just because. We climb toward Mt Castleguard each one to our pace. I sat on the top part for a while looking down the valley where we would be skiing the following day and having a first look at the Lyells in the background. I skied down to meet Troy half way and we skied back down to camp under the sunset.
We had a later start this morning just because things always take a bit more time the few first mornings. The cloud cover moved over our head during breakfast but we could still have good definition. A small climb brought us to Castleguard Meadows from where we had a bit of whiteout navigation to do. We gained back treeline pretty quickly where we descended to valley bottom. The day was not over then… oh no, we had a 20kms valley bottom slug to do in order to gain the Alexandra river. Fortunately, the clouds moved away unveiling a really hot sun, which made the walk more bearable. We got to camp around 8 that night at the junction on Castleguard River and Alexandra River. It was our first look at the Alexandra glacier, definitively the crux of our trip!
We woke up at 5pm of the side of the Alexandra river wondering if today was the day to attempt the long climb up the Alexandra! The sky was a mix bag but with more blue then gray, we decided to go for it! We gained the lake and then geared up for the walk up the really open and impressive toe of the glacier. Getting on the ice was a bit of a challenge with open seracks and icefalls. We navigated to the top of the first park of the glacier to where we could actually see the high col leading to the Lyells and the second part of the crux. The col being at 3000m often attracts the clouds and this is what happened as we had lunch. Unfortunately the weather moved in and the hot temps were now making us worry about working on a slope where consistent cornices were rolling down creating thunderstorm like noises. We camped on the Alexandra crossing our fingers for great weather the following day.
It snowed all night and it was still falling down pretty hard when we woke up. We waited for a while for things to clear up but no luck. We were running low in food and gas since we were originally thinking it would’ve take us less time to get to where we needed to be and we sill had still 2 days of traveling requiring perfect weather in order to get to our
1st cache. Considering the hard climb up the Alexandra, the navigation on the Lyell glacier and the rappel onto Mons Glacier, we had a serious group meeting about options. After waiting all morning and with no signs of the weather getting better, 3 out of 5 voted to ski down the Alexandra. Get out, refuel and go back in was the plan. With a big amount of disappointment weighting on our shoulders in addition to the weight of our backpacks, we skied down the Alexandra, walked on the tip of our toes off the glacier and skied partway out of the valley. We found a nice campsite on the side of the river and had a nice fire looking at the sunset going down on the Alexandra glacier who seemed to say: “ Maybe an other time! Oh and happy birthday by the way Mel!”
We woke up really early to take advantage of the frozen river to skate our way out to the highway. After 15 km of flat river bed and multiple creek crossing under cooking weather, we gained the highway completely soaked. We put all of our stuff out to dry on the side of the road and hitch hiked for a while until a nice Albertan stopped and gave me a ride back to West Louise to retrieve my car. After a back and forth on the parkway, we went shopping in preparation for our plan B. We crashed in Banff in a dirt-cheap hotel and fueled up with Mexican food thinking about the days to come… and the snow storm…
We got on the road early. With 20 cm of fresh snow in Banff, things did not look so promising. We drove to the icefield and the sky miraculously opened to the beautiful sunny pe
aks. We got to the Peyto turnoff with light mood even if we had to drive in and out of the road leading to the parking lot about 15 times (the road was not plowed…) which made for an interesting start to our trip! We walked the Peyto Lake and broke trail through the Canyon executing some extreme skinning moved… let’s say it was not the easiest way in! We finally got out of the terrain trap and gained the glacier. Once up high, we decided to go up the Baker/Trapper col (2700m) and enjoyed a sweet ski down with sunset to Mistaya lodge. Wow, we got it really good that night. We had a fabulous dinner on the deck of the lodge overlooking the great alpine. As I was taking care of dinner, the boys prepared the sauna. Thanks to Don the owner) we were able to use the facility and sleep in the warm sauna building.
We woke up at 6 for an early start. We fought our way up the forest along the Lambe creek to gain the lake and the alpine. The day was clear and the temperature was getting warm as we gained the toe of the glacier. We climbed a total of 900m before taking a well deserved break and refueled. At that point, the group decided to take some time to go skiing without the big packs. We made camp and climbed up to Mt de Margeri (2950m) and had a closer look at the route to take to get up to Lambe Col the following day. We could see a bit of the Freshfield from where we stud. We skied back down with sunset. Freshfield here we come!
We woke up in the middle of the Lambe glacier to a cold morning. The sun was first shining but a skinny haze slowly covered it. We started to
negotiate our way through the open part of the glacier to gain the first col to the right of the peak where we actually needed to ski down and around and up again. From the col, we got our first glimpse at the Freshfield… so close but yet so far!!! We took a bit of a break at the top to analyze the slope beneath us but the weather started to move in. We dropped a little lower onto the slope in order to have a better look at it in order to find the safest route down but the whiteout slowly creped-in making us wait for the next window. We waited for a little while getting hammered by the wind … waited and waited … the weather never allowed us to move so we set camp at the col hoping that the morning would be excellent conditions to negotiate the major slope leading to our goal!
The winds were strong all night and all day today. With very little openings and mostly whiteout conditions, we all did agree that negotiating the Lambe slope would require better then average condition so we played the waiting game and tried to entertained ourselves hoping that we can move on the following day!
We got hammered by the wind and snow overnight and woke up to broken skies in a super frosted tent! We waited a bit for the wind to calm down before packing everything. It was then time to have an other one of those unpleasant team meeting deciding on what next we would like to do…! We went back and forth with the decision-making knowing that the slope to ski was very touchy, steep, and shallow and now got hammered by wind…. Slopes around with similar aspects had seen avy activities, which did not give us much confidence. We had very little information on the slope to ski to get to the freshfield, we could judge the snow stability but we had very limited weather information for the next few days.The group did not all agree about the hard decision of going back the way we came from without even attempting. This is part of traveling in the backcountry I guess where heart-breaking decisions need to be made due to circumstances. We radioed park trying to get weather updates but not much luck there! The only thing we knew is that a system was moving in which could potentially trap us down on the icefield for a few days. So with broken hearts, we decided to go down the Lambe col, Lambe glacier, Lambe creek, Blaeberry river, up the Wildcat Creek and back to Mistaya Lodge. To mood of the group got better with every steps we took but needless to say that none of us were flying very high at first. I’m the first one not to want to give up and go on but sometimes the mountains decide otherwise and you have to leave your pride and drive behind in order to make the right decisions. Back at Mistaya, we had a sauna, shower, warm food and some “French Rabbit” wine to drown our sorrows. A night in the warmth of the lodge would help to deal with emotions and also with the stiff legs.
Freshfield Icefield, I will sure see you again!
Whiteout out all day, we took an off day to rest and dry our gear. We played card all day enjoying what will be our last day off for a long time!
First thing in the morning, we got back on our skis for some whiteout navigation up the Baker Glacier. As we gained the col, the cloud lifted to allow us to have a great descent to Peyto Glacier. We came out the moraine way avoiding to deal with the Canyon this time around. As we got to the lake, we started to sink quite a bit in the slush…it was actually scary and just like moving with concrete shoes. We climbed back up to gain the parking lot where a bus full of Korean was awaiting for us taking pictures as we overcame the last leg of our trip… I kinda felt like we were in a petting zoo… of well we probably made their trip, which is what matters! First thing we knew, we were on our way back to Revelstoke, coffee in hand speaking about what we could’ve done different and what we have done… could’ve. Should’ve, would’ve… the only thing we can do is learn from experiences, share with others so they don’t make the same mistakes and do it all over again in order to face different challenges and hopefully overcome them!