We had perfect weather on our May 6-11th Wapta Traverse, summiting five different peaks over the course of 6 days. With one of the sharper winter-to-spring transitions the Canadian Rockies have seen in some time, approaching and exiting the traverse proved to be the crux of the trip.
On day 1 the mountains all around us put on a spectacular show of huge wet slab avalanches crashing down in all directions. We crossed Peyto Lake which was melting at a rapid rate, and were glad to be off it by the time we reached the other side. With the sudden shock of warmth the snowpack had lost all structure, and travel became tedious as we worked our way up the moraine, wallowing through sink-to-the-ground isothermic snow. Things improved only when we reached the Peyto Glacier.
Crossing a snow bridge over a creek, Dan who was behind me, came upon a nice array of springs and plastic arranged neatly on the surface of the snow; parts belonging to one of my heel pieces. Breaking a binding on the approach can mean the end of a trip, but often times a well stocked repair kit can save the day. A single zip tie got me to the hut, and with epoxy, bailing wire, the expertise of a sailboat rigging specialist (Dan), evening binding reinforcement sessions, touring on the heel pins (not rotating into tour mode), and skiing with light edge pressure on that ski, I was able to make it work for the next 6 days!
The next morning we set out with light day packs and skied 2,000′ feet of corn from the summit of Mt. Rhondda North. Back at the hut we took a short break, packed up, and toured up the glacier, ripping skins for the long glide to the Bow Hut.
The Bow Hut was busy with a big group of 13 celebrating their last night of the trip (the Bow sleeps 30). The next morning we climbed up beneath the iconic St. Nicholas Peak to a col where we dropped packs and skis for an alpine ascent of Mt. Olive, another prominent Wapta Peak.
Back at the packs we glided a long and gradual descent to the Balfour Hut, one of the nicest of the Wapta huts. We would have the place to ourselves for the next two nights.
Day 4 we launched on a full day tour with light packs, skiing a cool steep line in perfect corn off an unnamed peak to the west. We followed this with a long cruiser run from a high point on the Diablaret Glacier beneath the mighty Mt. Balfour.
Due to rapidly deteriorating conditions at lower elevations we opted to change our exit strategy from the traditional Sherbrooke Lake exit to the shorter Bow Lake exit. Day 5 we ascended back up to the St. Nicholas-Olive col, and glided a traverse that put us beneath Mt. Gordon.
From here we ascended the normal route to the summit, but instead of skiing back down this way we traversed the entire summit ridge from west to east. This put us above a steep 50° rollover above Vulture Col, which proved to be one of the coolest descents of the trip!
Another long ski run and we were back at the Bow Hut celebrating our last night on the traverse.
We woke up early the next morning to maximize frozen snow on the ski out, the crux proving to be the canyon where we had to cross the creek no less than 10 times! Bow Lake was frozen enough for us to sneak across and were able to instantly find a ride back to our vehicle.
Awesome trip! If you’ve never skied the Wapta Traverse, put it high on your list. Some of the coolest terrain you’ll ever experience, and the comfort of modern huts.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, big mountains and glaciers go hand in hand. The Blue Glacier on Mt. Olympus is up to 1,000′ feet thick, and is one of 200+ glaciers in the Olympic Mountains. Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker are the two most glaciated mountains in the Lower 48. As climbers and skiers, glaciated terrain provides some of the most interesting mountain travel, with lurking crevasses and often tricky routefinding, but even more interesting are the glaciers themselves.
A glacier is a large body of ice that persists year round. Glaciers form in places where part of the past winter’s snowpack survives the heat of summer and is buried beneath the next winter’s snowpack.
As older layers of snow are buried under newer layers year after year, they compact and form into a dense ice. The compressive force, over many years, pushes the air out from small spaces between ice grains. This increases the density over time, forming the blue ice we can sometimes see in glaciers. The ice appears blue to us because dense ice absorbs most colors in the light spectrum, reflecting mainly blue. When we look at snow it appears white due to the numerous air spaces.
The accumulation of such a large mass of ice causes the glacier to deform and flow. As the mass of the upper glacier (accumulation zone) is increased by more winter snowfall than summer melting eliminates, the glacier flows downhill to lower elevations. This flow is towards a lower elevation zone where more snow/ice is lost in the summer than accumulates in the winter (ablation zone). The balance of these two zones determines whether a glacier is advancing or receding.
The speed of glacial flow is determined by the mass of the ice and both the angle and type of surface it sits on. The flow of a glacier causes stress, creating crevasses and seracs. Crevasses are open fissures within the glacial ice. Crevasses often develop where flow of the glacier is increased, such as bends in a valley or steep drop offs. These features cause the glacier to move at a different rate in one area than that of adjacent areas, causing stress within the glacial ice, resulting in these fissures.
The flow of the glacier also transports rock and debris from one area of a mountain or valley to another. An individual rock transported by a glacier to a new location is known as a glacial erratic. Bands of rock dragged or pushed forward by a glacier are called moraines. A terminal moraine can be found near the terminus of a glacier (edge of the ablation zone), marking the furthest advance of the glacier.
Glaciers in the Olympic Mountains have receded dramatically in the last 100 years. For good examples including before and after photos, check out the following link: http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/glaciers.htm
For more general information, check out these resources:
National Snow & Ice Data Center
USGS Cascade Volcano Observatory
The Olympic Mountains are often associated with long, grueling approaches and bushwhacking sufferfests, and while these associations are not unwarranted, they completely overlook a zone where steeps skiing is abundant, and approaches are non-existent. Rocky Peak, Klahhane Ridge, and Mt. Angeles make up an east to west ridge that spans over 2 miles, with big terrain to the north and big terrain to the south. Of these three features, Rocky Peak is the most overlooked.Rocky Peak is a bulky massif of steep, predominantly cliffy terrain, but a few of these cliffs are threaded by corridors of steep snow. ”The Broken Tooth” is the name Jack Ganster gave a cool line on the north face of Rocky Peak some 17 years ago; highly visible from Port Angeles, defined by a huge boulder sitting amidst a steep face that looks like…a broken tooth.
Getting to The Broken Tooth is not the most straight forward. Through trial and error (including Jack humoring me with 5th class climbing in ski boots, no rope, no ability to haul our skis, lots of frontpointing, and significant mental terrain mapping) we’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t.“The Dragons Tooth” is a small rock spire sitting amidst a high col in the northeast ridge of Rocky Peak. Driving up the Hurricane Ridge road you can catch a glimpse of this feature if you know when to look up. Jack pointed it out to me last year, and having skied at Hurricane Ridge for 15 years, I never knew it was there. From this incisor, a line threads 2,500′ vertical feet of chaos to the road – steep, sustained, and wild. Jack’s been scheming a descent of The Dragon’s Tooth for years, and last year it became a reality when he and I skied it in firm, gripping conditions; a memorable experience of dropping into the unknown, with the question of “does it go?” ever present in our minds. The Dragon’s Tooth starts off mellow at the top, but not necessarily a relaxing mellow as each turn brings you closer to the edge of the world. The line rolls over considerably into a steep, blind constriction before it doglegs left, achieving high-angle-sustained couloir status for hundreds of feet, with ominous cliff walls towering above.
Last Wednesday Jack, Katy and I left the car at 10:45 in oppressive heat, and went up to the col west of Rocky Peak. We dropped to Hidden Lake, climbed the benchy terrain below the north side and soon were booting up The Broken Tooth. Off the top it’s probably 50° degrees before the angle eases off, and above the tooth it’s wide open. Lower down it gets narrower, but still with plenty of room for arcing turns. The position of this ski descent is unreal, looking over the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Port Angeles, and Vancouver Island. After a quick transition at the bottom and another short ascent we were standing next to The Dragon’s Tooth. At 5pm we started down this immense, deserving-of-classic status line in still-soft snow.
The day before I went on a little recon mission to check out yet another approach option to this zone, ascending a frozen couloir on the south side of the mountain to a notch in the summit ridge. The couloir itself had a chockstone in the middle that was surmountable but not the most casual. With another few feet of snow this option should be smooth sailing. From the notch I dropped down a ramp on the north side that put me just beneath The Broken Tooth, exiting via the Dragon’s Tooth in perfect corn.
A big thanks to Jack for the inspiration.
Last weekend we rerouted our Hurricane Ridge to Deer Park Traverse due to weather, instead opting to spend 3 days touring in the Hurricane Ridge/Mt. Angeles zone. On Friday we started at the top of the road with overnight gear, traversing to a camp below the west side of Mt. Angeles, skiing a few strategic laps along the way. Weather and skiing conditions were unfriendly out of the gate with blizzard conditions and firm snow, but as steady snowfall kicked in we knew we needed only to wait…
Saturday we awoke to 3-4″ of game changing fluff which by the end of the day would turn into a fair bit more, and we spent the morning skiing smooth runs in the perfectly spaced trees below camp. In the afternoon we booted up a steep, firm, wind scoured chute to the top of a col, transitioning on a knife edge ridge with rime ice on one side and a snow choked couloir on the other (steep powder skiing in mid-April ensued).
Saturday and Sunday the road was closed and we didn’t see another soul. Sunday morning we packed up camp and climbed to the summit ridge of Mt. Angeles, taking a brief detour to stand on top as the sun broke through the clouds.
We dropped into a zig-zagging narrow line off the summit ridge and 2,000′ feet later were gliding down the unplowed road to our vehicles. Great three days!
I just returned from an incredible trip to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska with partner guide service Wild Alpine, for their second annual Wilderness Ski Week, based out of Ultima Thule Lodge. The concept with Wilderness Ski Week is to bring together some of the biggest and most remote skiing in the world, elite mountain pilots including Paul Claus, Jay Claus, and Ben Gray, ski mountaineering icon Andrew McLean along with guides Eli Potter and myself, with Ultima Thule Lodge as our base of operations, a destination in itself.
Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the United States and home to the biggest mountains in the world in terms of vertical relief. Andrew, Eli and I went in a few days early to get a handle on snow conditions, a big task considering the scale of numerous mountain ranges, subranges, and varying microclimates.
The rest of our crew flew in on March 31st and we were psyched to report prime skiing conditions. Over the course of the next 5 days our group proved not only to be all around great people, but strong, motivated, and experienced backcountry skiers [and splitboarders, of which we had 2 in our group].
Weather conditions were stellar with predominantly clear and sunny days, minimal wind, and temps ranging from touring in a baselayer to as cold as -15°F (touring in a down parka). We skied alpine glaciers, big faces, off of summits, 50°+ couloirs, and everything in between, with stats coming in at 26,920′ feet of ascent, and thanks to high landings and low pickups, 33,120′ of descent!
In the last few years airbag packs seem to have received a disproportionate amount of press in relation to other types of avalanche safety equipment. This is mostly due to the astounding statistics regarding their use in avalanche accidents. In reality, it is difficult to accurately calculate the percentage of effect on the mortality rate due to the infinite level of variables regarding snow quality, environment, and the victim in any given accident. The general consensus, however, is that investing in an airbag pack does increase the likelihood that you will end up on or near the surface of the debris, thus inherently increasing your overall safety….given it doesn’t consequently raise your level of risk acceptance and/or alter your decision making process regarding terrain selection and snow stability.
As of this season, there are more options to choose from than ever before. Some manufacturers are now beginning the process of licensing out their technology, opening up the market for traditional ski pack companies to get on board and offer consumers and vast array of sizes and styles.
Given the opportunity to test drive a BCA Float 32 this year, I hit the gas, eagerly skiing thousands of vertical feet “in the name of science” from descents in the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, and all the way up to the Chugach… not forgetting to calibrate the “perceived-risk” gauge at regular intervals!
The capacity of the Float 32 felt quite large relative to other packs of the same volume description. My method for packing works in a systematic way, like a blueprint… I sketch out the best possible arrangement for my equipment, and each day I put the same items in the same place in my pack in the same order. Having one spacious compartment with a full length zipper, the Float 32 was a blank canvas for my organizational creativity. The only issue I discovered with the main compartment was that the seemingly ideal clamshell design, in conjunction with the bulky airbag storage pocket at the top, made reaching in to fish out gear akin to actually shucking a clam.
Two other features I’d like to see improved are: one, a redesign of the compression straps on side. It would be useful if they fully detached with fastex buckles and actually compressed the entire length of the pack instead of just the lower section. This would alleviate the “mushroom effect” of compressing a partially full pack. And secondly, the zipper pulls need to be beefier. On day one, hour four I ripped off multiple…and my stress level was only at “low blood sugar and cold toes”, not anywhere near an actual emergency situation where we really start applying force!
The shovel/wet gear pocket is extremely user friendly and the large zipper makes hastily stowing gear and working with gloves on a breeze.
Lastly, being just shy of 5’3”, the singular frame size had me worried. Surprisingly though, the shoulder straps are extremely adjustable, and the load lifters allow them to shrink down around my torso while still performing their function of levering the pack into by back. The waist belt is just barely small enough, and at 130lbs, I have it maxed (or minned?) out when wearing all but the heaviest of my jackets. All in all, I’d like to see a small frame size option in the future, but in the interim this model fits well on both myself and my husband Seth, who is 6″0″, has a similar level of risk tolerance and affinity for untracked snow….although he always knows better than to snake my line!
We just returned from a great trip to Rogers Pass, BC where snow conditions were amazing. Deep and pillowy in the trees, surfy in the alpine…
Can’t wait to go back! Check out a few photos:
We hit the window perfectly last weekend and completed a classic tour in the Olympic Mountains. My husband Seth and I were lucky enough guide the Hurricane Ridge to Deer Park Traverse in ideal weather and snow conditions.
We began the tour at the start of the Obstruction Point road and skinned out the generally well defined road cut for the majority of the first day. Once we reached Eagle Point and ascended out of the trees we were rewarded with warm sunshine and impressive views deep into the range.
Leaving Eagle Point we continued skinning along the windswept ridgeline, and in the early afternoon we reached our camp on the western flank of Obstruction Point.
The evening was mostly clear with stellar views but the chill of the sunset drove us all into the tents early in the evening.
The first few hours of day two were spent ascending and skiing an aesthetic pitch on the northern shoulder of Obstruction Peak and then traversing the scoured ridges of Elk Mountain. This section was filled with lots of mini transitions and hopscotching between segmented pieces of skinnable, skiable, and black belt-boot-packing terrain. The clouds receded further and we were treated to 360 degree views into the Olympics, across the strait to Vancouver Island, and over in the Cascades, Mt Baker and Glacier Peak stood proudly while we tip-toed through the alpine.
Skiing down to our second camp on the west side of Green Mountain set us up nicely for the final day of our tour. We were out of the alpine, so when we woke up to warmer temperatures, obscured skies, and gently falling snow, we knew we’d made the right call to push a little longer on the previous day, passing up another possible ski descent on Maiden Peak, in search of a sheltered campsite, instead of overstaying our welcome high on the exposed ridgetop.
Our team made quick work of the ascent to Deer Park and from there we were able to rip the skins and slide most of the way out to our vehicle at the gated end of the Deer Park Road. As we descended, the gentle snow became a cold drizzle and we all were grateful that first, we didn’t ditch the hard shells while packing in the sunshine on day one, and then to be back in an enclosed, non-human powered vehicle, with the heater maxed, enroute to a celebratory dinner at the Next Door Pub in Port Angeles.
Excerpt from the CAIC bulletin for the Northern San Juans zone for Sunday, March 3rd:
“Recent observations indicate a weak snowpack structure. The next storm system arrives tomorrow with new snow and strong winds. The snowpack is on the brink of another natural avalanche cycle. Recent slides have been the largest and most destructive of the season. Use caution while traveling in or under avalanche terrain. These slides have broken thousands of feet from above and reached the valley bottoms.”
Conditions were ideal for the March 7-10th AIARE Level 2 course at the Addie S Hut on Red Mountain Pass (Colorado), with partner guide service San Juan Mountain Guides.
With a strong over weak continental snowpack, 30cm of new snow, and steady winds shifting from south to north, we observed numerous avalanche problems over the course of 4 days.
We dug full profiles, test profiles, and hasty pits on east, west, and north aspects at and above treeline (up to 12,200′), collecting hundreds of additional data points on three different tours (quick observations).
Students collected manual weather observations outside the hut at set intervals using additional data from a nearby weather station, relating trends to field observations. Each day began with a morning meeting to discuss current conditions and trip plan, and ended with an evening meeting and debrief of the day.
Thanks to a hardworking, motivated crew hailing from Crested Butte, Steamboat, Durango, Salt Lake City, and North Carolina! All of our efforts came together on our last day with two blower north facing runs below treeline (as demonstrated by Jackson on his splitboard).
Above photo: CAIC forecaster Ann Mellick checking out the crown of a natural R3-D3 on the Battleship earlier in the week.
Unstable snow provides some of the best learning on any avalanche course, and this is exactly what we had in the Olympic Mountains last weekend for our third AIARE Level 1 of the season. Our group was able to observe the aftermath of two separate skier triggered incidents, both D2 on the destructive scale (large enough to injure, bury, or kill a person) that occurred on Saturday (both SS-ASu-R2-D2-I). Luckily no one was hurt in either incident.
One of these avalanches occurred in a feature called the Bowling Alley and on Sunday our group was able to tour up to the debris pile and witness the humbling reality of huge blocks of snow that could easily break your leg, a crown over a meter deep in places, and deposition on the uphill side of small trees that could bury a person over two meters deep.
The avalanche danger was very real on our tour day, and so were the decisions we made as a group. Kudos to the NWAC forecasters who literally called it last Saturday. In our maritime snow climate, one of the biggest dangers of all is complacency and it’s very important to recognize the difference between MODERATE danger (human-triggered avalanches possible) and CONSIDERABLE danger (human-triggered avalanches likely).
Thanks to a fun group of students who brought a diverse range of experience to this course. Be safe out there!