Monday, February 28, 2011

Peak bagging

Perhaps as a result of the current La Niña episode, it has been a cold and snowy winter in the Rockies. This, combined with generally lean ice conditions, had me looking for mountain adventures that would keep me warmer than hanging around at a belay for an hour. Ski mountaineering was the obvious choice. Below are some impressions and snapshots from a few recent outings.  

Cathedral Mtn (3189 m)

A few minutes into the skiing I glance at the temperature display on a watch clipped to a pack strap. I do a double take at the -46 C reading. It takes me a few moments to realize that the watch is in difference mode, and is reading the temperature difference between the inside and outside of the car.

An unsupported snow slope gives us pause, visions of being carried over the cliffs below dancing in our heads. We bypass it by booting straight up to a level bench. However, on the way down we carve turns down the slope we avoided on the way up. What has changed in the meantime?

The sight of the summit not far above drives us on, lungs and legs burning. Imagine our disappointment when we pop out onto a plateau and see the true summit still quite distant at the far end of a graceful ridge. This feels like alpine climbing: wanting to be done, but more mountain still remaining. But the way down feels nothing like the usual slog down the backside; it is fast and fun.

Eamonn going into ski mountaineering mode: carrying the damn things!

It is not hard to find untracked snow in the Rockies.

The spectacular summit ridge. Photo: Eamonn Walsh.

Eamonn having trouble swallowing, with Mt. Stephen and the Great Wall of China behind.

Looking west toward the Goodsirs; and are those the Bugaboos in the distance?

Eamonn finding some excellent snow on the way down.

Storm Mtn (3161 m)

Over the years I have been up Storm Creek a bunch of times, sampling the fine ice and mixed climbing on a smaller but more remote version of the Stanley Headwall. I associate climbing up Storm Creek with being cold, as the ice smears lie on the shady side of a high valley. And so I catch myself being grateful that we are not about to stop and freeze, as we ski past the frozen waterfalls, intent on the summit of Storm Mtn.

My least favourite part of ski mountaineering: carrying the damn things! We totter up a long scree slope, skis wobbling on our packs and throwing us off balance, our big boots stiff and clumsy on the uneven ground. But higher up we are rewarded with being able to skin all the way to the summit cairn, and then with a fantastic run down that has us back at the car just over an hour from the top.

Eamonn emerging into the sunshine, with the ice climbs below deep in the shade.

Yep, we ski all the way to the summit cairn, but the bases of our skis do not thank us for it.

Looking west from the summit: the Goodsirs on the left, Mt. Temple on the right, and the Ten Peaks in between.

Looking east from the summit: Mt. Ball in the middle distance, and Mt. Assiniboine on the horizon.

Coming down from a mountain does not get much better than this.

Mt. Hector (3394 m)

 An icy haze hangs in the air, and we hesitate to venture much above treeline. We picture featureless whiteness, to say nothing of the biting cold. But then a sucker hole of blue sky appears over Mt. Hector, and together with the yerba mate we have been sucking on through the drive, propels us up the Icefields Parkway, out of the warm car, and up Hector Creek.

Above the last stand of trees we are met by a vicious wind. Why does my lower lip feel numb? You cannot freeze your lips, can you? (Yes, you can.) We ski on, neither of us wanting to be the first one to suggest turning around. Fortunately once off of the moraines and onto the glacier the wind dies down, while a wan sun tries its best to make things more pleasant. Still, we do not feel like hanging around. A quick scramble to the top, then we strip off the skins, lock the heels, and point the boards down the hill. Three quarters of an hour later, back at the car, I unbuckle my boots and feel blood rushing back into my toes.

The wintry sun does not lend much warmth to the proceedings.

Juan contemplates the debris of a rather large slide left over from the last avalanche cycle.

Minus 25 and windy: "Quick, take the summit shot, then let's get the hell down from here." Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Classic Rockies skiing: some boilerplate, some breakable crust, even a bit of windslab thrown in for variety. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

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