Skyladder attempt Numero Uno
Saturday was almost done when J messaged me letting me know that the road was open. The 93N had been closed for half the week after Parks avy control got a little out of hand, with a huge size 4 burying the highway. Warm temps and no overnight freeze had me polishing my cams in resignation. But there was a hope; the Columbia Icefields region was forecasting a solid freeze and only two out of five weather models we looked at said that it had rained up there. We decided at about 8pm to go for it.
The explosive triggered Hector avalanche. Took a little while to dig a hole through, but at least we get new glades next year. Source: Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge Facebook page
We got going at 2am, we’d had a combined total of 4hrs sleep. The drive up was grim. We got to the Icefields centre at about 4.30 and I took a couple of photos to see if the route was in. It’s a good trick; if you’ve got a camera with decent low light capability you can get a view of your route in question as if it was day time. Things looked good so we set out, crunching through the snow that had a bit of a crust. A good sign.
A scenic amazing notice board. The mountains are pretty ok too I guess.
In my enthusiasm and zeal to get moving and warm I took a shortcut and punched through into a drainage ditch that had not frozen. A bad sign.
A quick retreat to the car parked a leg burning 20m away to change socks and we were off again, squelching like no tomorrow to make up for lost time.
J alpine short-striding towards the goal. Icy conditions are easily overcome with some care in your skinning technique. Leave the ski crampons at home! But that’s just like, my opinion man.
Once arriving at some snow patches travel became faster. The freeze had happened and the icy crust took an edge well. We skinned under the AA glacier and sussed out the classics on Andromeda, Shooting Gallery was looking good. The toe of the Andromeda glacier was choked with debris from a rather large cornice fall around the Photo Finish top out. The debris was amazingly miserable to skin up. J and I stopped to break out the rope and an unfortunate gust of wind sent J’s helmet tumbling down the toe and out onto the flats. Oh well. He needed a more photogenic lid in my opinion anyway.
I’ve heard many, many horror stories about this glacier so we gingerly set out across the ice, probing and travelling in echelon to hopefully minimise the risk of falling in the same hole. The approach to the Skyladder cuts across the direction of ice flow, meaning that you’re travelling parallel to the crevasses. This can be a bad time as any holes you may fall in may also swallow your partner. Super scary stuff. Luckily the crust was very supportive and the snow was deep and we made it to the fan of our route.
We swapped skis for crampons and headed up. There was about 10-15cms of graupel on what could only be a rain crust. We were pretty bummed as it looked like the minority of weather models were correct. We hoped the freeze had permeated deep into the snow and kept on going up. As we got higher, the crust got weaker and the snow below seemed a little sticky. J and I dug some holes with our axes and got wet gloves. That’s never a good sign in your snowpack, it’s an indicator of instability and a good time to go home. We figured that a wind slab or thin spot could add some energy to the slope and set the whole thing off.
Sometimes you feel like a fool wearing your ski gear on the Stairmaster™ at the gym but it all pays off on days like this.
Still, our decision point happened to be the top of the steep pitch so at least we got to ski the hard part. The unsupportive graupel and rain crust made for some interesting skiing but luckily it’s not actually that steep. I managed about twelve good turns and nearly fell over in surprise when some errant snow found its way to my face. We skied the glacier roped up and chattered through the debris on the the glacial toe.
By now it was getting warm so I was hanging out for some corn on the way back to the car, but alas, not today. Rain patterned crust made my teeth rattle as we scraped down to the road. The skiing was louder than 11. The only consolation prize of the day was listening to tourists ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at our tracks whilst eating a bagel on the sunny Icefields Centre patio.
As usually I’m feeling pretty down for bailing, but I’m getting daily messages from J trying to schedule the next assault. Until then I’ll be honing my edges in anticipation.