My plans for an alpine centric ski traverse in February were waylaided by the avalanche forecast, which read “considerable” for the alpine and subalpine during the time window I had. In a mix of disappointment but also semi-nervous relief, I opted for plan B: A shorter traverse on mellower terrain that with just one alpine pass. The trip gutted most of the uncertainty and risk from Plan A, while still providing an opportunity to get out on the skis for some miles in mixed terrain.
Plan B was a ~65km traverse from Duffey Lake to Lytton, BC via Blowdown Pass and the Stein river trail in Stein Valley Provincial Park. Duffey Lake sits near 4000′ with Blowdown Pass a little over 7000′. From the pass it’s 50km all downhill to civilization.
Feb 10 – Duffey Lake to upper parking area
My wife dropped me off at 4pm and I started up the logging road with darkness quickly falling. There’s nothing too glamorous about following snowmobile tracks in the dark but I stuck with it for 3 hours before setting up camp at the upper parking area.
Feb 11 – Upper Parking Area to Cottonwood Creek Forks
I rose with the sun, which isn’t too early in February. Lynx and hare tracks were all over the road; perhaps a high point in the lynx-hare cycle? The alpine came quickly from the upper summer parking area. I crested Blowdown pass while clouds danced in front of the sun. The snow had a thick but breakable crust, which made for tough skiing above 5000′. After the pass I got the only real turns of the trip and was quickly back in the trees. It was a bit of a let down to have the alpine over that quickly.
Soon I had the choice between following the creek out of the Cottonwood drainage where a trail exists – supposedly – or climbing to the subalpine ridge that forms the western boundary of the creek watershed and following that until the eventual off trail decent to the Stein river. I hadn’t put much research into the plan B route, so I was hesitant to explore the ridge. I opted for the trail even though I suspected the trail conditions would suck, as most trails do in the park. This was a mistake. Not because of the trail conditions, which actually weren’t bad, but because the ridge would have been awesome. Subsequent research revealed this ridge (“Angel’s Walk”) is one of the premier off-trail bits in the park and would have been quite efficient and probably safe.
So I spent the rest of the day crashing on my skis as I followed the trail out of the drainage. The sub alpine fir and engelmann spruce forest was too undulating to bother clipping in my heels for every small descent and too tight to scrub speed with telemark turns. So I tried to free-hill straight-line the short descents, which never really worked.
I crossed the confluence of the west and east forks of Cottonwood Creek in mid-afternoon and skied for another hour in the 2011 fire burn zone (where surprisingly the trail has been cleared) before selecting a nice camp spot overlooking Cottonwood Creek. That day temperatures were warm (+5 C?) and my ski boots were sloshing with water so a campfire was in order. I was pleased to get some wet wood burning and I dried everything.
Feb 12 – Cottonwood Creek Forks to Ponderosa Creek
The next morning brought more nice weather. I continued loosely following the obvious signs of anthropogenic trail (orange markers, sawn logs) until I reached the steeper decent to the Stein River.
Former glaciation left the Stein River in a steep sided U shaped valley, which creates awesome waterfalls on nearly every creek contributing to the river. Cottonwood Creek is no exception and it cascades through a canyon before running a series of falls, the last being the largest. Hiking the Cottonwood drainage as a whole was pretty standard forest walking, but the views of the peaks and glaciers that become available on the final decent were rewarding. On the south facing descent the trail was bare, enabling a welcome switch to shoes. The trail markings also degenerated after the Cattle Creek crossing, leaving me free to find my own route through the talus and dry pine forest to the Stein River. I followed the edge of the canyon as close as I could and got the occasional glimpse of the thunder below.
When I arrived at the Stein River the snowpack returned. It wasn’t quite ski worthy, but it was often shin deep. It was here that I made the second mistake of my trip. I hadn’t considered packrafting this river in the planning stages, but the combination of snowpack in the valley plus a brushier than recalled valley trail made floating this section easily the best method. I knew the next 10 miles of river was mostly class I-II so it was a bit frustrating to be yanking skis through red alder beside it. I covered 6 miles on foot that night before setting up camp near Ponderosa Creek. The upside of following the trail was seeing the story told by animal tracks. Counter to my expectations, mule deer tracks were rare, with wolf dominating the trail and a few guest appearances by fox and hare.
Feb 13 – Ponderosa Creek to Lytton
I started the day at 8am with 21kms to go. Again my recollection of the trail was inaccurate, with quite a few riparian sections of red alder, horsetail and devil’s club slowing me down. The combination of skis strapped to a pack and being the first hominid trail user that year made for semi-slow going. That cleared up by the suspension bridge, and the last 13km went pretty quick. I stopped at a neat pictograph area for lunch which somehow I hadn’t noticed in years past. It started raining pretty good around lunch but it didn’t much matter by this point.
I reached the trailhead mid afternoon and started the 5km walk to Lytton, where I planned to catch the Greyhound back to civilization. A native lady pulled over and offered a ride, which turned into a memorable history lesson of the area. When I arrived in Lytton I was surprised to find that the Greyhound wasn’t running because a rockslide had closed the highway. As the prediction was several days before re-opening, I decided to hitchhike ~400km in the other direction around the mountains to Vancouver, which took 2 days and 4 rides and was a really cool adventure as well. Thanks to Dennis for being one of the coolest old guys in BC.