My wife and I headed out for a short ski traverse over the holidays targeted more at chasing powder than covering miles. I figured we’d link two of our favourite backcountry cabins with a possibly, but probably not, untried route. On Google Earth it looked good to go.
Joined by a couple friends, we headed into the first cabin and spent two days chasing powder and coming close to summiting Mt. Duke. We came up about 100m vertical short of the Mt. Duke summit where things got more technical than a ski ascent. It’s probably the 5th time in a row I’ve had to turn around from a casual summit attempt, which was disappointing but nice in a humbling, reverence for the mountains, sort of way. My ‘on sight’ approach to summitting peaks is always interesting but doesn’t seem to work that well.
The next day our friends went out and we headed cross country towards the next cabin. I figured 3-4 hours was a safe time allowance for the ~5 miles but I was wrong. We reached the first pass and tried to ski down to the valley below but were soon thwarted by a small but too large 20 foot cliff band.
We worked laterally across the slope in search of a way through but were delayed when the warm sun affected snow started sticking and freezing to my wife’s skis. Evidently they were in need of some fresh wax. After chipping ice off three times in 200 yards and losing close to an hour, I had the idea to apply some skin wax to the skis, which thankfully solved that problem.
It was 3pm and we still hadn’t found a route through the cliffs, so I mentally altered the plan to camping at the lake below instead of at the cabin a few miles beyond. Thankfully I’d packed a tent as backup.
Every hundred or so yards along the bench I’d ski down the steeper slope to check for a line that went. A few times I thought I might have been able to slide down a narrow gully through the cliffs, but I recalled the numerous deaths in Yosemite where hikers slid down something they couldn’t climb back up and got stuck when the rest of the line didn’t go. I chose to stay conservative while turning back remained a viable option.
After doing that a few times I was tired and getting slower. 4pm passed and short days of mid-winter won, as we decided to call it a night as darkness fell at 4:30pm. My wife was fairly upset as I’d indicated to her this would be a simple traverse to a warm cabin, but reassured that we had a tent and wood stove.
As I set up the tent I realized I hadn’t done a great job preparing for the trip, as I had almost no cord to tie the tent to the skis as stakes. I made it work, but like putting skin wax on skis, more creativity was required than ideal.
With the tent up, I started to setup the wood stove when I realized I’d forgotten a few pieces of the stove. I knew the wood stove was a big part of my wife’s mental resilience, so I wasn’t sure how to bring up its non-functionality. I figured I could probably do an outdoor fire next to the silnylon tent if I managed the wind correctly, likely workable but again uncomfortably creative.
I collected subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) and started a fire on a base of boughs to prevent it from sinking into the snowpack too fast (which doesn’t work that well). Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmanii) would have been an easier wood to burn but I didn’t see any close by. To start the fire I pulled out my fire starting kit and found I was down to a single piece of fire starter. It was the best one I’d been saving and the wood was dry and covered in Usnea so I wasn’t worried, but I was unimpressed that my margin of error was smaller than I thought it was.
The fire worked well for several hours until the wind shifted and smoked us out of the tent, so we put it out and went to bed.
The next morning we resumed the search for a line through the cliffs. I figured we couple spend up to the entire day looking, and failing that turn back the next morning, skin out and hitch hike 30km back to the car. Thankfully that wasn’t necessary as we found a steep but ski-able gully down to the valley bottom a hundred yards beyond camp.
With the obvious challenges out of the way we continued on but were pretty exhausted. We chose to ski out the logging road to the car instead of heading to the second cabin for another day powder.
So the trip was a good reminder to not get lazy. I’ve got some work to do getting my gear more organized and well maintained so I’ll be ready for unexpected challenges in the future. The hard part with challenges like this is that they’re rare enough that when they finally come along you’re probably not as prepared as you should be. I need to pack a little slower and keep an eye on stuff that is important but rarely used like the first aid kit and fire starting supplies.