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Beaver Glacier Camp

I’ve been looking at Beaver Mountain for a while. I think I saw it from the Dogtooth Range in late season-July a few years back, and its north face looked like it should be a perfect steep canvas of white in winter. Of course, that isn’t the case, it’s a traffic jam of seracs trying to escape the face to join with the glacier below, but I didn’t know that at the time and it was a nice image in my head. Ever since, I’ve been interested in getting back there. The project has been on the backburner for a while, slowly becoming more tangible and less of just a ski bum’s daydream as I gained the skills needed to realize the fantasy. Last week, weather was looking good and stability was great, so two days before we were set to leave I asked Ian if he could make it out. He thought it was an awesome idea, so I booked a couple days off work to make an extra long weekend and started packing.

Day 1: The Approach

We loaded up the trucks and drove down to Parson and up the Spillimacheen river. Then unloaded the sleds and drove em up to Silent Pass. To get to our area, we would have to sled down the far side of the pass, which was by far the crux of the trip as we are both primarily skiers, not sledders and it’s a long way all the way down into the Duncan Valley- 800m elevation from the last sled track. Plus, it is very rarely sledded, for all we know we were the first this year all the way down.

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After carefully finding reasonable paths to descend and getting stuck a lot, I suggested we ditch the massive multi-day packs weighing down the sleds and go minimal to find a route, then come back for them after the trail was blazed. So we continued down, and before long the fresh snow disappeared and it was all supportive crust. Which is perfect for going down and actually getting back up this beast of a hill through the old burn. After some hairy descents and sketchy hard sidehills, we linked up with a system of old logging roads in the Duncan.

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Our approximate route. There are likely better ones.

So, time to go back up to grab the gear. Ian’s sled had much more trouble on the ascents than mine, and when we finally reached the packs again, he stated that he wasn’t comfortable going back down. And with the extra weight of gear and uncertainty of weather and conditions on the way back out, it completely made sense. So I sledded down my gear and Ian skied down. Once we reached valley bottom, we needed to cross the swampy bit to reach the other side off the valley. At that point in the Duncan, it is so close to the Duncan/Beaver divide that there isn’t much flow down the valley, so there is no proper river to cross. So we left the logging roads, Ian towed behind the sled and made our way across little creeks and depressions in the snow surface which would usually spell a nasty stuck to a sledder. However, the snow was so packed by weeks of sun and high pressure that you could really do anything and get away with it.

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Duncan (L) and Beaver (R) glaciers. Mt Duncan (close L) and Sugarloaf Mountain (far center). Ascent route up Duncan slidepath/glacial bed to col below Sugarloaf in the picture

At the other side of the Duncan Valley, we emerged to the vast glacial bed/slide path of Mount Duncan’s east face. I decided that I wasn’t going to skin any more than I had to, and launched the sled uphill until it couldn’t go further and ditched my pack, then went back down for Ian’s pack and shuttled it as well. Then I went down again and Ian tandemed up with me, and I stuffed the sled in some trees on a moraine for safekeeping. All told, it saved us 400 of the 1100m of the ascent to the Beaver Glacier  with a crushing pack.

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Sled vs. serac, usually not recommended

Right around dark we reached the col that leads onto the Beaver Glacier. I had planned on reaching a point somewhere between Beaver Mountain and Sugarloaf Mountain to camp, but it was too late to bother going that extra distance. So we set up camp at a perfectly good spot just at the col. We had a cold, clear night with great views of the mountains we came to ski.

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Day 2: Sugarloaf and Beaver

Somehow we got ourselves out of bed and into the cold to start the day. Especially so for Ian, who found out too late that his air mattress (essential for camping on snow) didn’t hold any air. Meanwhile, I was quite comfortable after the lessons learned of previous unpleasant camps, with a much warmer sleeping bag than before and sleeping pills. Yayy!

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Col is on the right

We set off in the direction of Sugarloaf Mountain, hoping to summit by a col to the north and then a ridgewalk, then ski the east face. The Beaver Glacier has many big nasty icefalls to it, but from the col we camped at, we were above all that so we could just skin across perfect glacier to whatever we wanted to ski.

The slope leading to the col on Sugarloaf had a decent bergshrund to it, and after some discussion we decided the best way up was straight up, utilizing what I call a “zipper”, a place were the two sheets of ice didn’t want to let go and thus got displaced into an ice bridge that is diagonal across the schrund. We crossed without issue and started bootpacking up. About two-thirds of the way up, on the slope irregularity of some buried schrunds we had a shallow wind slab pop out, just in the recent storm snow. We decided to continue on and pay more attention the the snow quality, as the slab was very easy to detect. After we got up a bit higher though, we found an older slab which although not very deep, was thick and hard enough to propagate out bigger than we wanted. Unfortunately, we had to give it up and ski down, and it was too late in the day to try to gain the summit via another route.

Skiing toward camp, I decided I really wanted to give Beaver Mountain, north face a go. When I first saw it, years ago it looked like just a perfect steep white face, but after more research I realized what it really was, a big ice face with huge crevasses at the base, and not one but two big seracs that had to be navigated around. After much thought, Ian decided he wasn’t feeling like such a formidable ascent, and would rather ski some nice slopes instead. So we split up, and I borrowed Ian’s axe as I would probably need both.

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Going up, Ian waited in a good observation position until I finished the approach to the face through some crevasses. The rest of the face, we both knew, there wasn’t much danger a second person could mitigate, and even moreso now that Ian had no axe. So I started booting up toward a skiff of snow that snuck between blue ice on either side. I was expecting that I’d have to turn around at that point, but no, there was more than enough snow depth for relatively standard climbing and good skiing. The first serac dealt with, I continued up,. Before the second serac, there was another bergshrund. I saw a good zipper part across the schrund again, and climbed and traversed to the upper ice on it. I perhaps should’ve been probing, and ended up sticking a foot though a 30cm or so wide void into blue darkness. I kept my head in the game, and kept going up toward the climbers left side of the second serac.

I started hitting ice with each axe plunge. I continued up, confident it would get better again. It got worse, so bad I couldn’t continue climbing to the flats on the second serac. Not to worry, I’ve got a screw and a rope, I’ll just rappel down.  I swung an axe and clipped into it for some security, and started prepping the v-thread I’d rap off. I went to thread the rope before realizing I didn’t have my rope hooker. I wasn’t about to leave my only screw to rap from when the sketchy bit was longer than my rope length, so I attached two slings, one attached to the axe and one to the screw, and painstakingly downclimbed, using them for protection. The downclimbing would probably be simple for someone versed in it, but I only climb ice or rock when it is required for the line I want to ski, and for the most part just figure it out as I go.

Anyways, once reaching deeper snow I hacked out a platform to put on my skis and started down. Snow was very well preserved, and the skiff of fresh made things downright great. After that I skinned quickly back to the tent to do a bit of head self-analysis.

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Day 3: Sugarloaf

The plan for the day was to go back over the col to hit the east face of Duncan. Discussion quickly changed back to the mountain that was staring at us the whole time, the badass 400m east face of Sugarloaf. Duncan was hard to commit to, as we hadn’t seen the whole thing, we knew of two possible routes around the big ugly serac in the middle, but didn’t know how broken they were, or if it was skiable from the summit, or even which of the two summits was the true one.

We had an idea on Sugarloaf though; this time we would ascend the south face and then take the south ridge to the summit. It was perfect for the weather, in the bright sunlight of the previous day we saw the fresh snow sluffing and settling, and now we had nice high cloud cover and a breeze as well. So we followed our tracks from yesterday and cut off toward our ascent route. We followed the lower face into gullies and out onto the south ridge. What little I could see of the SW face scared me into a good mental state, little gullies of 50+* disappearing into air and something even steeper. Really fun climbing. At the summit block we had to facet punch a bit to keep using the ridge, instead of exposing ourselves fully by climbing a jog on the untested east face. The line on the east face looked incredibly choice. There was a cloud hanging around obscuring views of the whole thing, but we could see the most difficult part at the summit was nothing we couldn’t do.

The summit was nothing too special on this day, views all around were obscured and there was a cornice keeping us from looking into that portion of the east face so we clinked axes and walked right back down to where the cornice gives up and allows us onto our ski line. After busting some rime, we couldn’t find a rock we could lasso so Ian braced himself behind the uncooperative rock and belayed me in. After a few cuts and turns it was apparent the wind slab that had stopped us the day previous was not on this side of Sugarloaf. So I unclipped and skied an awesome face yet in great consolidated pow and cloud. At the bottom, there was: surprise (not really): a bergshrund to navigate. Using my picture from yesterday and some mental gymnastics, I found the zipper crack I meant to use and emerged on a sunny glacier. Ian had a great run too and we went back toward camp. We tried climbing some nameless slope for an extra run further down the glacier, but found uninspiring snow and a run that just couldn’t hope to provide satisfaction compared to what we just had.

Day 4: The Escape

We decided to wake up a little bit late, since we would be spending a lot of time standing around not producing heat while tearing down camp. After it was all cleaned and packed up, we skied back down the way we came onto the old bed of the Duncan Glacier. Skiing was good with the big packs for a bit, and then snow quality got bad slowly but surely. Oh right, that’s why I camped on a glacier for the past three nights… I picked up my sled on the way down, it started like a champ as always. I sledded down the slidepath to catch up with Ian and towed him back across the swamps and up to the end of the logging road.

With Ian not having his sled, I was planning on taking both packs on my sled until we reached his again, but I wasn’t completely sure I’d be able to take the machine all the way up with >100 pounds of dead weight on the back trying to tip me over. I thought I might run out of gas if I shuttled each pack up and tandemed Ian up. In reality it was for the best, the stopping power I would have had for descent to pick up another load with the fresh snow was a far cry from the crust we descended three days ago. Despite the fresh snow, I was able to maneuver the obese pig all the way up. After a little nap Ian caught up on skins and the fun really started.

This mission is huge for a guy who only got sledding in the mountains only this year. Many sledders with many more years on the machine and much less gear to haul wouldn’t drop into the far side of nowhere, as things can go very wrong very quickly. So I was really, really surprised at how well things had gone so far. Except for Ian’s machine not being good enough, everything had gone to plan so far…

Getting Ian’s sled out of the last few draws out to the main sled area of Silent pass was a chore. I broke in the trail for Ian to follow, but if he didn’t make it and needed a bit of help bringing it around, I decided I couldn’t afford the gas to loop around for him, as running out of gas out here was definitely a very bad thing. So I would walk down and help shovel and pull, and slowly we got out.

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On one pull however, there was a bit of side hill to it. After Ian almost got out, I, in my brilliance decided to sled down to help him, and ended up missing the side hill just as he had, but wasn’t able to stop like him and ended up full into a tree, sled pointing 45* downhill with a ski on either side. After lots of digging and swearing and pulling, we got it back onto a platform and sent it down to the next bench thru a small breach between trees. How I didn’t break something on the sled, I will never know, I just know I got a tiny taste of the fear of things going very wrong in the wrong place. We shoveled a bobsled run down so that Ian’s sled wouldn’t be magnetized to my tree and got the sleds back to the bench safely. After that we both got up that pull, and up the remaining pulls with only a couple minor stucks.

Truly, an incredible adventure of a ski trip.

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