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Mount Farnham

This weekend’s sled access ridiculousness was Mt Farnham. No, not Farnham Glacier, but the mountain, the tallest mountain in the Purcell mountains. As the Purcells are kind of my home range with Kicking Horse located within, it’s a little bit extra personal.

Load up the packs, load up the truck, drive to Radium and then west into the mountains. I had been up Horsethief Creek in the summer doing some scouting, and remembered vaguely that there was something funky about the access, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The only thing that really stuck with me was how ridiculously steep the valley walls were, and how any attempt at summer skiing would quite dangerous on the access. Anyways, we kept following the signs that said Forster-Horsethief, and ended up at the sled parking lot for Forster, with Horsethief drainage being back down the road a bit. Ian was rightly afraid of going back down the slick icy road against the regular flow of traffic for that time of day, so we decided to sled down the road to get back to Horsethief. And it was a good call, we met a few trucks on the way up and it doubtless would’ve been a bad scene if they didn’t have radios.

The road up Horsethief was great, a bit of fresh snow without much bad woomphing underneath, we put miles down quick and the sleds stayed cool. But, as soon as sleds are added to any equation, things always go wrong in great number. After we made our way up Farnham Creek and got to our presumed drainage to gain the hanging valley we were to camp in, Ian realized that a pocket was open on his backpack, containing unimportant things like food. So we ripped back down the road in search of Ian’s junk, after doubling back 30km we finally found it all.

So we went back up to Farnham Creek. There is remarkably little snow in there at 1600m, it seemed like before this fresh snow the road would’ve been mud riding in quite a few places. We found a good looking place to start our valley bottom thrash from and started up on skins. We found some flagging tape and followed it, it seems to mark some sort of hiking trail, probably for climbers. Anyways, it was very steep and bushy, and the snowpack non-existent in places. Eventually though, we broke into alpine and were amazed at this place. It was very reminiscent of the Rockies, from the flora of stunted, scratchy conifers and dry, dead soil on the way up to the big quartzite monoliths to the moraines and boulder fields blown down to rock, the area seems very out of sorts compared to the icy peaks and deep moss just a dozen km west.

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Farnham Tower appears up-valley
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Holy crap, the line goes!

We dug a nice hole to bivy for the night at 2500m, and with a silnylon sheet over our heads and the warm temps it was a very good night. We woke early the next morning to a great full moon and started up toward our line. I found a nice indirect route using moraines on climbers left side of the valley that led to the side couloir we needed to use to get to our line, as the main couloir ends in a cliff at the end. Wind crusts were the name of the game all the way until in the main couloir. At the end of the side couloir, we traversed climbers right on a slope that connected with the main.

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Here, snow quality started getting better and we continued hammering up. The snow was again, classic rockies. Good enough quality to be good skiing, but not enough foot penetration to be wallowing climbing. And plenty of wind buffed and scraped snow and soft-ish sastrugi changing its mind every few feet. The lower section of the couloir was quite wide and uniform. Then it kinked left and choked down a bit before widening to a big snowfield. Then another choke, this one reasonably serious.

There was a bulge of ice on the right side of the choke, and a narrow sliver of snow with a rock wall closing in the left abruptly. Eager to try out my new axe, I happily swung away and got onto trustworthy snow quickly. Ian wasn’t so stoked on it though, so I climbed down to another ice bulge to make a v-thread to belay him from. We were going to need it to rappel the choke anyways.

After a bit more steep climbing, went past the 11,000′ mark and soon were at the decision point. Ski down, or leave the skis behind and climb to the summit first. Well, not much of a decision, Ian was visibly puckered from the climb and I am always willing to give something rad a go. There was a face of salt-and-pepper rock going off right and around a rib of neve to easy scree slopes to the summit, I thought. I started off to the right, but had to admit defeat after being stopped by thin and faceted snow on semi-loose scree, neither tool or crampon could get definite grip on the stuff. I climbed back down and tried a route on the left, again being repelled by smooth rock that I couldn’t get a pick in above the snow. So I put on skis and regrouped with Ian.

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SE face, Mt Atlung. Little less wind and it could be a great descent
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Howser Tower says hello
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Sick terrain between Meden Agan and Mt Johnston. Note all the wind scraping on the west faces

We skied the chokes and engaging snow down to the rappel choke, and I let Ian go first there. On the way up, I had made a little snow bollard so the rope would hang up higher, accessible from some better snow than you’d have to deal with if you went to grab it direct from the v-thread point. After he went down, I used my whippet to hook the rope from a safer distance than I’d have to close otherwise. Then more skiing, snow became pretty good in the wider section, before going to teeth-chattering on the traverse to the lower couloir. Then back to the bivy to tear things down.

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After we cleaned up, we had some great corn snow that formed where previously there were crappy wind slabs. Awesome! We were tempted to go straight down the drainage, but decided to stay with the devil we knew instead of getting suckered into some canyon or who knows what down the fall line. We went back to the ravine/ dirt runnels, and were given easy passage by sideslipping down. Then some walking downhill and back to the sleds.

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But wait, we’re on sleds, right? So something has to go wrong. My sled started acting up down the trail, not wanting to start back up after a shutdown to let the belt cool. Which is strange, it has consistently needed only one pull once warm. We quickly found the problem: I had run out of oil. With no extra on hand, we dipped a ziplock bag into Ian’s oil reservoir and emptied it into mine until I had enough to make it out. Then Ian’s pack fell off his sled. Then mud and ice on the way up to the Forster staging area. Then the tire on Ian’s trailer went flat. On a Sunday night, in Radium. Luckily, we found a place to stash the trailer for the night and drove back to Golden so I could get to work for the following day.

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