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The Big Slog

When I first saw Doug Sproul and co’s first descent of Sir Sandford’s south face I was in the infancy of my touring days still, but it was super inspiring to me, absolutely huge line with always-fickle conditions due to the large elevation band and sunny exposure, and yet done in great style with a sled/ski approach further complicating logistics. I felt conditions were lining up perfectly for this railroader to have a go at the railroad king. A long series of wetter storms getting stuck to the face, (in my mind) bridging or ripping out whatever formed during the dry spell, and improving valley bottom travel for sleds, followed by a day of sun punch for testing, then a little cold storm just as my weekend starts. And a full moon. Unfortunately, work called Ian back right at the start of the window, but I felt that other than doubling my work battling through the numerous avy paths crossing the road, it wouldn’t be that different to solo. So I did.

My plan was to approach right after work Sunday night, after the sun was off the avy paths I’d have to cross. Then spend the day chilling and sleeping at the base of the line while the light snow came in, and do the climb the following night in the full moon and stabilizing influence of cold, summit around sunrise and ski back down before it got any real warmth.

So I went down the Columbia West road (yeah coming at it from the East/ Golden side unlike Doug’s group) on the sled. One of the things I noted when I dreamt up this approach was that if it is not plowed a bit from the highway, then at some point in March most of the road heading down the Kinbasket will be melted because it gets a fair bit of sun, yet the winding start of the road from the highway to Kinbasket Resort would still be snow-covered due to the north aspect. So there’s gotta be 3 or 4 weeks where it’s effectively inaccessible, unless you’re gonna sled 30km of mud (unless it gets plowed at some point there). The reality is that other than a pullout from the highway, there is no plowing to the resort. So I sledded down amid constant whoomphs. The road got better, most of the traffic headed up into the Esplanade. After my track was the first since the storm, snow was absolutely perfect for approaching, grippy, smooth and supportive. I brought a jerry can because I learned how much gas you can use just on a logging road approach when it’s deep when I went up the Bush last time. But it wouldn’t be anything like that thankfully.

Then I got to the first real avy path, on the NE aspect of Sentry. This thing drops 1500m and only stops there because the lake gets in the way. It had obviously already run big to the lake, and above the buried road I could see where a subsequent slide stopped. The sun was off, so I walked a possible route. Things looked good, and the snow was so good I didn’t think I’d even have to dig. So I unloaded the sled and went up the south side of the debris, essentially a ridge to a good place to crest it, and dropped into the bowl formed by the debris. Picked up the sled and aimed it uphill at the north side and made it not nearly as far as I thought. Trying again, I was having troubles even getting moving on a 5* incline. What happened, is that the entire bowl of debris was ice, which got covered by some quite tacky snow which froze on. Once that snow was gone though, it was pure ice. It quickly became obvious I screwed up pretty bad and was gonna have a hell of a time just getting out.

I attacked the ice for three hours with my axes, thousands of strikes to make a decent enough path to get back out. Remember, I couldn’t even get the sled to start moving on a 5* incline, gaining speed to bash up over the ugliness, a usual tactic in sledding was not an option this time. On the ride in, the weight of overnight kit and fuel was already abusive to the sled, so the rope which would’ve saved me many thousands of calories was something I decided against bringing. The pick on my Sum’tec came loose, the adze on the Nanotech broke off completely. I was givin’er. Eventually though, in the dark I got the sled back out.

Now what to do. The high route was a no-go. Everybody I talk to says never sled on the Kinbasket. The water level changes too much for the ice to be even moderately sketchy. So sledding the low route was out. Skinning the rest of the way was the next thought, but I brought heavy overnight gear, a 3 man tent and heavy over-rated sleeping bag and had only a daypack and the sled bag, no bigger backpack to use. Plus it was 26km, which would kill the whole idea of a rest day before the climb and would really eat into my sleep before work on Wednesday on the way back out. Resigned, I decided I had to go home with nothing.

 

I came back the next day with a rope and gear to set up a 6:1 to pull my sled over the slide. I intended to sled to near the base of the line, climb, ski and sled back out all in the same day, basically the same plan as before, just without the sleep before the climb. Sledding away from the truck at 15:30 was the start of what would be a very long day. I sledded back to the slide and started making a snow bollard on the other side to pull off of. I expected avy debris to be great material for a bollard, but it’s actually awful, regardless of how deep into it you are it just crumbles. The first one, with a 2 ft trench was easily decapitated by an easy test pull. So I made a new one, and kept digging until I got out of the debris chunks and into something uniform, 5 ft down. Then I wrapped it and it felt good. I got the sled into the bowl and got all attached up and tried to pull, but even after I re-located the pull point away from the bollard to eliminate any friction on snow, it wasn’t enough to pull the sled up the 30* incline.

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C’mere!
Eventually I gave up and used the road I built the day previous to get the sled back to the Golden side of the slide. What to do now? I had a good many hours to think about this decision since, and it really reminds me of a bit on Seinfeld. Jerry’s got a hot girlfriend on the go, but can’t stand her accent. So his night before self is always telling him he should keep things going, because he gets the fun job. But his morning after self hates the night before guy who keeps on putting him in a position to have to listen to her pointless stories in the annoying accent, he always has to clean up the mess without any of the fun. But somehow the night before guy always wins the argument. Same thing here, night before guy had to do the initial approach with fresh muscles and the promise of a rad peak at the end, while morning after guy had to slog back out with a broken body, nil food and a dead mp3 player.

So I started into the night. Fortunately I had thought to bring my new to me Logic-X spring weight setup instead of the Czars, they’re even lighter than my Chos, especially with the ATK/La Sportiva RT rando-esque binding, which makes a Speed Radical look like a Duke. Way more solid feeling than a full race binding though, they’ve hit a great sweet spot. Left the sled at 20:30 Monday and made the approach. My night before self claimed it would be easy, 4 hour approach tops. I made as good a speed as I possibly could, and arrived at the base of the line at 0330 Tuesday with ideal travel conditions on a rain crust. Water refill, sock change and up into the clearing skies around Sir Sandford at 0420.

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I went up the route Doug shows in his video, lucky for me that he decided to show it or I might’ve ended up in a poor place for getting up the lower section, on the climbers right side shoulder overlooking the left side ravine. After that, ascending easy, powdery moraines toward the base of the face. Maybe it’s more due to my physical state at the time, but everything about Sir Sandford looks smaller than it is. From the bottom, it doesn’t tower over you as much as the 2800m sub-peaks of Sonata. After the lower section on the moraines, you don’t exactly have to crane your neck to look at it. And then the whole way up, the choke doesn’t look that far up. And the upper section to ridge doesn’t look more than a few hundred meters. But it all took way more time than a look promised.

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I skinned the whole lower face as the sun rose, on great snow for skinning, consolidated but not hard sluff debris from days previous. Up here there was 15cm of that fresh low density snow I’d made this whole gamble on the promise of, and under was that perfect crust I was banking on. Then at the choke, it was time to bootpack as sluffs started peeling off the sides. I was going up a different part than Doug’s group, directly up the middle of the face to a minor col in the ridgetop, a line which was not close to filled in on their descent but is the most natural route when filled in. I kept willing myself to go a little further, a little less break time between pushes because I knew things were only going to get more lively. Eventually at 1130 I was at the end of what my body could do, and had to go down, the minimal climbing rate I could still summon was not acceptable for the time of day and conditions. I’m used to being able to make things happen on force of will alone, but much as I willed it, the ridgetop just wasn’t going to happen, let alone the summit. It’s disappointing to put so much work in to run out of steam so close to the end, but on the other hand, I know I’ve never tried as hard for anything ever, there’s solace in knowing it was only at the absolute ends of my ability that I had to call it.

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Time to ski down, luckily skiing is such an effortless thing I can still ski just fine even when I can no longer bootpack. Especially in perfect sunny pow. The skiing was mind blowingly good. Incredible pow, in the sun, on a long, steepish face, I’m not really sure how else to put it. It was exactly what you dream skiing could ever be. After the face was the moraines, all perfect pow. Coming down into the drainage a strong wind started up, making it feel like I was skiing way faster than I was and exposing some wind crusts. Then back down on the ravine shoulder, threading between pillows in hot pow.

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Then I refilled the water, changed into the socks I’d left drying on a tree and started the hardest slog I’ve ever had at 1315. I don’t really want to relive this part, it was not at all fun, the high of the ski can only last so long. Going past Mt Palmer dead tired and starting to see things, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of connection to Palmer and his attempts to battle bush up his namesake creek on the way to Sir Sandford. They made ’em tougher back then for sure. Back at the sled at 2130, heading back to Golden at 2300, 31 hours after I was last in the truck. I never intended to completely redefine my perspective on what an “epic” is, or do 2.5x the amount of mountain action than I packed food for but I did. I’d like to go back if I can figure out a way to get the sled past the Sentry slidepaths; in good conditions it is one of the finest ski runs anywhere.

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7 thoughts on “The Big Slog”

  1. Great story

    I grew up in Gtown and have worked as a guide – climbing Sir Sanford many times over the years

    Always wanted to ski the s face

    I like your style

    Jim G

  2. Awesome adventure, I love your grit!!!:) Nice read on the conditions…tooo damn bad about the damn debris ice. Maybe studs in your track, like they use back east on the trail sleds, would claw you over the ice. Have fun & plat safe. Best regards Brad

    1. Thanks, means a lot coming from you. Nobody says that when on a summit haha. Worth going back for sure, though in a different way

  3. What a great story of grit and determination. Very inspiring back yard tale! I can only hope To ski this run myself some day.
    Dana

    1. Holy crap, just made the connection. Get better dude, being injured sucks. Glad to see your experience hasn’t smothered your determination to keep at it.

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