In 1988 we, along with Bob, Irene, and Neil, did a ski trip through the center of Garibaldi Park in British Columbia. We skied from the mountains above Pitt Lake near Vancouver to the Blackcomb Ski area and Whistler Village. It was a landmark ski trip because, as far as we know, this trip had never been done before.
The trip started in the north end of Golden Ears Park. The area is remarkable because it is very seldom visited even though it is only 70 km by air from downtown Vancouver. From there we travelled north into Garibaldi Park.
Even though this was an excellent trip in a wonderful area, we do not recommend that others do the same trip we did. That is because this route involves a section which is very dangerous due to a high avalanche hazard.
Below the photos is an article written by Manrico describing the trip in detail.
Following is a video and slideshow of the trip. The video is a Google Earth tour of our route.
Now the photos which are slides scanned in 2021. If you expand the photo viewer to full page the “Adventures” menu will stop working. This is because of technical issues with the website software. Pick any other menu item and go to that web page. The “Adventures” menu will then work properly.
Article written by Manrico around 1989 for bivouac.com
I’m just like a kid when travelling on airplanes; I always want to sit by the window and stare out. It’s amazing the things that can be seen from up there. I like studying the landscape forms: the way mountains and valleys line up and how civilization has made its presence felt on the land.
For almost two years in the mid-1980’s I travelled between Edmonton and Vancouver every week on business and it was a route that I got to know well. When the plane takes off from Vancouver airport in the morning it’s usually to the west, over the sea. We circle north, pass over downtown, and then over the mountains north of the Fraser Valley. After the city is left behind and before crossing the Lillooet River I would pay particular attention to an area with high plateaus and glaciers stretching north towards Whistler. It looked like good ski traverse country since it seemed all connected up, was well over tree line, and was not overly rugged.
One of my earliest involvements of the Alpine Club was in attending Vancouver section meeting which had, as a slide show presentation, a summer of 1972 traverse by Klaus Haring and Peter Alig from Wedgemont Lake north of Whistler to Alouette Lake in the Fraser Valley. One of the strongest impressions made then, and it subsequent years whenever the name Misty Icefields was mentioned, was that here was an area, which despite its proximity to Vancouver, was wild, remote and seldom visited. This was the area I was viewing from the air.
The time had come to get a little more serious about this. The maps combined with aerial photos taken on my trips clearly showed that it was possible to do a high level ski traverse starting from the Remote Peak area well south of the Misty Icefields and ending at Whistler. The only hitch seemed to be the deep and ominous looking Tuwasus Valley east of Mount Pitt. Areas south of Remote Peak looked unappealing as a ski trip.
Information about the area was notable by its absence. The guide books, journals and various friends that did have information indicated that this truly was an area seldom explored, especially on skis. What we were looking at was a trip of around 80 kilometers with 20,000 feet of total up and down. (Mixed units because that’s the way the map comes!)
The other strong impression I got was that this was an area of notoriously bad weather, a reputation no doubt supported by a June 1971 Varsity Outdoor Club traverse from Garibaldi Lake to Remote Peak which spent 17 days out of 19 in storm and by a 1978 Alpine Club of Canada-Vancouver Section summer camp at Snowcap Lake just south Mount Pitt which was 5 days late coming out as a result of bad weather.
It seemed at first that six would be the ideal number of participants. It was easy to find three others beside myself: my wife Liz, Irene Goldstone and Bob Stair were all keen and ready to go. Finding another two turned out to be a real problem however. There was heavy competition from the ACC-Vancouver Section ski camp in the Niut Range, which I must admit, seemed like an attractive proposition. The two weeks that I had planned for this trip also seemed to be more than what most people were prepared to put up with. We did get a fifth member though: Neil Baker joined us late in the process and as it happened, five was the ideal number after all since a our pot would only (barely) hold food for five. This was the first big ski traverse for any of us.
What makes this trip attractive is the proximity to Vancouver and the straightforward logistics. Our helicopter pick-up point at Pitt Meadows Airport is a 45 minute drive from downtown while the exit at Whistler Village is less than 2 hours away from the city. We were going to get a ride to Pitt Meadows and take the bus back from Whistler; our cars got to stay home! Our plan was to place a food cache on Rollercoaster Ridge immediately north of Snowcap Lake and to fly in to Remote Peak. Tougher parties than ours will prefer to forgo the luxuries of a helicopter approach by boating up Pitt Lake, walking up the logging roads to Corbold Creek and then thrashing up to the high country. We had neither the time nor the inclination to subject our bodies to such cruel and unusual punishment. We were out to have fun.
Our flight in was uneventful except for the wild weather we were travelling in, our pilot’s relative inexperience with mountain flying, and the fact that Bob and I learned the hard way about the importance of properly unloading a helicopter. We were in too much of a hurry at the food cache and neglected to take two pails of food out of the rear storage compartment so they ended up with us at the start point. To add insult to injury we forgot to unload our skis at the start point! (It was our first time unloading a helicopter and there was an approaching storm. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it!) Needless to say, we were somewhat more careful when the rest of the party arrived in the second load, storm or no storm.
Because of the storm we landed at the south end of the Stave Glacier area, several kilometers north of where we had intended. We ended up spending the first 3 nights there. The first 2 days were spent sleeping, reading, eating and on short (very short) day trips; the usual storm bound fare. It didn’t take us long to start getting a little worried about the continuing bad weather. We also weren’t looking forward to breaking trail through calf deep wintry snow. We all decided later on however that this in fact was the best way that the trip could have started after all since it allowed us to wind down from the hectic “normal” lives we were leading and just get used the rhythm of being in the mountains.
On the third day winter literally turned to spring. The sun came out and was hot. The snow turned to mush and we were treated with a continuous show of slushy avalanches from the steeper slopes. On that day we made a afternoon trip south towards our intended starting point. The run down from the little peak we climbed that day was a wonderful introduction to the remainder of the trip: one thousand feet of slightly wet powder at just the right angle. If we had been a hour later it would have been slush.
I don’t know what dawn was like the next day since we slept in to about 8:00 am. When we did finally look out we decided that it was time to go. After about 2 hours of breakfast and packing we left. (This was pretty much the pattern for the whole trip: off by about 10:00, quit for the day at about 4:00 or 5:00 with a long lunch and other breaks. We were in no hurry.) For us the day started out clear. We skied to the top of Peak 7000 which overlooks the expansive Stave Glacier to the north. By this time the clouds had rolled in and it was snowing. We could barely see that day’s objective which was the base of the mountains separating the Stave from the Misty Icefields. In good weather the run down from Peak 7000 would be magnificent. For us it was a lovely combination of flat light and breakable crust. The weather did ease up a little allowing us to have nice, albeit short, run down an intermediate bump. It was snowing again by the time we arrived at camp but it cleared shortly thereafter and it was a beautiful evening.
Our campsite at the base of Stave Peak would make a perfect location for a week long spring ski camp. There are beautiful views all around from a very safe site. Within easy reach of both the Stave and Misty areas are all sorts of great slopes and peaks. Some of the peaks are good ski ascents while others would be good mountaineering challenges. The flat Stave Glacier is ski plane accessible. And the weather? You pay your money and take your chances.
From our campsite we could see the track of what must have been quite an amazing avalanche. It looked like a typical slab avalanche: it cleared a fairly narrow 800 or so foot high bowl but what made it unusual was the fact that it then proceeded to slide another couple of thousand feet or more across a seemingly flat glacier. Areas that one would normally consider to be perfectly safe were flattened by this rather small avalanche which just didn’t stop where it was supposed to.
The next day we skied up the obvious buttress leading up to the ridge just below and east of Stave Peak. The col between Misty and Stave peaks is on the west side of Stave Peak and is a little lower but our route seemed easier. From the ridge we could look north across the Misty Icefields to Snowcap Peak which was that day’s objective. After a nice run down including a kilometer or two straight cruise down the gently sloping bottom section of the Icefield, we had a nice lunch (and snooze) before heading up Snowcap. From our campsite about 1,100 feet below the summit we had a marvellous view looking back south across the Misty. That really is wonderful country. Snowcap Peak would make quite a reasonable and respectable day trip from our campsite on the Stave. (Something to keep in mind if going there for a ski camp).
The next day was one of the best in the whole trip. We popped up to the shoulder, dropped our packs and skied to the summit. Snowcap is a one of the higher peaks in the area and we got some good views through the swirling clouds. To the north we could see Sir Richard which was still several days away. In front of that was the very deep Tuwasus Valley. At the head of the valley and well below us was the appropriately named Rollercoaster Ridge and our food cache. Between us and out of sight because they were so far down were the Snowcap Lakes.
When we were researching the trip Brian Waddington showed us pictures of a ski trip he and three others did in 1984. They started in the Lillooet Valley and skied up the ridges to the Icemantle Glacier to access Snowcap Lakes. From there they essentially did our trip to that point in reverse except that they descended into the Pitt River valley and boated down Pitt Lake. Brian suggested that we ski down the Staircase Glacier to Hourglass Lake rather than the route we had marked on the map which was straight down the obvious ridge and Thunderclap Glacier to the west end of Lower Snowcap Lake. The ridge would have required navigation around several small cliff bands while the Staircase Glacier was one of the best runs any of us had ever had. Like Rollercoaster Ridge, the Staircase Glacier is appropriately named being a long series of short sections of steep and gentle slopes. The snow was deep and slushy but since the slope was fairly steep it was like skiing through powder. We savoured the experience.
The two Snowcap Lakes are separated by a “causeway” and lie in a very narrow valley. This interesting area is described in more detail in the 1979 ACC Journal. It was getting late by the time we reached the causeway and we elected to camp there rather than spend the extra hour and a half it would take to get to the food cache.
The next day was our rest day since all we did was go to the food cache. It was close by but it seemed to take a lot of energy to get there since we skied up a south facing slope under the full heat of the sun. Our original intent was to stay at the food cache for a couple of days and to try to climb Mt. Pitt as a day trip. The route looked harder than we expected however. So Pitt was out of the question, and given our view of the Tuwasus Valley below us, we felt that it would be prudent to carry on without more rest days.
The Tuwasus Valley is the reason why this trip will have limited appeal. It’s only a few kilometers long but it can be a very dangerous place to be and route out of the valley can be difficult. The route down the south fork to the confluence of the north, south and west forks is straightforward enough and is a pleasant run. However it is continuously and seriously exposed to avalanche danger on both sides. When we skied it there were fresh slides from the east for the entire three kilometer length. These seemed to be the result of the heavy snowfall followed by hot sun a few days earlier. Fortunately the tracks stopped short of the valley bottom and conditions were stable that day so we had an easy and thankfully quick run down in the early morning when the snow was still firm.
Our route required us to cross all three forks which we did with by using fallen logs. (The streams are shallow enough to have permitted wading if necessary.) As soon as we crossed the north fork we headed straight up the hillside which eventually leads up to Sir Richard. Other routes would involve travel up the North fork which is likely to be rugged, steep and almost as exposed to avalanche danger as the South fork. From the valley bottom to the top of Sir Richard there is a 5,500 foot gain in elevation about half of which is in woods. That night we camped in the woods about 1,000 feet above the valley. The next day we got to the first low point in the ridge. It was early in the day but we camped anyway since we were in cloud.
The next day was probably the highest risk day of the trip in terms of route finding. According to the map it looked like it was possible to leave the ridge at the second low point and access the broad glacier on the south side of Sir Richard. We couldn’t see the critical section from a distance so we didn’t know if it would go. The alternatives were to continue up the ridge which, from a distance, looked unskiable, or to descend back down into the valley of the North fork and look for a whole different alternative. Fortunately the route did work out. We had to cross yet another avalanche track under some cornices but overall the route was a good one.
Once we got on to the ridge it became apparent that staying on the ridge all the way probably would have worked out also although there would be some rock scrambling involved. We skied up the glacier to the ridge between The Gatekeeper and Sir Richard and, by crossing over the divide, we were now in the Cheakamous watershed. We skirted the uppermost section of the Ubyssey Glacier and camped a few hundred feet below the summit of Sir Richard. Our mood at that point was one of euphoria. We had finally exited the Tuwasus valley and were on the home stretch. After a quick hike up to the summit we settled down to a nice evening enjoying the view of the backside of the Spearhead Range, Cheakamous Lake and surrounding mountains.
We had a good 4,000 foot run down the McBride Glacier to the head of the Cheakamous River. From there we followed the beautiful broad valley down for a few kilometers. This was an area of meadows and, much to our surprise, some sort of deciduous trees which none of us could identify. We also came across some very large and fresh bear tracks. Our plan was to access the low wooded shoulder which forms the divide between the Cheakamous River and Diavolo Creek. Unfortunately we started heading up as soon as we entered the woods when we should have followed the river a little further. That cost us an hour or two since we spent more time than we had to on steep wooded hillsides, something that we thought we were through with once we had left the Tuwasus Valley.
Eventually we got there however and found a campsite with a wonderful view of the Diavolo, Iago and Naden Glaciers along with their surrounding peaks. We also found our first sign of civilization In a tree well: a balloon from someone’s baby shower. During that whole day there was a high haze and the sun was surrounded by a very distinct ring. It seemed that the weather was about to turn on us and we were starting to get a little worried since we were still two or three days from the end. Bob and Neil’s stories about how they spent 10 days in storm the last time they were on the Spearhead Traverse didn’t help. (They were 5 days late on a 5 day trip.) We thought that the time had come for a big push so the next day we got up at the uncivilized hour of 5:00 am and were off.
Fortunately the weather was still cooperating although the signs were bad. We skied up the Iago Glacier which put us almost halfway along the well trodden Spearhead Traverse. (In retrospect we would have saved at least an hour by ascending the Naden Glacier instead.) Now we were following tracks up the MacBeth, across the Naden and Platform, and then down the Tremor and Trorey glaciers to that night’s campsite. Sure enough that night we were hit by what was probably the second most severe storm I’ve ever been in. We had high winds driving freezing rain. It was ugly. Fortunately that didn’t last long and by next morning it was down to a standard spring blizzard. The first thing I told Bob that morning was that I never wanted to be anywhere near the Spearhead with him again.
The visibility was still good enough for travel and we were close to the end but it was the thirteenth day of our trip as well as being Friday, May 13: our luck had run out. What we thought would be a straightforward exit to the Blackcomb ski area turned into minor epic. At first we had trouble finding the Blackcomb – Spearhead col but the real fun started when we couldn’t get from the Blackcomb Glacier to the Horstman. (Blackcomb Glacier wasn’t part of the ski area at that time.)
None of us could remember how the route was supposed to go but the map made it look easy and obviously it’s been done many times. Yet there we were, less than one hundred feet from what was clearly the ski area separated by an impossible looking gap in the middle of a nasty storm. After much debate and reconnoitring we decided to go up to access a rocky ridge and walk down the other side to the Seventh Heaven area. Fortunately for us we soon found ourselves on the ski runs and all we had to do was ski the 5,500 feet down to the village. We actually ended up walking down the last half of it and of course it was raining at the bottom. It was ironic that our most difficult day was be the one we thought would be the easiest!
All in all it was a great trip. The areas we traversed were wonderful, we had an excellent group of people, and we were always lucky when we needed to be. The routes always worked out (except for the little glitch at the end), the weather cooperated when it had to, and there were even logs across the creeks precisely where we wanted them. What more could you ask for?
2001 Update: This trip still seems to be rarely if ever done. I’m aware of only one other group to have done the trip after us. Helicopter landings are no longer permitted in Garibaldi Park so food caches have to be placed by skiing in from the Lillooet River / Icemantle Glacier. However the start of the trip is actually in Golden Ears Park. Does that mean that the helicopter starts are still possible?
We had ten travel days, several of which were very short. A reasonably fast group could probably do the same traverse in about six days or fewer.