Each year, for the last eight, either Doug or myself has run the Bonnington Traverse as a four day trip for our local mountaineering club. This year was my fifth, and I fully expect to be my last, trip across the Bonnington Range. After four full traverses and countless single day trips into the area, there is not much new terrain for me in the Bonnington. However, the moderate distance and elevation gain, the lack of glaciers, and the three (or four) cabins along the route make this an ideal traverse for people who have never done a multi-day ski trip before.
The crux of the traverse is the final day which involves traversing the ridge line from Copper Mountain to Empire Peak. In distance, this is only about six kilometres and 520 metres of elevation gain, but the ridge line is narrow in places, steep, corniced, and one section requires step-kicking. In good conditions, the step-kicking portion for experienced skiers, is only about 10 metres long, but in hard, icy conditions, much more step-kicking is required.
Of my five trips, I've only completed the last day twice. On three other trips, including this one, we have been shut down by poor weather and/or avalanche hazard. As an aside, I've actually done the last day three times as winter logging allowed us to do the fourth day as a day trip a few years back.
This year, I had moderate hopes of completing day four, even though the weather forecast called for a system to arrive on Monday. I thought, that, if we were lucky, the system would not arrive until later in the day and we could leave early, travel fast, and still get day four done in reasonable weather.
As it turns out, the system moved in very rapidly. We left the Copper Mountain Cabin at 7.30 am with the most promising looking weather of the trip, but, within 30 minutes, the cloud deck had built all around, 15 minutes more and snow was falling in the surrounding mountains. By 8.15 am, we were in snowfall, and, 8.30 am brought thickly falling snow pushed by a driving wind, and visibility down to 50 metres.
Struggling with icy wind-rolls on the ridge leading to Empire Peak, I wondered to myself, how long we would persevere before someone said "What are we doing?" Groups can be impelled forward into unreasonable conditions and dangerous circumstances simply because everyone in the group has committed to a predetermined plan made when conditions were better. The effort required to rethink the plan seems to be too much for groups to overcome and decision making inertia propels the entire group forward regardless of circumstance.
I realized in a moment that the most reasonable thing for our group to do was turn around. A stronger party, that could move faster (and had ski crampons) could continue on with safety, but, I felt that our group was not particularly strong (it never is on these trips) and our safety margin was shrinking with every step forward we took.
In a huddle we had a brief discussion. I started by laying out my reasons for turning around and describing our escape options. As a group leader, I find it important to state your own opinion first, otherwise, unless you have a strong group, no-one will say anything. Although in name we are a group of peers, in function, there is a leader to whom people are looking for advice.
The decision was quickly, and I think, appropriately made to turn around and use one of two possible escape routes. By the time we had got back to the ridge leading to Copper Mountain, we were all quite wet, and conditions had deteriorated even further. I can be prone to second guessing my decisions but I had no qualms about this one.
We escaped down 49 Creek using the Copper Mountain FSR. This route was not without its own adventures, involving at the start, a very steep traverse across the southeast face of Copper Mountain that was treacherously icy. Traversing at a constant elevation was too difficult due to the icy conditions so we ended up slightly below the road, and were forced to boot-pack up - the conditions being initially too icy and steep to skin up without ski-crampons.
In the gloom, we even had difficulty following the road initially, and, it was only when we had descended a few kilometres that I started to feel confident that we were going the right way on the right road.
Below 1200 metres, it was raining heavily and we got, if possible, wetter. We did manage to ski - with a few short sections of walking - all the way to the road plowing on Copper Mountain FSR, and then I led the group down my little trail that leads directly to my house. Doug was surprised to see three skiers with big packs and skis on packs walk out of the woods to the house.
Jonas struggling to hold an edge in icy conditions