Monday, March 3, 2014

On The Road To Nowhere: In Search Of The Misty Icefields

There is not a whole lot going on in Cairns lately - at least in my life - so, I've decided to post up some of my most infamous trip reports from seasons past.  This one describes an aborted attempt to cross the Misty Icefields and was first published on  

Well we know where we’re goin’
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowin’
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
Talking Heads: Road to Nowhere

 Happier times on the Misty Icefield Traverse

Pre-Trip Plans:
The two most difficult aspects of planning a trip with the Waddington-Tivy duo are (a) finding a traverse that Betsy hasn’t done, and (b) convincing Robin that a modicum of safety gear (like an avalanche transceiver, a shovel, probe and thin rope) is worth carrying. For some weeks, the five of us (Doug, Robin, Tom, Betsy and I) had been discussing a variation of the Misty Icefield traverse (yep, Betsy’s already done the “real” Misty Icefield traverse). After deliberating over the lengthy car shuttle involved in the classic Misty traverse and looking into all possible alternate exits, we eventually decided to cross the Misty Icefield but exit to the east via ridge systems that lead out to Fire Lake. At the last minute, Isabel and Bill joined the trip, while Doug, who’d been limping along with a chronic knee injury all winter dropped out. This left us with three groups of two, a good number for sharing tents and food, but a bad number for reaching any kind of consensus along the way. 

At a pre-trip meeting at the Waddington-Tivy residence two nights before the trip, we went through the usual, and completely expected song and dance about how much safety gear to carry. In the end, we likely reached some kind of common ground, some people probably would have been happier carrying a bit more gear, but some were definitely convinced that one shovel in the party was completely adequate and any other gear was utter overkill. 

May 28, 2008

Despite being only 70 km from downtown Vancouver, getting anywhere near the Misty Icefield requires driving, lots of driving. After talking to many, many people, I’d found out that the apparent short-cut up the west side of Harrison Lake is no short-cut at all due to the poor condition of the road, so, like many parties before us, we made the long drive up through Pemberton and down the Lillooet Lake Road. 

We found Chief Paul Road easily enough, about 200 metres north of the bridge over Snowcap Creek, and while Tom and I lazed around with my truck at the bottom of the road, Isabel battled the waterbars in her Chev Tracker (Suzuki) with Robin, Betsy and Bill. Depositing them just before one last giant waterbar, she had the dubious pleasure of driving back down the road again and on to the Cloudworks/Kwoieck camp just north of Tipella. Here we met up with one of the engineers, who kindly escorted us all the way up the Fire Lake road until we reached snow and parked my truck for our return trip. Isabel then got to drive back up the Chief Paul Road with Tom and I in her vehicle, thoroughly mashing her undercarriage on the waterbars and scratching up the paintwork of her shiny new Tracker yet again.

By the time all this driving was done, it was 6 pm and looking like imminent rain. I had a crashing headache, and Isabel, who’d been driving solidly for some 11 hours, was jittery with road tension. So, we walked five minutes up the logging road to a flat spot with water and camped for the night, just getting the tents up as it started to rain. 

May 29, 2008

The morning was dry but misty – a common weather condition in these parts – as we dumped all our communal safety gear in one pile to divide equitably among our packs. At this point, we discovered that some people were refusing to bring safety equipment they’d previously agreed to bring, while others had extra safety equipment squirreled away in their packs that they refused to part with. The first in a series of interminable discussions ensued, and yet another compromise was reached. 

After about 15 minutes of walking up the road, we hit continuous snow and began skiing. Climbing out of the clearcut at the end of the road, I took a spectacular tumbling fall after my ski collapsed through rotten snow. After a series of head over heels flips I finally slid to a stop some 30 metres below. The rest of the group, bowed beneath heavy packs, barely seemed to notice, as I staggered back up with a bleeding nose. 

The standard route contours past the 6,800 foot bump (GR373303, NAD27) on it’s south and east side. With either (or maybe both) better route planning and/or communication skills, you could easily slide past this knoll on its south side to reach the small tarn at the broad pass at GR364285 (NAD27) with a modicum of effort, but our group seemed to possess neither. Instead, we spent 20 minutes arguing over our location while referencing three different GPS units each with different datums and referring to four or five different sets of maps, not necessarily with the GPS datum set to match the map, all the while seeming to ignore the fact that if anyone had actually looked around you could see easily see the pass and the most expeditious route. Finally, prodded into action we wandered in and out of each gully, up and down each bump and around each tiny tarn until we eventually reached the pass. 

From the pass, the route follows up and down terrain, past several small tarns and eventually reaches the base of a subalpine ridge that leads towards the Icemantle Glacier. Each small route finding decision, whether to go to the left or right around some minor obstacle necessitated a lengthy discussion, often punctuated by numerous GPS readings. However, we eventually skinned up to about 5600 feet where we camped by three tiny tarns. 

After dinner, three of us skinned up the minor bump behind camp (GR358244, NAD27) enjoyed panoramic views of the Icemantle Glacier and it’s surrounding peaks, and a pleasant, if not outstanding corn snow descent back to camp. 

May 30, 2008

The previous day’s mist was still hanging around in the morning as we skied east across a broad pass and began the long climb to reach the Icemantle Glacier. Isabel broke an excellent trail (if you can call barely getting an edge on solidly frozen snow “breaking”) weaving her way up to 7000 feet on a series of benches, thus proving that, if only we’d all collectively keep our big mouths shut, the person in front could, indeed, find the way. We ended up so close to the top of the minor peak at GR322248 (NAD27) that we dropped our packs and skinned to the top. Robin called this small peak “Little Bear” after the nearby Three Bears Mountain, and it provided good views of the gentle Icemantle Glacier and both Greymantle and Greenmantle Mountains. We had a nice ski down to the Icemantle Glacier, keeping to skiers left under the outlier of Three Bears Mountain to avoid crevasses and bare ice. After the usual lively lunch time discussion, we skinned easily up the Icemantle Glacier curving slightly to the south to reach the col on northwest side of Greenmantle Mountain. 

Taking only a little bit of safety gear, we skinned up the NW shoulder of Greenmantle Mountain. Low down, one steep section required boot kicking, but we were then able to ski almost to the summit, the final 30 metres again necessitating some step kicking. From the summit, it was fun to be able to see a good section of the McBride traverse that Robin, Betsy, Doug and I had skied two years ago. We skied all the way back to our packs at the col, and, as it was getting late and people were feeling tired, set up camp for the night. 

May 31, 2008

Finally the mist burned off and we had a clear sunny day. On frozen snow, we contoured off the shoulder of Greenmantle to gain the long east-west ridge that eventually becomes Roller Coaster Ridge and leads to Mount Pitt. Travel along this ridge was slow with many minor ups and downs, but our perpetual debate and discussion about each route choice no doubt made travel slower than necessary. After about two hours, we finally reached the low point of the ridge, and while everyone else snacked, Tom and I booted off and scouted a route down that faced slightly east and thus had the benefit of softer snow to descend. Shortly, we weaved our way down through light trees and rolls and coasted out near the middle of Lower Snowcap Lake. 

There are three routes up to the Snowcap Icefield from Snowcap Lakes: the north shoulder of Rain God Mountain, a spur ridge that runs south from the middle of Lower and Upper Snowcap Lakes, or the Staircase Glacier. Such a plethora of route options had, of course, necessitated lengthy debate. Most of us didn’t care which route we took but Isabel strongly preferred the north ridge of Rain God, nevertheless, as often happens terrain dictates route choices and as no-one wanted to either backtrack to Lower Snowcap Lake, nor ford the icy water of Iceworm Creek, we ended up taking the middle, and, I suspect preferred to most of us, route up to the Icefield. 

Thus we skied easily up to the Snowcap Icefield and, over lunch, debated (what else!) which of the peaks we could see was Snowcap Peak. Most of us settled on a snowy bump, but, of course, we couldn’t all agree. In fact, as we later discovered, we were all wrong as Snowcap Peak was tucked away behind a minor snow ridge and was invisible from our location. 

However, working on the basis that the snow bump we could see was Snowcap Peak, we continued up until we were perhaps 60 metres from the summit where we dropped our packs, and with people still in disagreement over the route, skinned to the top. Here it became impossible for any of us to defend our position as Robin’s GPS put us on top of a minor ridge, with the real Snowcap Peak off to our southwest. Robin really wanted to climb Snowcap Peak, and we were all feeling strong, so we skied the corn snow (the run being well worth the climb up) back to our packs and moved them a short distance to a narrow wind-tunnel on the northeast side of Snowcap Peak. A short skin up and we were on top of Snowcap Peak, and, even more surprising, we were all in agreement. 

Our sunny day was quickly changing as thickening cirrus clouds followed lenticular clouds and verga appeared over the far off mountains. I was keen to get down to the upper Misty Icefield to set up camp before the rain started, so Isabel and I set off, quickly followed by Bill, while Betsy waited for Robin and Tom, who’d decided now was a good time for a lengthy talk. The inevitable route finding disagreements arose, and while Bill and I coasted easily down to the Icefield on a zigzag series of ramps, the other four wandered off straight downhill into a narrow hole, and, upon trying to extricate themselves, Robin tumbled head first through a thinning snowbridge over a creek and had to be extricated by the other three. 

Camp was a damp affair with rain overnight and the inevitable mist streaming across the Icefield to reduce visibility to a dozen metres. 

June 1, 2008

An equally damp and dreary morning followed, but the mist was sufficiently thin to convince Tom and I that we should pack up and move camp. This was not a popular option, and it took a good hour of hashing out the various pros and cons to finally prod the other four from their tents, by which time the clearing weather trend had thoroughly disappeared and we were back in the milk bottle. 

A course was set to descend the 300 metres to the reach the main bulk of the Misty Icefield and a navigator elected and equipped with a compass, but, within 10 minutes of setting off, the group was in mutiny and all progress ground to a halt while various maps, GPS’s, compasses were consulted and theories expounded. Eventually, Tom, who stands a half a head taller than even the tallest member of our group managed to rise to ascendancy and led off, back on the same course as previous!

We reached some minor rocks, which were assumed to be a crucial ridge-line we needed to tag and then began to descend east, ostensibly to the main bulk of the Misty Icefield. But, we went down, down, and further down, far, far below the height of the Misty Icefield, into the deepening gloom. Occasionally, someone would try to halt the group as the terrain in no way matched the map, but, once the group was in motion, any single individual was impotent to stop the group. Finally, we bottomed out, almost 300 vertical metres below the elevation we should have been at. This, of course, was cause for great discussion and debate, and various theories, conjectures and suppositions were entertained. Most of us, didn’t listen to what anyone else said and just shouted louder to make our own opinions count. Thus we passed a damp hour hollering at each other as the mist streamed by. 

Eventually, perhaps due to sheer exhaustion of the vocal chords or perhaps lack of alternatives – there simply was no good route out of this hole we were in except to retrace our steps - we skinned up and followed our tracks back up into the mist. Where we hit the crucial ridge-line we stopped for a quick lunch and further consultation of various maps and GPS units and decided, in short order for once, to contour south to reach a closed contour on the map where we could find a suitable campsite, blundering around in the fog, now appearing to be a poor choice of activity for the day. 

This location we reached in short order, but camp was not set up without some dissent over it’s exact location. Eventually, however, we had our three tents in a row, tucked in a small hollow with some nearby rocks providing some protection from the weather. While everyone else read or napped in their tents, Tom and I set off on an exploratory mission to see if we could find the elusive Misty Icefield. We spent two hours wandering around in damp, dismal weather alternately descending and ascending, peering into the gloom and taking innumerable GPS readings none of which seemed to give us any useful information. Around 5 pm, I was too hungry to continue and gave Tom five more minutes to travel forwards before we returned to camp. We reached a spot where it is possible the Misty Icefield was a short distance below us, but, it also seemed to me entirely possible that everything fell off again into a void, as had happened on our previous forays. Tom, however, appeared content with the result of the outing, or unwilling to contend with my temper should I be denied sustenance and we skied back to camp. 

June 2, 2008

More rain overnight, more mist in the morning, again visibility was near zero and the water droplets in the moist air wet everything immediately. We were now down to three more days of food and fuel, and were at least three travel days from the end of the trip at Fire Lake. We spent a good two hours in discussions over what to do. After those two hours, we were no closer to a decision but moved on to discuss whether or not it was philosophically reasonable to use the satellite telephone we were carrying to get a weather report. Some time around noon, we’d reached a decision most people could live with, and I took the satellite phone up to the top of the rock outcrop and got a weather forecast. 

I came back with a gloomy report, a series of weather systems crossing the Coast with no clearing in sight. Forthwith, in true democratic style, we took a vote, 5 to 1 to turn back and retrace our steps. Within 45 minutes we were packed and out of camp, and a mere hour of travel took us back to our old campsite. Here, we were greeted with some clearing weather, thus encouraged, we pushed on and climbed back up to the Snowcap Icefield.
Our tracks from two days ago were still visible, and, as visibility was poor, we decided the simplest and safest option was to follow them down to Snowcap Lake. But, conformity appearing impossible in our group, we had soon split into two camps with one group following the tracks down and the other group convinced that the tracks were some half kilometre to the east speeding away into the gloom. 

Some bellowing across the glacier, a practice we all, with the exception of Betsy excelled at, and the recalcitrant offenders had plodded back to the fold. Robin gave us all a well deserved talking to about sticking together and making sure everyone knew – really knew- where they were going before taking off. We all nodded our agreement, but within half an hour had slipped back into our old ways with two people streaking off again in the wrong direction. This time, I administered the lecture, with somewhat less diplomacy than Robin, but to similar lack of effect. We crossed Snowcap Lake on a seriously thinning snow pack, and set up camp on the north side of the lake in damp conditions. 

June 3, 2008

Morning came with more mist, more streamers of water droplets in the air, a slight lifting of the cloud level, but no real improvement in the weather. In a surprisingly conformist pattern, we all packed up and skinned back up to the ridge above Snowcap Lake. True, there were some minor route variations, but in the end, we all ended up within 50 metres of each other, a proximity we hadn’t had since leaving the vehicles six days ago. We also managed to work our way back along the ridge without debate, discussion or deliberation. Reaching the Icemantle Glacier, the weather lifted enough for us to be able to see the route back up to ridge top and we were easily able to avoid any crevasses. Unfortunately, once we hit the ridge top, the weather closed in for good, and what we had all anticipated as an easy descent down to the tarn dotted saddle, took hours of weaving to and fro, lots of compass and GPS readings, but surprisingly little divergence in opinions. 

Plodding the two kilometres across the rolling terrain sapped the rest of my energy, so I was tired, hungry and had painfully sore feet by the time I skied into our old campsite. While Isabel got busy with the tent, I ate and released my pulverized feet from wringing wet boots. In our single wall tent, with the humidity as high outside as inside, Isabel and I were becoming wetter and wetter, both of us beginning to feel, and smell, like mouldy old bread. 

June 4, 2008

More wet weather and low cloud. I spent half an hour in the morning wrapping both my feet in balls of tape hoping to stave off more raw wounds. We were on a known route now, and somehow, possibly due to our collective desire to escape, we managed to keep roughly together for almost two hours of travel. True, there were mutterings of opposition, but outright rebellion didn’t occur for another hour. Somehow Tom had once again risen to pre-eminence, and, for the most part, people were listening to and following his route finding. But, when it came to contouring around the bump at GR373303, the festering insurgency finally exploded. Difficult terrain to contour necessitated a short (perhaps 40 metre) climb to gain easier terrain to continue traversing. Some went up, some went across, some insisted we take our skis off and boot pack, all of us shouted and roared at one another. But, no-one can shout quite like an enraged Aussie, and finally bellowing “I’m a woman with PMS and an ice axe” at Robin, the battle was won and up we went. 

On easier terrain, our progress was halted only by the apparent necessity for frequent GPS readings. Eventually, we reached a flat spot, that we judged to be above the logging road and we began descending. Confusion, of course, reigned, people veered off in various directions, but somehow, it all washed out in the end, and we slewed out onto the logging road. I was last out, and astonished to find the three males in the group all comparing GPS readings!
Nothing remained but the final ski/walk down the logging road to Isabel’s Suzuki and the endless bumping over waterbars.

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