Snow is not often scarce in January in the Pacific Northwest. But this winter has been a bit thin in our home state, which has forced many in the Washington backcountry crowd to migrate north to the interior of British Columbia for the big peaks and deeper snowpacks of the Rogers Pass zones. Earlier this week we ran a story about Kyle Miller’s mission up the Asulkan to shred Forever Young and the Seven Steps to Paradise, but Tyler Reid and our friends at Pacific Alpine Guides also headed north to the same trailhead last month to complete the Lily Traverse through the Sapphire Col into the neighboring zone. This is his report from Canada’s touring crossroads. —LYA Editor
Words, Images and Captions by Tyler Reid
Where’s the snow? It’s late January and winter is nowhere to be found in the Pacific Northwest. Collin just got off his second night shift in a row at the Seattle Fire Department. It’s been a busy couple nights and he hasn’t had much sleep.
But he’s psyched to go. Sled loaded on the deck of his F350, even though we won’t be using it in Glacier National Park, he wouldn’t feel right going near Revelstoke without it.
We’re headed to Rogers Pass—where the snow is—in search of winter. The locals here are complaining about the snow. That it’s not the blower powder the Selkirks are known for.
“The skiing sucks right now.”
Collin and I can’t help but be amused. To us, coming from our “winter” in the PNW, it might as well be the best blower powder the Selkirks have ever seen.
Most importantly to us, there’s lots of it—2 to 3 meters. Cold, soft, highly skiable, and remarkably stable. Much has happened in the last week: a huge avalanche cycle at Rogers Pass, including over 60 naturals and 40 artillery triggered slides up to size 4 on the destructive scale (large enough to destroy a small village), yet now the danger rating reads Yellow-Green-Green (Moderate-Low-Low, Alpine to Below Treeline).
Collin works hard. His other job is diving for geoducks in the frigid waters of Alaska. He plays just as hard: kiteboarding, kite-skiing, sled-accessed skiing, ski mountaineering. We met on a Hurricane Ridge-to-Deer Park traverse turned road’s-closed pow-session last April. In May of 2014, he’ll be a member of our ski expedition to Mt. Bear in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
We arrive at the trailhead at ten o’clock at night and click into our skis for the 20-minute skin into the A.O. Wheeler hut. The next morning, five centimeters of new snow freshens things up, and we find ourselves skinning up the “elephant’s trunk,” an exposed feature where every kick turn counts, on our way to the Bonney Trees. The clouds slowly begin to part, revealing towering peaks in all directions.
We ski perfectly spaced trees and rampy moraines in cold, springy, friendly, untracked snow. It’s not blower, but any jaded local who doesn’t think this is good skiing needs to have spent this December and January in the low-tide conditions we’ve been experiencing in Washington.
It’s full inversion mode the next morning, and we skin up to the Asulkan Hut in an icy cloud. We drop our overnight gear at the hut, put on our harnesses, and head for Young’s Peak. Above the hut, it’s a bluebird day, and we cruise comfortably wearing light layers. Somehow the snow remains cold and preserved. We transition on the broad, football-field-sized summit, 5,000 vertical feet above the valley floor, dropping into a long, sunlit descent to our alpine chalet.
The inversion continues the next day. From the hut we drop into the icy clouds, throw our skins on, and pop right back up into a sunny day. We work our way up the dome glacier, in our own reflective worlds, quietly gaining elevation. A sparkly layer of surface hoar adds to the surreal effect, poised to wreak havoc with the next storm cycle.
Eventually we reach the high col, where the run down the other side looks too good to pass up. We use the rope to descend a short pitch of steep rocks coated in faceted sugar under a drum-like hollow wind crust. The subsequent run is one of the best of the trip.
We regain the col, and at 3:30pm start a sustained 4,000-foot descent into the Asulkan Valley: glacier headwall, benchy moraines, and steep pillows. With our northern latitude and easterly position in the time zone, it’s almost dark when we hit the parking lot.
Inversion day three. Five hours from the road, we’re having lunch at Sapphire Col and we have the place to ourselves. The Lily Traverse is one of the most classic high alpine ski tours in Rogers Pass, ascending the Asulkan Valley, Triangle Moraine and glaciated terrain to Sapphire Col, before dropping down the backside and traversing to the crest of the Lily Glacier. The north-facing Lily is in the shadows on this January afternoon, and we ski cautiously to avoid crevasses. Lower down, we’re able to relax and let em’ run for the remaining 2,000 feet to the road.
The Lily Traverse is the perfect cap on four days of actual winter. Touring on high alpine glaciers in splitter weather feels like it must be April, and summer is just around the corner. It’s all the better knowing that February and March are still to come.
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