It can be hard to admit that margins were a bit closer than they should have been when pursuing bigger objectives in the mountains. It implies that decisions were poorly made, or that unnecessary risk was taken or higher than expected. The truth is, backcountry skiing, alpine climbing, and other similar high commitment activities are a fairly imperfect science. We all should be making the best decisions possible with the info we have, but mistakes can still happen, conditions can deviate from the ideal weather forecast, and sometimes those margins can quickly go from seemingly manageable, to downright terrifying in the blink of an eye, often completely outside of factors we are able to control, or worse, because we overestimated something we thought we could.
Skiing the North Glacier on Mt Whymper was high on the tick-list for me this season. It is a quintessential classic Rockies ski ascent of a fairly big mountain, and the pay off is a massive 900m descent down the wide north face and bowl, combining a steep and (sometimes deep) 500m pitch from the col, a long and awe-inspiring mellow track through the North Bowl, and finally a long 300m pitch to Chickadee Valley below.
The run is North facing, sheltered from the afternoon sun. This was a major consideration given the rapidly changing seasonal temperatures. Avoiding anything even remotely South facing would be our best chance to manage the potential for increasing objective hazard in the afternoon if temperatures started to rise more than expected.
Weather and snow conditions were rapidly shifting while we were throwing around ideas the few days before our ski tour. The short term forecast was showing the start of a transition from the perfect -15C/-5C lows and highs we had been experiencing for weeks, into scary +10C afternoons within the next day or two and freezing levels rising all the way up to 2500m and beyond.
On the morning of our ski, we had been gifted one last good window for both the weather and avalanche forecast. Both called for one more day of stable conditions with mild wind and thin cloud, followed by rapid warming the following day.
The snowpack across almost the entire Canadian Rockies consisted of a variable 30-90cm of heavy (but consolidated and supportive) storm snow and wind loading that was poised on what amounted to 1-2 meters of sugar snow or facets… a potential nuclear bomb about to go off with the impending rise in temperatures.
We knew there was a potential for us to be cutting it close if temperatures rose quicker than expected, but made the decision to at least wander up to the Whymper bowl to have a look at the route and make a call once we could assess conditions directly.
In the parking lot, things were looking pretty good for an attempt. Mild temperatures, but still that cold morning bite that is needed for safe conditions in the alpine. We left the car at around 8:30 am – not exactly an alpine start, but early enough that we could safely expect to be on the summit by noon, and back in the valley by 2:00 pm, avoiding the warmest part of the afternoon, and potential solar warming if the thin clouds cleared.
Within an hour and a half, we were starting up the headwall, chasing an old mostly buried skin track that ascended the narrow band of very small trees splitting two large gullies. The climbing was pretty good at first, although it quickly devolved into a bit of a suffer-fest by the time we reached the crux of the slope… a steep but short gulley feature that rolled into mellower terrain above.
Shane beat the gully into submission with tight kick turns, until we decided to pull our skis off and boot-pack the final 50m to the top of the bench. Once we reached the bench, we had a chance to survey what was going to be our route down. It was clear that while things were stable at the time of ascent, it could become very dangerous very quickly with further solar warming. We noted a line that looked most likely for a descent on skiers left and carried on up the bowl.
The views in the North Bowl of Whymper are absolutely jaw-dropping. Massive overhanging walls surround the cirque, with our line of ascent marking the path to the col at the south-west end of the bowl, a large slightly intimidating slope rising to meet the top.
Skiing up the bowl, the (also intimidating) X-couloir comes into view, in our case, with a large fan of old avi debris marking the exit. As the angle steepened towards the col, we found still excellent snow conditions. A bombproof base, with 10-20cm of unconsolidated snow on top. Everything was holding together nicely, and temperatures were still quite cold. We followed the gully up and left around the short cliff band splitting the lower section of the route from the steeper upper pitches. From there we made a few more turns before a slowly thinning top layer of snow along with the increasing slope angle and exposure convinced us to ditch the skis and boot-pack the final 100m to the col.
Without skis, the final pitch went quick, and we soon found ourselves greeted by endless views of massive peaks to the south and west, and what looked like only a short scramble to the summit of Whymper proper. A thin layer of cloud and still-cold temperatures gave us the confidence to make a quick ascent of the rocky ridge above to tag the summit before we descended back down to beat the afternoon sun.
A few photos (and about 45 minutes later) we were halfway back down the ridge when a faint rumble registered in my subconscious. With the highway a direct 1,000m below us, I dismissed it as a car or snowplow far below.
“Was that there before?” Shane asked… pointing down the south bowl at a massive outrun of avalanche debris below us.
“I don’t think so… that just happened.”
“Holy shit, is that a person?” I responded… noticing a small black dot in the middle of the debris field about 300m below us. We spent another 5 minutes trying to make out if it was a rock or a person before we could tell the dot was definitely moving, clearly freeing themselves from the debris.
We waved and yelled, trying to get their attention, but unable to hear a response. Finally, we saw their arms waving, but were they waving at us? Was this a solo skier? Was the rest of the party buried? We couldn’t see anyone else, and they were too far away to communicate with, short of waving frantically and shouting.
We surveyed the sun-baked slope below, quickly coming to the mutual conclusion that attempting to ski the south side of the col towards the skier would be extremely risky to us, the skier, and potentially any of the rest of his party we could not see. There was a large section of the iso-thermal, heavily loaded slope that hadn’t slid yet that we would have to ski to descend. If we did, there was a highly likely chance that we would trigger a secondary slide, it would bury the person we would be trying to rescue, and potentially ourselves, and potentially his party.
I checked my phone and tried phoning 911 just in case… but no service ended that plan quickly. We knew we would not get any cell service until Castle Junction, a 3-hour ski out, and a 15-minute drive beyond that.
We talked about it for a few minutes before making the decision that with no safe way to get to them, we would have to follow our original plan and ski back down the North Bowl and exit the valley to call it into Parks Dispatch. If there was someone else buried, it would be too late at that point, which was a hard thought to come to terms with. We knew this meant a 9km+ ski out to the car- meaning at least 2-3 hours before we could even get the wheels turning on a rescue operation if needed.
We returned to our gear at the col and prepared to descend. We were both feeling a little bit rattled after witnessing the involvement below us. Our confidence in the seemingly bomber snowpack was wavering, and we were both feeling quite nervous about the steep pitch of snow we were about to ride.
I took a few cautious turns on the steepest roll of the slope. It felt good… just as bomber as it had felt on the ascent, with light sluffing, but none of the hot, wet snow we were most afraid of. Feeling more confident, I started to link up my turns, quickly reaching a sheltered point below the upper headwall, and signaled Shane to follow.
Shane made a few nervous turns of his own, and he was able to open it up to meet me. The worst behind us, we turned on the gas, and committed to the remaining 300m of blower powder to the open bowl below, putting the events unfolding across the col from us out of our minds long enough to enjoy what might have been the single best conditions and ski run I’ve had in a very long time.
We made short work of the bowl and found ourselves at the top of the final headwall before reaching the flats of Chickadee valley below. A final 200m crux that was without a doubt the most dangerous part of our day.
Shane started down the gully, quickly reaching the sun-affected part which had softened up significantly. He pulled left and yelled out “Watch this section” before cleaning the remaining turns to the break in the pitch. I followed behind and reached the hot-sun-affected snow in the gully.
The wet and deep isothermic snow almost immediately broke away, sliding on facets below and building into a size 1 wet slide that starting moving down the gully “HEADS UP!” I shouted.
Shane was clear of the gully, and the slide stopped short of the elevation he stood at. I pulled left out of the gully into a more sheltered slope covered in small trees and skied the remaining few dozen meters to where he stood to wait.
“Well that was scary,” I said, surveying the small slide above. We both breathed a sigh of relief and then pointed our tips down to shred the last 100m of perfect powder to the safety of the valley below.
Grateful to have pulled off such an awesome objective, in perfect conditions, on the last good day of winter conditions of the season felt amazing. However, we were acutely aware of how warm it was, and that we still had no idea what had happened to the skier on the other side of the mountain.
We skied the 4km back to the car in silent exhaustion and drove down to Castle Junction to call in the incident to Parks Dispatch. They had not had a call but got all the relevant details from us.
A warden called back later to inform me that there were no signs of anyone still remaining in the slide, and 3 ski tracks leading away from the very large avalanche they observed in the bowl. I was grateful they were ok, but it was clear that it was a big day in avalanche country.
How close were we to the edge? Hard to say. With the exception of a small pocket of warm sun affected snow in the final pitch of the headwall, conditions were extremely good all the way up and down our route, with stable cold temperatures and thin cloud shielding the solar warmth just as expected. We found exactly the conditions we expected, and we ascended the route just as safe as expected. But admittedly, on the verge of a massive warming cycle that followed over the next few days… perhaps it was a bit closer than was necessary.
In hindsight, an earlier start, and moving a little quicker at the summit would have been prudent, and I think next time I won’t be pushing a big alpine objective like Mt. Whymper so close to impending catastrophic solar triggered avalanche cycle as we did that day.
We were safe and successful in the end, but in a pursuit filled with dangerously thin margins at the best of times, maximizing our margins should always be priority number 1.