Words by Lee Lau. Pictures by Lee Lau and Jonathan Armstrong
Up till now we had great luck with weather and touring conditions. Yesterday had been a long, tiring day. We had hoped to travel across the Forger and SnowBowl Glacier and camped at Drop Pass. Today’s plan would involve navigating both those glaciers, and then over to Crosscut-Luxor Col and either camp down low at Sentinel Bay or camp high at Sentinel Peak. We had a narrow time-frame as a storm was forecast to come in on Saturday – only two days away. We woke to clouds looming from the south-west ie the direction from which coastal storms typically arrive.
Campsite below old slidepaths from Veocee Mtn (background). Wolverine Pass from which we descended yesterday is to picture right
Snow Bowl Glacier’s toe was to our south – the approach to the Snow Bowl Glacier this way is steep and cliffs out and is a no-go
Jonathan and I packed up camp and headed back up to Wolverine Pass hoping that the weather would turn for the better as we got higher. In about an hour we were back at 1800m looking into gray. Wolverine Pass was whited out and our way to the Forger Glacier and to Drop Pass, Hour Peak, Isosceles-Crosscut Ridge etc was hidden in clouds and increasing wind. Then it started snowing lightly. Retreating was a tough decision to make but in retrospect the only sensible one we could have made. The storm was forecast to last for a few days and we didn’t have fuel to sit in a tent for that long. Whiteout navigation is all very well but the terrain ahead looked very complex with lots of steep side-hilling, steep ridge-walking and multiple glaciers to cross before getting to Garibaldi Lake.
Retreating down the Cheakamus as weather turns
In our naivety, on looking at the map we thought we would be out in Highway 99 calling a cab and eating at Splitz Grill that very night. We turned to be so very wrong. The first obstacle we had to deal with was slide path after slide path – mainly off Veocee Mountain and its ridges.
Horrendous slide debris on the Cheakamus retreat
The slide paths themselves didn’t slow us down that much. We started our retreat from Wolverine Pass at 1800m at about 10.15am and a little over an hour and a half later at about 1000m we forded the Cheakamus River to gain the north bank. Hoping (naively) to keep our socks and boots dry we planned on making our way on the north bank to the lake and beyond.
Fording the Cheakamus River junction was not gentle on my feet
Our first reality time-check occurred when we ran into a narrow part of the Cheakamus River where the river pinches into a narrow canyon with steep side-slopes. Since Jonathan is a forester, I let him lead this part. We took almost 2 hours to make our way 800m west as we climbed up and down, backtracked and side-hilled and clambered over rocks, hung onto trees, stumbled over slide debris and bush-whacked our way through some of the most frustrating “ski-touring” terrain I have ever experienced.
As the Cheakamus pinches into a narrow slot we wonder how the hell to navigate this mess
Slow frustrating going through the complex terrain as the Cheakamus narrows
One last (but big) slide path before the Cheakamus widens to a flood plain
Finally we were through the pinch. It was now 4pm and we were still a long way from the lake. It was clear that I wouldn’t be seeing neither my wife, nor a warm bed or Splitz Grill tonight! At this point, the map tells us that the river breaks into several watercourses and becomes a wide floodplain. We were hoping that would make for faster travelling. This also turned to be out to be more unwarranted optimism on my part. Wide floodplains have flood debris and blowdown. Wide floodplains also have more light which means that you get to experience the joys of slide alder. That is the joy of being a ski-tourer in the Coast Mountains – slide alder, devils club, and blowdown build lots and lots of character. Coincidentally they also help you practise your vocabulary of swear-words
The going gets “easier” as the Cheakamus widens to a flood plain
As we get past some of the worst of the clambering up and down the Cheakamus’s banks, we start having to resort to fancy footwork to get past the slide alder and logs. At one point, it was so ridiculous it was almost funny as both Jonathan and I would ski down and over and across multiple logs on mixe dice, cedar and snow on to other slippery logs. Again, more slow going.
Flood plains usually have lots of space and light – perfect for blowdowns and slide alder growth
As we got closer to the marshier plains, the slide alder started thinning out and there was less blowdown. That was the good news. The bad news was that snow also started to thin out and the ground got soggier and soggier.
As the snow thins out the ground becomes wetter and marshier as we approach the lakeshore
More slow-going - forest or marsh? Pick your poison
The key point when we started not caring about keeping feet dry was when both of us simultaneously went into mud up to our knees. That was a low point for my poor boot liners – which will now have to be retired. Travelling through marsh with 60 pound packs plus skis on pack is interesting. At first we bootpacked. Sinking up to your ankles and knees in marsh is inefficient travelling. We eventually resorted to putting on skins and marsh-skiing. This could be a fine new sport should we ever be able to attract investors to our real estate development fronting the wonderful marshlands of Cheakamus Lake.
Marsh near Cheakamus Lake and goodbye to dry feet
Bootpacking near the marsh
Bootpacking on marsh means you sink in to your knees. While skiing on marsh isn’t good for gear – it’s a bit faster then bootpacking
Jonathan making decent time marsh-touring past Isosceles and Castle Towers Creek. The weather looked pretty bad up high.
Eventually slide alder started coming back into play. Slide alder combined with even deeper marshland meant that we had to duck back into forest. This was at about 7pm or so and we still had no sign that we were close to Cheakamus Lake. By this time light was rapidly disappearing in the thick trees of this mature timber and there was still a substantial amount of snow in the trees.
I think that was a low point in the day for me. Curses flew as we stumbled up and over blowdown, through breakable crust and slowly plugged our way along with still no sign of the freaking lake. Eventually Jonathan took pity on me and we decided to find a flat spot near a creek and camp.
Our stuff was soaked but at least we could eat a square meal in relative warmth and build a small fire to try to dry out some stuff a bit. As we nodded off to sleep the wind in the treetops howled as the storm continued up high.
We gave up on making lakeshore and struck camp near a creek and flat spot. This fire dried some gear out a bit
Day 3′s slow progress
Day 3′s elevation profile