Story by David Hanson | Photographs by Michael Hanson
I’m more of an alpinist than a ski mountaineer, so it feels a little odd to clip into skis while hauling a four-season tent and three days of food in my 40-pound backpack. It’s also strange not to be departing from a backcountry trailhead; I’m in a corral maze, staring at a growing lift line. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and cinnamon rolls seeps from the ground floor cafés of luxury condos. An easy day of lift-served skiing followed by some Canadian après is tempting me. Full strength ale. A mound of poutine. The morning sun still hasn’t hit the bottom of British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb as we load onto the first lift. The liftie eyes our packs and nods, “Doing the traverse, eh?”
Yes, my Canadian friend, I nod in return. We’re beginning a three-day tour of the Spearhead Traverse, and we’re wisely using the lifts to access it. The Spearhead is that rare multiday, high-alpine expedition that doesn’t require the penance of a full day of climbing. The first 5,000-plus feet come courtesy of bullwheels and wire ropes. After four increasingly chilly lifts, we reach the terminus of the Showcase T-bar, a spindly little tow that drags us through the resort’s alpine terrain and deposits us just a few sidesteps away from the beginning of the Traverse. We are not alone up here. The early risers are shredding the bowls on the front and backside of the summit. We contour the Blackcomb Glacier, and a dozen other backcountry skiers join us, though no one else has overnight packs.
There’s no trail registry for the Spearhead Traverse. No permit. No reservations. Logistically, it’s a simple thing: Leave the resort boundary and a horseshoe-shaped course links the peaks of the Spearhead Range, before making a wide, glaciated, multipass boomerang turn to join its southwesterly cousin, the Fitzsimmons Range. The 20-mile route hovers in the 6,000- to 8,000-foot elevation range. Along the way are peaks to summit, and 3,000-foot descents on perfectly pitched glaciers to plunder. On the front end is the lift access afforded by Blackcomb, and on the tail end, Whistler rolls out its groomer carpet for the triumphant return to cheeseburgers, pints, and glamorous fur collars. In the coming years a hut system will boost the comfort of the Traverse. We’re taking what might be the last opportunity to ski it the old-fashioned way—spending the nights huddled in a tent.
After skinning up to the east col of Blackcomb Peak, even the hardcore backcountry day-trippers start to thin. We strip our skins and stand atop the first steep roller looking into the Circle Glacier and across the valley to Decker Mountain and its glacier. My pack suddenly feels cumbersome, like a teenager just hopped on for a piggyback ride. I’m the last in our group to descend. The first turn is OK—then it gets steeper and deeper. I stiffen, trying to force my new, comically cambered fat skis on edge. But my backpack grows more ornery; dragging me in the direction I’m trying to turn away from. The pack wins. It would have been a perfect somersault except that my head and shoulders dig a two-foot trench into the soft snow, stopping me midroll and giving me my first taste of the days-old precip.
You see, I am not a good skier. Never have been. Probably never will be. But I love the alpine, summer or winter. I’m here with my wife Christine, my brother Michael, and our buddy Todd Anthony-Malone, who happens to be a professional Canadian ski guide. (I promise he was our buddy before he was our guide, but it’s hard to overlook the good fortune of having a close friend who can bring me into places I couldn’t quite navigate on my own.) It doesn’t hurt that Todd—and I know this might make him a human oxymoron—is a humble guide. He simply loves skiing. And he wants to spend his time on this earth with people in the mountains. Todd’s also patient. We’ve skied together many times. A few years ago we completed Canada’s Wapta Traverse. He knows that Michael and I can grind out a full-day uphill slog, but that when it comes to the downhill, we are shameless disasters. Let it be known that we were raised in Georgia.
It takes a few minutes to dislodge the powder from my goggles, but I make it down and join wife, brother, and guide. Todd is pleased to note that Christine, a Washington native, is by far the better skier of the three of us. Michael is laughing at my tumble, but a bit anxiously. He knows there’s no way he makes it around the Traverse without a few splats of his own.
By the time we skin up Decker Glacier and regroup to strip our skins below Trorey Peak, we’ve entered the wilderness. There are no more day-tripper tracks in front of us. We’ve got the Traverse to ourselves. And yet we’re still less than two miles from one of the largest and most popular ski resorts on earth. From Trorey, things start to look big. Looking deeper, more easterly, into the Traverse reveals a dense layering of glaciated bowls and jagged black-rock peaks and cliff bands.
A surprising number of people complete the Spearhead Traverse in a day. To do so, however, involves a long, nonstop, Mr. Miyagi-style assault. Skins on, skins off. We’ve chosen to take our time with the standard three-day tour. As we skin up the Trorey Glacier toward our first camp at Mount Pattison, we’re all glad not to be in a rush. The sun has softened behind a thin gauze of harmless late afternoon clouds. We dig out a tent site behind a picket fence of black spires through which we watch the late afternoon sun drop over the Fitzsimmons Range. We contemplate a downhill run on the Trorey Glacier, but the crusty snow up high isn’t inviting, so we bootpack up the short cliff band onto the shoulder of Pattison and walk to its summit, only a half-hour up. The vantage offers a scout of tomorrow’s terrain—more wide-open glacier and thin cols.
We descend off Pattison’s shoulder, back into our protected tent cove. The sun paints the thin clouds pink and lavender and the untouched slopes surrounding us take on the same muted palette. This spot will serve as a prime piece of real estate for the ambitious new hut system planned for the Traverse. For the moment, with the entire ridge to ourselves, we wonder what a hut in this same place would mean.
The Spearhead Hut system has been in the works since 2010, directed by a core contingent of the BC Mountaineering Club and the Alpine Club of Canada, which manages 12 alpine huts throughout BC. These mountains aren’t new to hut skiing. The first alpine refugio in BC, the Himmelsbach Hut, sits above Russet Lake near the end of the Spearhead Traverse. That hut was built in 1968 by local backcountry skier Werner Himmelsbach, an Austrian immigrant who is something of a living legend in British Columbia. He and a few buddies—one of whom had access to a forestry helicopter—hiked and airlifted in the construction materials. But on the second airlift, the swivel malfunctioned, causing a load of beams to spin wildly below the chopper. To avert disaster, the pilot dropped the line and the wood fell into the forest halfway up the mountain. So Himmelsbach and his BC Mountaineering Club buddies did what any hardscrabble men would do. They hiked in, salvaged whatever lumber they could, and bushwhacked it up to the build.
If you know your Whistler Blackcomb history, then you know that the Himmelsbach Hut predates the ski area. Four years earlier, in 1964, Himmelsbach’s buddy Karl Ricker was a member of the first party to connect the Spearhead Traverse. They skinned or bootpacked up what is now Blackcomb, then pieced together a nine-day first navigation of the horseshoe.
Back on Mount Pattison, we wake to a blue-sky morning. The second day is the toughest on the Traverse, both in terms of terrain and route finding. With good visibility there’s not much of a navigation challenge, but if the soup rolls in, the glaciers get creepier and the Hanson Brothers’ downhill abilities grow as ugly as a carnival fight. If the weather demands a quick exit, there’s one escape route down the Curtain Glacier at the apex of the horseshoe; that path requires a safe but brutally hard off-trail thwack-fest out the Fitzsimmons Creek valley. None of us want that inglorious exit.
It’s nice being the only people out here and that would certainly not be the case if there were a hut. But this whole route feels a little like cheating reality anyway. It’s lift-served alpinism. If you want hardcore solitude, there’s plenty of backcountry to be had all over BC. Besides, a hut system on this circuit has been a dream since European settlers first began exploring the high route. And now, with backcountry skiing representing the fastest growing sector in the ski industry, there’s a new demographic that wants to explore, feel the aerobic burn, and find fresh tracks. For his part, our humble guide Todd likes the hut idea. There’ll be more potential for Spearhead clients when there’s a warm hut waiting at the end of each day.
The long ski tour across the giant Tremor Glacier shrinks us down to four stick figures, all slow scissor-kicking legs and pumping arms in an outsized landscape. We hear the thwop-thwop-thwop of a heli-ski operation echoing away in the Wedge Creek valley. But they don’t make it up to our elevation, and soon we’re in the shade of Tremor Mountain’s east buttress, below a final pitch of snow steeper than anything we’ve encountered. We sidestep up the solid, windblown surface, Todd and Christine crunching up in ninja style and moving fluidly. Michael and I—lacking the confidence to either descend the icy slope or sidestep up it with vigor—go all Elvis-legged. Gripped.
Atop the col, we’re back in the sun and staring over the short, wide Platform Glacier. This is the beginning of the Traverse’s apex. We cross the Platform onto the Ripsaw Glacier, capped by its namesake, knife-edged summit. It’s tempting to ski the moderately pitched Ripsaw. There’s no fresh powder, but the snow is soft, light, and fast. The wispy clouds of the morning are thickening and we’re expecting a little weather this evening. With the crux of the route still ahead, we skip the descent and seesaw across the Naden Glacier and up to the col of Mount Macbeth where the second of the Spearhead Huts would be built.
Located in a more extreme section of the Traverse, the Macbeth Hut would be almost a bivy hut, the place to crash if a storm rolled in and you didn’t feel comfortable pushing on into the teeth of the range, or if you simply wanted to linger for laps down the Ripsaw or Curtain Glaciers. Such a hut could also be a launching point to stage trips deeper into Garibaldi Provincial Park. The Fitzsimmons and Spearhead Ranges, after all, make up only three percent of the park’s 482,000 acres.
The hut system permits are nearly at hand. Jayson Faulkner of the Spearhead Huts Project committee hopes they can break ground on the first hut this summer. He estimates cost at around $500,000 per cabin, much of the heavy lifting done by a grassroots network of volunteers from Whistler, Squamish, and Vancouver. Eventually, the huts will open for summer use as well.
A hut on Macbeth would have been a boon for us. We could have taken some runs down the Ripsaw and not worried about what was beginning to look like a solid low-pressure pulse creeping in on us. By the time we ski the Macbeth, visibility is 30 feet. Michael and I hang back, following Todd’s orange coat and trying to keep our ridiculously wide turns within his and Christine’s tight tracks. A long, crusty traverse across the steep topside of the Iago Glacier leaves us with an uphill climb weaving between crevasses. The sun fights a losing battle to break through the darkening clouds as we round the summit block of Mount Fitzsimmons and grunt up the Diavolo Glacier’s 1,000-foot climb to the col between Fitzsimmons and Mount Benvolio.
In the eerie yellow-gray light, with a 15 miles per hour wind whipping across the glacier from the west, we step into our climbing harnesses. The Fitzsimmons Glacier falls steeply away from its precarious grip on Mount Benvolio and its westerly neighbor, Overlord Mountain. The landscape here is gigantic, black and white, and menacing. We’re barely 10 miles from Whistler, yet we’re fully in the wilderness.
We traverse beneath a long, perfectly symmetrical saddle, its gently arching horizon line the only thing differentiating the soft gray light of the snow from the soft gray light of the sky. We turn the corner beneath Overlord and the terrain mellows. We can see the Overlord Glacier’s wide apron below us, but the clouds are quickly filling in the basin.
Todd skis ahead toward a horizon of black rocks. This is the crux, a short, mandatory rappel to access the Overlord Glacier. He builds an anchor in the snow and stacks the rope. We strap our skis to our packs and, one by one, back over the lip of the rock, feeling about as nimble as dairy cows with our ski boots clanking into tiny, icy footholds. But I’m on a rope, so I let Todd lower me to the bottom. Then I laugh, watching Michael and Christine twitch through the same range of awkward motions.
Soon we’re all skiing under falling snow down the final hundred feet to the safe camp zone in the middle of the Overlord. We quickly pad out a tent site. And just before the clouds engulf our world, Todd takes a bearing on the ridgeline to our west where we’ll ski out tomorrow. Snow blows sideways as we batten down camp. We crawl into the four-person tent and transform it into a steam room of sweaty clothes, breathy conversations recapping the day, and the endless melting of snow water. We’re through the hard effort of the Traverse and we sleep deeply in the shaking tent.
The morning brings calm, single-digit cold. The early morning sky promises sun. No need for the compass bearing today. From Overlord to Whistler, the Traverse rolls out of glaciated terrain onto gentler slopes. We find some of the best snow stashes of the trip off Whirlwind Peak. We drop 1,500 vertical feet to Russet Lake. Trees appear again. And we visit the historic Himmelsbach Hut, a simple hoop house of old dark wood and a handful of bunks crammed into the windowless space. It’s easy to see why Himmelsbach, Ricker, and their buddies wanted to have a base camp—primitive as it might be—out here surrounded by days of trackless skiing and only a long day’s skin in from Whistler. Just above Russet Lake, on a wide, west-facing bench, the Spearhead group plans to build their third hut.
With no more glacial travel or rappels (and with our packs lighter), we enjoy the best skiing of the trip down Singing Pass, Cowboy Ridge, the Oboe Face, and Boundary Bowl. But ours are no longer the only tracks out here. By early afternoon, day-trippers skinning over from the upper Whistler lifts have cut up most of the runs.
We gather at the inbounds rope to Whistler. It’s groomers all the way down from here. The poutine and beers are beckoning, but first I pull out my cell phone and call Himmelsbach. At 82, he still gets after it and he’s agreed to come join us for a quick ski. We meet him at the Roundhouse and talk about the Traverse over coffee. I’m feeling proud and tough after three backcountry alpine days on skis. Himmelsbach tells us about being in the first Canadian party to climb Denali, and about building the Himmelsbach Hut in his backyard, then disassembling it, hauling it up to the high country, and rebuilding it there.
Then he asks if we’re ready to ski down. His tall, agile frame moves fluidly in boots through the Roundhouse crowds. We follow him, grabbing our skis and skating to the edge of the run. He pulls his goggles down, flashes a big grin at us, then turns and burns down the groomer, the smoothest, tightest skier on the run.
I push my speedometer’s limit trying to keep up with this final, timeless reminder of why, despite my clownish lack of skills, I’m drawn to a life shared with people who love mountains.
From the Winter 2015 issue.