On Easter long weekend, a year ago in 2012, we wanted to do something that would test our ability but would also be enjoyable and mostly fun. A few ideas had been thrown around. The Garibaldi Neve traverse? The Spearhead traverse? All of which seemed like a lot of hard work. We decided to do something a little bit more laid back, have a campsite we wouldn’t have to move for 2 nights and bag some reasonably close mountains with only moderate amounts of elevation gain.
We decided on doing Joffre Peak via the Aussie Couloir and Mount Matier via its northeast spur . Fast, light parties can easily bag both of these peaks as a day trip car-to-car, but we decided to spread it out over 3 days and 2 nights. We’d consider doing other mountains in the vicinity also depending on where we’d get to build our camp. Information we received on the way in would ultimately dictate our camps location, more on that later.
We arrived at the Cerise Creek Trail Head after 11:30am on the Friday. It was going to be a relatively lazy day so we didn’t push to get there super early. As I swung my ~40lb pack onto my back and started out on the trail I thought how relaxing this weekend was going to be. The weather was awesome and the trail in was nice and broken so we could move at a brisk pace.
As we hiked in I started to think back to around the same time of year in 2010 and how much things had changed. Two years ago almost exactly from that weekend I was packing the last of my items into my suitcase and getting ready to leave Ireland for good and move to Canada.
I look back on that person and wonder who he was. He was over 70lbs heavier and his interests could be described with one word; sedentary. He’d never touched a glacier, words like couloir, bergschrund and randkluft were unknown to his vocabulary and he could barely climb a few flights of stairs without getting winded. A relaxing holiday was lying on a beach in Thailand, sipping Margaritas and munching on crocodile samosas.
Anyway, I continued to think back for a while, and before I knew it we were outside Keiths Hut near Cerise Creek. I’d initially thought to just stop for a second outside it, drink some water, then continue on but I remembered that I was bringing my, then, new MSR Reactor Stove with me and I hadn’t even bothered to test it out yet to see if it was working. So we decided to stop into the hut, do a quick test run of it, then continue on.
That decision ultimately changed the course of our weekend. When we got into the hut a few skiers were milling around looking anxious. They were all packing up and clearing out. We heard somebody ask “Where are the RCMP in Pemberton?”. It piqued my interest. I inquired about what was going on and they said that, on Thursday night, there’d been a spate of car break-ins along the Duffy Road. People, who had been sleeping in their cars, were woken by thieves attempting to break their windows. They were all leaving as other skiers coming in had reported to them that their windows were smashed.
This news gave me a hollow feeling in my gut. Not only was my work cell phone in the car, but worse, we’d accidentally left our spare set of car keys in the car. Thieves could easily take our car and leave us stranded on that road with no cell reception. We could ignore the information and continue on but I knew it would eat at me all weekend. We could cancel our trip altogether (let that scum win and ruin my weekend, no chance), we could entrust one of the other skiers on the way out to root through our car and bury our stuff in the snow nearby or… one of us could hike back to the car, pick up all the stuff, then hike back in. The other person would go ahead and start making camp.
Ultimately we went with the latter. This meant we had to temper our goals for the day. We had intended to hike all the way to the Matier/Joffre saddle and camp there. Spring decided that, as she wasn’t familiar with the GPS and our route, she’d hike back to the car. As she would be delayed by 2.5hrs at least our plans to get to the saddle would need to change as it was already getting later in the day and neither of us wanted to split up for ascending the Anniversary Glacier.
We elected to make our camp at Motel 66, a moraine shoulder below the flanks of Joffre, so named as it sits at around 6600ft above sea level. We could see the campsite from the hut so I told Spring where she’d need to go and which direction I was going to be heading in so she could follow my broken trail when she returned to the hut.
I made it to Motel 66 in under an hour from the hut and started making camp. You might imagine I had the easier of the two tasks when we split but you see we didn’t bring a tent. This trip I wanted to try out sleeping in a snow pit with a tarp over it for the first time. I was actually glad I had more daylight hours in the day to dig it as it was a learning process trying to give us enough headroom and space whilst not making it so large that the small tarp couldn’t cover it. I dug a platform for us to sleep on then a trench at our feet to act as the walkway in and a cold sink with a few compartments for our bags, boots, kitchen… etc. All in all I was just putting the finishing touches on our camp when Spring showed up.
We were noticing there were no tracks up the Anniversary glacier, and dreading having to break trail up to the saddle the next morning when 5 other skiers came into Motel 66 and told us they were heading up and past the saddle. Knowing there would be a broken trail for us the next morning was such a boon to our enthusiasm. So kudos to those skiers.
After that we then quickly had dinner (love the Reactor stove, so fast, not just to boil water, but also to set up, and it’s footprint is tiny) and got into bed. The first night was cold in our snow pit. It must have been at least -15’c. I was pretty chilled to start out with but eventually warmed up and got a few hours of good sleep. There was zero wind also which definitely helped matters.
Before we knew it 4am rolled around and it was time to get up. A lazy Alpine start but before sunrise anyway. We had bagels, which we kept from freezing in our sleeping bags and coffee. We geared up and headed out shortly after 5am.
The air was crisp and we moved quickly on the tracks broken by the skiers the previous evening up the Anniversary Glacier. We just topped out on the saddle as the sun broke above the horizon. We made quick time from there to the base of the Aussie Couloir. From a distance it does look formidable. But up close, you can understand why it is only mentioned as a descent route in the guidebook “Alpine Select”. It’s steep, but manageable and a straight shot to the top. There was no broken trail up the couloir so I guess we’d be breaking it.
We moved from our snowshoes to our crampons and elected to not bother roping up in the couloir. We wouldn’t be placing snow pickets due to the fact that you could kick steps easily into the snow and I was more concerned about rockfall and possible avalanches than one of us slipping.
The snow condition was, well, not good. There was a thin crust on the surface but not enough to hold our weight. We passed through a few sections of neve snow which were awesome, but they ended all too soon. We passed through a few sluff fields which were a nightmare. The sluff was aerated and we’d sink in up to our waists. It was like a snow treadmill just trying to progress and get purchase.
Anyway after grunting, swearing and swimming our way up we topped out at around 9am on the ridge crest. All that was needed now was a short walk to the summit. We dropped our packs on the ridge and took only our ice axe and cameras up with us. The ridge to the summit was heavily corniced so we tried to stay back as far as possible. At one point I broke through and fell all the way down to my shoulders, being stopped only by my outstretched arms. I looked down and hoped my feet weren’t hanging out in open space, and that I hadn’t punched through a cornice. I wasn’t. It was a snow bridge between 2 large boulders that just gave out.
We got to the summit, took some photos, then started back down. It was getting on into the morning and it felt like the snow was heating up fast so we wanted to be down the couloir before it fully was being baked.
The benefit of the soft snow in the couloir meant we could egress quickly by plunge stepping out for most of it. What had taken us around 2 hours to break our way up took us around 25 minutes to descend.
Nearing the bottom we could see all the skiers and splitboarders arriving on the glacier for the day. We seen a few skiers we recognized from their posts online and said hello.
We had a leisurely break at the base of the couloir watching the skiers use our bootpack to get to the top. We wished we’d also had that luxury, but then I guess I was glad to have that untouched summit to ourselves for a few short minutes.
After that we decided to rope up to cross the anniversary glacier and make our way up Matier via its NE spur. I don’t believe there was any risk of falling into a crevasse but we wanted the early season practice to brush off any cobwebs.
We made it to the base of Matier and decided to use a skiers uptrack up the face. The snow on the North facing slopes was getting all the skiers stoked but it was bumming me out. It was a dry powder that was hard to compress. It made trying to go up it in snowshoes extremely difficult. The skiers uptrack was less than direct but it was at least broken.
It’s weird, I’ve been in the mountains here for nearly 2 years now and I can still “feel” elevations above 2500m’s. It’s like my body starts moving in slow motion. We plodded our way up the skin track and eventually got to a section maybe 20m’s below the ridge crest where we needed to switch to crampons.
We must have been at around 2750m’s now. Ice had frozen into the welts on my boots and it was making getting my step-in crampons on a pain on the little platform I’d dug out. I also realized then that I had probably drank less than half a litre of water all day. I’m usually good at drinking more than enough water in the summer with a bladder but if I can’t easily drink and move in the winter I tend to just not drink at all.
Anyway, I eventually strapped into my crampons and we booted up to the ridge. The skier we recognized from earlier had caught up with us and was quickly traversing the ridge in skis towards the summit. We followed behind and then joined him on the summit. We chatted for a minute or two and then without even batting an eyelid he just dropped off the very steep NW face of Matier. I’d love to ski at that level at some point in the future but it’s probably a pipe dream.
We kicked back on the summit of Matier for a while. It was warm. Warm enough to lie out in my base layer and not feel cold. We hydrated as much as possible, drinking everything we had. We’d brought our Reactor Stove with us so we weren’t worried about making more water if we had to.
After a while we decided to head back down. We made good time back down the NE spur to the saddle and then traversed back across the Anniversary glacier towards Motel 66. As we neared our camp we seen a bunch of ravens jumping around our tarp and thought “crap! they’ve got in and messed up our food. Oddly, they hadn’t. Our food was safe.
Spring had brought real cooked pizza for dinner on the second night. We warmed it up against our bodies for a good bit while we melted snow and tried to hydrate some more. We then had the pizza with hot sauce and olive oil. If there is two condiments I can recommend everyone to bring for winter hiking it’s those. They add loads of flavor to any food and really work to heat you up.
We brought our sleeping pads and bags outside to our seating area and watched the stars come out for a while. We boiled some water to make some tea in a nalgene which helped to keep us warm. I messed around with some night photography and then we turned in for the night.
On the Sunday morning we had originally planned to summit Spetch and maybe Hartzell had we made it to the saddle to camp. We woke up and neither of us wanted to huff it back up the glacier.
We had a lazy morning. The night before had been another silent and still one, it felt a little warmer than the previous night also. We broke camp around 9am and then hiked out briskly. We cheered at the sight of our car having no broken windows.
All in it was an excellent laid back weekend. Neither of those peaks felt particularly exposed or risky via the routes we took at this time of year. I guess that is the personal milestone, feeling comfortable on mountains like those. I expect to be leading on D to TD Alpine routes in the next few years. Right now it seems far off, but then, back in 2010, when I was fresh off the boat, getting up The Chief, a local high intensity hike in the town I live in, felt like my own personal Everest. I hope that within the next decade Everest itself will be my personal Everest. There’s nothing you can’t do if you just keep taking baby steps forward. Each excursion a little harder or a little longer or a little scarier. I look forward to looking back on this story in a few years from now to see how much further I’ve progressed.