How to Spend 4 Days Slogging Through the Mountains to Avoid a Gondola

The Spearhead Traverse had been on my ‘to do’ list for a while. It's a neat traverse that connects Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain via 34km of alpine touring with around 1900m of elevation gain along a giant horseshoe. So instead of the 15 minutes it takes via the Peak-2-Peak gondola, you can spend 1-4 days doing the same thing on foot.

I’m a VOCer (the VOC is UBC’s Varsity Outdoor Club, and produces some of my favourite lunatic mountaineers) even though I haven't been a student at UBC for years. The VOC is like a family (cult?) – you don’t leave the VOC – you just move away. And I drank the VOC Kool-Aid DEEP. I was the newsletter editor, then President, then the manager of their hut system – the largest in the Sea to Sky corridor. With the VOC instilled in my blood I’m always keen for a classic VOC objective. The Spearhead Traverse was established by a legendary member named Karl Ricker and some friends before Whistler resort even existed. It took something like eight years to sort out the route. Having done the traverse, I’m not the least bit surprised.

If you’re interested in doing the Spearhead – go get John Baldwin’s (another VOCer) map – it’s phenomenal.

Vancouver was home to me for years and while I’ve done the nearby, similar length Garibaldi Neve Traverse more times than I can count, I’d never done the Spearhead. The main reason I never did it was really just cost – the traverse generally involves using the lifts on Blackcomb Mountains to gain about 1600m of elevation right off the bat and the cost of a backcountry access pass – good for a single bump up the mountain – is a vaguely unreasonable $58 and since the aforementioned Garibaldi Neve Traverse is free, just one drainage over and doesn’t involve having to deal with the giant mess that is Whistler, I tended to always find myself there instead.

There’s a problem though. A coalition of groups including ACC Vancouver, ACC Whistler, BCMC and some memorial hut groups are trying to install a series of three huts on the Spearhead. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a strong believer that the world needs more backcountry huts (desperately) – but adding giant, swanky huts (and the proposed huts are both huge and likely to be ACC style expensive compared with the 0-$10 of most coastal huts) would completely change the feeling and spirit of the Spearhead.

Given the popularity of the area as-is, my personal wish would be to see outhouses installed at the logical camp sites to minimize wilderness contamination, but no huts. There’s lots and lots of other places that would be better served by more huts (The Duffy, Callaghan, etc), but I why plenty of people that are keen to see this project go forward. Providing a Wapta-like experience of a series of comfortable, tightly spaced huts would provide an experience not currently found on the coast. Regardless, with a huge change to the Traverse coming, I wanted to get it done before the huts change the flavour.

This past East-Long-Weekend-Friday, Christine and I found ourselves at the base of Whistler, surrounded by chaos, trying to figure out where to buy our single bump passes. Turns out you can only get them from Guest Services, not a regular ticket kiosk, they require photo ID, they demand to see your avi gear and skins and they basically act like you’re being a hugely unreasonable inconvenience. Now, I know what you’re thinking – ‘Phil, you are a hugely unreasonable inconvenience’ – but remember, I had Christine with me and she’s an actually nice person and even she was nearly flipping out by the end of the couple of hours it took to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy.

 Christine - stoked finally be done with Whistler's bureaucracy. 

Christine - stoked finally be done with Whistler's bureaucracy. 

Finally – after getting our passes and trying not to fall off the chairlifts while carrying our 75L packs - we found ourselves at the start of the actual traverse at an alpine-start-like 1pm surrounded by hordes of other ski tourers all transitioning to skins. Looking at the sort of insane crowds of ski tourers with giant packs (some of whom we’d spoken to and had confirmed they were doing the Spearhead), we briefly considered diverting to the Blackcomb-Currie traverse (which as the Spearhead gains in popularity is starting to be considered the introvert’s Spearhead), but in the end decided to stay the course and headed out.

The cool thing about the Spearhead is that the chairlifts do the miserable slog portion of the trip – your outrageous $58 and two hours of bureaucratic effort mean that you’re instantly in the alpine. From the top the Showcase T-bar (super fun with a 20kg pack on), you traverse across the Blackcomb Glacier, past Blackcomb Peak, and down the Circle Glacier and into the Decker/Trorey area. Decker has an interesting split peak and you can either go between the two peaks, sneaking North of the true summit and south of the sub-peak and through the Decker-Trorey col, or you can go North of both on a more direct line up and over a gap in the North-East Ridge of Decker – but that option comes with increased avi danger. We took the safer route through the Decker-Trorey col since we had really no idea what the backside of the ridge would look like. In retrospect as long as avi danger can be managed, either option works fine.

 An army of skiers heading into the back country was a concerning way to start the trip.

An army of skiers heading into the back country was a concerning way to start the trip.

As the weather started to sock in, we passed a few tents inexplicably set up on the exposed, sloped, shoulder of Trorey before making our own camp right on the flat, sheltered Mt. Pattison col. There’s a reason one of the proposed huts is going in on the Pattison col, it’s better situated than camping on the Trorey shoulder.

 Home sweet home on the Pattison Col - which will soon feature a large castle or something.

Home sweet home on the Pattison Col - which will soon feature a large castle or something.

In typical mountain form, as soon as we’d made camp the weather cleared, and we could have continued, but at that stage I was more interested in seeing if we could be in bed before dark than continuing onwards since weren’t in a rush. Climbing and hiking most nights after work means that during the week I’m lucky if I get 6 hours of sleep, so the idea of doing a ski tour where I also got to catch up on some sleep and got some downtime with Christine was pretty sweet.

Saturday morning dawned irritatingly early, but I fixed that by refusing to get out of the sleeping bag until 10am while Christine slowly went stir crazy. Another mid-day start saw us top out on Pattison, then drop down off the Pattison col to the Tremor glacier before contouring around and up a ramp between Tremor and Shudder Mountain. We dropped our packs and jogged up to the summit of Tremor and just took it all in – people use superlatives all the time in the mountains, but if you’re a mountain person, it’s tough to imagine a more amazing view than limitless peaks in all directions.

 Christine, soaking up views on the summit of Mt. Tremor.

Christine, soaking up views on the summit of Mt. Tremor.

We’d been expecting people to pass us since we were taking our time, but had really only run into two other parties – one doing a day trip from their camp on the Pattison col and fellow Calgary ACCers Heather and Alexis who were doing the McBride traverse via the Blackcomb side of the Spearhead.

From Tremor, we contoured under Shudder and Quiver peaks before coming up through the gap between Quiver Peak and the Ripsaw, then dumped our packs again to summit the Ripsaw (easy slog up a narrow ridge, but the consequences of coming off either side would suck in a couple of places).

 Christine busting out her ski model pose with the easy Ripsaw ridge walk in behind.

Christine busting out her ski model pose with the easy Ripsaw ridge walk in behind.

Contouring in behind the Ripsaw and over its East ridge, we then traversed the nice flat Naden Glacier where we considered camping for the night (and is near where the second hut is supposed to go). I’m super glad we decided to push on due to the fact that the weather on Sunday was supposed to be iffy. The ski down from the Couloir Ridge, just east of Macbeth is fine, but you then gain a sort of sketchy ridge that connects the main Couloir Ridge to a rocky prominence to the South-West. You then pop over and there’s a pretty steep flat contour around an East facing bowl before things flatten out into a more reasonable slope up to Mt. Iago. I am really, really glad we didn’t have to do that section in a whiteout or with significant avi danger. Route finding would have been seriously tough and avalanche exposure way too high for my comfort.

Through that spicy bit, we were looking for a good place to camp and instead found a decent one. The top of Iago – just shy of the summit - is a nice broad ridge popular with the heli-skiing outfits – so we dug down a platform to shelter the tent and set up for the night as the clouds closed in.

 Making a snowy breakfast in our dug-out tent pad.

Making a snowy breakfast in our dug-out tent pad.

We woke up to about 10-15cm of fresh snow and next to no vis, which I took as indication that we should quit our jobs and never go home. Christine frustratingly said no, so we packed up camp and dropped down onto the Diavolo glacier where we got to play the fun game of ‘which invisible, glaciated ramp leads to the right notch that we can’t see in this whiteout’ as we gained the gap between Fitzsimmons and Benvolio.

Visibility really turned into an issue for the next bit. You contour at a constant elevation just below the col between Benvolio and Overlord (don’t get suckered into going over the col – which looks really tempting - it doesn’t go anywhere useful) where we had to stop and wait for a break in the weather so we could a gap to sneak through in the rocky North ridge of Overlord. When we got our chance, we sprinted through, not even taking time to strip our puffy layers – the visibility windows were just too tight. From there we continued to contour at the same elevation until we hit a North-West ridge/cliffband where, once again with nearly no visibility, we got to figure out what was a short couloir that would lead us to the Overlord Glacier below and what was just a patch of snow stuck to the cliff face. Hint – it’s the highest vaguely reasonable looking option – there’s a lower one that looked like it would go, but it’s off camber, longer, steeper and just generally doesn’t look inviting. Actually, it’s the straight up opposite of inviting – it’s super sketchy looking.

 Christine makes use of a brief improvement in visibility to try and find the right gap.

Christine makes use of a brief improvement in visibility to try and find the right gap.

Down on the Overlord Glacier, we employed navigation by brail, skirting below Overlord’s West Ridge where, in another brief break in the weather we discovered monster, monster cornices above us. We tried to make note of where there were buttresses which would protect us from cornice fall and tried to move as quickly from safe zone to safe zone as we could given that we were a) totally blind and b) carrying heavy packs across flat terrain while breaking trail. Good times. Be aware that there are cornices up there and they’re trying to murder you – even if you can’t see them.

More contouring brought us to a gap between Whirlwind Peak and Fissile Peak where my attempt to cut the corner resulted in us contouring around Fissile’s South Ridge somehow inside the biggest wind swale I’ve ever seen in my life (10-15m high and probably 100m long) all while ignoring Christine’s comments about how I was an idiot and we’d never get out of this thing without retracing our footsteps. I was right, she was wrong and we then managed to drop below the clouds and had a killer ski run down to the Russet Lake hut which I believe the Spearhead Huts Project  wants to replace with a $350k or something palace.

 View from right by the Russet Lake Hut.

View from right by the Russet Lake Hut.

We hadn’t seen a single person or party all day and we hadn’t been moving quickly or gotten an early start so I was starting to get really confused as to where the other parties doing the traverse were. When we got to the Russet Lake hut, we were the only people there and in fact ended up having the whole place to ourselves all night. We hadn’t really planned on staying there, but when you find a hut totally unoccupied – well, it’s a lot nicer than cowering in a tent… and I know you're thinking 'but Phil, you've been ranting about huts on the Spearhead!' - but the Russet Lake hut is actually a detour off the Spearhead that services the Whistler slack-country. Also, its small, dilapidated, unheated, unlit, has holes in the floor and is exactly the kind of minimalist shelter I love.

Monday morning, we had a bit of a schedule since I needed to catch a flight home so we actually got up at a reasonable time (8am) and then after brekkie toured out the Musical Bumps summiting each one as we went before hitting the Whistler ski resort boundary. We got some fantastic views back on Overlord and the rest of the traverse and in fact could see where all the cornices on Overlord that we had snuck under in terror the day before had fallen down that morning, triggering some huge slides.

 Christine climbs towards me with the Russet Lake Hut and a good portion of the Spearhead Traverse in the background.

Christine climbs towards me with the Russet Lake Hut and a good portion of the Spearhead Traverse in the background.

We honestly got insanely lucky with the weather – sunny when we needed it, cloudy when we needed it.

Back in Whistler, surrounded by crowds of resort junkies, it felt jarring - it was surreal to go from total solitude to being surrounded by absolute hordes of skiers so quickly. We still have no idea what happened to all the other parties that we passed – I’m guessing a lot of them turned around when confronted with white-out navigation – it was way trickier in places than I expected. We kept laughing about how the whole traverse consists of ‘find the hole’. Everything is sneaking through a ridge, finding a gap, finding a ramp and while the majority of it is trivial with good visibility, with poor visibility, you better be really confident in your navigation skills.

The Spearhead is legendary. I’m shattered that it took me so long to get around to doing it if only because it opens up so many more options and variations. I guess that having it in my backyard, and yet obstructed by the cost and hassle of Whistler made it simultaneously easy enough to do that it wasn’t ‘must go’ destination and yet too hard to seem like a good option for a random weekend. The Garibaldi Neve is one of my happy places – and yet it pales in comparison the Spearhead in my opinion.

With huts likely being added at some point in the not so distant future, my advice is to make the Spearhead a priority. Do it fast, slow, bag peaks, go direct, everything works works, but make sure you do it before those huts get built and you don’t get to find yourself cowering in a storm on a wind-swept col, trying to convince your partner that your sleeping bag is so cozy you should never leave the tent.

Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.