Interview with a Monster

If you ski tour much on the coast and you're interested in traverses, then you know the name Christian Veenstra. Christian Veenstra (or just Veenstra) is a monster. He routinely compresses huge trips into insane single day pushes. I have been lucky enough to do a few trips with Veenstra over the years and while I'm not generally considered 'slow', no one has ever as utterly destroyed me on a trip as Veenstra. Veenstra taught me the true meaning of 'tired' which is probably one of the greatest gifts I've ever received.

During the weekend of June 4th, Christian Veenstra successfully traversed the entirety of Garibaldi Park. He did it alone and in a single push. You'd be forgiven for not having heard about this insane feat since it only got posted to the UBC Varsity Outdoor Club's page and to Facebook under his wife's account which he hijacked to share his stoke. 104km. 8700m of elevation gain. 30 hours and 18 minutes. After reading his relatively brief trip report, I decided I needed to hear more.

Phil Tomlinson: So, I hear you had a big weekend a few weeks back? Taking care of the kid? Yard work? Costco mission?

Christian Veenstra: I finally did the Garibaldi Traverse trip I've been planning for a long time.

PT: You mean the Garibaldi Neve? But you've done that a bunch of times - hell, I think I've done it with you twice.

CV: No. All of Garibaldi Park.

PT: ALL of Garibaldi Park?

CV: Yeah, I linked the Wedge-Currie, Spearhead, McBride and Garibaldi Neve traverses together.

 Veenstra's route took him through the heart of Garibaldi Park - basically going from Pemberton to Squamish via huge mountain ranges instead of the conveniently located Highway 99.

Veenstra's route took him through the heart of Garibaldi Park - basically going from Pemberton to Squamish via huge mountain ranges instead of the conveniently located Highway 99.

PT: Holy shit, I did the Spearhead in a leisurely four days and while I've done the Neve a few times taking anywhere from one to three days, and it was a huge day on it's own. You did all four of those traverses linked together? How long is that? How long did it take you? Has anyone ever even done that before?

CV: It's hard to say, exactly, because there are different variations possible and GPS tracks have noise as well as switchbacks and turns that aren't strictly "necessary" as part of the route. But, if I use 1/2 minute smoothing on my GPS track, I get 104 km distance and 8700 m elevation gain. It took 30 hours and 18.5 minutes, trailhead to trailhead.

As to anyone doing it before - I don't know of any, although I know that at least 3 parties attempted it this season (2 were aiming for roughly 12 days, and 1 (Nick and Lena) a bold 2.5 days). I've read a few trip reports from people doing similar but slightly different trips through Garibaldi, in spring and summer, all expedition-style. The Baldwin guide recommends 14 days and describes it as "a longer route traversing the full length of Garibaldi Park ... it has only been repeated a few times" which implies it has been done before.  

PT: Veenstra, that's insane. You did a two week trip in a single push. You averaged 3.4km/h, on skis, non-stop, for over 30 hours all while basically going from sea-level to the top of Everest and back down. I imagine going fast and light was the name of the game - what were you carrying? What did you do for food and water? Any emergency gear?

CV: I'm pretty obsessed with my own survival, so I carried a fair amount of emergency gear by "fast and light" standards - I had a sleeping pad, quilt, stove/pot, repair kit and crevasse self-rescue kit. So I could have stopped to rest if I'd had to, and felt I could deal with most situations that might come up. I brought 1.8 kg of food, of which I ate 1.2 kg. I had the capacity to carry 1.8L but was able to find water a number of times and probably drank ~6.5 L without actually using the stove. That said, it wasn't a lot of gear and it all fit easily into my 35 L daypack, with enough space left over for my helmet.

The gear. More than you'd expect. 1. Hat 2. Petzl Sirocco Helmet 3. Crocs 4. 3/4 Length Synthetic Puffy Pants 5. Synthetic Puffy Jacket 6. Spare Socks 7. Gloves 8. Skis with tele-tech bindings 9. Poles 10. MEC Alpine-Lite 35L pack 11. Repair Kit 12. Down Quilt 13. Neo Air X-Lite Sleeping Pad (folded to fit in the pack's back panel slot) 14. MSR Reactor Stove (minus the lid) 15. Skinny Skins 16. Fat Skins 17. Crevasse Self Rescue Kit and Home-Brew Harness 18. Ski Crampons 19. Home-Brew Whippet Ski Pole Attachement 20. Cell Phone 21. 'Wallet' 22. Compass. 23. Garmin e-Trex GPS 24. Sunglasses 25. Zebralight H600 Headlamp 26. Maps 27. inReach 28. Scarpa F1 Boots 29. Water Bottle 30. More Water 31. Nuun Tablets 32. 1.8 Kg Snacks 33. Snack Pouch (attaches to hip belt for refueling on the move) 34. Lip Balm and Tooth Brush 35. Sunscreen.

PT: Explain your crevasse self rescue setup (I honestly have no idea) to me? Also, what sort of food did you bring? I know you well enough to not be surprised if it was just a few sticks of butter, but I'm hoping there was more to it than that...

CV: First, although you're from the Coast, a little bit of context. In SW BC the standard (in spring) is to ski around unroped on glaciers. Parties just carry a rope in case a rescue is required, or in case bad weather interferes with navigation and the ability to see where the heavily crevassed are. Most never use it. And it's not crazy - we have glaciers not because it's cold, but because we get so much snow. From March to June, in a normal snow year on most glaciers, the crevasses are all under metres on snow. By late spring, once the snowpack has settled and become firm, the crevassed areas are usually easy to see (or predict from experience / satellite images), and a surprisingly thin snowbridge can support you on skis anyway.

Although uncommon crevasse falls are obviously still possible. In most accident reports I've read (from spring) the skier gets banged up but sustains relatively minor injuries (if any) - broken nose, ribs, maybe a mild concussion - and is hauled out in good shape by the rest of the party. Rarely they are killed outright, but I have yet to actually read an accident report where the skiers sustained major trauma but survived because the rest of the party was able to rescue them with their rope.

Anyway, I figured that I should carry something to be able to extract myself, so I came up with a system involving my harness, 2 ice screws with pre-tied leg loops and non-locking biners and a short length of dynamic rope, loop in tied both ends, clove-hitched with one end close to the harness and the other end with a locking biner. Everything is pre-tied to exactly the right length, as determined by practice/experimenting.

The sequence, once you stop falling, is to screw in an ice screw as high as the dynamic rope leash allows, and clip it with the locking biner/rope so you won't fall further while taking off your skis, putting on more clothes, etc. Once ready to climb clip a leg-loop into the same screw with one of the non-lockers, and flip the biner such that you can clip it again before weighting it and stepping up. Once you step up you can clip the short end of the rope leash into the non-locker along with the leg loop so you are stable and can use both hands to place the next screw, move the long leash up to it, clip the next foot loop, and repeat. As long as I've got at least one good leg and arm I should be able to do it.

The trickiest part would be the overhanging snow by the lip... it seems the "best" way is probably to jam both ski poles leaning a bit back from vertical as deep as you can a little wider than shoulder-width, jam your skis horizontally behind them, and yard yourself up on your skis. If the lip is too sketchy at least I can probably get satellite reception once I'm out of most of the crevasse and swap ice screws (to compensate for slow melt-out / creep) while I wait for the cavalry.

PT: I don't know if you're a genius or totally insane. Probably a bit of both - though I think I'm going to have to try out your self rescue technique. I don't think we'll see the ACMG touting it as a preferred technique, but for solo missions it's a hell of a lot better than nothing...

How about food? What did you bring?

CV: My food was all carbs, mostly sugar. A mix of dried (sugar-added) fruit, energy gels, candy - you know, healthy stuff. I've learned that my mouth starts to feel gross after a while eating this stuff constantly. I actually brought a toothbrush, and brushed a few times while out there (without stopping, obviously). I think I should probably train my body to eat more fats too, but carbs was what I'd eaten while training so I stuck to it for this season.

1.8Kg of food

1.8 Kg of "healthy stuff"

basically a pile of sugar

PT: So while people can go read your full trip report for all the details - give me a brief overview of what your day looked like?

CV: Once I get going it's mostly fast slogging. On the uphills I make sure to keep eating and drinking. When I start to get close to the top I get ready for the transition - check the map/GPS on the go and get my next compass bearing dialled in. Adjust ski pole length and any zippers etc. for the downhill. When I crest over the pass or whatever I quickly look around to make sure the view matches what I was expecting, check my compass bearing to be sure where I'm going, mentally plan exactly how I'm going to get there, tighten my boots, rip off my climbing skins and go. When I get to the bottom I put on the appropriate climbing skins (I carried both skinny and full-width skins - both dangling from my sternum strap and tucked into my waist belt) and start slogging right away. Once I'm moving I start adjusting pole lengths, getting snacks out, etc. while I slog. I like to try not to stand still - if I need a break then I should just have been skiing a bit slower. Every once and a while I need to refill my little water bottle and snack pouch from my pack. Sometimes I change my socks - I rotate between a pair strapped on the outside of my pack to try and keep my feet dry - but I do it pretty quickly leaving my boot on the skis and not sitting down.

Eventually it becomes dark, but that's all part of the plan so sunset isn't accompanied any sense of worry. In fact it's good, because it's easier to regulate temperature when it's cold and the snow starts to firm up again. You just trade sunglasses for a headlamp.

PT: That efficiency is pretty incredible - but it couldn't have been a cakewalk the whole way; what was the hardest part? How did you handle navigation at night - could you see enough to get a visual bearing? How was it being on your own that long?  

CV: The hardest part was finding the time to do the training and homework. Once out there you just do the best you can with what you've got, but the preparation phase is where you can really change the outcome and by far takes the most effort.

Veenstra on the McBride traverse on a previous crossing. Normal people spend days crossing just this part of it. - photo: Nick Matwyuk

I guess there were also more traditionally difficulties. Skiing down to Wedge Pass I ended up on the wrong side of a river in steep forest, and was eventually boxed in against another river. Finding a spot to get back across without getting my boots wet was a challenge. Dropping my sunglasses halfway up the Shudder Glacier, making the split decision not to lunge for them (I would have fallen for sure, possibly injuring myself), and watching them skitter off down the icy slope was tough, mentally. Fortunately they didn't go too far, and it was only a half hour detour to ski back down and get them. Of course, the technical crux was Sinister Ridge. It's just a messed up bunch of blowholes, cornices, and cliffs. And seems to generate it's own weather. The most physically draining part was when the sun came out in full force as I slogged up the Phoenix Glacier back towards the Neve. I'd already been on the move for 25 hours, and it got *really* hot.

Night navigation was no problem. The timing worked out such that night was skiing down through steep forest, along the Upper Cheakamus River, slogging up the McBride Glacier to Sir Richard, and carrying on towards The Gatekeeper. I have *tons* of experience skiing steep forest at night, from the many trips over the years that unintentionally went into overtime. And the McBride Glacier is mostly benign. I'd periodically check my compass bearing and use the brightest setting on my headlamp (~1000 lumens) to check for upcoming crevassed sections, but mostly just slog along on a dim setting. And the downhills are South-facing with only pocket glaciers and not really crevassed. Night isn't very long this time of year anyway.

I do pretty well on my own. Although this was my longest I've been doing solo mountain trips since 2006, and have led a lot of trips (particularly with the VOC) where I'm the most experienced so I'm comfortable making decisions. It's nice to just be responsible for yourself. And it might sound funny, but on this trip I didn't really feel like I was alone - although we only crossed paths for a few minutes while I fixed my ski pole in their tent my friends Nick and Lena were out there. Since I ran into them at about the halfway point this trip actually wasn't the longest I've been travelling on my own continuously.

PT: So - huge day, incredible accomplishment, but what was the best part of the whole experience for you?

CV: I've learned to really savour the start of big trips. There's months of preparation, when the trip is some sort of abstract fantasy. As the date draws closer there is nervous anticipation, almost like a first date, which for me peaks during the drive to the trailhead. But the best part is that beautiful moment once I've unloaded my gear and shouldered my pack, just before I start heading off. I still don't know how the trip is going to go, but the time for preparation is over and the weather will be what the weather will be. I'm there. I'm focused. It's happening. No more wondering whether or not I should bring an ice axe or whatever, just time to start

This (kind of) happened three times for me on the trip - once at the actual start, once when I ran into Nick and Lena below the Naden Glacier and chose to keep going rather than hang out, and once when I skied past the Gatekeeper which marks the point from which the easiest route out is forwards, rather than back (or, at least, that's where I'd decided that point was in advance).

Veenstra on a previous McBride trip in his trademark home-brew gaiters - photo Nick Matwyuk

PT: I think I know what you mean - when I did the Bugaboo-Rogers Pass Traverse last spring I think my favourite moment was the silence after the helicopter dropped us off in the Bugs. No more planning, no more trying to remember stuff or trying to decide what to bring, it's just there and all of a sudden it just seems so simple. Of course I did that in 9 days and you did nearly the same distance in 30 hours. So, do you have any advice for someone looking to get into doing these sorts of solo, high speed traverses?

CV: Not sure what specific advice to give... Lots of people want things, but things worth wanting usually take effort. But if you want to, you should - you only live once. Get lots of experience in situations where failure is a decent option. There is no substitute for lots of aerobic training, and having your setup and route dialled in.

Perhaps the most important: Don't loose sight of the fact that nobody who really cares about you really cares whether or not you 'succeed'. Don't get me wrong, - they will be excited for you. But, fundamentally, you are doing it for yourself. Mostly they'll care about your experience, that you make good decisions, and that you make it back. So don't worry about success or failure as much as making good decisions when you're out there.

Ripping big tele turns on a previous McBride crossing, Veenstra shows this is huge, serious terrain - not a glorified trail run - photo: Nick Matwyuk

PT: So, what do you do to top this? What's the next challenge?

CV: Another thing I've learned is to try and keep quiet about big projects until you finish them. But there are a few long lines I've been looking at...

Unless you count child-rearing - Line and I have another baby due in a month, and that's no secret! You don't need to go too far into the wilds to get some amazing memories when you bring the whole family.

You can follow the adventures of the whole Veenstra Family on Line's excellent blog 'BC Backcountry Family'.

A completely knackered Veenstra, as found by Nick and Lena, asleep, on the lawn of the Canadian Tire in Squamish after hitch hiking down from the end of the traverse. - photo: Lena Rowat

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