Fast and Light Al-pie-nism: A Traverse of the Tantalus Range

July 18-19 2020

Trip Report by Nick Matwyuk. Photos and captions by Rich.

When I was thinking of a summer trip to do with a friend and kid free, the Tantalus traverse was the first to come into my mind. As I am not able to get out as much on bigger trips these days I wanted to do something that captures a lot of everything in one trip. Having done the traverse in summer 4 previous times I knew the route pretty well. Next up was choosing a partner to do it with. Rich was my first choice and he took no convincing at all. We had done the traverse together previously. So starting with an email on June 6 we began planning.

I made a detailed spreadsheet with all of the gear I was going to bring and later updated it with weights. I also put route and general information in there along with photos of the route and previous gear that I took. There is a lot of terrain covered and some key route choices that can save a lot of time. This is where the experience of doing the traverse many times is very helpful. There were 3 weekends I suggested as those would allow me to have the time off, Lena to be on call, and our in-laws to help out with child care if necessary.

Nick’s food vs Rich’s food. Pie is life.

The first weekend attempt didn’t materialize but the July 4-5 weekend seemed possible as even a guide had confirmed that conditions were getting good. Before the weekend though there was heavy precipitation that was landing as snow. We made the call not to go. Social media confirmed our decision when someone reported setting off a wet slide avalanche near Dione. The weather got better for Sun-Mon but we kept with our decision (not enough time for snow to melt) and from some people that did go it looked super wintery and not good for fast travel. We were happy with our decision.

The July 18-19 weekend approached and looked good. This is when we went. With most of the planning done previously we only needed a quick call to check in on a few things and set the meet up time. 05:00 we met at the Taylor Way Church parking lot. I made a mess while eating my breakfast on the drive as we listened to Tool. At the road to the cable crossing we stashed my bike in the woods along with a tupperware container of water and food for when we got out. After passing numerous cars and tents we parked at the Sigurd Trailhead.

Sigurd Trailhead start at 06:45., big smiles for a big day.

Our approach for the trip was to bring overnight gear. We knew we probably could do it in a day but didn’t know for sure. Also, by bringing gear we had less pressure. If we did blitz through we didn’t have to use it. At 06:45 we started up the trail. With not having hung out much in a while we had a lot to talk about. While passing a group heading for the traverse, Rich was in the middle of saying, “I don’t really like exercise”. This gave people a laugh as we set a good pace past them. It took us ~2 hours to get to the old cable bridge crossing where we waded easily across.

Easy creek crossing. Nick went pole-less, but I was very happy to have my BD carbon Z poles throughout the traverse.

At 09:17 we busted out of the trees and were in the debris slope beneath Pelion with gorgeous views. From there we followed the edge of the trees and made it to the ridgeline when it was easy. A snow plod took us up to the col where we started to see tracks of someone who was going up Pelion. While going down Pelion the travel was so easy I found myself occasionally running and boot skiing. We then cruised through the middle ground terrain and nailed the easiest route to the base of Tantalus.

Ossa Mountain north face
Sigurd Creek hiding in the clouds on the right, still frozen.
Climbing up the Pelion snow slopes
Nick with the north ridge of Tantalus above him.

A guided group had taken a helicopter at first light to the base of the North Ridge for the traverse. This helped us out by giving great steps up the steep snow to gain the ridge of Tantalus. Super fun climbing up ribbons of snow and past a really filled in bergschrund, thanks Junu-ary! On the other side of the ridge was another snow plod and it was hot. Rich was smart and put snow in a ziploc bag next to his body to cool himself down. I should have done something similar as I think I got a mild headache from the heat. I started doubting that I had brought enough food because I was suddenly feeling really hungry (I ended up with more than enough food).

Nick traversing the southeast slopes of Pelion. Tantalus looks far away, but travel is fast through here.
Looking back at the traverse below Pelion
There is a short section of veggie belay to descend a steep blueberry patch. It’s not tricky, but does require a bit of route finding to find the best spot to descend the ridge.
Traversing over towards the north ridge. The bergshrund was much more filled in than on our traverse two years ago.

Red line shows the fastest way to gain the bypass col on the North Ridge
Footwear for the trip: Salomon X Alpine and Petzl Leopard crampons. The crampons are amazing! There were many crampon transitions along the traverse.
Pelion, looking much further away now
We crossed the bergshrund climbers right of the dirty snow, and then climbed the thin ribbon of snow above to gain the col, which allows access to the snow slopes on the west side
The bergshrund in August 2018, more open.
This ribbon won’t last long. Snow is approximately 45deg here.

Once off of that snow plod we were on the ridge proper. This is where the amazing scrambling begins. It was quite joyful and also a good recovery section as it is more varied and slower than walking on snow. It is also cooler as there is less reflection of light. This is just one of the many reasons to go on the trip, the ridge is stunning. I also had Will Stanhope’s words of wisdom (from his Zombie Roof Solo Video) in my head, “If soloing feels scary you are doing it wrong”. It is easy terrain but I didn’t want to be taking any unnecessary risk so kept checking in with myself. Also, we had hit prime conditions. Normally getting off a section of ridge to gain the last main section to the summit is hard. A short downclimb took us across instead of the usual rappel. From there we followed the guides tracks up a section of solid rock which sure beat the choss that I thought was the normal route. Thinking of it now I think that was probably the normal route when it was more snow. Anyways, it was great to learn something new about the route.

Snow slogging in the heat
Rich very happy to be back on rock, with some very pleasant scrambling, mostly 3rd class along the ridge line to the final summit tower.
From the end of the ridge, we traversed left to the snowfield, and then climbed up the right snowfield. We scrambled up through the rock band to gain the upper snowfield.
Compare above image to this image from our Aug 2018 traverse. Nick belayed Michal to step across the rock to snow.
And we pitched out the snow, the route weaved through some hollow snow bridges. Aug 2018.
Climbing the upper snowfield. We went with approach shoes, aluminum crampons, and a single ice axe, which was perfect for the conditions. Last time, I did the traverse with mountaineering boots, two axes, and steel crampons when the snow condition was expected to be firmer and with open bergshrunds.
Exposed scrambling up to the false summit
Just a casual day in the mountains, smiles for miles in the Tantalus Range

On the final section to the false summit we belayed. I had soloed it 3 other times and could do it again but especially being a father now I didn’t want to take the chance. Again, after that we then rapped down off the false summit which I had previously downclimbed. A quick trip up to the summit (at 15:45) had Rich pulling out his chocolate/almond/hazelnut pie (858 grams for the gram-conscious readers), the second time we’ve shared pie on the summit of Tantalus. Mmmmmm. From the top we could see the guided group walking off of Tantalus.

Then we set off doing the raps, starting with one from the chain that “The Moose” had carried up from sea level, nearly twenty years ago! We found them fairly easily and didn’t have any stuck ropes (well one that was a little but we didn’t have to climb up to get it, just re-arrange and pull again). The descent off Tantalus is not trivial, and requires a high level of route finding to locate the rappel stations. Once again, it was helpful to have past experience to rely on to make this section efficient. We were at the top of the raps (two to three bolted rappels down a gully) on to the Dione Glacier by 17:45.

Ross Berg from Altus Mountain Guides has put together an amazing resource for the Tantalus rappels. Definitely take a look at this and study it before embarking on the traverse.

The Witch’s Tooth and Dione
Summit Pie Party! Nothing quite like having summit pie in a spectacular setting, with bluebird views in all direction and a view of the ocean to top it off.
Nick making rappel #1 off the big chain on the summit of Tantalus. This takes you to the col between the false summit to the north. We actually rappelled off the false summit, but I’m calling that Rappel #0, off a sling and single biner. Last time, we downclimbed it, but it is exposed.
The big chain which the infamous Moose hauled up from sea level to the summit.
Rappel #2 is off bolts in the col between the true and false summit, on the skier’s right side. This rappel is 30m mostly straight down. We brought a 7.9mm double rope for the ability to pitch out exposed sections of climbing, in addition to rappelling.
After Rappel #2, find a cairn on a good ledge/sidewalk system to skier’s right. Follow this to a knife edge ridge, visible up and left of Nick’s head. When you get to the ridge, follow it down hill a bit and peak over the ridge to find the bolts. They are on the west side. This is a photo on the east side.
The rappel bolts on the knife edge ridge. Do not rappel the slings down the couloir on the east side (we did this last time).
Rappel #3 is on the west side of the knife edge ridge. Follow this straight down to the bolt station on the wall to skier’s left, you will need to rappel across a gully skier’s left of Nick, and the rappel station will be to the left of that. This is a traversy rappel.
Nick at the location of Rappel #4. Initially head straight down, but as soon as you can, head skiers left and climb up to the col. Once at the col, look to your left, and you’ll see the next bolted station.
Nick at the location of Rappel #5. You are now back on the east side. Rappel down and aim for a ramp to the skier’s left side of the Witch’s tooth. Do not continue down the Darling Couloir. You can stay on rappel while climbing up the ramp to reach a bolt station.
Nick at the bolt station after rappel #5, having climbed up the ramp.
From this bolted station, I led across this exposed ledge, clipping the single bolt (sling is hanging off it). I climbed right past the rappel station and downclimbed to the bottom of where Rappel #6 would have been.
The bolts for Rappel #6 are directly right of Nick, which I totally missed until I reached the anchors where I took this photo from.
From the previous anchor, I belayed Nick across exposed ledges. He climbed up a short slab, clipped this anchor, and then continued traversing towards the Dione col to the final rappel anchors.
The traversing line in exposed terrain, high above the Rumbling Glacier to get to Rappel #7. Do not underestimate the time required to complete this descent. There have been accidents here, and most people will agree this can be the crux of the trip, especially for those completing the descent for the first time. Hopefully these images will help.

Aerial photo from Eric Carter, who happened to be flying above us just as we made the final rappel to gain the Dione snow patch. We are just a tiny dot, above the shrund on the right, in a very exposed location. We put on crampons to traverse the snow slope to gain the Dione col.
Talus and snow leads to this notch in the ridge to gain the Dione Glacier.
This is the spot!
Nick on the 2nd rappel down the gully, on bolted anchors. We were able to skip the third rappel and scrambled down the talus to gain the snow.
Traversing the Dione Glacier
Gear explosion at the Haberl Hut
A slice of pizza
Followed by a slice of pie

We made it to the Haberl Hut at 18:53 was where we had a bit of dinner (some bites of pre-cooked pizza). The beauty of having pizza for dinner, is that you can just stop and eat whenever you feel like it, and then keep moving afterwards. We chatted briefly with the guided group, but we were all pretty content to just eat quietly and take in the mountain views. Wanting to get the snow travel out of the way while it was soft, we continued on to the Russian Army Camp. It was cruisy travel and we then followed Eric Carter’s descent to the camp. The trail was a bit hard to find in the beginning but we were soon on it and making our way to the Lake Lovely Water Hut area. BC Parks would have a lot of work to do if they wanted to make the trail up to any sort of standards. Some items of note are a good chain hand over hand section, a swamp by Lambda Lake, a wet mossy down sloping slab, and some ankle eaters. Sure beats bushwhacking though so no complaints, it was just a fun topic of conversation while we bumbled with headlamps on.

Crampons on, traversing over to the Serratus-Ionia col. There is usually exposed glacier ice in this area.
Descending from the Serratus-Ionia col. Super easy getting up and down from the col in current conditions. We were a little too late for primo-glissading conditions, with the snow starting to firm up. We kept crampons on for the descent.
Descending the gully on snow towards the Russian Army camp. When the snow ended, we cut left to get to another snow patch, to get down to the tree patch.
The next day, Eric and Leif completed the Lake Lovelywater circumnavigation in a mega day!
Just a very short section of bushwhacking. I think we could have just gone down the gully to skip this. Compared to some recent North Shore adventures, this bushwhacking was casual and less than a minute long.
Easy travel down heather and slabs.
The crux was getting off the polished slabs onto the snow, with some careful downclimbing required.
Descent beta down to the Russian Army Camp from Eric Carter of http://coastmountainskiing.com, the fastest guy to have set foot in the Tantalus Range. “The top left of this photo just out of view is the Serratus-Ionia Col. From the col, drop down a touch and then start traversing skiers left under the South Face of Serratus. Keep traversing until a major gully that might be tempting to descend (at the blue arrow). Don’t descend it! Cross it with a short climb up shitty moraine dirt. This will put you in a big patch of grass/heather that you descend to the very bottom right before you hit trees. Bang a hard right at the purple arrow, that will take you into the trees. It’s dense bush and somewhat improbable for 2min and then you pop out on slabs. Follow the edge of the trees until the route becomes obvious beneath you.” 
Nick was stoked to be down in the Russian Army camp, with all the technical difficulties behind us.
Almost at the end of the lake, headlamps came out for the last twenty minutes.

We got to the dock just before 22:00, a 15 hour day. We could have moved faster, but it was just a really nice enjoyable walk in the park all day, the hours and elevation just all seemed to fly by in a good way. If we wanted to push we could have gone home but I wouldn’t have felt safe driving, plus, it was a beautiful camping spot! Unfortunately the dock was not installed so we dunked in the lake. We set up our sleeping gear on the dock which was on shore and had our pizza dinners.

It was a clear night and we woke up at 05:00 to a great view of the LLW cirque. Eric Carter and a friend passed me in the morning, on route to complete the Lake Lovelywater circumnavigation in a single push After eating oatmeal in a ziploc bag along with some pie, we started down. The trail went by fast and we made it to the boat launch just before 08:00. I inflated my thermarest and floated across. The water level was higher than I had previously swam it in but knew I had a very high safety margin last time (i.e. I got across the other side with plenty of time). It worked out great and after getting to the other side I let out a whoop and Rich responded. I then happily floated down the rest of the river to the pull out at the cable car.

Oatmeal, protein powder, water in a bag.
Crescent Pie and the Crescent Glacier. Breakfast of champions.

Once at the cable car tower I ran the dirt road section to the stashed bike. Chugged some water and grabbed a bag of almonds and cranberries. I then started biking the 20km while eating food. It was all going well until I turned onto the Ashlu Road. My bike stopped with the rear wheel rubbing. It is an older bike so no quick release. I kicked the wheel into place and disconnected the brake. This lasted for ~500m before it rubbed again. I repeated this once more but then it wasn’t working any longer. I didn’t have a wrench to align the wheel so I kicked it once more and walked the bike the last 1km or so which was a bit demoralizing. After driving back I picked up Rich and we were on our way home.

This was a fantastic trip with a great partner. We did some good pre-planning, waited for the optimal weather window, and had an awesome time. No pressure as we had bivy gear and no strava so just two friends out for a walk in a beautiful provincial park. If you have any questions about the traverse let me know as I love the area and sharing knowledge.

The trail is bushy in sections, and fairly steep and rooty, but there are some nice spots along the way down.
Leave it to Nick, for choosing to swim across the Squamish River for simplicity. I don’t mind cold water, but I definitely don’t have the swimming skills for a crossing like this.
Nick looking fresh and relaxed after a casual 20km bike ride, to cap off 35km+, 3700m of vert over 17 hours of moving time, with an eight hour break. We had superb conditions, never pushed it hard. For inspiration, check out Nick and Eric’s FKT time on the Tantalus traverse lite. As an off the couch al-pie-nist, my goal is always to be under 2x Nick Elson’s time, so I was pretty happy with this effort.

04 comments on “Fast and Light Al-pie-nism: A Traverse of the Tantalus Range

  • Marian Treger , Direct link to comment

    Great report and article. Lot of useful info and beta. Grateful for all the rappel info station with the photos. Quick question about the crampons? There was mention that u used a light petzl aluminium one but also that at Nick’s previous trip steel one. What is better? I guess it’s depend on a snow conditions. Let’s say in August the next month with the conditions u had what would u expect or recommended? Thx for great article again and any advice. Btw I saw a snow picks on your bag did u have to use them? Cheers Marian

    • RichSo , Direct link to comment

      Thanks Marian!

      Yup because we expected snow for the entire trip, we decided on alumnimum crampons for this trip. Last time, we expected hard snow, and possibly bare ice, so we went with steel crampons and boots. I would expect the snow to melt more, and the shrunds to open up by mid-Aug, I’ll check for more recent beta, but it really comes down to your experience/comfort in steep snow. We did have one picket in case we wanted to belay across any steep snow or open crevasses, but we never used it this time. It was useful last time around.

  • cpbl , Direct link to comment

    Nice going you two! Glad to see you in shape and getting out for some good stuff. Rich, I don’t remember getting served pie, but that’s okay.
    Chris BL

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