Spearhead Traverse

March 1, 2015

The forecast was marginal, with clouds and snow flurries forecasted for the afternoon, and generally cold temperatures for Sunday March 1. That doesn’t sound like perfect traverse weather, but that’s what I ended up doing on the first day of March, along with Lena, Matt, Michal and Hamish.

If you’ve been missing out on winter this year, wondering where it is, you’ll find it up in the alpine. There is a decent snowpack up high, with over three metres of snow on the glaciers.

The following condition update from Dave Sarkany should be kept in mind for all parties headed out to the Spearhead this year. Glacier coverage in general is good, we had ropes but never needed them, and there is likely more snow up there now. Keep in mind the following was from mid-Feb, before the late March snowfall.

“There are two areas that need extra attention. The Ripsaw/Naden Col (on the Naden Gl side) is unusually steep  and not dished like normal. A slip here could easily result in a fall over rocks into the windcirque. The alt route to the west is too rocky and lacking snow to work easily.  Also, the notch under the NW side of Overlord Mt is lacking snow. Yesterday there was  thin veneer of snow/slush over rock slab. I lowered people a few feet over this to better snow. Ice axes where useful in these areas and when walking on ice glazed ridges. ” – Dave Sarkany – MCR Reports 

PS. If you’re not subscribed to the MCR Reports, I highly recommend doing so. The information tends to focus on the interior and Rockies, but occasionaly there’s good information from the Coast Mountains too.

Aside from Matt, we all lined up inside guest relations to hand over $58 for backcountry lift ticket. If you haven’t purchased one this year, you’ll have to figure out beforehand which lifts you’re taking up to access the alpine. Apparently if you try to cheat the system, and go through too many gates while using a backcountry pass linked to your Edge card, then Whistler-Blackcomb will automatically charge a full day to your credit card.

Riding the Bus to the lifts
Catching the shuttle bus from Lot 6 to the gondola. We were feeling really lazy today.

Hamish sitting inside the Whistler gondola

Matt in paparazzi-mode on the east col

View of Overlord and Fissile

The weather started off fine as we worked our way out of Blackcomb, over the north side of Pattison, and up to the Tremor col. We raced across the Platform, Ripsaw and Naden glacier, trying to get ahead and into easier terrain before the cloud ceiling dropped. Conditions were icy all day, with freezing levels around 1300-1500m and cloud coverage not helping. A weak system was forecasted to blow through in the afternoon.

Michal skinning up the icy snow onto the Pattison col



Who cares about the snow, we were just out for a leg stretcher.
Michal and Lena stretching their legs on the Tremor Glacier, with Wedge Mountain behind

Clouds moving in on the Tremor Glacier

Social skiing up to the Tremor Col
Social skinning up the Tremor Glacier

Michal bootpacks up to the Tremor col

View of Fitzsimmons, Benvolio, and Overlord

Platform Glacier
Michal crossing the Platform Glacier, with Macbeth at centre

Ominous clouds approaching

Racing across the Ripsaw Glacier

The descent down the Macbeth Glacier and over Contour Ridge to the Iago Glacier was done in flat light. Instead of doing the short bootpack along the ridge, we accidentally went left, finding ourselves in a precarious spot exposed above rock bands below, on a steep icy slope without any depth perception. I had a slightly better idea of where we were, so I glided forward, not really seeing more than a few metres in front and looking down at snow to get a sense of irregularities in the snow scape. You wouldn’t want to slip here. The usual and better route is to bootpack briefly along the ridge, and then traverse into the Iago Glacier.

Up over the Iago Glacier, and down to the Benvolio Glacier. One last big climb. The clanging sound of ski crampons in action could be heard from the skiers ascending the slope above. I went with ski crampons on this slope, along with Matt and Lena, while Hamish and Michal found the bootpacking to be about the same pace with the hard snow.

The clouds were dropping lower as we crossed under Benvolio and over to the rock step on Overlord. Snow flurries began as one by one, we downclimbed the rock step. I was amazed when one skier in front, decided to just launch off the rock step. That’s something I might consider if the snow was powder, but it was highly variable and chopped up below.

Firm conditions on the Diavolo Glacier
Bootpack versus ski crampons

Downclimbing the Overlord Step
Matt downclimbing the rock step

Hamish getting ready to downclimb the rockstep below Overlord

Next up, crossing under Overlord, and then up to the Fissile-Whirlwind col. Whiteout navigation ensued as we descended, full on white room. It was easy to get confused without any fixed object to get a bearing on. We skied too far west, instead of northwest towards Russet Lake. A quick GPS check sent us back on the right direction, instead of down towards Cheakamus Lake.

Losing visibility below Overlord Mountain

Where are we?!?!?
Matt’s been complaining about the lack of headlamp use this season for him. All his ski trips have finished before sunset this year. It was a real treat for him when we all switched on our headlamps on top of Oboe. Smiling in the darkness, Matt guided us through the snow flurries to the top of Flute Mountain. From there, we could ski down the Burnt Stew trail and get back into the ski area. For future reference, the radio transmitter on top of Flute has a bright red light, a good reference at night.

Maybe it was because I spent the whole day skiing on hard icy snow, but I really enjoyed the descent to the village. We found good snow off the Whirlwind col and down Cowboy Ridge. But the real treat, was the inbound runs. Light snowfall, all the way to the village, on top of the freshly groomed runs made for an awesome night time descent. If you haven’t skied out of Whistler in the dark yet, be sure to put it on the bucket list for next year! Note that the ski runs to the village have melted out now, and you’ll be looking at either downloading or hiking down this spring.

Night time

Skiing in the dark along the Musical Bumps
Eerie glow of headlamps through the fog, while returning back to Whistler through the Musical Bumps

Hamish at Mid-Station
Downloading at mid-station was closed.

Matt was stoked.

The day was more adventurous than normal, and I feel I got full value for the price of my backcountry lift ticket. Keep in mind that the conditions have changed significantly since early March, with 50-150cm of snow overlying the crust and facets from earlier in the month. Here’s a link to the latest MCR report, summarizing conditions from Mar 23-31. Blackcomb will be closing on April 18 this year, so you should keep that in mind too.

More photos

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