Fairy Meadows Ski Trip
March 13-20, 1999
This is being written in June 1999 and will only be a brief summary of things as I remember them. -Jim
What follows is mostly a summary of what we were able to do outdoors each day. There were many other aspects of the trip not included here - tequila shuffleboard in the hut, the "huckfest" on the ramp/jump people built just off the hut doorway, the great selection of warm good food that awaited us any time we came in during the afternoon, etc.
I have addressed safety concerns in a separate safety review.
Friday March 12
I arrive in Golden late in the day. After a little while Paul and Tere from Colorado arrive and check in. In the evening Chris shows up but there is still no sign of the rest. So Chris and I go to the Roadhouse for a beer. And entertainment. For a province that won't sell beer in the grocery store it was pretty racy entertainment. Too bad we only caught the tail end of the show. When we return to the room most of the others arrive except for Steve O, Jesse, and Russ - they arrive in the middle of the night and are so wound up nobody sleeps for a couple hours.
Saturday March 13
Fly-in day, at least on the schedule. Looking out the window we can see across the valley but the mountains are in the clouds. So off we go to meet Eileen, who did the menu planning, and Linda, who will be going with us and cooking. After eating breakfast and transferring all the food from Eileens vehicle we head out to the Donald sawmill staging area, still with no view of the mountains.
Despite the poor ceiling we are met by Carol from Canadian Helicopter who explains the situation and the need to weigh all our loads even though it doesn't seem promising. We discover that the food weighs twice the estimated amount, putting us very much overweight. (The planning had been accurate aside from the food and we would have been right on target if that had been correct.) Things went well overall but this was one of the first lessons for improving future trips - get a firm weight for the food in advance.
So we began to pare down the weight. First the Hamms went. Well, we can live without Hamms. Then the better quality beer and other assorted alcohol went - so things were starting to look bad. Then various other gear went. Finally people were down to things like sawing the toothbrush handle even though we still had pounds to go. Carol must have been quite amused, but she didn't show it. I guess she's seen it all before.
In the end we decided that it would be best to pay for an extra gear shuttle on the smallest helicopter Canadian had, which isn't too much per person. This was apparently the outcome for many groups and the ACC will be including an extra flight in the future. (Unfortunately this means it needs to be paid for whether or not it is needed or used. With enough delay it isn't always needed, which ended up being our case this year.)
At some point Don, the pilot, did come out to the staging area for a while in an A-star. He even started up the valley once but had to turn around up towards Swan Creek because he couldn't lift up into the mountain valleys with the low visibility. Apparently the Fairy Meadows hut is in just about the worst place a hut could be for flying into in winter, and after a long approach it is quite possible to be turned back by the very last short stretch. A big problem given the cost per hour of operating a helicopter.
So the day ended with a trip back into Golden to locate accommodation. Nineteen frustrated skiers all converged on the Super 8 motel clerk, with everyone asking about every imaginable discount at once. We ended up getting a good deal, with a kitchenette suite and several rooms. The poor clerk probably just wanted us all out of the lobby! So we began to sort through the food, and to eat the heaviest items.
Sunday March 14
We were to call Canadian Helicopter first thing in the morning. The conditions were not good so we continued to call back periodically at times which they specified. About noon or so we asked about going out to do something rather than waiting all day inside and they called it for the day. Some people went skiing at Whitetooth, the local area, where they witnessed some out of bounds skier ride a slide down a short but very steep slope. (He was ok.) Some stayed in Golden anyway. Myself, Steve O, Chris, Paul and Tere, and Jesse and Russ went to Yoho Park. We asked about the beer-wall ice climbs by Field but conditions were not safe since it was too warm. So we skied nearby, starting from Emerald Lake I think. We did see quite a few sluffs from the warm temperatures, spilling over various cliffs. We also spent a few minutes setting up a 3-1 pulley to review for some people and teach others. At least we got outside. The skiing wasn't good there, and I think I was the only one to return the entire way down on skis (very ungracefully!). Most people walked at least sections of it.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the rest of the people were recalculating weight allowances when we returned. With pad and pencil and little methodology but great confusion and frustration. A few quick adjustments to the spreadsheet on the Notebook computer solved that in a hurry. After consuming our heaviest food items for 2 days only minimal repackaging of personal gear got us within the weight limit and we avoided the extra flight.
Monday March 15
We actually went to the Canadian Helicopter hanger at the Golden airport in the morning. Things were looking better, with good visibility reported from various huts and lodges up high but valley fog which would need to clear. In order to catch up on a backlog of people waiting to get into or out of the mountains Don decided to use the larger Bell 212 helicopter and make 2 trips of 10 (rather than 5 trips of 4 in the A-Star). The first would leave from the hanger, the second from Donald. So we reweighed our stuff into 2 loads, and after consuming the heaviest food and repackaging personal gear we no longer needed an extra flight. We even took the Hamms. Yeah!
The sky was still not entirely clear, so the flights stayed low along the Columbia Reach and kept in sight of the ground. A few slides were visible across the snowed in logging road up the west shore. At the hut there was a very quick shuffle of people and they left without taking the outgoing groups gear. Once the people were down lower and out of the mountains, and it hadn't closed in again yet, they got the gear.
At the staging area I spoke briefly with Helen Sovdat, one of the ACMG guides from the outgoing group. She reported 60 cm of new snow but no other older more persistent weaknesses. And no appreciable surface hoar at the storm interface. This was a year of almost unprecedented stability, with almost no persistent problems all season. However, with constant snowfall there were surface and new snow hazards.
So there we were - finally! Two days late, but that seems like it was par for the course this year. One group had waited four days. Another lesson - no matter how well you plan and how much you wish, the helicopter is weather limited. Especially in winter. Be ready to wait.
Most people took off immediately for some tree skiing downhill of the hut. A few of us went the other way towards the water hole and climbed a slope adjacent to it. Although it was short this was a very steep slope and breaking a trail up it through some trees was tough. At the top I was ready to cut across the top of a short but open steep slope above the water hole when I turned to the next person and asked them to wait by the tree we were at. This was a small terrain trap and I wanted to go one at a time. After another step or two it cracked under my weight but did not slide. We took another path back through the remaining trees.
Tuesday March 16
The weather was less than ideal, as it would turn out to be most of the week. Not a full-bore storm preventing travel but flat white light and a pretty good wind at times. Paul and Tere set out towards friendship col and broke a lot of trail before we caught up a bit later. Then we took turns. There is a ramp-like ridge leading up to Gog and Magog and most people who followed stopped short of the ramp and skied the slope below. Paul and Tere continued towards Gog and Magog but turned back because of the wind. Bryan, Jesse and I continued. We carefully chose our route up past Gog and Magog to minimize our exposure below, and we made several slope angle measurements which were all about 30 degrees. Then it was an easy traverse up the upper Echo glacier to the final headwall and Friendship Col. So we established this track which was to be heavily used all week. Parts blew over but even buried tracks make trailbreaking a bit easier.
Meanwhile, down below, most people yo-yo skied a shallow slope below the ramp and towards the hut. There was a rutschblock there which was very poorly done and of doubtful utility. This was the first indication that some people were too much into snowpits and stability tests and not enough into routefinding and safety protocols. (It is also one more example of how the rutschblock is often abused by recreational parties not well-versed in its use and interpretation.)
Wednesday March 17
Some of us decided to set out for Unicol even though the weather wasn't too great. We could hear the CMH Adamant Heli-ski operation flying on the other side of the col, but the visibility wasn't so good. Part of the route crosses a major crevasse field on the upper granite glacier and the group the previous week had been roped up and the guides had probed for crevasses as they went. This is some major glaciated terrain. We were aware of this.
We gained the lateral moraine of the Granite glacier near the hut and climbed its very narrow ridge. Once in a while we could see a trace of the tracks from the previous week. We reached a level area just below the end of the long north ridge of Sentinel Peak. The visibility wasn't too flat, at least at the moment, and I would have liked to at least continue around the N ridge of Sentinel. But it was clear that the others were not comfortable with the visibility, and probably with how broken up the glacier now is as well. It can be intimidating, particularly for anyone not 100% up on crevasse rescue. Which our group was not. (See the safety review.)
So we decided to follow a bench without many steep slopes back towards Friendship Col in hopes of meeting the trail somewhere around the Shoestring Glacier above the practice slopes. There was one slope we had to traverse underneath which Paul brought up for discussion. It wasn't too large but after some discussion we felt it would be best to spread out and traverse a bit lower where the slope was less steep. Jesse took a turn breaking trail and continued our straight line across, ignoring the entire preceding discussion. Good thing it was stable year.
We were now overlooking the shoestring glacier and also some slopes leading back down to the hut. I was interested in crossing the Shoestring Glacier and meeting the track to Friendship Col up higher. But Paul and Tere didn't want to cross the glacier and Jesse remained confused by the route even after repeated discussion, so we canned that. Bryan decided to ski the slopes down to the hut and Jesse went with him. Paul and Tere and I continued around the flats towards the top of the practice slopes.
The flat lighting was fluctuating between not so good and worse. I had gotten pretty good at judging the ground 3 ft or so in front of me, but it got particularly white and I suddenly dropped through a soft cornice capping the short steep slope above the trail we were headed for. For a moment I was in a sort of suspension, waiting to see if this was going to turn into an avalanche or not. It became clear it was not and I came to a stop a short way beneath the corniced ridge. I could not see how big or steep the slope was until I saw a skier coming up the established Friendship Col trail. I carefully picked my way down while Paul and Tere watched from above. They then descended a slightly shorter area without the skis on while I spotted from below.
From here we were on the track and decided to just head back to the hut. As we passed one of the slopes on the skiers right just above the practice slopes I noticed it had avalanched. This was new, since we had not observed it previously.
After getting back to the hut and resting a bit I decided to go back up and look at the slide. It was new snow on a firm crust. Initially I thought it was recently wind deposited snow, but it was more likely the 60 cm new on top of a crust which had formed in the sun which the previous group had enjoyed before the storm. It was a small slide with very soft debris. We then noticed that an adjacent slope of the same aspect had also slid, since we had passed by a couple hours ago.
Thursday March 18
Paul and Tere and I decided to get going and go as far beyond Friendship Col as possible given whatever the weather did. Some of the group had proven to be very slow at getting going so we figured they could follow at their own pace later. The group sharing the hut with us, along with Jim D and maybe somebody else from our group, followed along close behind us.
We got to the Friendship Col and continued towards Pioneer Peak, crossing at least one large blown-in crevasse. There were not many crevasses visible near the ridge of Sentinel this year, but the ACC huts book mentions that there are many in this area. We got high enough to see Mt Sir Sandford to the south, and reached the lower flanks of Pioneer. The other group had gone up the lower end of the SW ridge of Sentinel and stopped for a while above Pioneer Pass.
But once again the weather got bad on us. We could see the clouds moving up the valleys from the east of Sir Sandford, and within 15 minutes or so we were in them. Back to the winds and low visibility. We picked our way back to the col (watching for the crevasse to our right and the corniced ridge to our left) and found a few others there who had come up behind us but stopped in the col. The other group had turned back a bit before us and was down. I encouraged everyone to head down and offered to bring up the rear. I waited for Steve O to be ready to descend and we went down last.
On the way down the Echo glacier Steve fell and suddenly felt one of his skis plunge into emptiness. So he apparently found the bergschrund, or some other crevasse. This whole area appeared smooth and uncrevassed, although it is clear from the climbing guide that there is at least a bergschrund. I'm not sure how many people in our two groups appreciated that this was a glacier at all.
Down below Gog and Magog most of us took turns and skied down a very nice run one at a time. Some climbed back up, others of us returned to the hut.
On the way back to the hut we passed the two avalanches which had slid the previous day. Right between them was a single set of ski tracks. We later found out that these were from Russ, who was alone at the time. Good thing it was a stable year.
Friday March 19
Friday turned out to be an excellent day. However, nobody had much confidence that it would stay nice all day and many of us were tired of the trek to Friendship Col by now. It would have been a good day to try the Unicol route again but we didn't seem to get a group organized for that type of major glacier travel. Many people just skied near the hut on or above the practice slopes. Some of us decided to rid the roof of snow, which hadn't been done in several weeks. Leaks were beginning to develop and as we cleared the snow some minor damage was evident. This turned out to be a major endeavor. Steve O disappeared in cloud of dust as a huge cornice which we sawed off landed next to him. He had by now been dubbed Manly Man, so he was now living up to the title. (See Who Went.) As we got the snow off the roof it would cover the windows and the rear entrance so we had plenty of shoveling as well.
The group sharing the hut with us went up to ski some slopes above the practice slopes. Sometime mid-day they came back and reported that some of them had been in an avalanche. This occurred on the same aspect as the ones which slid naturally earlier in the week. A snowpit should have shown a hard crust under the newest layer of snow, and the temperatures were increasing this day. They were not exposing only one person at a time to the potential hazard. One woman triggered the slide and ended up buried but only shallowly. Since the debris was soft she was able to push an arm out of the snow and was easily found. Another person below her was slightly covered to the knees or so and remained standing. A third person was in the path but able to ski out of it. The only injury was strained leg muscles. This had the potential to be much worse than it was had the snowpack been worse. Good thing it was a stable year.
Meanwhile, Jesse and Russ had set out for Friendship Col. After the other groups avalanche was reported there was a great deal of concern for Jesse and Russ, neither of whom have any unguided backcountry experience or snow stability knowledge whatsoever. There were efforts to reach them via a sport radio from the hut but they were in a shadow and could not be reached. I think somebody up higher did reach them and relayed the avalanche report and instructions that it would be best not to leave the established track at any point. There was a great collective feeling of relief when they returned safely. They did reach Friendship Col together and everyone was very happy for them in this regard.
Saturday March 20
Another excellent day, but also our fly-out day. It ended up being afternoon before Don arrived with the next group, so we cleaned up the hut as per ACC instructions. Some people made a few runs on the practice slopes, which were pretty shredded by now. I continued to work on the roof. The steep sunny slopes across the Granite Glacier on Cycle Peak were very active as the sun warmed them. Avalanches were frequent and one in particular was quite large. The roof was actually a good seat for this show.
We flew out with no problems. Since the weather was beautiful Don took the up-over-direct route with spectacular views. As we crossed over the ridge above the Gothics glacier the ground dropped away below, which is quite a feeling! We could see Mt Sir Donald in the distance and had good views of the Esplanade range as we left the mountains and dropped down along the edge of the Columbia valley.
Most people left right away to start home. The warm day had caused a great deal of activity in Rogers Pass - Steve O still talks about the many large avalanche run-outs visible from the road. He was obviously impressed. Chris and I stayed in Golden Saturday night. Linda joined us for dinner and then we took the left over food back to our room to sort it and split it up before Linda left.