Great Cairn Mountaineering Trip

March 19-25, 2000

Trip Summary

In the following summaries "I" refers to Jim Frankenfield, "JD" refers to Jim Delzer and "John" refers to John Pearch. While it may seem like we were limited by the weather it seemed at the end like everyone had enjoyed the trip and had a good dose of adventure. As at Fairy Meadows in March of 1999 which had similar weather conditions (but different terrain). - Jim

Quick Overview Summary

Here is a very brief summary of each day, a much more detailed report follows below.

Thursday, Friday

Traveling to Golden, Canadian immigration hassles and delays, poor outlook for flying to Grassi in the fixed-wing


Due to weather we change our plans abruptly, taking Alpine Helicopter up on a good deal to Great Cairn instead of going to Grassi. Ski for the afternoon at Rogers Pass and re-organize.


Wait and wait, ultimately flying to Great Cairn. We arrive late in the day but do get in a short exploratory ski.


Ski-tour up the Haworth Glacier to Palisade Pass. The flat light conditions present a potentially serious hazard as we cross the Pass, and we return back down the Haworth.


A rest day for JDs knee, which was overextended Monday. Locate and obtain firewood. Ice climbing just in front of the hut. JD almost burns the hut down with the gas stove! (Maybe this is why it's stone!)


Hut-bound in a snow storm.


Mixed weather. Exploration of the treed ridge below Azimuth and adjacent avalanche paths, and then of the very end of the Sir Sandford glacier below the hut.


Ascent of the lower end of the Sir Sandford glacier, with its icefall.


Wait for a flyable break in the weather. Wait some more. At the end of the day Dave of Alpine Helicopter manages to get to Great Cairn and pick us up during a period of adequate visibility.

Detailed Summary

Thursday - Mar 16, 2000

We left Corvallis around dinner time and drove to Pasco. JD and I caught up to John between Portland and Hood River. He had left early to rent randonee (alpine touring) skis in Portland.

Friday - Mar 17, 2000

We had arrived in Pasco very late so we got a late start Friday morning. In Spokane we had to make a few stops. First we went to Mountain Gear where John still needed to rent climbing skins. All they had were "snake skins" so we rented a set of those, although we figured out that the skins for my second pair of skis would probably work. (They did, and the snake skins were not needed much. However, we also felt they were a good backup in case anyone's adhesive lost its grip.) We decided to eat a big meal at a buffet also.

At the last stop before the Canadian border we filled up both vehicles with gas and I called the fixed wing pilot at Alpenglow Aviation, Steve. The outlook was not very good for flying into the Grassi hut. He had not been able to fly up over the icefields at all in over a week. He was out flying on this day, although not landing on the icefield. There was some chance of a break in the weather Saturday morning but aside from that the forecast was not good.

We crossed the border at Kings Gate, where they made us go inside and give all our identity information along with a list of all states any of us had ever lived in. We were then detained for a long time while they ran complete background checks on each us from all of these states. Ultimately we were all deemed worthy of entry to Canada, but we lost a lot of time with this game. The border crossing seems to be getting to be more of a potential problem with each trip, and the previous summer one climber had been deemed unworthy of entry due to a DUI conviction over 15 years old. With a clean record since.

So by the time we checked into the Golden Super 8 and went to the Roadhouse it was midnight. There was punk rock band from Calgary just getting started. We had a beer and returned to the room for some sleep.

Saturday - Mar 18, 2000

We met Steve, the pilot, at the airport at 8:30 am. The bottom line was that it was not good for flying, with a westerly wind lifting air against the Rockies and forming a cloudbank along the icefields. The outlook was not very good either. So we decided to evaluate our options and stay in touch with Steve in case things changed.

We headed for Rogers Pass to ski and stopped at the staging area for Fairy Meadows and Golden Alpine Holidays on the way. Dave, the Alpine Helicopter pilot we had flown to Great Cairn with last summer, was sitting in the truck with the ground crew unable to fly. So I had a chat with him and he offered us a good deal on flying into Great Cairn on Sunday when he would be finishing his other shuttles from the staging area. We took note of this and continued up to the pass.

From the Best Western at Rogers Pass I called the CMH Monashee lodge in Mica at spoke with Roger Laurilla there about flying to Grassi with their helicopter. They were currently grounded altogether, and he told us that a major storm was forecast for overnight. He said we could try to fly in on Sunday but that lingering clouds from the storm could turn us back and that CMH would charge for the airtime used anyway. We decided this was too risky financially and that our best bet was to go to Great Cairn. So we called Don, head honcho of Alpine Helicopter, and verified Dave's offer with him. He also confirmed that they were unlikely to be flying Fairy Meadows until Sunday, which meant we had the rest of Saturday free and would fly us no sooner than late Sunday morning.

It was still only midday so we changed and prepared to ski Grizzly Shoulder right by the Best Western. We got a good afternoon in, along with quite a few other people.

I started down the pass earlier than John and JD and stopped at the staging area again to confirm with Dave that we would go to Great Cairn, to get a time to plan on being ready, and to get a list of emergency VHF radio frequencies.

John and JD caught up in a bit and we went back to Golden and ate at the Mad Trapper. We then tried to locate white gas and propane. We were not sure that firewood would be easy to find so we were going to take my propane heater (which I keep in my winter driving box in the truck), and we also bought some artificial logs. We were unable to find white gas. I knew there had been a good supply when we left in July but we hated to count on that. If it were gone for some reason the cooking stove would be unusable.

At the Super 8 we spoke to a guy who had just come over Rogers Pass and he claimed that there was a raging blizzard up there, and that it had taken a very long time to cross. In Golden it was raining but only lightly.

Sunday - March 19, 2000

As we left Golden for the staging area the highway sign indicated that Rogers Pass would be closed until 4pm, so it had been quite a storm. It was clear that we had lots of time, so John set off in search of some white gas. He tried an RV campground down the road but they were closed and did not have any. He ended up going into Golden and getting some propane for our heater at the 7-11. The Golden Alpine Holidays shuttles finally finished and Fairy Meadows began.

The group coming out was an Alpine Club of Canada trip and we got some information from them. They claimed to have observed many avalanches, presumably on Cycle Peak and on the flight out. Their shuttles followed the eastern edge of the Esplanade Range, which is the leeward (wind loaded) side. Helen Sovdat was one of their ACMG guides and she was most helpful to us. She lent us her topo map, which had some potential routes marked from previous trips and from her work guiding with CMH-Adamants on the western slopes in the area. I later returned the map by mail. Since we had changed plans I did not have my map for the area so this was greatly appreciated.

Finally it was our turn to fly into Great Cairn. Once we were in the air Dave (the pilot) warned us of turbulence - something about being "tossed like a salad". Which didn't sound too good! But we had only some minor bumpiness as we left the boundary layer and crossed open drainages where the winds get funneled (Gold Creek and Palmer Creek). We did not observe a lot of avalanches, but we followed the western slopes of the Esplanade range, which face the winds and get blasted. His ground helper came along since there was space, and referred to the "lodge" we were going to. Being fairly new it appeared that he had only seen a few of the commercially managed lodges and we still wonder what he thought as we approached the tiny Great Cairn hut with no signs of recent occupation or activity.

Dave took off and we moved into the hut pretty quickly. It was in better condition than we found it in July, and we did not need to spend half a day sweeping mouse droppings off everything and drying the foamies. So even with a late arrival we had time to go out on skis for a short jaunt. We traversed around over the Silvertip stream, which is a whole lot easier in winter when it is under snow than it had been in summer. There is a shallow ridgeline running down into the Palmer Creek drainage below the hut and we skied down that. We found it to be wind hammered, which seems to be the case with most of the area since two drainages/valleys funnel the winds through the area. We climbed back up to the bench below the hut where we found a small ice climb, and with a bit of difficulty we climbed some steep snow to the right of the ice directly to the hut.

Monday - March 20, 2000

We awoke to mixed weather and decided to ski tour up the Haworth Glacier. Given the trail breaking through new snow, the variety of equipment, and the different experience levels with the equipment things went well and we got to Palisade Pass in reasonable time. As we got towards the Pass and the day progressed the weather deteriorated, and we found ourselves in variable but generally low visibility. We stopped for a late lunch, but only briefly in the cold wind. We then continued down the other side of Palisade Pass thinking we would be able to find our way back to Great Cairn via the Sir Sanford glacier. Judging the slope angle and the length of slopes below us was problematic in the flat white visibility. We were able to see ahead from one rock outcropping to another, but not much else.

JD took the lead at one point, to the next set of visible rocks. He was to set the track and then wait for John and I, then we would continue to another set of rocks. JD got to the rocks but did not stop right away, and all of a sudden in the midst of them he dropped suddenly out of sight. We could no longer see or hear him, but his track up to that point was good so I slowly followed it down towards him. Once I got closer I cold hear him, and as I went around to the side to stay among visible rocks I could see him. He had plunged into a hole about 10 ft deep in the midst of the rocks, which he had been entirely unable to see in the flat light. He had picked up a bit of momentum and rather than stop right at the rocks he had planned to pass them by a small amount. This is not a very good idea, which became clear at the next set of rocks.

JD was generally ok although he had overextended a knee and bent the tail of one of his skis. While the knee was a bit painful to use in certain ways or positions he was able to continue traveling on skis.

As JD got himself together I slowly went on to the next rock band. As I approached it I began to see that there were some drop-offs around the rocks and potentially a cornice below me. Sure enough, I could soon tell that I had been traversing about 10-15 ft above a cornice overlying a cliff. With some caution I was able to get onto the rocks we had been shooting for. They turned out to be an outcropping along the top edge of a large, and very long, cliff band. To our right the cliffs extended some distance, to the left we could not really tell what we had. It looked like a long steep slope (which was leeward) with an uncertain runout at the bottom. JD came down onto the outlook as well, while John waited just above. The view was sobering; if someone had overshot this set of rocks it may very well have been fatal. Our options were to try to go out around the end of the cliff band onto the center of the glacier where I felt (based on the map) that it would be more passable or to return the way we had come. Given the visibility problems and JD's knee we felt it was best to return the way we had come. This was pretty much a unanimous decision with very little discussion needed.

The return went relatively quickly. We were able to use the trail we had broken earlier in many places. In some places it was already blown in and we could not find it. Even though the trip back went well this was a long day in the end.

Tuesday - Mar 21, 2000

After the long day Monday we slept late. JD needed to stay off his knee at least a day and John and I were not prepared as a team for glacier travel in a group of two. So we decided to use this day to collect wood and look for a water hole. The weather was not much improved anyway, so this worked out OK.

JD took care of numerous tasks around the hut while John and I searched for wood. We found a standing dead tree in the forest on the ridgeline off Azimuth Peak across the stream from us. We brought back a pretty good load of wood in our two largest packs.

As we approached the hut with wood we saw what looked like flames shooting out the door. It turned out to be JD carrying the stove, in full flare, out front. This was a continuing source of entertainment throughout the week, although the great flare-up of Tuesday remains unequaled to this day.

After something to eat we decided to go out and play on the small ice climb just below the hut. We took turns practicing a section at the base that was short enough for a rope to be unnecessary. This was the first time either JD or John had attempted ice climbing and they had a good time with it. At the end I climbed all the way up the short climb along its edge to return to the hut. John and JD returned the same way we had come down (and the way we had returned to the hut the first day on and with our skis).

In the evening the weather had cleared and we packed to do something Wednesday. JD felt his knee had improved enough to go out again. After supper John and JD were taught the basics of pulley rescue systems (the C and the Z set-ups) and practiced this in the hut. We planned to rise at 5:30 am and to be out the door by 7. We thought we would try to find a way up the Sir Sandford glacier and then, depending on time, either try to reach Minaret Col or return via Palisade Pass and the Haworth Glacier.

Wednesday - March 22, 2000

Despite some very clear skies earlier in the night a full storm was in progress when we awoke Wednesday. It was snowing with zero visibility, and this continued all day. In the afternoon John and JD went on another wood run and returned with a large supply. Late in the afternoon and into the evening there was some clearing and we set our alarm for 4:30 hoping that Thursday would be better.

Thursday - March 23, 2000

At 4:45 we had our typical no-visibility conditions so we slept late. Mid-day the weather began to break. We went back to our wood area and continued through the trees to see what type of terrain we could find. The area sits underneath some large avalanche slopes, as I had suspected from the map and from views flying in both on this trip and the previous summer. We explored a short distance, staying in the timber below the bottom trim-line of the run out zones. Even in this timber there were signs that snow had exceeded the actual trim line at times, and we did not linger. There had been lots of snowfall over the past four or five days. As far as terrain for skiing, all we found was either avalanche paths or dense timber. Nothing that was both good for skiing and safe.

We returned from the treed ridge of Azimuth and descended the shallow slope down to the bottom of the drainage again, as we had the first day. We then skied to the tip of the Sir Sandford glacier. There is a smooth ramp ascending the center of the glaciers tongue for part of the way up and I was intending to go up this to see what we found. Given the late hour I did not expect to be able to go beyond the smooth and relatively safe ramp. It was about 5 pm and all of a sudden a cloud blew in and we had no visibility again. I felt that it might be temporary, since I had observed that the Sir Sandford glacier often cleared later in the day from winds channeled across it. This was not happening on the Haworth or Silvertip glaciers, which were remaining fogged in. Sure enough, the cloud lifted shortly. John and JD were a bit intimidated by this sudden loss of visibility and were anxious to return to the hut for dinner. So that is what we did.

Friday - March 24, 2000

On Friday, finally, we had good weather. So we set out for the Sir Sandford glacier, and ascended the smooth ramp up the first part of it. We were taking turns leading and when we got to the top of the ramp there were two options. One was to go across to the right on smooth terrain until we could climb up. The other was to climb up a steep snow slope straight ahead and hope that we could continue. John felt this second option looked like it would go, and neither JD nor I had any objection to trying it. We expected to be able to get up it quickly and decide there whether we should continue.

Well, this short steep climb turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. There was a lot of fresh snow, and there was a gap in front of the ice. John spent a long time trying to climb along the edge of the ice and snow but was unsuccessful. So he returned to where JD and I had been waiting, which had been probed and determined to be safe. We rearranged and I donned crampons to give it a try. With some difficulty I was able to successfully surmount this short step. I then belayed JD up.

The plan now was for JD to check out our options ahead while I belayed John up the step. JD was going only a short way and was not initially using skis. Just behind me he sunk through the snow to his waist, his legs hanging in empty space. Ultimately he was able to roll himself out and I continued belaying John up.

I no longer recall the details, as I write this, but we were unable to continue on this line of attack. So we ended up retreating back to below the steep short climb, which we were able to safely slide down on our butts due to the favorable run-out.

We now attempted the route to our right, which was initially an easy traverse across the glacier. Before long we came to an area with more of a slope and a very poor runout below. It was difficult to accurately judge the slope angle ahead and below because the lighting was flat, as usual. I decided that by climbing up along the edge we could avoid getting out onto the open slope and we could also avoid having too much of a slope or too bad of a runout below us. This was a short but steep climb, and switchbacks formed by kick-stepping were necessary to avoid going further out onto the slope than I cared to. Neither JD nor John felt comfortable with the route finding here so I broke trail on this section. They found it challenging just to follow the track, so this short steep climb took us quite a bit of time.

When we got to the top of this section we found a safe area, where probing confirmed hard ice underneath. We regrouped here and I continued over what appeared to be a drifted in crevasse. I determined that there was a route that was not difficult which would take us to the top of this first icefall, and we continued along this line as a group.

As I reached the top of the icefall I carefully skirted what was clearly a crevasse. I went around the top of the depression where it appeared there would be ice underneath. It turned out that there was only a thin "slice" of ice between the crevasse I had skirted and another above it running perpendicular to it. All of a sudden I heard a brittle collapse, which was under the front of my skis. I shouted "fall" but found the center of my skis on the "slice" of ice and my poles supporting me on the other side of the hole. Looking straight down the view was into a narrow crevasse. This was right along the top of the convexity in the glacier where the icefall began, and I could see up the next long and flat section from here. There seems to be a lot of wind across this glacier, which is probably why it often cleared off in the afternoon when the other glaciers did not. This wind also had swept this convex area, making for very thin and brittle snow bridges over the crevasses.

At this point it was later in the afternoon and we discussed our options. We decided that to continue up the glacier would be too time consuming, and also that the area we were in at that time was likely to have additional thin and brittle snow bridges. The unanimous decision was to turn back and follow our track back down the glacier and back to the hut. I was disappointed that John and JD could not come up the short distance to where I was for a view up the glacier, but we felt it was too hazardous since the safe spot I was on was very narrow and there were many thinly bridged crevasses in this area.

The return was quick and much easier, although going down the section with steep switchbacks was still slow. We remained roped due to the terrain, and felt this slope was probably not good skiing for our group in the existing conditions anyway. When we got down to the smooth ramp on the lower tongue of the glacier we did unrope and skied down it, since this was a smooth with a reasonable slope angle and no dangerous runout area below in the event of a fall or a loss of control.

Our planned pick-up was for Saturday so in the evening we sorted supplies and packaged things up to be loaded on the helicopter. And cleaned out the hut.

Saturday - March 25, 2000

On Saturday the visibility was not very good again, and it was not clear that we would be able to fly out. We monitored the VHF but could only pick up small bits of information. The frequencies used for Fairy Meadows and Golden Alpine were not coming in at our location. We could hear the CMH Adamant heli-ski pilots and after dropping one or two loads of clients off above treeline for runs they were unable to do that anymore. They were limited to runs below treeline. We could tell from a conversation on some frequency that Fairy Meadows shuttles were in progress.

The radio battery was running low so we left it off for a while. It was about 5pm or so and we were pretty sure we were there for at least one more night when we heard Dave on the Campbell Icefields frequency say he would be with them as soon as he "ran up to Great Cairn to get some guys there". We rapidly got everything in place at the landing zone, and shortly Dave radioed us that he would be there in five minutes or so. We were all prepared so the pickup went quickly.

It turned out that it had been a difficult day. During one of the Fairy Meadows shuttles the clouds had closed in on him up at the hut and he had to shut the machine down and go inside the hut for a while to wait until he could fly safely again. Such is mountain flying, especially in the Selkirks in winter.

So it was probably 6 PM or close to it when we loaded up our vehicles at the now deserted staging area. We all went into Golden for a big dinner at the Mad Trapper, then we parted ways for the trip home. Despite typical low-visibility weather it seemed that everyone had had a good time. I remember John saying, with a big smile, that it had definitely been worthwhile.

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