The toil, the storm, and the payoff
There was a group of five friends from the prairies taking a private AST course. Three of them had moved to Calgary and had been exposed to the mountains, but the other two we worried about. Blisters the size of toonies. Resort boots in the backcountry. Their guide was legendary Canmore mountain man Tom Wolfe. A man of much stoicism and few words.
Apart from that the Wheeler hut was filled with families; there was a lot of noise and it was in one’s best interest to rise early and go to bed as soon as the children finally, gracefully, passed out. Ben and I had skied up the Bonney Moraine on day one of our Roger’s Pass trip. With 2000m freezing levels we had to ascend a long way before finding good snow. The next day we did two laps from Lookout Col in a partial whiteout. The snow had arrived. Our tap tests were confidence-inducing. It’s a unicorn event when one wins the powder lottery but it looked like the right numbers were falling in place for the days to come. Steady flakes fell from the sky and that night we decided to move up the valley to the Asulkan Hut. The guided group from the prairies was heading in the same direction, which was good, because it guaranteed free beta and lively games of “Peanuts” at night.
The whiteout continued when we arrived at the Asulkan the next day. Thank god for the Tree Triangle. We spent the rest of the day slashing glorious powder turns between the big conifers. Besides the AST course, which was busy digging pits, there was only one other inhabitant of the hut: Frank. Or Francois, as he hailed from la belle provence. He asked to accompany us on a lap through the trees. I was skeptical. I had watched him smoke two of BC’s strong ones in about 10 minutes. But what could go wrong? Had he not found the hut all by his lonesome? And had he not already done a tree triangle lap?
“FRANK!” We were shouting incessantly.
Having stopped our descent just above the Mouse Trap, we headed towards the moraine and the skin track. Frank had stopped a few hundred metres back because of the poor visibility in the open and said he was going to meet us at the edge of the trees, but when we crested the moraine and crossed the basin below the triangle he was nowhere to be found.
He responded and said he’d be there in 5 minutes. 10 minutes later we still hadn’t caught a glimpse of him. He sounded far away. We tried to get him to keep shouting so we could pinpoint his location, but the language barrier prevented an understandable exchange. He kept repeating, “I’ll be right there,” even though it was now clear he was getting further away.
We began split-skiing down the slope.
“I’LL BE RIGHT THERE!”
Finally Ben, eagle-eyed that he is, spotted him on the far side of a stand of timber, heading in the wrong direction by about 105 degrees.
“YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!”
We waited another 30 minutes for him to follow our voices and find us. Then we took off. I was cold and set an unsustainable pace up into the Tree Triangle. The visibility was terrible. The flakes falling from the sky had doubled in size. Frank kept thanking us profusely. He offered us a room in his place should we ever desire a night in Revelstoke. We said “No problem,” and kept heading for the hut, cold and worn out. The snow was getting deep. It had been falling for about 30 hours straight. What would tomorrow bring?
By the second round of Peanuts it was clear that the storm was over. The stars came out and the temperature plummeted. The AST course stated that they had measured new snow depths of 50cm. Tap tests had shown cold unconsolidated spray pow. Yee-haw.
We rose early and started breaking trail towards “The Seven Steps of Paradise” (Youngs’ NW Face). Ben and I were the first ones out the door. No Franks on powder days. We roped up on the glacier and meandered along the high ground towards the face, generally sticking right of the face to start. Below the upper bowls we made a long traverse left then began switchbacking ever onwards. We kept left of a small rock outcrop that cleaved the lower left aspect of the face as the grade began to steepen. There were faint signs of crevasses all around, small sagging depressions in the north-facing shade. Small clouds wove their way in and out of the basin, giving us brief periods of mediocre visibility that would brilliantly give way to unbridled views of the whole valley.
Eventually, the angle (about 40 degrees) became quite steep for kick turns - tunnels of sort had to be excavated from the huge blanket of snow to begin the next switchback. We took this opportunity to perform tap tests of our own. The results? Unconsolidated spray pow. The closest faceted layer was now well over a metre down. Our snow science brains gave us the green light, but still, there was a lot of snow on a steep face.
We took off our splits and began boot-packing directly up the face. It was kind of like vertical crawling through an endless cloud. At one point, one of my kick steps caused a small point-release to cascade down the slope towards Ben. Gulp. We continued, topping out the face onto a flat bench with sagging crevasse lines everywhere. Going to the summit wasn’t even a question; we were there for the descent. I pulled out my phone to take a picture. Dead. Rendered useless by the alpine cold. Transitioning our boards to ride mode gave us something to do to keep warm while we waited for the skies to part. My fingers tingled with cold, my mind, with excitement.
“This is our window.”
Dropping-in felt like I was running to go cliff jumping. I couldn’t see the slope we were about to ride until I was on it, but then it was the absolute most radical line of the trip: slough exploding everywhere at the sharp turns of our boards. Winning the powder lottery really does feel like flying. The sun was out and Ben and I hooted and hollered our way down the seven steps back to the hut. There, we dropped the rope and harnesses, confident in our line, beaming with delight at the sea of twinkling white set against a rich blue sky, and went back for another lap.