Good Friends, Blue Skies, Deep Powder and The Element of Risk.
A backcountry tour is never a boring adventure. This day was one of those days that many a backcountry enthusiast would never want to encounter.
It started with a gorgeous inversion day. The valley was blanketed with cloud while the skies above were blue beyond belief. The temperature was perfect — cool enough not to cook but warm enough not to require heavy clothing. Brad, Richard and Eddie, (that would be me), set out to shred “Hogs Heaven” — (H. H.) which is located on Indian Ridge. It can be seen from the top of the Paradise Chair on Marmot Basin.
We decided to access Whistler Creek from the Knob Peak instead of heading up the creek via the parking lots at Marmot. We were lucky as the Marmot Ski Patrol were doing avalanche work and opened the “Peak”, allowing us to ski the back side. The hike up the “Peak” was steamy as the sun was beating down. Once on the top we checked our “beacons” before descending into Whistler Creek. Finally the pay-off begins: deep, soft powder and solitude as we explored the virgin run in POW. From the hollow we peered back at the pristine tracks in the snow. From here we slipped on our skins and headed up the “H. H.” Breaking trail, Brad led us up in no time.
After soaking up the view and “inhaling” lunch we climbed nearer to “Heaven”. With clouds rolling in we decided to abort the summit and descend immediately. Our initial path took us, fortunately, to the left or west of a steep pitch where, in our excitement and enthusiasm, we managed a mid-slope collision. When the laughter and snow had subsided Brad and Richard resumed the assault. Within seconds I heard a resounding “WHOOMPH”!!! After a quick glance at the “roll” above, which we had avoided, I followed. Suddenly reality set in — “AVALANCHE, AVALANCHE!!!” I screamed.
The only thought that raced through my mind was to outdistance this THING. I tensed my stance and tucked down the hill as the top of the mountain came in hot pursuit. Focusing on the fall line and pushed by panic my speed eliminated all possibility of turning. Time seemed paralysed as I soon crashed into the bushes far below. From a distance I heard, “Are You Alright? Are You Alright?” Brad was yelling that I had cleared the path of the avalanche. I peeked back and saw my tracks emerge from the wash a few metres behind me. With a sigh of relief I headed off to join the others.
After debriefing and recording the event we returned to Marmot Basin to view the avalanche from the top of the Paradise Chair. After appropriate “Toasting” a class TWO slide, we thanked our lucky stars for the harrowing experience.
Access: From third parking lot of Marmot Basin (Whistlers Creek Access) or over the peak from the Knob Chair
Vine Pass in Jasper National Park is not a particularly rewarding or scenic destination, but I did find it to be an obvious place to begin this daring jaunt into the wilds of Jasper. I had ached to explore beyond this pass many times before, but I had been stopped by extreme rainy weather and deep snow on other occasions. But this was August 2011, and the only real barrier was one of tolerance, especially for the many mosquitos plaguing the mountains at this time of year. My exact route was unknown, hidden obstacles would no doubt present themselves, and I would have to make judgment calls on where to go and what to do.
I was alone out here and this was the first time that a satellite messenger device was brought along, to let people know where I was, and when I was there. They could track my progress through the wilderness and know that I was alright, thanks to a pre-arranged message. I was getting older, 50 now, but still in great shape, and had been weight training since my early 20s. One simply needed to be in shape for this sort of thing, its not like normal hiking, no guidebook to let you know whats up ahead, no established campgrounds waiting, you had to also be prepared mentally to be able to cope with your smallness and aloneness in the vast wilderness. Loneliness might not enter many people’s minds when they think of being surrounded by nature’s beauty, but when you are cut off from civilization by lack of a trail, you know you are really alone, even though you may not be that far away, as the eagle flies.
A rough narrow trail led north away from the Vine Pass campground and began its slow descent towards Whitecap Creek, which I decided to name since there was a Whitecap Mountain at its headwaters. Dozens of downed trees of all sizes crisscrossed the trail, reminding me that this route was no longer maintained. The weather was good, a few clouds, some sun, just the way I liked it. I plunged out of the bush and onto the gravelly, shrub covered bank of Whitecap Creek. The trail was no more, now began the trackless upstream journey into who knows what. Snacking on some nuts, I looked out across the creek to a completely burned out mountain side, that of Cumnock Mountain, probably caused by a wildfire. Blackened trees stood in silence above me, occasionally creaking with a sudden breeze, then silent again. Somehow it was spooky, I just couldn’t put my finger on it though. The creekside hike now began and it wasn’t too bad at first, flat shrub covered areas that I could just wind my way through. But all that vanished after a few kilometres, it got more hilly, the creek now bordered by dense willow growth. The forest away from the creek was sloped and mossy, and this was where I had to go. This was very time consuming and sometimes the creek would bend back on itself, so I opted to veer deeper into the bush and push up valley in this manner. Pushing into what though? It was a long way to treeline, elevation gain had been gradual so a place to camp had to be found amidst this bush someplace, sometime soon! It was getting late and nothing was flat, until a small and more open area right next to Whitecap creek was found. I sent a signal from my satellite device and set up camp. Besides a tent I had also brought along a small mosquito shelter, a place where I could eat and drink coffee in relative bug free comfort, except for the bugs that discovered a way under the netting. I relaxed after a freeze dried dinner with a few shots of tequila! Oh yeah, well worth the weight of a couple plastic flasks of the stuff. Soon the bugs weren’t the only ones buzzing. lol.
The forested hiking continued the next day, until open boggy areas began appearing, trees thinned out, and a long grey wall of peaks loomed in the distance. A waterfall poured down from heights unseen, it looked like it would be a hard climb up next to it, but it turned out to be ok. Thankfully, because it was the ONLY way up. It was a very steep climb however, and finally I left the last of the trees behind and found myself looking at Whitecap Lake, backed by the soaring cliffs of Whitecap Mountain. I wondered if anyone had ever been up here, and if they had, were they sane? This was nowhereland, albeit a beautiful, and very peaceful one. Several more lakes lay further up, before the approach to Whitecap Pass, my intended route out of here. I found a nice flat place to set up camp on meadows with stupendous views across to the cliffwalls. My voiced echoed many times while yelling for the heck of it.
An unbelievable tour de force began in the morning with the ascent towards the intimidating Whitecap Pass. Snow filled gullies of packed snow made the hiking so much more bearable than the loose rocks next to them, and in no time at all I was kicking steps into hard snow to gain the pass, which was actually a col, a gap between two mountains. It was a great relief to see that snow gullies actually continued down the other side of the pass, but first I had to slip up on some down shelving slabs of rock with scree on top, which offered no purchase whatsoever, and down I went. Luckily I only scraped my hand and didn’t slide down anywhere. The descent on the snow led down into what looked like a rock quarry on an asteroid, so bleak was the scene. An endless sea of rocks was traversed until I could make my way up into another basin next to the base of Mount Thornton. Up here there was no meadow, no lakes, just rubble and a small creek coming down from Thornton Pass, a foreboding gap at the head of the basin. It was kind of early so it was decided to push on and see what was over this pass. This one was much harder and steeper than Whitecap Pass had been, even though snow gullies did aid my ascent up to a point. The final slog was extremely steep and my 60 lb. backpack kept threatening to drag me backwards. I had to stop and lean on one leg every 10 steps or so, so exhausting was the climb. The top of this pass was unusual to say the least, it was like looking down into an arena of packed scree with a very small tarn in it. There was a large hill of rubble at the far end of the arena, a gap on each side of it, none of which looked inviting. Gulp! I removed my backpack and neared the edge of one gap and it plunged away into nothingness! Definitely not this way! A 5 minute walk to the other gap confirmed a disappointing reality, cliffs prevented my continuing on in this direction. So sadly I would have to return to the base of Mount Thornton, set up camp and decide where to go next. It took no time at all to get back down there, and was I going to have some tequila tonight! The only sounds were rockfall and wind as I sat atop a large boulder and filled shot glass after shot glass, staring down into the Cumnock Valley, whose headwaters I now occupied.
There possibly existed another way to get into the next valley, via yet another pass which could be gained by bushwhacking down the Cumnock valley a short distance then traversing up into another alpine basin. So… thats what I did. The rocky abode was left behind and the trees once again became my companions, they provided handholds in steep open forest with rock slabs. I crossed a large flat area next to Cumnock Creek, then ascended a shrubby, rocky ridge to gain the high country once more. Curiously I hadn’t encountered any wildlife so far, but maybe it was all the for the best. I was clapping and yelling every now and again, mainly for the bears. The meadows I entered now sat at either end of the basin, the middle area being a giant rocky trench, as if carved or scooped out by giant hands. No sign of water and I had to get some, so down into the trench I went. A few pools of water were found and then I began the ascent toward Rowand Pass, my last chance at progressing further to the NW. It was ill fated due to impossibly steep slopes and I just didn’t like the feel of the place. One has to rely on their instincts out here and mine clearly said, “don’t do it.” The pass descended into a side valley which would lead into another valley, and that was the valley I wanted, but this time, I wouldn’t get there. Descending the Cumnock Valley was my only choice at this point, and a loop would be completed by crossing Cumnock Pass, fording Whitecap Creek and once again returning by way of Vine Pass. Hmmm.…“Cumnock was burned” kept ringing in my head. Yikes!
The nightmarish hike to get to Cumnock Lake, a small lake half way down Cumnock valley, began by clambering down steep deadfall filled bush next to a small creek draining the meadows below Rowand Pass. It took forever to even get a short distance through the tangled vegetation, and then it rained… I kept going though, this was no place to stop for a picnic lunch. I reached the creek at a point where it had just exited a gorge and entered forest, so my navigation had been uncannily lucky to say the least. Then the downstream plodding began, huge open areas of dense shrubs with deadfall and water underneath. It was so yummy I could have gobbled it up. lol. Of course the mosquitos now joined in the show, no applause for this production however. Cumnock Creek had remained on the other side of the valley for the most part but now its course veered over to my side, so I just crossed the thing, walking through it outright. I had sneakers with me, but kind of liked having them dry for my feet at camp instead of soaked and under a rock. I found rusted empty tin cans on the far side of the creek, so amazingly people had actually been here at one time. They must have been lunatics! The say that Cumnock Lake was disappointing was an understatement. It was surrounded by reeds and a black sludge, and there was no place whatsover to set up camp. I followed the creek as it exited the lake and decided to see what was up at the top of a boulder covered avalanche slope. There was one spot that would have almost been ok for the tent, but it just wasn’t flat enough. There was no water, and that was the main reason for heading back down to the creek. Extremely dense conifers slowed me down to a snail’s pace, although even slime wouldn’t have done them anygood. I ended up in dense woods again, camped on a fairly open mossy area next to the creek.
It was extremely difficult to figure out where to begin climbing up to gain Cumnock Pass. I tried going up higher and soon regretted it, nothing but deadfall filled, moss covered steep slopes. Eventually the creek showed up again, and then.. a trail!! Out here? It had to be an old remnant from some bygone era, but it was better than nothing and I eagerly began following it uphill into the forested mountainside. The trail vanished into shrubs and was unrecognizable, then the burn zone appeared out of nowhere. I was now entering the burned out mountainside I had gazed up at from Whitecap Creek at the beginning of the hike, and it was not pleasant. My boots crunched deep into charred dry ashes of what was moss at one time, and blackened trunks dotted the rolling hills for as far as I could see. The deadfall was atrocious, mostly at waist level and at all angles. I needed a giant who wanted to play pick up sticks. The soles of my feet burned from being wet and from the steep hiking. It seemed like forever, then I saw Whitecap Creek and ended up at exactly the same place I had begun! Even though exhausted I continued back up the trail to camp at Vine Pass again. The next day on the way out, a lone wolf appeared in the forest, looked at me for a short time, then darted off, as if to say, “farewell.”