Romancing the Snow

Post by blogger | July 18, 1995      

(Dedicated to you newly married out there.)

At our tent on the Columbia Icefield, 1995. Early Dynafits, skiinny skis, and snow.

At our tent on the Columbia Icefield, 1995. Early Dynafits, skiinny skis, and snow. Click to enlarge.

Spring, 1995. Our garden is bright with sweet peas, red poppies, and butterflies flitting among fragrant lilacs. I lounge in shorts outside our Colorado home, basking in the beauty of an early spring morning. After each Colorado season of avalanche decisions, storms, and ski lessons, I welcome summer when I risk nothing more than blisters from my garden hoe. All is peace.

Then my new husband Lou Dawson sits down beside me, tea in hand, and says, “I can’t wait until winter is here again, and come to think of it, let’s head north and find some snow.”

I begin the long drive from Colorado to Canada in high spirits, hands off the cruise control and a full cooler between us. Lisa appears happy, but I wonder if she’s totally behind this trip. I know she misses our son as soon as we pull out of our driveway. But after a relaxing day of driving uncrowded western roads, with outstanding music on a new car stereo (with the trip delayed a day for the do-it-yourself install), I’m sure she’s happy. The 5-year-old is safe and secure with Grandma. We’re free and road tripping. My plan: renew the marriage with sunny views and a few descents of North American classics, preferably on velvet corn snow. In Pinedale, Wyoming we toast our first vacation night with champagne. Things look good. Only, outside our motel room it’s raining. Hard.

I love the life of adventure Lou introduced me to after our marriage 12 years ago, but I also deeply enjoy motherhood. After four hours on the road, I miss our son so badly it feels like a bullet in my chest. In truth, baby versus backcountry has conflicted our relationship. By sharing this trip, can we regain our easy partnership? Or is my taste for fun and my eagerness to be a willing partner gone? As Lou whistles to the radio while driving through the Wyoming rain, I brood, gray as the landscape.

Lou tries to describe the Wind River mountains we can’t see: “They rise up from the Red Desert like gigantic waves in the North Sea; they’re the best wilderness peaks in the lower 48 states…Just looking at the Winds puts your heart in your throat.” But the Wind Rivers stayed hidden. “Wait till we drive over the Gros Venture and drop into Jackson Hole,” He added, “You’ll faint when you see the Tetons for the first time.” Shopping for a few essentials (music CDs) at the K-mart in Jackson, the clouds drop to the ground, and a cold drizzle is the Teton’s way of saying hello. I want to ski legendary corn on Teton classics Static Peak or Buck Mountain, but the next day it’s still raining. When the west is like this, you have to keep moving or you’ll melt. We drive north, to Whitefish, Montana.

Yardsale, or just some ski mountaineers?

Yardsale, or just some ski mountaineers doing a get-ready?

But how can one not succumb to the lure of a road? I do, shamefully quick. Bad weather and heartache aside, I’m enjoying my mate, visiting friends, covering new landscapes. Nonetheless, frustration mounts as bad weather blows every climb we plan. We move on toward Canada.

In Whitefish we spread our gear in a driveway and evaluate the necessity of each item so our packs will be as lean as possible. We drive into town quick for something and return to find neighbors pawing through the stuff, thinking it was a yard sale. A stray dog is ready to run off with one of my boots and a cat naps on my sleeping bag. The clouds rumble and raindrops patter, spotting everything like a bad case of acne. We throw everything in the truck, borrow a handful of wands and a few tattered maps from our friends Molly and Larry, say a prayer, and take off.

At Lake Louise the impact of the glaciated Canadian Rockies hits me like a small-town teen’s first drive in city traffic. Our meager supply of gear, combined with eroding fitness and waterlogged brains, conspire to a fearful assessment: Are these mountains too much for us? With Chic Scott’s guidebook on my lap I pour over ideas for routes. It is mid-June. The days are long; the snow is mostly melted and the mountains as dry as the Colorado Rockies in July. We need to get on an icefield for good skiing, or for that matter, any skiing. And more importantly, for me being on a gigantic river of ice was the denouement of the mountaineering experience. On a glacier I feel a strangeness that’s powerful, alien, but at the same time close. I know the ice is carving a new mountain; God grinding down with a giant thumb. Indeed, some of my most spiritual mountaineering experiences have been on glaciers — you’re so close to the creator there — he’s in action as you watch. I want to share that with my mate.

According to Scott, you can take a civilized ice tour on the Wapta Icefields. The Columbia fields, however, are the monarch; the source; the fountainhead. As Scott writes, “The Columbia Icefield is one of the premier ski mountaineering locations in Canada. It is a huge and complex icefield surrounded by numerous mountain giants between which glaciers wind their way to the valley bottom. The icefield covers about 225 square kilometers…” That sounds like our place. If weather skunked our 14-day road trip, we would at least hit the most spectacular ski area in Canada.

Scenery along the Icefields Parkway astounds me. Huge rock buttresses plunge and soar, regal snow capped peaks preside over deep forest, clearing cerulean sky glows overhead. But when I open my car door at the parking lot below the Athabasca Glacier, all that becomes mere entertainment. As a girl in the Alps I’d smelled the glacier wind, and as a gust of that same ether hit my face, I know the kind of mountaineering Lou has planned for me has taken a new turn. This is adult stuff. I’m confident in his abilities, but I’d been in the backcountry enough to know that you can’t control everything. Just how dangerous is this glacier stuff, anyway? Were we, as parents, acting responsibly? Lou obviously felt the risks were slight and the rewards great – I know he wants to share something special with me. Am I up for it?

I try hard to use unbiased judgment. Men get all these grandiose ideas about conquering the heights with their wives and girlfriends. I’d seen such plans fail miserably –e ven tragicall — I don’t want to embroil Lisa in such an affair.

Warden at the Icefields Station gives us the details: serious weather, serious crevasses. “Jam up through the section exposed to the Snowdome icefall,” he says with an edge to his voice that tells me all I need to know. “How often does it calve?” I asked,(nice term for a deadly catastrophic event.) “Oh, maybe big once a week…” Was this the essence of risk? You take all the precautions, use good equipment, and it boils down to an act of God when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. I take solace in the fact that we’d avoid most of the icefall on the way up, and ski quickly below it on the way down; and that the driving we’d been doing was probably more risky if you looked at the statistics. Heck, a dual-trailer semi bearing down on you at 75 mph is as scary as any icefall. Hah!

From the asphalt you approach the Athabasca Glacier’s toe via a foot-path: a dour option with our overloaded sled, which we’d already nicknamed “pig.” Also, the toe of the glacier was as dry as the backs of my hands (and my mouth). Not good for skis and a sled. Ideally, we’d have preferred to be dropped on the Icefield via helicopter, but they weren’t allowed in the park. We were told that fixed-wing craft had been landing on the Icefield just outside the park boundary, but that was weather dependent—especially when it came time to be picked up. We had one other option to at least get past the unpleasant glacier toe: the snowcoach.

A huge 60 passenger bus, with gigantic mud tires and ultra low gearing, snowcoaches are a purist’s worst nightmare. They roar up onto the glacier in a cloud of diesel exhaust, then disgorge hundreds of tourists onto a patch of plowed ice and snow.

Lisa and I can’t help but notice that the current “snowcoach” road led to a logical starting point for our trip. It cuts about 500 vertical feet off the slog, and enters the glacier where snowcover is good. Ever the diplomat, Lisa walks over to the office and begs a ride. The hospitable Canadians tell us to hop on.

Columbia Icefield, view from tent during backcountry skiing trip.

Columbia Icefield, view from tent during backcountry skiing trip.

Riding the snowcoach transports us to the Far East. The bus is a Japanese tour and the guide explains all in the exotic language. We sit in the back on the luggage, which makes us loom over the group. I imagine us as tall westerners journeying toward the Himalayas. A sighting of yak would make it real. Instead we pull into the parking area on the glacier and met crowds from other buses. Obnoxious, being the subject for about 200 tourist camera lenses.

Our first order of business is escape from the cameras. Without roping up, we trudge out on the glacier until the point-and-shooters loose interest. Then, with the rope tied and prusiks dangling like medieval tokens, we crawl like flies, or rather slugs, up the face of the Athabasca. We hadn’t exercised in ten days, and the last time we’d carried backpack loads was before our son was born; but the human body is amazing, with reserves you didn’t even know were there (especially with a calving icefall to bring out your hidden talents).

With one false turn at an icefall and a gut busting climb up a steep pitch, we reach the Icefield, then slog into the setting sun to make camp under the east reaches of Snowdome.

Lisa entering Columbia Icefield, Mount Athabasca in background.

Lisa entering Columbia Icefield, Mount Athabasca in background.

In the evening twilight the clouds lift like a stage curtain. A harvest moon bobbles over huge peaks ringing the eastern horizon like theater walls. Banner clouds puff from Mount Andromeda and other matterhorns that knife up from evil north faces: sons and daughters of roiled glaciers and cream-puff icefields. The Rockies’ soul tightens around my heart. What union is this? Man and mountain; animal in its own. A taste of primitive joy? Or, do I attach innuendos for simple chemistry? Endorphins or none, our pasta dinner is good—even the powdered cheeze sauce a tingling delight.

Lisa, and Skyladder where it dumps on to Athabasca.

Lisa, and Skyladder where it dumps on to Athabasca.

When Lou initially suggested our trip, I envisioned a second honeymoon: romantic decadence, Canadian adventure. Perhaps a few days in the Grand Hotel on Lake Louise? Camping on 1,000 foot thick ice in a minimalist tent is more Lou’s style, but I’m receiving my share of pampering. The hot cocoa and macaroni taste 5-star (truth), our table candle a giant yellow moon hanging over the icefield. The snowy plains are blue and purple in the light. This is beauty like I’ve never seen. The mountains we seek hide deeply inside a mat of clouds, occasionally peaking out to tease us with a glimpse. We retire, anxious with the anticipation for the new and unexplored tomorrow. A chilling breeze tucks us in as we float off to sleep.

In the morning I poke my head outside and a full whiteout says, “Welcome to Canada, where you’re expected to act like an adult.” With childlike optimism, I’d pitched our tarp-tent as I would have in Colorado timber, and spindrift had squirted through every crack, coating everything with a layer of rime and soaking our sleeping bag. Our cozy shelter had become a miserable bivouac. We spend the morning building snow-block walls that fit tightly under the edges of the tarp, then set our bag out to dry in the wind. Could we still climb Snowdome? While sipping hot tea, I tweak my compass declination and draw bearing lines on our map. I don’t know exactly where we’re camped but I can guess within several hundred yards — close enough to get started. Visibility varies from about 50 feet to 300 feet. We have about 25 wands, but I figure we need three or four times that many to mark a reversible route to the summit of Snowdome. My hope is that the clouds will lift during the climb, and we can space the markers farther apart.

We tie a full rope-length between us, I hold the compass in a death grip, and we begin. Every ten steps I line my skis up with the little dancing magnet, then try to ski a straight line. Lisa reaches the previous wand, gives a shout, and I place another. I could put Lisa in front and use her for a bearing, but with her lack of glacier experience that’s not an option.

As Lou struggles with route finding and marking, I wait behind, shrouded by clouds. The wind grounds me, otherwise I could be floating in the mist. Endless vistas of white fade in and out, the only thing of distinction is the rope blurring out of sight. I wait for a muffled shout then follow the rope blindly into the swirling haze.

Backcountry skiing Columbia Icefield, looking at Mt. Bryce.

Lisa hauls the rig, Mount Bryce looms.

“Tighten the rope,” I shout, “I’m backing up!” Visibility is about ten feet when yet another maw-like crevasse yawns from the custard mist; an eerie and terrifying experience when you’ve got no sense of scale and no points of reference.

The pathetic thread between my wife and I does nothing to quell the knot in my gut. If I fall in she could be dragged across the ice; about as effective an anchor as a safety pin for an ocean liner. After a few strides rearwards, I plop in a wand then timidly look for a way to cross the 25-foot wide maw. Soon it appears the beast is choked with snow. I place another wand and ski across, probing with my ski pole so I don’t blunder down a hidden orifice.

Tea break on Snowdome, during a 5 minute cloud lift. Note the snow block cairn.

Tea break on Snowdome, during a 5 minute cloud lift. Note the snow block cairn.

I break wands in half to stretch our supply; but soon they’re gone. The white-out breaks to a view of Mount Columbia, then the mist closes down again like someone raking dry cotton balls over my eyes. We must mark our trail. Could we start leaving gear? Perhaps. I stick a candy wrapper in the snow. It blows away. I get out my shovel and cut a long snow block, stand it on end, then tie a spare sock around the top. Good. Another rope-length, I hack another block, stick a carabiner in the top. It works. One; ten; forty times I spread my skis apart, bend over, and carve away at the hard crust. We mark each cairn: hats, spare gloves, a pen jabbed through a candy wrapper—anything to make them visible in the soup. Near the end my arms feel like wet cement, stabs of fire shoot through my elbow tendons. Our packs begin to look like deflated balloons.

We stop and gulp dregs from our thermos then jam it in the snow as a marker. My altimeter says we’re close. With an inch of rime-ice coating her clothing Lisa looks like a snowman, and she’s quiet—too quiet. We’ve been doing this tedious plod for almost five hours, and I think about hypothermia. The whiteout tightens, harsher wind gnaws my face. In an epiphany the angle eases, and I’m skiing down a slight incline. Is this the summit? I shout to Lisa to stop and I ski a half-circle. All is flat or downhill. A dead bird juts out of the snow. Omen? My altimeter says we’re there. We stand in a daze for a moment, strip skins, then before the wind can blow our markers away we snowplow down through the clouds. A thousand vertigo turns later, our tent emerges from the gloom like a dust mote drifting across our corneas.

Numbing cold and endless white are my partners as I ski on autopilot to a marker. Stop, retrieve Lou’s wand or odd what-not, shout for him to continue, and wait as the rope feeds. My mind drifts. If only marriage was always this simple. I stand head down and huddled into the slicing wind. Finally, the tent and Lou appear. He smiles at me, his blue eyes shine, welcome stars in the murk. His hug and kiss revive me. It’s suddenly obvious how a backcountry challenge, even more than perfect corn snow or nights in the Post Hotel, can make our relationship complete.

Our block-walls had held, so we cower in our cocoon and feed snow to a bellowing stove. The barometer looks better; but getting down the Athabasca Glacier, we now realize, will be more of a task than we’d planned on. We had neglected to wand most of our route, and had not expected such heinous weather. Thus we decide that despite our abundant food, if the clouds lift in the morning we will ski out.

We wake early, with mangy clouds allowing an occasional peek of Mount Andromeda. I frantically check my map and pen bearings on the palm of my hand. A queasy feeling hits my stomach, born of fears I hadn’t know for years: serac, crevasse, injury, weather; like deep ocean sailing with a blown engine or broken mast.

The clouds dance just above the ice; we see enough to take a direct route down to the saddle at the head of the Athabasca Glacier. Luckily I’d found a few old wands on the way up, which we’d used to mark a tricky entrance leading down the only snow ramp. We find one critical wand as the clouds lower. A close shave. Icefalls block either side of the route; fissures that would eat us like a wolf jaws a mouse.

Then the questions: Shall we ski below the Snowdome Icefall, with slight but terminal risk of a serac avalanche? Or shall we head down the crevasse field we’d tiptoed over on the way up? With Lisa’s lack of crevasse rescue skills, but her solid ski technique and beefy AT gear, a quick scoot under the icefall seems smarter. It works, but there’s no denying the acid burning your gut as you ski below a thousand-foot wall of ice that crashes down at random intervals. You repeat the mantra: don’t fall, don’t fall; and you hope your partner (and the ice) are doing the same. If you twist a knee and have to stop, the glacier will certainly direct its scornful effluvia in your direction. Mountains do not suffer fools.

Hearing the ice fall randomly around us is a scary part of ski mountaineering I’d never imagined. We rush down the glacier solving its intricacies by interminable weaving, creeping over tenuous bridges, snowplowing desperately below the shrouded rock. The pig pushes me like the bumper of a 1-ton truck, demanding a thigh-burning wedge to keep in control. I can handle it only for a few hundred feet, then must give the harness to Lou. We alternate for what seems like hours until we pass the seracs and the angle of the glacier is close to flat.

I hear water rushing beneath the névé, then we come to tiny rivers of runoff. The loamy smell of spring earth fills the air. The sterile, nose clearing dryness of the ice world is gone. Glistening pebbles in the stream, pungent earth, and distant bird call whelm my senses. I think of my garden back home, what seeds and weeds have sprouted, what mudpies our son will make, and I leave our white sojourn with awe and appreciation for the extremes of my full life.

Once at a safe spot lower down, we sit on the pig and sip tea. We hear the big-block diesel roar of the snowcoaches, and with a melancholy I’ve known many times, I anticipate our re-entry into civilization.

We ski to the glacier toe, muscle the pig down the final moraine, and Lisa walks the pavement to our truck. As I sit on the curb and wait, feet touching asphalt and my hands in the gravel of the Athabasca moraine. I’m already longing for the Icefield: for the simplicity of relationships there. I look east, away from the road, and watch as stubby fingers of clouds roll over the Andromeda Icefall.

Lisa gets a foot massage, one method of spousal pampering.

Lisa gets a foot massage, one method of spousal pampering if you're in the middle of the Columbia Icefield, in a storm.

For a few brief moments the Columbia Icefield had defined our lives with tough-love; it was a harsh place, but the womb-like simplicity of wilderness, defined by the roar of a stove or next step of skis, bathed us in a cocoon of feral good. On the Columbia Icefield I’d seen a new side of my wife and our marriage. She was calm in the face of danger, with physical reserves I’d never known and an elegant athleticism that would hold up in any arena. Now we’d head back to the complexity of office, parenting, bills, and crowds. A noble challenge, and nonetheless a trudge that can wear you down like an endless climb. But Lisa and I had worked hard and more importantly, together on the icefield. I now knew more than ever that our love was more than heat, but rather total confidence in each other, whether tied to the ends of a climbing rope — or to the heart of our child.

As Lisa backs our truck close to the pig, I slip a glacier-rounded pebble in my pocket and keep it there for the long drive home. I’ll use it to remember the icefields, and what we have.


5 Responses to “Romancing the Snow”

  1. Sandy Brown November 18th, 2011 6:05 pm

    Lou & Lisa, Great reprise of a wonderful place. It brought me back to a week I spent with college buddies on the Icefield in June ’83. We enjoyed ourselves making sloppy tele turns on Snow Dome using nordic gear with “heel locators”. We went up the Athabasca glacier and came down the Sasketchewan and hitched back to the car. Thanks for the trip back in time.

  2. Bar Barrique November 18th, 2011 9:38 pm

    Gee Lou, 1995 doesn’t seem all that long ago. Were you still using a Kodak “Brownie” shooting B&W film?
    Sounds like you had a good trip, which can happen under the most dire conditions.
    I prefer smaller less problematic glaciers, less stress, and, still good vertical.

  3. Lou November 19th, 2011 6:49 am

    Bar, back then I shot almost all B&W, was doing mostly stuff for illustrating my books, which were all B&W, and could get much much better/easier results than shooting color then converting. Also, I liked (and still like) B&W. Color is ok, and terrific some times, but the garish pallet of today’s color photo look only impresses me part of the time. Had my own darkroom/lab, really nice, so I also saved a bunch of money processing a huge amount of film. But I spent quite a bit on camera gear in those days, so just broke even on the savings, not to mention using part of our home as a large darkroom. I sold nearly every bit of my photo and darkroom equipment when it looked like digital was actually going to work. I then had a two or thee year sabbatical from much shooting, as the adequate digital gear was too expensive for my taste. Then, when the digicam prices dropped, I went after it bigtime. Had already mastered Photoshop as well as some ancestral photo editing software that now doesn’t exist, so I had the software skillset ready to go. Am still shooting with a somewhat substandard digital camera, but I plan on upgrading fairly soon to something at lest one level better. Perhaps a Canon G, or one of the new downsized cams with interchangeable lenses. Still don’t want to spend too much on the camera, as I want something I can drop off a mountain and just laugh about.

  4. Michael Pike November 19th, 2011 8:44 pm

    Great account of more than just another trip report. I really liked the dual perspective. Brings back fond memories of my own 3 month adventure up there in the spring of ’99, skiing the Wapta Icefield Traverse, etc.

  5. Mike Marolt November 21st, 2011 11:15 am

    When i read that, and look at where you all were, and now where you are, it really is something. Great family values, faith, skiing, kid in college, and continuing the traditions and way of life, it’s something i def aspire to with my own family and life. It simply doesn’t and can’t get any better than that in my view.

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