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The Complete Columbias Traverse By Alex Heathcott

The Complete Columbias Traverse is a 750 km long ski traverse through the Columbia Mountains. The traverse combines five of Chic Scott's Grand Traverses, linking the Purcells, Selkirks, Monashees and Cariboos. It was first attempted in 1998 by Dan Clark and Chris Gooliaff, who skied from McBride to Kimberley over a period of 61 days. The route has yet to be completed in its entirety.

Our route

On March 11th, 2019, Lynnea Baker and myself began our attempt of the South-North variation of the Traverse. Over a two month period, we spent 44 days skiing from Kimberley to the North Thompson River, finishing just shy of our final goal of McBride. We were fortunate to receive expedition support from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, MEC and Alpine Start Coffee.

For each section of the trip, I have provided a brief summary of the route, followed by photos and stories from our trip.

PART 1: KIMBERLEY TO ROGER'S PASS

Kimberley to Roger's Pass on it's own would be a stellar ski traverse. The route begins in the sub-alpine larch forests of St. Mary's Alpine Provincial Park, travels through the Purcell Wilderness Park, passes the Jumbo Valley and links up with the classic Bugaboos to Roger's Pass Traverse.

The first section of the Traverse through St. Mary's Park and the Purcell Wilderness is complex and committing due to its remote nature. Limited information is available and there is no helicopter access within the Purcell Wilderness.

I strongly recommend anyone planning on skiing the Bugaboos to Roger's Pass Traverse to consider adding Jumbo to the Bugaboos to the start of the trip. The view of the north face of the Howser's as you climb out of Howser Creek cannot be beaten. The overall style of the traverse is a similar in nature to the rest of the Bugaboos to Roger's Pass Traverse and is well worth the effort.

When planning the trip we realized starting too early would mean facing winter conditions and potentially being trapped during the first warm-up. However, starting too late would give us safer conditions at the beginning, but could result in heinous dirt walking or dangerous creek crossings at the end. Feeling fairly confident with the winter snowpack, we opted to start the trip early.

The Kimberley to Roger's Pass crew. Duncan Baker, Lynnea Baker, Sara-Jo Howatt, Alex Heathcott.

Our trip began with a sled bump up the St. Mary's River from Kimberley to the St. Patrick Yurt. The terrain is initially small in scale, but did not come without challenges. Hidden amongst the contour lines were cliff bands spanning the width of slopes. What seemed like easy features to skip through became long, complicated days with knee deep trail breaking. The deep freeze was still on and our first days were spent battling wind, new snow, heavy packs and cold toes.

St. Mary's Alpine Provincial Park

Our first true test was climbing over Mount St. Mary. After a cold, windy night at the aptly named Bleak Lake, we set off up the steep south facing slope. The snow felt thin and hollow. As I crested over the first steep section, Duncan felt the snow on the lake settle beneath him. Yikes!

Bleak Lake and Mount St. Mary

Our goal of becoming the first group to ski from Kimberley to McBride was crushed early on when faced with the first warm-up of the season. The warm front arrived just as we reached the crux of the southern Purcells. Our route for the next two days would involve climbing a steep col into the unknown and then spending a full day walking up a shooting gallery of slide paths.

On March 15th, day 5 of our trip, we began our exit out Findlay Creek. I always find decisions on either end of the spectrum easiest to make, so although disappointed, we were happy to decide to bail.

Finlay Creek bushwhack and heli bump to Invermere

On March 21st, after the warmest day of the avalanche cycle, we restarted our trip up Toby Creek. Rejuvenated by our brief rest and feeling confident with refreshed snowpack, the next several days went by effortlessly. We woke every morning at 3 am, watched the sunrise from high alpine passes, climbed freely up frozen solar slopes, skied boot-top powder down north facing glaciers and enjoyed the deep valley bottom snowpack. With the exception of a brief storm in the Bugaboos, our luck continued as we travelled north.

Jumbo to the Bugaboos

The middle section of the segment, through the CMH Bobbie Burns tenure was by far one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip. Not only were conditions cooperating, but the group was truly having fun. SJ had spent days talking about the treats her friends at CMH most likely left us at our Crystalline Creek food cache. As we pulled the box out of the snow and began sorting our food, I looked over and saw SJ still digging through the snow, desperately looking for a potential gift package. Right as she gave up, looking defeated, we heard the hum of a helicopter. The lodge manager, Matt, hopped out and treated us to warm soup, fresh vegetables and a massive bag of FULL SIZE chocolate bars. We couldn't have been happier! The next day, approaching our camp below Syncline, the helicopter touched down and again we were treated like queens.

CMH Bobbie Burns tenure

On our final day in the Bobbie Burns tenure, we made short work of the Syncline col, skied down the Syncline glacier into the most incredible sunrise and were on top of the CMH run Aktion Direkt before 10 am. For the third time, we heard the helicopter nearby, pulled out our radio and realized they were about to drop into the same bowl from the next col over. Showing off for the heliskiers, SJ and I raced down the slope, linking powder 8's, skiing the fastest I ever have with a big bag. From the top, Lynnea and Duncan overheard the guide on the radio "We just got snaked by the ski tourers". As we neared the bottom of the slope, we crested a small ridge and the snow turned to shit. I caught an edge, flew through the air, landed straight onto my face and ended up with a double barrel nosebleed just in time to meet the guide and clients. Very impressive.

Beaver River to Sugarloaf-Grand col

As we continued on we experienced day after day of clear skies and exceptional ski conditions. The highlight of the section being the high route over Grand and Sugarloaf Mountain, involving some of the most complex and beautiful terrain of the entire traverse. Our first day up from the Beaver Valley we had perfect snow conditions climbing up to the Duncan shoulder, watched an icefall collapse with the first ray of light, downclimbed a steep slope over a gaping bergschrund, traversed under an overhanging cornice dripping in the morning sun and finally reached safety on top of Sugarloaf. Frustrated from waiting for the group, I dropped my bag and climbed up the ridge to the summit of Sugarloaf. Right as I crested the summit, another peak appeared down the ridge in the background. It was in that triumphant moment I realized I climbed the wrong peak. Shit! As a consolation prize, I was treated to a view back at the last 10 days of the trip. I returned to the group and we linked turns down the icefall to the Sugarloaf-Grand col.

Grand Glacier

After hearing numerous stories about epics at the Deville rappels, we approached apprehensively. Although feeling somewhat like we were cheated out of an adventure, we were relieved to find the rappels marked with a huge cairn and fitted with burly four-bolt anchors. Already later in the day than we would like, we made quick work of the rappels and happily scurried out from under the icefall to the safety of the Glacier Circle cabin. We arrived at Roger’s Pass on April 3rd, 14 days after leaving Toby Creek (20 days of skiing since Kimberley).

Deville Neve

PART 2: THE NORTHERN SELKIRKS

The Northern Selkirks Traverse is a classic ski traverse, linking Roger's Pass to the Mica Dam along the height of land. Although less popular and more remote than the Bugaboos to Roger's Pass Traverse, it offers a similar experience, with steep descents and technical climbs.

The route begins at Roger's Pass and crosses over several smaller passes before arriving at the Nordic Glacier. From that point forward, each day requires climbing over and descending one or more major cols, connecting glaciers along the way. The view of Sir Sandford and the Adamants is one of the most dramatic views in the entire Columbia mountain range.

Even more so than in the Purcells and southern Selkirks, I couldn't help but feel like the northern Selkirks are a skier's paradise.

After several days waiting out a storm in Revelstoke, we set off again at Roger’s Pass. Duncan and SJ were back to work and we were stoked to pick up Mark Dalgliesh and Kyle Alexanders for the next section. Right away we were faced with a new series of mental and physical challenges. The northern Selkirks were plagued with hot afternoons, extreme snowfall and difficult valley bottom conditions.

Mountain Creek and Sorcerer Lodge

We were feeling strong at the start of the segment after making a relatively easy crossing of Mountain Creek; however, that wasn't the end of our battle with creeks. A couple days later, at 4 AM, I broke through a snow bridge into a deep, swift moving creek and was swept under the ice shelf on the downstream side. Having left camp alone that morning, I spent almost 15 minutes fighting to hold on until Kyle arrived. The complete rescue effort took over two hours and left me in near hypothermic condition. With all of my gear soaking wet, I put on borrowed clothes and limped forward with shattered confidence for another seven hours. I spent the night shivering in a bivy sack, bundled in down jackets, thankful for my partners and that I only lost a ski pole and my glasses.

Bachelor Creek Incident featuring my new heli-flag ski pole

The following day, we were fortunate to have sunny, dry conditions and any feeling of self-doubt evaporated with the moisture from my gear. Feeling re-born, we raced a storm the next day and combined two days into one, skiing from Moberly Pass to Fairy Meadows (over 20 km and 2,150 m elevation gain). The view from Azimuth Notch, with the staggering north face of Mt. Sir Sandford (highest mountain in the Columbia Range) and the impressive granite spires of the Adamants must be one of the best views in the Columbias.

Sir Sandford

Racing down the Haworth glacier, we briefly passed a party staying at the Great Cairn Hut. We were fixated on getting up from under the Silvertip Glacier icefall as quickly as possible and didn't stop to talk. Not one to miss out on a little socializing, Kyle enjoyed a quick conversation at a full sprint.

"WHERE ARE YOU GUYS COMING FROM?" yelled the guy from 100 m away.

"MOWW-BERRR-LEYYY PASSSS" replied Kyle, gasping for air.

"OH COOOOOL, WHERE ARE YOU GOING?"

"FAIRRR-EEE MEADOWSSSS"

"WHAT ARE YOUR NAMES?"

"I'M KYLE"....(gasp)...."THAT'S ALEX"........"THAT'S MARK"....(gasp)......"AND THAT'S LYNNEA"

And just like that we were gone. Thirty minutes later we were stopped on a bench below Azimuth Notch enjoying a well deserved break after climbing 300 m in 20 minutes.

Into the Adamants

Having never been to Fairy Meadows, we had no idea what to expect. Climbing up over Thor Pass onto the Gothics Glacier felt like stumbling out of the bush into a ski resort. There were tracks in all directions and moguls descending down Friendship Col. Knowing that the following day was exchange day at the lodge and the group would most likely be spending their last night partying motivated us to move quickly. The first person we ran into stared at us for a minute and said "I don't think I've met you. Where did you come from?" We laughed and quickly told our story. Soon enough, half the lodge was staring out the window at us. We were welcomed into the lodge with bowls of soup and three fingers of whisky each. We enjoyed the new company and were fed like kings.

The next morning, the weather turned and we didn't feel particularly motivated to leave the comfort of the lodge. We slowly worked our way up the Granite Glacier in a whiteout and eventually arrived at the Unicorn Col in howling winds. The wind let up and we shredded down the burn to Austerity Creek in a light drizzle.

Austerity Creek and Windy Creek had been on my mind since the start of the trip. After reading about the 2016 Selkirk Traverse crew's experience I was ready for the worst. Luckily for us, we were weeks ahead of them and found Windy Creek filled in with avalanche debris. One of the most memorable experiences of the trip was skiing past a grove of old-growth cedars deep in the valley bottom, far from the nearest road. The trees were some of the largest we had ever seen in the Selkirks.

Windy Creek

As many others before us have experienced, the climb over Neptune was a real challenge. We spent seven hours climbing from valley bottom to the col, working our way up the steep slopes of the Mist Glacier in a whiteout, struggling to break trail in the near knee-deep snow. When we finally reached the flat glacier below Thalia, we pitched the Megalight, pulled out our lunches, played cards for an hour and were ready to call it for the day. Fortunately, the storm broke enough to catch a couple glimpses of the col and we were able to continue on. We started the descent from the col in a full on ping-pong ball whiteout, unsure of where to go next. Right when we thought we would have to return to the col to camp, a sucker hole emerged and we skied the slope CMH style, arriving at the base just as the hole sealed in.

Mist Glacier and Neptune Peak

Feeling stoked about our luck, Kyle began to absolutely charge down the treed slope into the valley. I was pissed. After a long, hard day we were all exhausted and the last thing we needed was an injury. When I caught up to Kyle, I laid into him about cooling it. Kyle gave me a classic "chill out smile" and convinced me to have a little fun. Minutes later Kyle, Mark and I were knifing through the trees, seeking out pillows to air and yipping and yelling the whole way down. There is always time for a little fun on a traverse.

Anemone Pass and Mica Creek

As one final kick in the teeth, the last slope of the Northern Selkirks Traverse was guarded by a whale sized cornice. We reluctantly skied under it without incident and enjoyed the safety of the road on our way out Mica Creek. With the relatively cool weather, very little valley bottom snow had melted and we were able to ski to within 20 m of the highway. Good news for the rest of the trip!

PART 3: MONASHEES

The route through the Monashees was one of the largest unknowns of our trip. In 1998, Chris and Dan were turned around near Mud Lake due to heavy rain and soul crushing isothermal snow. We opted for a route slightly further north (up to Soards Creek FSR and out the Bone Creek FSR) to take advantage of as much road travel as possible, as well as the slightly higher elevation of Bone Creek.

This is a fairly obscure section of the Monashees and isn't really worthwhile as a standalone traverse. The Scrip Range is described as one of the most inaccessible ranges in the Columbias, but with new logging roads, access from the east is manageable.

Glacial recession is evident in the northern Monashees and our route may not be feasible for much longer. Access onto the first icefield (Soards Creek) was complicated by an icefall, which was bypassed on a steep moraine to the left. The second glacier we skinned onto was at the upper limit of skiable and will soon be a bootpack/climb.

After a day of rest, Lynnea and I picked up our partner Chris Perra and headed back to Mica. The rain had continued, but there was a brief, two day weather window forecasted before a major storm. Chris, being a weather guru, insisted we start out in the rain, allowing us to pass over the glaciers in clear weather. Travel up the road was wet, but as we moved towards the end of Soards Creek, the sun popped out and we enjoyed a pleasant evening.

Chris and I woke in the middle of the night to Lynnea yelling. A pine marten had crawled into her Megalight and was licking her face (okay, that might be a slight exaggeration). Chris and I, being responsible partners/friends briefly attempted to scare it away before passing out again.

Soards Creek/pine marten camp

The clouds parted early morning on our second day, signalling the arrival of our weather window (always trust Chris). As the visibility increased, the evidence of a widespread avalanche cycle began to show. The snow that plagued the northern Selkirks fell as rain in the Monashees, cleaning out the snowpack.

Up onto the ice from Soards Creek

With confidence in the snowpack, we moved quickly across big terrain and set up camp in the centre of the glacier to wait out the heat of the day.

My kingdom for some shade

The third day of the Monashees was spent travelling up a steep glacier, down to Mud Creek and over a final col before descending to Bone Creek. The terrain was far more scenic than anticipated and we were rewarded with two major ski descents in good condition.

Descent to Mud Creek and Bone Creek

Our luck continued and we skied most of the way out Bone Creek before the storm hit. The rain finally began right as we started to walk out the last few km to the highway.

PART 4: CARIBOOS

Our planned route through the Cariboos was somewhat ambitious, trying to link the coolest sections of the Southern and Northern Cariboos Traverse. We are skiers at heart and wanted to spend as much time out of the valleys and up in the mountains as possible.

We began up the Thunder River as described in the standard Southern Cariboos Traverse and veered south onto the ridgeline for two days. Topography in the Cariboos is much different than the Purcells, Selkirks and Monashees, and we found ourselves surprised multiple times by small, impassible features.

Our anticipated route was to travel over Mt. Sir Wilfred Laurier and over Mt. Sir John Abbott. There is limited information about this route; however, from what we observed while dropping off a food cache, it looked complex, yet passable. An easier option would be to skip that whole section and stay on the west side of the Raush as described in the Northern Cariboos Traverse.

The majority of the photos in this section were provided by Nikos Schwelm, who we clearly should have brought along for the whole trip.

Lynnea and I were joined in Blue River by Nikos Schwelm and Eliot Brooks. We hung around Valemount for several days waiting for a weather window to fly in our final food cache. Finally, we on April 24th, we started up the Thunder River.

Amnesty Peak

The Cariboos were very challenging right from the beginning. Since the initial warmup in late March, the Cariboos had received nearly continual snowfall. The simple, spring snowpack we had experience elsewhere on the trip was non-existent and we were stuck with a complex, upside down snowpack.

Snowpack discussions

The bonus terrain I added to the start of the traverse also proved to be more frustrating and time consuming than expected. Our route began up the Thunder Creek FSR, before turning SE to a pair of lakes below Amnesty Peak. From there, we travelled northwest, along the ridgetop towards Papineau Peak, where we regained the normal route at the headwaters of the Thunder River.

The trip began to unravel with a wind event at Manteau Peak. Not willing to make a major decision based on a forecast, we pressed on hoping to climb over Manteau Peak before a storm with 100 km/hr winds hit at noon. As we stood out on the glacier, looking up at Manteau Peak, an upslope storm was raging in the Rockies and the wind was visible in the east. Still feeling uninspired by the snowpack, we opted to climb an unknown ridge, hoping it would bring us to safety quicker than traversing a large scary slope on the west side. As we climbed up from the glacier, we passed a point of no return, a steep icy slope that would have been very technical to descend in a whiteout. We committed to taking the ridgeline or suffering the consequences of camping through the storm out on an open glacier.

Manteau Peak

The ridge climb was successful but stressful, and involved a steep bootpack through a shallow snowpack. The neighbouring slope of the same aspect and elevation had slid naturally sometime earlier that day. Aside from Lynnea almost skiing off a cliff in the flat light, the descent was uneventful and we arrived in the trees before the wind hit. We had just enough time to take out our snacks and make a couple jokes about the forecast being wrong before the wind hit us. We could hear it ripping across the lake before we felt it. Suddenly we were in a snowglobe, struggling to set our Megalights up.

Wind event

I woke in the morning after a peaceful sleep. Nikos mentioned that he saw headlamps in the night and it seemed like Lynnea and Eliot had to clear their tent several times. When it was time for breakfast, Lynnea and Eliot crawled into our tent looking exhausted. Their Megalight had collapsed at 10 pm and they spent the night waking up every 20 minutes to dig themselves out. Nikos' past life, setting up party tents paid off and clearly worked in our favour.

The mountains around us had transformed overnight. The surrounding slopes were now wind scoured and the snow felt hollow and windpressed. Unable to climb over the next col, we began a slow exit out Manteau Creek. Down in the valley bottom, the effects of spring were widespread. We spent hours climbing through alders and traversing across steep dirt slopes with crampons and ice axes in hand. When we finally made it across the North Thompson River, we were forced to make a hard decision: continue 20 km up the North Thompson FSR to our food cache, or bail 20 km to the highway.

Manteau Creek to North Thompson River

Still eager to carry on and complete our mission, we continued up the road to our food cache at McAndrew Lake. When we arrived, we were hit with another round of bad news. There was a second major storm event coming, scheduled to hit in two days.

Road to McAndrew Lake

We pushed on to the Raush Glacier, knowing that we had a safe exit back down to the North Thompson River if we needed it. After chatting with friends about the forecast and possible alternate route options, we decided it was time to bail. Continuing on would mean risking getting stuck out on the Canoe Glacier for a multi-day storm, or spending days walking through the mud in the Raush Valley, hoping that the weather would improve.

Raush Glacier

Devastated with the outcome, we packed up and headed back the way we came. As one last test to our mental strength, we were cliffed out coming down the valley and were forced to downclimb an exposed slope above the creek with crampons and ice axes.

The final night of the trip, my Thermarest popped and I somehow managed to slither out from under the tent into the rain. In the morning I packed up and left before the others had eaten breakfast and walked the full 30 km to the highway alone. My parents have always said I can be like a horse returning to the barn. Guess I proved them right. After 44 days, I had hit my mental limit and needed out of there.

A couple hours later we were surrounded by friends at the bar in Revelstoke, drinking beers and laughing about the trip, already planning our next adventure.

North Thompson River FSR sponsored by Miss Vickies.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

A trip of this scale would not have been possible without a long list of supporters.

  • The Royal Canadian Geographic Society, who awarded us the Expedition of the Year grant, which provided us with the necessary funds and equipment go on my dream trip.
  • MEC, who awarded us with an expedition grant, supplying us with much needed equipment for the trip.
  • Alpine Start Coffee, who hooked us up with hundreds of coffees for the trip.
  • Friends and family, who provided rides, trip support, help with planning and motivation along the way.
  • CMH Heliskiing, who generously helped us with our food caches.
  • Sorcerer Lodge, who hooked us up with breakfast, coffee and motivation.
  • The groups at Fairy Meadows, who welcomed us into the lodge, fed at us and shared the sauna with our gross, naked bodies.

Lynnea "Bakes" Baker

Lynnea has been my main partner for three expeditions and was the only person crazy enough to say "yes" to the full trip. Bakes was the first person I thought of when I started scheming about the traverse. The trip wouldn't have been possible without her.

Duncan Baker

Duncan was the workhorse of the group. His contributions to the first segment built the momentum that carried us through the rest of the traverse. His calm demeanour supported the group through many tense moments.

Duncan with Mt. Duncan.

Sara-Jo "SJ" Howatt

SJ was the youngest member of the trip and her many "life lessons" throughout the trip brought constant laughter to the group. SJ's confidence and solid decision making kept the group tight when things were getting loose.

Kyle Alexanders

Kyle's positive energy carried the group through the Selkirks. Kyle dragged me out from my lowest moment and had me laughing in minutes. His mental strength pulled us through when the group was too tired to continue.

Mark Dalgliesh

Mark can suffer like no person I've met before. Always good for a laugh, Mark brought many smiles to our faces during trying times. His rational decision making guided us through challenging terrain and helped keep the trip on track.

Chris Perra

Chris was an invaluable member of the team, providing forecasts for the entirety of the traverse and joining for the Monashees. Chris is one of my original skiing mentors and trips like this wouldn't be possible for me without him.

Eliot "Moose" Brooks

Eliot is my most trusted ski partner and has kept me safe more times than I can count. Having him along on the last segment brought the fun back into our trip and motivated us to keep moving when times were tough. He came into the trip from an injury and still put our fitness to shame.

Nikos Schwelm

Nikos was a last minute addition to the team and we couldn't have been happier to have him. He suffers chronically as a splitboarder and spent more time behind the lens than in front of it. His honest communication kept the group grounded when the end was in sight.

WHAT'S NEXT

Linking the Columbia mountain range in its entirety has yet to be completed. Maybe this is your next adventure?

The goal of our trip was to explore lesser traveled regions of the Columbia Mountains and motivate others to do the same. I hope this trip inspires others to look beyond mapped routes in a guidebook and seek out their own passages through the unknown.

Created By
Alex Heathcott
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