“I was heavily involved on all fronts: with mountaineering outfitters, who oddly enough never fathomed the depths of my ignorance; possibly because they couldn’t conceive of anyone acquiring such a collection of equipment without knowing how to use it…” – Eric Newby, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
“If you think you’re a good alpinist then you’ve got to climb hard routes on hard mountains. Unless it’s really hard why would you fucking bother?” – Athol Whimp
I’d bought my first set of pitons from the outdoors shop in Squamish so I was ready to climb the most remote climbing objective in the Garibaldi range. Actually, half the set was Simon’s because I didn’t have the money for a full set. So together, we were ready.
I’d seen pictures of an amazing granitic rock ridge at the outer limit of the area and decided that Simon and I should do the Crosscut Traverse. Neither of us had ever been in the Garibaldi Range before but the lines on the map in the guidebook which connected the Black Tusk walking track to the Helm Glacier to Gentian Pass to Polemonium Ridge to the Sphinx Glacier to Gray Pass to the Gray Glacier to the Isosceles Glacier to the base of the Crosscut Ridge made the going seem easy enough.
We were planning for a three day trip but it was summer so I didn’t take any trousers. Kilian Jornet doesn’t seem to run up Mont Blanc with trousers. In February, I’d picked up a new ultra-light wind-shell in February which had proved more than adequate for the long stretches between the heated car and the automatic doors of the supermarket in the middle of the Quebec winter. Packed that. I packed my extra sunsafe legionnaire’s hat because I thought it looked cool. I own a great pair of mountaineering sunglasses but I forgot them (this comes later).
We measured out three days’ rations. A sachet of shake powder with some muesli, three energy bars and 100g of mash potato. Extreme weight loss method, this mountaineering thing. Simon had a big dinner – leftovers from a function at work. I’d had a big packet of chips and two cans of soft drink earlier in the afternoon.
We look at the map again. The kilometrage makes the whole journey seem like it’s about fifty or sixty kilometres but that’s beside the point isn’t it? I’d done some big stomps on reconnaissance patrols with the military and Simon was a Scottish fell-runner who (when trained) could run forty kilometres in under three hours wasn’t he? We’d move light and fast and all that.
We drive up the road to the trailhead at Rubble Creek, sleep in the van and wake at four the next morning. On the trail we chat about Simon’s expedition to Kyrgyzstan and my days in the military. There’s a lot of uphill for the first fifteen kilometres but we’re fast and we know how absolutely, definitely certain success is. The views are obscenely Canadian.
At the toe of the Helm Glacier we cache our shoes in the moraine. Before stepping onto the white ice I realise that I’ve forgotten my sunglasses. I thought I’d packed them. Oh well. Savoyard chamois hunters were climbing Mt Blanc in the 1700s… I’m pretty sure they didn’t have polarised sunglasses back then either. Mildly concerned about the prospect of snow-blindness but still assuredly certain of our success, I make do with the eye-slits of my cool legionnaire’s hat.
When we reach the ice we get out the gear we need to cross it. Simon has the temperament and enthusiasm of a tall, loveable Alsatian and takes off up-glacier with big loping strides – rope in one hand, axe in the other. The ice underfoot is hard and we make swift progress. We reach Gentian Pass and look over the horror show that is the icefall beneath Castle Tower and then at the massive elevation loss and gain required to crest Polemonium Ridge on the other side of the river. Nothing ever comes easy in the mountains. But there isn’t anything on TV either.
We drop down to the river below, cross the watershed and doddle up Polemonium Ridge, twenty kilometres of constant movement through mountainous terrain beginning to take its toll. The trudge up Polemonium Ridge seems to take forever. We’re both pretty over it by the time we reach the down-climb off the back. Sure enough, we’re ready for some mash and a bivy.
The ultimate bivy site awaits us below the rock step. A hanging platform of green meadow grass with a snow patch banked up on one side and a little stream of water trickling out from the snowmelt across the site and out over the abyss. A view of Garibaldi, the Sphinx and the impossibly-blue Garibaldi Lake in the distance. The pine forests which define British Columbia girding the distant lake on all sides. The perfect campsite? I think so.
We eat our rationed mash – an add-boiled-water kind of arrangement. It tastes like puréed stem cells – carbohydrate with some herbs. Delicious. We set off across the Sphinx Glacier at four in the morning wearing our running leggings and a light shell with a space blanket between us. One litre of water each. No stove. We tip-toe across the remnants of a hanging glacier that looks ready to bow to climate change.
And there it is. Crosscut Ridge. Seen at last in the distance – three or so kilometres away and nothing but a massive elevation gain-loss and a cut-up late summer glacier between us and it. We sit down to have “lunch” (at nine in the morning), content at last to have reached Gray Pass and have eyes on the route. We’re in one of the most remote spots in the whole park now. The sun disappears behind a cloud. I suddenly feel inappropriately dressed.
At the head of the Isosceles Glacier, rain clouds tussle with each other – fat and grey and unpleasant looking. The illusive ridge disappears from view. The weather front begins to advance… towards us, picking up speed.
“Shall we get the fuck out of here?” I ask Simon as I munch through the last morsels of a Builder’s Bar.
We are being offered spots in the Club of Dead Alpinists but the perks didn’t seem worth the fee. So we do what every alpinist with no bivy gear, no gas and no trousers should do in the face of an approaching rain storm – we bail.
We walk back to camp traversing the sketchy half-melted hanging glaciers, a little disappointed but always happy to be heading home. At a small rock col, Simon stops and looks back up at Phyllis’ Engine, the inspiring cluster of rock towers to our right.
Phyllis Beltz is a member of the Dead Alpinist’s Club who thought the peak looked like a choo-choo train – hence the name. Now Simon’s got his eye on it. I know what Simon is about to say before he says it. He’s got that look of indefatigable enthusiasm on his face again – the Alsatian is back. My legs say no but my mouth says yes. We begin climbing. Good granite splitters. Perfect hand jams in parts. Scenic views from up-high. We abseil, leaving some fresh tat.
Back to The Perfect Campsite. Mash again. Jesus, this stuff tastes good.
We nap and lounge about in the last of the sun. Then, chased by the approaching front, we break camp. Up Polemonium Ridge, down the ridge, up the Gentian Pass and we’re looking over the Helm Glacier and the sun setting behind the Black Tusk – the most inspiring pile of choss I’ve ever seen – the sky in layers of tangerine and blood-orange behind it.
“Man I’ve seen some good sunsets this year,” I think to myself.
Neither of us can be bothered roping up for glacier travel and heading down the icefall in the failing light so we decide to extend our short walk by an extra few kilometres. The Gentian Traverse – a scenic hill-walkers alternative to glacier travel which, by tomorrow morning will bring us back on the trail.
I snap a few pics of Simon, now in Scottish hill-walker mode, as he charges across the spiny, tarny dragon’s back of the Gentian Ridge. He has that same loveable grin in every photo. The best times you can have in the mountains are the times when you realise how much you care about your climbing partner. This is one of those times.
We bivy again, somewhere along the ridge. We have the next day’s breakfast for dessert. Totally worth it.
We descend Gentian Ridge. Later, Simon realises he left the tent back at our bivy site on the ridge. The rainstorm we saw building strength on the Isosceles Glacier the day previous hits us hard on the walking trail. It’s cold and wet on the walk back to Rubble Creek. My ultralite shell isn’t waterproof. Simon’s is. I’m a little chilly. Simon lends me this Scottish mountain toque thing (woolen inner, waterproof outer) which feels like putting your head in one of those bubble-dryers at the hair salon.
We find our comfy shoes right where we left them, in the glacial moraine at the toe of the Helm Glacier. Out of the mountains now.
Simon breaks trail through the fossilized ash as we skirt the crater of the Cinder Cone. Then, after tumble-glissading down the volcanic slope we are back on manicured ground. The rain comes down hard on the long stomp back to the car. It takes a while.