Monday, April 26, 2010

Spearhead Traverse

I am happy to report that this past weekend I ticked off my 2009-2010 ski objective, the Spearhead Traverse. This is a back country ski tour up in Whistler, it starts at the top of Blackcomb on the Blackcomb Glacier and then travels out and traverses a number of mountains and glaciers in the shape of a horseshoe, ending on Whistler Mountain. The stats are (as we did it anyways): 38 km in length, with numerous ups and downs totaling 8800 feet of cumulative elevation gain. One of the great things about the traverse is the convenient access: to start you can ride the lifts up to the top of Blackcomb, and for the finish you can ski the groomers back down to the base of Whistler (or alternatively you can ski out the dreaded Singing Pass). Due to its length and strenuous nature the traverse is typically done as 2-3 day trip, so we were obviously planning on doing it in one day.

To complete the traverse I had assembled a crack team of high mountain specialists: my brother Fras, Johnny “the savage” Markez (who I had climbed/skied Baker with the previous weekend), Martin, and myself. We had been planning on doing the traverse for each of the past two weekends prior to this one, but each time we had called it off due to high avalanche danger or inclement weather conditions. We checked the weather forecast on Saturday morning and it looked like there might be a break in the rain/snow/fog on Sunday with good avalanche conditions, so I hurriedly loaded up my ski gear and took off heading north for the motherland.

I had crossed the border and was nearing the wolf den (Fras and Car's condo) when I received a call on my cell from Fras: the weather forecast for Sunday had changed and was now calling for an 80% chance of rain. Stinker! After arriving at Fras's place we talked it over and decided to give it a shot anyways, since this was likely the last weekend this year we would try it due to melting snow and interests shifting from skiing over to climbing and cycling. We headed to MEC to rent Fras some AT gear, and while there we bumped into Markez who characteristically was still up for giving it a shot. Martin decided not to join us, he had been turned back previously while attempting the traverse and this had damped his motivation for trying it in less-than-ideal conditions.

The next morning we woke up just after 5:00am, ate some breakfast and loaded up our stuff, and were out the door by 6:00am. We had arranged to meet Markez up in Whistler at 8:00am in order to be sorted out and on the first lift by 8:30am, but there had been a miscommunication that meant John had to rent some avy gear from a local shop that didn't open until 8:00am, so by the time we had registered and bought our backcountry passes ($40 for one ride up the lifts, a little expensive but it sure is easier than skinning up 4000 feet of groomers!) we were about 30 minutes behind schedule. Here is a shot of the 3 musketeers enjoying our easy elevation gain in the Blackcomb gondola:

We ran into another snag near the top where the Showcase T-bar was not running, so we had to take a different T-bar and do a sketchy traverse to gain our starting point at the col between Blackcomb Peak and the Spearhead, looking out over the Decker Glacier. Here is a shot of Fras and Markez getting their gear sorted before we head off down the glacier!

There was one other party also getting ready to set off the glacier, but they were just looking to lap some north facing slopes. Shown below is a map of the route that we took as recorded by my GPS, in case you want to look at the map and follow along with our progress as described in my narrative (click on the image to enlarge it). We started on the upper part of the horseshoe, and the GPS track starts when we exited the final T-bar and ends at the bottom of Whistler.

After a few minutes of orienting ourselves using my GPS and Markezzy's map and compass, we headed down from the col and onto the Decker Glacier. We traversed to the base of Decker Mountain, at which point we donned our skins and headed up and over the shoulder of this peak and then down the other side onto the Trorey Glacier. From here we traversed around the north side of Mount Trorey, and then did a gradual climb up to a shoulder on the south side of Mount Pattison. There had been some other skiers in the area, some of whom might have been heli skiing since there were a few helicopters buzzing around. One of the groups ahead of us had left a skin track that switch-backed up the climb, but we eschewed their pre-set switchbacks and headed straight up, skewering their switchbacks with our direttissima line, with our tracks acting as the backcountry skier's equivalent of leaving someone a post-it note telling them they need to shape up. From Mount Pattison we again removed the skins and descended into a bowl below Mount Tremor, than began a long climb to the col between Mount Tremor and Mount Shudder (scary!). Here is a shot looking back at Fras, with Mount Pattison in the background:

And here is one looking forward at Markez as he treks along the Tremor Glacier towards Mount Shudder with Mount Tremor out of sight above and to the right:

We finally reached the col, and peaked over the top to views of, guess what, more awesome mountains to ski through!

From the Tremor-Shudder col we skied down onto the Platform Glacier, and took our first "sit break" where we ate some food and re-applied sunscreen. We then headed up again to the base of Quiver Peak, from where we did a short descent and then a long traverse along the top of the Ripsaw Glacier:

After this traverse we came around a ridge and onto the Naden Glacier, which took us beneath Mount Macbeth and up onto Couloir Ridge. Here is a shot of Fras coming along the Naden Glacier with Mount Macbeth in the background:

From here we had a nice ski down the Macbeth Glacier, followed by some exciting skinning and bootpacking along a narrow ridge to gain the base of the Iago Glacier (we were now in the Shakespeare-themed part of the range). We then did a long ascent of the Iago Glacier to the shoulder of Mount Iago, followed by a steep ski descent onto the Diavolo Glacier. Here is a shot of Fras coming along the Diavolo Glacier:

Our next task was to climb up Mount Benvolio, and we paused at the base and soaked in the great views of spectacular mountain scenery. One of the most impressive was Cheakamus Mountain, here is a shot of me munching on my last peanut butter-nutella bagel with said mountain in the background:

Here is a shot of Fraso basking in the sun with Mount Fitzsimmons in the background:

After our food break we once again applied our skins (we were getting pretty fast at our transitions by this point) and began the long ascent of Mount Benvolio, with Markezzy leading the charge. Near the top of the ascent we were faced with a choice of going around Mount Benvolio to the north or passing through the col between Mount Benvolio and Mount Fitzsimmons, we chose the latter which turned out to be a good choice. Emerging from the col we skied onto the Benvolio Glacier and had great views of Overlord Mountain, which we bypassed on the north side. Here is a shot of Markez coming around Mount Benvolio, heading towards Overlord Mountain.

By this point it was almost 6:00pm, so while we were enjoying the spectacular lighting from the setting sun, we also realized that we would likely be finishing in the dark. Here is a shot of Markez looking back at Fras as we skied around the north side of Overlord Mountain:

By this point we had rounded the bottom of the horseshoe and were on the homeward bound side of the route, and it was pretty cool to look across and see our ski tracks on the other side of the range. Here is a shot looking across to the mountains we had already covered, notice that our shadows are getting long in the evening light:

From Mount Overlord we faced a descent down north facing slopes in really nice snow, which made for some of the best turns on the trip. Here is a shot looking out across the bowl we would be descending into, you can see Blacktusk on the horizon and Fissile Peak is the large mountain in shadow on the right.

After enjoying the amazing turns in fresh powder we traversed the Overlord Glacier towards Fissile Peak. Here is a shot of Fras making his way along the skin track with Markez in the background adjusting his gear and Overlord Mountain on the top right:

At this point we were faced with another choice, between ascending to the Fissile-Whirlwind col and then descending to Russet Lake, or descending first to bypass Fissile Peak on the north side and then ascending back up to Russet Lake. We chose the former, since it looked like a nicer route (and the preset skin track didn't hurt either). From the Fissile-Whirlwind col we had a nice descent with some good turns in more north-facing powder, following my a long and gradual descent to Russet Lake. We covered a lot of ground fast on this section which was good, because the sun was now rapidly dropping toward the horizon. At Russet Lake we re-applied our skins and then climbed up and over Cowboy Ridge before dropping into Singing Pass. Here we were faced with another choice: one option was to decide we were done with climbing and follow Singing Pass all the way out to the base of Whistler, and the second was to do two more climbs (up Oboe and Flute, two of the Musical Bumps) to enter the inbounds of Whistler and then ski down groomers to the base. Since we were all Singing Pass Accredited (having done it earlier in the winter on a tour of Musical Bumps), we all voted for the latter, wholeheartedly embracing the extra climbing as a way of avoiding the gauntlet of ups and downs on a narrow trail that is Singing Pass.

We donned our skins once again at the base of Oboe, and began the penultimate ascent of our journey. As we reached the top the sun was just setting, here is a shot of Fras getting ready to head down from Oboe with the sunset in the background:

From Oboe we made a short descent and then began the final ascent of Flute before entering the inbounds ski area, with each of us in turn “ringing the bell” by whacking our ski poles on the metal posts that mark the edge of the resort. Great success! Now we just had to make it down to the base of Whistler and we were home free. The moon was rising as we removed our skins and began our descent, here is a shot looking back along our route with the moon coming up over the horizon:

Darkness continued to fall as we headed down Whistler, Fras and I were both skiing super slow at this point since we were really tired and our lack of downhill skiing ability was accentuated by our fatigue. The skiing was a bit tough since the snow had softened during the day but by this time had refrozen into a crusty uneven surface, but as we continued to lose elevation it softened up until we were skiing in dirty slush at the base. We broke out the headlamps partway down once it was quite dark and it became clear that we were skiing through a mogul field (I can't even ski moguls during the day when I am fresh, forget about skiing them in darkness at the tail end of a 40km ski traverse!). We finally reached the base at 9:30pm, clocking in at 11 hours and 45 minutes from the top of Blackcomb to the base of Whistler. By this point we were really thirsty since we had all run out of water about 2 hours ago and had been snacking on snow to try and quench our thirst, which doesn't work that well. We were also pretty hungry, since it is hard to eat when your mouth is dry.

After a rousing cheer we headed into an Irish Pub and immediately slammed two full pitchers of water before attacking some artichoke dip, a vegetable platter, and french fries. Delicious! It felt pretty good to take our ski boots off after such a long day, and we relaxed and reminisced until about 10:30pm when we decided to call it a day and head back to Vancouver.

The totals for the day (as recorded by my GPS track) ended up being 38.7 km in length, with 8800 vertical feet of cumulative ascending. Below is a plot of the elevation profile, starting from the top of Blackcomb:There were 12 separate ascents, so by the end we were getting pretty good at taking our skins on and off. We had also crossed 13 different glaciers, counting the Horstman and Blackcomb Glaciers that we had crossed at the top of Blackcomb before leaving the resort. Here is a google maps satellite photo of our route, the imagery is from later in the year when most of the snow has melted so you can clearly see the ring of mountains and glaciers that our route traversed:

What an awesome day! I highly recommend this tour to anyone who is looking for a big day out in spectacular mountains. This was definitely my skiing highlight of the year, and I was super happy to finally do it and not have to wait until the following year. This means that next years goal will be a different big ski tour in BC: the Garibaldi-Neve traverse, which seems to be about the same length and is hopefully equally spectacular!


  1. Great write up Maxy!! What a terrific memory to have...AWESOME!

  2. HOly cow! Can you guys walk yet? Sounds epic! Amazing pics and the weather turned out perfect!

  3. Amazing photos!! Thanks for these, and the write-up! (Which camera??)

  4. Are you willing to share your GPS data? I may be doing it in a few days. If so, email the file to