By Ken Lee, April 2022, with notes by Aaron Snider. Images by Aaron Snider and Ken Lee.
During my time in the alpine, I have emerged relatively unscathed, although the subtle accumulation of fear stripped away my desire. Working in hospice and hospital led me back to snow, ice, rock, and renewed my appreciation for the ephemeral. My mountain days are numbered. My time has been truncated further by a second bout of frostbite acquired while cross-country skiing around Kimiwan Lake, when the -50C deep freeze broke for a day to a warmish -20C. Now, I lose the use of my fingers in even mildly cold or damp conditions.
There is a saying, “Beyond mountains are more mountains.”
What does this mean? If one loves beauty, adventure and joy in the outdoors, this presents endless opportunity. If one shudders at the cold, the stark walls of grey, the austerity of gaping seracs, this seems less hospitable. As a nurse, I gain hints of the topography of peoples’ lives without knowing all the mountain passes they have gone through. We can only wonder what we will find as we explore what lies beyond the physical and figurative.
The wolverine and the butterfly
Late March, 2022.
Sometimes it is good to be broken. Even when realizing the culmination of a dream.
Going counterclockwise, the Monarch Icefield Traverse takes you from valley bottom near sea level through coastal rainforest, then onto glaciers towards a chain of lakes with views of the Chilcotin plateau. You will arrive at Hunlen Falls, which has a spectacular single drop of 260 m, and then descend through interior subalpine forest, following the Atnarko River on Old Tote Road.
My friend Scott uses the term “unicorn” for a dream trip that seems out of reach, and this trip certainly fell into this category. Our “unicorn” trip was denied the previous season due to a combination of COVID-19 interprovincial travel restrictions, Aaron’s nagging back injury and my vacation request being denied. Aaron had jokingly planted the seed several years ago that I should work in Bella Coola, which is perhaps why I hopped online in frustration one day with the thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this trip unless I move to the area.’ It just so happened that a new rural nursing position was posted for Bella Coola with emergency RN training in Vancouver – exactly what I needed.
Inspired by Nirmal Purja in the film, “14 Peaks”, I decisively stopped referring to the trip as a “unicorn” trip and simply called it “The Monarch Traverse” as if to will it into being. So, after months, then weeks of anticipation, I found myself on the final descent down “The Hill” road into the Bella Coola Valley.
It still felt surreal to finally be in the valley, albeit one year later than expected.
Additional hurdles presented, as the Nusatsum Forestry Service Road was blocked by significant deadfall from winds. Additionally, our exit route on Tote Road was ravaged by rockfall. All told, this would add an additional 36 km of travel on foot instead of by motorized vehicle. We were already bracing for carrying 18 days of food and fuel, assuming two days for stormy weather.
With my chronic FPS (fat pack syndrome), we contemplated the option of taking a helicopter to bypass the blowdown but were each enamored with the thought of doing the journey as self-sufficiently as possible. Aaron was also prescient that this would allow us to work out any bugs in our equipment before we ended up on the icefield.
I had been woefully inactive in the mountains for several years due to school and work, with only two day trips this season under my belt leading up to this traverse, so welcomed Aaron’s idea. I imagined myself feeling stronger each successive day, as I regained my ski legs.
In retrospect, I discovered the gap between my vision and reality. But I also discovered a profound appreciation of the changing ecosystems and landscape with each passing day in my new home in the traditional territory of the Nuxalk Nation.
March 26 – Day 1
The weather forecast was potentially drizzly, and we debated whether to delay our start by a day. We scouted the Nusatsum Forestry Service Road [FSR], as we knew in advance about snow and deadfall that would prevent us from driving to the ideal starting point, the trailhead at Km 26. We took Aaron’s truck up Nusatsum FSR and sawed through some small diameter trees to reduce the distance we would have to hike while laden with heavy packs.
Then we planted my car on at the far end of the traverse on Tote Road, which had boulders and big timber blocking vehicle passage less than two kilometres off of the highway. Still fatigued from the flurry of writing my exam, packing and moving from Vancouver, I begged for a 20-minute power nap. We filled our bellies once more.
Finally, we decided to just begin with no further delay, despite the threat of a rainy start. We headed back to Nusatsum FSR and advanced Aaron’s truck in 4WD with chains as far as it would take us. It was 6 pm. Our packs were so heavy that we had to assist each other to hoist them on. We made use of the deadfall to support the bases of our packs for an occasional rest without taking them off.
We managed to travel from Km 6 to Km 9 through extensive fallen timber in two hours and 20 minutes. Camp One was in the middle of the logging road.
Aaron: Can we do this? Our packs were impossibly heavy with 20 days of supplies when we started down the deadfall choked road. The first time I thought “can we really do this?” was after crawling under a low tree across the road. Not only did I not have the strength to stand up, but a recent mild knee injury prevented me from shifting my weight to drop the pack. I was completely immobilized until Ken came to help. This was 300 m into the trip but we slogged on, helping each other over and under deadfall for the next 6 km. Then the road cleared up, skis went on our feet, and our pace (and spirits) improved dramatically.
March 27 – Day 2
We continued on through mildly horrific blowdown until Km 12, and made it past the bridge near Km 20, finally able to lessen our loads and use our sleds for the last kilometre and a half. As usual, Aaron was ahead of me, and he caught sight of a surprised wolverine loping along the path towards him. Fortunately, the wolverine veered off the road into the bushes, displaying no aggression. We would see many more wolverine tracks and scat along the way.
Our first significant gear issue soon presented itself. Aaron’s vapour barrier liner did not seem to be working, and his sleeping bag was worryingly damp. This did not bode well as we were soon to gain elevation and we expected the temperature and weather to worsen. It started to rain lightly in the evening, so we tried unsuccessfully to warm ourselves up with a small fire and took shelter for dinner underneath the bridge.
March 28 – Day 3
The sun was out in the morning, so Aaron was able to partially dry out his sleeping bag before packing it away.
We continued our slow progress along the road en route to the Ape Lake trailhead. As I lumbered along on skis pulling my trusty burrito-style sled, Pasqualito, I looked up and saw Aaron’s blue sled on top of a pile of avalanche debris. After several seconds I registered that his sled was stationary with no sign of his body. I yelled his name. He responded immediately. I then realized that I would have heard such a large mass of snow moving if it was indeed a fresh slide that had buried him. This was the second recent slide that had ran out across the FSR, carving a halfpipe cleanly downslope. It would be many days before our avalanche beacons would no longer be needed.
After a break at the Ape Lake trailhead, we cached some of our gear and double-carried [meaning carry half ] approximately one hour uphill to gain 100 m elevation. From previous experience with pine marten thievery, I wasn’t comfortable having anything unattended for very long, so I only relaxed once everything was reconsolidated at our forested camp at 1160 m. We no longer saw any tracks from our friend the wolverine. Aaron had solved his damp sleeping bag issue by using two spare garbage bags in lieu of his vapour barrier. As we dug out snow for our sleeping quarters, I started the daily ritual of teaching Aaron about emergency nursing topics as a means for me to remember my just-completed training. Charlotte’s message indicated relatively good weather for the next couple of days.
March 29 – Day 4
We continued our ascent up Polar Bear Peak, doing two more double-carries to gain about 300 m after three hours. I heard the Bella Coola Helisports chopper land in the alpine bowl above. Aaron was well ahead of me, likely in view of the helicopter, and I imagined the crew magnanimously offering cake and beer and maybe even a helibump.
This dream did not materialize.
At least I got to enjoy the weightlessness of a virtually empty pack while telemark skiing down to pick up the second load. Aaron, being quicker, had generously brought up my gear partway, saving me 40 m elevation gain of effort. At times when I felt like the pressure, the ache, the dampness, the sawing of the pack strap on my shoulders, I recommitted myself to be vigilant with my patients for signs of pressure injury.
More snow arrived towards the evening, and we were positioned above Hammer Lake at 1650 m. Aaron had brought some scotch, and I also brought a small bottle with no regrets about the added weight. We were well within our fuel consumption estimate, and finally used up our first small fuel bottle that evening.
March 30 – Day 5
Due to the recent storm snow, we opted to take the more conservative 1900 m line (per Baldwin’s book), which involved ski crampons on a steep slope with yet another double-carry. The snow was at times facetted, so I carried my skis horizontally to brace my upper body, while using my knees to compact the snow, rendering it supportive enough to bear my weight with each step.
It was snowy all day, and the 15 cm of storm snow ended up being a blessing for sled control when descending in limited visibility to our camp situated four kilometres from the Noeick Glacier, north of Atavist Mountain.
March 31 – Day 6
We descended through heinous trees, spending two hours backtracking, scouting, and redescending to punch through a nasty convoluted 100 m band of wood to break out into the open. When we looked back upon our path, it appeared that taking the ridge line skier’s right might have been easier for travel.
Aaron used my spare guy line tied around the neck of my water bottle to retrieve fresh water from the Noeick to rehydrate. We pressed on through the open, windy, snowy expanse to the toe of the Noeick Glacier at 1650 m. I had forgotten to pack one box of muesli and I would have to ration my breakfasts point forward. ‘Perhaps not carrying the missing cereal would save me some energy’, I mused as I felt the full weight of the five pounds of tortillas rubbing my shoulders raw.
The weather forecast from Charlotte showed more snowfall and cooler temperatures for the next five days.
April 1 – Day 7
The weather was cold and snowy, and I put on my goggles and -20C mitts.
After taking down camp, we had only proceeded for an hour when I felt like I was sputtering out. My shoulders and back ached relentlessly, and even my feet felt thrashed. “Aaron, I think I’m bonking,” I called out and he graciously agreed to take an early sit-down break despite his own toes suffering from the cold.
Perhaps to make me feel better, Aaron said it was typical for people to experience an energy low by Day Seven of a traverse.
I took off my boots to ease my aching feet, while I ate a portion of my lunch. Aaron tried to warm up his toes while I chowed down. My gaze fell upon my ski boots, and I suddenly realized that I had been wearing my boots on the opposite foot! Somehow, I had managed to push the correct liner into the wrong shell on each side, which partially fit with new pressure points created on the inside edge of each foot. Perhaps this was a sign that it was time to get new liners… I felt much better after correcting my boot issue and taking a break.
We pressed on for another 4-1/2 hours before establishing camp at 2255 m on the upper Fyles Glacier below West Jacobsen Peak. The wind was howling as we made camp, stronger than the 25 kph from the weather report.
April 2 – Day 8
This was our first day that we did not move, and we had a full camp day due to weather. The forecast had been for no snow and partially cloudy conditions, but this was not the case. The persistent wind had stripped our wind wall away. Eroded blocks of snow fell onto the Megamid tent. We tried to rebuild the wall. Our interior decorations expanded with more cubby holes. We decided that it was worse to have a bowel movement on a ski traverse with blowing snow versus on a canoe trip in mosquito-infested terrain.
We also debated about the risk of cooking dinner inside the circus tent and agreed that there was sufficient ventilation and space to mitigate the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. This would be the first of many nights that we would use the stove inside the tent, which likely curbed our fuel consumption. Even with the flapping walls of the tent holding the wind at bay, the air temperature was cold enough to render my fingers relatively useless, and Aaron lit the stove.
Aaron asked, “If you could wish for one thing right now, what would it be?” I pondered upon frivolous things like more alcohol or chocolate, perhaps an extra pair of dry socks. After further thought, I queried, “Is it OK to dream of an alpine hut?” Aaron conceded this was acceptable, and then went on tell me about how harsh winds dismantled seemingly robust steel work shelters that were left over the winter.
Aaron: “Wind speed = horizontal shovel”. As in: a shovel, or anything else in hand, would quickly lift into the wind and take flight if not gripped tightly. We were watching our heavy wind wall get eroded in real-time; it was beginning to look like a desert sandstone formation.
April 3 – Day 9
The coastal storm continued, and we tried to rest from our windy, sleepless night.
This was the first traverse for which I had opted to bring a reading book, and for that I was glad. I had picked up Wayne McLennan’s “Rowing to Alaska and Other True Stories”. Better to read about someone rowing from Seattle to Juneau to maintain perspective. Aaron requested a revised forecast from Charlotte, as we no longer trusted the data from the last report. The Mount Monarch forecast indicated a prolonged storm peaking in four days’ time. We would have to keep pushing forward or risk running out of food. The thought of going back through the terrain from whence we came was an even less attractive option. We were hard pressed to think of anyone else who would have wanted to join us.
There was a slight abatement in the storm when we left camp at 2:50 pm in a whiteout towards the Jacobsen-Mongol col. We managed to get to 2480 m after an hour of travel and set up camp with the hopes that we would have enough visibility the next day to push through the col. I began the habit of always having socks and mitts against my chest to dry them enough for the next morning. Survival trumped smell.
Aaron: the attempt to cross the col. On day 9 we made the attempt to get over the col and this was the only point in the trip where I felt uncomfortable about a decision. Early in the afternoon, I tried navigating by attempting to walk in a straight line and checking the compass every 100 steps or so- during one of these intervals, we managed to do a 90 degree turn, which wasn’t obvious to either of us. Eventually the col loomed in front of us, with the various lines Ken describes. Despite being only an hour into the day’s ski, I was already cold. When Ken decided to attempt the line above the windswept blue ice, I realized I was too cold to make good decisions or be of much use in an emergency. Too late I called out to Ken that we should re-evaluate but my voice was lost to the storm. During his ascent, the slope became wind-scoured enough to make ski crampons useful and as Ken took stock of his options above me, I tried to get his attention by making an X above my head with my ski poles. Soon after this he retreated down to my position on the flat glacier. We dug out a snow-hole (our first of many) to warm up and discuss the plan. We both agreed it was better to hunker down in view of the col, warm up and wait for better visibility.
April 4 – Day 10
It was still slightly dark at 5 am when I heard Aaron call out. I poked my head out of my bivy to hear him say that the front zipper was wide open, the ice axe that once pinned it was flung five feet away and snow had drifted into our sleeping quarters. I was agonizingly slow extracting myself from my bivouac system, trying to put on my layers while still cocooned. My sleeping system consisted of a silk liner inside a foil emergency blanket inside my sleeping bag inside a bivy sac, which kept my sleeping bag perfectly dry and myself very damp from transpiration throughout the night.
Aaron: the wind howled like a freight train all night. Eventually I decided the tent was going to hold and let myself fall asleep – but soon woke up to a raging snowstorm inside the tent. I looked around and all our gear was covered in a layer of snow. As Ken describes, the ice axe staking down the tent had been thrown by the wind, and snow was howling in. I woke Ken from his deep sleep within his cocoon; then I quickly got dressed and started repairing things outside while waiting for Ken to join me. After 40 minutes, Ken still hadn’t managed to extract himself fully from his half-dozen layers, and when I made it back inside, glasses and face caked in rime, he said “Oh you were outside? I thought you were fixing the walls from the inside”. We laughed at the absurdity of it all. Eventually the storm died down and visibility improved enough for us to pack up and get over the col, finally onto the icefield proper.
We received a new weather report from Charlotte that indicated little improvement to the weather, so we decided to make a go for the col, leaving camp at 1:20 pm.
During our pre-trip meeting this was one of the sections of uncertainty when we read Baldwin’s description and looked at the general route on Google Earth. There was a bench to climber’s right above bare blue ice that offered a line. Climber’s left of the bench were two snow slopes that straddled a subpeak of exposed rock.
There were three possible lines up to the col, and yesterday in the raging storm I had tried the right-most line, above the blue ice, but turned around and returned to Aaron. We then decided set up camp to wait for better visibility. This time, we ascended the middle snow slope, which in today’s visibility seemed like a more natural line. We ascended easily and I daydreamed of descending to set up camp in a calm location, out of the storm.
However, just like every day previous and thereafter, I would find myself saying the phrase, “This is not a gimme.”
As we came over the top and started to descend, granite cliff bands appeared below us with no obvious line of descent. A large moat contoured the base, and I was having visions of having to shovel our way out if we were even able to get down. I eyed a scramble line to skier’s right that I thought would go, and Aaron decided to scope out a different line to skier’s left. As I neared the rocks and took off my skis, I post-holed up to my hips, and realized that I would be placing myself in an increasingly precarious position. I was in sugar snow covering rounded, ice-glazed rock whilst being weighed down by my heavy pack and pulled off balance by Pasqualito. I scanned below me, hoping to see or hear signs of Aaron successfully finding a line down, but the snow and wind thwarted my efforts. I carefully re-ascended and headed towards Aaron’s line. It looked just as steep as my line, but I could see his boot prints continuing downward, so I dropped my skis, my pack and Pasqualito and walked down to assess.
I finally caught sight of Aaron at the base of a narrow snow gully, a laundry chute into a moat. He had deliberately dropped his sled – “Buddy” – into the moat and followed suit. I went back up to grab my gear and soon joined him. To my surprise, we were able to skin up and break through the moat without issue. But beyond the moat, we found a second moat even higher than the first and I muttered to myself, “This is not a gimme.”
After breaking through the second moat, we finally had a good view back towards the col and surmised that the optimal line may have been to gain the bench above the blue ice. We skied through knee-deep snow at times to finally set up camp near Mount Satan and Mount Azazel.
April 5 – Day 11
Noon. Still in the tent.
Charlotte’s weather report indicated that we would get some viz today, but it had not yet come to pass. ‘So much for 15 kilometre per hour winds,’ I thought.
I contemplated what we would do if the wind tore a hole in the tent wall or blew it away. I read my book with my mitts on, stitched my failing pants zipper, transferred some of my food and fuel from Pasqualito to my backpack in preparation for the next set of days.
We didn’t get visibility until 5 pm, too late to break camp and move. We had planned for two camp days, and now our margin was used up, so we would have to keep moving to gain ground whenever possible. I contemplated how I would ration my food for the remainder of the trip.
Did I truly believe myself when picturing myself years from now saying this trip was still worth it?
Aaron: changing priorities. After descending onto the Monarch, and getting the next (depressing) weather report, we re-evaluated the trip. We were in complete agreement- there wasn’t a lot of discussion- our priorities had changed. While planning, we knew we were risking bad weather by doing the trip so early in the season, but we figured good days would be interspersed with the storms and we would make up for lost time when the weather was decent. But April 2022 was one of the stormiest, coldest months on record (in Vancouver and across the province, century old temperature records were broken). That coupled with our very heavy packs and slogging through thigh deep snow meant that even on our best days we were moving slower than expected. Like Ken says, no day was a gimme.
So, our dreams of lazy mornings sunbathing outside our tent and bluebird ascents of the highest peaks were pushed aside- we were now in “get-the-trip-done” mode. Once we decided this, our moods improved considerably, there was no anguishing over whether to take a camp day or not. Every morning we ignored what was happening outside the tent, packed up, suited up like astronauts and started our spacewalk. As long as we were able to make forward progress our spirits were high. Despite suffering, Ken was always quietly upbeat- and although at times we may have been depleted, demoralized or just plain exhausted, there were no arguments or bitterness between us. We were in tune, each with the same goal, and our decision-making process streamlined to the point where we were usually in agreement before any discussion.
Somehow, despite how destroyed we were at the end of each day, and as I mindlessly shovelled out my half of yet another tent-hole in the storm, Ken found the energy to teach me about ER nursing situations. I can’t say I absorbed everything he was teaching, but by the end of the trip, I had learned about roughly 18 different topics. The fact that he had the energy and drive to do this each evening despite his exhaustion speaks a lot to Ken’s dedication to his patients.
April 6 – Day 12
The weather worsened.
Aaron requested yet another revised weather report. Charlotte’s report predicted even more snowfall and the storm continuing for the next five days. We strapped a compass to his wrist, did every task humanly possible inside the tent before committing to taking it down and exposing ourselves to the elements, and then launched ourselves into the white wall of wind. I was unable to break trail fast enough for Aaron to keep his toes warm, so he was almost always on the sharp end.
Gusts of 60 to 70 kph almost knocked me down a couple times and pushed Aaron backwards slightly at one point. Aaron’s toes were suffering from a blister and the cold, so we dug a cave to shelter from the wind to eat lunch.
All told, we travelled 7.5 km moving at 1.2 kph with penetration above boot-top to end up just shy of Dagon-Erehwon Col.
We had once again ended up camping high, this time near the highest elevation point of the entire traverse.
I was somewhat surprised that our spirits were not shattered.
This was aided in part by Aaron bringing his “summit gummies”; he allowed four apiece for achieving significant sections. And while we had not actually passed through the col, we were close enough to merit celebration. Aaron was bonding with the compass, and considered naming it, just as we had christened our individual sleds.
April 7 – Day 13
We prepared again as if for a spacewalk, not daring to take down the tent walls until our skins were on our skis, our beacons were on and checked, our ski boots tightened. Once we were exposed and put on our packs, Aaron would need me to retrieve his water, and I would need him to buckle my chest strap as my mitts were too bulky to manipulate the buckles.
Another day of whiteout. Another day where the answer to the question, “What should I wear today?” was simple: “Everything.” Another day where I dreamt out loud of having “the mother of all fires” to warm our frozen digits and dry out our clothing. We made it over Dagon-Erehwon Col having never seen Erehwon in the 8-1/2×11 whiteout. Our route turned eastward with the harsh wind now mercifully pounding our right flank and back rather than meeting us head on. At lunch we used the Megamid to help block the wind, then resumed our wintry journey.
Despite the map showing widely spaced contours, Aaron skied over a wind lip and came face to face with a crevasse around 2140 m, so we retreated upslope to set up camp where Aaron probed a consistent snow depth of 2.7 m. Our pace had improved from the previous day, and we had travelled approximately 10 km over five hours. I realized that the only times I had kept up with Aaron were when he was breaking trail in a total whiteout.
Aaron: losing it. The endless days of staring at the compass strapped to my wrist in zero viz were making me go a little crazy. Ken told me about a meditation retreat he had been on, where he was alone with only his thoughts for hours and days on end. He tried to get me to consider the compass travel as a similar exercise, but I was finding it challenging. At one point, I became convinced that my (very suspect) sense of direction was more reliable than the compass and that the compass must be responding to a magnetic anomaly in the rocks below the ice sheet. When the GPS agreed with the compass, I started to really go down a rabbit hole, briefly considering the US military may have degraded the GPS satellite accuracy due to war with Russia. I quickly snapped backed to reality and quietly repositioned my skis to line up with the compass bearing. I didn’t tell Ken about the tricks my mind had been playing on me until we got to camp that evening.
April 8 – Day 14
Yet another spacewalk into the white out. It was becoming a ritual. Aaron commented that somehow the viz was worse than yesterday. Our sleeping quarters had now become our kitchen and washroom all rolled into one. We were only an hour and a half into the day, and were backtracking a second time to avoid crevasses, when the onslaught of retreating headfirst into the wind exacted its toll.
I stalled in the lead, suddenly seeing another depression in the snow, the continuation of a longitudinal crevasse. I turned back and yelled, “Aawon, we need to weassess.” My lips were numbed as if I was emerging from the dental chair. “I’m not thinking stwaight, we need to stop and weassess.” Aaron recognized the gravity of my situation, dug a snow pit and pulled the Megamid over us. Aaron retrieved the stove and started boiling water to warm ourselves up. My fingers would not have been able to manipulate the lighter or stove to do this. I tolerated the repetitive whacking of the wind-laden tarp against my head, knowing that this thin skin of unknown denier was saving me, as I inhaled trail mix to give me more calories to continue shivering beneath my down jacket.
Eventually, I was able to talk normally again, and I poked my head out. While not a “gimme”, the mountain gods had bestowed upon us a break, and we could clearly see the crevasses. We hurriedly braced ourselves to capitalize and eventually made it to a planar section with no concerns. My skins were building up ice along their entire inside length and I had to use ski straps to hold them in place. But we had visibility! We could see the blackness of rock in the distance and Aaron no longer had to stare at the compass strapped to his right hand. As our world view increased from one metre to several kilometres, we allowed ourselves the luxury of going at our own respective paces. I was dreaming again of the mother of all fires.
But the Talchako would not let us go. As we descended towards the moraine we came across blue ice mounds that rose up like frozen belugas. Our viz had dropped again. Small crevasses stretched across the glacier from wall to wall. We tried breaking through a swale that curved skier’s left but ended up backtracking 100 m upslope. We reset our course to the skier’s right side of the glacier. It was still uncertain if there was a line that would go, but we slowly threaded our way through the pod of whales to finally set ourselves up to camp near 1430 m elevation to be able to gain the moraine the next day. Aaron’s big toe was red. We shared my last chocolate.
Aaron: relief. There is nothing like an 11 day storm to make one appreciate blue sky.
The day started poorly with (somehow) the worst visibility so far, quickly got worse with the backtracking and need to warm up inside the snow-hole. But then, just as we were about to rope up, the visibility improved and the obvious path immediately presented itself to us. It was looking like it was going to be smooth sailing all the way to the toe of the Talchako, when a crevasse field stretched across the entire lower reach of the glacier, from side to side. We probed every crevasse/low point, but each time the probe hit either ice or continuous snow (at least as deep as the 330mm probe). It seemed like this part of the glacier was windswept by the recent storms, but the crevasses were still fully filled in. Eventually we gave up trying to find a route around them and just wove a line through the middle, which actually went quite smoothly. As we built camp, the storm fully broke and we appreciated for the first time in many days, the spectacular landscape we were in.
April 9 – Day 15
It was so strange to see sun and blue sky.
I had to remind myself to apply sunscreen and lip balm. I ate much snow as we ascended the 750 m to Pandemonium Pass, which involved a 50 m vertical bootpack through tight trees. As we contoured towards the pass, I was feeling a combination of altitude, depletion and hip flexor fatigue. I could only take 30 paces, and then needed 10 full resting breaths. I ended up consuming two days ration of trail mix and energy bars.
The west-facing slope was getting full sun, but the slope stability was good throughout the afternoon. The sun and a light breeze allowed us to dry our hut booties and other clothing on top of our packs as we ascended. We finally had clear views of the Talchako glacier with its crevasse fields and we could see the surrounding mountains. I was grateful to pause every 30 paces to take in the vista.
I recalled my conversation with Chris Girard, who described being knocked down by the fierce winds at the pass. “It was pandemonium!” Chris is a big guy, so for several days leading up to this I was bracing myself for even more bitter conditions. The pass was at the confluence of three different valleys, so I could imagine it being chaotic with winds coming from different directions.
As we grew ever nearer to the pass in the early evening, conditions at Pandemonium Pass were…. quiet. I told Aaron to press on ahead of me and start setting up camp. I would continue at my sludge-like pace.
By the time I rejoined Aaron at a safe point below the pass, he had already dug out our sleeping quarters. My only contribution was to toss him the Fireball so we could finish off the bottle in celebration, and he also brought out gummies for reaching this milestone. I offered to cut out cubby holes into the sidewalls of our home, while Aaron sauntered over to the ridge to snap photos of the Talchako Valley.
April 10 – Day 16
We tried to stay above treeline towards Ant (aka Sunshine) Lake and encountered successive gullies and ridges. We had experienced relatively minor hazards in terms of avalanche and crevasse risk thus far, but for some reason I was on higher alert, as the snow and wind increased slightly. I thought to myself, ‘This is still not a gimme.’ As the slope steepened with facets over crust, I slid and tumbled 15 feet. I stamped out a platform so I could sort my sled, pack and skis, and was in the process of putting on my ski crampons when Aaron re-emerged to investigate my delay.
The mountain gods had withdrawn their divine blessing bestowed upon us from the previous day. With the worsening snow and dropping visibility, we decided to descend to valley bottom with the hopes that it would be a mercifully short bushwhack to Ant Lake. As we continued our descent, I grimly remarked to Aaron, “Perhaps it is time to pray.” I was eight years old again, throwing temper tantrums every time I slammed into the snow. I raged therapeutically as I extracted myself and Pasqualito from a tree well. In contrast, Aaron was generally quiet, even when he did a full faceplant, driven by his pack into the ground. He was silent to the point that I called out in concern.
When I finally rejoined Aaron on shallower angle terrain, I was feeling physically wrecked and infantile. “Aaron, you are now seeing my true colours. I am broken,” I panted as he offered to put on my skins for me. Then I burst out laughing at the inanity of our journey and suddenly felt better again. “Is this Type 3 fun?”
Aaron dryly replied, “Maybe Type 2.5.”
Pasqualito was strapped horizontally across the top of my backpack like a rack of unwieldy moose antlers, and we continued our descent through tight trees to the marsh below, five kilometres south of Ant Lake at an elevation of 1450m. Being back in frozen marshland brought back memories of northern Alberta. I was jubilant and felt momentarily at peace that everything was going to be alright.
As we set up camp in the shelter of the trees, we heard an owl calling out, an auspicious sign. We allowed ourselves the luxury of making personal calls on the sat phone. Aaron gave me an odd look as I left a voice message for my brother, exclaiming, “You definitely would not want to be on this trip, but spirits remain high.”
I had regained my composure and prepared for the next day, redistributing heavier items lower down in my pack. We finally received more hopeful weather report from Charlotte, that indicated cooler weather but clearer skies with the freezing level dropping to 200 m.
I found my second wind and gathered dead branches and at last we were able to have an outdoor dinner with a fire. It was not the mother of all fires, but it was heat, light and mesmerizing comfort, nonetheless.
April 11 – Day 17
We woke up to clear skies, two kilometres from the “hiking trail” to Kidney Lake. Wolverine tracks were abundant. For the first time on the traverse, I was feeling like we might have smooth sailing on the homestretch. As it turned out, my expectation of a one hour jaunt to Kidney Lake was dashed, and it took us three hours through icy terrain, often losing signs of cut trees or blazes. ‘Follow the carcajou’, seemed to be sound advice whenever we lost the trail. We carried our skis for the final 70 m descent to Kidney Lake.
Aaron had the exact same ironic thoughts as me, that this could have been the most dangerous day due to the icy trail conditions. As my patella slammed into the ice, I assessed how the relative risk of avalanches, crevasses, and cold weather ranked in comparison.
We camped on a tent pad and enjoyed the picnic table and firepit. I slept fitfully, hearing strange sounds in the woods and envisioning a pine marten or wolverine dragging my backpack into the darkness of the night. Aaron also was awakened, and I emitted some warning whoops to ward off any would-be thieves. Only in the clear light of the following day did it became apparent that the lake ice had been sonorously playing with our collective imagination.
April 12 – Day 18
It was another day with little thought given to clothing choice. The cold wind coming across the chain of lakes persuaded me to wear everything, even on the scrappy portage trails.
100 metres, 200 metres… Aaron, his pack and his sled quickly became indiscriminate from the rocks and trees along the shoreline. I made little attempt to close the gap, allowing my mind to freely wander as there was no objective hazard. Our travel was relatively care-free, and we became separated for a half hour along the southern edge of Turner Lake.
After regrouping we continued our glide into the light headwind. We had travelled almost 20 km this day.
Aaron found an axe to chop through the frozen snow so we could make camp and access the bear bins. We still found the energy to attempt a moon-light excursion to Hunlen Falls. In the darkness I managed to have my right eye engage in a close encounter with a branch that popped out my contact lens, but fortunately did no additional damage. I remarked that after yesterday’s icy trail, this ranked as the next highest potentially injurious incident.
April 13 – Day 19
In better light we reached the lookout for Hunlen Falls and also gazed upon Lonesome Lake. We ate lunch and began the descent to the Stillwater Lake lookout.
We only travelled for six kilometres over four hours, but I was clearly depleted. I was not recovering well from being thrown to the ground several times while skiing through the variable rumble strips of melted moose prints, widening tree wells, pine needles and icy patches. I doled out some naproxen to Aaron from the first aid kit as his blister was aggravated.
Aaron’s inReach battery was depleted, so he called Charlotte on the satellite phone. We dared not ask if Mariupol had fallen. After hanging up, Aaron informed me that there was a sixth wave of COVID, and I suddenly yearned for another 20 days in the wilderness. But our diminishing food supply was nudging us back home. Even Aaron remarked that his pace was slowing from depletion.
I ate several spoonfuls of skim milk powder and found it surprisingly tasty.
April 14 – Day 20
We strapped our skis to our packs from the get-go today.
I was glad to be descending rather than going up the switchbacks, and we enjoyed lunch on the banks of the Atnarko. I started to break out into song to distract my shoulders from the ache. A mourning cloak butterfly with dark wings with yellow trim danced ahead of us as we approached the Atnarko river. Several sections of deadfall on sidehill single-track evoked audible grunts and curses from one member of our party.
The weight of the pack felt unbearable at times, and only the shadow of the mourning cloak aloft kept my feet moving. We were first guided by the quts’ik, and now the mamayu was my source of strength to go on.
Aaron gave me an extra energy bar and caffeinated gel, but the rocket boosters did not kick in.
Still, as we passed through [the abandoned settlement of] Atnarko, I summoned up the will to wander over to the historical cabin and peer into the window. We weaved through the massive boulders and trees blocking Tote Road near the highway.
All in all, the weather was actually ideal for backpacking – not excessively hot and no annoying insects. I suddenly found my reserve and my pace quickened on the homestretch and finally came upon the welcome sight of my car tucked in the trees. We quietly rejoiced, and even though no restaurants or grocery stores were open, we luxuriated in hot showers, pasta and extra energy bars from my cupboard.
Several years after its inception, we had found the unicorn!
Aaron: After the trip, we gorged on all the food we could at Ken’s place. Several pots of pasta, oatmeal, even the stale naan that had been sitting for 20 days in my truck on the FSR were consumed before the store in Hagensborg opened the next day. Then the real feasting began. Eventually I figured if I didn’t want to gain all the lost weight back in one day, I should make my exit, as Ken was in full replenishment mode and showed no signs of slowing down! Anyone who’s met Ken knows of his legendary appetite. But this was at another level I hadn’t witnessed before.
Before I left we took a tour through Bella Coola. It was a beautiful spring day – one of those days we were dreaming of up on the icefield. The sky was blue, the flowers were out, and the valley was alive with activity, even though the first tourist season in 3 years had not yet started. Wherever we went, Ken struck up conversations with his new neighbours. He was very excited to make Bella Coola his home, and to learn all he could about this historic valley and its culture. He told me he was putting the skis away for the spring and was going to spend the next months “gardening” but when I talked to him a few weeks later he had already been on several hiking trips, and sheepishly admitted to scouting future ski trips for next year.
- We travelled approximately 190 km over 20 days, including backtracking from crevasses and deking around deadfall.
- Fuel consumption was less than 110 mL per person per day. We had brought enough for 160 mL/pers/d for 18 days. When possible, we filled our bottles from open water and ate snow. We also ended up cooking in the Megamid more often than not due to storms, which likely reduced fuel consumption.
- We rationed 18 days of food over 20 days. All that remained were four tea bags, four bouillon cubes, a small stick of garlic butter, and a couple cups of skim milk powder.
- Total number of telemark turns: less than 20.
- My impression is that the route-finding may be more obvious doing the traverse starting from the Hunlen Falls side and going clockwise. This would provide better views of the crevasses spanning much of the Talchako Glacier and a potentially better perspective to access Jacobsen-Mongol Col.
- Microspikes with ski straps may be feasible for walking on icy trails.
- When in doubt, follow the carcajou.
Copyright 2022, Ken Lee and Aaron Snider
In Memoriam: Ken Lee
Aaron: Less than 2 months after this trip, news of Ken’s death from a kayaking accident came as a huge blow that I have still not fully processed. I first met Ken over 10 years ago and since then he had become my most regular traverse partner. I think I have spent more tent-time with Ken than with anyone else. Our stride-lengths may have been different, our pack-to-weight ratios a little skewed, but I’ve yet to meet anyone else who shares the same sense of adventure and enjoyment of the process – including all its suffering – as Ken. He was truly a kindred mountain spirit and will be deeply missed.
I will forever cherish this last crazy adventure we took together.
Darren: Ken’s brother David phoned me today to let me know that Ken died while sea kayaking on Sunday, June 5th, two days ago. I had been emailing Ken back and forth all last week, getting the material together to publish this trip report. Ken had asked me about putting up his own website, but decided against it, and I told him I’d be thrilled for him to guest author on my site.
And then he was gone.
Now I’m more honoured than ever to host this story.
I first met Ken in 2008 on an Alpine Club of Canada mountaineering camp, and over the last 14 years we shared some great experiences, full of suffering and awe, fear and joy, effort and reward. Whether it was type II fun and there weren’t many words spoken, or more relaxed times sharing conversations about the joys and challenges of life, Ken was always a fantastic adventure parter and great friend – strong, smart, and humble – sharing insights, helping out, or making me laugh.
Good travels on your next adventure, Ken.
– Darren Foltinek, June 2022