WHERE THE MOUNTAINS HAVE NO NAME:
Ski Touring in the Northern Coast Mountains
by Markus Kellerhals
There is hardly a better place to indulge a taste for solitude than in the mountains of northern BC. The Coast Mountains begin on Vancouver’s North Shore, and extend north to the Yukon border. Their northern-most reaches are called the Boundary Ranges, since they lie along the BC/Alaska border. To say that the Boundary Ranges are rarely visited is an understatement. Not a single road crosses the five hundred kilometre sweep of mountains extending from Stewart to Skagway. Within this vast area are a few well traveled rivers, such as the Stikine and the Taku , and a handful of well known mountains, such as the spectacular Devil’s Thumb. Between these reference points are range after range of unnamed peaks rising above unnamed glaciers.
The glaciers are what lured us to the area. Where systems of glaciers link together to form ice-fields, the keen ski tourer sees a route to be skied. In the spring of 2000 I drove north along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway with a group of friends. Our plan was to traverse across the range of mountains that lies between the Stikine and Iskut Rivers. For two weeks, we would carry our homes and our meals on our backs and camp wherever we pleased on the wide-open glaciers. If time permitted there were dozens of mountains to climb along our route, ranging from rounded snow bumps to difficult rock climbs.
At Bob Quinn Lake we met our charter helicopter. The pilot whisked us across the Iskut River to Arctic Lake, near the south end of Mount Edziza Provincial Park. On this day Arctic Lake lived up to its name. A chilly breeze cooled us off as we dug out a camp spot on a hill overlooking the lake.
For the first two days of our trip we skied up and over several rounded peaks, through an area that must be covered with meadows in summer. On our second night we camped near the summit of one of these peaks. Late that evening the clouds to the west gradually cleared off, opening up the first views of the more rugged country to the west. Directly across the valley from us, tongues of ice spilled down from the icefield we would soon be skiing across. Rising out of the north edge of the icefield we could see the spectacular rock towers of Mount Hickman, which at nearly 3000 metres is the highest summit in the range.
To reach the icefield below Mount Hickman, we first had to descend nearly a thousand metres into a deep valley. The snow on the south-facing slope we descended had not frozen over night. As a result we struggled down the slopes, sometime sinking past our knees into the mushy snow. Skiing with heavy packs mandated a cautious approach. The packs tended to magnify any errors in our skiing technique, all to frequently catapulting one of us headfirst into the snow.
Below Mount Hickman we had some of our finest weather of the trip. Early one afternoon we ditched our heavy overnight packs and headed up a tributary glacier leading up to a sub-peak of Mount Hickman. We climbed on skis almost to the summit using just the traction of our climbing skins. Only on the final summit slopes did we have to remove our skis and kick steps. From the summit our camp was barely visible a thousand metres below. The descent was an outstanding run on sun-softened spring snow.
At the headwaters of Galore Creek we descended a narrow glacier hemmed in by huge rock walls. Under grey skies the valley appeared stark and desolate, yet still beautiful. Hundred of metres above us we spotted a herd of mountain goats grazing contentedly on the cliff side, oblivious to the harshness of their surroundings.
The greatest hazard on these spring ski tours is weather. If the clouds descend on you while crossing an icefield, visibility disappears as white snow blends into white sky. Travel under these whiteout conditions is still possible providing you are able to navigate around obstacles by compass or GPS. If a nasty storm hits, whiteout conditions can persist for days on end. Then again if you are lucky you may enjoy so many perfect days in a row that you are left wishing for some bad weather as an excuse to rest.
Descending into Scott Simpson Creek we skied in a whiteout. I was skiing at head of the group. Though the map indicated a gentle slope down, it was hard to convince myself that I was not about to ski blindly over a cliff. The lack of a visible horizon made it nearly impossible to judge the angle of the slope. This produced amusing results when I stopped - often I would topple over because I was leaning into the hill far more than the gentle slope justified. At least the divots from my frequent wipe-outs provided some landmarks for the rest of the group.
The headwaters of Scott Simpson Creek were crisscrossed with avalanche paths. We set up camp in a location sheltered by an island of tall trees; reasoning that if the trees had survived to that size, the location was probably safe from most avalanches. Sharp rock peaks plastered with snow towered around us. From camp we could see our proposed route which led through a steep col between two of the surrounding peaks. Even from our vantage far below we could see that the slopes below the col had been swept by avalanches.
Next morning we were faced with a tough decision - to continue along our proposed route to the Stikine we would have to ascend a steep avalanche slope to the col. Our other option was to abandon the final portion of our route and descend Scott Simpson Creek to the Porcupine River. We argued back and forth - all of us wanted to continue to the Stikine, but we were also aware of how much fresh snow had fallen in the past few days. In the end good sense won out over desire and we decided to descend.
For a while we had easy travel down the creek. When the snow ran out, we loaded our skis onto our packs and walked on gravel flats beside the creek. All too soon though, the creek descended into a canyon. We were forced to traverse the steep valley walls. These slopes were covered with dense thickets of ‘slide alder’, which is a uniquely flexible, resilient tree that thrives on avalanche paths. The trunks of these trees grow parallel to the slope for several metres, before gradually curving skyward. Each winter they are flattened to the ground by avalanches, and each spring they bounce back unharmed. A unique evolutionary adaptation, but one that is roundly detested by mountaineers. Bushwhacking through slide alder is an arduous task even with a day pack let alone with a backpack and skis.
We stopped for lunch on a rock island that projected above the sea of slide alder. We could see the edge of the large timber about a kilometre away. After lunch it took several hours to cross that final kilometre. Fortunately once we reached the timber we found easy travel through old-growth hemlock forest.
I expected to be disappointed by our finish on the Porcupine. After all we had hoped to reach the Stikine, the logical point to end our trip. However when we broke out of the forest onto the banks of the Porcupine we were greeted by an impressive scene. Just upstream of us two huge glaciers descended through forest into a lake strewn with icebergs. Rising between the pair of glaciers was a sharp peak of rock and snow.
That evening as we sat around a campfire, we watched a grizzly wade across the river downstream of us. We joked that the bear had probably not seen enough skiers to develop a taste for them.
IF YOU GO
You can get a taste of the northern Coast Mountains without leaving your car. Both the road to Stewart, BC and the road to Skagway, Alaska cut through the mountains.
The easiest way into the heart of the Boundary Ranges is to take a trip down the Stikine River from Telegraph Creek, BC to Wrangell, Alaska. This section of the Stikine is a straightforward but fast-moving river. More information on the Stikine River can be found in Jennifer Voss' "The Stikine River" (1998: Rocky Mountain Books. $16.95).
Experienced hikers might consider the trek across Mount Edziza Provincial Park, a multiday backcountry hike through recent volcanic terrain. Hikers in Edziza will likely encounter herds of caribou, and will have views west into the heart of the Boundary Ranges. Information on hiking in Edziza is available from BC Parks in Smithers (phone # 1-250-847-7320).
Ski touring in the Boundary Ranges is a serious undertaking because of the remoteness, rugged terrain, and logistical challenges. The best months for ski-touring are April-June. Information on the Boundary Ranges is rather sparse. Probably the best source of information is from back issues of the Canadian Alpine Journal. The tour described in this article is on map sheet 104G.