‘This is dumb!’ I exclaimed as my left boot plunged into the snow. Were the moon not obstructed by the sheer cliff that perched immediately above me, I’m sure I would have seen it snickering at me. 220 vertical metres of boot-packing over an 800 metre span at the end of a 23 kilometre backcountry ski remained between me and and a cozy fire. It was time to dig deep.
The Ski In
Em and I had planned to ski into the Fryatt aka Sydney Vallance Hut over New Years this year, however as we were packing to leave on December 31st, the quick onset of a flu bug caused us to reconsider. Disappointed, we vowed that we would find another 3-day window this winter to attempt the excursion.
Now, in late February, we were set.
After loading the car with the requisite gear and food, we departed the city in the early evening. We spent the night at Beauty Creek Hostel ~ 150 km up Hwy 93 from Lake Louise in Jasper National Park in order to get an early start the following morning.
As a side note, the hostel is great. If, especially after reading this post, you don’t think you’ll ever make it to a backcountry hut, then you ought to check out one of the many HI hostels dotted along the Banff-Jasper Parkway. In my opinion, it offers many of the benefits of a backcountry hut – rustic feel, proximity to nature, opportunity to connect with cool people – without the logistical planning and physical exertion of reaching a backcountry hut!
Back to the adventure.
In doing our pre-trip research we concluded that the most influential variable of our adventure was whether or not the Athabasca River would be frozen. If the river is adequately frozen, the total distance from car to hut would be 14 km. If the river turned out not safe to cross, then the total distance would be 24 km. A BIG difference!
We had called the Jasper Park Warden’s Office earlier in the week in attempt to find out, however a short conversation left us without a conclusion. Apparently, ski tracks at the crossing had been noticed weeks before, but it was unknown now.
So, on Friday morning, as we packed up to leave the hostel, we didn’t know what the ski day would require of us – a slog or a mega-slog.
As we approached the roadside turnout where you are supposedly meant to assess the viability of skiing across the river, the anticipation was palpable. OK that’s an overstatement – we were curious…
We didn’t even slow down as we passed the river bend. Laughing as we both glanced out the driver-side window at the thrashing current. The river was about as frozen as the movie ‘Superbad’ is scary.
We continued on to park at the Geraldine Lakes trailhead near Athabasca Falls.
We mounted our skins on the bottom of our skis, placed the finishing touches on our loaded backpacks and mentally psyched to begin the trek.
Due to some acute back + jaw issues stemming from perennial muscle imbalances, my body currently hates wearing a backpack. Fortunately, a family friend and neighbour had lent me a pulk (ski sled) that he had acquired. This contraption was serious. Although he didn’t know the exact details he suggested that the pulk had previously been used in a solo Arctic expedition. I was excited to try it out.
We began to ski along the road. The track-set trail was faded. The snowpack was meagre and had obviously been impacted by the recent warm temperatures. It wasn’t very inspiring. After 2 km on the road, we took the leftward turn onto the Fryatt Valley Trail. For the next ~8 km we paralleled the river and consequently, the stretch of road we had just driven. The thought was potentially demoralizing, however the sun was out, our legs were fresh and we were skiing!
Shortly after a great lunch stop (bagel sandwiches), we arrived at the narrow point in the river that served as the ‘ice bridge’ – at least when the river was icy. We took a closer look at the river. Made a few jokes about how we ought to have attempted a rogue crossing and then continued. Next we arrived on top of a bluff that offered a beautiful view out over the Athabasca River Valley. We snapped some pics in the wind. Snow coverage was sparse. As we skirted the upper-bluff we were forced to dodge tree roots and navigate juniper bushes whose trampled stems cried a climatic foul.
We make our first first gradual ascent en route to the Little Fryatt Campground. To this point the pulk had only been a minor nuisance, and certainly better for my bodily comfort than slinging the pack properly. Convinced that the incremental weight was only marginal I had persuaded Em to put her pack in the pulk as well. Nonetheless the gentle incline required considerable effort.
We had been skiing for ~3.5 hours. The sign at the campground indicated we had another 10 km to reach the hut. At least 1 km of which would be the fabled headwall. Em offered to drag the pulk for a bit. I accepted. Within 100 metres of handing over my deadweight charge the terrain changed – for the steeper.
Freshly unbridled, I charged up the incline. It felt wondrous. Behind a mischievous smile I truly did feel bad that Em was likely struggled behind me. I knew I would have been.
After 20 minutes I stopped to wait for Em. She arrived panting and, before I had a chance to reconsider, accepted my offer to re-claim the boat. Em shouldered her own pack to ease my burden. We continued for a kilometre or so. It was tough. Frequently I thought of the workout videos I had seen where super-jacked dudes sprint around a gym dragging a tyre. This felt comparable only I was doing it up a hill and my personal trainer wouldn’t stop the watch for another several hours!
Unsure of whether the terrain that remained would be more flat or if we were doomed to fight gravity for several kilometres I struggled up one remarkably steep section before determining it was time to leave the pulk behind.
I had expected this point to arrive, at the bottom of the headwall at the latest and possibly sooner.
So, part-way up a hill with about 8 kilometres to go we stashed the pulk in the trees and I saddled my pack. It was ~ 16:30. I was certain we would not arrive at the hut before dark. Typical.
We continued along an undulating narrow path. Eventually it shot us out into the Fryatt Valley.
Energy was starting to wane, but we plugged on. After another 4 km across the flat we arrived at the bottom of the headwall. Finally!
The sun had set about twenty minutes previously so we strapped on headlamps, sipped some water, ate a pack of Powerbar gel chews (my favourite) and started climbing.
Em had been advocating for hours how she intended to trudge ski-less up the headwall. I was more agnostic about the need to boot-pack. No point in discounting the opportunity to ski until the decision is obvious.
Well, let’s just say I had my skis off before she arrived at the origin of the headwall seconds behind me. The decision was obvious.
So, we trudged. The first 100 metres wasn’t too bad. Em had strapped her skis to the side of her pack. Stubbornly, I kept mine in my hand. It was unsustainable. As the slope steepened I struggled. Hard.
After my ‘This is dumb’ outburst Em offered for me to strap my skis to the other side of her pack. ‘It will balance me out’ she proclaimed to soften the blow to my already-assaulted ego. Sheepishly I agreed. She was right. I needed both hands to operate my poles in order to keep my knees above the snow’s surface.
We invoked a ‘slow and steady’ mantra and got after it. Damn it was humbling. After a total of 60 minutes of huffing, puffing, and swearing, the grade flatted and the wind gushed on all sides of our bodies. We had mounted the headwall!
Within 100 metres the hut came into view and the day was over. We were elated and exhausted. That headwall had kicked my ass!
Grateful for our arrival we set about acquainting ourselves with the cabin – fetching water, sparking the wood stove, and prepping dinner.
Our late meal was eaten in near-silence. We were that tired 🙂
The Next Day
When we woke up it was snowing lightly.
After a restful mountain-air sleep, we ate breakfast and lazed around – reading and chatting as the sun shone through the south-east facing windows of the cabin. The snow conditions weren’t anything special so we felt no radical pressure to get out hunting for ski lines. Mid-morning I chopped wood to replenish the stack we had begun to deplete. It was fun. As a city-boy there is something uniquely virile about the notion of splitting wood for heat. Select a log, line it up, stake out a sound stance, raise your weapon, calculate an intended strike point, swing, and hope. Within 10 minutes my attire was reduced to long johns, t-shirt and gloves. It was glorious and kept me occupied more than twice as long as I had expected.
After lunch Em and I got out to explore the surrounding area. It was gorgeous.
We traipsed around for a few hours without any real objective other than to immerse ourselves in the breathtaking scenery.
The evening was spent relaxing, drinking bourbon and chatting.
The Out Day
The morning we departed offered a spectacular sunrise.
The ski out was largely uneventful. Descending the headwall in less than a third of the time it had taken us to ascend on Friday ignited a smile on my face.
Although getting the pulk down some of the steep sections was a bit of a hassle, on the more moderate inclines it was a pretty fun challenge to avoid being mowed down by my gliding pack.
The final few kilometres on the flat river-side track were slightly tedious as my mind vacillated between barn-sniffing and the slight dread of returning to school work and obligations.
We made it back to the car in seven hours.
It was a good trip.
Lessons Learned and Re-affirmed
– My girlfriend, Em, is the most mentally tough and physically able cookie I know.
– The bliss of being in the backcountry is worth any and all of the discomfort and struggle required to make the journey
– A pulk can be a useful tool
– The physical and mental determination I drew upon on Friday paled in comparison to this guy‘s, doing his thing just down the highway…