“It wasn’t supposed to rain today,” I muttered to myself as I got out of the car in Whistler Village and followed Gord and Scott into the outdoor gear store. We’d forgotten a key item, and were scouring the village at 9 a.m. on a Sunday to rectify the situation. We had a long day ahead of us and were already behind schedule.
“Excuse me; do you know if there is a liquor store open in the village right now?”
Judging by the ensuing laughter from the very nice ladies behind the counter, I think they thought Scott was joking. We looked at our shoes and shuffled uncomfortably.
After some even louder laughter, we managed to gather that there was indeed a liquor store open in the Village. While one can often improvise in the case of forgotten gear, whiskey is irreplaceable on a snow camping trip. It would have been foolish (dangerous even?) to embark on a three-day ski tour without some Canadian Hunter.
When you mention visiting Whistler/Blackcomb in the winter, most everyone thinks of traditional lift-serviced skiing, and for good reason. Boasting over a vertical mile of topographic relief, Whistler/Blackcomb is rated as one of the world’s best ski resorts and hosted many of the 2010 Winter Olympic events. However, you can also use the lifts to access one of the premier multiday backcountry ski tours in North America: the Spearhead Traverse.
First skied in 1964, this ski tour is typically done in a clockwise fashion, starting at the top of the Showcase T-Bar on Blackcomb and finishing with a thigh-burning descent down from the summit of Flute into Whistler Village a couple of days later. Although a slightly abbreviated version has been completed in a mere four hours, most feel that three days/two nights is the right amount of time, especially if you are interested in climbing a few peaks along the way.
There is one hut along the traverse, but it isn’t at a natural stopping point, so most plan on one or two nights camping on the glaciers of the Spearhead and Fitzsimmons ranges. With large glaciers, continuous exposure to avalanche terrain and no easy exit in the middle, the Spearhead is a tour that takes a bit of planning. A good forecast is paramount, as is excellent fitness and competent partners.
We had been watching the weather and avalanche conditions for weeks, and ended up taking a couple days off of work to hit the weather right – or so we thought. The light rain continued as we prepared our packs in the parking lot, and doubts began to creep into our conversation.
After deciding to just go as far as we could, camp, and see what tomorrow might hold, we walked up to the ticket window to buy our single-ride tickets up. The ski area knows how much suffering is involved getting a multi-day ski mountaineering pack into the alpine under human power, and the ticket price reflects this. Spearhead hopefuls pay about half the price of a full day pass (around $50 USD), and must be ready to show ID, shovel, probe, transceiver and skins.
As we rode a gondola and a series of lifts upwards, the rain turned to blowing snow and it got impressively cold for early April. This was my first hint that the “Whistler Alpine” forecast is for an elevation lower than you’ll be on for most of the traverse, which is mostly above 2,000 m. The ride up takes some time and involves a bit of skiing between lifts, so you will want to dress a bit warmer than you typically do to start a tour. Despite the delays, we found ourselves skinning away from the crowds at the top of the T-bar and into the solitude of the Spearhead Range by 11 a.m.
The first thing I noticed as we climbed past Blackcomb Peak and transitioned for the easy traversing descent towards Decker was that I needed to recalibrate my eye. For those who are used to touring in the more compact ranges of the Lower 48, the Coast Mountains are massive and sprawling. What looks to take an hour or so to skin can easily turn into half a day’s effort. Thankfully, the weather was beginning to clear and we were treated to increasingly broad and stunning views as we made our way past Trorey and Pattison and began the long climb to the Shudder/Tremor col.
Throughout this section we crossed several large glaciers, but the crevasses were well covered and we didn’t stop to put on harnesses. A good safety margin depends on the snow pack and route choice, however, and people have fallen into crevasses on the Spearhead.
We arrived at the col as alpenglow began to color the peaks, realizing we didn’t have much time to find a good camp. But the lure of a summit proved irresistible, and Scott, Gord and I found ourselves atop Shudder (2,671m), our first peak of the trip, as the sun sank low in the west. When you are snow camping, finding camp is often as easy as locating a flat spot, but we were looking for a flat spot sheltered from the howling north wind. Luckily Gord and Scott had done the trip the previous year and knew of a good area on the aptly named Platform Glacier below.
Camping out in winter conditions is often character building, and our first night on the Spearhead was no exception. Between digging a platform, building walls, melting snow, boiling water for dinner and refilling our water bottles, it was well past dark and even colder when I finally crawled into the tent and stuffed my boot liners into my bag for the night.
In a few years, this sort of evening ritual on the Spearhead will likely be for those doing the tour on the cheap. B.C. Parks is weighing a proposal to put three huts on the traverse (spearheadhuts.org), with construction potentially starting this year. With the huts will undoubtedly come more people, but on this night we had the wind, cold and spindrift to ourselves.
The next day our self-inflicted hardships were quickly forgotten in the morning light, crisp air and unlimited views as we continued the traverse. A quick skin up to another col, another transition (sense a pattern?), and a stunning powdery run down Ripsaw glacier to yet another transition and another skin upwards. So went day two as we worked our way around the last peaks of the Spearhead and into the start of the Fitzsimmons Range. Enroute, we dropped our packs and made a half-hearted attempt at Macbeth (2,639m) but having neglected to bring rope and harnesses, we turned around after we hit heavily crevassed terrain. Next time!
In the early afternoon we descended off the shoulder of Lago down onto the massive Diavolo Glacier and our camp for night two. This was a much shorter day than the previous, and we luxuriated in the sun and relative warmth, admiring our wild surroundings and the fact that we once again had a huge glacier to ourselves for the night. It would have been possible to press on, or go for a ski that afternoon, but preferring to rest up for a final day of peak bagging we merely watched as a couple of parties glided silently by in the distance.
Day three dawned clear and still, and we were up and away with the sun to climb Fitzsimmons (2,603m), one of the most striking peaks along the traverse. Partway up to the col above camp we dropped most of our gear and headed up Fitzsimmons, hoping to ski from high on the peak. Breakable crust dashed those hopes several hundred meters below the top, but we had a fun romp up and down, enjoying the spectacular views down the excellent north face ski line.
This short climb alone made the trip, but we still had a long way to go and two more summits to ski, so we didn’t stay long. Next up were Benvolio (2,613m) and Overlord (2,625m), both of which could be ascended on skis and provided different and impressive views of some of the other peaks along the traverse, not to mention the countless others spread across the Coast Mountains and other B.C. ranges on this stunningly clear day.
A few more increasingly icy descents and transitions later, we found ourselves at Singing Pass with tired legs attaching skins back to skis for the final climb to the summit of Flute (2,013m), just inside the Whistler ski area boundary. When we crossed into the ski area it was eerily quiet; not a person was around, and no lifts were running. Unbeknownst to us, Whistler had closed for the season the day we began the tour, and we dodged maintenance equipment on our way back down to the village thousands of feet below.
The run was surprisingly fun on soft spring snow, and we skidded to a stop right in the midst of the young, clean and beautiful hordes of people about 30 minutes from Flute’s summit. It was a surreal and jarring re-entry into lowland life but somehow a fitting end to one of the best tours the Republic of Cascadia has to offer. x