Under Dolomite Peak

With our AST 1 and a couple of nights of winter camping under out belts it was time for the AST 2. Happily warmed up after spending two nights in a cosy hotel and with real food in our bellies, we set off from the Icefields parkway up a step, icy, trail.

The route in was only 5-6km but it was step and parts were quite narrow through the trees, making it “fun” to navigate. I seem to have this propensity to get too close to trees (the scars on my face will attest to that), so the prospect of doing this all again but in reverse, with the added pleasure of gravity aiding my decent certainly sat in mind. But when we broke into the alpine terrain and the large cirque of the aptly named Cirque Peak appeared ahead of us, with the impressive rampart feature of Dolomite Peak to our right the “wow” factor surpassed any concerns and tiredness I’d conjured up in my mind. Having decided on a little spot surrounded by trees, and out of harm’s way of any avalanches, we ditched out 25kg packs and set camp. Again, my sleeping arrangements were not thrilling me but with little choice and with little in the way of annoyance I accepted my lot.

Life was good… climbing to the crest of the upper valley floor we surveyed the scene. The valley below us was drenched in late winter sunlight and the prospects of fresh lines in powder snow were looking good. Cirque Peak lay before us (roughly north), across Lake Helen, a ridge-line lay to our left and over which the Icefields Parkway meanders, behind and right was Dolomite peak one of the many impressive bastions of rock rising, fortress like, out of the snow.

Day 2: As part of the course we were to plan and execute a series of trips in the area. The first of these was much more ambitious than it was to be in reality… to traverse under Cirque Peak into the next valley before returning around the other side of Lake Helen. The morning of reminded us of how fickle mountain weather can be. We set off into overcast conditions with clouds rolling in. I finally took to the courage to lead… but leading into white-out conditions and cutting across a steep gradient is less than enjoyable. As I glided along the realisation that I’d reached the edge of a perpendicular ridge came only as my ski clearly left the snow as I slid forward. Taking a few “steps” back we all came to a halt. So what next? By the grace of the weather gods the clouds cleared to reveal the rocky wall of the lower slopes of Cirque Peak. It couldn’t have come at a better time as it made clear the cornices and avalanche risks that we had to traverse below. Not only that but our review highlighted the risks of the snow on the traverse itself. With a thorough discussion of the risks made and concluding it was an acceptable level of risk I continued the lead (what was I thinking?!) with a quickened pace and spacing everyone out. More than one heavy whompf haunted our thoughts before we made it to the saddle to the west of Cirque Peak. It was unnerving but highly satisfying to have done something that very much put me out of my comfort zone. After digging some snow pits to look at the snowpack, get a better understanding of the conditions, and improve our knowledge, we changed plans as the weather continued to close in and the prospect of skiing down into the next valley without being able to see where were we going was not so exciting. After dropping back into the Lake Helen bowl we crossed the lake, which was covered by a deep layer of slushy snow. To continue to demonstrate the joys of buying dodgy secondhand gear, one of our group managed to enjoy a moment of showing the rest of us how deep and wet the snow on the lake surface was. Coming up above the top of his boot the profanity filled result was a cold and soggy foot, and the rolling of many eyes. It was no surprise to us. Back on the go we ventured onwards and up to the ridge-line that looks out over the Icefields Parkway valley. Steep, narrow, and later in the day, it made for an interesting choice. The view from the top was stunning and clear and well worth the energetic slog. The steep, but straightforward, decent was not without a couple of spills… and I was still trying to figure out how to ski powder. Back at camp we all relaxed, recalled tails of the day and, after dinner, considered our options for the next adventure…

Day 3: and setting out to the north east we dipped down into the adjacent valley crossing Lake Katherine, weaving through huge erratics, and avoiding the range of massive rock slides. There were clearly old tracks around the trailing edge of Dolomite Peak. Taking the higher route our motley crew plodded onwards and upwards. As we entered the bowl of the backside of Dolomite Peak it was clear that size of the glacier indicated on the map (which was not so old) had significantly receded. Whilst a striking scene it was both a lesson in navigation but also a stark reminder of how quickly our world is changing.
After a quick break the goal was to move up a ramp, that appeared to be an old moraine, to a lower ridge to the north of Dolomite NE1 with a great view down the valley and back to our tracks. The weather quickly closed in on us with clouds obscuring our view and the wind picking up. With the joys of being in the mountains we were just grateful that we’d enjoyed the view before and had an excellent guide to help us along the way. Waiting for a gap in the clouds to drop in from the top of the ramp to the lower ridge, down a short steep slope with an unfortunate scattering of surface rocks, we were a little apprehensive (or at least I was) as we needed to move quickly to take advantage of any brief visibility to get down safely. After 15mins or more that brief break in the clouds came and one by one we dropped in, down what seemed like an almost vertical slope. Standing with the others I was relieved to have navigated the thin snow around the ski destroying shale that created a mosaic across our path. Happily the route ahead was pure powder. All of this was new to me… even skiing was something I’d only taken up the previous year (and being in the more advanced group meant I was subjected to stuff that very much challenged both my skills and my comfort level. Whilst not being the best skier I was better than quite a few in the group… which was both surprising and of some reassurance). To ski powder when the clouds come in and there are little or no reference points is very disconcerting. Speed it hard to judge as everything seems like it’s moving… but it is ever so much fun! Stopping half way to regroup for the final section to rejoin our homeward tracks the clouds cleared and the view of the valley below, and the large bowl of Cirque Peak laid before us. It was peaceful, it was majestic, and it was humbling. The tiny dot that I was in the midst of this vast mountain range. To our right another tiny luminous pink dot weaved it’s way down the mountain… we knew we’d never loose Sarah, even if the sun went out…

Day 4: the final full day tried my confidence on a number of occasions… the other side of the valley looked inviting but when we got there the snow was not as fluffy as we’d hoped. The warm afternoons had convinced us not to take on anything too steep as we could see fresh avalanches scattered around the valley, including two that had crashed down across our tracks of the second day. So we played it safe and headed to a westerly facing slope that ran down onto the Icefields Parkway. Climbing up the along the ridge we could see that skier’s right was an avalanche path, and on the left was standing deadwood of an old forrest fire. The snow on the slope below us was a curst which was think enough to trip you up if you feel through but thin enough to give way under too hard a turn… of course by keeping one’s skis flatter one gets faster… and with trees racing towards you (and my history with greeting trees and branches with my face) I was a little nervous. I wasn’t the only one to take a nose dive or head-over-heels flip on this slope by crashing through the curst… and of course bailing in such a dramatic way has limited consequence if you’re not going so fast… which I wasn’t… and it’s just a case of pride when you have to pick yourself up again. Having done the run once, and plodded up through the trees, no one was particularly excited about repeating the joys of a short crusty run… we headed back.
Rather than repeating what we’d done before we made the choice to drop down through the trees of the valley and make an approximate beeline back to camp. It was neither the shortest route (given the change in elevation) nor the most straightforward (given that we had to weave through ever increasingly dense forrest). The snow was much more pleasant, having been warmed by a mild winter day… making some nice turns through the trees we were forced to slow as the forrest closed in around us. Pushing through our downward progress was halted by very steep short drop-off into a creek. “Did we all want to do this?” asked our guide, although it seemed more directed to me. The nasty faceted snow made for a tricky traverse, not to mention the protruding rocks… I agreed to give it a go, but I have to say I had mixed feelings. I’d hoped that my causal “sure, let’s do it” response didn’t give away my initial gut reaction to bail and take the easy route. I’m not sure if it was me taking up the challenge or just not wanting to go against the consensus of the group to push on. The first two down left a series of mini avalanches behind them… I was up next.
Apparently the look of relief (the “I didn’t die?!” expression) was a better one than the apprehensive one I had before flipping head over heels just as I turned into the traverse. Besides the entertainment factor, the experience reminded me of the limited consequence of such a scenario and that it is all in the courage of doing things that scare me…
Our last evening was full of sun and good spirits, simply happy to be in a place of beauty.

I’ve never been so happy to be at the bottom of a slope than this one…

Day 5: packing up and leaving behind our temporary home was relatively swift. Our time was spent filling in the holes we’d dug for the communal kitchen and gear, and trying to cram in our garbage and bags of poop back into our packs. For our decent we split up into our different groups, and we both had very different experiences of a steep icy decent through the trees from camp. At one point the other group had to take off their gear and walk down the worst of it. We, on the other hand managed to ski down but not without some choice words with some who didn’t quite grasp the danger of ploughing full tilt into those waiting on precarious perches. I was last down of our group on the last icy chute, filled with switchbacks and tight gaps between trees, that emerged at the parking lot and our trusty van. I was grateful for the patient and graceful Ryan… a young guy who was quite adept at being quietly supportive and showing no intolerance to some clearly struggling but at least giving it a go…

I don’t think I have been so glad to get off a trail as I was that one. Despite that, it was a great five day adventure…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.