UPDATE with VIDEO – The Monarch Ice-field Eight Headed Monster
16 skis, 17 poles, 8 sets of crampons, 40 litre’s of white gas, 1 prop plane, 3 flights, 2 airports and 2 glacier strips, 4 nationalities, 2 proper maps and 6 dodgy printouts, 4 1/2 tents, 2 kites, 3 magic carpets, 2 pack rafts, 3 toboggans, 20 days, 2 bottles of whiskey, a shit tonne of food, beer and smokes and 8 idiots in gore-tex. These are the vital stats we started out with on our skiing mission to the Monarch Ice-field last spring.
Half of the crew drove ahead to Bella Coola to drop a car up the Nusatsum FSR and to scope the route out. The lucky 4 got to take an epic 2 hour flight over the Coast Mountains from Pemberton to the Monarch Ice-field.
Touching down below Mount Erehwon and Mount Dagon we started setting up our first camp right there. Two more arrived on the next drop from Anihim Lake leaving just Ryan and Jonas to appear with the final gear and supplies run. And they didn’t, day one and ‘oh shit we’ve already lost two!’
Having watched the weather worsening all afternoon it was anyones guess as to what happened to the final incoming flight. At this point we could have radioed to see where they were, but of course we didn’t agree on radio channels before the trip. We went to decide what to do over a swig of whiskey, then realised the whiskey was on the final flight. Damn it, always get the booze in first! With little we could do to effect the fate of our two AWOL friends we ate food and went to sleep.
Jonas and Ryan, had been dropped 8 km north on the Jabocson Glacier they camped there and traveled south that morning to find us. The eight headed monster was one, but only for breakfast! The first ski runs beckoned and in one’s and two’s people started heading for Erehwon or Dagon to get some turns and feel out the terrain. At the end of the first ski day we had each skied both and were all grinning like fiends at the possibilities ahead.
Eight is a large crew so to deal with this we each had a partner with whom we had prepared food, shared a tent, cooked and became rope partners for the whole trip. This allowed each pair to move independently of the others in all things like what time to get up and leave, where to go that day, the pace of travel etc.
This flexibility and independence let each pair operate on their own program therefore avoiding the issues of differing objectives, ideas and pace’s as well as large group decisions.
Cerberus Mountain is a great hunk of imposing rock and ice. It is a classic Coastal Mountain with burly glaciers flowing off its peak and a stocky rugged look, the highest in the central ice-field. A day mission from our camp in the so far perfect weather it was a trip for all eight to tackle together. With conditions good for climbing and variable for skiing we travelled fairly easily around the south side of the mountain and up the west face and onto the large hanging snow field to the summit.
The views were spectacular with the huge peaks around this area encircling us on three sides with many km’s of glaciers separating them. From on top our next target was obvious, directly south was a sweet looking peak caked in ice and snow with a chute right off the summit ridge. But first to ski Cerberus, icy and wind slammed the hanging pitch chattered, but then dropping onto the west face the snow improved to warmed sloughy pow down the steepest pitch.
Back at camp we looked at the map to get a scale on our target for the next day. It was called Princess and ‘just over there’ turned out to be 12 km away. If Princess was in the scope then so better be Monarch itself, the highest and grandest peak in the area, which was another 12 km from Princess. Going to the very southern end of the ice field and getting a shot at Monarch had been only vaguely on the radar as our general direction was to move north towards Bella Coola as the trip progressed (Monarch is at the southern tip of the ice-fields, a full 45 km from our exit to the north).
However there was definitely a general ambition of lets get what presents itself! We had a good forecast and that was all the arm twisting we needed. With the distances involved nobody really felt like dragging sleds and tonnes of supplies that far south just to lug it back again, so fast and light was the mode. 3 days of food and fuel allowed us a morning to pack up and travel to Princess, p.m. for skiing Princess. A day to get to the south face of Monarch, climb and ski from as high as possible and get back to Princess camp. Then one day to sleep in and travel back north to camp one under Dagon.
Princess delivered in style. We ascended the mellow north ridge to the bowl under a cirque that formed the summit ridge. Then went straight up the chute which topped out a few meters below the summit. In buttery pow we skied the chute followed by a fun run threading a route through the lower seracs and back to the vast expanse of the flat snow field. A huge meal and early bed followed as now we where headed for Monarch. The nearest thing we had to an alpine start was 4 am and with 12.5 km of glaciers and col’s to go before we reached the bottom of our ski objective it was a big day ahead. All 8 left together and the the pace was set fast for the long approach. By the time we hit the col that allowed the first view of the face we came to ski 5 of 8 remained.
From this vantage point we could see the lower half of the south face and the obvious route to be skinned up it. Pausing briefly for a speed bagel we then kept on move, skiing down and traversing under the south snow face. This stretched up for 750 meters to the fabled crux of large hanging seracs. It became quickly apparent that the serac band had no snow stuck to it or anywhere above that would be skiable and that we would not be skiing from as high as might be possible in ideal conditions. By about 2.30 p.m. we gained the east ridge at about 3000m with the imposing rock summit of Monarch towering another 700 meters above us. To the east the mountains and the snow tailed off onto the Chilcotin Plateau and to the south the vast expanse of the Ha-iltzuk’ Ice fields sprawled from left to right with Mount Waddington towering over the rest. It looked just a stones throw away, in reality there was 72 km of mountain wilderness between us and the Coast Ranges highest and most famous mountain.
While we refueled Jonas, Geary, Bougie and myself were watching the sun bring the snow below to the perfect temperature. Marcus on the other hand had different ideas. He was surveying the short but technical section of the ridge between us and the Serac band. One by one he asked each of us if we would like to join him to summit Monarch. One by one these four tired skiers where just that, skiers, and the energy and focus needed to summit Monarch and forgo an awesome corn ski for refrozen icy snow at the end of a huge day wasn’t there. We pulled skis off our packs and drooled over the big corn turns below as Marcus began the climb up the rock/snow buttress that was his next obstacle. After a few minutes he disappeared from sight and we clicked-in to shred. Slotting the initial skinny chute the run opened into a wide field and we carved GS turns with legs so numb that it doesn’t even burn anymore. Over so quickly we began the climb, ski, climb to get back round the NW side of the mountain and slog to camp.
Once back around Monarch we turned our radio on to listen for a check in with Marcus. After a few unreturned calls he came in, waving at us from the summit! Though all we could see was the massive NW face draped in ice and snow, Marcus confirmed he stood on top waving at us on the glacier below.
We still had 14 km to get back to the tents but at this point tiredness doesn’t really come into it, my body just kept on marching while my mind enjoyed the view. Anyhow thoughts of moaning could be forgotten, compared to Marcus we were all pussy’s, he still had to descend the hugest peak in the area before he could start the return trip we where already on! Rolling back into the tents exhausted we brewed a group dinner and ate like kings, saving a pan load and a big pr for Marcus’ return. A few hours later he rolled in safe, stoked and starving. Marcus, you da man!
The next morning after a good sleep in we slowly broke camp and moved off in pairs towards camp 1 where we had left our supplies and one tent (Marcus and I had squatted in the mega-mid to save bringing our tent). At this point the weather was turning and it was snowing lightly by the time the last crew rolled in that afternoon. With a couple of weather days to kill construction and partying began. Before you know it we where low on whiskey and high on life, with a big igloo with a cave connection into the mega-mid(cooking tent). At the hight of the storm with 100 km+ winds ragging outside it was silent in the igloo, apart from the noise of 8 drunks and a solar powered ipod jukebox!
When the storm cleared the powder appeared and with 3 peaks already bagged it was time for some pow skiing laps. Again operating in a loose crew there where skiers thrashing steep turns, others skiing up, others b-lining it for the next mini-golf pow peak. Everyone just following there nose to the next sweet turn. It was a great day of shredding fun steep pow all on two small peaks within easy distance of camp.
Then the whiteout returned and with this zone fairly well shredded it was time to move on. Our personal styles where starting to form a pattern by this time, Jerome and Tim were always the best at getting up and packing to leave, they disappeared into the white while Marcus and I were still deciding from our sleeping bags weather the oats needed apricots or chocolate chips. We seemed to choose (unconsciously) to be the crew who ate breakfast or broke camp at a snails pace then hiked faster to catch up lost ground. This time we caught up to Ryan and Jonas in time to burn some wax box’s that were no-longer holding food. This was a welcome hand-warmer in the cold white-out wind. Walking roped up through a white-out blind to any features more than 3’ away, dragging your life in a kids toboggan and a long way from the rest of society is a great way to be. The choice not to waste any good weather days moving camp proved a good one, sun and skiing are maximized so no time is lost.
The third camp was on Jacobson Glacier between Mount Satan and the Jacobson’s East and West. This was the spot Jonas and Ryan had landed when the weather prevented them getting to the higher Camp One. In the a.m. we had a clear day to play. Mount Satan was an aesthetic little peak with a long single wind spine begging to be skied. Marcus, Gia, Geary, and myself set out to ski the devils slopes, and halfway up got promptly whited-out. We roped up and gingerly made our way up the ridge, Geary thrashing his corde ahead to get some definition. Once on top with no view to admire we skied back down.
Not going more than a couple of yards either side of the boot-pack as the ridge fell away both sides, the snow indistinguishable from the sky even under your skis! Jerome, Tim, Ryan and Jonas had headed in the opposite direction to ski a long run down the north slopes of Mount Belial, which proved a sunnier choice as they skied a 1500m run from pow to perfect corn! That evening the clouds gathered again. The main bonus of the supplies stash was we now apparent; beer that had been buried had therefore had made it this far unconsumed. We spent another happy storm day in camp and the mega-mid became ‘the Jacobson Inn’!
The Jacobsen’s, East and West are the two dominating features of their realm. Twin peaks side by side they are visible from most of the Monarch Ice-fields. On fine sunny day you could climb and ski both in a day, so thats what happened.
The East peak first, up the southeast face besides the awesome blue ice to the summit scramble. Followed by Jacobson East, the higher of the two. Climbed and skied by the west face, directly opposite the mornings line the big hanging snow field and steep face made this a long sustained pitch. After this the ‘Jacobson Inn’ was rocking! The following day Geary and Gia set out for a skinny south facing coulior on Mongol Mountain, while the other 6 headed west to Ogre mountain. Skiing up the southern slopes this was a simple enough climb and ski with some great glacier turns. There was also a dramatic east face draped in great snow, unfortunately though not for want of trying, it remained unskied. Geary and Gia returned successful and went up Satan on the way home for a bonus run, which looked so good to the rest of us that everybody followed for an evening shred.
At this point Ryan and myself were grappling with the last dying opportunity to ski our two original objectives for this trip, Ratcliff and Talchako. Two huge peaks facing each other on the east side of the range, it was Ratcliff in particular that had spurred my interest in this area a year earlier. We knew however that on Ratcliff too much ice was exposed on the upper slopes and that the spring melt had already ruined hopes of a top to bottom ski. Talchako’s snow was also fast receding at the lower elevations but the long south facing Y chute from the summit was still good to go. With time running short and weather unpredictable these too Goliaths escaped us this time. Frustrating as this was, if we could have this much fun and not even get to the two peaks we originally wanted, a return trip is almost unavoidable!
Storm clouds once more rolled in and it was time to shift camp for the last time. It was a day that pounded cold winds and snow as we gained the col to leave the Jacobson Glacier and drop onto the Fyles Glacier and then ended with a beautiful blue sky evening with fresh pow everywhere. With camp on the joining of the Fyles and Noeick glaciers we had the perfect launch pad for a day of powder laps on Mount Fyles. Bluebird, powder and the last ski day of this amazing trip everyone was pumped. We each skied about 3600m vert of 700m laps on the north facing slopes of Mount Fyles directly back to our tents. It would be hard to end the trip better!
All that remained was to slog out via Polar Bear Peak and down to the Nusatsum FSR, this took a whole day and we camped where the snow ended on the logging road. After 20 days in an alpine wilderness the smell of the forest and sound of a river are sweet, so was being bare footed! The following morning we continued down the road in the poring rain to the car that had been stashed 3 weeks earlier. By mid afternoon we rolled into Bella Coola stinking and disheveled but with shit-eating grins.
The eight-headed monster was; Jerome David, Tim Andrews, Alex Geary, Adam Giamarco, Jonas Hoke, Ryan Bougie, Marcus Warring and Ian Watson.
Thanks to Dale Douglas of Tyax Air for his superior flying skills.
Words by Ian ‘Cheddar’ Watson
Photos by Alex Geary, Jonas Hoke, Tim Andrews and Jerome David
The Monarch Ice-field is one of Coastal BC’s largest ice-fields and lies directly south from Bella-Coola. More information on these mountains can be found on www.bivouac.com and a phenomenal collection of arial photographs can be found on John Surlocks site www.pbase.com/nolock