The Highs and Lows of Living on the Scud
This is dedicated to our good friend Maxim Arsenault and his love for skiing and adventures.
It all started about 4 years ago when, as usual, Simon Monette would spend a bit too much time on John Scurlock’s aerial photography website and send us pictures of incredibly ridiculous looking faces with comments like: “skiable?” or “nice steepness!” or my favourite “this looks safe”. Most of the time I would look at the picture, laugh a bit because of the gnarliness of the face and carry on with my life. But this time it was different, I could see the possible ski line on a very beautiful mountain. The seed was planted.
Around mid February of this year weather and snow conditions started to look good for steep skiing in the Whistler area so I gave Simon a bit of his own medicine, sending him pictures of stuff we would like to ski one day. Asking him if he was ready for steep season. One of those pictures was the one of Ambition mountain he had sent me years ago. This time however I started looking into the logistics of getting there, sending emails to every aircraft charter based between Bell 2 and Dease lake. It was Simon Moreau from lakelseair helicopters who got back to me and was willing to fly us in onto the scud glacier. From this point on the obsession was complete. We had a trip to plan!
First we needed another partner, that was really easy to do. Mike Legare is always willing to partake in any ski mission me or Simon can think of, but this time he had a condition: we needed to include kale somehow in our meal plan, which we reluctantly agreed to do. Then we scoured the internet for more pictures and beta on the area. We didn’t find much but enough to know that even if that dream line on Ambition wasn’t skiable we would have some great skiing in the area.
Soon enough mid April came along and it was go time. After 2 days of uneventful driving we rolled into Dease Lake and got greeted by a pleasant surprise, it was snowing. Temperatures stayed nice and cold during the storm that was just starting to clear up. We went by the heli base and Simon, our pilot, confirmed our hopes. We would fly in next morning!
It turned out that our flight was Simon’s last one before moving on to a new location. He made sure it was memorable! The landscape was incredible, we flew over some rolling hills for a while until we crossed over the “Grand Canyon of the Stikine” and it’s world class rapids then we were off to the Edziza plateau a volcanic formation with old lava flows still visible and some perfectly shaped cinder cones.
Finally things started getting white and vertical pretty quick – we were approaching the upper scud glacier. After doing a bit of reconnaissance we found a good spot to land. Soon the heli was flying away and here we were, all by ourselves, on the Scud glacier, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by massive peaks.
We quickly noticed on the way in and as we were setting up camp that there was only a few small naturals occurring even with the first day of solar effect. Over lunch we talked about how conditions on the face looked right and that the weather was supposed to be perfect the next day; cold, calm winds and sunshine. After laughing about how intense of a warm up run it’ll be if we’d go for it, we decided to go check out the icefall and the snowpack on the very bottom of the face. So we started skinning.
It’s funny how your depth perception doesn’t work so well when surrounded by 1000m+ walls. We were guessing the approach would be done in under an hour, so about 2 hours later we made it to the bottom of the icefall which was a breeze to go through. Simon went and did some snow assessment on the bottom of the north east face while Mike and I went to scope a key passage of the route, a rocky shoulder that lead into a short couloir which linked the east face to the snow field on the bottom of the north East ridge. It looked shallow, rocky and there was a small ice cliff in the middle of the couloir we would have to deal with. This section would end up being the crux of the route, both on the way up and on the way down. After regrouping with Simon and discussing our findings we decided to give it a go the next day.
At 2am we woke up to a beautiful clear calm night with the scud glacier lit up by the moon. After a quick breakfast we hit our skin track from the day before, soon enough we are past the bergshrund and changing over for the climb. The first section of the climb, the snowfield bellow the northeast face, was a deep but uneventful snow climb. Thankfully we all had ascent plates to handle those deep powdery conditions.
As the sun rose we turned the corner on the east face and this is when us skiers got a bit out of our climbing comfort zone. Deep snow we can deal with all day long but, that small 2 meter step of vertical ice?! Or the shallow snowpack with ice covered rocks?! Ha! that’s about as extreme as I ever got climbing wise. Past this section there was an open snowfield that led us to the ridge. From that point on we were out of reach of any objective hazard, now we could relax a bit. But we still roughly had half of the climbing to do.
The climbing along the knife edge ridge was breathtaking, we could see fluted spines on the north face roll over into nothingness and scud glacier close to a kilometre bellow. It was also very deep, about chest deep for the one breaking trail waist deep for the second and knee deep for the third, and of course it was one of those ridges that seems to keep extending as we painfully trenched our way up. At one point we finally got to the top of that never ending ridge and were on top of our ski line! From there we could see the head wall that leads to the summit and quickly decided to not go for the summit, it was heavily guarded by cornices and the majority of the face was ice or ice covered with a bit of snow. It wasn’t in skiable conditions and we were here to ski.
Once we clipped into our skis we all instantly felt more comfortable on this giant face. We started taking turns skiing sections and regrouping at safe spot. The skiing was great, perfect steep skiing snow conditions in a majestic setting… until we got to our cruxy little area I’ve mentioned before. But with equal parts of swearing and down climbing, a short rappel and a bit of sidestepping we were on top of the bottom section of our run. 500 meters of steep, boot deep pow, made for some amazing skiing and some amazingly large sluffs. We skied through the icefall and sat in the sun in the middle of the scud eating and staring at our tracks. We did it, we skied the beautiful 1400m east face of Ambition mountain!
14hrs after leaving we got back to camp, ate some more, celebrated a bit and went to bed for some well deserved rest.
The next day we planned to rest, we spent the morning eating lounging in the warm weather until clouds started gathering and moving in from afar. It was time to build ourselves a storm proof cooking area, we probed around until we found a suitable area and started digging a snow cave.
We called the heli base for a weather update and everything changed, there was a message left at base to call a close one. The same day we did our descent of Ambition mountain, somewhere up farther north one of our dear friends died in a skiing accident. The first friend to go. We all dealt with it differently. Personally I just went down in the ice cave and dug down frantically for a while then debated if the stuff we were doing was worth doing. But thinking back on it now, Max was always the most stoked on skiing and I’m sure if he had already passed away that day when we skied he was looking at us with the same stoke he had when he was with us. Thanks to everyone involved in the rescue for trying the impossible. May you rest in peace Max.
Back to trip report…
After the warm temperatures of the day time and the rain overnight we woke up to a nice pile of isothermal schmoo. All our plans of skiing some nice north faces in powder went out the window. So after a lazy morning in camp we went out on the safety of the nice flat glacier to have a look at a few south and west facing couloirs we had noticed from up high on Ambition a few days ago. We were gambling on getting a nice recovery crust overnight so we could make our way up early and ski them in perfect corn. That never happened, instead we were stuck in a cycle of warm sunny days and overcast rainy nights. Things were getting seriously isothermal at camp anklebiter, we would randomly punch through the all the way to the hips when walking around and sometimes right to the rocks. (hence the name anklebiter)
It started affecting Simon’s already dwindling sanity. He woke up the next morning convinced that if he’d strap his ascent plates and crampons to his down booties and go up in the cliffs he’d be able to hunt the bird that had been chirping all night every night. He debated bringing either an ice axe or an avalanche probe as his weapon of choice but since he couldn’t decide he brought neither. Later on that day we all decided to go up in the same cliffs to try and find crystals like the ones we found in the rocks below camp. They proved to be as elusive as the mighty night chirper.
That night we got hit by a real storm. In the morning we hunkered down in our snow cave and did what seemed logical; right after breakfast we got nice and drunk, played cards and talked about how awesome the conditions would be once it all clears up the next day. Then we went and built an igloo on top of our snow cave.
After another stormy night we woke up to slightly better weather, calm winds and cloud ceiling was fairly high. There was some talk about skiing some mellow terrain after breakfast but by then we were in the clouds. At this point we had been on the glacier for 7 days and it was time to check in with our pilot and discuss our options to get out of there. The weather wasn’t going to be great for the next while, the chances of hitting the right window to fly out from our location looked pretty slim.
We had to engage plan Z, which we had loosely talked about but never put much thought into because in our planning we were nailing 10 bluebird days for our trip… I guess we were a bit too positive.
Plan Z consisted of retreating back to Yehiniko Lake which is roughly 20km north east of our location and most importantly much lower in elevation. Easy enough. Now, how do we carry all the stuff that we can’t fit in our backpacks? Monette said something like “my thermarest is really shitty why don’t we make a sled out of it?” Great. The engineering phase began, we put all the stuff on the thermarest poked some holes along the sides and tied everything together then attached a rope to the “front” of our “sled” so we could clip in and haul the thing.
Then came the test phase, we pulled it on the flat for a good 2 meters. Which revealed two possible issues: First, the thermarest was quite grippy and wasn’t sliding easily. Second, there was no way we could call that thing a sled, it shared more property with a burrito as it had no rigidity at all and if you were a bit reckless with it stuff would start falling out.
Answer to those issue? We better have a big dinner because it’s going to suck to haul that burrito all the way to the lake. So we did.
To no surprise we woke up in a whiteout, we packed up camp, did a few tweaks to the burrito’s rigging and it was time to say goodbye to camp anklebiter and its mighty night chirper. We clipped into our designated burrito hauling loops and started the slow, painful slog up the glacier to the col we had to reach before our descent to Yehiniko lake. Things got real sweaty real quick, even Mike was sweating. A few hours later we reached the col. It took a bit of time to find an appropriate way to get the burrito through to the glacier on the other side. Once through it was all downhill travel.
The first pitch was fairly steep for the burrito, we attached a strap to it’s back end to keep him in check. It worked well, we were slowly becoming expert burrito wranglers. Once the slope mellowed out a bit the travel became much easier “nearly enjoyable” as Monette mentioned. Soon we were off the glacier and back into isothermal snow or “the therm” as we were calling it by then. The valley was nice and wide and we spotted a near perfectly flat area not too far away also there was nearly no snow on the the slopes above. It looked like the perfect spot to get picked up. After describing the area to our pilot he confirmed that it could work as a pick up location and we would try to fly the next day. We set up camp by the creek and waited and hoped for decent weather. Next morning we waited and waited some more until we heard the comforting sounds of the heli coming in. Our adventure was over.