A sick feeling of terror threatens to overwhelm my concentration as I painstakingly inch my way forward. A rushing sound fills my head and I can no longer tell if it is the white water just inches below my feet or the surge of blood that my heart is furiously pumping through my body. The skis on my backpack are adding an extra element of imbalance to the already heavy load. My focus intensifies.
Just. Don’t. Slip.
I try to block out any thoughts of failure and consequence. One wrong step could mean at best, a swim down river and at worst, severe injuries, hypothermia and a prolonged rescue. With tiny, hesitant steps I fight to keep my balance on the log that is spanning Windy Creek. When I look up, I can see the three who have already made it over watching me. I look back down, focussing every ounce of strength and attention on crossing this log, our gateway to the final leg of the journey.
I made it, or rather, we made it. Five of us are committed to this adventure – Stephen Senecal and Douglas Noblet from Nelson, Sam McKoy of Pemberton, Mark Grist from Vancouver and myself, mostly based in Revelstoke – the first complete ski traverse of the Canadian Selkirks. This is day 32.
The trip has not been without its challenges: broken skis, bindings, poles, stoves, pumps and boot buckles, plus losing 2kg of food and our only multi-tool to pine martens. We’ve weathered each setback and interruption with (eventual) good humour and laughter. Whether it be watching remarkable sunsets and sunrises, being forced to cross slopes that inspire no confidence, or bushwhacking with skis on our backs, we know that when we catch the eye of any team member we’re more likely to crack a wry smile and break into laughter than we are to swear or feel resentful. This is a rare and precious dynamic to have on a trip of this magnitude, especially with people who had never met before. Somehow the mix of personalities, quirks, strengths and humour has worked out. We are in it together and we find ways to love it no matter what.
The adventure started at Kootenay Pass, and over four weeks we made our way steadily north towards Mica. With approximately 520km+ of distance and 42,000m+ in vertical gain to cover, we had made a conservative estimate of about eight weeks to complete this journey. We cut that time almost in half. The unusually warm spring has been both a blessing and a curse. The April heat wave that forced many other parties to bail on trips in the Selkirks motivated us to travel quickly, and only at night.
We would wake up at midnight, break camp, eat breakfast and be walking by 1:30am, our only light the glow of the full moon or the narrow beam of a headlamp. Despite a disrupted sleep pattern that left us feeling like zombies, our efforts got us through the Southern Selkirks safely, and we were left with memories of the full moon setting as the first light of morning etched itself along the eastern horizon.
The original idea for the traverse came up as a mutual adventure list item between me and Stephen five years ago. For me, it represented a way to explore and connect with the mountain range that I’ve grown up and lived in all my life. Essentially the traverse would link up several smaller traverses that are done with varying amounts of frequency: Kootenay Pass to Nelson, the Kokanee Glacier, Goat Range, part of the Bugaboos to Rogers Pass and the classic Northern Selkirks Traverse.
Finally, during the drive back from a ski trip two years ago Stephen said, “Hey, remember that idea we had for a traverse of the Selkirks? Well, I think I want to do it next spring.” I looked at him and blurted out, “Steve! You can’t do that trip without me!” He looked back at me with a wry smile. “Ok good, ‘cause I think the biggest issue will be finding people to do it with. At least there will be two of us!”
In that moment, we both committed. My heart soared, thinking about the possibility of such a huge adventure dream coming true.
Sixteen months of planning and preparation ensued, along with endless questions and thoughts about logistics. We ended up doing eight food caches; five were roadside and driven to us as re-supplies and three were flown into backcountry lodges along our route.
MEC gave us an expedition grant, which helped enormously with gear and food costs. We pored over maps and Google Earth to look at different route options and contacted as many people as we could to find out about certain sections in more detail. As others committed to joining the trip, they would help where they could. When the day finally came to put the skis on and start moving, a huge wave of relief and excitement washed over me. All the work we had put into this trip was about to pay off.
Over the course of the trip, we learned to adapt to different challenges, whether it was getting up at midnight to avoid the daytime warming or “normalizing” the fact that we were all increasing our risk tolerance with river crossings, alder bashing and sketchy descents with expedition-sized packs. It all became part of the daily routine – “I wonder what will happen today?”
Highlights of the trip would include getting to climb our one big peak of the trip (Iconoclast) in a whiteout with two friends who were at Sorcerer Lodge. We had many beautiful camps, but the best were in the alpine where our views were almost 360 degrees looking at the Monashees, Purcells, Selkirks and Rocky Mountains, picking out iconic peaks as our evening trivia.
Despite the fact that we were skiing through a lot of heli-ski terrain, the warm weather had affected the snow so much that powder was a distant daydream.
What stands out for me from this trip is how our incredible mountain community and friends supported us along the way. As we would dip into valleys for food drops or with broken skis or come across mountain huts, we were welcomed with familiar faces, beer and fresh food. It was great to be on the journey as a group of five, but even more rewarding later, when we could share the journey with others and feel the camaraderie of the mountain culture that defines so many of us.