Forget being at 2300m in the middle of an icefield, within an evening our ski trip has transformed into a culinary camp. Lugging our equipment and food to a ‘ski camp’ at the south end of the icefield, the weather shits itself and we eat, sing, eat and play cards for… Six days.
Stuck in a whiteout, we’re oblivious to the soaring mountainscapes around us, instead focussing on the six different kinds of cheese – “Do we want smoked Gouda or Appenzeller?” perfecting the Moose-cake (muesli + pancake) or devouring tons and tons of hummus.
One day, stunningly curious tiny gaps in the clouds open, teasing us with small pieces of the surrounding mountainscape. Enough to ski, we flash fry the powdery Janus Peak next to the camp. Then the clouds part, allowing us to slow simmer a few laps of the neighbouring hills in almost full mountain glory. By evening, we’re whited out again. We stay solidly, blindly socked in – to the extent that when travelling from culinary camp one to culinary camp two, we struggle to ski in a straight line. Those at the back of the party yelling “Dude go left! Is your fooking left leg longer than your right?!!”
Eventually from the InReach, we hear the forecast improves. Just in time for the exit off the icefield which involves some tricky sections. We’re first aiming for a steep ridge that we intend to follow down to the Southgate river. From there we’ll packraft to the sea. Anticipating heeeavy bush bashing to get to the river, we need to make decent progress in our last skiing section.
With beautiful blue skies forecasted, but still in a whiteout, we set off towards the start of our exit ridge via a hopefully stunning 2760m pass next to Mt Grenville. After a couple of hours of wandering in near whiteout conditions we stopped at a large rock/mountain/dark-object to ponder our situation.
“Without visibility there’s no way we continue this way forward, crossing that col up ahead looks pretty finicky.”
“We can probably still make progress if we retreat and follow that stripey glacier down into the valley.”
“Looks relatively boring, and waaay more elevation gain on the stripey glacier route though.”
Humming and harring, as the snowy wind pelts our faces, the cloud blows past and we’re suddenly exposed to the blue sky. Its magical, the view of the icefield opens up, and for the first time we see where we are.
“Check out that crevasse we avoided yesterday in the whiteout!”
The route in front is visible and we pick our distant path. Continuing, we move slowly and carefully, quite a lot of fresh snow has fallen so avalanche risks exist. Towing largeish sleds full of packraft equipment, we cross a dragon tooth ridge, then drop down over a glacial bulge to a steep traverse to our last snowy camp. The sun setting behind three magnificent glaciers that spill down off the icefield in front of our beautiful spot.
It’s a sad occasion, the end of a beautiful time, but the next day adventure and unknown await.
The adventure arrives almost too fast. By the time we’re away skiing, loaded with ridiculously laden packs, the sun is burning hard, and the snow is quickly almost molten, crumbling away at our feet. I lead a tight traverse, that’s just got the sun. By the time the back of the party crosses it, it’s dicey as, disintegrating into the gully below. Picking our way down a ridge, every third turn our skis sink in like mud, it’s really difficult progress. Henry gets hilariously stuck up to his neck in a tree well. Paul hauls him out. I capsize slow motion, top heavy into a ditch, legs flailing in the air until I get out of the heavy pack to get upright. Bluffs, bush and humps cover the ridge, it’s a bit of a labyrinth downwards.
By lunch we’re still at 1000m. Shouldering skis we clamber on downwards through steep but nice and open forest.
By 8pm we’re a k from the river, absolutely exhausted, and by 9pm we’re naked, washing in the freezing glacial water, cleansing our souls. Back in the forest land the pungent colours and the strong stench of green are overwhelmingly beautiful. We huddle around a campfire sipping whiskey and eating curry.
The next day is a relaxed one, we plan to test out the packrafts on the nearby rapids, and float a wee bit to the next camp. That’s the plan at least. Testing the packrafts goes well, this is our first time setting up packrafts laden with skis and gear, so that takes a lot of the day. We float in three pairs, each with a more experienced kayaker and a newbie to yell instructions at. Paul and Mike go first followed by Dave and Henry followed by Arran and Joane.
The first rapids are exciting, I’m concentrating hard, looking for the route while watching Joane. Cor! the heavily laden boats are not super maneuverable. Paddle paddle paddle hard!! Paul and Mike pass a crux – a rapid at the confluence with the Bishop river – it’s a bit boney!!! I can’t reaally see a great route down. Dave follows, hits a rock and WHAM is upside down, he’s swimming. Shit shit shit, the boat is long gone. A split second later Dave’s clinging to a rock waste deep in the water, in the middle of the river while his packraft full of everything zooooms downstream, past Mike and Paul, hooning through a big wave train. Mike and Paul make attempts to stop it but its too heavy. Paul disappears following the boat, and I focus on Dave.
“DAAAAAVE, SWIIIIMMM!!!!” I’m on the edge of the river near Dave. The frigid water isn’t enticing, but the sooner he jumps in and swims the rest of the rapid, the sooner he’ll be out. There’s no other option. Dave raises his hands and shoulders in an “I dunno” gesture to say “fuuuck”. He jumps in, bobs through a few waves and launches across the flow to where he’s safe in an eddy, with Henry and Mike. Phew. Fortunately Henry managed to navigate the rapid safely – Dave, an experienced kayaker, was directing him down.
Joane and I portage the rocky section and paddle to meet Henry Mike and Dave – who’s now shivering and pale like a monkey on speed. Mike tells us he had seen Paul jump out of his boat at the corner ahead to run down the riverside after Dave’s raft.
“What the hell do we do?!!”
Everything Dave owns just floated away. We think of our exit, will he have to bushbash the 45 km??? Maybe we can fit three people in two packrafts as big raft?
Paul arrives on the other side of the river, stripped into dry fleece.
“I have Dave’s packraft on this side, [WOW WOW WOW PHEW x a million]. We’ll all camp here tonight.”
Paul had chased Dave’s packraft down this mellow but fast section of water to the corner ahead where he saw a large horizon line and big hydraulics throwing water into the air. He got out and saw a rapid unrunnable in a packraft, so chased beside the river (as dave’s raft rammed through the whitewater), hopping from boulder to boulder. Beneath the huge rapid, Dave’s packraft had caught a small eddy – but on the opposite side to Paul. Without a second thought, Paul jumped into the water and swam to the boat, righting it and paddling it back. Hence why he’d changed into dry clothes and prefered to not help ferrying.
Reunited with his packraft/life, Dave defrosted next to a roaring fire and we discussed the mayhem. The problem was easily solved. Dave had attached his skis to the top of his pack on the tip of his packraft, the higher centre of gravity made his packraft extremely tippy.
The next day brought the most serious section of the river. Too serious to paddle so we spent half the day portaging three rapids gaining just a few k’s. Following, we floated some really good fun rapids, big and bouncy, but safe. Henry, then Dave again then Joane all flipped, but not really in any decent features – perhaps because they wanted an ice bath to soothe the aching muscles.
As the rapids became less frequent we leaned back to relax in our packrafts for a tranquille last leg of our trip. Slowly floating downstream we gazed upwards, surrounded by huge cliffs towering skyward that reached all the way to the edge of the icefield we were once on. We float by scores of majestic waterfalls dripping literally from the ice to the valley bottom, making the trip that took us a long day in a few terrifyingly tranquille seconds.
That night as our fire roars we scoff down rations of cheesy pasta and sip the last of our whiskey – bare feet wriggling in the warm dry sand. Everyone looks bizzare in this environment, bearded (except joane), shaggy and with bright mountain clothing colours. We look like a mix between a bunch of hermits and the wiggles. Mike finds a frog which we play with for a while, we watch a grizzly bear eating grass for an hour, and so our mammoth trip ends.
Crossing the homathko was big accomplishment for all of us. This trip has challenged us to dig deeper into questions on life, and our place in the world. When is the next snacktime? How much cheese is left? How milky can my milky be if I want to have milkies every day? Returning to civilisation we have one more mountain to climb – relearning to stop eating when food is endlessly available.