Category Archives: Skiing

Joffre

Headwall and boot-pack


Many Canadian Rockies peaks are named for British or French nobles and officers. Joffre(y) is unique, being named for a Westerosi leader, King Joffrey, whose sadistic rule came to a premature end when he was poisoned at his own wedding feast. It is bounded on the north and east by the large and rapidly-retreating Mangin and Pétain Glaciers, the former being the standard route. Looking south from peaks in the Kootenay or Canmore area, Joffre is a striking white wedge. I had seen it up close from King George, and it looked like it needed to be skied, even if doing so involved much walking. After being demotivated by the slush-slog approach to Sir Douglas, and some sketchy-looking cornices on its west ridge, it was time to do something absurd.

Scree trail on descent

I woke at 5:00, assembled my ungainly ski pack, and started hiking around Upper Kananaskis Lake just after 5:30. After what felt like about 5 km, I saw two bits of pink flagging, and a use trail leading into the woods. The trail quickly turned wretched with deadfall, but the flagging continued, so I thrashed on, eventually intersecting what turned out to be the correct, well-maintained Aster Lake trail near Hidden Lake. Had I continued along Kananaskis Lake for another few hundred yards, I would have found an obvious, though unsigned and unflagged, junction.

Lyautey and Fossil Falls

I made better progress on the correct trail, though I still occasionally caught a ski boot on a tree. The route rounds the lake, then climbs out of the trees onto an open scree slope, with views of Fossil Falls and Mount Lyautey to the west. After passing directly through a small lake, the trail crosses a stream and turns downhill. This seemed like a stupid direction to go, so I left the trail and went cross-country across a rounded ridge, only to find the trail heading back up the main branch of Foch Creek, near Aster Lake’s outlet.

Pimpin’ campsite

Given the primitive trail, I was surprised to find a well-maintained outhouse and bear box, and two couples camping. The more talkative two were just heading out to do Warrior and Cordonnier, two lesser peaks north of Joffre. After making its way around the lake, the trail fades out in some gravel flats with braided glacial melt-streams. I hopped across a dozen or so channels, then made my way up toward the Mangin Glacier, finding the occasional cairn or bit of use trail. I think the “correct” route is farther south, but this one worked.

Slope angle and King George

I transitioned to skis too early, and guessed wrong about where the glacier was longest, so I ended up taking my skis on and off a half-dozen times to walk across slabs and rubble before finally having a clear shot at the summit. Three or four people had put in a nice staircase over the Canada Day weekend, visible from far away, and I skinned up to intersect it near the headwall. I was able to skin surprisingly far before transitioning back to boots. The snow was soft enough that some of the steps collapsed, but they mostly held, and I felt no need to even take out my ice axe.

Petain Glacier

I began wallowing a bit more on the summit ridge, but it was fortunately broad enough that I could easily ski from the very summit. It had been t-shirt weather for most of the climb, but it was windy and cooler on the summit, so I only spent a few minutes taking in the views of the Pétain glacier to one side, and Mount King George across the Palliser River to the other. I finished switching my skis to “fun mode,” then skied experimentally back to the headwall.

Up- and down-tracks

I was worried that I might find sketchy, sticky, deep slush, but the face was still hard enough that I could link turns all the way down. Once on the flatter part of the glacier, I tried to plot a course north that would let me ski as far as possible. I eventually gave up at the terminal lake I had passed on the way up, switching back to running shoes, then ironically boot-skiing about half the way back to the gravel flat.

There were different people at Aster Lake, though I passed the couple I had spoken to shortly below. I am not normally a user of “cripple poles,” but I found they came in handy on the long, steep scree descent past Fossil Falls. Though my current ski gear is far lighter than the inbounds gear I grew up with, it is still ungainly when strapped to my mountaineering pack. Passing masses of tourists in the final mile, I reached the car a bit over 11 hours out (including 10-20 minutes skiing), and gratefully dropped my awkward pack.

Moran (Skillet Glacier ski)

Base of the snow


Mount Moran rises 6000′ directly from Jackson Lake, and the Skillet Glacier and its snowfield cover most of the slope, offering up to 5000′ of continuous snow well into June. Unlike on my previous outing, snow conditions were wretched — loose and slushy up high, dirty and sun-cupped down low — but it is an iconic line, and I was glad to tick it off the list. The whole thing took 10 hours car-to-car, including 3-4 hours trail hiking, 3.5 hours boot-packing, 25 minutes skiing, and some time fighting brush with skis on my back.

Climb from the pan

I woke at the stupid hour of 3:15, made myself a hot Cup of Sadness, and drank it on the drive up to String Lake. I started hiking by headlamp at 4:00, stashing the light at 5:00 near the north end of Leigh Lake. The commute to Bearpaw Bay normally takes me about an hour, but the skis on my back limited me to a fast walk. I had no trouble following the use trail to where it crosses the Skillet’s outlet stream, but foolishly decided to ascend the south side instead of crossing. After most of a frustrating hour of deadfall, pines, brush, and aspens, I finally emerged at the foot of the snow.

Airborne avalanche

I tried skinning a bit, but soon lost traction on the hard, sun-cupped snow, and put my skis on my pack to boot the rest of the way. Someone had installed a boot-pack in the prior few days, saving me a bit of energy, but the Skillet is still an interminable climb. It was also intolerably hot. The Skillet is not just east-facing, but also sheltered from wind by ridges on both sides, so I was dripping sweat in a t-shirt nearly the whole way up. The snow also softened alarmingly fast, and I was treated to regular wet sloughs coming down the skillet handle’s central runnel, and even small projectile avalanches off the ridge to the north.

Time to drop in

Much wallowing later, I emerged on the summit ridge, where I dropped my pack to tag the summit, then put on my skis for the descent. The first few hundred yards are steep and narrow, but the slope quickly opens up. However, every turn kicked off a small wet slide, so I had to make a few turns, then traverse to one side to allow them to pass. I stayed left to the base of the handle, sending my sloughs into the convenient runnel, then crossed it to get around the bergschrund on steeper snow on the far right.

From the pan onward, I was out of sloughing territory, but skiing over sun-cups and around small rocks was still tiring, and my legs were shot from the hike up, so I still had to stop frequently. After taking off my skis, I easily found the faint trail on the valley’s north side, and only lost it a couple of times on the descent to the creek. From there, it was just a hot, thirsty walk to the car. Passing the tourists along Leigh Lake with their boats and swimsuits, I felt out of place and a bit foolish with skis on my back.

Buck (East Face, 2900′ ski)

East face from below lake


Clear skies finally returned to the Tetons, bringing with them cold nights, pleasant days, and a fleeting opportunity to ski the fast-melting snow on what turned out to be my best Teton ski day. I had climbed Buck Mountain too many times by various routes, but never descended it on skis. Its broad, moderate east face seemed more my level than the upper Middle Teton Glacier, so I set my alarm for 4:15 to beat the morning sun. Gus, one of the interns, lacked skis but had the day off, so he joined me for the climb.

Balsamroot field

We got started from the Death Canyon trailhead just after 5:00 and, after walking a few minutes past the Stewart Draw “trail,” were soon on the correct path. The trail starts off overgrown, then turns into a bog, then becomes a real trail as it crosses an open meadow of sage and balsam-root. The two “warm-up” creek crossings were larger than I remembered, and with skis on my back, one of them involved wet feet. The main creek crossing would have been Serious Business, but fortunately there was a healthy snow bridge a few hundred yards up.

Slope angle

The snow was no longer continuous from the stream crossing, so I continued hiking in running shoes to the next flat section, a summer bog where Static Peak comes into view. After a bit of skinning, I put the skis back on my pack to boot up the steep, shaded slope, then left them there for the lower-angled walk to Timberline Lake. The snow was still hard in the shaded couloir leading to the face, but softened quickly as I traversed up and left onto the east face proper. Gus turned around here, not comfortable on the steeper snow, while I continued to the summit, following bits of an old boot-pack. The snow was soft enough to plunge nearly boot-deep by the end, but I did not see any slides. The rock band dividing the face was still conveniently covered in snow.

Looking down the ski

After a short break on the windy summit (the clouds were too low for a view of the Grand) I mostly transitioned (I forgot to flip the “walk mode” tabs), then had an excellent ski back to the lake. The face is 38 degrees near the top, but broad and soft enough to make me comfortable linking turns, albeit carefully in the final couloir to the lake. After talking to Gus, I bombed on down toward the bog, getting some serious speed before talking to some hikers and descending more carefully through the rocks lower down. I did another short lap of a few hundred feet while Gus caught up, then switched back to shoes for the hike out. Ironically, the first part of this “hike” involved much boot-skiing with both boots and skis strapped to my back. Though I do not normally condone the use of “cripple poles,” I found them helpful in this strange situation.

Middle Teton Glacier ski

Dike Pinnacle panorama


I had done only cross-country skiing for over four years, but I needed to get out and try some new-to-me AT skis. With a decent forecast and a more experienced skier (Jack) around, I decided to remember how to turn by skiing the Middle Teton Glacier. This was perhaps not the best terrain on which to remember and practice, but my fun-to-fear ratio was at least as high as on a typical mountain bike ride.

Way too much stuff

In previous years, I have laughed at the people toting skis up into Garnet Canyon in mid-June, but today I found myself one of them, leaving the Ranch at 5:00 with skis and boots strapped to my pack in an awkward A-frame. This meant not only that I was taller and wider than usual, but that I had to stride carefully to avoid bashing my calves against the skis’ tails. Fortunately the trail up to Garnet is relatively wide and smooth, so I made it to the snow without getting caught on too many obstacles. However, I quickly felt the unaccustomed weight of the tool-shed on my back.

Middle Teton from meadows

Once on solid snow at the boulder-field, Jack and I put on skis and skinned up through the meadows toward the winter route to the Lower Saddle. I much preferred having the extra weight on my feet instead of on my back, and didn’t mind the unavoidably slow pace. Someone had installed a convenient boot-pack the day before, so we could turn off our brains and plod on the climb to the moraine.

Starting up glacier

The boot-pack disappeared a bit below the glacier, and I began installing my own through the upper moraine and up the glacier. The snowpack was about what I had expected — 6-8″ powder over a rock-hard crust — but the powder was heavy and, perhaps thanks to the cloud cover, not yet prone to slide. The route up the glacier was a careful slog, meandering slightly to find snow deep enough to kick supportive steps without unnecessary wallowing.

Grand poking out

We took a break where the glacier turns west, then continued up steeper and more tiring terrain to the col between Dike Pinnacle and the Middle Teton. The sun came out near the col, revealing an impressive view of the Nez Perce to South Teton ridge to one side, and occasional glimpses of the Grand to the other. A helicopter which had ferried two loads of people to the Lower Saddle returned twice hauling supplies while we took pictures and switched to downhill mode.

I suck on steep things

The upper glacier was definitely not a beginner run. Jack made it look doable, though not easy, making a series of traverses and jump-turns toward the bend. I was shamefully unmanned, making a turn or two and side-slipping most of the top part. Skiing is all about one’s confidence, and when faced with a rock wall on one side, a snow runnel on the other, and a small crevasse below, I found mine lacking. Below, however, I was in my comfort zone, linking turns down the broad glacier and snow-slope to the moraine.

… but I can sort of ski some stuff

The snow below had softened alarmingly quickly in the sun, so our skis began to stick as we cruised across the flat and down the headwall to the Meadows. We took our skis off at one point in the boulder-field, then put them back on to glide a bit more and minimize the miles spent carrying them on our backs. I never enjoy the descent to the Ranch unless running, and it was far worse carrying skis. I resolved to avoid Burnt Wagon Gulch and Garnet Canyon for the rest of my visit.

Thanks

My thanks to long-time (and sole) sponsor Scott, who provided the AT gear that made this possible. I doubt I will ever get into “extreme” skiing or randonée racing, but the new tools will give me more freedom in the hills. Plus, skiing is fun.