The term “last descent” first came to my attention through big mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones. On one of his expeditions into the Eastern Sierra, Jones noted on his spring strike mission that due to the logistical difficulties of getting to the lines he was hoping to ride in mid-winter (there is no helicopter or snowmobile access in the area) and the lack of deep snowpack to last until the spring, this might be the last time anyone rides the lines. With the general trend towards less snow and warmer temperatures across the globe, Jones may have nabbed some of the “first” last descents. But are there more to come?
First descents have long been revered in the ski/snowboard world, but the idea of being the last to ride a line is something few have grappled with—until recently. The first instance was in the Sierra’s, and the newest instance has emerged out of the Coast Mountains of British Columbia.
“Remember the hot weather we had last week?—That hot weather melts snow that’s on the mountain which then accumulates in the fractures of the rock. That’s actually what triggered the landslide”
On Sunday, May 13, a large landslide occurred off the Joffre Peak, about 4 hours north of Vancouver, typically accessed off of the often visited Duffey Lake Road. The mountain shed hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of rock, and even more debris from the slope below including tree’s, rocks, and snow being pushed down the valley, running out multiple kilometres. The slide destroyed part of the Cerise Creek summer hiking trail, and completely altered the landscape in what was formerly a beautiful valley in the Coast Mountains. While nobody can be totally sure of what the cause of the slide was, one logical explanation would be warming temperatures causing melting permafrost to Wedge water into the rock, eventually dislodging a large chunk.
Brent Ward co-director of the Centre For Natural Hazards at Simon Fraser, hypothesizes the same. “Remember the hot weather we had last week?—That hot weather melts snow that’s on the mountain which then accumulates in the fractures of the rock. That’s actually what triggered the landslide”
While Jeremy Jones’ potential “last descents” are in remote corners of the Eastern Sierra not accessible to the average backcountry skier, the landslide off Joffre affected an area popular to many backcountry skiers with multiple famous ski descents in the area. The area is located in Duffey Provinical Park, an area commonly known to backcountry users as “The Duffey”. The area is home to some of the best high-alpine and backcountry tree-skiing in the province, and being just 3 hours from Vancouver and home to many backcountry huts, it has become a place where many backcountry users of the Sea To Sky corridor go to test their mettle.
While it’s hard to believe due to the now sheer wall of cliff, the Northeast face of Joffre formerly had iconic lines that were some of the most sought after in the region. The first to go in the larger and initial event was the Twisting Colouir. The colouir, now no longer physically present, used to descend over 1500 meters from near the summit of Joffre Peak. Like any elusive big mountain line, it was tough to spot, and took just the right conditions to come into form. It certainly saw many descents, but only a few a year at most and required a high level of risk and technical skills.
Just a few days after the initial landslide event, to the lookers right another slide occurred. This slide was smaller but seemingly took away another descent, perhaps even more sought-after—the Central Colouir. The line, which has been skiied perhaps even less and also taken many lives of climbers and skier was recently was the centre of a dramatic rescue by professional freeskier Cody Townsend. It is probably the most intimidating line on the mountain with some pitches reported to be nearly sixty degrees, a large cornice at the top, and plenty of hazard in the run-out. The line requires the highest level of technical skill in both the skiing and mountaineering realms. The upper part of the line remains intact, but the slide shed the lower walls of the colouir, either making it impossible to descend or even more technical—depending on how snow sticks to it.
Anyone who recreates in the outdoors has a deep connection with the natural earth they get to call their playground—so to grapple with the loss of these epic descents is an interesting problem. For anyone familiar with the area, the slide inspires an odd mix of awe, fear, and sadness. From a personal standpoint, it’s disappointing—maybe this was a goal on your personal checklist, taken away too soon.
Perhaps more importantly, the environmental implications are interesting. Melting permafrost is in direct relation to our warming climate—the week before the landslide, British Columbia experienced record-breaking temperatures for May. There’s no way to definitively say this was the cause of the slide, but just one logical explanation. But it begs the question—was this a unique event that we will not see repeated any time soon? Or a sign of the future of many of our cherished ski descents, rock climbing routes, and hiking trails?
It’s tough to say. Until the province is able to deploy a geologist to survey the area we won’t have any answers—and even then the truth could be murky. But, if nothing else it is certainly a stark reminder to cherish the places you love, and get after it while you still can. When the conditions are right, go—because who knows what could happen to take that chance away from the next time you want it.—ML
Editors note: BC Parks noted after the slides that there were no cars in either of the parking areas that access where the slides happened, indicating nobody was hurt or injured in either incident.