words :: Tim Emmett // photos :: Jim Martinello.
Many moons ago, I was flying south from Whitehorse to Vancouver. For more than two hours, I stared out the airplane window, amazed and inspired by the vast expanse of snow-covered mountains and peaks below. The wilderness seemed endless, and I knew few humans had set foot across much of this vista. It was the first of many times I’ve been absolutely mesmerized by the Coast Mountains of British Columbia.
Slightly larger in size than the European Alps, which border eight countries and are home to more than 8,000 ski lifts, BC’s Coast Mountains contain fewer than 200 ski lifts (and Whistler has 32 of them) and much more wild country. The first time I looked at a map of BC, months before I saw or ever set foot in this magical land, I’d scanned my finger all over the province trying to find this fabled “Whistler.” Prince George… Bella Coola… Williams Lake… my fingers danced over these strange names. I finally found it just an inch and a half north of Vancouver and quickly realized my British sense of scale was dwarfed by the hugeness of this province. Even now, having lived here for a dozen years, I’m still impressed with all its unsullied wilderness, although accessing it can be challenging.
As always, Jimmy Martinello had a plan …
“I had taken my SUP board up to Garibaldi Lake years back with a couple friends, paddled across the lake and climbed Guard Peak,” says Jimmy, a lifelong Sea to Sky resident. “Looking from the summit that day, I realized the SUP potential for accessing other peaks and wondered about linking Garibaldi to Cheakamus Lake by way of this horseshoe of magnificent peaks and glaciers. I dreamed about it, studied and researched the maps, and assembled a super crew of amazing people to take a shot.”
I set the alarm for midnight as instructed—a true alpine start—but the clock read 2:30 a.m. by the time Jimmy, Justin Sweeney and I actually leave Squamish (shout out to Mountain Life publisher Jon Burak for the midnight shuttle). We hit the trailhead in the dark, with my 115-litre backpack bursting at the seams. Struggling to get that monster on my back, I’m reminded that Jimmy’s enthusiasm for manifesting huge objectives is sometimes built on misguided optimism—in any case, we’re staring down a long, hard day.
Several hours and 900 metres of ascent (by headlamp) later, we arrive at Garibaldi Lake. The pure bliss of taking off my pack complements the beautiful blue hues of pre-dawn morning light. Time to pump up the SUPs and give our aching shoulders a rest. We launch and paddle across water like liquid crystal, the reflections mesmerizing us into silence for almost the entire two-hour lake crossing (which I thought would take far less time, my Brit eyes still not accustomed to the supersized BC landscape).
We hit the far shore at 9:00 a.m., having covered 14 kilometres from our starting point. AeroPress time—fresh coffee to accompany breakfast as the heat of the sun chases the morning chill back down the mountain. Smearing suncream onto exposed skin, we deflate the boards, then repack and deadlift our giant packs onto our backs before slogging off. Across the meadows, up over a ridge into true alpine—no plant life; just rocks, snow, ice, towering peaks and views that instantly make all that hiking in the dark worthwhile.
With Mount Garibaldi, Atwell Peak, and rarely seen Table Mountain behind us, we scurry down loose rock and unstable terrain and onto Sphinx Glacier. Roped up, the remainder of the day carries us safely across the ice and up to our bivy spot below the Sphinx. Unlike my previous alpine SUP mission with Justin and Jimmy, I bring a sleeping bag, albeit the lightest one I could find, with a lofty plus 4-degree Celcius rating—with a fully-inflated SUP as a sleeping pad, it’s good enough. (Pro tip: On cold alpine nights, melt a pot of snow and place a warm-water Nalgene between your legs. It can save the night!)
Day two brings one of the most memorable parts of the expedition—an immaculate knife-edge ridge with heaps of exposure. Creeping along footholds the thickness of an iPhone, we put our trust in the edges of our boots and focus on keeping things balanced. Then it’s a blast past The Bookworms, a collection of spires rarely seen at close quarters with stunning vistas all around us. It’s a special feeling to be amongst these giants, far away from a human footprint or trail. We continue beneath towering walls of granite towards the summit of Mount Carr and on to the bivy spot below Mount Davidson. We choose a bivy equidistant between two crevasses, and fall asleep staring up at the peak we hope to summit come morning.
Halfway up the north face of Davidson, the climbing gets steep and technical. I look down to see determined faces protruding from giant backpacks. Justin had taken first lead, navigating a series of corners and grooves. Jimmy pitches in with some great climbing—no need to break out the ropes and rock shoes just yet. Knocking rocks onto my mates below would be disastrous, but I power through a few spicy moves and soon enough, we’re at the top. Whistler’s ski hills seem close, yet the terrain to get there is the toughest yet. In front of us is a thin ridge with walls dropping off steep enough to BASE jump from, and to our left is Cheakamus Glacier, renowned for its vast array of crevasses.
Adventure is often adverse to a good plan and there’s no possible way to descend via the route we wanted—loose rock and major consequences: too serious. So we inch back down the way we came and out onto Cheakamus Glacier, which we now must cross. I take the lead… and fall into a crevasse, thankfully only up to my waist.
It feels pretty out there to be crossing glaciers with inflatable watercraft on our backs. Carefully, we soldier on; avoiding future mishaps and eventually finding a spot to camp with perfect views, flat ground and snow so we can make water. The bivy of champions!
The morning sunrise brings warmth—of body and spirit. All that remains is a descent to treeline, a bit of bushwhacking (following bear trails is great if you don’t run into the bear) and voila—the eastern shores of Cheakamus Lake. Relieved of the pack weight, it’s a joyous paddle to the main trail followed by one of those million-shades-of-green rainforest hikes back to the vehicles.
I always appreciate the end of a mission, taking off the hiking boots, high fives, and sometimes even a frosty beverage. We’re an hour from home, less than that from Whistler Village, and aside from the final descent trail from Cheakamus Lake, we haven’t seen another person in four days. There’s no doubt our backyards are getting busier, and the close-to-the-beaten-path natural world is feeling the pressure of increased usage, and especially increased usage by people who have never learned how to travel through and enjoy the outdoors responsibly. But for those willing to venture a bit further, to get up a bit earlier or push on a bit longer, the Coast Mountains can still possess that vast magical emptiness that impressed me all those years ago—my nose pushed against the window, jaw agape and mind churning. All that space, all that adventure waiting to happen. Best backyard on the planet.