Skins sliding across hard snow make a quiet rustling sound, like dry leaves swept across pavement. The weight of a heavy pack makes the shoulder straps squeak and groan. Deep, metronomic breathing punctuates the profound silence of a windless dawn in the mountains, when light shifts ambiguously from grey to cobalt. You pause.
A slope rises upwards, relentless, toward a notch between two sentinels of black rock; a trackless, white plain tilted at 40 degrees. A bead of sweat trickles from your forehead into your right eyeball; it stings for a moment. At times like these, when the body is consumed by repetitive, steady actions, one’s mind can wander. Neuroscientists say when we drift into daydream mode, our prefrontal cortex experiences increased alpha waves, giving rise to random, freely spontaneous thoughts. Indeed, I have experienced crystalline moments of clarity in the mountains, breaking through intellectual or emotional barriers that had seemed impenetrable. At other times, I came crashing back to the present, and the self-induced suffering of the traverse. The question “why” flickers into my consciousness, then fades as the rising sun spills over the eastern horizon.
The Ultimate Grind?
Traverse: to travel across or through, that’s the basic definition—then add “ski” in front of the word. For some people, it’s shorthand for the ultimate form of drudgery—hauling heavy sleds or crushingly huge packs across frozen deserts of snow and ice, or up endless climbs with the only reward being survival downhill skiing on thigh muscles smashed from the ascent. For others, it is the purest form of backcountry skiing: travelling from point A to B through the mountains with everything required to survive on your back. Perhaps the golden age of ski traversing has already come and gone, the era of Chic Scott and company who pioneered grand epics like the Jasper to Lake Louise traverse in 1967.
But, the mountains remain—and where there are mountains, there are traverses. Options and variations are limited only by imagination and tolerance for “Type II” fun (punishing while it’s happening, but a good time in retrospect); success is never guaranteed, and creature comforts are left on the shelf at home. It’s not nearly as grim as a job description for Ernest Shackleton’s South Pole expedition, but you get the picture. Sometimes ski traverses can feel like 98 per cent work and two per cent fun; a dotted line on a map distilled from weather, snow conditions, fitness, and ambition.
The Classic Bugs to Rogers
One of the more iconic lines on the map is the Bugaboos to Rogers Pass traverse, a North American classic that is a bucket list trip for any self-respecting ski mountaineer. The route has a poetic beauty to it, cutting north-south through the Columbia Mountains and bookended by two iconic mountain playgrounds: the Bugaboos and Rogers Pass. It was pioneered in 1958 by Americans Bill Briggs, Bob French, Sterling Neale and Barry Corbet. They made a tough, stoic quartet. For its time, it was a monumental nine-day tour de force involving more than 11,000 metres of ascending and weaving for 135 kilometres through an avalanche alley in the Purcell and Selkirk mountains.
And, they did it long before Canadian Mountain Holidays built their Bugaboo Lodge and could provide helicopter food-drop support. Considering the heavy gear of the era and intricate route-finding required, it remains an impressive achievement that, for the average backcountry skier, is still hard to match. One of the Americans scrawled a matter-of-fact record of their passage on the wall of Glacier Circle Cabin, where they spent their last night: “10 June 1958—Ski Traverse from Bugaboo Creek to Glacier. Started June 2. – Alpine Ski Club of America.” The next day, they skied up and over the Illecillewaet Névé and down to Rogers Pass, four years before the all-weather Trans-Canada Highway opened over the pass.
I tried it once, a few years back. Warm weather, feet rendered into hamburger-meat blisters, and some interpersonal tension in the team thwarted our effort, so regretfully, we bailed out at McMurdo Cabin. It’s a half-finished project that still nags at me.
Greg Hill’s Pandemic Project
With hundreds of first ski descents and a smattering of world records under his belt, Greg Hill doesn’t need to be sold on the ski traverse. Even though he’s renowned for his stamina and ability to crush vertical on skis, he’s also a big fan of the horizontal. He first did the Bugs to Rogers in 2006 with some buddies. It took them 11 days. For the first half, they travelled inside a virtual golf ball unable to see a single mountaintop. After crossing the Duncan River, the skies mercifully cleared.
“When we hit the Selkirks, we summitted everything in sight,” Hill says.
Last winter, like a lot of us who had trips cancelled and ski adventures thwarted by COVID-19, Hill took to dreaming. As winter progressed, he started obsessively watching weather and snow conditions. Then he started thinking about the Bugs to Rogers again, doing it light and fast.
“I wanted to see how I would do at age 45,” he explains. “It was a bit of a COVID-19 project, to see if I still had the juice.”
For partners, he recruited two other aerobic crushers: Adam Campbell and Andrew McNab.
Hill calls ski traversing “the best,” explaining everything is simplified to the point that you carry just what you need for survival and a modicum of comfort. Travel is dictated by the rules of the mountains, weather, and snow conditions. Follow them, and success is within reach; flout them and risk courting defeat, or worse.
“But, it is kind of about suffering,” Hill says, bluntly. “That pack is heavy when you put it on your knee and haul it onto your back.”
In April 2021, the stars aligned.
“Freezing levels were low, weather was perfect, and we hoped we had the stamina,” Hill said in an Instagram post.
A cold, high-pressure system settled over the Columbia Mountains and stability was bomber. Hill, Campbell and McNab made a strategic decision to swim against the current and travel from Rogers Pass to the Bugaboos rather than the standard route in the opposite direction. That way, they’d be ascending cold north faces and descending the sunny aspects, minimizing their exposure to sun-affected snow. Travel was fast, with at most boot-top trail breaking in light snow. Early on their first day, as they climbed one of the route’s cruxes, the Deville Chimney, boot packing was perfect—solid and secure. Even when they crossed the Duncan River valley, a low point, the freezing level held, and they were spared wallowing through isothermal snow.
After 18 hours of continuous effort, they glided up to Kingsbury Hut in International Basin to find it full of ski tourers. Due to concerns about COVID-19, they opted to sleep outside, each on a small foam pad under the cover of a single tarp.
“It was a miserable five hours,” Hill says.
The trio was back at it at 4:00 a.m. after a virtually sleepless night, contouring around the head of International Basin before crossing over into the glacial headwaters of Vermont Creek. The air was cold, clear and full of promise.
Day two was a 5,000-vertical-metre and 50-kilometre blitz through the Columbia Mountains. Rather than dropping in and climbing out of valleys, they took the highline wherever possible. At 8:00 p.m., 16 hours after leaving the Kingsbury Hut, the three needed to rest. A brief side trip to the hoped-for comfort of the Malloy Igloo near Osprey Peak proved to be wasted additional effort. It’s a shelter only in form, not in function.
“That was a terrible mistake, Hill recalls. “It’s a grimy, windy hut that’s cold.”
It Isn’t Over ‘Til It’s Over
Hill recounts these details with a sort of sadomasochistic relish. Who needs sleep? But without sleep there is no reawakening. I recall rousing from an uncomfortable slumber on the shoulder of Jubilee Mountain—a different mountain range, a different time. Three friends and I were nearing the end of a traverse between Bute and Knight inlets and had skied Mount Waddington’s sublime Angel Glacier along the way. It was our last morning in the alpine, on snow. The sun was glorious, and warm. The Klinaklini Glacier snaked northward in the distance.
We were reluctant to pack up, lulled into complacency by the description found in John Baldwin’s guidebook Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis of the exit from the mountains into the valley of the Klinaklini River; he describes an easy glacier descent leading into old-growth forest and then to fresh logging roads. A virtual stroll to the valley bottom awaited us.
We failed to read the date of the route description—it was a decade old. Alder quickly colonizes logging roads. Later that morning, skis strapped to heavy packs, we fought through a jungle of demoralizing, face-slapping alders that obscured the road beneath our feet. Ahh, the ski traverse; it truly isn’t over till it’s over.
Last spring, 53 hours and 12 minutes after leaving the Illecillewaet parking lot in Rogers Pass, it was over for Hill, Campbell and McNab when they skied to a stop at Bugaboo Provincial Park trailhead. They had set a new record for completing the traverse. The previous record of 80 hours was established in 2005 by Troy Jungen, Doug Sproul and Jon Walsh. Admittedly, it’s a contest that, well, really doesn’t matter if you relish the art of the traverse.
Hill agrees, “It’s more than just about going from point A to point B. There’s something about being in the mountains for sunrise and sunset.”