Lynn Martel has called the Canadians Rockies home for nearly four decades, and she’s been writing about the places, people, and unique culture of western Canada’s mountain community for nearly as long. Her latest book, Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce and Creativity on Canada’s Glaciers was published fall 2020. A tireless backcountry explorer, Lynn is an accredited interpretive hiking guide, an engaging speaker and an accomplished landscape and nature photographer. Visit www.lynnmartel.ca
New, Mysterious and Tempting
There are few places in the world where ski mountaineers can travel for weeks at a time crossing glaciers, descending to valley-bottom and skinning back up onto the next glacier, camping night after night, carrying the necessary equipment and enthusiasm. Western Canada’s mountain ranges harbour just such places.
While professional guides can be hired to manage complicated route finding through chaotic icefalls and across featureless terrain in stormy conditions, these adventures cannot be bought. Only muscle and sweat and determination can deliver these experiences. Your sweat.
In 1960, Hans Gmoser – by then the top professional mountain guide in Canada – embarked on a 300-kilometre wilderness trip with five companions. Skiing with knee-buckling 35-kilogram backpacks, they planned to follow the crest of the Great Divide from Wapta Lake in Yoho National Park to Jasper townsite. Their route would cross eight major icefields, and with two small tents and dehydrated food packaged in daily rations they would live for weeks between 1200 and 3350 metres’ elevation. Seven food caches would be dropped by airplane at intervals along their intended route, each of them securely packed in case a raven, grizzly or wolverine wandering across the ice should sniff them out. They planned to complete their adventure in 30 days.
“The purpose of our trip was to explore and prove the feasibility of such a ski route,” Gmoser wrote in the 1961 Canadian Alpine Journal. “Of course, you can get plenty of skiing by going to one of our modern ski resorts, but this gets dull after a while. In the end, to ski is to travel fast and free – free over the untouched, snow-covered country. To be bound to one slope, even to one mountain, by a lift may be convenient but it robs us of the greatest pleasure that skiing can give, that is, to travel through the wide, wintry country; to follow the lure of the peaks which tempt on the horizon and to be alone for a few days or even a few hours in clear, mysterious surroundings.”
On Top of the World
On April 2, the six men skinned up from Wapta Lake in thick wet snow and settled in under the nagging weight of their huge packs. Several days later, the sun appeared. By then they had skied steadily upward onto the Wapta Icefield. After pitching their fourth camp, Gmoser and Pat Boswell skied with empty packs to retrieve their first food cache. Climbing over a small rise, they quickly spied the two red flags marking the site. The cache was buried under six feet of snow, so the act of digging up the contents generated an even greater appetite than they’d started with. The following morning was clear and cold as they climbed to a high col, and progress was slow under their newly weighted packs. They could taste the respite the ten-kilometre downhill that awaited them would bring.
“It always takes your breath away when mountain range upon mountain range unfolds before you – hundreds of peaks, many of them old friends, many of them strange, new, mysterious and tempting,” Gmoser wrote.
The following days brought them thick fog, fierce winds and biting cold. They relied on strong legs and years of experience to keep their skis under control on a steep slope that dropped like a 500-metre ice slide. They zigzagged uphill through a maze of crevasses and seracs and narrow snow bridges then skied down into a large crevasse and followed along on a solid snow bridge. Removing their skis, in their boots they climbed the equivalent of three storeys. They were relieved to reach the crest of Cairns Icefall, which they had rightly anticipated to present one of the most difficult sections of the trip, and with renewed energy they charged across the upper part of the glacier. Reaching a col, they stopped in their tracks, puzzled. It was the wrong col.
Mistakes on a glacier traverse can bring serious consequences. Travelling eats up energy, and food is limited to what you can carry. There are no critters to hunt on glaciers, and no plants to eat. Water is available only so long as stove fuel lasts.
With no other choice, they skied back down, then flat for a kilometre, and then climbed up a much steeper slope than the previous one. Worse, they each made the trip twice, first kicking steps up the hard snow carrying their skis, then climbing back up lugging their hefty packs.
“To say the least, we were exhausted,” Gmoser wrote. “When we looked over the other side, however, our enthusiasm returned. Six miles before us stretched the Freshfield Icefield and in less than an hour we had coasted across it, pitched our camp and fallen wearily into our sleeping bags.”
Swirling World of White
Enthusiasm on long trips peaks and wanes along with the dips and rises in terrain. A ferocious storm pinned them in their tents for three days, reducing their activity to reading and sleeping. And, as if being continuously cold wasn’t bad enough, they were hungry. Adding to their frustration, with the storm upon them they had pitched their camp not even two kilometres – 20 minutes’ ski – from their next food cache.
Eventually Gmoser and Kurt Lukas dressed in all their layers and launched a desperate attempt to ski to their cache. Within minutes they lost sight of their bright yellow tents, so, frightened, they retreated. Finally, a break in the storm was their salvation, but not because they located their food cache, which was hopelessly buried. Two friends from Banff, including pilot Jim Davies, who had placed their food caches, flew over to check on the team. After they signalled that they needed food by stomping out letters in the snow, Davies soon flew back and dropped them some supplies, leaving them to feast on pork chops and chocolate Easter bunnies.
The challenges of the trip, however, didn’t ease. Climbing to a notch between two of the Lyell peaks, they began an 1800-metre descent in dense cloud and fog.
“Groping our way down a steep ridge which dropped off suddenly on both sides was just part of the game, but when a huge avalanche thundered down, stopping just short of us, it became rather uncomfortable,” Gmoser wrote. “The final blow came when I found myself 100 feet down in a crevasse, standing practically on my head with my pack driven so hard into the snowbridge that I was almost unable to free it. With the help of my friends, I was able to get out. Life felt pretty wonderful when we finally dumped our packs in the valley and pitched our tent on a patch of dry ground.”
While the snowpack piled up higher and deeper, morale within the group sank in equal measure. They had endured 12 continuously snowy days. Hunger gnawed relentlessly.
First one member skied out, following a long side valley to the Icefields Parkway. Then a second called it quits. Soon the others acquiesced. Not accustomed to giving up, in his trip report Gmoser outlined a long list of factors that contributed to their difficulties. Chief among them, he suggested, was the absence of high alpine huts on the Rockies’ glaciers, as existed in Europe’s Alps.
“We are firmly convinced that this is a trip that can afford a great deal of pleasure to many, many people, especially in our day and age when there is need of such adventure and intimate contact with nature. I feel that since we have all this fine country right in our backyard, it is our duty to do everything within our power to develop the ski route between Lake Louise and Jasper to such a point that the average skier who desires to travel this route or portions of it, will be able to do so.”
A Magical Experience
A handful of huts would later be built, but only in the Wapta area. Inspired by Gmoser though, Don Gardner, Neil Liske, Charlie Locke and author and historian Chic Scott set out in May 1967. Beginning just south of Jasper, they skied to Wapta Lake in just 21 days.
With nearly the entire distance located within the boundaries of protected Jasper, Banff and Yoho national parks, skiing the route remains a true wilderness adventure. Helicopter landings are prohibited in the national parks, so most food caches are placed by skiing up side-valleys in advance. Nights are spent in tents and mornings bring frozen boots. Days are spent in glorious solitude high above treeline, where on a windless day the silence is profound. More than a half-century and numerous long-distance ski adventures later, Scott remains smitten by the magic of his and his companions’ Great Divide Traverse. It’s still his favourite trip.
“One of the most wonderful things about the Great Divide Traverse is that it has not changed over the years like so many other adventures,” Scott explained. “The Great Divide Traverse is one of the greatest ski adventures in the world, and I think it’s just as wild and difficult today as it was 50 years ago. No one does it any faster than we did it. No one has an easier time. It still beats people.”
Even better, he added, for Canadians, it’s a full-blown wilderness adventure right in their backyard. And while more than 4,800 people had climbed Everest by the end of 2018, fewer than a hundred had skied the Great Divide Traverse.
But for all that hasn’t changed on the traverse, Scott laments how one thing has altered the nature of the adventure – the availability, and pervasiveness, of high-tech communication devices.
“I am pleased to have been able to experience an old-style expedition,” he said. “When you were gone, you were gone. We registered out with the wardens for 35 days. If we didn’t show up at Lake Louise in 35 days, we were somewhere out there. But now, no one cuts the ties with the city. They are getting weather reports and snow stability reports and sending InReach messages, etcetera. Too bad.”
“On some sections of the traverse, you are way back in there. I remember standing beside the tent on the Chaba Icefield and looking west toward the Selkirks and feeling so far away from civilization. It is really wild out there. It’s not like the Wapta. You won't run into anyone else out there.”
For now, the route remains viable, yet every party that repeats it – fewer than one group per year – reports changes in how and where the glaciers carpet the landscape and provide climbable ramps up steep cols. Younger adventurers often contact Scott before and after their trips to gain information and compare notes, particularly since his Summit and Icefields guidebook for the Canadian Rockies, co-authored with ACMG mountain guide Mark Klassen,
provides practical descriptions for those interested in skiing the route. A slide show
Scott shared at Banff’s Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in the spring of 2017 –
50 years after their original trip – filled the house with skiers and armchair adventurers who feel the allure of long wilderness ski traverses. Lately, however, Scott has begun calling the Great Divide Traverse “Canada’s Great Disappearing Adventure.”
“The ice is going, and in 100 years will be gone,” he said. “I think the 2000-metre-high climb from the Alexandra River to the Lyell 2-3 Col will become increasingly difficult with the shrinking of the glacier. It would be hard to find a way around this section if it were impassable. I think it’s a shame that the trip may be so altered in coming years.
“I had the greatest adventure of my life 50 years ago along the Great Divide. Part of me will always be out there with the wind and the snow.”