Stan Wagon, 50, Silverthorne, Colo. (several ski traverses, Fairy Meadows traverse last year, Logan ski)
Katie Larson, 37, Montezuma, Colo. (Denali, Logan ski)
Bob Portmann, 39, Boulder, Colo. (Fairy Meadows traverse last year)
Jonathan Kriegel, 46, Silverthorne, Colo. (much winter camping)
Rob Nachtwey, 24, Salt Lake City, Utah (no snow camping experience)
Summary of this Report
Day 1: Sat April 27 2002: Helicopter to Argentine Ski Camp.
Day 2: Ski to Argentine Summit via Argentine Glacier. Loop back on Pyrite.
Day 3: Travel to Bachelor Pass
Day 4: Ski upper slopes of Easy Glacier
Day 5: Carry over high pass to Mountain Creek camp.
Day 6: Ski a bit in the area; easy day.
Day 7: Travel to flat area NW of Iconoclast, camp in storm
Day 8: Sat May 4: Around W side of I'clast, and then roundabout route to Sorcerer Lodge. Sauna. Friends. Guides. Food.
Day 9: Ski Perfect Glacier, and then White Russian Col.
Day 10: To Escargot Col then back around through White Russian Col and through Perfect Col and down the Perfect Valley.
Day 11: W Nordic Summit, then "Critical Thursday" ski run from W. Merlin Peak
Day 12: Ski to top of Iconoclast. 11 people to summit!
Day 13: Through Khumbu Icefall to Escargot Summit, then to near W Nordic, then booted up the "Ultimate" ski run to true Nordic Summit and skied it. 45+ degrees. Steep!
Day 14: Easy tour to Black Russian Col and then to subsummit of W Nordic and down the Khumbu.
Day 15: Sat May 11: Out (Rob and Bob skied 3200' on Nordic Glacier in the a.m.)
Vertical gained on the traverse:
3440 (2640 with packs)
Traverse Total 26400
At the Lodge
Lodge total 36680 (6100 per day; 3200 more for Rob and Bob because of Saturday)
Why the Name
We started in the Pyrite-Argentine area (Fool's Gold & Silver), went along to the slopes of Sorcerer Peak, and ended up at Sorcerer Lodge where, after skiing the steep slopes of Merlin, we paid homage to Tannis, the good witch of the east, who is a reverse alchemist: She turns gold into water -- the frozen powdery kind that is much in demand!
Day Minus One
We allowed ourselves a full day for outfitting, so we had a relaxed time in Golden on Friday after flying in together on Thursday. All plans were working out and Lisa, of Sorcerer Lodge, will drive us to the staging area Sat. morning. The weather forecast for the week looks bad. Met guide Rich Marshall in town and shared information.
Day One, Saturday 27
Here we are again. It has been exactly 12 months since some of us flew in to this great camp spot (6500') near the feet of the Argentine and Pyrite Glaciers to spend a week skiing N to Fairy Meadows Hut. This time we will ski south to Sorcerer Lake Lodge. Last year's traverse was a great adventure for us and we are anticipating a fun week if only we get some good weather.
Today was crystal clear and Don McTighe flew us over the exact route we would ski. His declarations that the passes we would ski over looked "mellow" seemed sincere. Rob had an extra heli ride into and out of Sorcerer on an empty seat just for fun. The group coming out included guide Randy Heppell (who guided at Purcell Lodge years ago when I was there) and two guys who had been at Great Cairn Hut during the time of last year's traverse. We saw tracks in the terrain behind the hut, and they made them.
The first priorities were setting up camp, seeing if open water was available, and digging a hole to protect our food from the pine martens that terrorized us here last year. The first did not go well, as I lifted my foot quickly around a guy wire and struck Katie full in the nose with the heel of my huge telemark boot. THUNK. No scream, but she was in a lot of pain, as evidenced by the tears. There was no serious damage, and her nose did indeed work fine on the rest of the trip. But I felt a little clumsy.
The water hole near camp that we used last year had none this year. There was much more snow. But Katie and Rob claimed they saw open water from the helicopter. We looked around and finally found it in the flat open area W of camp. It was about 300 yards from camp, so not too bad. We had brought in five liters of fuel. We ended the trip with 1.5 liters left over, so we probably could have brought a half liter less.
We got out for a nice tour on the Argentine Glacier, roping up for a short section and getting far enough (8100') to see a clear route to the summit. So we made plans to try this the next day.
Amazingly, there was almost no sign of pine martens, and they did not disturb us the entire trip. Too wintry?
Off at 9:30 under a blue sky (all times are Mountain Time, even though we are in the Pacific Zone). The barometer was very high and it sure looked like good weather had come to stay. We did not use a rope this time, as the way was deemed safe. Still we were only 15 minutes ahead of yesterday's pace, when I thought we'd be faster. We crossed a big flat area and then roped up for the headwall with Bob in the lead. He set a nice track through the new snow, we hit the saddle with no problem, and then walked to the main summit (9901 feet according to latest maps, not 10000+). What a great feeling to get a big peak so easily, when on all my other traverses the weather prevented even an attempt at such a thing. Of course the views of peaks and glaciers in all directions was great. This was the only time in the entire two weeks that we used the rope.
After some exciting skiing down the face we decided to make a loop by crossing high to the Pyrite Glacier and returning to camp that way. We had glimpses of this last year and recalled no difficulty. We climbed to the ridge and headed down easy slopes to the west.
When the slope steepened Rob, in the lead (and with the rope in his pack), nonchalantly skied down about 20 turns to check out the route. He came to a sudden stop when the blocks of an ice cliff appeared below him. There was no easy way around so we climbed a bit and moved west in order to reach gentler slopes. This we did without difficulty. As we saw the problem from below we were a bit stunned by the immensity of it: Rob's tracks curved smoothly down to very near the edge of a huge ice cliff -- a sobering reminder of the consequences of a fall or avalanche at the wrong time. But falling was not likely for Rob, who was the strongest skier in our group (he took fifth place in the U.S. telemark free skiing series this season).
Going back to camp, we passed a very pretty ice formation: a stalactite meeting a stalagmite in what seemed to be a mixture of glacier and water ice. It looked like a computer-drawn scene from a movie, with its symmetry and beautiful hummocks.
Rob brought his video camera along this year, and is often stopping to shoot. The good weather makes his job a lot easier than last year, when he had the camera at Fairy Meadows, but no clear days.
Perfect weather again. Out at 9:30 with moderate packs. I would estimate mine at 55 pounds, which is much lighter than last year. This was a relatively easy travel day (2600' with packs). The snowpack is much deeper than last year, making crevasses easy to avoid and travel very good. It was a pleasure to see last year's route with full visibility!
At the edge of Pyrite Ridge we ran into tracks of another party traversing from N to S, and we followed them to the top of Pyrite shoulder. There we left our packs while we took a run on the steep face we had just climbed (800'). Climbing the tracks the second time was of course much easier. Then we had a long descent to the vicinity of Bachelor Pass, and down east to a camp at timberline (6700'; no water; near old camp of other group). Jonathan lost one small leather glove on the descent. This is not the drainage referred to in Chic Scott's book, but the next one south. We saw it from the air as being good, and the tracks of the other party indicated that they had the same idea. The point is that this drainage allows easier and more direct access to the main Bachelor Creek, which has to be crossed on the next leg.
How long can this great weather last? Partly cloudy in the morning, but then clear and warm. We went up to the N side of a knoll (the S side would have been better) and got cliffed out, forcing us all the way down to Bachelor Pass to get through to the Easy Glacier. We skied to the top of that glacier and had a great lunch in perfect weather with views of Argentine and Sorcerer. We then yo-yoed three ski runs, all with some 40-degree slopes and good powder. We then took the high route around the S side of the knoll back to camp.
A fairly hard day to a camp at 6750' across the small pass in Chic's book, which we will call "Chic's Pass" here. The descent was tough at the beginning but then it eased and we cruised easily through some avalanche debris (and one pair of bear tracks) to Bachelor Creek. We had hoped to get water here, but it was very red (iron?), and we would not drink it. One step to get across the creek, and then we had a 3000' climb to the pass. This went very well. Katie found a good line through the trees at the start, and about halfway up we picked up old tracks and had no problems, except with the warmth. We stripped to our long underwear and reached the pass in 3.5 hours, excellent time. Near the top, the tracks veered left, away from the pass. It seemed as if the best route to the Iconoclast area (where we were going) would be to not go through the pass, but rather to keep a high line left. As we saw the next day, this route does work, but involves some booting. But we opted to not take it. It would indeed have saved us some time and distance, but it was not clear what we would do with the time. The weather looked like it might allow us an attempt at Sorcerer Peak from the SE, so we went through the pass, and down mushy snow to a camp at 6700'. There was one steep part on descent that had small wet avalanche activity as we skied it. As usual, Rob and I set up the tent, while Katie gets the stove going for water. We are turning into a pretty efficient group now. Light snow is falling.
Rough start -- Jonathan dropped a food bag from the pine marten hole down the long rock-hard slope to Mountain Creek. We thought we would try for Sorcerer Mtn., but the weather was deteriorating, and our route to Sorcerer was looking hard. Katie turned back for camp after a couple hours while the rest of us decided to do a run on a snowy bump slightly W of Chic's Pass. That run was quite good, but then Jonathan turned back for camp while the three of us did one more run on a different slope. That turned out to be very difficult skiing. In any case, it was a pretty easy day for all of us. The weather was getting worse, with snow starting, and we wanted to conserve our energy for a push through to the last leg of the trip.
There are occasional limber pines up here; I saw one today.
Katie used her extra time at camp to explore the start of the next day's route, and she found what looked like a good start through the very steep treed slope that guarded the easier terrain above.
There were very very high winds that night, but they abated in the middle of the night. I woke up twice to check the barometer, since we really hoped to not get stalled at camp. It did start rising a bit, so I slept better. It seems possible, from the distances and climb involved, that one could get from here to the lodge in one day, but we now know that that is too optimistic.
Another big problem for Katie and me concerns our Black Diamond/Ascension skins. Last year I had new skins and the glue started coming off in a few days. This year the same thing is happening to my and Katie's new skins. My tail hooks give me more confidence, but Katie is stressed out over this. We have no glue with us. As it turns out, my skins held up for two weeks, with almost no glue left. Katie reglued at the lodge. Bob had the same brand of skin and had no problems. Rob had problems with his G3 skins; Jonathan had similar skins, but no problems,
Rob is handling the new situation (snow camping, some bad weather) very well. He is a very strong skier, both up and down. Some of his equipment is weak, though: like the bedroom slippers he brought for moving around camp. That fails badly in slush.
Great Mexican dinner tonight, with lots of Margaritas.
At this camp Bob was attacked by a goose. More precisely, a baffle on his sleeping bag came undone, and his tent was covered in goose feathers!
The wind and snow overnight were quite strong, and we awoke to a vestibule full of kitchen gear covered in cold, wet snow. It was a distressing sight, but I cleaned it out bit by bit, and soon we were back to our routine of Katie manning the stove, Rob catching some extra morning Z's, and I fussing about in the tent. Finally we got to eat one of our long breakfasts (pancakes). We had two such long breakfasts, but had not eaten them so far as the weather demanded that we get out to ski. Now we have no choice.
At 11 we are off to the steep and, as it turns out, difficult, treed hillside leading to the high terrain of the Iconoclast region. It is not clear that anyone has ever skied up this way. It looked good on the map, and from the helicopter, but it was not. The new snow overnight and now falling is helpful, as it gives us purchase on the rock-hard surface. It started with a nasty debris section, then a traverse of a steep hillside with troublesome small ridges. We did some booting. We finally forced a way through to the top. It wasn't pretty -- some booting, some use of axe to hack through spots -- but it was safe enough and put us in a very nice spot. The sun came out for a moment at our lunch spot, but then it was back to the murk for the above-tree-line navigation to the shallow pass that takes us close to Iconoclast.
There was much discussion of the best route -- some of it heated -- and we settled on a gentle zig-zag approach to the first glacier which worked well. Rob then led up the glacier to the pass. It snowed hard all afternoon, but there was enough visibility that we could see where we were. At this point, we are all ready for a high camp, both for the pleasure of camping up high and to avoid extra climb. So we camped at 7830', at the low spot between the pass we just went through and the high pass (top of Eggs Benedict ski run) we need to go through to get to the Lodge. This camp is at the head of Benedict Creek.
Working quickly with our 4 shovels we dug out a platform with nice walls and room enough for both tents. While it was moderately windy, we seemed to find a spot that was out of the wind. So this was a very comfortable camp, and we were all in good spirits as we anticipated the easy next day to the Lodge. The weather was bad and we knew that the guides were on a very tight schedule (coming out of Battle Abbey on Sat. morning and into Sorcerer on Saturday midday; bad weather could wreak havoc with that schedule).
At 7 pm I turned the radio on and heard Marko Deleselle talking with Lisa. I then piped in to Lisa, who was glad to hear from us, wondering where we were. She said her batteries were low, and to try again in an hour. I did so, but we were unable to raise her then. Certainly it was comforting to have a radio with us for this trip, but it did not work at our low camps, so we never heard a morning weather forecast. No probolem though, and it would work from the high ridges in case of emergency.
Another long breakfast (potatoes and eggs), and then off we went on a snowy morning. We had hoped to ski the Eggs Benedict run after climbing it, but visibility was low so we just kept going. The right decision. It often happens on these trips that one must balance the desire for good skiing with the need to keep moving towards the goal. We were very fortunate this year to be able to get both. Last year we took several rest days and did little skiing off the traverse route.
Rob led nicely on the last pitch but had trouble near the top with both his goggles and his skins. But he finally got over. We took a bearing to the pass to Ventego Lake and got there in a nice mile-long traversing descent. Then into the gentle terrain above the lake. At one spot I started a small slab avalanche near a cornice and skied through it.
After crossing the lake we were faced with the big decision:
1. The Heinous Traverse on the right, going right to the Lodge.
2. A drop into the creek from the start of the traverse.
3. A drop into the creek from the left side.
4. A long roundabout way through a pass well to the left.
The difference between 1 and 4 is 2100' of climbing! It was very windy here and as we were pondering our situation, a large slab avalanche broke away on route number 3. Since 1 and 2 seemed even more exposed, we opted for choice 4.
The climb to the pass was not bad, the descent to the creek was fine at first, then deteriorated to bad snow. But we got down and then proceeded to wonder about the best way to climb to the hut. Bob and Katie found a good route through the trees, downhill, to the large avalanche slope that leads to the hut. I pulled out the GPS to be certain where the hut is, and we started up. This climb was a big one -- 1300' -- but we had no problems and pulled up to the hut at around 6 pm. It all seemed very quiet to me, the fourth to arrive, but our guides and group were all happily there.
As always, there was tremendous elation on reaching the lodge. We were by no means as exhausted as last year (lighter packs), but still it is a delight to see old friends and know that the delicately scheduled plan will indeed work. And of course good food, a sauna, clean clothes, and a nice drying room for wet gear were all most welcome.
Days Nine and Ten
The storm (which was quite large to our east and shut down the Calgary airport) continued on these two days, so we skied modest slopes, familiarizing ourselves with the terrain. After avalanche rescue practice, we did a run on the Perfect Glacier, then climbed up and through White Russian Col and down the front side back to the lodge. Next day we headed up the Escargot Glacier to the little col at its head, but the wind kept us from looping through the "Khumbu" Icefall, and we just came back down and went through White Russian and down Perfect in the reverse of the previous day's route. Skiing conditions were quite good, and the Montanans were good skiers and climbers.
Robson's mother Marg was also a very strong skier and climber and had no trouble keeping up.
The Escargot Glacier is named after the rocky bump called Escargot, which looks just like a snail and dominates the view from the lodge.
On the first run of the trip I tried a 6-foot cornice jump. It broke under me and I basically fell over it; I needed more speed! My skiing was okay, but I fall occasionally and at one point my sunglasses fell out of my jacket and I did not notice. Robson picked them up and put them on and tried to get my attention at a rest stop. I did find it most curious that he had the same nose guard on that I had been using!
The sun returns, so we headed up to the skiers' Nordic Summit, which is the westernmost peak of the three-summitted Nordic Mountain. This allowed us to get high, evaluate the post-storm snow conditions and stability, and get some good skiing in. The ski down the face was super, and then Tom and some others headed back to the lodge while Robson and the traversers and Brice and Steve headed over to Merlin Peak (a run known as Critical Thursday). This had some rock-climbing at the end to get a minor summit of Merlin. Also, on the way up, Robson used his probe to check for snow depth among the crevasses. There was some very steep skiing down. Indeed, this was the best run of the trip so far, and compared very favorably to the long and steep ski runs we have done at other lodges. Several runs in this area are 3000-foot drops or more, in excellent north-facing snow. Indeed, the bowl of Nordic Mountain and its glacier are a skier's paradise!
While we were having fun, Tom and Kellie were checking out the Heinous Traverse, and they reported that it would be fine for travel. That surely meant we would try Iconoclast the next day, weather permitting.
Back at the lodge, Bob asked Marg Gmoser if she knew anything about the incident this past January in which a skier was killed by a mountain lion near Banff. As it turned out, Marg was the one who found the body, and she related the harrowing details to us.
Another story of note: Simon Bew reported that two strong skiers skied the Bugaboos -> Rogers Pass route in three days, going very, very light. Incredible. It took our group 14 days in 1990.
We have an early breakfast (7 instead of 7:30) and all head towards Iconoclast. The going is easy and the weather is good. The Heinous Traverse was well prepared by Tom and Kellie and was easy to cross. But that raised an amusing grammatical issue: Last night Brice raised the issue of whether the "h" in "heinous" is silent. I had never heard of such a thing. But Robson provided an amusing interpretation as, when he and Simon followed the traverse at the back end, they tried some butt-sliding down the steep slope just for fun. So for some I guess it really is the "anus traverse"!
We got onto the Iconoclast Glacier, at which point Tom asked: "Well, should we make an attempt?" He was slightly concerned because he had some information that there was bare ice on the route, and that would be a problem. But it all looked good and we were keen, so we asked him to try it. We put our skis on our packs and followed his steep steps for a couple hundred feet. Then the going got harder (looser snow), and Tom headed for the rocks, kicking steps in a snowy gully. This was quite steep, but easy to follow and at the top of the gully we who were following were pleased to see Tom donning his skis again. From here it looked like, and was, a very easy skin to the summit. At the decision point Robson had gone down with some members of the party, but when he saw the route was good, he and Simon came back up and quickly followed it, arriving at the summit a half-hour after we did.
Sadly the visibility disappeared at this point, making the descent tricky. And there were avalanche concerns, but it turned out to be stable and we all got down the 1000-foot steep face safely. This 1000-foot section measures at 41 degrees from the map. Of course, visibility then improved. We did a small side trip towards Benedict Creek, then climbed back and retraced to the lodge. In fact, it was not a long day at all. In good conditions, Iconoclast is a relatively easy ascent from the lodge.
Day Thirteen, Thursday
Still good weather, so we headed up the Escargot Glacier to the summit of Escargot for lunch. Then to a spot under the high ridge of Nordic's broad west peak for a great ski down. What next? We had all been eyeing the awesome looking slope descending right from Nordic's true summit, and Robson headed toward it. We threaded around some crevasses and started to sigzag up the 1000-foot slope. After 500 feet we had to shoulder our skis and follow Robson's 500 feet of very steep steps. And I mean steep. We used the poles to steady ourselves as parts of the ascent route were over 45 degrees, with lots of little rolls to make some of us a little concerned about skiing down. And of course there were firm little cornices at the top.
But the time of day and clarity of air made for a superb summit. We had tremendous views of everything, especially the gigantic south face of Sir Sandford twenty miles to the north.
Some of us, including me, were a little concerned about the ski down. It turned out to be not so bad -- the snow conditions were good -- except that small sluffs would start at each turn on the steepest section. Well, not so small, in the sense that they were enough to throw me off. Jonathan did a big three-somersault tumble. We will need the videotape to understand exactly how spectacular this was! I got down with one or two small falls only. Bob observed that this was the best slope he had ever skied in Canada. We later learned from Randy Heppell that this run is called The Ultimate. He had guided some people to it from Black Russian Col. Possibly it has been skied only twice. As always we are grateful to our guides for taking us to these fabulous spots. Combining observations using an inclinometer, poles, the map, and our gut feeling, I would say that the upper 500 feet of the ski descent was 45 degrees.
Day Fourteen, Friday
A pretty mellow day with a tour up to Black Russian Col, which we had not yet visited, and a ski down the front side, and then a tour to a point on the ridge N of the W summit of Nordic and an excellent ski down the Khumbu Icefall. Katie tweaked her knee on the first run, so took the second half of the day off. A low-key day to end the trip. And Rob broke his binding early in the day and had to return to the hut for a repair. So Rob wins the vertical prize for the entire trip as he had an extra 200 on Day 2, and extra 300 on day 14, and an extra 3200 on day 15.
Tom Raudaschl had brought his Austrian Roulette game to the hut. The record (2600+) had been set by Kurt Klemper of Breckenridge the prior week at Battle Abbey, but Bob Portmann blasted to a new record of 2830.
Day Fifteen, Saturday
Bob and Rob go out early for 3200' more, including a steep pitch with excellent skiing that they had been eyeing all week, and we all leave by helicopter at noon on schedule. On its way in it brought in three loads of firewood by sling. At the landing we met Tannis Dakin and also saw guide Randy Heppell again, and of course we exchanged much information with both. The van ride back to Calgary was smooth and so a great trip ends.