The Grand Traverse
“The challenge is still as significant as ever since the first rugged adventurers mapped the Bugaboos to Rogers Pass route”.
“It’s like sticking your head inside a ping-pong ball,” says Graeme, staring at the blank walls of snow and cloud surrounding us. Phantom shapes appear and disappear as the four of us strain to make something out of the white nothingness. At 2,600 metres on the Conrad Icefield, we’re deep in the heart of the Purcell Mountains of B.C., on the first day of a 130-km alpine ski traverse from the Bugaboos to Rogers Pass. And we’ve already been reduced to feeling our way Braille-like across the snow. Chris teeters with vertigo. “I feel like I’m drunk.”
This classic ski traverse has been in the back of my mind for six years, ever since I coerced three friends from Jasper into giving it a try in 1996. The plan was to finish our season of ski patrolling at Marmot Basin, then pack our skis into a truck and head for the Interior in early May. But just before the trip, I got offered a job on Vancouver Island and had to bail, so they went ahead without me. I didn’t hear a thing about how it had gone until a postcard showed up in the mail at the beginning of June. The picture was of three soldiers standing beside one of the cannons used for avalanche control at Rogers Pass. On the other side, in meticulously cut-and-pasted letters from a newspaper, someone had spelled out, “DaMn yOU to hEll marK MALlet. ” Apparently, the trip hadn’t gone exactly according to plan. I taped the postcard to my fridge and laughed out loud every time I read it. I don’t think I was cultivating good Karma.
The Bugaboos to Rogers Pass Traverse is the most popular of Western Canada’s “Grand Traverses.” It was first skied in 1958 by a group of four Americans (Bill Briggs, Barry Corbet, Sterling Neale and Robert French), but wasn’t attempted a second time until 1973. As of 1994, Chic Scott, author of the guidebook Summits and Icefields, estimated that it had been completed about 20 times. Nowadays, as many as half-a-dozen groups can complete the trip on a good year, a testament to the fact that it has become a major proving ground for aspiring ski guides.
“The Grand Traverses are something very distinctly Canadian,” says Scott. “In Europe you have big traverses, but they’re nowhere near as big. You’re always in huts and every valley has a hotel and a road in it. And the U.S. has some big traverses, but they’re much tamer.” He chuckles, knowing his American friends will take offence. “Our mountains are cold and rugged, with glaciers and crevasses and all sorts of avalanche danger. They’re full on.”
On our first night we stay in the Malloy Igloo, a rudimentary fibreglass shelter perched on the moraine at the base of Osprey Peak. We sit on cold wooden benches and huddle in our down jackets to keep out the chill. Outside, the wind howls off the glacier and swirls around the door. Condensation drips from the ceiling and forms an ice mound on the plywood floor. Graeme rubs his hands together. “I feel like there should be a hole in the ground and we should be ice fishing.” We play rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to sleep on one of the three benches and who has to take the floor. Graeme loses and spends the night fending off spindrift that floats down from a small hole in the roof.
So what’s the attraction of these cold, inhospitable mountains and their Grand Traverses? Why not just fly into a nice warm cabin and spend a week there, skiing all day and relaxing around the wood stove at night? Or why not just go to the local ski hill and let the chairlift do all the work?
In 1960, Hans Gmoser, founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) and the godfather of heli-skiing, wrote this oft-quoted passage after attempting to traverse the Great Divide between Lake Louise and Jasper: “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… in clear, mysterious surroundings.”