Canada's Grandest Traverse

The Bugaboos-to-Rogers traverse, pioneered by Briggs and Co. in 1958, is a serious undertaking in the best conditions. And high ambition is no match for bad weather.
By Andrew Findlay ,

The first crux of the storied Bugaboos to Rogers Pass traverse in the Columbia Mountains of British columbia comes early.

It’s a sustained 45-degree ascent to the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col. The headlamps of my companions bob in the darkness, keeping time with the metronomic scrape of ski crampons on snow that’s as firm as the rock that soars above us.

Behind us in the murky predawn light is the Conrad Kain Hut, the southern starting point of our journey, which we reached by helicopter the night before. Ahead, the granite megaliths of the Snowpatch and Bugaboo spires pierce a cold, steel-blue sky.

Brodie Smith in front of the Carbonate Glacier. Things were melting out fast.

Bugs-to-Rogers is one of North America’s grand traverses, a bucket-list item for any ski mountaineer. It was pioneered in 1958 by Americans Bill Briggs, Bob French, Sterling Neale, and Barry Corbet. They completed the route in a monumental nine-day effort, ascending more than 32,000 vertical feet across 80 miles of mountain wilderness. It was remote and committing, and it required a gamut of mountain skills, from glacier travel to route finding, not to mention the ability to drop steep lines with a heavy pack.

It still is remote. Despite the modern advantages of lightweight gear and high- tech communications, many ski mountaineers still struggle to match the time clocked more than a half century ago by Briggs and company. That only adds to the route’s appeal.

Being Canadian and motivated in part by a silly sort of nationalism, I have always been drawn to this route—and always a little annoyed that the Yankees plucked it first. Finally this year I pulled together a plan with my friend, photographer Steve Ogle, who lives in Nelson. We teamed up with Brodie Smith, a ski guide from Invermere, with whom Steve had worked briefly on a project, and his buddy, Jeff Wynnychuk, a heli-skiing pilot. It was a team that came together out of convenience rather than a shared history of mountain experiences.

We planned our trip for the end of April. That’s ordinarily a bomber time for ski mountaineering in Canada. But in an era of global warming, there are no guarantees. In the weeks before our trip, I became an obsessive weather watcher, and I didn’t like what I saw. Spring had arrived with a vengeance. Valley temps in Golden, where we planned to meet at Alpine Helicopters’ hangar for our lift into the backcountry, soared to the low 30s (Celsius), rendering the Purcells’ snowpack isothermal all the way up to the summits. We delayed our flight into the Kain Hut for three days, until alpine temperatures dropped back down to seasonal levels. On the evening of April 25 we flew, stoked but anxious about what this year’s warm spring held in store.

The spires of Bugaboo and Snowpatch rear up on either side as dawn light floods the alpine. We turn off the headlamps, and I strap my skis to my pack. My shoulders remind me that it’s been too long since I last carried a 50-pound-plus overnight bag in the mountains. I crane my neck upward and spot a notch in the col, accessed by a final narrow funnel of white between granite walls. The snow accepts a quarter boot length, perfect for climbing, though firm enough to make a slip undesirable. About 150 feet from the col, I grovel and kick steps in knee-deep soft snow. When we crest the ridge, a warm sun welcomes us and the massive Vowell Glacier unfurls beneath the blocky west face of Bugaboo Spire. One ascent down, I think to myself. Many more to go.

Skins peeled, we traverse onto the Vowell above a crevassed headwall, then turn down the fall line. At first my legs are uncooperative, unaccustomed to skiing with a heavy load. But after a dozen or so turns, I find the balance point.

Beyond a pair of aquamarine glacial lagoons, Bill’s Pass sneaks up on us benignly. At the top of it, we peer down a 40-degree soft- ening slope on the other side into a menacing but spectacular basin. Glaciers totter and tumble into it from 360 degrees. My first thought: This is no Wapta Traverse, a popular and relatively cruisey hut-to-hut trek on rolling glaciated terrain in the Canadian Rockies. Already the American pioneers of this traverse have gained my utmost respect.

Eager to ski it before the snow further deteriorates, we tear skins again, click in, and ski into the basin one by one. In the shade lower down, we find unpleasant and barely skiable half-frozen avalanche debris. My thoughts drift back and forth from the task at hand—gauging the consistency of the snow beneath my skis—to history and place.

This is hallowed ground in Canadian mountaineering and skiing history. Conrad Kain was, and perhaps still is, the most famous mountain guide to leave his mark in Canada. In 1916 the Austrian-born Kain made one of his most daring ascents, leading three clients, a hemp rope tied around their waists, to the summit of Bugaboo Spire via the legendary and exposed crux now known as the Kain Traverse, a pitch that still puckers many a modern-day alpinist. And as for the Bugs-to-Rogers traverse, there is some- thing about it that is almost sacred, bookended as it is by two lo- cales that are deeply loved by powder skiers.

At the north end of the traverse is Rogers Pass, where dreams of roadside ski touring in old-growth forests and on steep alpine faces are realized. At the south end are the Bugaboos, where the late Austrian guide Hans Gmoser, the godfather of heli skiing and founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays, was the first to use a helicopter to access powder. In the early years, Gmoser’s hardy heli-skiing clients stayed in a repurposed uninsulated logging-camp bunkhouse near Bugaboo Creek, sharing cooking and dishwashing duties. Out of those humble beginnings grew the most exclusive skiing experience in the world. From the porch of the Kain Hut we could see the lights of CMH’s Bugaboo Lodge twinkling in the valley far below. But the last heli-skiing clients left the Bugs a week ago, and the mountains, thankfully, are silent again.

Bill’s Pass behind us, we regroup in the basin beyond the reach of serac-fall to quickly rope up for the broken glacier
that lies between us and the Conrad Glacier. There is an urgency to our efforts, propelled by the prospect of another hot spell forecast for the end of the week. Our first day is a long one, with 13 miles of travel and 6,000 feet of elevation, rewarded at the end with a long descent of the meandering Conrad, which is covered in three inches of dry snow. That night we make camp, half a mile from two other tents, on a broad glacial plateau. Katabatic winds whistle down from Mount Thorington.

Soon three skiers approach. We learn that our neighbors are part of a team of scientists studying glacial recession and climate change on numerous glaciers throughout the Columbias.

“You’re camped on top of 175 meters of glacial ice,” one tells us.

It’s reassuring to know that in spite of the hot spring weather, a planet without glaciers is not yet imminent.

Early the next morning when I emerge from the tent to make coffee, the air is frosty and stars still twinkle in the sky above the broad sweep of our icy surroundings. Domestic duties that I normally avoid at home—cleaning up and packing—fill my predawn morning with a simple and contented focus. Time urges us onward.

Brodie and Jeff at lunch (quesadillas and soup) on the Conrad Icefield

Day Three

My feet, drenched in sweat-soaked socks, burn from a heat that feels too great for 9 a.m. The scrape of ski crampons on hard snow sounds like a ball and chain, as Steve noted when we left camp earlier. I pause to rest, leaning on my poles, eyes stinging from the solution of sweat and sunscreen oozing off my forehead. Far above, Brodie, fit and strong after a season of guiding, switchbacks toward Malachite Pass. Steve and Jeff are somewhere below me. We’re a team of four, but I’m in a solitary state of mind, alone with my thoughts. One moment I’m preoccupied with my blistered feet and the nerve under my left scapula that’s always irritated by a heavy pack. The next I’m reveling in the stripped-down simplicity and silence of movement in the winter wild. In 2005, Jon Walsh, Doug Sproul, and Troy Jungen covered the whole Bugs-to-Rogers traverse in 80 hours. It feels like it might take me 80 hours to reach Malachite.

The ski traverse: Why do we do it? At this very moment, it is a question without an easy answer. You must first strip away the slogging and pain to get at its Zen element, the primal joy of living in and moving through the mountains, from point A to B, with all that’s needed to survive on your back. On the traverse, life’s mental clutter drops away, and you learn things about yourself. For example, that I’m messy. When I ski, my poles flail like the Hermanator’s on the Hahnenkamm, straps flap unphotogenically from my backpack, and my goggles usually sit akimbo on my toque. In camp, I slap up tents as fast as possible and build crude windbreaks in a race to get supine in my down bag. Steve, on the other hand, takes a careful approach. Yesterday, deep in the Vermont Creek valley, I watched as he cut snow blocks with a precision that would shame an Incan stonemason and sculpted a microkitchen in our tent vestibule that might make Jamie Oliver consider winter camping as a hobby. I compensated for my slovenly efforts—or so I thought—by putting his skins on his skis this morning while he made coffee.

Day Four

Survival on my mind. My palms sweat, not from the heat but from a simmering fear. It’s hot, and it’s too late in the day. But we’re so close to International Basin that we push on, postholing toward a notch in a spiny ridge that wiggles down from International Mountain. The snow is dangerously isothermal. The slope feels as though at any moment it could shed its snow clean down to rock, us with it.

I top out relieved, followed minutes later by Jeff, scrambling to secure ground, looking as though he’s seen the ghost of Conrad Kain. We look out over International Basin, the last major drainage before the Purcells meet the Selkirks. To the south is Bugaboo Spire, in whose shadow we skied just a few days ago, though it feels like weeks. To the north is Mount Sir Donald, Matterhorn-esque, slicing the clouds that gather above Rogers Pass. It’s stunning country, wild and wonderful. “Where’s the hut?” Steve asks Brodie, who has worked as a ski and hiking guide in the region and knows the topography well.

Brodie’s annoyed. “I’m not going to waste breath trying to point it out,” he snaps. “It’s a needle in a haystack.”

Kicking steps on the way up to Climax Col on the exit from Crystalline Creek, with Brodie leading the way.

Even before the trip started, discord emerged in our group. A clash of expectations and goals, unspoken but there nonetheless, gnawed at me as I know it gnawed at Steve. I was reminded how the best adventures are always ones underpinned by a harmony of purpose within a group. But I was determined not to allow negativity to trump the joy of this self-imposed exile to the mountains from the clutter of modern life.

After some scanning across the valley, I finally spot the Kings-way above 10,000 for the next week or so. After dashing down another isothermal slope, we wallow around the head of International Basin in wet snow, then skin up for the day’s final push to the Kingsbury. Old ski tracks wiggle like worms through the trees. Steve first hears the buzz, then spots the mottled flash of a rufous hummingbird flitting among the fragrant firs. It’s a sight that doesn’t exactly bolster weather optimism.

That night we crack our beers in the welcome comfort of the hut, but the mood is tense. Though we’re still well short of Rogers Pass, Brodie wants to fly out as soon as possible—he has a house-building project to start in Invermere and doesn’t have a week to wait out the weather. Neither do Steve or I, but we are no less frustrated by the haste of our exit decision, having staked out precious time in busy family lives for this tour. I imagine the tough pioneers, who would have forged on stoically, without GPS, without multiple daily weather forecasts from the caretaker at CMH’s Bobby Burns Lodge, without even avalanche beacons.

The next day rain drizzles in the murky soup that shrouds Spillimacheen Glacier, which we’ve reached after a long low- angle traverse from the Kingsbury, followed by a spicy cornice drop into a cirque, then a final climb over a rounded shoulder. Steve and I linger on the lower reaches of the Spillimacheen, knowing these will be our last turns of the season. Jeff and Brodie disappear into the forest fringe below us, anxious to leave. The weather forecast has made our decision. We’ll fly out tomorrow.

That afternoon in the dingy McMurdo Cabin I peel off my boots in front of the woodstove and look at my feet: hamburger. A few of the blisters are red and show signs of infection. The ski traverse is a curious beast, difficult to rationalize to a non-skier, who might look at the gruesome condition of my feet and sun-scorched face and ask, “Why?”

Day Six

We shuffle around in the rain in a clearing near the cabin, waiting for the chopper. Delayed by low clouds, the pilot finds a hole and wiggles into the McMurdo Creek Valley. The silence of the mountains is shattered. We load the basket and strap in. The pilot looks over his shoulder and gives us a nod. We lift off and rise through the hole. 

The low clouds clear as we follow a drainage toward Kicking Horse Resort and the hangar in Golden. I scan the massive slide path that cut the valley slopes and spot a grizzly peacefully foraging for wildflower bulbs and sedges. Clearly, this means springtime in the Columbia Mountains. 

As always, I'm thankful to have been in the mountains. But this time, I'm left with the bittersweet feeling of a project left incomplete. And that, I suppose, is the kernel of inspiration that will force me one day to return. 

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Andrew Findlay lives on Vancouver Island, enjoying the views of British columbia's magnificent Coast Mountains. 

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