Chasing Cartier


Six years ago, I was skiing far out of bounds at Revelstoke Mountain Resort when I started looking at Mount Cartier, the next big mountain to the south. My friend Martin and I were riding off the backside of Kokanee Bowl, but I kept looking at the tracks that headed south from the top of Kokanee peak, disappearing down a ridge somewhere between Cartier and the equally impressive Ghost Peak.

This was the furthest I’d ventured beyond the ski area boundary and it got me thinking, “How much further can I go?” and, “Can I ski that?”

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Ghost Peak looms beyond the backside of Kokanee Bowl. Sidenote: This photo ended up winning me two pairs of skis, ski boots, and bindings.

I’d heard of people skiing Ghost and Cartier from the ski hill but at the time it seemed so far away. Both mountains looked so big and remote, I wondered if I had the fitness and backcountry skills to go out there. I was tempted so I started playing around on Google Earth and realized Cartier wasn’t that far. Or at least it wasn’t so far as to be impossible. I traced out a route and suggested to Martin that we give it a go the following weekend. He was hesitant, but agreed. The weather forecast and avalanche conditions were looking favourable, so we met first thing Saturday morning and struck out.

It takes a lot of transitions between skiing and hiking to reach the basin below Mount Cartier. The first is at the top of the resort, the second at the top of Montana Bowl, a third in the bowl, a fourth at the top of Kokanee, and so on. Finally, on our seventh transition, we were looking up at the east face of Cartier. On our way out there we passed two friends on their way home from a camping trip in the area and they had graciously set a skin track for us. It was a surprisingly smooth day and at 2 p.m., we were practically on the summit of Cartier, separated from it from a boot pack along a steep sidehill that we didn’t want to tempt. We were close enough to call it a success.

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The north face of Cartier sits in the shadow, while we skied up and down the east face on the left.

We skied the east face, back down the way we came up, then started the long ridge walk back to the ski resort. It was a stunning skin, with views one way towards Rogers Pass and the views the other to the lowering sun over the Gold Rang of the Monashees. Martin led the charge and we were back to our cars at 6 p.m. Both of us were pretty stoked on the day.

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The view from the ridge, on a different day back there.

I still had an itch to scratch, and that was the north face of Cartier. It’s a steep wall of snow and rock that I’d stared at many times from the top of the resort. It looked too gnarly to ski to me, but I knew people had ridden the face. Now that I’d stood on the summit, I decided one day I would ski the north face. I knew it would be a far more committing mission because of the sheer steepness and hazards of the objective. It would require really good stability and the right partners. More pointedly, I wanted to find someone with more experience skiing big lines to take me, which would also mean proving myself on bigger lines in the meantime.

Years went by and my fitness improved, as did my backcountry experience with it. My confidence in skiing steeper lines in the right conditions grew, yet the north face remained elusive. I made a few more trips in that direction, including one to the top of Ghost Peak, but my only other attempt at Cartier was thwarted by thick cloud cover. Not to mention none of my regular partners were keen on the mission. In hindsight, it was the right move to wait. Meanwhile, a couple of local pros went out and skied the north face combined with the Greenslide, and I realized that was the way to do it – ski an epic descent to the road instead of the long walk back to the resort.

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That time I skied Ghost Peak. This was during the winter of 2015, which was particularly awful snow-wise, and this ski was one of the worst.

Fast forward to this past February. Working freelance had afforded me lots of time to go ski touring and I’d pulled off some long days and skied some steep lines already this winter. My goal was to be able to climb and ski 2,000 vertical metres in a day comfortably and I achieved that early on. Then, on a friend’s birthday in late January, we attempted a 3,000 metre day. I only reached 2,800 vertical metres, but I proved my fitness was there. When you can do that, a day like Cartier doesn’t seem so bad. Before this year, I’d often have days where I got tired easily, but now I felt good about pushing through.

I was messaging with my friend Yann before the February long weekend when he mentioned that our mutual friends Crystal and Pat wanted to ski Cartier. They planned on the exact route I’d envisioned – the north face followed by the Greenslide, the monstrous avalanche path that plummets 2,200 metres from the summit to the Columbia River. This was my golden ticket. I had never toured with Crystal before, but I knew she was a strong backcountry skier. Yann is probably the most experienced skier I tour with on a semi-regular basis, and Pat, the fourth member of the group, is another one of those backcountry machines.

There was a surprisingly long lineup for the gondola when we showed up at RMR first thing Sunday morning. We rode the lifts to the top of the resort and put on our skins as a brutal north wind howled. Across, down, and up, and we found ourselves at the top of Kokanee Bowl. My previous times on Cartier, I’d skied the ridge to Ghost Lake, then had to skin up and ski back down to get to the base of Cartier. In the spring, those west facing slopes were pretty crusty, but this time, we hit them directly off the ridge after a cold, cloudy spell. The snow was soft and fast and we were putting our skins back on in no time.

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Crystal skis the slide paths.

Yann and Pat split up trail breaking duties, though most of the snow had been blown off the face, so it probably wasn’t the most demanding work. The bigger challenging was getting an edge in the rock-hard snow, so it didn’t matter if you were first or last. Eventually, I gave up on skinning and started bootpacking one switchback before the rest. The snow was so hard in spots, I could barely kick steps into it. I kept my ice axe in one hand in case I had to self-arrest. A helicopter from a local heli-ski op buzzed around as we made our way up, giving their pampered guests a show of a few crazy locals.

On top, we poked around looking for the right entrance. Yann was the first up and, tireless as always, he was already looking for a safe spot to drop in when I finally punched through he sugary snow to the top. By the time I got my skins off, he was digging out a gap in the cornice.

I dropped down to Yann and looked down at the face. I was intimidated. “I think this is the biggest line I’ve skied,” I told my friends. I’d probably skied steeper and narrower runs, but it was the narrow entrance over exposure that had me spooked; the rest looked fine. Still, I was right at the top of the notch, so I volunteered to go first. We marked out a rib of snow where we’d regroup and I dropped in.

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Looking down the north face of Cartier.

Not really. I edged into the run face slowly until I realized I couldn’t just side-slip my way in because the gap in the cornice was too narrow and the drop was real. Finally, I had to go for it. I dropped to the right, dug in, shoulder-checked the slope, stopped, and watched as my ski pole popped out of my hand and went tumbling down the face. Oops.

Well, just another challenge, I thought. I jump-turned my way down, passing my remaining pole from hand to hand while letting my sluff run ahead rather than trying to out-ski it. Less elegantly than hoped, I reached the designated safe spot and watched the others drop in one-by-one. None of us were all that graceful.

After skiing the top part first, I was the last down the remaining three-quarters. I reached the first major choke and I could hear Yann yelling up that he’d found my pole. I couldn’t tell if he said he would take it or leave it, so I kept an eye out as I skied down. The snow was a mixed bag – some powder, some wind slab, and some ice. It was a great, leg-burning ski and I cruised out into the fan, skiing fast until I started to hit the old avalanche debris. I went right past my pole in the process, much to the shock of my friends and my chagrin. At least I can claim the first single-pole descent of the north face of Cartier, we joked. Looking up, I could see my pole sticking out of the snow and I wasn’t sure how I missed it. Either I was having too much fun, or I was too focused on surviving.

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We skinned up to the west ridge of Cartier, confident enough in the snowpack that we took the short way. Yann, ever the man and machine, detoured to pick up my pole. I could hear him slide over some ice and I figured that must have been the same patch I was slid over earlier, causing me to miss my pole in favour of not crashing. At least that’s my excuse.

Sitting on top of the Greenslide was something else. It’s about three kilometres wide and drops more than two kilometres to the valley below. It’s one of the biggest avalanche paths in British Columbia and the last time it slid, it buried the road 10 metres deep. You want to be confident it’s not going to do that if you ski it.

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Looking down the Greenslide to the Columbia River far below.

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The gang at the top of the Greenslide.

Fortunately, a month of dry and cold weather meant the snowpack was pretty bomber, and the winds had blown the surface into a buff groomer. A few centimetres had fallen on top of that, making for a fun and consistent ski. The upper half was smooth and wide open, just right for big carving turns. We skipped through Christmas trees and navigated around one cliff band before the path started to funnel into a canyon.

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We skied to the edge of a peninsula-like feature and then down into the canyon and still the river seemed miles off. We picked our way down, staying high above the walls of the canyon. Crystal found herself on the wrong side and we had to talk her down through one section. Eventually we regrouped and with the hard skiing over, I led the way out of the canyon into the runout zone. The snow remained decent the whole way down and with darkness falling and the moon emerging over Cartier behind us, we bashed through some alders and jumped onto the road.

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This was my biggest day on skis ever. Not in terms of vertical, but in terms of the pure epicness of the runs. The slide path on the way to Cartier was a great warm up, the north face was a fantastic big line, and the Greenslide was epic in terms of its length and general quality skiing.

And now I need another dream. I think I know what it is, but I’m not sure when it will happen.

 

 

 

 

 

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