By Ted Mahon
Scrawled on the wall of British Columbia's Glacier Circle Hut, we could read the names Bill Briggs, Barry Corbet, Sterling Neale, and Bob French, along with this: "10 June 1958—Ski Traverse from Bugaboo Creek to Glacier. Started June 2. -Alpine Ski Club of America". It was their ninth and final night on the route and the following morning they would make their way to Rogers Pass to complete a visionary ski traverse; an incredible accomplishment for the era, and decades ahead of its time.
As eight of us moved around that same hut—packing packs, feeding the fire, getting partially dried boot liners back in their shells—there was a feeling that, even 53 years later, it was still no small feat. Much like the group that left the inscription, we too were about to start up the last climb to make the final ski descent down to Rogers Pass. Sunburned and worn out, but knowing we'd actually complete this traverse and return to civilization later that day, it struck me that the guys on that original trip likely felt the same way.
Ten days earlier we flew in to the Bugaboos. And after we'd cached five wooden crates of food, fuel and necessities along the route via helicopter, our crew—four Coloradans and four Canadians, including organizer and local ski guide Greg Franson, of Bluebird Guides—embarked on the traverse. From the drop off in the Bugaboos we would follow close to the original 1958 route: North for six days along the spine of the Purcells, then down and across the Beaver River Valley, then back up into the alpine and north through the Selkirks and ultimately to Rogers Pass, where a couple of shuttled cars awaited.
The high route through the Columbia Mountains—covering some 85 miles while climbing over 30,000 vertical feet—is as burly today as it ever was and offers no guarantee of finishing. While gear and equipment is lighter and stronger, and pre-arranged caches keep the weight of the packs manageable, the benefits of time and technology pretty much end there. Out there, you're still at the whim of the weather, route conditions and your own determination. Lucky for us, we had just the right mix.
Starting at the Bugaboos had us climbing southerly lines and descending cold, north snow, a recipe for incredible skiing at times. And the extra daylight and 10 p.m. sunsets allowed us to log big days with somewhat casual starts. Of our nine nights out, two were spent in huts (International Basin and Glacier Circle), six in tents and 'mids, and one in the fiberglass Malloy Igloo, which resembles something out of a Star Wars scene.
We encountered the full spectrum of conditions. Big cornices often loomed at the start of ski descents and had to be avoided, and route-finding across crevassed glaciers was a regular issue. A huge snowpack from a winter that refused to let go required constant attention with regard to avalanches, not to mention a big effort in the trail breaking. Ropes were needed to explore descent routes through bergschrunds, for "dope on a rope" snowpits, and even once for belaying skiers down a super-steep slope with a big hazard below. The fickle BC weather and "claggy" conditions did its best to try to derail us, at one point forcing us to descend to the valley floor to move north along the river in better visibility, rather than try to recklessly navigate a broken ice field in whiteout conditions.
None of it was unexpected though, which may be why we actually pulled it off.
And as we skinned across the Illecillewaet Glacier on that final day, and we heard the roar of trucks barreling down Rogers Pass, the huge satisfaction of realizing a goal set in. I couldn't help but wonder if it was similar to the experience of that original group, because after all, the route doesn't really care what the calendar reads, be it 1958 or 2011. The Bugs to Rogers Traverse was complete. Time for a beer.
Ted Mahon is an Aspen-based skier, mountaineer and photographer; see his blog at stuckintherockies.com.