I looked back at my touring partner as she skinned up to join me on the summit of Cathedral Mountain and with a big smile on my face all I could say after 1600 metres of vertical gain was “Dude.” The ineffable beauty of the Rockies overwhelmed me as I looked beyond to the Lake O’Hara and Little Yoho regions. With a stoke level as high as the 3190 metre summit we were standing on, she yelled “Let’s take some fucking selfies!” After some hugs, fist pumps and a killer summit selfie photo shoot, we transitioned to ski mode. It was about 5:00pm at this point – way later than we had anticipated.
Emma and I met through a mutual friend last summer while rock climbing, and after many discussions about going ski touring together the stars finally aligned for us. There’s something to be said about an all girls adventure party. Since I’m almost always the only female on a ski tour, this was a treat and I knew it was going to be an awesome day.
I attempted Cathedral about a month earlier, but I got sandbagged by a very unfrozen Catarack Creek. This was my chance at redemption and I wanted this peak badly! The “log” we were told to use to cross the creek was in fact a small alder. So after throwing our skis over the open water and gingerly inching our way across the narrow tree trunk, we started on our way.
Emma knew of two previous groups who had recently gone through, and since there was no new snow, we followed some tracks up a drainage. Now, I know better than to follow random tracks, but we were equipped with a topo, GPS, compass, emergency overnight gear, and a hey-how-are-you attitude, so we carried on confidently. 4-5 hours of difficult travel through thick forest along some melt-freeze, chundery snow and it was starting to get hot as we finally cleared tree line. After the bushwhacking slog, our stoke was renewed as the sun beat down on us and we looked back to get impressive views of Narao and The Watchtower.
We took a break for food and drink in a sparsely treed meadow in preparation for heading into the alpine. Admittedly, we were a little uncertain during our route-finding process, but it turns out we somehow managed to bypass the chimney feature that would get us to the toe of the glacier. After taking a bearing and consulting our topo for the umpteenth time we were definitely in the right spot. I was pretty exhausted at this point and I considered pulling the pin, particularly since it was 1:30pm as we caught sight of the seriously complex terrain we needed to ascend.
After discussing the route, evaluating potential hazards, and talking about the next leg, we agreed to push forward and I took the lead.We had received mixed beta about the glacier on this tour, so we decided to play it safe – when in doubt, rope up!
The travel varied between moving over sheer ice and having to break trail through boot deep snow. Visually, our route was bracketed on the left by a sub-peak of our objective and Cathedral Crags on the right as we took turns shouting “almost there!” When we flattened out just before the final push, I caught sight of our line and I yelled back to her “Shit’s about to get really beautiful!” And it sure did.
Now the fun part! It felt so rewarding and normal to ski down what we had laboured through to get up. And so, just because it hadn't been a long or hard enough day, we decided to deviate from our up route and ski down what we assumed to be the headwall that some trip reports say is a route up. We knew it was a risk, and we were prepared that it might mean getting cliffed out…which is exactly what happened. After some variable and exhilarating skiing, I was as far down as I could go and I yelled up to Emma who was waiting about 40 metres above me: “I hate to break it to you, girl, but it looks like we’re going to have to go back up.” With a heavy heart I side-stepped back up to a safe spot where I could put my skins back on. It was pretty hard and icy travel and there were big consequences if one of us fell. “Almost there!” I shouted down to Emma. I kept slipping out every other step, and we eventually put our skis on our packs to boot up the rest of it. This added at least another hour, if not more, to our already long day. There was still the option to ski down the chute we had passed earlier in the day, but we decided that we’d go with what we knew and ski down into the crappy bushwhack. We had both been out of water for a while, so we were running on pure adrenaline at this point. We exchanged goggles for headlamps about halfway through the forest, and after some side slipping, jump turns, and not so pretty skiing we made it down and I let out a ridiculous laugh when I heard the sound of running water. As we sat along the creek bank taking it all in, Emma pointed to a lonely star in the sky and we just giggled, slightly hysterical from the day’s events.
It was totally dark as we made our way back over the creek, through the meadow and on to the Lake O’Hara road. 3 kilometres to the parking lot and we peeled out of there like Thelma & Louise. Once we got into cell range, my phone exploded with messages and missed calls from concerned friends. My roommate called just as I was about to call him, and it was his last attempt before calling for help. I really am a lucky girl to have such awesome and caring friends! I got word to everyone that nothing bad happened; that it was just an awesome and long day with bits of sufferfest. But hey, it wouldn’t be a Rockies Classic without a sketchy river crossing, a heinous bushwhack, and a headlamp descent.
Author, Michelle Brazier