Vertical Relief

The formiddable Mount Vaux. Kootenay Range, BC. Photo: Cody Lank

The end of the eight-mil rope falls through the focal point of the anchor, and I stand alone on the summit ridge. My partners are both thirty meters below. Plan A didn’t go according to plan. 

In retrospect, hubris is usually obvious. The initial objective had been to climb the southwest face, tag the summit, enjoy the views, then ski off the unknown northern glaciated side. The cloud layer at 2800 to 3100 meters wasn’t in the forecast, so we practiced the virtue of patience on the summit, hoping for the cloud to blow or burn away. With no such luck we dropped in anyway. Why not, eh? 

Thirty minutes later, roped up in a whiteout, skiing down a glacier we have no experience with, our decisions and actions become questionable. One thing we do know is out on skiers left somewhere up here, the glacier calves off over an eight-hundred meter rock face. The void and the constant of gravity, always pulling. We stop and re-evaluate. Plan B: climb back to the summit and ascend back down the southwest face. Unfortunately, the last hundred meters of the southwest face is cruxy. The upper face consists of steep gullies and short rock steps. The final section to the ridge is especially steep and horrendously loose. There’s no solid rock or snow on the ridge to build a rappel anchor. We compromise and build a T-slot leeward of the summit in somewhat dense snow using my Intention 110’s as the anchor material. Braz hands me his ice tool so that I have two and then goes on rappel, Travis follows, his splitboard secure on his pack.

And so I find myself alone, the Trans-Canada highway a pencil line through the landscape thousands of meters below. I feel nothing - yet at the epitome of living - possibly a situationally-induced flow state. I curse, smile, then downclimb. The next three rappels go smoothly, the transition into skiable terrain as well. The middle third of the seven-thousand foot descent is quality pow, high speed free-riding. Light turns to dusk, then into darkness. We started in the dark and we shall ski out in the dark. A full day. A real experience.

Ski touring, backcountry skiing, freeskiing, freeriding. Whatever you call it and however you integrate it into your lifestyle, if you engage in the mountains, I have a story for you.

Harsh, wild, and not recommended. Kootenay Range, BC. FOW: Kyle Chartrand and Chris Brazeau. Photo: Cody Lank

As you drive east from Golden BC, after passing through the Kickinghorse River Canyon, two major peaks demand the attention of the landscape observer. Chancellor Peak sits as a rocky steep pyramid next to the massive bulk of Mount Vaux. As the highway crosses the Yoho River and contours north, the astute skier cranes their neck, one eye on the highway, one eye evaluating the verticality of the treeline to alpine terrain towering above the valley bottom. It’s a forgotten corner of Yoho Park, especially in the winter. Ninety-nine percent of motorists drive through, truckers upshift and hammer on the gas, and just twenty meters off the highway you’re in complete wilderness. Wolves and elk battle it out as they have for thousands of years. Sometimes the wolves get the slight advantage of traveling on a ski track. 

Most weather systems move west to east, brewing up in the Pacific and cooling as they push across the interior mountain ranges. Whatever moisture is left gets funneled through the Kickinghorse Canyon and slams into the western aspects of Mount Vaux and Chancellor Peak. Harsh, wild, and not recommended. No wonder it took us so long to actually check it out.

Mount Vaux's northeast face. Kootenay Range, BC. FOW: Chris Brazeau // Photo: Cody Lank

From a skier’s perspective, Mount Vaux has many intriguing aspects. The in-your-face approach directly up the southwest face from the highway.  The original route up the Ottertail River to the north ridge. The bushwack adventure up Finn Creek to the north summit. The old school option up Hoodoo Creek to the Hanbury Glacier. Or the visionary northeast face.

Every ski season has its defining moments and 2021 had no exceptions. What were yours? Did you go first chair to last, every day of the biggest storm cycle of the winter? Did you dial that trick, stomp it clean off a natural terrain feature? Did you do that tour you’d been thinking about for years? Did you ski that gnarly steep line that finally came into condition? Or send that cliff? Did you check out that new zone or other ski hill? Did you teach your kid how to ski? Did you plan that family and friends ski trip? The possibilities of a defining moment are endless, especially with an open mind. And so, with an open-mind approach we skied and climbed to the wild summit of Mount Vaux. Numerous days, a variety of aspects, many memorable moments, all culminating in a ski run down the northeast face. Harsh, wild and not recommended…unless you’re looking for high quality adventure. 

This tale is far from over. Kootenay Range, BC. FOW: Kyle Chartrand // Photo: Cody Lank

Part Two

Another 5 am meeting time. Thankfully the arctic cold front has eased off. The minus twenty-eight degree Celsius start a couple weeks ago was far from fun. A storm cycle and a few days of blower pow freeskiing combined with a stable weather forecast has brought us back to the idea of another attempt at Mount Vaux. This time from Finn Creek, hopefully to the north summit, then up to the main summit. FOW Chris Brazeau did some recon a few days earlier, and even though there’s no trail, he assured Kyle and I that the approach goes without too much trouble. 

Like I said before, twenty meters off the highway and you’re in complete wilderness. Finn Creek is no exception. Other than frozen water ice, mini box canyons, forty-degree side hilling over wind fallen trees in a thick lodgepole pine forest, it’s basically a walk in the park. Brazeau, the eternal optimist. Compared to a Patagonian tower in a tempest, Finn Creek is a casual approach. We love this guy.

Rising above treeline on Chris' "casual approach." Kootenay Range, BC. FOW: Chris Brazeau and Kyle Chartrand // Photo: Cody Lank

As we break trail up from treeline, we find ourselves in an impressive basin with alpine rock walls towering to the sky above us. Thankfully all the bushwacking is now below us, the surface snow conditions are efficient for touring, so we contour up and continue to gain elevation. Although we’re only a few kilometers from the highway, the feeling is like being on another planet. The basin curves up climbers right around a steep rock buttress. The unknowns of our route are about to be revealed. It’s the spot on the map where the contour lines get real tight. We round the corner and there’s a nice little couloir through the cliffs connecting to the bowl below the north face of the north summit. The line looks like it should be fairly straightforward. We’ve been on the approach for a few hours, the sun is finally high enough to hit our position so we take a break. Tea and sunshine! We fully absorb both. Twenty minutes later we’re French-technique and front-pointing up boilerplate hard slab. Not necessarily good ski conditions, but efficient for climbing, as Chic Scott would say “real mountain snow”. Classic Canadian Rockies.

The terrain plateaus out below the north face and the views open up especially to the South and East, looking up the Ottertail River. What’s most compelling about this spot are the views down and across the northeast face. It’s one of the main reasons we’re here, to scout out the myth of this potential ski line. Certain big mountain ski specialists have known about the possibility for years, some words were spoken, most forgotten, some possibly sworn to secrecy. Good friends approached the northeast face via the Ottertail river years ago. They made it to the moraines below the face and witnessed a cornice collapse thousands of meters above them, triggering an avalanche. They were blown off their feet by the wind blast seconds later. They lived but never went back.

Climbing the northeast face. Kootenay Range, BC. FOW: Kyle Chartrand and Chris Brazeau // Photo: Cody Lank

The northeast face of Mount Vaux rises 1200 vertical meters above the headwaters of Haskins creek. The first third of the face is the steepest, we can’t yet see a ‘for sure’ line but it looks skiable with a possible rappel. The middle third is continuous ramps, couloirs and mini faces. We can see that section will allow clean fall-line skiing. The upper third is a hanging pocket of glacial ice at about forty-five degrees, seemingly defying gravity, still frozen and stuck in place, yet slowly melting, slowly cracking off…pummeling the lower third of the face. Conditions, timing, and luck are the major factors associated with ski lines of this nature. We take a few photos and enjoy the ambiance, then continue our ascent. We’ve now intersected with the “north ridge” (circa 1901) climbing route. The position and views are inspiring as we climb directly to the north summit.

The north ridge. Kootenay Range, BC. FOW: Kyle Chartrand and Chris Brazeau // Photo: Cody Lank

Our goal is to reach the main summit, so after taking in the vast 360-degree panorama from this sub summit we descend to the glacier. We’re above three thousand meters in elevation and it’s a true alpine environment. Winds have stripped the glacier down to bare ice in many places, and the snow is the texture of Styrofoam. We choose not to rope up as the visibility is perfect. It’s obvious where the glacier becomes steep, broken, and crevassed, our route is well away from those areas. We continue up to the final short, steep climb to the main summit. At just over thirty-three hundred meters, we’re looking down at everything around us. We’ve been on the move for about nine hours, we still need to climb back up to the north summit to line up for the north face and it would sure be nice to make it back to the truck by dark. We don’t linger on the summit for too long.

Only a few moments to celebrate. Kootenay Range, BC. FOW: Chris Brazeau // Photo: Cody Lank

The initial ski turns off the summit are steep and deep, then it’s sastrugi and styrofoam, occasional softer turns, and straight lines over patches of ice. Within minutes we’re back below the north summit, also at the potential entrance to the northeast face. Brazeau starts digging at the cornice lip to have a look, he digs through it with ease and gets a clear view down onto the hanging glacier. 

I hear him saying, “it goes no problem! Let's do it! Let's go for it!” He’s frothing. We re-evaluate the situation. We have thirty meters of rappel capability, three ice screws, enough cord and webbing to build anchors. We don’t have any pitons, and we don’t have much daylight. It’s already 3:30 pm. The unknown lower third of the face? The prospect of finding and building anchors and rappelling into the unknown in the dark? Brazeau’s confidence is definitely contagious but the unknown and the lack of daylight left tip the scales. Skis go onto our packs and we re-climb to the north summit.

Our ski tips overhang the fifty-degree north face. As far as we know, it’s never been skied. We’ve got almost two thousand vertical meters and about eight kilometers between us and cold beers at the truck. The sun is now low, shadows are cast long, and the light is beginning to fade. We drop in. The conditions are ok, there’s a windslab we trigger on some turns, nothing propagates. It’s not freeride conditions. We ski slowly, in full control, careful not to blow a turn or sluff each other out. We regroup below the three-hundred meter face and continue down to the couloir which connects to the lower basin. Staying in control is key. Side slipping, falling leaf, snowplowing, it ain’t pretty but we make it down. Snow conditions improve in the lower basin and it’s possible to ski fast and fluid. The terrain is wide open and not too steep so we cruise down to tree line. We locate our uptrack and follow it down into Finn Creek. The ski out is a three-dimensional obstacle course over, under, around rocks, sticks and ice. We smash down and through, making it back to the truck by dark.

The weather forecast is good, real good. Snow stability is good, real good. Conditions, timing, and luck. We plan on making an attempt on the northeast face after two days of recovery and re-energizing.

Part Three

I open my eyes to an ocean of stars. The fabric of my sleeping bag around my face is completely frozen and covered in frost. I reposition my boot liners, ski gloves, extra socks and makeshift pillow which are all stuffed in the sleeping bag with my body. The bivi at treeline up Haskins Creek emphasizes the themes of survival and positioning. Kyle, Chris and I are in a fine position to make an attempt at climbing and skiing the North East face of Mount Vaux. Our alarms go off at 3:30 am. We brew up, hydrate, eat, and organize our gear and packs. The mood has a definite feel of alpine style. Since the last part of our approach the previous day was in the dark, we still haven’t had a good view of our objective. We’re psyched to get underway, the stoke level is high. This is exactly where we all want to be, living it up! Surviving. We finish fine-tuning our packs and by 5 am we’re on the approach.

Chris on the apron of the northeast face. Kootenay Range, BC. FOW: Chris Brazeau // Photo: Cody Lank

There’s a nice warm glow on the eastern horizon, the snow feels good, pow, winter conditions. We’re moving efficiently, easy trail breaking through glacial moraines. We stop to regroup and scout the line as the daylight begins to illuminate the landscape. The direct approach looks intense, steep, confined, and exposed to the terrain above. We go climber’s right to a series of ramps and cliff bands. Sunlight hits the upper face. We transition from skinning to boot packing; crampons and two ice tools. Conditions are good, we move efficiently without many words. First crux is a section of bare rock, Braz rope guns and we haul our packs through. Second crux is an exposed traverse across a steep hanging snow field, we move across it one at a time. We are through the lower third of the face. Now we’re climbing straight up for a solid vertical kilometer or so. Time compresses, expands, and ceases to exist. We climb and climb and climb. It’s windy on the hanging glacier, spindrift flows past us, the constant of gravity always pulling. The glacier steepens to just off-vertical and Braz digs through the small cornice to gain the glaciated summit bench. It’s the exact spot where we stood three days before. Today there’s no unknowns, it’s early in the day, the weather is perfect and we feel lucky.

Straight up. Kootenay Range, BC. FOW: Kyle Chartrand and Chris Brazeau // Photo: Cody Lank

Farther up, Brazeau gets the ice tools involved. Kootenay Range, BC. Photo: Cody Lank

The moment. Adventure, sunshine, wilderness and good friends. It’s been eight hours since we left the bivy, and years, even decades of ski journeys accumulating experiences. Past, present, future. As far as we know, no one has climbed or skied the North East face. Right now we’ll focus on the present.

Kyle topping out. Kootenay Range, BC. Photo: Cody Lank

Braz builds the v-thread in ancient ice and Kyle goes on rappel. This is not the type of line to air into, mountain rescue is the call we don’t want to make. We take full responsibility for our actions and engage accordingly. The short rappel puts us easily back on the hanging glacier. I pull, coil and pack the rope, tighten my boot buckles and adjust my goggles. Just before starting to ski, I take it all in. My partners are below me skiing a steep hanging glacier on a remote face deep in the mountains. It’s late enough in the day that this aspect is now in the shade. That’s a good thing. Visibility is good, snow conditions are somewhat soft, chalky, as good as can be expected. The constant of gravity is always pulling, and I give in. 

Kyle gets ready for the final rappel. Kootenay Range, BC. // Photo: Cody Lank

The glacier skis nicely, the pitches just skiers left of where the glacier toes off are the steepest. Our legs burn but it feels good. The more they burn, the more it’s critical to put attention into the turns. We ski and regroup several times and after about a thousand meters we arrive at the spot where we need to reverse the traverse. Skis go onto our packs and we bootpack back across the slope, again one at a time. The commitment level of crossing this exposed section re-focuses my attention. We regroup, eat, drink, and transition back to ski mode energized. We are still hundreds of meters above valley bottom with the lower third of the face to ski. It’s still steep and exposed, snow conditions feel good. We ski our climbing line with a few deviations, connecting the ramps and faces, regrouping where it makes sense in regards to objective hazards. It’s crucial to ski one at a time moving as a team and skiing in complete control. In this manner we exit the face onto the apron, snow conditions improve, and so our ski style shifts to free-riding. My personal favorite, high speed turns, powder crystals lingering in the air, effortless glide across the landscape. We regroup at the top of a lateral moraine, a half kilometer from the face. The North East-facing cirque of Mount Vaux, Mount Ennis, and Allan Peak inspire us to the point of total respect and appreciation of the zone. Big high fives and smiles all around.

It’s another half kilometer down to the bivy. An hour later we’re packed up and we ski down to the confluence of the Ottertail River. The snow is holding out, not quite isothermal. Looking back towards the summit of Mount Vaux a feeling of contentment mixes with fatigue and happiness. Peak to creek. On the trail back to the highway we notice animal tracks. This time the wolves are stalking a moose.

The Ottertail, Kickinghorse, Beaverfoot, and Columbia Rivers were all well-travelled for thousands of years during the seasonal journeys by the K’tunaxa and Secwépemc Nations. Thankfully due to national park boundaries some of these lands have been preserved in a wilderness state. The Trans-Canada highway, Canadian Pacific Railway, clearcut logging practices and national parks infrastructure are all examples of post-colonization impacts on these lands. Pine beetles and forest fires have also had significant impacts on these forests in the last few decades. Glaciers are melting. I feel a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation experiencing and witnessing these beautiful, wild landscapes. As skiers, we live a subculture parallel to the mainstream flow. Our rhythms are an attunement with natural landscapes, seasonal changes, weather patterns and basic elements. Frozen water molecules, wind, temperature, and changes to them all. At this point in history it’s absolutely crucial to diversify our lives towards becoming more sustainable and re-appreciating nature. We are all part of the problems, and we are all part of the solutions.


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