Let us begin with two facts that anyone who wishes to ski up onto the Columbia Icefield, halfway between Banff and Jasper, might want to remember.
1. At 300 square kilometres, the Columbia Icefield is the largest glacier in North America outside Alaska – so big that it creates its own weather systems.
2. The weather is almost always in a bad mood.
In the 1920s, Byron Harmon, Canada's first photographic chronicler of the Rocky Mountains, hooked up with Lewis Freeman, an American travel writer and filmmaker, to make the trip.
They wanted to photograph Mount Columbia, which at 3,747 metres (12,294 feet) is Alberta's highest peak and sits in the corner of the ice field like a pasha on a throne. They employed two guides, a string of pack horses, a radio, a typewriter, 8,000 feet of movie film and a flock of carrier pigeons, in case they found trouble.
They took 70 days to travel 800 kilometres.
On their very last day on top of the world, their food spent, the clouds finally cleared for the first time for 40 minutes – just long enough for Harmon to snap his pictures of the great peak. At the time, Freeman remarked that it might be the first patch of clear sky in those parts for several years.
Needless to say, even now that a highway runs within eight kilometres of the toes of the glacier, these facts raise a question: Why would otherwise rational human beings strap on skis and climb even 15 km on foot, in winter, carrying all their gear and provisions, up to the foggy, frozen hell of the Columbia glacier? And even if they did, why would they want to do it at the age of 56?
I asked myself the same question many times before we embarked. I can say this: There is no single sane answer. On the other hand, if you don't try, you end up regretting it.
Attempts 1, 2 and 3
In our defence – and by "our," I mean my own, and that of Allan Kling, a lawyer-turned-landscape designer from Toronto; John Mitchell, a retired oilman in Edmonton; and William Randall, a rancher from Argentina, all of whom have been skiing together in the high mountains every year for 25 years – this was our fourth attempt.
The first time we tried to broach the Columbia, we were in our 30s.
It's good to be in your 30s! We approached the Columbia by ski plane from the west, landed on the Clemenceau Glacier, ascended the Apex Glacier and a few others, and planned to climb a chimney in a cliff band into the Rocky Mountain Trench, whence we could ramp up onto the Columbia itself.
This had been done a couple of times before in the preceding hundred years. But bad weather fogged us in for three days, and travelling over a glacier in a whiteout with dwindling food is not recommended. A helicopter eventually plucked us off to safety.
Life is simpler up there, even in a whiteout that stops you cold.... Everything you do feels necessary.
The second time we went in from the east, up the big, fat, safe but very long tongue of the Saskatchewan Glacier.
We didn't see the sun for two days, and I had a brand-new month-old baby daughter at home, with the result that I freaked out after a day's travel, and began to see the outline of growling spirit bears in abstract patches of rock and snow on the sides of the mountains that loom over the lower valley of the Saskatchewan. Marijuana may have been involved.
In any event, I decided I had to stay alive for a few years to get the baby on her feet, and so I turned back.
The Columbia can do such things, and led me to formulate Brown's First Rule of Glacier Travel: Do not go ski mountaineering with anyone who has a child under a year old at home.
On our third attempt, with a much bigger party, the weather turned absolutely impenetrable: You couldn't see either the Saskatchewan or the Athabasca Glacier, which is the shorter but trickier and potentially more lethal route to the Columbia's plains.
We completed the Six Pass Route instead, a gorgeous five-night, backcountry ski trip on the other side of the highway in Jasper National Park, but not, in any sense, the Columbia. It was a blast, at least until our guide slid into a cave and later flipped her Pathfinder. This is not a metaphor.
Our fourth venture, this past May, didn't look any more promising. It's one thing to ski up onto the Columbia if you live in Banff or Calgary or Canmore and can suddenly take four days off when a brief window of meteorological clarity presents itself unexpectedly, like a freshly washed child at breakfast. It's another to have to get there from Toronto on a precommitted schedule.
But I was not to worry. The plan this time, in the spring of 2010, as Kling put it, was: "We'll hire porters! And these days, with GPS, it doesn't matter if the weather's bad."
See more photos from the trip
"Really?" I said. "How does global positioning satellite technology allow you to avoid crevasses in a whiteout?"
"Well," Kling said, "it doesn't help with the crevasses. But at least you don't get lost and wander into an avalanche."
Did I mention that this past year was the worst snow year on record in the Rockies, avalanche-wise? It was! But we went ahead anyway.
Our individual gear included: a sleeping bag, toilet paper and Tuck's medicated cleansers, a lighter, eating utensils, breathable Schoeller ski pants, a Gore-Tex ski jacket (for storms), a lighter pile or Schoeller jacket (for everything else), a small down jacket or vest for evenings in camp, a warm shirt, a set of long underwear (and a spare top, at least if you had any mercy for the sensory apparati of your pals), ski socks, a tuque, a baseball cap for sunny days (ha ha ha ha ha), ski gloves and another thinner pair for camp.
I also brought well-fitting all-terrain ski books (I rented), a first aid kit, down booties, a ski repair kit, all-terrain skis, climbing skins of hairy polyester that let you ascend without slipping backward, telescoping ski poles, avalanche probe, transmitter, shovel, boot crampons, ski crampons (because the snow on the steep face of Mount Columbia would be as slick as a mink's bottom), an ice axe, a climbing harness for attaching to the rope so that one did not descend entirely all the way down any open crevasses, four carabiners (locking and non-locking), and three rope prusiks for ascending the main rope should one drop into said slot anyway.
I included my folding cribbage board and my Peaks of the Rockies playing cards, as per our tradition.
It was a distinctly existential experience, like standing around in the foyer to limbo, like living in a white nothingness.
On top of that we had four days of food, three tents, two stoves and about 10 litres of white gas because Mitchell wanted to heat water for our portable shower. And that was packing light.
But even that load was not a problem, because we had hired two porters, at $3 a pound, to carry 120 pounds of food and fuel, leaving ourselves with manageable 40-pound packs we could pull on Norco toboggans, at least when the terrain wasn't so steep that we had to carry.
To make the trip even easier, we planned to use the short, sharp route up the Athabasca Glacier, which is a mere third of the distance the Saskatchewan route demands. We'd fly up, make camp, summit Snow Dome, climb Mount Columbia and return, all in four days. That was the plan.
Starting out again
Our guides were Robson Gmoser and Félix Camiré. Robson is the 40ish son of Hans Gmoser, the legendary mountaineer and ski entrepreneur who invented helicopter skiing and founded Canadian Mountain Holidays before he died, in 2006, in a bicycle accident.
Robson has lived in the mountains since he was a baby. He has a permanently sunny disposition, co-owns the Battle Abbey ski lodge, and has a budding career as a producer and director of ski videos. He also has a genetic history on the Columbia: In 1963, his father was 30 metres from the top of Mount Columbia when the cornice he was trudging over broke off. He would have fallen to his death, but instead landed like a cat on a ledge, and climbed back up.
The following year, he was one of the team that skied the first-ever Icefields Traverse of all the glaciers strung in a line between Jasper and Banff.
Félix, 35, had been a guide for 15 years, and comes from an ancient Quebec family that still owns one of the province's oldest sugar shacks. He had a knack for taking positions, such as: Global warming is not caused entirely by mankind. If you want to anchor a Z-rigged pulley system to haul someone out of a slot, or find your way across a potential avalanche slope, or even just know where the hell you are, these are guys you want to have around.
The morning after we landed in Calgary, we found ourselves in a parking lot off the Icefields Parkway, gazing across two kilometres of mud and rock at the ripped and wrinkled ripples of the Athabasca Glacier. It was like looking up at the forehead of a very large, very old frowning man.
That was the good news. The bad news was that a massive storm was about to void itself all over the Rockies, resulting in warmer temperatures, which in turn had Robson looking warily at the massive ice seracs that hang off Snow Dome directly over the path we planned to climb.
Félix, on the other hand, didn't like the look of the snow ramps between the crevasses, which he figured were especially avalanche-prone in an avalanche-prone year.
"It definitely bumps up the level of risk," Robson said, laughing jovially as he always does after such pronouncements.
We headed back south, to the safer, slower, infinitely longer Saskatchewan Glacier approach.
By lunchtime, we had reached the snowy toe of the glacier. By 3:30, we had skied up as far as the food cache left by the porters, by which time my boots had also managed to devour the flesh of my heels to the point where I could see my tendons. We decided to make camp.
I had forgotten, somehow, that it takes an hour and a half to make camp on a glacier, what with the tramping of tent platforms and the digging of latrines and the building of 120-centimetre-high snow walls to keep the wind from blowing one's tent to smithereens.
I had forgotten what digging a hole in hard snow at 8,000 feet of altitude does to one's Torontofied lungs.
Still, it was good to know we still knew how to do it. The cook tent where the guides slept and where everyone ate and socialized was a 120-cm hole in the snow, capped with a nylon tepee tent. Very comfy.
We set out at 9 the next morning. By 3, we were on the Columbia Icefield proper. It was a big moment.
We shook hands, made a second camp with even higher snow-block wind walls, and watched the fog close in around us. If the storm held off all night and granted us one more decent day, we'd be able to race up Snow Dome. Robson and Félix claimed it was right in front of us.
Blizzard and a Barbie in the Rockies
When H.E.M. Stutfield and Norman Collie first discovered the Columbia Icefield in 1898, Collie was beside himself with excitement. "The view that lay before us in the evening light," he later wrote in Climbs and Explorations in the Canadian Rockies, "was one that does not often fall to the lot of modern mountaineers. A new world was spread at our feet."
Alas, I wouldn't know.
We had finally made our way up onto the Columbia Glacier after 20 years of trying, but we never actually saw it. We spent the last day and a half of our time on the ice in a complete and total whiteout.
The weather cleared precisely three times the next day: Once, for about 10 minutes, it was possible to see Mount Castleguard behind us; and twice, for about five minutes, we could just begin to see part of the outline of massive Snow Dome to the north.
Snow fell without interruption the entire time, although it didn’t actually descend: It proceeded horizontally.
Mount Columbia remained a theory. It was a distinctly existential experience, like standing around in the foyer to limbo, like living in a white nothingness.
The place that had lived in our imaginations for so many years still lives there. I knew a girl like that, once.
Travel was out of the question, according to Félix and Robson.
Snow fell without interruption the entire time, although it didn't actually descend: It proceeded horizontally. We dug the tents out four times: One hundred and twenty cm of the white stuff fell in the course of the night.
The path to the latrine filled in every 20 minutes. Of course, a blizzard on a glacier has its charms: The snow (not powder, but icier graupel) clicked down steadily on the tent at night like a million thoughts on a brain.
You had to plan carefully before heading out for a pee in the night – did I mention I'm 56 years old? – allowing for at least the possibility that you might not be able to see the tent on the way back.
Does it sound like hell? It wasn't.
We got up stiffly the next day, staggering out of the tent into our envelope of whiteness, but we made do.
We ate jambalaya with corn chowder and brownies and fine French cheeses. We played cards. We talked about the world and the country and whether Quebec would ever separate, about avalanches and close calls and Robson's father, about devices we wanted to invent and places we hoped to visit and hopes we still held.
We discussed our kids and our wives, and then we went outside and stood in the snow and breathed the fresh air and had a smoke, and then we went back into the cook tent and talked about other stuff. Sometimes we napped.
Mitchell had brought along a Barbie doll, and we posed Barbie swinging on the central pole of the cook tent: We got a lot of mileage out of that. We never did take a shower, but we talked about how the shower might work.
We spent a good two or three hours improving the latrine, eventually surrounding it with a 150-cm-high crenellated castle walls and a small flag: Castillo di Merde, we called it. We marked the path with bamboo wands tipped with fluorescent pink tape, so you could find it.
We looked forward to getting back down to a warm shower, to ease and comfort, but we also wished the trip didn't have to be over.
"The free mountain and camp life was at an end," Norman Collie lamented when he finally had to head back down from discovering the Columbia. "All our difficulties and struggles would now be with the complex fabric of civilized life, not with the forests, rivers, glaciers, and snow-clad peaks." Life is simpler up there, even in a whiteout that stops you cold. Everything you do feels necessary.
The Columbia Icefield has been called "the loneliest and remotest place in the Canadian Alps," but it didn't feel that way.
It made us take note of one another, and gave us a chance to be great friends again.
That happens on the ice and on skis in the backcountry of the mountains: You have to look out for one another, and be reliable, and decent.
It's a welcome change, and it's what you remember, even after the view fades.