Trip Report by Phil Tomlinson
Photos by Matt Breakey
Additional Participants: Christine Mireault, Mike Persson
The Bugs-Rogers Traverse is a one of those objectives that has been built up to nearly mythical status. It’s known for being tough, committing and subject to poor weather. 130km, 10,000m of elevation gain – it isn’t exactly a cake walk. I don’t even remember when we first started talking about attempting the Traverse, it just sort of became a thing. Matt Breakey, Mike Persson, Christine Mireault and I would attempt it in April 2016. It was long enough ago that when Christine accepted a job in Vancouver last November, the two weeks off to make the attempt were listed as conditions of her acceptance of the offer.
At one point, we had a few people express interest in joining. A few VOC friends of Matt and I from the coast expressed interest in coming out to join – but we decided we wanted to keep the group small. Then another group of ACCers had their planned attempt derailed by a party member’s injury and again it looked like maybe we’d have a couple more people join, but they decided against it so our group of 4 continued as 4.
For a long time, the trip remained more of an idea than an actual thing. Pieces started to come together – maps got printed, helis got costed out, cache locations were debated, food was cooked and dehydrated, but the trip didn’t actually feel real to me yet.
And then all of a sudden it was just a couple of weeks before departure and I started to truly freak out. It would be my longest traverse ever. I didn’t feel I’d spent enough time looking at the route. And then there was the weather. This spring was hot. Like, really hot. We asked CMH Bugaboos for an assessment of the snow levels about a week out and their reply was borderline apocalyptic. Apparently the valley bottoms were falling apart and they hadn’t had a good freeze in the alpine in ages.
The standard route for the traverse mostly stays in the alpine, but there’s alternate routes to almost every section that stay in valley bottom and can be followed if conditions aren’t going in the alpine. The report from CMH and a warming weather forecast seemed to indicate that we were going to get forced into the valley bottoms a lot. And apparently that was going to be a bush-whack-y mess.
Just a few days before the trip we had a panicky video chat to discuss our options – contemplate changing our destination. We decided that we might as well give it a go – worst case we’d heli back out and go climbing or something. My confidence was not high.
In the end, what was maybe the hardest thing about the whole venture is that pretty much every day has a crux. From the first day to the last we kept telling ourself that this, this was the gimme day – the day where everything would be a piece of cake.
But that easy day remained amazingly elusive.
So the trip’s a go and on Saturday, all we had to do was drive to Golden, shuttle a car to the end of the traverse and then load the heli and fly to our first camp. How could that be hard?
Turns out Christine and I managed to leave the bright orange bucket that was our food cache sitting in the middle of the living room. So while Mike and I shuttled cars, Matt and Christine rebuilt our food cache. We were really saved by the fact that Christine and I had been planning on going climbing when we got out and we had brought extra dehydrated dinners for that. Crisis averted, but it wasn’t a fun realization or recovery. We had planned on all meeting in Canmore and then fully going through our packs before we got too far from home in order to prevent just such a fiasco, but when faced with totally unloading the cars, we ended up just doing a quick verbal check of some of the stuff (‘you guys have prussics, right?’).
Dumb mistake and one I’ll make again – should have piled absolutely everything by the front door the night before.
First day on the move, and the very first thing we had to do was skin over the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col loaded down with 50lb packs. Mike blazed a great trail up for us, but the switchbacks were seriously tough to make.
Other than lounging on a beautiful summit with Christine while Matt and Mike dug our tent pad for us on the glacier below, my favorite part of our first day on the move was running into a group of ‘ski tourers’ from CMH Bugs. They get heli’d into place for the day and then ski toured until they got tired or until one of the clients lost a ski which went shooting off into a crevasse at which point a heli showed up with a replacement set of skis. Awesome.
Our original plan had been to stay at the Malloy Igloo, but with good weather and feeling fit, we carried on past the sub-peaks of Conrad.
Day 2 was a long one. We were shooting for Crystalline Mountain. The route was tons of cruising along beautiful, open glaciers. We started bright and early so that we could take advantage of fast travel – but that resulted in side hilling across a slope so hard that I bent the crampon mounts on both my bindings. Having crampons that would basically fall off for the rest of the trip wouldn’t be a problem, would it?
We eventually made camp below the pass on a flat spot. We knew it was a flat spot because CMH had put heli stakes there. Just like every other flat spot we would run into outside of the park. I set Christine and my tent up directly between the heli stakes to stake our claim to that area.
The plan was to wake up early, skin up a pass until you’re too scared and bootpack the rest, then bootpack down the far side when you decide the ice and incline are just a wee bit more than you feel like facing that early in the morning without coffee and rocking a 50lb pack. Climax Col is named that for a reason. It’s climactic.
Once we’d bootpacked down, we had a huge day of up, over and around as we worked our way completely around the Krinkle/Snowman drainage and then up the far side. This was made slightly terrifying as we’d had to descend a bunch into the drainage and with loss of elevation comes increased warmth. We had blazing sun, low elevation and clear, recent wet slide activity. It was sort of a ‘pick your evil’ sort of day.
Higher up the snow held up pretty well though, so we managed to push all the way to the lakes bellow ‘Lakes Peak’ or something like that. This was actually a pretty luxury day because we ended up with open water near our campsite so we could actually try to rehydrate without worrying about blowing too much fuel (which was at no point even a tiny bit of a problem).
A little pooped from the previous, huge days, we decided to be responsible and have another huge day. Or something like that.
Anyway, one of the things that scared me the most on the route was Syphax – climb up a long glacier that seems to just hang in space, traverse a steep face above a giant cliff band and then ski down a super steep face. Thanks to perfect weather, that’s exactly how it went down. Most of the time, when you ski something, the photos look nothing like as scary. With Syphax, the photos looked far worse, Awesome. Honestly, one of my favorite days on skis ever.
We’d stopped below the Malachite Col the day before because it was warming up and getting scary. The next morning we skinned/boot packedover the top and then enjoyed a pretty mellow traverse with a few scrambly bits to get to the Kingsbury hut and our food cache.
Once there we stuffed ourselves silly with fresh veggies, smoothies (thanks Rebecca Hapsel for the idea), chips and banana bread while we dried our gear out and sorted out the new additions to the packs that had just been getting light enough to not be miserable.
Weather was moving in, so we considered stopping at the McMurdo hut – but it held off long enough to sucker us into skiing down into the Beaver Valley. We got to enjoy skiing through a super nice old burn before hitting valley bottom where we reloaded our water bottles and then climbed a few hundred meters up where we stopped well short of the Duncan Col when it started peeing rain. Morale was not at it’s highest as wet slides rained down (don’t worry Mom, it was only from excessively steep faces and well away from us) and we huddled in our tents pouring over the forecasts being sent to us by Katherine and Charlie.
We decided to roll the dice and toured up over the Duncan col where we, shockingly, ran into a total whiteout. Employing Mike’s Integral Designs Silbothy (or whatever) we hunkered down until the weather cleared and all of a sudden it was blazing sunshine.
We blasted up Sugarloaf and found ourselves at the top of a 55 degree slope above a schrund. 55 degrees is really steep. I nearly pooped myself. Some of the party decided that bootpacking down made a lot of sense. Some of the party decided that skiing down was the way to go. Both were stressful, all were successful. Looking back, the slope was steep enough that if you biffed it, you would likely slide fast enough to gap the ‘shrund at the bottom and with a nice run-out, would probably have been fine. No one tested that theory.
At the base of the slope we ran into some VOC friends of Matt and I who were doing the Selkirk Range traverse (only 36 days or something) and who were kind enough to break trail the rest of the way.
We ended up camping just below the Grand Glacier that day.
Those friends? All guides and rangers. Super strong and super experienced. We decided that meant that the responsible thing to do was let them break trail.
They popped up and over the Grand Col to the Deville Glacier and we followed. Except we decided to wait out a whiteout that was just settling in. After three hours of sitting in the Silbothy, we decided to just deal with the whiteout. Several hours of joyous, slow, whiteout navigation later, the weather all of a sudden cleared and we blasted our way across the rest of the Deville.
The repel was way more exciting than I expected just because I failed to appreciate a) how steep it was and b) how hard it is to repel with a pack that big. Christine led most of the repel and still won’t tell me how the second pitch (which took suspiciously long) went. There are rumors that the rope got tangled in her ice axe or something.
Once down, we popped up to the Glacier Circle Cabin where our fellow VOCers had pre-warmed the hut for us. It was cozy and social and just awesome.
Home stretch – we toured up onto the Illecillewaet where we enjoyed a pancake flat tour (mostly in a whiteout) until we hit the cruisy down track to the highway. Every single day had come with some sort of crux – except maybe this one. It was just easy, mellow touring all the way to the cars.
9 days on the go and we undid what our $1700 had paid to do with a helicopter – we got back to the cars.
We had way too much food, way too much fuel, our feet were a little chewed up, we smelled horribly and our sunburns were epic.
Can’t ask for more than that.
We got super lucky with weather. Before the trip, we had considered bailing because it was so warm, but in the end it was pretty manageable, some would say significantly better than average. We got to take the high road the entire way – something I was absolutely not expecting – I’d expected thrashing around in the valleys a lot more.
The trip was simultaneously easier and harder than I expected. The weather was great, the navigation reasonably straight forward and I didn’t feel too used up at any point. On the other hand – the skiing is seriously technical in places. I’m a pretty competent skier and I boot packed down some stuff – same goes for the others. Despite that willingness to boot pack, I still found myself skiing slopes that I would have considered pretty ‘full on’ without a 50lb pack. The slope down Sugarloaf – at over 50 degrees and with a schrund at the bottom – is not trivial. I would be seriously proud to show people that I skied that face with a day pack. This is absolutely not a tour for ski-tourers (unless they feel like down climbing seriously steep stuff a lot). It’s a tour for people who ski.
Best use of 9 days I can think of.
Total climbing: 10666 m
Total descent: -11865 m
Total time: 06:43:18