The COVID-19 Avalanche Bursts the Asulkan Bubble

Trip Report: The COVID-19 Avalanche Bursts the Asulkan Bubble
April 2, 2020 Paula Corbeil

By Paula Corbeil

It seems like a lifetime ago when we went on our Asulkan Hut powder hunt. The trip began on Monday Mar 9 2020; we were well stoked for the arrival of storm snow and well versed on the presence of the surface hoar layer lurking in the snow pack. The next two days in the Asulkan bubble were glorious, our ACC group and Team Scandinavia dug pits, shred the pow-pow and ‘hucked’ off jumps. By Thursday evening, the avalanche of COVID-19 pandemic had arrived. We relearned the meaning of expect the unexpected. 

An Asulkan Powder Hunt Trip Report

Mar 9-13 2020

ACC Trip Sign Ups – Laura Corbeil, John Adams, Paula Corbeil, Andrew Venning, Shaun Fluker, and Grant Holmstrom (unfortunately had to drop out at last minute) 

Team Scandinavia (TS) – Sophie, Vilde, Paul, and Mateus, (3 Norwegians and 1 Swede)

Trip Preparation

The ACC team had lots of pre-trip dialogue on potential routes and rope length. We finally decided to set ourselves up into 2 teams of 3 so we could travel independently with the necessary glacier travel gear. Our plan was to meet at the Rogers Pass Information Centre at 11:00 Monday local time. Prior to the trip, Shaun sent out a fabulous, comprehensive pre-trip checklist including glacier gear, personal clothing and hut items as well as all the emergency phone numbers and hut lock combination. He used a word document which made it a lot easier to read. He also sent out his snow synopsis of Rogers Pass from the beginning of December. His overall synopsis helped to put us all on the same page as to what to look for and how to assess the stability of the snowpack:

“SCF overall synopsis: The last couple weeks have seen moderate amounts of new regular snow at Rogers Pass and high winds. The Feb 22 SH layer is a PWL that we will have to investigate and be very mindful of, and I expect we will find buried wind slab above that layer. Any new inputs from wind loading or snow will be problematic this week. It will be prudent to dig some good pits to see what it happening down there. Doesn’t sound like anything below the Feb 22 layer is problematic at the moment.

Temperatures: March 1 to 8 – highs of about -5 and lows around -10 at the Asulkan station and temp hovering  between -5 and zero at the highway.

Weather forecast: looks stable Mon-Tues – disturbance midweek – temps remain moderate.”

Needless to say, as of Mar 8th, COVID 19 was not yet on our radar screen.


Monday Mar 9 

Laura, John and I decided to delay departure as John had a persistent cough. Grant had to drop out of the trip due to kidney stones, in spite of his best efforts. I called Shaun, he agreed that Andrew and himself would be comfortable to go ahead, he had the ACC waiver, they were well acquainted ski partners and clearly knowledgeable about Rogers Pass. John paid a visit to the doctor to confirm he didn’t have COVID 19 symptoms. We looked at the weather forecast and with 20cm of powder on its way starting Tues, Paula decided that John’s cough was not that serious (the 20cm recovery, aka damn the torpedoes full speed ahead!!)


Tuesday Mar 10

When I turned on my phone in the morning, I got a text from Shaun and Andrew that was sent at 9:30 at night from the hut, they had skied East Cougar (access via Loop Brook – Ross peak) and arrived at the hut at around 8:30pm, about 1 hour after sunset. I relieved and grateful for the cell coverage at the hut, it makes the ‘long distance’ trip coordinator role a lot easier. They also sent the results of a compression test they did on Cougar East, a north facing aspect, CTH 21, sudden pop down 100 cm, at the level of the surface hoar. A sudden pop result certainly gets your attention!

Laura arrived at our house at 6:45am, we finished the food packing and weighed in, Laura 44lb, John 35lb and I at 30lb. John had the honour of carrying the 40m rope which was an additional 5 lb.  We left Calgary at 7:30, passing under full Chinook arch and being buffeted by the winds, until we reached Canmore. After Banff the winds were calm, skies were mainly overcast with a hint of snow as we approached the pass. We arrived at Illecillewaet parking lot at 11:00 local time DLS. Who should we meet but Darren Foltinek, he was doing a tour on Glacier Crest. It is always a mystery where people tour on the crest, there are definitely routes on the North Side coming out to Lookout col, and we don’t usually see tracks on the South side. The parking lot temp was -3 degrees, skies cloudy however the snow hadn’t yet arrived. With the steady storm snow of the last few weeks, the up track was in great condition and we made it to hut in 4.5 hours. The highlight of the trip-in was the extreme winds at tree line, coming from the SW, making for a biting headwind on the final approach to the hut. The reward was arriving at a cozy warm shelter and having a hot tea at the end of a demanding day. At 5:00 we decided to get dinner on before the rest of our hut mates arrived. It was Laura’s night for dinner; she rehydrated her deluxe beef tortilla soup served with corn, rice and chips. Appies were oysters, lemon and parsley on rice crackers, yum! As we enjoyed our evening meal we got acquainted with Team Scandinavia, Shaun and Andrew arrived back at nightfall. We got the full debrief on pit tests.

During the evening, gale force winds howled and snow continued to fall. The vibrations of the metal roof were really penetrating; Mateus likened it to the firing of a machine gun, striking terror in the heart. Winds lightened up around midnight, however snow showers continued. Nightly visits to the outhouse required full hat, goggle and mitts! 


Wednesday Mar 11

When we got up the next morning, as we had cell coverage, at 8:00 am, we could check the Avi rating, which was no surprise, all 3 levels rated as considerable. The concern was 30 cm of new snow with wind loading on the lee side of ridge lines. Currently the temp was below zero, winds were calm, and clouds were moving in and out. Forecast was for snow showers during the day.

The group discussed that the main concerns was the storm slab releasing and loading the snowpack which would cause the surface hoar at 60 – 100 cm to release. We discussed the results of Shaun and TS Tuesday compression and Rutschblock tests on the Moraine Triangle, north east facing slopes. The RB and CT did not produce any hard failures; however there was a fracture at the surface hoar level and the block could be physically pulled out. The conclusion was that a failure would be unlikely however the consequence would be big. Shaun’s test in more sheltered areas did indicate that the SH was more reactive. It appeared that the alpine area was more stable than the sheltered area due to the breakdown of the Feb 22 surface hoar from the ridge winds. 

The result of the discussion was three teams; Shaun & Andrew were going to head to the Dome, our team to 7 Steps of Paradise below Youngs Peak and TS decided to ski the Triangle Moraine, but first the changing of the outhouse barrels.

John let TS finish breakfast before announcing at 9:00 that “we” needed an international outhouse barrel change team. The RH barrel was beyond full and had formed a poopsicle above the rim. The LH barrel was getting close to the limit. We could not put it off for the next group! Luckily Andrew had a lot of ‘experience’ in handling frozen poopsicles and self-nominated for the team. TS willingly volunteered to pitch-in. The outhouse team started out as 3 and as the digging persisted for an extended time, eventually all 9 people ended up assisting with the mission. What had extended the digging effort was being able to locate the empty barrels. We relearned that the full ones are on the RH side and empty are on the LH side (in our case totally buried). The biggest obstacle to completing the task was the demolishment of the poopsicle and getting the lid on the over filled barrel. It took two people standing on the barrel lid to be able to secure it. The international outhouse team completed the task is just under 2 hours!  It was indeed a great team building event with a video to prove changing the barrel can be a hut bonding experience. 

On that note Laura suggested the Alpine Club have a contest for the most entertaining poop barrel moments to encourage people to get over the fear! I do have to report that unfortunately, during the ordeal, there was one casualty; Hilde bruised her knee in the process. The injury didn’t appear to be serious but she decided to take the day off 🙁 .

It was now 11:30, barrel bonding was done and John was excited to be on our way, exploring a new route, the 7 Steps of Paradise, on the Asulkan glacier, located above the hut. The route starts at the base of the Youngs Peak headwall and travels diagonally toward the Pterodactyl, an impressive rock buttress just east of the hut. 

We headed due south ascending the Asulkan glacier with relatively easy trail breaking, 10 – 15 cm ski penetration. The visibility was intermittent making it difficult to judge slope angles and distance. To our delight the storm snow was not affected by the strong winds of the previous night.  After 45 minutes we decided to dig a pit on a West / NW aspect with a 27 degree slope angle. During our CT test we did not get any clear failures, until John did a gorilla beating of the slab and was finally able to pull out a block at 95cm. The upper 40 cm storm snow slab was not consolidated which created a sense of confidence that there would be no slab releases stepping down to the surface hoar. 

We were however totally mystified why the terrain below Youngs Peak was not wind hammered after the gale force winds presumably from the SW. The slope is on a direct path for scouring winds travelling in a SW direction, and looking at the map, the Asulkan pass would provide the gap to funnel the winds across the slope. We found out later, upon looking on the internet at the Asulkan Hut weather station data, during the Tues night storm, winds were average 40kph with gust up to 82kph, however they were from the south! Interesting to note that the relative humidity at 88% , which would mean the snow would be denser and have a higher water weight, perhaps providing better sticking to the surface. Our conclusion was that the Youngs Peak ridge had blocked the storm winds and the snow was nicely deposited on the slope without the effect of the wind.

Meanwhile, back on our adventure, we continued up tracking till we reached the area of rock outcrops at about 2500 metres elevation. After much debate, we took a hard left, crossing a small, moderately angled bowl, climbing up and out onto the 7 Steps of Paradise! Voila, like magic, the sky cleared so we could see the forbidding Youngs Peak headwall. From where we stood the snow looked like it had been wind blasted, the technical term is ‘Sastrugi’. As it was already 1:00 and a white out was still a distinct possibility we decided to leave the headwall for another day, it was time for pow-pow turns. We were well rewarded!

We took a direct line to Pterodactyl outcrop, the  slopes on the steps were moderate angle with ski penetration 15-20 cm. With Youngs peak as a back drop Laura really looked good in the powder, well balanced and centered over her skis. John was in full-on shred mode – ‘woohoo’. John had made the right call on the route and snow conditions, a skier’s paradise! We finally reached the moraine just below the Pterodactyl, and stopped to discuss the next route choice. Below the moraine, the slope flattened out and became somewhat of a boulder field in a drainage leading to Ravens. The other choice was to cut left back to the tree triangle. We chose the latter, skiers left and had a good look at the cornice above us hanging off the Pterodactyl – like the namesake of the rock buttress, very ferocious looking ! 

As we made our way up the side of the tree triangle, ski penetration reached 30cm at times, slope was wind loaded and 30 degree plus, fortunately nothing moved. On the triangle itself, snow was 30cm+ which made for very demanding trail breaking. We thought about Shaun and Andrew, team of 2 trail breaking their way up the Dome. We got back to the hut around 4:45 and when I turned my phone on, I got a text message from Andrew letting me know that they were on the Dome glacier, de-skinned  and waiting for some vis to return to start the ski down. From the time they left the hut, around 11:00 it had taken them close to 5.5 hours to reach the upper Dome glacier, 800 m elevation gain from the mouse trap. The trail breaking must have been incredibly demanding. We estimated that the descent and return to the hut would be at least 3 hours, they would be back well after dark. 

Tonight was my dinner to cook chicken stew on pasta. John was off all kitchen duties to help prevent the sharing of his persistent but mild dry cough. I was excited to try out the rehydrated canned chicken. I had read that chicken is a touch meat that is virtually impossible to dehydrate at home with tender results. While it did look like cat food, the taste and texture got a thumbs up. 

During the evening we shared stories with TS, they had amused themselves by carving up the Moraine Triangle and launching off a natural ramps with perfect landing zones in the TT. Sophie was particularly exuberant about her moments in flight. Shaun & Andrew did finally arrive back just after 8:00, we were so glad to see them! They confirmed it had been a long day of trail breaking with limited visibility. Skiing conditions were outstanding on the Dome glacier and the lure of fall-line turns had pulled Andrew into his favourite ‘water ice’ trap on the Dome headwall! They managed to retreat uphill before getting totally sucked in, traversing far left to find a great line close to the edge of the trees. Shaun assured me that the ‘rowdy’ section in the final 50 metres was well covered and totally skiable. I was relieved as the last time I had skied the ice covered cliff band area I vowed I would never return! 

Now that everyone was safe back in the hut there it was time for a crib game. Laura took on John’s challenge and in spite of her brilliant pegging, John had the cards and pulled ahead in the final stretch to win. Needless to say he was quite excited about his victory and Mateus was intrigued. John took him under his wing and with over the shoulder coaching taught him how to win big!! Mateus was excited about sharing the game with his Dad.  After the game we all made our last our pre-bed outside visit, it was calm and clear and the stars of the galaxy were out in full splendor. Later in the night the moon rose, flooding the surrounding glaciers and peaks in the magic of moonlight. 


Thurs Mar 12

We woke up to slightly cloudy skies and a light wind, making us all very optimistic about alpine travel. After reviewing the Avi forecast and the CT results of the previous day we decided that we would head for peaks, cols and couloirs. As we launched out of the hut at 9:00, the wind had begun to pick up and clouds were moving into the valley and along the ridges. The Youngs Peak team decided to hold back , we modified our plans from Sapphire col to the Dome, primarily as a trail was already broken. We left the hut at around 9:30 and headed down the up track on the TT as the vis was poor. We started our up track on the TT around 10:00. When we reached the fork in the trail around 11:15, where Shaun & Andrew had headed right (north ) to the Dome, we could see tracks mid-way up Sapphire col however there was no obvious up track from our current location. The decision was final, we would head to the Dome and I would have to leave to another day, the exploring of Lily Glacier on the other side of the col. 

We were grateful for the up track, as it made for easy travel both from a trail breaking and route finding perspective. We had lost all visibility of rock and snow features but had a brief glimpse of Shaun and Andrew’s descending ski tracks. The next question was how much longer we would continue, John proposed a 1:30 turn around and I suggested that as soon as we got vis we should put the skins on and head down to shred the pow-pow. At 1:00 the sun reappeared and light penetrated the cloud cover, we could see that we were just below the final “bulge” of the glacier, which tops out at the steep rock face approach to the Dome col. Typically we do ascend the final bulge to get to the views at the top of the Cleaver, however today the priority taking advantage of the improved lighting to better shred the pow-pow. Off came the skins and on went the helmets. The time was now!

The timing of the descent was perfect, blue ski appeared the sun shone brightly and the powder was divine. Down the fall line we shred our way through 15 – 20 cm of fluffy light powder snow. Laura and I paused to look above us and admire the snow-capped peaks in Rampart bowl. Laura’s comment was that the pure white icicles dripping down the cliff bands and snow pillows draped on-top, along with the slightly cinnamon coloured rock, reminded her of frosting on a gingerbread house. 

With a few more breathless turns, we came to the beginning of the Dome headwall, a cliff band covered in ‘water ice’. We had been warned by Andrew not to get drawn into the ice coated gullies, so we traversed skiers left, across mellow terrain towards the trees. We had fun carving our way through the pillows till the run went rowdy. John went first and was able to direct Laura and me on the best lines , to avoid unexpected drops. Laura carved a beautiful set of turns down the rowdy, 38 degree plus slope and the snow held. I breathed a sigh of relief ! We traversed further left , off the main slope, now fully protected by the trees above us and we rewarded with a final set of fall line turns. We stopped to have a celebratory lunch break and admire our turns, basking in the glory and the warmth of the sun. The 900m run on Dome is a classic , today was no exception. Laura’s comment was “so why would you ski anywhere else?”

With the onset of the clouds, it was time for us to make the trek back to the hut.  We reached the hut just after 5:00 making the return trip about 3 hours long. When we arrived at the hut we had a brief discussion with Andrew on ‘Forever Young’ as a ‘no go’ and then Shaun looked up from his cell phone, wide eyed and said something to the effect “Do you know what’s going on out there? It’s like the world is coming to an end”.  I didn’t doubt what Shaun had to say, but I really was not ready or willing to accept the severity of the situation. The facts were ; The World Health Organization (WHO) had declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the Canadian government were going into action, imposing restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus. In an instant, the bubble of Asulkan hut had been burst , no longer were we talking about snow Avi reports and pow-pow beta , we were preparing ourselves for the impending ‘avalanche’ of COVID-19  cases, closures, and restrictions.

With the latest news on the virus concerns and the weather forecast of an upslope winter storm in the Rockies, Shaun and Andrew had decided to ‘make tracks’ and head back to Calgary. We decided to stay the night in the bubble and delay our re-entry to the outside world. While they were packing up, the 3 member TS ( Paul had stayed back as his leg was bothering him) had done another lap on the 7 Steps, this time going skiers right, following the final segment of the Youngs traverse route , over the tongue of the glacier, a new route for us to try next time. As the TS arrived, Shaun and Andrew geared up to head down to the parking lot. They left around 6:00 and I received a text at 7:10 saying they were down. A fast trip out! We got a text the next day saying they were home safe, the roads had been clear till they got to Canmore and then the blizzard had hit. The forecast had been true to its word.

Our final meal, at the hut was Laura’s pumpkin soup, Sriracha hot! It  made for a great combo with the vermicelli noddle, tuna and spinach dish. John agreed to have a crib game rematch with Laura and I teamed up to double the odds of winning. However Lady Luck had a different plan, John proceeded to have a once in a lifetime, incredible and in his words ‘well deserved’ run of high scoring cards. In less than half an hour, he finished the game at 120 points with Laura & me at half the score, well back from the Skunk line. His final hand as he crossed the finish line was a double run worth 30 points, unbelievable, his lucky night! John’s bold statement after the game was “I could have done another lap and still won”, capturing the spirit of winning exemplified by the Ford race car driver Ken Miles, at The Lemans of 1966, when he double lapped the long reigning champion who was driving a Ferrari! 

The excitement of the card game must have cleared the hut as we noticed that the TS had all gone to bed, except for Paul who had volunteered to single handily clean up their evening meal dishes. He carefully read the laminated instructions for ACC protocol posted on the wall behind the kitchen sins. It showed 3 bins; wash, rinse and finally bleach. He and the other TS members were unfamiliar with the practice of using bleach when washing dishes. The huts they used in Norway did not follow that protocol. When he asked for an explanation, I pulled out the Clorox jug and explained to him simply that bleach kills germs! He understood and set up the 3 bins with hot water and the appropriate additives in sequence. I was glad he showed respect for our system of cleaning dishes which is always important but in light of the pandemic, it was clearly absolutely essential. 


Friday Mar 13

The last morning in a hut, we all had mixed feelings; good to be getting closer to having a shower yet sad to be leaving the alpine sanctuary and face the reality of the virus threat. We distracted ourselves by diving into the clean-up activities, sweeping, wiping and disinfecting. As we were doing our chores, we talked to TS about the upcoming hut trip John and I had planned. Six days from now, on Thurs Mar 19 , we were going into the Stanley Mitchell hut for a 5 day stay. Mateus in particular was very excited to learn about the peak bagging opportunities. The only hitch was TS didn’t have glacier gear. We exchanged emails and  they said they’d have a think about it. We shook hands, gave hugs and said our goodbyes, oblivious to social distancing advisories that awaited us in the valley below.

After they departed, John, Laura and I, upon revisiting the weather forecast and road reports, decided to delay our exit and do a final lap on the tree triangle without our packs. On our trip last year, John and I had skied the line to the left of the outhouse, a very mellow, snow filled series of gullies. We headed out around the outhouse with a strong wind blowing from the east. After a short ski we were in the shelter of the trees, creating our ski signatures in the freshly fallen snow. With spirits lifted, we skinned back up the TT, donned our packs and headed down to the parking lot. Little did we realize it would be our last pow-pow turns of the year. 

On the descent of the moraine into the Mousetrap we met the incoming group. John found out that they were from Canmore and as I approached the skiers I thought I recognized one of the group members. We said hello to each other, did a double take and then at the same time the light went on, it was Felix Camir, one of the guides whom I had met at my first GMC, back in 2008. Always fun to unexpectedly reconnect with friends in the mountaineering community. We got ‘caught up’, I wished him good luck and off we went on our respective life journeys.  Our ski out by the river was magnificent; the snow balls on the tree tops are always impressive in shape and size. The drive back to Calgary was uneventful till we reached Canmore where the snow and wind hit, one more time. 



On the final stretch of highway driving we decided to turn on the CBC news, it was time to find out what was in store for us on our return to Calgary. COVID-19 was spreading across Canada and the country had gone into high alert; the schools were closed in 4 provinces, international air travel restrictions were in place with the promise of more to come and to top it all off Quebec was closing down ski resorts. We were stunned by the speed at which life had changed during our 4 days in the Asulkan hut bubble. I had a profound feeling of dread and dismay that our long awaited Stanley Mitchell hut trip, booked a year in advance was in jeopardy. 

To make a long story short, we ended up cancelling the trip on Tues Mar 17 as one of our trip members dropped out due to the onset of a sore throat and cough. The next day, 5 days after our exit from Asulkan, the ACC announced full closure of all back country huts.  It was harsh to accept but absolutely the right thing to do. There will always be another time for a hut trip but now was the time to do our part to help stop the spread of the virus and learn from Italy’s failure to control the spread. We were lucky enough to have one more outside fling, a day trip to Dolomite Circuit, and managed to ‘keep our distance’ and maintain the 6’ social distance rule. The following week even the parks had shut down vehicle access.


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