|| By The Numbers ||
Dates: February 15-16, 2020
Start Time: 4:50 AM, Elfin Lakes Trailhead, Saturday February 15, 2020
End Time: 7:50 PM, Daisy Lake Road, Sunday February 16, 2020
Total Miles and Elevation: 28 miles; 6800′ vertical gain
GPX/Caltopo File: https://caltopo.com/m/GKP5#
The Team: Myself, Parker Pavlicek, Tom Livesey, Benedict Simon Lloyd, Sam Clarke
|| Friday, February 14, 2020 ||
The adventure began around 4 PM on Friday, when Parker and I met up in Redmond and began our drive north to Canada. It took us around 4 hours to drive to North Vancouver, where we were incredibly generously afforded a place to crash for the night by a friend (thanks Rob, Virginia, and Olivia!).
Olivia offered (incredible generosity on her part!) to drive us up to the Elfin Lakes trailhead at 2:30 AM the next morning, so we spent an hour or two in the apartment preparing our gear for the early morning drive. Finally, around 10 PM, we dozed off for a few hours rest. A big day lay ahead!
|| Saturday, February 15, 2020 ||
Sure enough, our alarms rang right at 2:30 AM; groggy eyed, we ripped ourselves from sleep and prepared for Olivia to return from her night shift at 3 AM.
We loaded into Parker’s Jeep and headed north towards Squamish. Rain was streaming down, which we knew meant snow up in Garibaldi Provincial Park. The forecast for the weekend had predicted between 5-15 cm of snow for Saturday, and was uncertain about Sunday.
We stopped quickly at a McDonald’s in downtown Squamish for coffee, hoping the caffeine would give us a jumpstart. We reached the Elfin Lakes trailhead around 4:30 AM; the road up to the trailhead had snow for the last few hundred meters, but in general was well plowed. Beyond the parking lot, however, the trail was full with snow. We slapped on our skins, said our goodbye to Olivia, and away we went!
We planned to keep in touch with Olivia through my Garmin inReach and coordinate pickup from the north end of the traverse near the Black Tusk trailhead. Our initial plan was to exit Sunday in the late afternoon or evening, but we would keep her updated on our plans. We carried 3 days of provisions just in case.
The trail from Elfin Lakes trailhead to Red Heather hut follows a road, which is a low grade and very quick skinning.
Visibility in the morning darkness and falling snow was terrible; we reached the outhouse in the Red Heather area around 6:30 AM, but for the life of us we were unable to locate the hut! We huddled in the outhouse, cramped together, and ate our breakfast. We shared a few laughs about it, confident that as soon as the sun rose we would see the hut. Well. . . after downing a PB&J, I exited the outhouse into the morning light. Still no hut. Oh well!
By 7 AM the snow was continuing to fall; Parker and I estimated that overnight and into the morning over 6 inches (or 15 cm) had already fallen. Looks like the forecast was going to be on the low side. Clouds hung above, and we did not get any peek of the sun the entire morning.
Once at Red Heather, there is a slight divergence in the route to Elfin Lakes; one can either follow an old logging road slightly north of Paul’s Ridge, or one can follow the marked and wanded route along the ridgeline.
The marked route follows the ridgeline, gaining slightly more elevation and in high avalanche conditions is a safer option, as the blue route travels beneath some slopes on Round Mountain. With the avalanche conditions low to moderate on Saturday, we felt comfortable taking the blue route below Round Mountain.
The powder was THICK and the trail was slow moving below Round Mountain; there were no tracks in sight. The snow was continuing to fall. At one point I stuck my pole in the ground to get a measurement of snow penetration depth.
Once around Round Mountain, the blue and red routes merge back up again, and the skinning gets much faster, as the route flattens out down to Elfin Lakes hut. We were delighted to see the hut in the distance; it looked so cozy! We were ready to stop for a break and warm ourselves up a bit and dry off.
We reached Elfin Lakes hut around 9:30 AM, and took around 30 minutes to an hour for a break. We HAD to take some photos with this cozy hut!
From Elfin Lakes hut onwards, the route becomes trickier. Descending north from Elfin Lakes hut, the route travels across numerous avalanche gullies and beneath the Gargoyles. We proceeded with caution, monitoring for any signs of instability and crossing the gullies one by one.
I crossed one of the gullies and found a small sluff on an east facing aspect; I notified Parker before he proceeded onwards, and he took it carefully.
The going was slow, but Parker and I had a blast through the trees, the snow falling like Christmas time.
The next complex terrain feature came crossing beneath the slopes of the the Gargoyles. Old avalanche debris, frozen and crusty, was more annoying than anything else. Again, we proceeded one by one, giving plenty of space in between one another.
And oh was the fun just about to start! Next up: a skins-on descent down to Ring Creek. Once through the avalanche debris below the Gargoyles, it is CRUCIAL to take a hard south turn to descend down to Ring Creek. It may appear that you can cut off distance by crossing over the ridge to the north, but DON’T! There is a huge hidden cornice on the other side.
We clicked in our heels for our skins-on descent and prepared for some UGLY plow turns. Needless to say it was not the most aesthetic skiing.
Once down at Ring Creek, I swung my head upwards to find an old slide that appeared to be a day or so old. It was an E facing aspect, and had a very clear stauchwall that was interesting to note.
We reached the bottom of Ring Creek around 12 PM, a slow 2 hours from Elfin Lakes hut. And the going would only get tougher from this point onwards. The visibility at this point was reducing to 100 meters or so, and the snow was continuing to trickle down. We followed our way up the drainage, but with every step my skis sank 6 inches or so down into the surface, exhausting my legs with my approximate 45-50 pound pack.
From the Ring Creek drainage, there are 2 options to ascend to the Garibaldi Glacier: staying N of Opal Cone, or traversing S and E of Opal Cone.
We chose to stay S and E of Opal Cone, denoted as option 2 on the map. If I were to do the route again, I would take option 1 or traverse closer to the blue arrow I drew in. The red line hugs VERY close to steep slopes below Opal Cone and I would NOT recommend. If I were to amend Route 2, I would cut a track through the lakes basin and up the more gradual slopes to the NE of Opal Cone to ascend the glacier, as illustrated below:
Tired, wet, and ready for our warm sleeping bags, we made camp in the lakes basin below Opal Cone. We had intended to set camp on the flat slopes of the Garibaldi Glacier, but we were spent. Cutting trail all day long had zapped the energy from us, and we were ready for some food. Checking my watch, it was approximately 4:30 PM by the time we had selected a site well out of range of any runout zones from Opal Cone.
OH. . . but the day did not end there! The adventure would be too boring without more craziness!
After an hour or so of melting snow, eating dinner, and getting ready for bed, I began to hear a HISSSSSS. . . MY SLEEPING PAD!! I scrambled to find the tear in my NeoAir XTherm, desperate to patch it as soon as possible. Within minutes I found the rip: near the foot of the pad and a clean vertical slice. The pad damp from the condensation inside the tent, the duct tape I initially tried to apply wouldn’t stick. . . it was going to be a cold night.
|| Sunday, February 16, 2020 ||
And a cold night it was! Until 4 AM I barely registered any sleep. Finally, around 5 AM, I managed to catch a few minutes of rest. Needless to say, when the “sun” (quotes on purpose, as there wasn’t really any sun) rose around 6:30 AM, we were ready to get moving.
We were slow out of camp, leaving around 8:50 AM to begin our climb up to the Garibaldi Glacier. Once again, we started out cutting trail through the thick snow. At this point the snow had stopped falling, and it seemed as though only 2-5 cm had fallen overnight.
In the distance, I saw something. . . PEOPLE!!! My immediate thought: they could be cutting a track, I thought selfishly!
Parker and I caught up with a group of three: Tom, Sam, and Ben. A fun group, they were headed for the Neve as well, and were backtracking for a few minutes to find Sam’s phone! We located it soon in the snow, and agreed to head onwards together, sharing the responsibilities of cutting trail (which I admittedly did a poor job of. . . thanks Ben for cutting trail most of the day!).
The visibility was again poor, and we wandered our way up the glacier, veering a little too far to the W at one point but navigating our way back on track thanks to the group. In clear light and without clouds, I am sure that the navigating with line of sight to the Neve high point would be a breeze; for us, in conditions where we could hardly see 300 m ahead of us, it was not so.
The crevasses on the Garibaldi glacier were mostly filled in with snow; only one crossing had a noticeable gash in it. At one point the sun peeked out for a brief moment. . . and then it was gone again.
Tom, Ben, and Sam cut the track beneath a steep rocky spur as we neared the Neve high point; we had to backtrack to the W at one point because we veered too far right, looking down across the South Pitt Glacier for a brief moment.
At this point, it is important to stay to the NW of the “rocky ridge” by about 200 m, using the Sharkfin in the distance as a line of sight bearing. In visiblity like we had, the Sharkfin was barely identifiable, so we relied on the “rocky ridge” as our landmark. A GPS was very helpful in confirming our location, and I would HIGHLY recommend as a backup tool.
We passed the Neve high point at 2050 m around 1 PM and headed towards the sharkfin. Again, we spotted skiers in the distance, this time heading S along the traverse towards Elfin. They shared beta with us that the typical route down the Sharkfin was steep and icy, and they advised staying to the E and finding a more moderate way down the Sharkfin. I completely agree!
Looking back towards the Sharkfin, I was struck by a sudden appearance of the sun, the wind whipping clouds and surface snow as well, making quite a dramatic scene.
We passed the Sharkfind around 1:50 PM and made the final climb up to the pass below Glacier Pikes. We were ready for some well earned turns! The snow was untracked and looked amazing. . . and we could see Garibaldi Lake in the distance!
It was time to drop in! One by one, we staggered ourselves 30-40 m apart. The snow was lovely, soft, and well worth all the work we had put in!
We were not quite able to ski all the way down to the lake, and transitioned around 3:30 PM to skins for the approximately 3 mile lake skin.
Light began to fade beneath the crest of the mountains lining the lake around 4:30 PM, and we were treated to evening light on the lakeside. How spectactular!
The skin across the lake took us 2 hours; we reached a small hut on the N end of the lake around 5:30 PM, where we mounted our headlamps and prepared for the descent down through the trees to the cars in the dark.
The trail from Garibaldi Lake down to the cars was well trodden by snowshoers and day hikers, and was quite easy to follow. However, that does NOT mean it was easy to ski! The track was icy and the switchbacks were tight in some places. It took us around 2 hours to descend from Garibaldi Lake to the Rubble Creek trailhead. There were a few sections bare of snow that we had to bootpack near the Rubble Creek trailhead, mostly within the last 0.5 km of the trailhead.
Finally, at Rubble Creek trailhead we mounted our skis again and skied all the way down the road to the car park, around 2 km from the highway. The road was icy, and I remained in snow plow mode the entire time, but hey. . . . it was an easy ride down! At 7:50 PM we reached the cars, tired, hungry, and full of an epic adventure!
I want to give a HUGE special thanks to Olivia for giving us a ride to Elfin on zero notice and totally out of the blue, and then picking us up from Squamish at 9 PM on Sunday night. Thanks so much! I also want to give a HUGE shout out to Rob for letting us stay at his place on Friday night and connecting us with Olivia. This would not have been possible without both of your incredible generosity!
Another HUGE shout out to Tom, Ben, and Sam for (1) being amazing people and (2) for giving us a ride back into Squamish on Sunday night! You are all amazing!!
Keep on adventuring! Feel free to reach out for more info on the route!