Grizzlies and Glaciers — Monarch Icefield Part 1


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | May 17, 2016      
Hiking in the early morning of our second day, With the rugged Purgatory glacier in the distance.

Hiking in the early morning of our second day, with the rugged Purgatory Glacier in the distance.

Monarch Icefield Part 2

Monarch Icefield Part 3

What I like most about ski mountaineering is exploration and adventure; the feel of following your skis into the unknown. Over the past few years I’ve set out on a variety of long ski trips. Most recently a storm-lashed fly-in basecamp trip in SE Alaska. After sitting in a tent for 2 weeks with no way out, a different type of trip began to become attractive. I’ve gained more interest in a longer, human-powered adventure to a remote area, preferably one with awesome skiing.

What we call “The Cascades” of Washington state, U.S., is really just a tiny southern appendage of the behemoth Coast Range, which stretches from the Fraser River in British Columbia all the way to Alaska. Let me repeat. All the way to Alaska. That’s about a thousand miles. The Coast Range holds the largest non-polar icefields in the world, and tens of thousands of peaks. Only a few roads traverse the range, with the majority of these vast lands being largely inaccessible, protected by long distances, dense rain-forests, and tempestuous weather. I’ve been dreaming of a trip deep into the Coast Mountains for years.

These thoughts floated around my head all winter, and I began to come up with some plans. Of all the areas, the Monarch Icefield stuck out for a variety of reasons. Although remote, it is fairly accessible, with only a few days of hiking required until you gain the ice. It has a nice concentration of high peaks that hold opportunities for all sorts of skiing, from steep lines to mellow glacier descents. The area, near Bella Coola, is also close enough to Washington to not require an airline flight, making scheduling and logistics much easier.

My good friends, Coop and Eric, were also psyched to seek out some adventure. We met up in Seattle in late April, and spent a few days prepping for the trip. We set off on the long drive on the afternoon of April 29th.

About a year ago I sold my beater Jeep Cherokee, and got a gas-sipping Suzuki. This trip was “Suzy’s” first long-distance adventure. She did great, although her tiny gas tank almost got us in trouble a few times.

After a beautiful, long drive through southern BC, we arrived in the tiny coast town of Bella Coola. After last minute shopping, we drove up rugged Nusatsum Road, arriving at our trailhead before dark. The evening was spent packing, and wondering if the grizzlies would investigate our food hoard spread over the road.

Food packing at home for 15 days of glacier livin'

Food packing at home for 15 days of glacier livin’.

The long drive was the first crux of the trip. Long stretches of road with minimal habitation led to some near-misses with running out of gas.

The long drive was the first crux of the trip. Long stretches of road with minimal habitation led to some near-misses with running out of gas.

Our first view of the Coast Mountains near Bella Coola. As seen from Heckman Pass.

Our first view of the Coast Mountains near Bella Coola, as seen from Heckman Pass.

We stopped in the tiny coast town of Bella Coola.

We stopped in the tiny coast town of Bella Coola.

We couldn't find any local maps of the Monarch area, so we bought them in Bella Coola. Here's Eric checking them out on the floor of the local library.

We couldn’t find any local maps of the Monarch area, so we bought them in Bella Coola. Here’s Eric checking them out on the floor of the local library.

We weren't expecting grizzly bears, but decided to bring bear spray at the last minute just in case. On the drive we got up close with this fella, and saw lots of evidence throughout the trip.

We weren’t expecting grizzly bears, but decided to bring bear spray at the last minute just in case. On the drive we got up close with this fella, and saw lots of evidence throughout the trip.

We scared off this big mama and two cubs when we parked our car at the trailhead. We slept with the bearspray close at hand that night.

We scared off this big mama and two cubs when we parked our car at the trailhead. We slept with the bear spray close at hand that night.

The next morning we loaded our packs, disappointed at how 15 days of food and mountaineering gear weighed us down. I weighed my pack with a luggage scale; close to 80 lbs. We set off, slowly, first down Nusatsum Road on foot, then up the forested Ape Lake Trail. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the trail, it was steep, with a few logs to crawl under or over; much better than a full-on bushwack.

After only an hour, we reached snow, and were soon able to skin through the forest. Our packs were crushing, and we hoped to be able to switch to hauling our sleds. No such luck however, the terrain was too rugged and choked with vegetation to even try.

After many hours of sweating and swearing, we reached our first camp, at the outlet to Polar Bear Lake. The camp wasn’t quite to the icefield, like I had hoped, but we were close. The Purgatory Glacier icefall gave us quite the show of calving ice, as we watched while eating dinner, across the deep Noeick River valley.

The next morning dawned clear, and we headed up the valley, hoping to get onto the icefield by that evening. Despite maps and guidebook beta, the route ahead wasn’t entirely clear. Melting glaciers have changed the landscape significantly; we weren’t sure what to expect.

We skinned up and over a small pass, and made our way down through dense trees to the broad valley below. The routefinding through the forest was difficult at first, but eventually we found some grizzly tracks, following them made the going easy.

Once down in the valley, we were excited to find ourselves in “sled country”. The long, flat valley was perfect for hauling our sleds. We rigged up the contraptions, made out of cheap, lightweight sheets of plastic, and set off.

While lugging our colossal backpacks, we had imagined our sleds to be saviors. This wasn’t quite the case, the little red things were like unruly puppies, darting off toward tree wells and rocks with no warning. However, even with periodic wrestling, we were glad for the load to be off our backs.

We cruised up toward the glaciers emptying from the icefield. Eventually we spied our intended route, the gentle Noeick Glacier, ascending out of the valley like a massive mountain highway. Unfortunately between us and that highway lay a rushing, glacial river.

We hiked along the Noieck River, looking for a crossing point. After much back and forth, we finally found a likely spot. It entailed several hundred feet of wading, but was shallow enough to not topple us and our heavy loads. We attached our sleds and skis to our packs, in various precarious fashions, and headed across. Once on the other side, the way seemed clear. Indeed it was, if a little long.

That evening we ascended the Noieck Glacier, to our camp near the top. Out of the lowlands, into the icefield! The glacier awed us with it’s size, but we knew it was only a fraction of the main Monarch Icefield, now only 1 or 2 days travel distant. We quickly set up camp, and crawled into our sleeping bags, exhausted. When the next morning brought clouds and snow, we were all a little grateful for the “forced” rest day.

Final gear explosion before begining the long hike in the morning.

Final gear explosion before beginning the long hike in the morning.

With 15 days of food and full ski-mountaineering gear, our packs were MASSIVE. The first to days were quite the slog.

With 15 days of food and full ski-mountaineering gear, our packs were MASSIVE. The first two days were quite the slog.

Our camp the first night. Across the valley the purgatory glacier threw ice down the cliffs all evening, rumbling like thunder.

Our camp the first night. Across the valley the Purgatory Glacier threw ice down the cliffs all evening, rumbling like thunder.

The sub-alpine schwack approach. Sure sign of a good Coast Mountain adventure. Luckily this didn't last too long before we were able to skin.

The sub-alpine schwack approach. Sure sign of a good Coast Mountain adventure. Luckily this didn’t last too long before we were able to skin.

Snowshoe tracks? Nope, a giant grizzly passed this way not long before.

Snowshoe tracks? Nope, a giant grizzly passed this way not long before.

Woohoo! Sled country! Getting the loads of our backs and onto our sleds was a massive relief.

Woohoo! Sled country! Getting the loads of our backs and onto our sleds was a huge relief.

Coop likes long walks in ice cold glacier rivers.

Coop likes long walks in ice cold glacier rivers.

After two days of slogging, finally on the easy travel of the big glaciers.

After two days of slogging, finally on the easy travel of the big glaciers.

Inside our smelly yellow glacier dome.

Inside our smelly yellow glacier dome. Home for our stormy rest day.

Map below shows our first camp on the Monarch Icefield, reached on day two.



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Comments

22 Responses to “Grizzlies and Glaciers — Monarch Icefield Part 1”

  1. Ryan May 17th, 2016 12:01 pm

    Amazing adventure!

  2. Tabke May 17th, 2016 12:37 pm

    Finest content on the internets

  3. Lou Dawson 2 May 17th, 2016 12:47 pm

    Thanks Drew, we’re all working our tails off on keeping the levels up! Louie did a good job on this. I find myself looking at the photos over and over again. Lou

  4. Mike May 17th, 2016 2:16 pm

    I saw your comment about finding maps, but sadly this advice is too late. A helpful fellow over on the SWBC FB page stitched together a one-piece topo of the Monarch here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/swbcbackcountryski/search/?query=monarch

    I traversed that icefield in 1994. The logistics and the terrain sound as awesome and wild now as it was then – stuck in a timewarp, as it should be.

  5. Louie Dawson 3 May 17th, 2016 2:21 pm

    Wow! That’s awesome. That definitely would have been nice. The paper maps we got were fine, however. We actually never ended up using them. We were able to find topo maps for our phones that had more detail and smaller contour intervals than the NTS maps.

  6. Mac May 17th, 2016 3:14 pm

    Small typo, the Coastal Range actually extends from southern British Columbia to the southern Yukon/Alaska, not southern Yukon to Alaska (which are adjacent!).

  7. Lou Dawson 2 May 17th, 2016 3:22 pm

    Thanks Mac, we grabbed that from Wikipedia too fast! Should be from the Fraser River, British Columbia. I’ll change. Lou

  8. Coop May 17th, 2016 3:48 pm

    Awesome writing and photos bud! Pleasure vision questing around the neve with you!

  9. Paul May 17th, 2016 4:13 pm

    This is so awesome.

  10. Joe John May 17th, 2016 6:38 pm

    Awesome, and looking forward to part 2! I have to agree with the best content on the internet B comment. Sure hope there were no closer encounters with the grizzly. Would you roll onto your sled and play dead or huck a chunk of bacon or try to out skin n ski him?

  11. Bruce Baker May 17th, 2016 8:50 pm

    Awesome trip done in pure style. I’m sure you are familiar with John Baldwin’s adventures in that area. I’m wondering if he used fixed wing aircraft to access the icefield or if you considered that option. You guys are full on gnar.

  12. ey May 17th, 2016 9:01 pm

    “we weren’t expecting grizzly beras”

    Why not?

  13. Ryan May 17th, 2016 11:08 pm

    It looked like you were using a fairly minimalist sled. Hey if you had to do it all over again, do you think a more stiffer sled with more structure would have helped with the approach?

  14. OMR May 17th, 2016 11:18 pm

    Great post Louie! This is why I tune in everyday!

  15. Louie III May 18th, 2016 12:26 am

    Thanks for the comments. It was an incredible trip, and I’m psyched to share it with everyone!

    I don’t normally think about grizzly bears as an element of a ski tour, but that is just me and my past experiences. Also, there was a below average low elevation snow pack in the area this year. Apparently some years you have to park lower, and can even skin from the car. I imagine if the conditions were like that, bears would be sticking to lower elevations.

    I talked to John Baldwin quite a bit about this trip beforehand, he was a great help. There is the option of taking a helicopter into the icefield (I’ve also heard of people flying a plane in from Pemberton, for a similar cost). However, it’s pretty pricey, and it’s only a day and a half of hiking to get to the icefield. Not worth it for me. Also, I like the idea of doing the whole trip under my own power, it adds something to the experience, for me.

    We did use pretty minimal sleds, based on John Baldwins “crazy carpet” sled design. They are great as they are very lightweight, and can be rolled up into a little tube to be carried on the backpack. Great when we couldn’t use sleds for the approach, and also for steeper parts of the trip. The sleds were a bit of a pain in the trees and on some steeper hills, however on the majority of the flat icefield glaciers, they weren’t much different than a heavier duty toboggan. Taking these lighter sleds was a bit of an experiment for me, and I was impressed by them.

  16. Sedgesprite May 18th, 2016 12:58 pm

    http://juneauempire.com/state/2016-04-19/alaska-university-teacher-hospital-after-bear-mauled-him

    Forest approves of Bear spray. Good Call. Details are sketchy, but the attack was apparently above timberline with skis on. The Revenant looked rather tame in comparo.

  17. ptor May 18th, 2016 11:21 pm

    My full empathy for engaging this zone. Healthy endeavor and bravo for forgoing the aircraft assist!

  18. Eric Steig May 19th, 2016 6:56 am

    I’ve never *not* seen a grizzly in the Bella Coola area!

    For those looking for coast range adventures that are a bit less work, check out the classic Garibaldi Neve traverse! I skied Garibaldi last week and there was NO ONE at the 30-bed cabin at Elfin Lakes, and no one to compete with in the absolutely perfect corn snow. Unbelievable consider it’s a hop, skip and a jump from Vancouver.

    Good job boys — looking forward to more pics. Are those Scarpa TX books I see on one of you?

  19. Louie III August 29th, 2016 6:51 pm

    Eric, Sorry I didn’t see your reply until now. I’ve always wanted to do the Garibaldi Neve Traverse, maybe this year…

    Eric had the Scarpa TX boots. He’s a die-hard telemarker, and always smoked me on the skintrack, even when he used to BD O1 bindings. He switched over to the Telemark Tech system recently, which he used on this trip. They seemed to work really well. It made it even harder to keep up with him, unfortunately.

  20. Toby August 31st, 2016 8:49 am

    Wow! Some telemark content here at WS! Now, what about reviewing TTS based on that trip? Kindly asking;)

  21. Trent August 31st, 2016 1:02 pm

    Toby, ditto. Would love to hear his thoughts on TTS.

  22. Louie III August 31st, 2016 3:10 pm

    I’ll see if he want’s to do a review!





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