British Columbia's Spearhead Traverse: The Best Worst Ski Trip Ever

On a four-day traverse through the spectacularly glaciated Coast Mountains, the BACKPACKER team learns—and embraces—the four steps of overcoming adversity.
By Maren Horjus ,

Trips that go down just as you planned are fine. You landed your permit, you didn’t get lost, the campsite was just as advertised, the weather was great—good for you. But those aren’t the trips you talk about for months, years, even decades after the fact. No, the trips that burn into your memory are the other kind—the ones that don’t go quite as expected.

For the crew here at BACKPACKER, our most recent, um, memorable trip was the Spearhead Traverse in British Columbia. Because in that land of high passes, bright-blue glaciers, and campsites on mountain thrones, we found a route that conspired against us. This isn’t to say our trip went poorly, necessarily, but it became a crucible of sorts. We had to bail—or rally.

We weren’t the first hikers to come to that decision point, and we won’t be the last. But when the conditions suck, your gear fails, and maybe you find yourself just a little bit underprepared, you have to make the call. Here’s the story of our unraveling and how our choice to push on rewarded us with the experience of a lifetime—and why anyone looking for real adventure should do the same.

I. Initial Stoke

The Spearhead Traverse could be considered the Pacific Northwest’s Haute Route: In some 15 miles, it connects Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Peak by way of 13 glaciers and 14 mountain passes as it winds through the Fitzsimmons and Spearhead Ranges. The the uber-fit complete the horseshoe-shaped circuit in less than four hours—so we assumed four days was generous for our ragtag team of 11, even with 50-pound loads of winter-camping gear.

Scott Yorko [Gear Editor] It was my job to plan a legitimate winter trip in May. So I thought, “Snow in May? Fun terrain? Let’s find some glaciers.”

Dennis Lewon [Editor-in-Chief] We did our homework and nothing raised an alarm. Since the Spearhead is a ridge traverse that you can access from a chairlift in Whistler, it looked like we’d be skinning along a mellow spine with endless views. Where’s the risk in that?

Casey Lyons [Deputy Editor] When you search for the Spearhead on YouTube, you get a slew of videos of people shredding low-angle powder to techno music. It looks like any skier’s life-list camping trip.

Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan [Rocky Mountain Field Editor] I distinctly remember saying, “I don’t think I’m good enough for this trip.” I love winter camping and I love Nordic skiing, but I’ve barely done any backcountry skiing. But Scott assured me I’d be OK. He said, “As long as you’re an intermediate skier, you’ll be fine. You can opt out of any of the scary terrain. All of the vertical stuff will be optional.”

Keith Reid [Lead Guide] That’s all usually true. But it had rained in the two days leading up to our tour, so the snow was super-saturated—and the forecast called for bluebird. We were in for ice and everything that comes with huge melts, like avalanches, rockfall, and hidden crevasses. I knew we’d need to ramp up our intensity.

The fixed rope into camp on day two.

II. The Hard Truth

When our team arrived in Whistler, we quickly learned that we were unprepared for the new conditions of the trip. Keith stressed that the traverse would still be possible, but that we’d have to “use the terrain” to make it around. So much for skiing low-angle powder.

CL When Keith set out a tub of loaner ice axes and crampons, Scott looked just as surprised as everyone else.

SY But what are you going to do? We were already there and the guides said it was doable. So we may not have had perfect conditions, but we weren’t going to bail.

EK “I’ll take some of these and some of those—hope someone can teach me how to use them!”

CL When the vans dropped us off on day one, it was already raining. One by one, all of us lost purchase on our skins, and our skins lost purchase on our skis.

DL It was supposed to be the easy day—only 4 miles after the resort boundary—but it took us half a day just to posthole to the ridge that we could tour across. I thought we might not make it to our first camp.

EK Postholing is already exhausting. More so when your skis are on your pack, you’ve got a day-one load of food and fuel, and it’s raining. It was exhausting. We got to the hut around twilight and everyone was pretty quiet.

DL But it was beautiful the next morning. Blue skies, crisp air, total mountain glory. Everyone was pretty quick to forget day one’s slog. Keith told us we had a 5-mile “glide” to our next camp.

CL —but that we should wear our harnesses “just in case.”

SY —and that we should keep our boot and ski crampons at the tops of our packs because we’d be “using the terrain.”

CL “Use the terrain” became the verbal cue that indicated that the terrain was about to use us instead. It meant we were in for a transition: “packs down, ski crampons on,” “packs down, skis on packs,” “packs down, crampons on boots.” We changed more than Beyoncé at the Super Bowl.

KR The day’s route involved climbing to the spine of the 8,000-foot Fitzsimmons Range and crossing three glaciers en route to Mt. Iago. But it’s a ridge traverse, so you’re constantly changing aspects. In late spring, that means a lot of gear changes to stay safe—and that virtually doubles your energy output.

SY There would be no “gliding” to camp.

KR At one point, I had everyone transition from boot crampons to skis and I pointed out the line I wanted us to take into the flats: “Stay high above the crevasses, try not to fall, and we go one by one.”

EK It was not a “coast.” It was a sustained, one-legged squat on powder skis that I had never used before. I fell every 10 seconds.

KR There was no way to judge skier ability in the wet conditions we had on day one because everyone had to move so miserably slow. But after this descent, it became clear that Elisabeth couldn’t traverse.

CL We had been touring leisurely, letting the photographers angle for shots. Meanwhile, the day was warming up and Keith told us—with some urgency—that we had
to pick up the pace.

EK We clipped in and busted ass to climb to a saddle below Overlord Mountain as rocks were crashing down on either side from the changing temperatures. At the top, we were absolutely gassed.

DL We considered—if only briefly—abandoning the route. But the conversation didn’t go further. Keith was convinced we could do it safely if we made a concession: fewer pictures, more speed.

KR It was the commitment point. After that, there was no calling in the cavalry. We were going to do this.

Dropping into camp below Mt. Pattison on day three.

III. Bucking Up

There are many ways to come to terms with your new reality, but our team, right then—on Overlord Mountain, among the pinnacled skyline of the Coast Mountains—decided we were in it together. As long as the group dynamic stays strong, you can laugh your way through anything.

CL We hiked away from Overlord as a new team. Next up? Lashing our skis to our packs and booting across a snowfield with a 2,000-foot runout. I had a hard time staying in the track I was laughing so hard.

SY We reached the top of a slope that Keith said would have the best corn skiing on the traverse, and—wouldn’t you know?—it was go-over-the-handlebars slush.

KR We missed it by five minutes.

SY We had one more climb to get to our campsite at that point, and it was a monster of an ascent. But since it was south-facing, it had been baking all day. Keith told us to wait while he went up to check it out. We looked up when we heard a rumbling from above. He had intentionally set off a huge, wet slab.

EK When we started to climb the thing, Keith advised us to “be careful” at the edge of the slide “in case the rest goes.” Okey dokey, whatever you say!

CL Toward the top, there was a snowy knife edge that we had to kick-turn on top of. On the other side, it dropped 2,000 feet back down to our lunch spot. On my turn, I started sliding backward until one ski was hanging over the abyss of death. Did I hear someone giggling?

SY Now when I think about it, I feel like we probably should have helped him.

CL But the skin held! After, I asked Keith if that was the crux of the route. “Maybe one of them,” he said.

EK All we had to do after that was “just glide to camp,” which meant scramble up rockfall in ski boots and shimmy across a via ferrata.

KR A gentle glide.

As soon as we topped out, we immediately forgot everything that came before. The campsite was one in a million: Positioned on the shoulder of 8,222-foot Mt. Iago, it backed up against a rampart of rocky turrets and fell off abruptly to a sea of icy peaks. There could have been no better spot to dig out a kitchen and laugh about the day’s challenges.

KR Day three, we awoke to titanium-hard surfaces. If you went for a slide, in those conditions, you’d go for a really long ride.

EK On group trips, there’s usually this element of proving yourself to everyone else—but I was totally beyond that. I was just trying to survive. So I declared that, from that point on, I was going to crampon down anything that looked remotely steep.

SY We skied down Tremor Glacier that afternoon—the best turns on the whole trip—and set out a picnic, thinking we’d be there a long time waiting for Elisabeth.

CL Then 15 minutes later, Elisabeth came stomping around the corner in total beast mode. I’d never seen anything like it.

KR I looked up and thought, Wow, there’s somebody who can dig deep. She was also probably living in fear that we were going to ditch her.

EK It crossed my mind.

SY Elisabeth caught up to us and we climbed the eighth “last saddle” of the day and peered over the lip to a perfect camp on a bench below 8,100-foot Mt. Pattison—and the only way to get there was to drop into a couloir. I’ll “use the terrain” to send a couloir to my campsite any day.

We were sunburnt, blistered, and sore, but, by that point, no one on our team was too banged up to enjoy the sun setting behind Trorey Mountain. The ridge stretched out in the distance, and the warm light made the snow and ice look soft and inviting, like you really could just glide around the whole thing.

The sun dips behind Trorey Mountain at our campsite on night three.

IV. Enjoying the Spoils

When we set out to finish the Spearhead Traverse on day four, no one regretted that we didn’t bail. The final piece of the route carries you across the Spearhead Range with clear views across the valley to the terrain you’ve already skied. From a distance, the peaks and passes and ridges look impossibly steep, and there’s no shame in enjoying a moment of extreme satisfaction.

CL Midafternoon, Keith pointed out a saddle in the near distance and said it was our final high point. We just had to “glide into Blackcomb.” Someone asked if it was a “Canadian glide” or a “regular glide.”

KR I just learned that those are different.

SY We cruised into Blackcomb with huge packs, all smiles. The spring resort skiers gawked at our loads and equipment, like we were coming back from war.

DL We did the Spearhead on the very, very outside edge of when it’s doable.

KR Go a month earlier, and you’ll go ski-touring. Go when we did, and there’s a good chance you’ll go ski-mountaineering.

EK If I had known what it would be like, I 100 percent would never have done it. But, having survived, I look back on the Spearhead with pride. The traverse is phenomenally beautiful, but that’s not its only reward. Rising to a challenge like this transcends scenery, and I’m glad I got a chance to find out. 

Trip Planner

Route The Spearhead Traverse varies in length depending on where you start and, yes, the conditions. Plan to do the 15- to 25-miler in four days. (If you hire a guide, you don’t need to be a great skier, but you should be comfortable sidehilling.) Currently, there is a hut near Russet Lake in Garibaldi Provincial Park (roughly 4 miles outside Whistler). Two more huts are planned for winter 2018-19, so wait a year if you want to stay in basic shelters and carry a lighter pack. Season March and April for safer snowpack Guide Extremely Canadian offers guided trips starting at $2,500/group. Ask for Keith, of course. Total cost $3,000 (one-week car rental from Seattle, lodging, and guide)

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