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Perfect Conditions Yield Remote Ice Climb

The top half, from the gully fork to the summit, of Graveyard Shift (IV WI3, ca. 1000m), a new ice line established by Drew Brayshaw, Jesse Mason and Graham Rowbotham on December 8 in the conditions-dependent Cascade Mountains of British Columbia. [Photo] Drew Brayshaw

Winter alpine climbing in southwest British Columbia can be a disappointing sport. Only a few paved roads cross the mountains; most access is via logging roads that are not plowed or maintained in winter. The usual winter weather pattern involves heavy rainfall and relatively warm temperatures along the coast, translating with elevation into a deep and often unstable alpine snowpack. The instability dramatically limits safe winter climbing to a few brief windows where Arctic outflows break out from the interior of the province without significant new snowfall accompanying them. Under these conditions, however, almost every steep face in the ranges becomes plastered with neve, snow, ice, rime or some combination thereof, and great things become possible. Still, as local guru Don Serl has observed, “If you’re lucky, you’ll get up two [technical] objectives per winter.” A normal season might see you up nothing. And so there are still numerous peaks, let alone faces or routes, that have no recorded winter ascents, and sometimes it’s necessary to push the boundaries of calendar winter forward or back a bit to take advantage of the perfect conditions.

Early December 2007 saw a brief window of just those conditions that local alpinists dream about. Warm temperatures and heavy rain consolidated more than a meter of new snow into a uniform sodden mass; clearing skies and a dramatic temperature drop saw that saturated snowpack and its associated runoff freeze solid overnight. Jesse Mason and I had been half-heartedly planning a five-hour drive to Lillooet in search of waterfall ice that might or might not have formed; when the weather broke, we rapidly made new plans. Less than 100 kilometers east of my home in Chilliwack, in the headwaters of the Skagit Valley, Mt. Brice (2165m) is a somewhat obscure peak sporting a 1200-meter unclimbed north face seamed by gullies. I had been aware of the potential for some excellent winter objectives on this face for a while, but the approaches, up long canyoned valleys filled with unpleasant West Coast brush, seemed daunting. I had recently persuaded myself with a reconnaissance hike, however, that a direct push from the Skagit would “go.” Jesse recruited Graham Rowbotham to be the third member of our team, and the game was on.

Rowbotham soloing one of the ice steps on Pitch 1. [Photo] Drew Brayshaw

On December 8 we left Chilliwack around 4 a.m. and were parked in a plowed pullout on Highway 3 at half past 5. The first hour or so of our approach was along a summer hiking trail and was accomplished fairly rapidly by headlamp. As the sun rose we turned off into the valley of Twentysix Mile Creek, which drained our objective, and we began thrashing our way up the canyon of the creek, avoiding cliff bands, crawling on logs high over fast-flowing creeks, and worming our way through tangled thickets of rhododendron, slide alder and devil’s club. At times we followed grizzly tracks frozen into the snow. It took us six hours to cover the 3km to the face, far longer than I had projected, and it was with some trepidation that we tooled up at the base of the face, below a gully that rose for over a thousand meters directly to the summit of Brice. I had anticipated a long, moderate snow gully; in fact, what rose above us was a narrow runnel of steep ice with occasional spindrift waves rushing down it. Graham spelled it out: “We’re already well behind schedule. If we want to get up this thing, we’ll have to climb fast, and that means soloing.” Jesse and I looked at each other warily; Graham is a far better climber than we. No one wanted to bushwhack back down the creek after having come this far, though. So off we went.

The first half of the climb consisted of ice steps separated by snow ramps. After soloing three or four ice steps (WI2 and WI3 with sections to 80 degrees), Graham and Jesse roped up for a particularly steep step (possibly WI3+, 30m) and began simulclimbing, while I avoided it for a steep ramp of snow-covered brush, which gave entertaining jungle climbing, to the right. We continued up the gully over several more ice steps and sections of neve for several hundred meters to a fork, and traversed over snow-covered rock ribs into the left branch, which led directly upward to the summit. Just after entering this fork, the sun set, and we put headlamps back on. The climbing relented to mostly 35-60 degree snow with occasional ice steps, but the depth of fresh snow increased with elevation, forcing postholing and slowing our upward progress. Near the top of the gully, we were breaking trail through about 30 centimeters of powdery spindrift, at times releasing small wind-loaded slab avalanches that fortunately did not propagate. Graham found a way through a short overhanging cornice, and we flopped onto the flat summit ridge at 6:30 p.m., after thirteen hours on the go.

Mason following the steepest section, the only length they roped for, of Graveyard Shift. When the approach took longer than expected the trio decided to solo most of the climb. [Photo] Graham Rowbotham

Before setting off for the climb, I had checked a map and determined that Brice’s southwest ridge appeared to offer the best descent. In the dark, without compass or GPS, we somehow managed to find our way onto this spur ridge and follow it down to the Skagit River without ever having to rappel, although we were forced by cliff bands to traverse and regain elevation more than once. We weren’t back on the Skagit trail until 1:30 in the morning, by which time we were out of food, and our remaining sips of water had frozen in their bottles. As a result, the slog back up the trail to our truck went slowly, and car-to-car time was just over twenty-three hours, with around fifteen of those by headlamp. We drove back down Highway 3 to Hope and slept in the vehicle with the motor running until the truck stop opened for breakfast. We were bone-tired, but satisfied with a fine new route: Graveyard Shift (IV WI3, ca. 1000m).