AMGA Testing In The Spearhead
The Spearhead traverse. A ski mountaineering classic in all respects. Summits, cols, glaciers, steep descents, it has it all and options abound at every turn.
It had been a few years since I was last out there, and that last trip was a birthday tour variation, which did 2 big descents instead of going around the classic ‘horseshoe’. This time the company wasn’t my wife but rather 10 aspiring American guides seeking their aspirant certification. What better place to test them on the nuances of taking people out safely in the mountains on skis? And test them we did.
The great thing about doing the Spearhead last week right before the weather started to clear was that nobody was out there. Bikes and rock shoes were taken up long ago by the residents of coastal BC, but many didn't know that literally the best ski conditions of the season were going on. 3 to 4m of snow above 2000m with a storm that started warm and finished up cold let us ski cold smoke for 3 days out in the Spearhead range. What a winter comeback!
Day 1 we tested candidates close to home with a day trip in the Blackcomb periphery. Steep icy chutes, white out navigation, belayed ski cuts, and navigating crevasses were on the menu, and the candidates served up some great powder skiing as well. Much to our surprise we broke trail up Mt Decker, and also laid first tracks down the Cham chutes and the Spearhead Glacier.
Even the 'slackcountry' classic Husume was mostly pow at 4 pm. Thanks for giving up on winter everyone!
The world class conditions continued as we headed out for 2 days on the horseshoe. The first day was true winter. Was it really April 1, or was mother nature playing a joke on us?
We opened up both aspects of Mt. Pattison, reveling in the steep soft turns of mid 40 degree slopes. And then the most stressful part for the candidates came in the form of navigating across the Platform Glacier in full white out/rime conditions. We inched our way along the necessary contour line, with the picky examiner (me) not allowing folks to rely on GPS navigation and instead proving their mettle with map, compass and altimeter. Finally we snuck through the col to the Ripsaw Glacier and dropped below the cloud bank to some evening alpine glow in an untracked glacial cirque. As night began to fall we dug our simple camps, opting for floorless shelters to save weight and space which also helps to make the skiing more enjoyable. Temps plummeted, snow was melted and we got a good night’s sleep. Dawn broke to the clearest skies of the whole program and being camped on an eastern exposure meant the first glorious rays of the day hit us first, which was appreciated with temps of -11C, leading us to second guess the calendar and its proposed date of April 2.
We continued around the bend, skiing through more cols in glorious sunshine, and down the Overlord Glacier, until the afternoon clouds started to envelope the range. The only harsh reality of the trip was the fact that the Singing Pass Trail was still unskiable, meaning we had to go up and over the musical bumps, adding a few more hours of uphill travel. For the first time in 3 days we dropped below 1900m and were thankful that we hadn’t done that yet, as the season changed to spring and our cold smoke was left behind.
After a season of high freezing levels and rain crusts everyone was elated to have skied deep cold snow with minimal avalanche danger. For most of the American candidates, their first trip around the Spearhead was extremely memorable, and I bet it won’t be their last!
The Spearhead Traverse is a classic multi-day ski touring traverse in Whistler, BC, Canada. The route links Blackcomb Mountain to Whistler Mountain, or vice versa. A two-day / three-night trip makes for a good travel pace with time for some ski lines and peak bagging along the way.