Skiing From Bella Coola to Terrace
We have reached the civilized paradise of Terrace! There are inconceivable luxuries here like bathrooms with toilets in them. Imagine this: You can sit in warmth and comfort, maybe even read a magazine, as absolutely no gale force winds and blowing snow sandblast your nether regions while you try to wipe as fast as possible! Amazing.
“What was the hardest part?” people ask. I admit there was a lot of hard. We didn’t chose the name “epic” in vain. But the hardest? Carrying 17 days of food, a raft, glacier gear and other equipment because the weather was too poor to get any food drops out was hard. So was the fact that over the entire month of March we enjoyed blue skies a sum total of less than 20 hours. But that was just regular hard. So was eating the last of our rations before we had reached our first food cache, we are old hands at hunger by now. I admit it was terrifying the time we accidentally got separated in a whiteout in steep avalanche terrain – For over an hour I called for my mommy like a frightened lost child inside a ping pong ball of white and wind, before she materialized like a ghost out of the snow with a story of a fall and a lost ski pole. Then there was the Eutsuk Lake crossing on thin ice with open water on one side and large natural avalanches almost continuously crashing down onto the ice on the other – we scurried through the in-between thinking light thoughts as slushy water filled our tracks, knowing with absolute certainly that breaking through with 60 pounds of pack, toboggan and skis attached made us extremely un-buoyant. Then there was the time “light thoughts” simply failed and I triggered an avalanche above me in a whiteout. Within seconds I was so entangled in the rope attaching my toboggan to my pack, I was effectively hogtied as I was swept 150m down the mountain in waves of chunky snow to the glacier below. In truth though some would admit that likely the most horrifying of all may have been the stench of 30+ days of unwashed socks combined with the most un-lady like “decompressing” after a dangerous concoction we affectionately nicknamed “Lice & Rentals” – consisting chiefly of rehydrated rice and lentils. It was the stuff of nightmares.
Yet none of those incidents were the worst, the hardest, the scariest. The prize “Epic Trophy” goes to what we now ominously refer to as “The Curse of Mean (Dean) River”. Descending to the Dean river valley was a minor epic in itself. Dawn to dusk of back breaking travel saw us cover a mere 3.5km as one unmarked canyon and cliff after another forced creative solutions like setting up pulley systems to shuttle gear. Our toboggans and packs took a beating and the waterproof MEC bag I was carrying our raft in managed to acquire a small rip in it when it snagged on a branch (that’s important remember that for later).
The Dean itself looked mean the second I laid eyes on it. The water was black and fast and cold. Bordered by cliffs and ice banks on both sides and scattered with rapids, we searched for the widest calmest section we could to cross. With a lifetime and thousands of kilometers of kayak and canoe travel under her belt from the Arctic Ocean to whitewater rivers on several continents, Tania was the obvious choice to navigate the black water first. Inflating our sturdy $24.00 pool toy with avalanche shovel/paddle at the ready, we solemnly waited for a break in the relentless rain and then loaded up the raft. We decided the safest option was to attach our two 30m glacier ropes to the boat that way we could later set up a system to shuttle gear across. Within 10 seconds of departure it became obvious Tania wasn’t going to make it. I hauled her back with the rope from the brink of rapids for a second attempt. Then a third. It soon became apparent the raft had a small leak that we couldn’t patch so in between each attempt we had to give it a few breaths to re-inflate it.
Poor Tania clad only in her Arc’teryx shell jacket, underwear and ski boots, was wet and freezing. Although the river wasn’t very wide the current was swift, and a particularly nasty boulder midstream with a mushroom of ice on it kept snagging the rope. When she did finally did make the opposite shore, she was snatched back into the current by the very rope meant to save her as it pulled hard downstream. I forget how many times she battled the river and I hauled her back before she was finally able to gain purchase in the ice bank on the opposite shore. At least 6 times. It was all very dramatic I tell you. I’ll never forget the elation as she stepped up the bank hauling the raft and let out a triumphant primal yell of “YEAH!!!!”. But the Mean River had other plans. Two seconds later I heard a “Ping!” as the rope, still under tension, somehow managed on its own to unclip from two opposed carabiners. The rope slithered at high speed back into the icy depths where it snagged on the boulder and I could not pull it back. Extreme profanities in multiple languages exploded from the opposite bank. I am flabbergasted. I’ve personally taken and watched hundreds of falls up to 10m long onto a single carabiner rock climbing and never had it unclip. We’d been hauling our toboggans for months on a single carabiner without them ever unclipping.
For over an hour I try flipping, pulling and cajoling the stuck rope off the boulder. It’s lodged between rock and ice. I am finally able to get one full 30m rope free. Meanwhile Tania is trapped on the other side with only her pack and half her clothing. With the rapids and cliffs downstream she can’t risk crossing back without a safety rope. Upstream the current is wilder but the banks are only about 23ish meters wide. Our only hope is that I can somehow throw an end of the rope across. Now let’s pause for a sec here. I know many of you reading this probably think I’m pretty athletic, but that’s not the case. A proud collector of participant ribbons we can flash back to grade school where skinny, uncoordinated and extremely asthmatic, I was consistently the third last kid to get picked for any team sport. Always just ahead of my best friend Savanna who somehow, regardless of the sport, managed to get hit in the head with the ball each time. Needless to say, I’m not very good at throwing anything. I attach a goggle bag full of snow to the end of the rope to add weight, carefully coil it, wind up, throw. The rope lands in the water and I haul it back as fast as possible before it snags on something. Over and over and over. Sometimes the coils tangle in the air mere meters away from me. Sometimes I don’t even throw it in the right direction. Who knew paying attention in Phys Ed (consistently my worst subject) could be a lifesaver? Hands frozen, red and raw the rope accumulates ice and snow and weight each time it’s pulled out of the water and dragged through snow. I rage and plead and cry and slowly lose my sanity.
Necessity breeds invention. Tania finds a big stick and wades out as far as safely possible and tries to catch the rope over the end of the stick. Finally it catches on the stick! Only to slip off. Hours go by, bigger branchier sticks are substituted. I can see Tania getting hypothermic as she stands midstream in ski boots shivering violently. It starts to rain and I start to get very scared. Tania has both shelters, all the lighters, leatherman and saw on the opposite shore. I have everything else. I consider swimming across of course. Even if it weren’t a super dangerous swim, I don’t have enough rope to swim across the calmer wider section and without the rope to set up a ferry we can’t get any gear across. Countless tosses later, hands numb, I make the winning throw and the rope is caught. Elation! But we are not saved yet. I need to go back to dislodging the stuck rope so we can get enough length to cross in the calmer current. I give up and strip down, wade out to the sketchy boulder and manage to dislodge the rope… Only to pull out an additional 18ish meters and find it is stuck again somewhere midstream, underwater, and deep. I will spare you the details of the next hour spent trying to creatively dislodge the stuck rope from every single angle and both shores. The Dean does not give us a break. The light is fading. I hear mum shouting across the roar of the river to cut the rope. She manages to send me the leatherman in a waterproof MEC bag on a pulley across the river. I open the bag to find it empty. Remember the little rip from the previous day’s bushwhack? Yeah that bag. More unspeakable profanities from both sides of the river. Desperately, I look around in the pouring rain and my eyes alight on the gleaming edge of my G3 Synapse ski. It’s remarkably easy to cut the rope with the ski edge. Altogether we now have about 48m of rope which is just enough to ferry our gear across. We are both very hypothermic by now. I shiver violently in the pouring rain and will my hands to tie fumbly knots as I strap gear to the raft which Tania pulls across. I’m next. Numb and stupid with cold I almost forget to re-inflate the raft. The ice bank breaks just as I try to step into the raft and I fall into the little rubber dinghy with all the grace and poise of a baby giraffe. By the time I steady myself I’m midstream and waves are splashing into the raft. Seconds later I’m on the opposite bank and as dark sets in I fall into a weepy soap opera style embrace with my mama. In the end we beat the Mean Dean, but it definitely beat us back. Stuck in monsoon rain for another day on the bank of the river we try to dry our gear and recover. Late in the afternoon of that second day I see three bald eagles fly low past our tent and just like that I’m certain the curse is broken.
With much relief, Tania burns the cursed Dean River map.
Reaching the shores of Whitesail Lake we found it no longer frozen over. Blocked from the alpine option by high avalanche hazard, we found ourselves effectively trapped. Canadian Helicopters came to our rescue bringing us our next food drop and giving us a bump to the luxurious Sandifer Lake Cabin at the same time. (They figured we had earned a little R&R after 25 days out.) They offered to come to our aid again as descending to the Kitimat River valley we found it bereft of any low elevation snow and faced a multi day extremely unpleasant bushwhack out to Terrace. Chad Sallenback and his outstanding team of pilots were indisputably our knights in shining armor. They placed every single food cache we had between Bella Coola and Terrace, completing this section would have been impossible without their generous donations and help.
We were amazed when on April 1st we had a visitor stop by the cabin! She was lonely and hungry and cold from a long winter in the mountains. We knew all about that so we invited her in to hang out with us.
Actually it was Mum’s idea of an April Fools joke – yell “There’s a bear outside!!” And give me a heart attack. Got you too right?
On the days you could actually see them, you wouldn’t trade being in these mountains for being anywhere else in the world.
We won some, we lost some. Rarely did anything work out as expected on this journey. Yet in the end we emerged from the mountains after another 39 days (89 in total now) still unscathed.
Next? Onward to Stewart BC!
For more photos from this post and for information about this wild adventure, be sure to visit CoastMountainEpic.com.