by Christian Veenstra
Earlier this season Line did some planning for the Owl-Tenquille as a possible traverse option; they ended up doing the Powder Mountain traverse, but my interest was perked. Somehow this strip of alpine between Mt. Currie and the Hurley had completely fallen off my radar. I’d never been to the area at all, but it looked like it offered quite a few peaks and a lot of beautiful terrain in a nice glacier-free package with trails to the alpine on both ends.
At the May VOC BBQ Caroline, Derry and I got talking about ski trips (what else would we talk about?) – she’d done the Helm traverse solo earlier that morning opposite Derry and Ian. We agreed on the weekend of May 16-17 to do the Owl-Tenquille opposite each other, whatever day the weather was best. As the date approached spare car keys were swaped, Saturday picked, and Derry and Caroline left the city – they’d climb in Squamish, camp at their trailhead and we’d see each other after the trip. For a while it looked like Sam might be coming with me, but in the end I would be travelling solo. That’s ok, I like travelling solo.
By the end of Friday the weather forecast for Saturday had deteriorated – now with a chance of thundershower in the evening – but Derry and Caroline had no way of knowing. I tried to leave early Saturday morning, managed to forget both my wallet and their car keys, but arrived at the Owl trailhead before first light. Recently I’ve started having some problems with my Zebralight headlamp – in the city it works fine, but somehow in the backcountry it refuses to turn on and I need to gently clean the battery contacts to get it to work. Of course I had the same issue again… but this time, after over an hour of faffing around with it, I gave up because daylight arrived. I threw a little USB flashlight from the car into my pack and took off down the trail with bluebird skies above.
Patches of snow started almost immediately, covering up the footbed. As I made fast progress through the forest I began thinking about how I was doing a pretty good of following the trail without a footbed or many markers; I wondered if all the time I’ve spent building trails somehow helped finding where people would put them. Then I realized I was beside the middle of a swamp, and I was actually nowhere near the trail. Oops. I backtracked, found a good river crossing to get to the correct side of the river/swamp, and began bushwhacking around looking for the trail. After not too long I gave up and just started bushwhacking the direction I wanted to go, since the terrain wasn’t difficult. Eventually I chanced across the trail higher up and had my skis on soon enough.
As the day progressed I realized this trip probably has one of the highest routefinding decision per kilometre ratios of any I’ve done. Think Spearhead, only there are no tracks, more micro-terrain, more options, and much of the terrain is forested preventing you from seeing long distances. I got turned around by too many cliff bands for efficient travel trying to short-cut before Fowl Lake, had similar problems trying to do a long sidehill ascent towards Ronayne, and ended up kicking steps down the NW face of Barbour because the entry onto the N ridge was obscured by cornices.
Every time I crested a new summit or col I kept expecting to see Derry and Caroline, but eventually started worrying that we had crossed paths. I chose a generally high route, and bagged all the convenient (named) peaks along the way… but there are so many options that it would be easy to miss each other. I had to hope they didn’t also forget my car keys, and would find my note. Eventually, as I crested the 3rd-last bump, I saw them on the summit of Mount McLeod. We met on the side of the mountain and discussed the route ahead for them, and the possibility of thunderstorms late in the day. They elected to turn around; I’d go bag McLeod and Copper Mound, and we’d meet back at their car.
As I crested Copper Mound from the South and re-gained a view North I noticed that the weather just on the other side of the Tenquille Lake valley was dark and ominous. “Already, at half-past noon?” I thought. Just a few meters from the summit cairn I heard a far-off thunderclap. Would it be stupid to go those extra meters and tag the cairn? I did, and received my answer with another – much closer – thunderclap. Ok, that was stupid. I peeled my skins and skied down to fossil pass like a maniac, riding through my ever-expanding sluff of mushy snow and with my bases bouncing off of quite a few rocks in the shallow South-facing snowpack. Ever since getting caught in a lightning storm on the East Ridge of Alpha I’ve been wary of just how quick a storm can blow up, and how exposed one is in the mountains.
Down in Fossil Pass I looked up and noticed Derry and Caroline were just standing in the middle of the summit on McLeod. What were they doing up there? Couldn’t they hear the thunder and see the storm blowing up? I yelled at the top of my lungs: Thunder! Lightning! Eventually they figured out what I was yelling about and started to head down. I skied down to Tenquille pass, put on my jacket, and huddled just at the edge of the forest to wait what seemed like an eternity for them to make it down out of the alpine as the wind picked up and the rain started.
By the time I reached their car the weather had improved again (at least in our part of the mountains) and we had sunny skies for the long process of retrieving my vehicle and driving back to Vancouver. One problem with this speed-traverse idea is that while it’s possible to improve your fitness, buy lighter gear, and generally improve your time on skis it’s much more difficult to improve your time burning gas behind the wheel. Despite a near-midnight start it was dark when I got home again.
0h 00m: 4wd Owl Trailhead (~5 am)
3h 14m: Summit Mount Ronayne
4h 01m: Ogre Lake
5h 30m: Summit Mount Barbour
7h 04m: Summit Mount McLeod
7h 35m: Summit Copper Mound
9h 34m: 4wd Tenquille trailhead (Hurley-side)
2800 m gain, 2700 m loss, 34.5 km.