by Christian Veenstra
Although most people have put away their skis for the year, late May / early June is my favourite time of year for ski touring, in particular for fast traverses. The snow stays firm well into the late morning, you (mostly) don’t need to worry about breaking trail or avalanches, the days are long, there is often “free” water, and the weather is usually good.
This year, with the low snowpack, I had a tough time convincing my usual cohort that we should get out and do something long, far, and glaciated. Those lines on maps will need to wait another season. On Friday, still with no firm plans on how to spend what looked like a beautiful Saturday, my significant other Line suggested that she and our toddler daughter could drop me off, go hang out and hike around a bit, and then come to pick me up – eliminating the car-faff from the equation and letting me go do something solo.
A search for ideas brought me to Eric Carter’s list of fastest known times. The Semi-Alcoholic Traverse caught my eye. The “regular” Alcoholic Traverse goes from Brandywine to Brew… but, names aside, the more natural line is to go from Brandywine to Cypress – this is the so-called Semi-Alcoholic Traverse. It had a lot of things going for it – I knew the route (having once led a beginner-friendly VOC trip of 30 across it), it involved only small pocket glaciers (little crevasse risk), and earlier that week I’d even been advocating it as a good solo trip option to others. I also noted the FKT was 5:36 (Eric Carter and Nick Elson, running, Sept 2012): something I thought I might have a chance at cracking on skis. Skis get pretty light these days, and given the mess of talus found along the route it seemed like they would easily be worth the weight.
Saturday morning, after two diaper changes, stopping to help some stranded motorists who’d run out of gas, and hiking the last 2 km of road to the Brandywine 4wd trailhead, I wasn’t underway until after 8:30 am. Not exactly an alpine start. Still, thanks to the beauty of late-season skiing, the snow wasn’t all that sloppy on most aspects.
After walk-jogging the trail I hit snow and first put on skis in the meadows, which were in generally skateable condition (although a little difficult with aggressive sun-cups and open rivers). It was faster than hiking but all the gingerly stepping through rivers and mud puddles leaving skis-on did leave my bases somewhat muddy… I used my compass to try and scrape the worst of it off before putting on my skins. Stepping out of my skis to go tag the summit I noted that (at an hour and a half) I was was on track to match the FKT.
I doubled back before continuing from the summit, but probably not far enough for optimal speed, as I ended up scrambling down steep talus on the backside of Brandywine. I guess that’s part of the appeal of trying to move fast in the mountains – so many different things come into play: fitness, skill on various terrain, routefinding, conditions, and a little luck.
The route continues generally around the alpine area on towards the volcanic chosspile that is Mount Fee. I wouldn’t really recommend climbing it, but if you are going to try it would probably be best when it is frozen in winter. I picked up some water at the little lake under the North tower; this is close to where we’d camped when I led that VOC trip, and is roughly halfway effort-wise.
Past there the route wanders around rock bands and ridges and there is certainly room for optimization… really nice terrain. When my climbing skin would fall off (possibly mud related from earlier?) I’d often just roll with it and do a push-and-glide skateboard style. Maybe I should patent this new technique?
The whole trip I’d wondered whether or not to do the NW ridge on Cypress or just bypass it on the west glacier. For some reason I felt that doing the ridge was The Right Thing To Do, but couldn’t really justify why given the skis. When I got there only the crux had melted out; it caused a bit of a faff to put the skis away, find a good moat crossing, and scramble the crux, but it felt good. After tagging the summit I skied back down the easy way, passing a guy and his dog on their way up, and cranking some tele turns down perfect south-facing summer corn-slop once I’d wrapped around towards the head of Roe Creek.
The snow ran out all too fast (I’ve skied further down that avalanche path in September) and soon I was boulder-hopping downhill towards the summer trailhead. I think I’m really not built for this downhill-running stuff… maybe that’s why I like my skis. I managed to exit the river directly onto the trail, avoiding any bushwacking, and stepped onto the Roe Creek FSR 4h 56m after I started, shaving 40 minutes off the FKT.
Fully satisfied with the effort I sent Line a text and began walking down the road. After not too much distance I heard cracking branches and saw rustling in the bushes. I froze and contemplated the best way to fend off a bear with ski poles as I strained my ears for more input. I was relieved to barely make out the familiar (yet far-off) sound of the engine on my old Sportage; Line was almost there – saved! Soon enough I was swimming in Murin Park with my daughter.
I’m pretty stoked to have set a new FKT without just doing something obscure (not that that isn’t a lot of fun), even more so because I know Eric and Nick are fast. Of course, skiing and running are fairly different activities – especially on this route. I also think there is easily another half hour or so that could be cut off, simply by repeating it with a fuller snowpack (I had to take off my skis to cross rock bands a lot), so I don’t expect it to stand for too long…