Saturday, June 12, 2010

Glacier Circle Cabin

We sat dejectedly on our packs as the mist swirled thickly around us. Loops of wet purple rope lay between us in the snow. We were somewhere on the Illecillewaet Glacier, it was the Victoria Day long weekend, and it was still a very, very long way to the Glacier Circle Cabin.

This would almost certainly be our last ski trip of the season. Giving up now would be a disappointing way to end seven months of skiing. Besides, we were really looking forward to having a couple of days at the hut. So we pressed on. Occasionally there was a brief glimpse of Mt. Macoun and we quickly took a compass bearing (and tons of photos) but mainly we were navigating by GPS.

Traveling further and further onto the icefield a little seed of doubt began to grow in our minds; we weren't entirely confident of being able to find our way down the other side once we got there. Brenda and I had been this way once before but that had been on a beautiful summer's day. We weren't sure of being able to repeat it in a complete whiteout. There is an alternative descent via the Witch Tower to the west but that would add a few kilometers of unfamiliar terrain to the journey. Better the devil you know as they say.

After many hours the GPS told us that we had reached the high point near Macoun. Very tired, we stripped off our skins, and not without a little trepidation, began skiing down in roughly the right direction. The angle was gentle at first and we slowly lost elevation, peering through the mist, keeping a wary eye for crevasses. As the glacier rolled off and our speed began to pick up there seemed to be a slight brightening around us; the mist kind of changed from grey to white. We kept going. Now the visibility was definitely improving as we could just make out the ridge coming down from Macoun. The more elevation we lost the better it became. Then quite suddenly we dropped out of the cloud and there was the Deville Glacier across the valley, Mount Fox and Mount Selwyn, everything! It was amazing. The transition was so sudden, and so magical after being worried for hours. We were elated.

We weren't there yet of course. Snow that transitioned from slush to ice in the space of six inches provided it's share of heartbreaking moments with our big packs, and finding our way down the ramp wasn't quite as straightforward as we had hoped.

But before long, just as a snow squall began dumping thick wet snow flakes on us, there was the cabin, and we were sooo happy to be there.

It's a magical spot glacier circle; the history, the isolation, the stunning scenery, the effort it takes just to get there; all make it an exceptional place to visit. We stayed for two nights and reveled in every moment. We drank gallons of tea, chopped wood, dried our boots in front of the wood stove, watched some interesting ducks on the half frozen lake, took naps, and watched through the open door as snow squalls whirled passed the cabin.

And as if it couldn't get more idyllic, at least for me, I came across a book named "Among the Selkirk Glaciers" by William Spotswood Green. I had been looking for this book for years and had assumed that it was simply unavailable. First published in 1890 it's an account of a visit by the very first climber and explorer to visit Rogers Pass just a few years after the area became accessible by train. He was the first to survey and map the Illecillewaet and Asulkan drainages and made the first ascent of Mount Bonney among others. It was fascinating to read about his adventures 120 years ago in the very places that we had just traveled over to get to the cabin. I tracked down the publisher and now have my own copy to marvel over at home.

The discovery of an old pipe and tobacco had us trying to emulate Chic Scott's iconic photo of Ron Robinson, Dave Smith, Don Gardner and himself at Glacier Circle Cabin in 1973.

Those guys define cool. We on the other hand...

Our second morning at the cabin dawned with blue skies and we chose to try and return by the Witch Tower. It was a stunning setting. Avalanches regularly came down off Fox as we kicked steps in slush-over-ice with sweat streaming down our faces in the hot sun. We gave Fox a wide berth.

The Witch Tower route is far more straight forward than the Macoun route, but it's really steep and feels more exposed than the Macoun side. You'd definitely want good stability to come this way. This gives a rough idea of our route in and out.

After a few hours we joined our original track from two days ago and made our way back across the glacier. The return journey has much more downhill and what had taken us hours to climb up we gleefully skied back down in a matter of minutes. Things were getting pretty marginal by the time we got near treeline and it turned into real character building stuff as we got near the highway.

Nevertheless it was a great trip to a great place with great people. Thanks to Nick and Steve and everyone else for a great winter in sometimes trying conditions. We look forward to next year and let's all pray that we don't hear the acronym PWL any time soon. Only five months until ski season!