March 24-25th, 2012.
Atwell Peak, that sharp pile of volcanic gravel that towers so fiercely over Squamish, has long drawn my attention. Thanks to a half dozen attempts to climb the peak in various conditions by a climber reportedly too belligerent to take no for an answer, a trip to Atwell has sat on the drawing table, waiting for golden conditions. I watched in anticipation last week as a clear, high pressure system settled over the region, and the avalanche forecast cooled toward moderate. The rotten rock would hopefully be buried in deep stable powder.
Colin sent me a text about mountains. I replied with a word: Atwell. Francois-Xavier (a.k.a. Fix), a friend of Colin’s and professional photographer, would join us and we would model some attractive backpacks for him. Naturally, several other friends had been waiting for ripe conditions on Atwell. I’d already found the group I wanted – a small, fast team keen on doing the east face unroped – but I tried hard not to step on anyone’s toes. We agreed to avoid each others’ routes but share a camp. Piotr, Artem and Charlie would try the North Ridge. Phil, Katherine, Erica and Knut, on a trip up Mt Garibaldi, the tallest peak in the massif, also ended up camping with us.
Saturday we approached uneventfully along the skin-track highway to Elfin Lakes cabin, then over the Gargoyles-Columner col and Diamond Head to a camp on the glacier below Atwell’s big east face.
Solar aspects had already developed something of a sun-crust on Saturday and we knew the powerful spring sun could have a dangerous effect on the snowpack so we left camp shortly after 4AM on Sunday morning. Colin was visibly feeling ill but quietly suffered in the dark. We switch-backed up the first two hundred or so meters of the face. When the angle steepened a bit past forty degrees we strapped our skis to our packs and headed up between two rock outcrops. Higher the angle steepened to fifty degrees or so until we entered a narrow gully high on the face. A light was growing in the east and I pulled my camera out of my backpack. As I turned, snapping photos of Colin and Fix below me, a gust blew down the chute and knocked my camera case off its perch. I cheered and cajoled the case as it bounced down the face, encouraging it to fly all the way down to the flat glacier below where I might retrieve it later. It stopped half way down – an unfortunate sacrifice to Atwell, loss and pollution.
Soon only our toes kicked into the thin snowpack and the angle briefly steepened some more. As the sun broke through the rippled horizon, we exited the gully onto the slope below the summit ridge. We peered down Siberian Express on the west face, and pulling the skis off our packs, admired the steep, snow-plastered summit pinnacle.
We finally pulled out the 25m piece of half rope we had brought along. Fix asked me to lead the summit pinnacle so that he could take pictures. He promised to downclimb last if we couldn’t build a bollard on the summit. Knowing a good deal, I happily obliged. The summit pinnacle was a fun, short snow climb – more exposed than difficult. We climbed a concavity that made for good stemming. Snow blew vertically up the west face making the whole affair feel a little more Patagonian than it really was. Half way up the pitch, minutes after 8AM, I remembered to pull out the radio and chat with Piotr. His team was at the base of the North Ridge, wallowing in chest-deep powder. He didn’t sound stoked that the end of the rope he was tied into was rather softer than mine. I dug a t-slot on the top and belayed Fix and Colin up on one of my ice tools.
From the summit we could see Phil’s group relaxing at the col between Atwell and Garibaldi. We hooted and hollered in their general direction. The climb had been beautiful. All around us were views so stunning that I was overwhelmed – almost confused at the powerful emotional response to scenes of mountains in the morning sun. The climbing itself had been a joy the whole way through. We hadn’t stopped moving on the whole climb. It was delicious, efficient, fluid movement. I may begin to understand this thing they call alpinism.
Having climbed a breakable sun-crust on much of the face, we now vied for another way down the mountain. We traversed along the north ridge and scoped out lines on the north face of the east ridge. Many of the chutes off the east ridge were guarded by cornices, but part way down there was a break in the cornice. We marched down the east ridge to the top of that chute. Normally I might have been intimidated looking down a slope about fifty degrees steep. But having spent much of the day on terrain that steep, the thought of skiing it didn’t worry me. I tried to drop a cornice onto the slope, but only managed to cut a small chunk off that probably weighed less than dog. I dropped in and, ignoring the telemark bindings at my feet, parallel jump turned down the chute. Where the chute opened up, I hid below a rock outcrop and waited to spot the others down the entire slope. We skied over two bergshrunds and then down the glacier back to camp in dazzling sunshine.
Back at camp we ate a big lunch, and relaxed. Francois put a compression sack on his head a fell asleep. Colin and I followed his example and passed out in the sun. Phil, Katherine, Erica, Knut and Charlie showed up full of laughs and stoke. After bailing off the north ridge, Piotr and Artem headed for Garibaldi. They would stay another day.
Wet avalanches poured down the east face as it baked in the sun. One minute my camera case lay half way up the route, minutes late it was a hundred meters lower, then later lower and out of view. A home-made camera case is not worth getting anywhere near a crumbling slope like that so I didn’t go look for it in the debris.
Eventually we all were motivated enough to pack up and make our way home. A long run down through heavy snow brought us down to Ring Creek where we joined tracks from Neve traversers. We followed the skin track past Elfin Cabin to the top of Paul ridge, and raced down the skier-groomed trail past Red Heather to the cars. We made it to Furry Creek by sunset and were home at a reasonable hour.