Words and Photos by Vince Shuley
On the drive up the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler, I've always admired the Tantalus Range, that prominent series of peaks and glaciers looming over the Squamish River Valley. For years it's been on my Sea to Sky touring To-Do list and last week I finally got to check the box.
In Good Company
Like most of my best backcountry trips, this one screeched together at the last minute. Australian freestyle skier Anna Segal and I had worked together on photo shoots a few years ago and had been attempting to link up for a backcountry adventure between conflicting schedules since she bedded down in Whistler in late 2014. In a rare and but fortunate circumstance, Anna and ski mountaineer Holly Walker were able to corral a crew of five to fill the heli on the morning of Tuesday, March 16. The forecast called for cold, clear weather in the alpine for the remainder of the week, but our collective work schedules only allowed for one night at the Jim Haberl Hut. This was going to be a quick in-and-out mission to ski the two prominent ridges adjacent to the hut - Serratus and Dione.
Scoping the route up Serratus
We met at the Squamish Airport for 7 a.m. giving us the first flight with Black Tusk Helicopters into the Tantalus after a few stormy days. Dropping our food and sleeping gear at the hut, we agreed to pick the low hanging fruit on the north face of Serratus as there were currently no other tracks to contend with. We kept it moving however, as there were soon multiple heli loads flying to drop off more groups with more gear, including Mike Douglas and his team of athletes and cinematographers filming for Salomon Freeski TV. Breaking trail meant we got first dibs on ski lines.
In an impressive display of human power and determination, ski patroller Julie Cossette punched in the skin track (and most of the boot pack) all the way up to the ridge of Serratus. Taking a lunch break o the sunny ridge, we could see other team making their way up behind us. It was time to get our first turns.
Holly Walker working the north face of Serratus
The snowpack was surprisingly stable, but our party had to be mindful of other lurking hazards. Despite the copious amounts of snow in early March, crevasses and bergschrunds were still lightly covered or in some cases, gaping wide. Our team travelled with two 30m ropes (one at the back of the group, one near the front) at all times. Everyone wore harnesses and kept a third eye open for depression lines in the snow, a clue that slots may still be open under the surface snow.
The other hazard we had to always watch (especially on steeper terrain) was sluff. Ecstatic powder turns soon turned into a game of dodging the sliding surface snow, requiring us to link turns diagonally down wider faces or pausing on the narrow lines to allow the sluff to run its course. At the end of the first day we heard that a snowboarder from another group had been completely taken out by his sluff and tumbled down the remainder of the face.
Anna Segal labors up the boot pack to Serratus Ridge
After a couple of big laps Anna and I decided we wanted to squeeze in one more run back to the hut, climbing the west side of the Serratus ridge to ski a couloir on the way home. Waiting about half an hour for adequate light, we skied it the steep and grabby snow and traversed back to base, running into Douglas and his crew on the way. They were too waiting for the best light, which unfortunately didn't arrive until shortly before the sunset.
Anna Segal rides the wall for the last run of the day
Blowin' in the Wind
With fierce winds overnight, we knew our second day would be a bit more challenging to find great snow at the higher elevations. Setting off shortly after 7 a.m. up the Dione Glacier, our goal was to ski the Dione Shoulder (also known as Whaleback) back down onto the Serratus Glacier. We overshot the entrance by a few hundred metres, prompting some back tracking down the ridge until we found a clean line to the top of our line.
Although wind affected, the shoulder itself had some excellent snow on it and gave us all the satisfaction from the morning's arduous effort. But the clock was ticking. Our heli was scheduled for a 5:30 p.m. pickup and we wanted an hour of leeway in case of delays. With tired legs we opted for one final Serratus lap before returning to the hut for the final pack up.
Holly Walker getting the goods on the Dione Shoulder
A few lessons learned from an experienced ski tourer on his first time in the Tantalus Range:
- Know your crevasse rescue skills and be ready with the appropriate gear. The terrain of the Tantalus is incredibly glaciated, much more than around Whistler Blackcomb
- Skiing steeps when sluff is trying to knock you over can be frustrating, with frequent pauses. Remember, you don't want to be eaten by that bergschrund at the bottom of the run, so ski accordingly
- Public heli-in lodges such as the Jim Haberl Hut are the best portal for multi-day trips away from the highway or resort touring crowds. Book early and if you aren't confident navigating the complex terrain of the Tantalus, hire a guide.