Monarch Icefields - Canadian Skiing Expedition

By Dave Pearson

There are many reasons for a multi-sport trip. Ours started out of necessity. Skiing on an icefield is awesome, and helicopters are great ways to access icefields, but helicopters are expensive. If we get a helicopter to drop us off and find our own way off the ice it cuts the price in half. So begins a wild idea.

On a January evening in Canmore, at a dimly lit pub next to an open fire, we poured over Google Earth and planned the adventure. A huge icefield, massive glaciers, 1000 meter deep canyon, and a tiny river that grows and flows to the ocean over 100 km away; it all seemed surprisingly easy from the pub.

Jason had had his eye on the Monarch Icefield south of Bella Coola, BC. The skiing looked great, and best of all he figured we could get out via the Talchako Glacier and then raft down the Talchako River which turns into the Bella Coola River. This would take us all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The tricky part would be getting off the Talchako Glacier and onto the river, but as I said before, it all looked easy when looking at it in the pub. Before we left the pub, I had an idea and wanted to put it on the table for everyone to have a think about; “Instead of taking a full sized raft, have any of you heard of packrafting?”

So the plan was made. We would spend 22 days exploring the Monarch Icefield and traveling back via the Talchako River. Bella Coola, a small remote town about halfway up the British Columbia Coast, would be our start and end point. A helicopter would take the four of us, 22 days worth of food, and our skiing and packrafting gear from Bella Coola to the base of Mount Satan on the Monarch Icefield, where we would set up camp. We would have two weeks to ski and explore as we made our way across the icefield to the Talchako Glacier, the packrafts acting as toboggans as we crossed the snow and ice. Then we would make our way off the glacier and down to the Talchako River, transitioning from ski to packraft.

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In Satan’s Shadow

The smaller the airport the better the pilot. Richard was no exception, the former Canadian Forces pilot gave us a great start to our trip; explaining how he preferred to fly close to the mountains as I tried not to puke while watching rotor blade and rock get far closer than I would have thought possible. With a smile and a wave, Richard lifted off and left us huddled on our piles of gear in the afternoon shadow of the impressive looking Mount Satan.

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Time to dig in. This was to be our longest stay in one place, and with peaks like Satan, Ogre, Mongol, and Jacobson to be explored from this camp we were in no rush. With that in mind, we went for an elaborate camp consisting of three shelters (not tents but more elaborate tarps to save on weight); one for Jason and Pablo, a small one for me, and one to be kitchen and home for Dave. With camp almost complete, the setting sun cast light on the west end of Mount Satan and Dave put a quick ski mission in place. A quick ascent a few hundred feet up Satan’s shoulder and a few good turns back to camp. Things were off to a great start.

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We knew before we left that we were looking at a few days of bad weather early in the trip, but beyond that the forecast was not reliable. We would spend the first few days getting to know the area and the snow, then plan some bigger objectives for better weather later on. This plan started out great. Our first morning on the ice was clear and crisp and we were up at 5 AM enjoying a spectacular sunrise on the Jacobsen Glacier. We headed out to the west peak of Mongol Mountain, ascending around a small icefall to a small pass below the summit. We decided against heading up the final slope to the summit as we could see the forecasted clouds starting to close in. We had a great ski for our first day and were back in camp by noon. We spent the afternoon lounging in the last of the good weather dreaming of the lines that were possible. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night would start the stretch of the worst weather I have ever had on a trip.

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We woke up to poor visibility and headed out on skis in hopes that things would improve. The weather got worse and by midday we were navigating home via compass and GPS. At first we enjoyed the downtime in camp: playing cards, creating a snow cave, and occasionally digging out our tents. Every icefield trip has a few bad weather tent days, so this was no big concern for us. The first storm lifted and we were back out on our skis again with high hopes for the next week or so.

After a very brief 24hrs of nice weather, we got hit with a much bigger version of the last storm. We entered a 32-hour stretch where winds must have been 100km/hr and it snowed relentlessly. We found ourselves shoveling out around the shelters every 45 minutes. We collapsed two of the shelters and let them get buried as our efforts could not keep up with snow removal on all three and allow rest time. We spent 32hrs digging at least once an hour. Then, on my final night watch at about 11 PM, the wind stopped and the stars came out. We finally got some sleep. It was clear to us that our ski objectives would not be met and the next break in the weather would have to be used to start our journey off the icefield or we risked being held past our due date. The next morning, our 8th day on the ice, we started digging out our gear and getting ready to move camp the next morning. It took most of the afternoon to dig out the two buried shelters; over five feet of snow covered them making us glad we had abandoned them and hadn’t tried keeping them clear through the storm.

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We had our first peaceful night in a while and woke to another spectacular sunrise. Time to pump the rafts and rig up, putting our heavy gear in our rafts and daypacks on our backs. We tied into the gear attachment points on the rafts and clipping that to the back of our harnesses off we went. The going was slow as our route took us on a steady incline from our camp’s elevation of 2000 meters to an eventual high point of 2500 meters. However, our progress was quickly halted after three and a half kilometers; as we traversed close to the east end of Mount Satan the weather closed in again. There was less snow than the last storm, but the wind and sometimes rain put our hasty shelter to the test as we were held captive another two days. Eventually we saw potential in the weather and started moving. Having achieved the highest point we would travel on the icefield, it was all downhill for the rest of the trip. We set up camp on the edge of the Talchako Glacier, still on the Monarch Icefield but with our exit nearby. We would wait another day; with all of our skiing dreams shattered so far we wanted one last chance at skiing from a summit on the Monarch Icefield. Unfortunately, again we were shut down by poor visibility and snow. The next chance we got we were heading off the Talchako Glacier.

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Down the Talchako

We woke to moderately better weather with enough visibility to travel. Clearing the ice and snow off our gear, we rigged our rafts for our final day of traveling on the ice. The travel was mostly flat with a few steeper downhill sections where you had to race to keep ahead of your raft. It wasn’t elegant skiing technique but it worked. We started the day crossing large ice falls on snow ramps we had scouted from the helicopter two weeks before. As we descended, the spring weather had taken its toll on the snowpack. The snow ramps we had planned to cross were breaking down; we would all cross roped together for safety. Dave led the group, choosing a route that looked safe and packraft friendly. Once safely past it was an easy skate across the ice to the edge of the glacier where were we would make our exit the next day.

I had been waiting to bivy out under the stars the whole trip, but bad weather had prevented it. The weather had been improving all day, so that night I decided to chance it. The reward was a starry night with the moon over Mount Concubine. I had the best night’s sleep I had had since we started. The next morning was transition time.

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With rafting and skiing gear, the best we could do was pack things into two large bags. This would mean we would have to do two trips when shuttling our gear. We brought our gear down to the edge of the glacier and stashed it on the rocks while we went on a scouting mission to plan our route to the river. I was in awe of how much bigger the landscape was than I was expecting; what I thought would be a quick scramble up to gain a view was clearly going to take us half the day. We couldn’t afford to hike that long without moving gear, the scout was abandoned. We set out on the only obvious route, a small pass on the side of Mt Ratcliff and then down 1000m through the forest to the river below.

The first leg went smoothly. We were on snow quickly and were able to travel on skis making several small trips to shuttle our gear and getting to the pass by early evening. It was slow and difficult, but steady progress was being made. The next two days would attempt to break our spirits, and almost succeed. The travel through the forest along the steep valley proved difficult and slow, searching for routes that did not end in cliffs. Often times we got views of the river below and were stunned by how close it looked yet, in reality, it was so far away. It took us two, 12 hr days of shuttling our gear over snow, frozen forest floor, large rock falls, through dense alders and devils club, and down steep gullies to finally arrive at the river. There was a huge sense of relief being at the river in one piece. Our trip could have easily been halted if one of us had blown a knee or broken an ankle with our overloaded packs and uneven ground. I got a fire going while Dave cooked a celebratory dinner of shepherd’s pie. We settled in by the fire, enjoying dinner and the whiskey the guys had hauled along for occasions like these.

River, At Last!

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This was our first time rigging packrafts for the river. Our boats were all Kokopelli Nirvana Packrafts; three with tie zip compartments and one without. The tie zip compartments are storage compartments allowing you to keep gear in the tubes of the boat. These came in very handy for us with all of our gear; we were able to keep some of the weight off the top of the boat, making them less top heavy. We attached our skis to the sides of our boats in a variety of ways. We rigged our large dry bags on the bow of the boats and were ready for the water.

The river quickly closed in and a 200-meter section of class II+ was our first real test of the boats. We scouted the section and ran it cleanly, two at a time. Our good moods didn’t last long. Like most glacial rivers this close to the source, the main channel was changing constantly, making the river fan out quite dramatically in places. Where there was once lots of water there was now very little and we had to get out multiple times and carry or walk our boats until the river “came back together”. In some of these sections we found ourselves wading in water that was moving too fast to be safe, but in our stubborn tiredness we would do anything not to carry our boats around on the rocky banks.

I got caught off guard in a boulder garden trying to pick a route that flowed smoothly through where there was none and ended up wrapped on a rock. I could see Jason in front of me bash his way through the shallow section and scooch along to deeper water. As I was about to enter the worst of it I looked back to see Dave and Pablo doing the same. This look cost me a valuable second and I ground to a halt on a shallow rock as the current spun me into a half-submerged boulder. The bow of the boat was being pushed around one side of the rock and my body around the other. Water crashed over the side of my boat threatening to implode my spray deck and cause the boat to swamp. I used my paddle to brace off the bottom of the river and try and keep the water from submerging my boat. With some wild flailing and big pushes off the bottom with my paddle, I finally managed to convince the front of my boat around the left of the boulder along with the back of my boat and floated off, my boat fully swamped and my nerves shaken. After a long afternoon of this game, we finally gave in and camped only 1.5 kilometers from where we had started.

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This was a low point in the trip for me. Through all the bad weather on the icefield and the strenuous journey to the river, I had been looking forward to the smoothness of paddling. This was anything but; we were in and out of our boats every 100 meters, bashing into unseen rocks in the silty water and banging our shins on rocks as we waded through the un-navigable parts with our boats. To top off the day, Dave’s boat had a leak we could not find. These boats were tough to have made it through the day’s rock bashing with only one leak. That night, as we often do, we had one of our useless debates on “the future”. The common debate on the ice was “When will it stop snowing?” Tonight it was “Will the river pick one channel soon and allow us to make some distance?” Eventually, we agreed that every kilometer we got from the glacier was hundreds of years longer the river had been flowing and thus should have a more defined channel. On that note, it started raining. We set up a shelter for the first timein days. Once I realized how crowded it was in the shelter I decided to contemplate life for a bit by the fire and wait out the rain.

The next day started with a nice navigable boulder garden that was followed by many more. The river started behaving more like we hoped it would, but we still needed to keep a keen eye out to follow the most flow or we would end up running out of water. The morning charged on with numerous class II and III rapids. Although we had not needed to portage or wade our boats, the day was still slow due to scouting and stopping to drain the packrafts. After lunch the river flowed more consistently and we were able to cover some much-needed distance.

Pablo, the novice paddler of the group, had been handling the river well. There were a few rapids that Jason walked back up and paddled Pablo’s boat through but he had handled most of it on his own with only minor incidents. I expected it was likely Pablo would swim at some point and we had spent a lot of time talking about how to handle this situation. I stressed the importance of keeping both his paddle and boat in hand while making it to shore. While a kayaker can easily pull an empty kayak to shore to help a swimmer, I had my doubts that a fully loaded packraft could pull another fully loaded and swamped boat to shore safely. To help with this, we attached our throw bags to the sterns of our boats. In the event of a swim, we would grab the bags and have 20 meters of rope to get to shore with then land our boats.

As we rounded a corner, the river rolled down a small boulder garden with the main flow heading into a protruding log at the bottom. Dave, Jason and I relied on experience and hit the log head on, rolling around the end and on our way. Pablo lacked this experience and hit it sideways, capsizing immediately. He kept hold of his paddle and fought with the boat for a bit as he was swept through the exit of the rapid. Once the water calmed down he grabbed the throw bag, swam to shore and pulled the boat in, just as we had planned. He may have been scared but he managed the situation perfectly. After that his confidence grew; I could really see him learning to read the water, setting his boat up at the right angle and using eddies to help move his boat in the direction he wanted.

Log jams were another expected obstacle. We came across our first major jog jam late that afternoon. With dense forest on either side, we cut a trail through the bush to a dry river channel and walked the boats back to the river. We decided to float until the next obstacle forced us off the river. We made great distance and passed some beautiful scenery, more cascading falls and impressive tributaries joining to increase the flow. Eventually, a downed tree provided a reason for camp and we settled in, feeling good after a long but productive day making 11 km of distance. If we hoped to stay on schedule we would need to triple the distance the next day. Our deadline was flexible and no one would worry if we were a few extra days, but this was day 20 and we could already taste the cheeseburgers back in Bella Coola. This was all the motivation we needed to keep on schedule.

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With burgers in mind, we covered close to 40 km the next day. The river moved along at a nice pace and we only had two easy portages due to wood. We were lucky that there were not more river wide log jams; every corner had massive piles of wood that could have easily been blocking the river.

A major bonus of the day was the 11 km of class II and III water in the middle of it all. We were now all used to the boats and had a great time in the bigger volume rapids, not bothering to stop and bail until we absolutely had to. The afternoon carried us past the confluence with the much muddier Atnarko River. There was a dramatic confluence line where the grey, glacial waters of the Talchako met the brown, muddy waters of the Atnarko River. This formed the Bella Coola River and changed the color of the water for the rest of the trip.

The Bella Coola River was beautiful, but the sense of true wilderness had faded for us as now we could see the highway and some cabins from the river. We had two days of paddling left, but this was our last night on the river. The weather cooperated again and we slept under the stars for our final night. The next day we were on the water early. A steady current moved us quickly, past bigger and bigger log jams, some containing the largest cottonwoods I have ever seen with trunks over two meters thick. That afternoon we pulled off the river at the airport where we had started and where my truck was parked. The airport is about 20 km upriver from Bella Coola and we had decided days earlier that we were cheating. We stashed the boats in the woods, walked across the airstrip to the truck and drove to Bella Coola for a shower and food that hadn’t traveled for the last three weeks in our packs.

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The next day, after Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon at the Bella Coola Diner, which was well deserved after my 21 breakfasts of instant oatmeal, we drove back to the airport and got on the river for the final leg to the inlet and Pacific waters. It was a rainy day and the harbor was much bleaker than the day we had arrived in glorious sunshine, but our spirits were high as we crossed the open waters of the inlet to the boat launch that was our finish. Months of planning, 22 days of exertion and it was all over without a hitch.

What a good feeling! But it also leaves me feeling slightly empty. What now?