eing lost in Jasper's Tonquin Valley wasn't something I had expected on my fourth trip here, but leaving the parking lot for a 30-kilometre backcountry ski at 1:30 p.m. didn't make this a surprising outcome.
The Astoria River route is the main way to access the Tonquin Valley by winter, as you ski on the river's ice. My friend George and I were about 100 metres to the right of the summer trail on the warden's skidoo track. We were on our way to an Alpine Club hut near the southern end of the Tonquin Valley at the opening of the Eremite Valley.
I looked ahead to Throne Mountain which looked more dramatic than ever before. The dominance of Jasper's finest mountains combined with my eagerness for some virgin snow was giving me a rush that I had longed for during those bustling days in campus corridors.
At a rare opening in the river's ice, I precariously crouched for some water -- this I did with my skis on to spread my weight across the thinner ice.
As our progress steadied into the evening, the light fell to a dark blue. This would be a moonless night, making the stars more marvellous. I looked out at nearing Throne Mountain and knew that we were still hours away. I already ached in my shoulders.
When skiing up any slope, a thick tape called a skin is usually put on a ski's bottom surface for traction on the snow. Otherwise you can use wax. George reminded me that without skins on our skis, we'd sail to the hut. A generous amount of wax is lighter than the skins, so we stopped every now and then as the evening progressed and waxed up. Our skis were telemark style -- similar to skis used resorts, but with a pivoting binding so that a skier can stride and gain hills. Mine were a pretty standard width and were 180 centimetres long. George, on the other hand, was a '60s child and was a bit old school. He came from a day where skis were very narrow and well over 200 centimetres long. He was sporting thin, 210 centimetre misery sticks. On the downhill they suggest their name, misery, since you have far less stability, but skiing on flats or uphill, older skis are lighter and easier going than modern backcountry skis.
We left the Astoria River and I eventually flicked on my head torch to stay on track as I took the lead, . In the long straight meadows I killed the light. The temperature fell to the negative teens.
We put our skins on at 11 p.m. when we hit terrain a bit too steep for wax. We rested, and as the cold started to seep through our jackets, we began the steeper pitch. We left the valley bottom and headed directly for the hut.
I knew we were supposed to eventually leave the skidoo track since it would veer right to Amethyst Lakes, but I didn't know just where we were supposed to go left toward the hut. "You're good to the hut," George called out to me, so I carried on up. As we gained altitude I gasped out of fatigue. Sweating, I peeled off layers.
Out of the abyss I suddenly heard a call: "Hold up! Ahh . . . we've passed Outpost Peak and that's our target. Why don't you come on back down here?" Indeed, Outpost's silhouette hadn't gotten any bigger in the last 10 minutes.
In summer, hikers need only see the turn off from the Astoria River trail to the hut's trail. In the winter, however, you keep to the river longer, as you follow the warden's skidoo track. Having only pithy head torches for light, we had simply missed the turn off spot where skiers carry on to the hut.
George was waiting just below and we would have to break trail through the trees, since we had stayed on the skidoo track too long. We had almost overshot the hut. It was either this or ski all the way back down to our skin-spot and retrace our steps. Forget going back down. George had been coming here for decades so he never carried a compass and a map in our situation would only show summer trails.
We left the skidoo track and broke deep snow. I wasn't tired anymore -- my adrenaline was running high. That old familiar feeling of angst was setting in. The cold, the snow, the forest, the dark -- we didn't have much going for us now.
Ten minutes into bush whacking we had swam through a thick collection of spruces and firs. Bows cracked and snapped as we squeezed on by. I looked down and saw that my left skin had peeled off my ski and was gone. Instead of just renting the skins that came with my skis, I used an old pair I had attached duct tape with. "Oh shit George I've lost a skin but it has to be right here in the snow somewhere!" He calmly rolled a smoke and dropped his pack to the snow for a seat. Swearing frequently, I rummaged around and sank in the snow. I became frustrated.
Finally George spoke: "Don't worry you won't need that second skin to get back to the highway".
Outpost peak had disappeared now that we were in a mature forest. Our head torches sent futile rays of light just metres before ancient trees threw them back. George started talking about camping where we were. Fifteen below with no tent and the promise of using snow as kindling for a fire just didn't sound cozy.
Suddenly, we broke out of the trees at the edge of an embankment. There was a clearing below and without hesitation George leapt off the ledge into the darkness. Then it was my turn; my body was doubled over like a rag-doll as I fell the short distance to the base of the embankment. Exhausted, I dug my skis out of the snow and clamped them back on.
I found George standing on ski tracks. He concluded now that we were merely 40 minutes away. Back on a broken trail my skinless ski kept slipping out as we concluded our grunt to the hut.
"That's the one skin technique," mocked George. His laughter relaxed me again. We weren't going to camp out.
George later admitted that he didn't even bring a sleeping bag, since the hut is stocked with old horse blankets.
It was now well past 3 a.m.
Leading us, I soon reached a reflective sign which read "ACC Hut 0.5 kilometres."
Minutes later my head torch met big intertwined log walls -- the Wates-Gibson Hut.
"About time this fucking ended," I said aloud. My boots met the floor of the little mudroom, then I lifted the latch of the inside door and pounded in.
In the dark common room two men were sleeping on the floor in front of the glowing fireplace.
"Where the hell were you?" uttered one man.
"Um... sorry to have disturbed you" I said politely. "I've just arrived and my friend is close behind."
"Oh," replied the man. "I thought you were my friend coming in from a pee."
He and his friend were seemingly groggy and shocked at our 4:30 a.m. arrival. The one man jumped up and started pouring cups of hot water.
"Here," he handed me a cup. "Sorry about all our stuff." He began to fuss.
"No worries," I said profusely.
He stoked the fire. George entered the hut, greeted the men on the floor and before long we headed upstairs to the sleeping room. I pulled myself up the stairs and crawled like a wounded animal up onto a sleeping pad and into my sleeping bag.
At dawn, I heard George talking to the men, but didn't drag myself downstairs until after they'd left. We would have the hut to ourselves for the next two nights.
There is such an empowering feeling in knowing you have the continental divide to yourself. We were 30 kilometres from the nearest car and still only on the cusp of wilderness. So much isn't disturbed here; grizzly bears sleep peacefully beneath the snow and herds of caribou are never distressed by heli-skiers. Fresh mineral water sits frozen in giant nameless glaciers.
That day George and I jumped into our skis and skirted around Outpost Lake. To my surprise I didn't ache much from the previous day's 15-hour ski. The weather was brilliant as we ascended the little knob above the lake for some powder turns. It was okay going with my one skin now freshly duct taped.
We soon reached the top of the knob below the face of Outpost Peak. From there we looked south into the rugged silence of the Eremite Valley. Behind us, our hut sat below; so insignificant beneath Outpost Peak and the other mountains.
As we skied down, George did his practiced tele-turns and I did a mixture of things.
Every time George fell he'd howl with laughter. I cheered the whole way down.We swiftly flew through the little groves. Keeping to treed places, we reduced the avalanche risk.
"I'll dig you out if you go under!" chanted George.
"Same here," I shouted back.
We had our transceivers blinking away under our jackets. Shovels dangled off our packs.
The following day we traversed north from the hut to a small summit called Surprise Point.
The ski back was dodgy because the slope down to the hut was rather windblown.
We carefully weaved around exposed rock as we skied and at one point we took off our skis to climb over boulders.
George skied into a rock and we both howled about it as I pulled him up. My heart raced at the prospect of a broken femur or an avalanche. On some turns I held my breath.
There were little wolverine caves all around us.
That evening, our last at the hut, we chatted and joked endlessly over dinner and drinks. I deeply admire George's insight and wealth of knowledge.
He is so laissez-faire and I find his persona rubs off on me a bit more every time we meet.
Escaping life's busy routines is done best in serene places and in the company of your favourite people.
The best part of these trips is seeing how blissful the mountains are and in the presence of great people, how beautifully meditative the journey is.
Few people would choose to ski the Tonquin Valley in the dark, but sometimes, little adventures like that need to be undertaken. The larger the predicament I find myself in, the higher my spirits are upon returning from the mountains. I find that if you don't have a good sense of humour about the whole thing, then it becomes a task, rather than a pleasure. I can say for certain that once George's skiing days are past, I will carry on the legacy of the good times I've spent with him, by losing myself from time to time in the Tonquin Valley.
George and I chopped firewood and enjoyed the ambiance of our last evening while we indulged in some accoutrements.
I was fixated on the silence as we staggered down to Outpost Lake with an axe to chop at the ice. We would need the fresh water for the long ski out tomorrow.