Down, Over, and Around on Mount Howard
Spring, Summer, and Fall. They seemed to whip by in a blur this year. The spring involved powder turns late into May and then wet coastal low pressure systems plagued the South Coast on and off until mid to late July. I am sitting at my computer writing this finally in wet weather that is long overdue. The excellent fall climbing weather had me distracted from what is usually my favourite time of year to write and reflect on time in the mountains. That said I cant complain about endless October crack climbing.
I had signed up for Meet The Minotaur in late June. This meant that I had to hold myself accountable put in some running miles this Spring. The wet and somewhat uninspiring conditions for big traverses and ski mountaineering objectives on the coast made this more feasible. Nick and I had been throwing around different ideas for a traverse we have in mind but conditions were simply not complying. As I get older I realize that proper melt-freeze cycles for objectives of that nature do not come every year. "Patience is a virtue." is what they say right? That said April was an excellent month of skiing on the South Coast. Brian Burger and I enjoyed many spring powder days and found our selves seeking out steeper terrain with the excellent stability and pleasant snow.
One of Aprils highlights included a descent of Mount Howards ominous East Face Couloir. The East Face Couloir splits the skiers right hand side of the face. The line is right next to the more popular but in my opinion less inspiring 'Big Howie' couloir.
Carl Kohnstamm "CK", Brian Burger "Burger", and I set out from Cerise creek at a consistent pace to the Vantage-Matier Col. From here the ascent loomed overhead. All three of us agreed early on that boot packing up the line under the enormous cornice would not be an option. This left us to explore a unique entrance to the line. Our rough plan was to ascend the Twin One glacier to the West shoulder of Howard. From here we would descend a short couloir, wrap around the Southside of Howard, and rappel into the line. The bottom of the Twin One Glacier is an intimidating spot. Even with bomber stability. Massive slopes surround a small and steep draw that is used to access the upper glacier. This intimidating position inspired Brian to set a hasty bootpack. Sometimes the mountains have a beautiful way of making you feel small and insignificant. Before we knew it we had arrived on the Twin One glacial plateau. Tired but happy to be in such a spectacular spot. We enjoyed pleasant glacier travel to the West Shoulder of Howard.
The rest of the route was a bit of a question mark. Arriving at the West shoulder in a white out blizzard didn't help the cause. Due to obsessing over satellite images the night prior I was reasonably confident that the route would workout. Retreat would also be possible and not complicated which made the exploratory urge to move forward an easy choice. I wandered around on impressive rime ice formations to find the entrance of the 200m South facing couloir. I enjoyed some chalky whiteout turns before watching CK and Burger cruise towards me.
After a little regroup we threw skis over our shoulders and made way up the short climb that made up the South Shoulder. Upon arriving at the top I felt apprehensive at what was likely the presence of a large cornice. Once Burger arrived I had him pull out the RAD line and put me on a ski belay. I inched over to the edge with my avalanche shovel. Sure enough I was standing on a large cornice. I looked around for a minute in silence. Then like a gift from the mountains I spotted a weakness in the overhung mass. "It Goes!!" I shouted with delight. I donned my skis and gingerly slid towards the edge, stabbed my poles deep into the snow and lowered myself off smallest part of the cornice. A short straight line later and I found myself in the safe grasp of the upper South Face bench. The three of us skinned over towards the obvious gash of the East Face Couloir.
Upon arriving we all knew there was a large cornice so there were no surprises. Just like we thought all the rock was buried in meters of snow so a rock anchor would be a lengthy endeavour to make. This meant we would have to dig a big Snow Bollard. No time was wasted as we dug a large teardrop shape in the dense coastal snow. I am the lightest of the three of us. That meant It was my job to inch my way to the edge of the cornice while on a watchful belay. As I peered over the edge I felt my heart beating in my throat. Sure enough it was going to work but would require a deep trench. The three of us took turns cutting a U shaped trench on the edge of the cornice. Finally after a-lot of 'Blue Collar' work the whole system was ready for action.
CK rappelled over the edge and into the abyss. The plan was to go off rappel and ski to the first safe zone. I was next. After a little bit of awkward "Faff" I was off rappel and clicking into my skis. CK was nowhere in sight. I radioed him and shortly after received a reply that he had skied the entire line to the bottom since there was no big alcoves to shelter in. I chuckled and waited for Burger to join me under the cornice. Burger and I coiled the ropes and agreed that we would ski together since the line was wide enough for two and that the snow and stability were near perfect. This way neither of us would end up hanging out under the house sized cornice that loomed above.
after a dreamy descent of the couloir we joined CK for high fives at the bottom. While the steepest terrain was behind us we still had the entire lower East Face below us. A quick hop of the bergschrund had us group shredding powder eights to the bottom of the 1000m face. Finally a deep breath. We gave each other some hugs and casually made our way back to the Vantage-Matier Col. The only task left between us and the car was a couple kilometres of sidehits, luge tracks, and low angled powder.
CK, Burger, and I arrived at the car smiles plastered on our faces. We reflected on a truly seamless day. It is not often that people, place, mindset, and conditions all align. On this day they did making for one of my more memorable days in the mountains with good pals cracking jokes and enjoying the simple act of moving on snow.
Cheers to more my friends