Gallery of Gruel – The First Winter Traverse of the Purcells

Three years after an epic grunt along the length of the Selkirks, four British Columbia ski mountaineers lay claim to an equally arduous first-ever ski traverse of the neighbouring Purcells. Would they undertake the beautiful voyage again? Yaaa–probably not. Story and photographs by Douglas Noblet.

Photographer Douglas Noblet likes to suffer. In 2016, the Nelson, British Columbia, native helped organize a team to ski traverse the Selkirk Mountains, from Kootenay Pass to the Mica Dam, north of Revelstoke, British Columbia. During that 36-day, 520-kilometre (323-mile) trip, they endured unseasonably low snowpack, two broken skis, two broken bindings, three broken poles, and a wily pine marten that stole two kilograms of food. (You can read about that adventure in KMC Winter 2016/17.)

Lena Rowat joined our team for part of the Selkirk traverse and all of the Purcell traverse. I took this shot of her during the third leg of our Purcell traverse near Mount Findlay. The rest of the crew included me and Steve Senecal from Nelson, BC, and Mark Grist, Nick Matwyk, and Rowat from Vancouver.

Despite the challenges of that trip, he and a core crew of four others decided to do another British Columbia traverse in April 2019, travelling from Creston to Golden, likely the first continuous ski trip along the entire length of the Purcell Mountain range. The team didn’t suffer any broken gear, and the snowpack was better than their mission three years earlier,

These are my skis at the lowest point in elevation: Howser Creek at 1,100 metres (3,610 feet). We had just waited out a two-day storm at a cabin near Jumbo Pass and had to make up some time before our food ran out. We skied to the Bugaboos in only three days while travelling through terrain that showed widespread natural avalanches on all aspects and elevations, except for this creek bottom.

but given that it was April, spring hazards were high and they regularly triggered avalanches up to size 2.5. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

In all, the Purcells journey spanned 380 kilometres (236 miles) over 26 days and included 31,000 metres of vertical. “People often ask me if I would do the trip again, and the answer is an easy, no!” says Noblet. “But on the walk down Quarts Creek, myself and Steve [fellow Nelsonite Stephen Senecal] found ourselves talking about the Monashee traverse. Give us a season or two off and you might just see us attempting the next mountain range.”

 

Above: We had three others join us for the fourth leg of our trip, and this shows us crossing Howser Creek. Compared to our Selkirks traverse, we had fewer snow-free valleys to cross, thankfully. Top feature photo: Senecal follows Grist up the Toby Glacier. Earlier that day, we had to navigate through a one-kilometre-long avalanche trap with steep walls on either side. Because of a warm cycle that passed through a month earlier, the whole thing had already slid, and we skied on top of avalanche debris that was 15 metres high in places.

 

We stayed at the Dewar Creek hot springs on our ninth and tenth nights. It nuked 25 centimetres and we watched it all fall from the comfort of the hot pools, occasionally killing time with some friendly contests.

 

This was taken on the north side of Eyebrow Peak the morning after the two-day storm we waited out. That same storm was responsible for the death of three famous climbers in Banff National Park. We received an inReach text from Grist’s mom in Mexico that read, “Bad news today: Avalanche buried 3 alpinists at Howse Peak. Careful, pls.” Meanwhile, we could see avalanche debris on every aspect around us, including this fracture line that ran for over a kilometre.

 

Grist boot packs the main crux of the trip, the 2,780-metre (9,120 feet) Lees and Clutterbuck col in the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy. We were unsure about getting through this section, but it turned out to be easy, and it led us to our best run: an 800-metre north-facing glacier run in 50 centimetres of hip-deep blower snow.

 

 

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