Just got back from spending about 28 hours on Cathedral Mountain that was filled with outstanding weather, amazing skiing and an avalanche to top it off.
On Friday Chris, Scott and I decided that there might be a short window high up to ski something so I got a bivy permit for the O’Hara area and off we went Saturday morning. We skinned up to the southern east plateau on Cathedral to see if the south east glacier was filled in enough to have a go. We dropped our bivy gear and started up until reaching the toe of the glacier. This glacier is heavily crevassed and has a lot of overhead danger in the form of hanging snowfields. From an island of safety we watched wet surface point releases come down and turn into size 1 avalanches, game off for such a line. We skied the alpine bowl back to camp and found some truly amazing cream snow and noticed north aspects were still dry powder. After a snack we skinned up to the east facing alpine bowls on Cathedral’s south shoulder and skied the north east aspect, again outstanding snow. It was early afternoon and we figured we had already got away with more than we should have so we decided to setup for the night. We would try for the south east glacier at first light and then bail out before it got warm.
The night was clear and cool with a bit of wind. Around 3:30am I woke up hungry and slowly started to get things in place to get going, by 4:30am everyone was up and by 5:30am it was game on. We got to the glacier toe just as the sun was hitting it. We worked our way up the benched and crevassed glacier and mid way up we got a settlement, fearing a release we dropped the rope and gunned it to the rocky ridge line.
The ridge between the glacier and the east aspect was not ideal, a steep snow covered ridge with a loaded east lee face to the climber’s right and what looked to be a half covered serac with almost certainly crevasses below. “What do you think?” Chris ask, “Well we can boot pack on the crest of this ridge but pretty sure that lee slope will pull out on us.”. We knew above the short steep ridge the terrain levelled out a lot and if we made it there we would have an extra option for coming down the glacier in a less crevassed zone. I started up the ridge.
“Avalanche!!!”, I looked over my right shoulder to watch a crown line form meters away from the ridge line, stepping down to older layers as it formed the flank. “GO GO GO!” with only 10m to go we raced up the steep ridge crest until topping out a flat bench near a mix of seracs and crevasses. With the sun barely up we knew the day was over, except now we were high on a complex glacier with very few good options for getting down.
The “safe/extra” option we had hoped for was to ski more skier’s right, on the summit fans in order to avoid the more complex section of the glacier but now looking at that I knew it would cost time in the crevasse maze. Instead speed took priority in my mind and we started earlier on the glacier hoping to be able to sneak through the crevasses. Chris was in lead and mentioned seeing a line that could work I agreed. To ditched the rope and skied one at a time through the lower maze regrouping on a small high point. We each skied the glacier toe and regrouped from yesterday’s high point and then skied the same bowl back to our bivy position. No time to hang around, the race was now on to escape back to the O’Hara Road.
Yesterday we noticed the eastern slide paths, which go almost all the way to the road, had previously avalanched. We headed back there to see if we could use that to get out and it worked out great, to start at least. The top section’s bed surface skied good, melt freeze with a touch of corn from the morning sun. At about 2000m things got a bit more spicy due to a mix of small trees and the piled up debris from the upper sides. I ended up bushwhacking/walking the last 50-75m of the runout on mostly dry ground. To our surprise the lower creek flats were still firm and travelled very well back to the road. The road also was great travel, although for those looking to cross country ski maybe give it a miss, lots of water ice at the moment.
We concluded that Saturday morning was probably “the day” for such an objective but we were just a too late. Sunday morning was too late even with the colder overnight temps. There a good amount of aspect variability and inconsistent snow depths which make complex decision making very difficult. In the area we found everything from iso at treeline on solar aspects to dry powder on north that would make you think we’re still in deep winter. Triggering something near thin rocky spots was very much on my mind and the release we got was bang on, rapid isolated warming around rocks was visible in the form of water. I’m probably missing something as far as snowpack stuff, but it almost doesn’t matter as if you do go out you need to be prepared to deal with a large array of complex problems.
Today could have very easily gone a very different way for our group and with the forecast this week it is probably a great time to not be anywhere near avalanche terrain.