Last year, on the summer solstice, Trevor and I spent what still ranks as one of the most exhausting days of my life skiing all three 11000ers on the Jumbo Icefield in a single push. Over the course of the past year I slowly forgot about the suffering. Left behind was the memory of a ski mountaineer’s paradise – one that, now that I’ve been, reminds me of Chamonix’s Glacier du Géant, which is no small compliment. By the time June rolled around again, I was itching to get back and take care of a few of the lines we left unskied. Particularly prominent in my mind were the northeast face of Commander Mountain (a line which Trevor and I were too slow for last time) and the aesthetic north face of The Cleaver.
Ian had some time off and was keen to go for a couple of big lines, so after I finished work on Sunday we quickly got his truck packed and made the long drive up to the trailhead. Arriving just as night was falling, we set our alarms and turned in for bed; Ian in the back of the truck and me on the ground outside.
Two and a half short hours later, I sat up, turned on my headlamp and pointed the beam down the road, only to see a pair of eyes staring back at me out of the darkness. I made some noise and asked it to go away, but it wasn’t until Ian flicked on his headlights that we could just make out whatever it was sprinting silently into the bush. Seconds after that, its eyes reappeared about 100m upslope, where it resumed watching us, eventually vanishing into the night as we readied our packs.
We followed the recently cleared trail up the valley until it petered out on the slabs below the toe of the Commander and Cleaver glaciers. Then, in the exact same spot as last time, we switched over to our ski boots. A firm crust allowed us to bootpack instead of bothering with ski crampons, so we settled into the grind as the sky gradually grew lighter. Knowing it was only a matter of time before the bluebird morning turned nuclear, we set a relentless pace. By the time the sun hit the glacier we were ready to start skinning across to our objective.
The long, familiar traverse had us staring at the day’s primary objective – Commander – the whole while. The sun hadn’t even worked up the strength to melt the skiff of fresh snow near its summit yet and things were looking good. We wrappped around the peak to its west face, skinned as high as we could and then switched to crampons for the final icy 200m. Once topped out it was clear that the sun had seen our plan but turned on the power too late to thwart it. Last time it took me around nine hours to hit the summit. This time: 6:55. That felt good. While Ian made his way up, I searched unsuccessfully for the register before turning my attention to rolling small chunks of cornice down the steep, intimidating face.
Once we both got clicked into our skis, I took a few breaths and eased onto the face. Then a few good turns in 5cm of grabby, warming fresh over hard neve. Those would be the only real turns I would make on the upper face. The surface snow sloughed away as I began a leftward traverse to the guts of the line, gathering speed on the slope, which we estimated to be at least 55 degrees before exploding on the rocks below. It was a sobering reminder of the consequence of failure. My ego has nothing on my cowardice, and I was happy to carefully side slip the firm traverse until I reached a clean fall line – albeit a relentlessly steep one containing two open bergschrunds.
From here on down the snow had softened, and although the angle really didn’t ease up my confidence grew with every turn. Soon I was over the upper schrund and happily making turns on a soft spine with my slough running out of the way in the runnels on either side. Great skiing on a wild face. I only wish Trevor had been there to ski it with us. I found a bridge over the lower schrund and settled in on the glacier to watch Ian descend. He took his time with the neve on his wider skis, but opened it up below the upper schrund and soon we were both able to relax with the day’s technical objective in the past.
After some food, we transitioned and skinned back up to our existing uptrack, reversing the morning’s traverse beneath the three Guardsmen to The Cleaver. That peak required nothing more than an easy skin to the summit, so we took our time, enjoying incredible views of countless peaks along the way.
Then it was time for one of the longest June descents around – west a little ways off of the summit and then 1000m down to our shoes via the north face. The first section was perfect corn – a good start. Then I poked into the steeper north face, finding preserved cold powder over difficult, chattery ice. Hoping it would get better and wanting that north face regardless, I make a few lousy turns before the fresh pow became deep enough to hide the ugly surface beneath. Game on. See the video below for some fast powder skiing that was way too good for mid June.
Ian followed, then both of us ripped the endless perfect corn back to the end of the snow. Just an absolute classic of a run – or it would be, if anyone ever skied it. I know of very few people who have. It’s probably going to stay in good shape for a while longer and it’s an easy day trip, so get after it!
We filled our water bottles and relaxed for a while on the slabs before making our way back to the truck. A solid 13.5 hour day out with 2200m of vert and 1600m of skiing. Not too shabby. Who says ski season ever needs to end?