Pacific Northwest Spring 2011 Trip Report
© May 2011 Adam Helman
(Click on any image for enlargement.)


Several months ago I envisioned a "pre-Denali" trip to provide a bunch of snow-related skills review immediately beforehand. The venue was Mount Columbia, highest point in Alberta and a worthy goal in itself.

However both the climatological record for late April in the Canadian Rockies is, if anything, sobering. Furthermore, Columbia is preferably skied rather than snowshoed in the Spring - and I lack the skills for a ski-based climb.

As-such my sights are qualitatively lowered to considering a pair of ultra prominence peaks in British Columbia with nonzero success chances during this off-season. During the peak decision phase Duane Gilliland continues to express interest; and we eventually focus upon Mount Tod and Morton Peak.

Greg Slayden offers to assist in my recent effort to learn skiing. With that day constrained to lie over the weekend my final flight itinerary is set.

Trip Details

Friday, April 29 - To Washington

I pass over my parent's home in the San Fernando Valley at 8:24 a.m. with unlimited visibility. On the second flight out of Oakland I am treated to views of all major Cascade Range volcanos - ending with Mount Rainier just before landing.

The Budget auto rental is remarkable with the odometer reading exactly 21,201 miles - the elevation of Nevado Illimani, Bolivia in feet. Many readers will recall that I have a fascination with "Illimani numbers" (containing no digits other than "0", "1" and "2"), including "Illimani times" (11:21:01 a.m.) and "Illimani dates" (December 21, 2012). I am so amazed by the odometer's readout that I just sit there for a minute, doing nothing apart from wishing I had a camera.

Having lost several hours sleep I "crash" in my Motel 6 room for two hours before meeting Greg at the Marmot outdoors store in downtown Bellevue for renting my ski gear. The motel address is Illimani-like: 12010 120th Place!

We enjoy supper at a fast-food place (not either of our usual styles), including a blue cheese and bacon burger, garlic fries, and a peanut butter milkshake for myself. The garlic fries are largely saved for another time since the portion is much larger than desired.

I drop-off Greg at his home and return to my Kirkland motel.

Saturday, April 30 - Ski Practice

I arise at 5 and have my usual coffee / hot chocolate combination from the local gas station before retreiving Greg at 6 sharp. We meet Edward Earl at a Park and Ride and drive for nearly two hours to the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort near Mount Rainier.

Greg and Edward take turns instructing me as I fumble my way down the local bunny slope. I've remembered the majority of what was acquired 16 months earlier at the Arizona Snow Bowl; and yet my proficiency is inadequate for attempting the next planned goal - cross-country skiing to the top of Crystal Mountain from a nearby chair lift.

I try the green-labeled ski run, twice, and fall several times while trying to learn turning, properly, on this obviously steeper surface. My ski bindings come loose and break-off, as they are designed to, upon falling. It's very disconcerting, and my desire for continuing wanes to nearly zero as making progress will entail assuming more risk than I should one month before a $6,000 expedition for which I could easily get injured TODAY.

After a lunch break I actually enjoy learning from Greg how to use skins for skiing upslope. It's a new experience; and it seems almost magical how they function to render ascent-on-skis feasible! Then, as the logging road we ascend is far too steep for a prudent ski-descent, I use the skins for getting down it as well.

We meet Edward and take the gondola up nearly 3,000 feet to the main ridgeline, hoping for views of Mount Rainier. Greg and Edward ski down this steep line, "Brain Damage"; and I return to the bunny slope for two uneventful runs apart from successfully avoiding a slow-speed collision with a family group.

I limp back to the rental, my 7 1/2 pound boots hurting me terribly, just to get out of them. Then I wait at some lunch tables for Greg and Edward to return, finishing my lunch food. We drive back from 3-5 p.m., deposit Edward at the car-park, and return the rental gear.

Greg and I attend a whole-foods store, purchasing edibles - including for myself a spicy filet of salmon that I enjoy in the motel room atop the garlic fries with a can of tomato sauce and shaved asiago cheese.

I do not enjoy the day apart from being with Greg and Edward in the car when we have many items of common interest to discuss - especially the ongoing "database project" for

Sunday, May 1 - Drive to British Columbia

Beautiful day. Too bad it's only for driving! I return the rental and take a shuttle van 70 miles north to Burlington where Duane Gilliland meets me. We return to his home after some last minute food shopping, and drive north into Canada around 11:30 a.m.

There's plenty of time, and we pass through Kamloops, British Columbia around 3:30 bound for the Sun Peaks Ski Resort and its Mount Tod. The snowline seems to be 4,000 feet, roughly the resort's elevation; and we park at a lot designated for overnight use - "P4".

Duane and I share suppers, and then walk into the resort only to find nothing open apart from an Italian restaurant that doubtless has outrageous prices. We agree on a wake-up time and sleep side-by-side in his camper.

Monday, May 2 - Mount Tod

Mount Tod is eventful. I will not soon forget it.

We choose a route believed taken by Greg and Edward, starting at about 4,100 feet; yet after a quarter hour realize we are on the wrong, east side of a gully and must cross it to remain on-route. It's only about 200 horizontal feet, yet we find ourselves postholing in the snow which, being hidden under the tree canopy, has not consolidated as has snow on the ski slopes. Weighing a more normal amount than myself, eventually Duane uses snowshoes; while I just crawl for some ways to spread out my weight over a larger area.

Back on good snow and after many minutes of northward travel, We take the third "left" of as many "black diamond" ski runs, now northwest. The snow is hard enough for crampons yet we lack them. Worse, Duane did not bring an ice axe from home - and is using trekking poles. We climb maybe 100 feet and then reach a service road heading southwest and cutting across the ski slope. We take it because I for one am having a hard time getting purchase on the hard snow.

The road continues to about 5,300 feet, ending at the base of another ski run with a ski lift directly above. We ascend the ski run, heading roughly north on its immediate left (west), eventually reaching a structure at 6,070 feet and a bunch of signs.

Our peak lies northwest, and so we head west up a service road with a boot path made for us by somebody at some recent date. Now we head roughly north, topping-out just east of the highest ski lift at about 6,800 feet. The wind is blowing, it has started to snow lightly, and so our day has "turned south". Ominously, the cloud deck is getting lower and lower....

From here there are snowmobile tracks along what appear to be flat paths that skirt around the southern subpeak of Mount Tod. We take one track on the subpeak's eastern base and thereby approach within one-half mile of the desired summit to our northwest. We head about 400 feet west to reach a saddle underneath a steeper slope that must be climbed to reach our goal. The wind has blown-off the soft snow, leaving a surface which is difficult to climb without crampons. We do our best. It will be problematic descending this slope later.

Now we take turns leading, each step punching-through several inches. I have snowshoes but don't care to use them since the distance is not-that-large. The wind is a howling gail, on the main ridge, and we make gestures to each other for communication.

The final 100 vertical feet is directly into the wind, heading west. I stop at a wooden pylon with "Mount Tod" on its southern face along with the elevation in meters. Duane arrives shortly, yet his camera fails to cooperate as he tries to get a picture of myself in what looks like a scene from the Ice Age.

We spend essentially zero time together at the summit; and choose a descent route to the northeast for bypassing that steeper slope. After dropping maybe 200 or 300 feet we turn south and trek on level ground to our original track. Here we have lunch in a wind-free, forested location - including a vegetarian burger sandwich (Duane) and turkey pastrami with bagel (myself).

Now we head slightly uphill, south, to where we had met the highest ski lift's top. It's nearly a mile. The visibility drops, first to 50 and then to a shocking 20 feet - there is no sense of the horizon available as we traverse back south to the ski runs. It's a somewhat serious situation.

Thankfully Duane's GPS has recorded a breadcrumb track - and, after returning to the ski lift's topmost extent, stumble downhill along roughly the original path.

At one point I am leery of Duane's decision to head left, as he claims that's where our uphill track is located. Duane heads-off, slips, and somehow self-arrests on the short (30 foot?) yet angulated slope with just trekking poles. I follow, kicking-in steps, backwards, ice axe in full use. We did NOT come up this way!

The whiteout persists for nearly a thousand vertical feet, down to even lower than the 6,070 foot structure at the top of that ski run farther east. We jokingly comment that we could have sat in a pair of men and women's bathrooms at the highest ski run's apex until weather cleared, at 6,800 feet, tapping Morse code to each other on the shared wall.

Eventually we break-out of the soup, only to continue farther into a zone of light, freezing drizzle before reaching our trailhead.

At Mount Tod we have nearly every kind of snow imaginable apart from ice - so providing excellent experience for my Denali bid come June.

Some of our gear is wet, and the forecast calls for rain this evening. Thereby we take a room in Sorrento maybe an hour's drive east of Kamloops.

On checking-in we learn from the manager that Osama Bin Laden has been found, shot through the head, and then buried at sea. We are incredulous since the lady is quite elderly and acts a bit senile. To confirm I call my mom in California who verifies all claims - and boasts of 92° F weather this day! What a contrast.

The hot shower feels extra-good as our boots etc... are dried next to the room's heater. The TV set provides a sub-stellar forecast for tomorrow.

We enjoy a most filling dinner at one Greek restaurant, starting with a Greek salad and including a baked spanikopita meal plus a medium pizza. One-half is vegetarian for Duane - the other half with anchovies and shrimp. I am tempted to have a fancy dessert yet at $7 decide to exhibit restraint.

It's been quite a day.

Tuesday, May 3 - Morton Peak approach and Washington Return

We decide to not attempt Morton Peak because the approach road is blocked by snow much lower than expected. Duane has already climbed it, and the weather forecast is not a good one. The peak can be dayhiked with a few hours in August - not 2 1/2 days starting from a mere 2,500 feet elevation.

Given all these "minuses" I decide that we should return to Duane's home in Burlington, Washington. The drive home features intermittent rain, and we would have been miserable snowshoeing and then erecting a backcountry camp under such conditions.

Prices for food in Canada seem about one-third higher than in Washington. At-times I refuse to pay for soda pop or even ice cream. Then too the gasoline is about $5 / gallon rather than the roughly $4 currently seen in Washington.

Duane treats me to supper at their home with his family. There's a big salad with many many ingredients, a macaroni and bean casserole, and ice cream cake for dessert. Pine nuts enhance the vanilla ice cream, as does Spanish Idiazabal cheese for the macaroni.

I have a hard time deciding what to do with my remaining time prior to the Saturday morning flight. Every day would entail a car rental fee - and, if I elect to not sleep at a Wal-Mart a motel charge as well. Possible venues include Round Mountain which would take a while given the snow conditions. However I'll be in Washington next summer with my own vehicle (so obviating both auto and motel charges), when Round can be hiked in mere hours.

I can just sightsee in greater Seattle - yet, again, there's the overhead of car rental and motel fee.

Finally, I can rent ski equipment and get much more practice. However the effective daily charge would be considerable: the sum of auto rental, motel and ski gear rental rates plus $50 a day for using the ski lifts. The trip's total cost would more than double. A more economical plan is to join my brother's family at Lake Tahoe next winter where they have a condominium and transportation is provided.

I check Southwest Airlines' website and find that flying home tomorrow entails a $107 surcharge. Given all options I decide this to be the least toxic - and so re-wire my reservations for specifically an evening return the next day.

Wednesday, May 4 - Sledding and Flights Home

Forty-five minutes drive from Duane's home has us on the Mount Baker Recreation Area approach road - which promptly becomes covered in snow as it ascends. We stop and rig a sled with ropes and duffel bag - thence snowshoe up-road for a simulation of glacier travel without the crevasse hazard. It's also a great work-out.

Duane as always comes-through with yet another of my desires: a break for steaming hot chocolate using his stove. We are actually hot from the morning sun and moderate temperatures that cannot be less than freezing. Still, the 15 minute siesta is a wonderful contrast before heading down to the vehicle.

Duane stops repeatedly on the return drive to admire photogenic Mount Shuksan. He's climbed it four times and will likely do it again.

I pack most furiously around the noon hour so as to enjoy a veggie burger lunch with Duane and his family before taking the 1:50 p.m. shuttle van to Sea-Tac Airport.

I've got 3 hours until the 7:20 p.m. flight, and cannot resist a $5.50 torte of mocha and cappuccino creams with a praline pecan crust. Then, during the flights I enjoy leftover pastrami and bagel, several Easter chocolates from Duane's wife, and a good hunk of banana nut cake bought for the climbs. In essence, today I use food as a means of staving-off boredom: a very unhealthy plan if performed frequently.

At 10:28 p.m. I pass directly over Encino in the San Fernando Valley; and I say "Hello mom and dad" while peering into the troposphere from 39,000 feet. Ventura Boulevard seems brighter than any other street in the Valley - including the multiple freeways.

I arrive home at midnight and fall asleep almost immediately.


I thank Duane and his family for their hospitality. Duane would have climbed Morton Peak with me had I deemed it a reasonable act. He catered to my every expressed desire, ranging from the sledding practice to multiple stops for hot chocolate along our drives.

Then too Greg was generous with his time and patience as I struggled to ski.

I now have 93 worldwide ultra prominence peaks - including my first "real" Canadian mountain since previous efforts in 2008 led to minor bumps by comparison.