Alex Armstrong_ Simple is complex

Images by Jordan Boratynec

A moment can be taken at face value as a particular etch in time. But what if you considered every moment that came before it as one that led and prepared you for the one you’re in now? I thought a lot about this as I put one foot in front of the other on my way up to the Olive Hut in the interior of British Columbia. 

As Ginny White, Jordan Boratynec and myself rolled slowly up the Forest Service Road armed with our sleds (snowmobiles), mountaineering gear and 4 days worth of food, we thought this is a heck of a lot of stuff to hang out in a cabin out of cell range for a few days. Though we were simply seeking to get to the ‘simple’ you have to navigate the complex to reach it. 

To reach our final destination, Olive Hut, we’ll have to sled (snowmobile) up a road for 20 kilometres, ski tour up through the treeline to the alpine and then snake through the crevassed Catamount glacier before ascending onto a large rocky outcrop where the cabin is precariously placed. This early season ski mission is a true culmination of skills we’ve all been cultivating throughout our time pursuing and accessing skiing in the big mountains of British Columbia. If you break down every portion of the journey into smaller sections, each has its own specific skill sets and moments of learning attached to them. 

Snowmobiling is my newest pursuit in this story. Naively, I thought it was the lazy man’s backcountry couch that could magically transport you further and deeper into the mountains. Turns out it’s literally the hardest sport I’ve ever tried. Picture a 600lb mountain bike in quicksand that if you go too fast or too slow you get stuck. Every component was foreign to me at the beginning. Loading and unloading it was unnatural to me let alone driving the thing through the snow. I was lucky enough to have patient friends, a prerequisite in the foray into sled-skiing. Two years into the endeavour I think about struggling to start it, then figuring out the technique. I think about getting it very stuck six times in a row or barely getting it out of the backcountry because my arms were jello. Now slowly after all these misadventures I’m finally confident in unloading and loading, riding in powder (sometimes) and getting my sled unstuck. It still helps to have patient and willing partners. All the moments on my sled in the last two years lead to the confidence I have now and it was critical for getting up the 20km road before ski touring the rest of the way to Olive Hut. 

Ski touring is my comfortable zone in this mission. I’ve been avidly touring for seven years now, been a ski patroller and a tail guide in the backcountry. When I think about ski touring I think about the countless footsteps and the blisters, the boot packs, the beers at the end of the day and the many moments communing with the snowpack and the mountains. This felt natural to me as we ascended to the glacier. We had lots of convoluted and complex terrain to navigate. One of the slopes we had to skin up had a small avalanche through it, leaving “hangfire” and we had to come up with a new plan. I thought about where it all started in my AST 1 learning about using terrain to mitigate risk. I thought about all the days evaluating terrain and micro features. Though there was a slope that had slid, there was an adjacent route that was a smaller slope which was facing a different aspect that we thought we could safely manage one at a time (a technique used when it’s crucial to cross avalanche terrain and better to have one person at more risk than the entire group). We needed it to reach the upper bench that connected us to the glacier. We put a steep ski track up it and it was stable enough to let us move along. We popped over the top right at the mouth of the glacier. 

The next step wasn’t just ski-touring, it was glacier navigation with blowing snow and daylight quickly receding. Though just another singular moment of the trip and in time it comprised years of knowledge culminating to feel comfortable enough with navigating the winding glacier and crevasses in front of us. Though the goal is simple enough the terrain is complex. (That’s not a metaphor… it’s actually rated complex on the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale.) After seeing the avalanche on the lower slopes, we decided that we would wear our harnesses but stay unroped as the avalanche problem would pose a larger hazard than the crevasses and spacing out would be critical to staying safe on the upper slopes of the glacier. To avoid the crevasses, we took our probes out and moved slowly upwards probing each step. This was tedious and painstakingly slow travel especially considering the fast approaching dusk. We methodically raced light and stepped off the glacier and onto the rock outcropping where Olive Hut perched over the Catamount Glacier. We narrowly missed nightfall and we were grateful for the shelter and wood stove of the hut. 

Though this objective was simple and singular; go to a hut in the mountains, it took many years of education and experiences to cultivate the skills it would require to get there. With countless days of dedication and exposure to the mountains of Western Canada, something so complex was achievable and had the skill set to accomplish something so far out of reach 10 years ago. This moment is like a snowflake; seemingly individual but when you look closely it is composed of many different crystals. A multifaceted moment you could say.’