Words By: Eric Carter
Photos By: Pat Valade
I crept towards the edge, trying to judge if the snow beneath feet sat on solid rock or overhung air. I peeked high over the lip and the West Face came into view. Another inch forward and I could see I was on solid ground. I planted my ice tools near the edge and peered over into the Siberian Express Couloir. I thought: “Yep – that’s a ski run” and knew I’d have to come back.
It’s hard not to miss Nch’Kay when you drive into Squamish. The dormant volcano (more recently named Mount Garibaldi), towers over town with steep, glaciated flanks that draw the attention of the mountain obsessed. Out of sight to the highway onlookers, the shady north aspect of the mountain hides convoluted features that offer up complex, but worthwhile (and sometimes lifelong) objectives for skiers and snowboarders. Beyond its climbing and skiing potential, the glaciers and the craggy rocks give shelter to mountain goats and wolverines. Water flows down several different creeks to the lower mountain which is home for marmots, bears, and deer. Eventually flowing out the valley bottom to the Squamish River and surrounding rainforest it’s the dynamism of Nch’Kay’s ecosystem that perfectly encapsulates both the adventure hungry spirit of the people who live in and visit the area, and the breadth of opportunity offered up by the landscape in the Sea to Sky.
Every aspect of the massif, with its three distinct summits (Garibaldi Peak, Dalton Dome, and Atwell Peak) has an interesting ski line. I first touched the summit of Garibaldi Peak in 2012, and since then I’ve been all over the mountain and on top of all three peaks.
The side that has always eluded me is the West Face of Atwell.
The West Face is hidden from town, only clearly visible when you head up Brohm Ridge. Directly up the center is a broad, sweeping couloir – the Siberian Express. It’s a line that doesn’t come into condition every year, or if it does, not enough people are paying attention to ski it every year. The Siberian was first skied in 1994 by Peter Chrzanowski, Beat Steiner, and Pete Mattsson and wasn’t repeated until 2003 by Trevor Hunt on a solo odyssey. Since then, it’s seen only a handful of descents.
On the Coast, conditions were variable all season. Finally, at the start of March, a storm dropped good snow on top of a supportive snowpack. There was a three-day window and minimal wind in the forecast. Myself, Paul Greenwood and Tom Peiffer were ready to tee off.
I had messaged Paul, a good friend of mine, upon seeing the Siberian was in.
“Think we should go for it?”, he replied.
I had been watching the weather religiously and spent the last few days up in the area. Everything indicated conditions would be excellent with the exception of a potential solar problem coming into play in the afternoon. I figured we could mitigate that risk however by starting early, moving fast, and having a strict turnaround time: whenever the sun hit the line.
“Let’s do it,” I replied.
Text messages started flying to get the crew together and organize gear. The plan was in motion.
Despite being immediately above town, the approach is complex. Ascending the backside and dropping into the top presents complications with timing, cornices, and unknown conditions in the line. Booting up means significant exposure to overhead hazard. Even with the climb and ski complete, the bottom of the line terminates at the head of the Cheekeye River with several canyons, and steep forested terrain on all sides. Escaping in the afternoon sun isn’t trivial.
With all these considerations in mind, we realized the easiest route to any of the summits goes from Brohm Ridge up the NE Face of Garibaldi. From there, one rappel off the backside gives access to the flat icecap separating each summit. It’s a ten minute walk over to the summit of Dalton Dome from the plateau and then possible to ski the south facing Cheekeye Glacier that splits Atwell and Dalton. The Cheekeye was first skied by Trevor Hunt back in 2011 and puts you right in the middle of the West Face and gives access to the Siberian Couloir.
Immediately upon starting to boot up the Siberian, I could tell the conditions were excellent. I could feel the sun swinging around towards the couloir and we pushed hard to race it to the top. I stopped just below the cornice where the wind had stripped the summit ridge and the couloir was hard alpine ice. I knew we wouldn’t be able to ski this first pitch—topping out would take an hour, with a rappel back onto the face. We were too late and wouldn’t get to tag the top. But on the bright side, we’d get a hell of a ski run.
Paul and Pat dropped in first, then Tom and I made tandem turns together, dodging the fast-moving snow sluffing down with us. I don’t remember thinking about much during those 1000 meters of descent. It only took us about 20 minutes to get down, even with four of us. Before we knew it, we were skinning out from the valley bottom, up the forest to regain Brohm Ridge. Tired, happy, and a little sunburned. What should we do tomorrow?