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Up the Inside Passage on on skis

Team traversing from Vancouver to Skagway finds tougher challenges than the landscape

Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2001

The most challenging terrain Vance Culbert and Guy Edwards crossed in their 1,200-mile ski trip from Vancouver to Juneau wasn't on the map. It was in their minds.

As experienced backcountry skiers and mountaineers, they and the others on the expedition were well-prepared for crevasses, ice falls and rivers. They'd carefully planned food for their six-month traverse of the Coast Mountains range. But nothing could prepare them to live with each other and their own thoughts day after day.

"You just get up and start skiing, and maybe don't talk for hours," Edwards said. "You're just in your thoughts."

It took Edwards a few months to adapt, he said. At first, he would think about something someone had said, dwelling on small disagreements. Now he enjoys the quiet.

"The sort of life you live in a town, there's constant stimuli," Edwards said. "In our life, some people would say it's more monotonous, but I say meditative."

Edward decided to ski the Coast Mountains because, to his knowledge, it's never been traversed continuously and completely by any group. Some parts of their route are popular ski tours, including the Homathko and Monarch icefields in Canada, but others have never been crossed, Edward said.

The idea appealed to Culbert, John Millar and Dan Clark.

"It's been in the back of a lot of climbers minds to traverse the range for a lot of years," said Millar, who spent the fall helping plan the trip.

They'd all been in the Coast Mountains before, mostly the peaks around Vancouver. Other climbers wanted to be part of it, too, even if they couldn't do the entire trip.

"It's kind of like these are the mountains we've always played in," said Lena Rowat, who joined the expedition in Terrace. Cecilia Mortenson joined in Wrangell and Heather Culbert, Vance's sister, met them in Juneau to do the last part.

Plans solidified when Edwards obtained a $6,000 grant from W.L. Gore and Associates, the makers of Goretex fabric. That covered a fifth of the expedition cost, basically the transportation to plant 24 food caches along the route.

They started at Pitt Lake near Vancouver on Feb. 2, expecting the most difficult terrain in that southern section. But deep snow and good weather in February and March smoothed the way for them. The only serious accident occurred on a logging road, where Clark slipped and broke his neck. He was evacuated and is recovering well, Culbert said.

The weather worsened as they came north and spring joined them. They spent about 15 days stuck in their tent along the way, and also became comfortable traveling in whiteouts.

"You can't really tell the difference between the ground in front of you and the sky," Edwards said. "You can lose your balance, which is why you have poles."

They felt their way through the white with a global positioning system.

"We went through areas without really seeing them," Culbert said.

Most of the terrain was the same anyway, skiing over fields of snow and ice, ringed by peaks.

"It's a huge slog, that's all it is," Edwards said.

Until a valley gets in the way, like the one they dubbed "Wicked Valley."

The maps they'd poured over in planning showed the glacier sliding gently to the shore. It had 20 years ago, when the map was drawn. But glaciers have been receding and now this glacier fractured into a steep icefall at the edge of a cliff.

They stopped there, too, on the edge of an 800-foot drop, then veered right and worked their way along the cliff for half a day until it finally let them down.

The main danger was avalanche. Near Nisga'a, Culbert watched an entire slope collapse 15 yards away from him.

"The whole slope just spent from a point, liquified and it was over within 15 seconds," Culbert said.

They had to be equally careful not to trigger each other. They've learned to take turns making decisions and breaking trail. Sometimes they all take different routes.

"We're all fairly individual characters, so learning to work as a team has been a process," Culbert said.

They seemed to have mastered it, finishing each other's sentences and drinks as they talked in a Juneau coffeeshop July 5. Having Rowat join the group helped, because she wasn't afraid to tell the guys they're macho competitiveness was out of hand.

"I can be pretty blunt," Rowat said. "It just felt like they'd get on a competitive binge and race ahead and there was no point to it."

Rowat's pulled her share of macho stunts, too. As they were hiking away from the Wright Glacier on July 1, 30 miles east of Juneau, she decided to avoid the dense bush the rest of the team pushed through. Instead, she swam around the point of land with her pack on.

"I was totally expecting everybody to jump in," Rowat said.

 

A reasonable thought, since usually they swim in every major lake or river they come to, no matter how cold.

The rivers became more difficult to cross as summer joined them on the way north, melting snow to flood the banks.

When they reached the Whiting River 25 miles southeast of Juneau they needed help. Mark Hixson from The Outboard Shop in Juneau came down in his jet boat to ferry them across and bring their resupply.

"It's a pretty swift-flowing river," said Hixson, who'd never been on it before. "They might have been able to get across, but to keep their gear dry and all that it would have been tough."

When Hixson first agreed to help them, he hadn't expected they'd really make it that far. He was surprised they turned up a month ahead of schedule, waiting at the water's edge in their molded, plastic telemark boots.

"Nice people, holy smokes. Young, energetic, I'm kind of jealous I couldn't be on an adventure like that too," Hixson said. "It's a feat of endurance, I guess."

A feat nearly complete. On Friday the Canadian skiers returned to the Taku Glacier to start the final 100-mile stretch from Juneau to Skagway. They expected to be done around July 20.

"When you start the trip it seems like sort of an eternal thing," Millar said. "Then suddenly you're almost there."

Kristan Hutchison can be reached at khutchison@juneauempire.com.



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