THE JUNE BANDIT
STORY AND PHOTOS BY DANA RUDDY
John Crowley, my eternally optimistic and motivated ski partner, is a refugee of sorts. Years ago He escaped Mountgomery, Alabama and moved to the relatively slower paced Valemount, BC.
In March of last year, he and I went for a ski.
John had hit the road at 4 a.m. Pacific time to join me for a day of adventure along the Icefields Parkway. Our original plan was to climb and ski Mount Athabasca, but I found myself less excited about it than I had been the night before. My lack of enthusiasm was mainly due to the less-than-ideal ski conditions, but the idea to give Mount Athabasca a try was premised on the fact that John had yet to climb the iconic peak.
I knew John would take some convincing; especially considering the alternative I was going to propose was way more of a gamble. When he arrived in Jasper, around 6:30 Mountain time, I quickly fed him some coffee before attempting to spring a change of plans on him. My sales pitch mentioned a possible first descent of the north face of Manx peak, and after a few looks of uncertainty, John got excited and we loaded into the truck for quick trip up to the Portal Creek trail head.
Just after 7 a.m., John and I were ready to start skinning up Portal creek. The Marmot Basin trucks had already begun winding their way to work as we left the parking lot in the post-dawn light. We had made it a short distance before John realized he had forgotten his sunglasses. As he turned back to the truck to fetch them, I continued slowly up the creek, not wanting to get cold waiting for him. By the time I had reached the confluence of Circus and Portal creeks, John had caught up to me. I was happy to have avoided the normal early morning small talk, enjoying the casual pace and allowing my body to ease in to the efforts of the day.
Recent snowfall partially obscured the previous track leading into the Circus Valley, so we happily broke trail up the creek. By 9 a.m., we stood under the south face of Manx Peak eating dried fruit and sipping warm tea. We quickly chatted about how to gain the bench below the south ridge of Manx before settling on the awkward task of skinning up a melt/freeze-affected slope.
Not wasting any time, we immediately crossed the bench and found our way onto the wind-scoured ridge. After removing our skis and strapping them to our packs, we began the arduous task of working our way up the ridge over loose talus and faceted snow; it was a slow grind. Our only solace was the incredible views of Mount Edith Cavell and the Ramparts revealing themselves as we gained height. Despite continually searching the ridge for better travel, it just never seemed to improve and we were surprised by the amount of time it took us to climb Manx Peak. Just before noon, we found ourselves gaining the summit slopes, right on time for a well-earned break. We pulled out the stove, making soup and refilling our water bottles.
Sitting motionless on the summit, we enjoyed a perfectly calm moment. Warm sunshine let us dry our sweat-drenched clothing while the JetBoil hissed away. After a few minutes, we shared a bowl of rice noodle soup and refilled our water bottles with much needed electrolyte fluid. Looking down, we were filled with excitement. The north face revealed a perfect, untouched powder descent. Having only ever seen the feature on the map, I couldn’t have imagined it being a run as perfect as the one that sat below us. Protected from the wind on all sides, the vertical strip of untouched powder was just calling out to be skied.
We down-climbed a short distance from the summit and kicked a ledge in the snow in order to put our skis on. As John fiddled with his boots—he was having trouble getting them to engage ski mode—my excitement got the better of me and I made a large swooping turn across the top of the slope. There was only a small amount of slough bouncing lightly down the untouched face. It was now primed for its first set of tracks. John finally solved his boot issue, and with little more than a nod I dove in.
The steep slope consisted of perfect powder snow so light that it hung in the air between turns, slowly sprinkling back to the surface as though suspended in time. The turns were effortless. As I floated down, time slowed and I enjoyed a brief sensation of weightlessness with each turn.
When the pitch changed slightly, I ducked hard to the left and came to a stop in a protected spot to cheer for John. As John approached, approval was written all over his face in the form of a shit-eating grin and he continued a short distance past me to a small bench. I soon joined him and made the last few turns into the headwaters of Crescent Creek, where we stopped to marvel at the perfection of our descent. We took a moment to gaze on the seldom-seen views of Crescent Creek and the hidden glacier on Fortalice Mountain.
With the day quickly warming, we began the short ascent to a col east of Fortalice Mountain that we hoped would deliver us to Whistlers Pass. We ended up sticking to a snow slope that took us farther west than we would have liked in order to avoid excessive time spent climbing unstable scree. When we were nearly level with our intended col, we began an abrupt traverse back to the east and quickly gained it. We were rewarded with beautiful views past Indian Ridge and Muhigan Mountain, both of which perfectly framed Pyramid Mountain to the north. The couloir started with a gradual descent before dropping off quickly towards Whistler Pass. John knew well enough by now that if he wanted first tracks that he better not ask and quickly shoved off, enjoying perfect turns for 350 vertical meters.
We had just cleared the second unknown pass of the day, so we pulled out the stove again and marveled at the two perfect runs we scored. We made water and relaxed, taking in the perfectly untouched scenery surrounding us in all directions. We laughed, discussing how lucky we were. The luxury of exploring such a perfect unknown circuit, just a stone’s throw from home, was immense.
After an extended break, and now in t-shirts, we began the short climb of about 100 vertical meters up to Whistlers Pass. Upon reaching the pass, we stripped off our skins and enjoyed the gradual decent in to Whistlers Creek. Three kilometers later, and with barely a push, we found ourselves at the headwaters of Whistlers Creek, looking up at the steep couloirs of the north side of Terminal Mountain. We were now faced with some choices. We could take the easy route home via a gradual descent out Whistler Creek to Marmot Basin’s fourth parking lot; we could climb over Marmot Pass and descend the final few kilometers of a sure-to-be sloppy, melting-out Portal Creek; or we could ascend the back side of Marmot Peak and bag one final summit. The final option would give us a perfect groomed descent to the lower chalet and a multitude of ride options back to the truck. Feeling inspired after a near-perfect day, we chose the latter and began the final 550m ascent of the day to the peak of Marmot.
We knew we had to make good time.
If we goofed around too much we’d miss our chance to catch a ride with the horde of spring skiers heading back to valley bottom. We dug in, put our game faces on, and charged for the summit. Battling the wet snow clinging to our skis and skins, we managed to make the summit at around 4:30 pm. Completely parched and out of water by this point, we stripped our skins one final time and enjoyed perfect GS turns off the summit, down the lollypop trail past the upper chalet, and made a bee-line for the lower mountain. Pulling up to the lower chalet just before 5 p.m., we got more than a few strange looks.
Upon our arrival, John was approached by a ski patroller who asked, “Where the hell did you guys come from?”
John responded, “from the top man!” with a wry smile.
After loading on to the final bus of the day, John and I raised a few more eyebrows when we asked to get dropped off at the Portal Creek trailhead. Unloading our skis, we were happy to return to the truck with so much daylight to spare.
We decided to call this traverse “June Bandit” in honour of our children, and the pet names we were using for them at the time. The moniker also seemed fitting due to the warm weather and the feeling we had somehow stolen this perfect day in paradise.