On Friday March 07 2008, I took a day off work to ski the French-Haig-Robertson traverse on a gorgeous, sunny, spring-like day. Joining me on this fantastic day in the mountains was Wietse, TJ and Megan. About three weeks earlier I had another chance to ski this traverse with TJ, JW and Ken and due to feeling a bit under the weather I chose to stay home. They subsequently had a great day out and ever since then I was planning on making this trip a priority. When I mentioned that Wietse and I were going for it, TJ asked if he and Megs could join us. He was hoping for better views and Megan had never been on a glacier before so she was also keen on giving this trip a try.
The day started off under a clear, cool sky as we steadily made our way up the French Creek trail. The pace was such that we could have a running conversation which made the elevation and distance gains seem a bit less. Of course the trail along French Creek really only gains a minor portion of the overall height gain for the day, but every bit counts when you need to gain over 1100 meters on A/T gear!
[Megs and TJ ski along the very tight banks of French Creek. Hard not to slip into the creek in spots!]
[Wietse and Megs climbing up a steep section of the trail in thick trees.]
[Skinning along the French Creek Valley - our destination is the col barely visible through trees at left.]
[After the tight nastiness, the creek is a joy to ski further up valley.]
[The group comes up the rolling terrain of French Creek with gorgeous views already opening up behind us.]
[Megs and TJ as we start to break tree line. Mount Robertson on the far left of the picture in the sun light.]
[Looking back at Wietse negotiating an interesting snow drift while we start our traverse to the toe of the French Glacier.]
[Skinning up through the moraines was fun and fast on hard snow.]
[TJ looks pretty small in front of the towering north walls of Mount Robertson. He is just in front of the French Glacier.]
Eventually we came to the toe of the French Glacier, having gained about 300 meters elevation from the parking lot. TJ warned us that the view to the col between Mounts French and Robertson was very short-sighted and he was right! The route up the French Glacier is a steady climb and much longer than it looks from the bottom. I led the way up the glacier at a slightly increased pace because I knew that we were going to be pushing the eight hour window that we had due to a party I had to attend in Calgary at the end of the day. I felt about a million times better than the week before on the Dolomite Circuit where I had absolutely no power in my legs for some reason. This day was much different. With a blue sky above, towering peaks all around and firm snow under my climbing skins I felt like everything was in sync with the world again!
[A very foreshortened view up the French Glacier to the Robertson Col. Through the gap is the Haig Icefield.]
[TJ, Megs and Wietse coming up the French Glacier.]
As we got higher and higher the views kept getting even better. Soon we could see peaks all all the Spray Lakes corridor. This trip really does take you quite high into the alpine. The views towards the French / Robertson col varied between blue sky and clouds so we weren't exactly sure what was waiting for us at the top. The weather on the Haig ice field is notoriously finicky, probably because it's so close to the continental divide with big peaks funneling the weather over the divide and onto the glacier. Like many glaciers, any clouds from below usually means a whiteout on the glacier itself so we tried to be hopeful as we saw the clouds move over the col...
[Megs and Wietse on the French Glacier with Burstall in the immediate background.]
[The infamous wind scoop at the entry point to the Haig Icefield.]
Eventually I could spot the huge snow scoop that delineates the French and Haig glaciers. The view over the col was absolutely stunning with clouds, snow and rock all brilliantly back dropped by a deep blue sky that you only see at higher altitudes. As I photographed TJ climbing the snow scoop on his skis I knew that I was going to have some kick ass photos from this trip! Once Mount Sir Douglas came into view with clouds whipping over its ridge and snow highlighting its wild contours I knew that this day would stand out as one of the best of the year for me. There was hardly any wind above the col and we stopped for a nice bite of lunch while drinking in the incredible views.
[TJ tops out the Robertson / French col and the Haig Icefield.]
[Megs starts up the snow scoop behind me with Burstall Peak now lower than we are!]
[What an incredible place! Monro at left and our route out of photo on the right.]
[Peering through the Monro (R) / Maude (L) gap at Mount Leroy.]
[The incredibly gorgeous and scary east face of Sir Douglas, which I'd climb 7 years later via the West Ridge.]
[Looking across the Haig Icefield towards Mount Jellico.]
[Mount Maude is buried in clouds pouring in over the Great Divide.]
As we stood there contemplating life and it's many mysteries the clouds started to whip in over Maude Peak. Rod McAllister, who was skiing solo and caught up with us, engaged in a short conversation on his way past. He recognized me and it was nice to finally meet someone that I've 'seen' on the web board for a while already! Wietse and Rod were soon disappearing into the clouds which were now hugging the Haig Glacier closely. I followed them and was amazed how quickly my views went from blue, sunny sky to a white out!
[Himalayan scenery in the Rockies!]
[Quickly our views are almost completely gone - the Haig Icefield is very famous for this phenomenon, thanks to it's proximity to the Great Divide.]
[Rod and Wietse ski into the "big white".]
[Looking back at Megs and TJ as I enter the clouds. Mount French rises dramatically to the left behind them.]
[Navigating steep snow slopes across the south end of Mount Robertson.]
Soon we were traversing a slope that seemed steep enough to slide. I know I couldn't have skinned straight up it which means it was certainly a candidate for avalanches! With the hot sun shining directly on this slope for a couple of hours already (before the clouds moved in) I wanted to get off it as soon as possible and did just that. As the clouds dissipated I could see Rod way below Wietse and I heading for the steep snow slopes below the Sir Douglas / Robertson Col. That slope was much bigger than I had imagined it to be. For some reason, I thought it was only a few meters high. Oops! Depending on your definition of a 'few', this was a lot more than that...
[Rod leads to the slopes beneath the Sir Douglas / Robertson col.]
Once on the slope I actually tried skiing up the whole thing - and pretty much could have too. I got a little chicken near the top of it because it started feeling like I may be on some tricky avalanche terrain. With the hot sun once again baking the slope, I choose to follow Rod and Wietse's example and strapped the skis to my pack, traversing back to climber's right into Rod's tracks. In the meantime, TJ and Megs descended back from their attempt at a high traverse, following old ski tracks, which would have also allowed them to access the col on skis the whole way. This route was climber's right of the 'normal' walk-up route and they also felt nervous crossing the slopes that their route would have demanded.
[Looking back at our tracks - you can see how high above the Haig they are on the lower shoulder of Robertson. You can also (barely) spot TJ trying the high line traverse about half way up the slope above the tracks to the left. Eventually this route was too exposed for his liking and he rejoined our route.]
[My favorite shot from the trip showing Wietse struggling under the weight of his skis and pack with the beautiful Haig Icefield stretched out below him and making him look very small.]
[It's HOT when the sun comes out!]
[Wietse comes up to the col, Monro in the bg.]
Once I got up to the col I had another brief conversation with Rod before he headed off down the Robertson. I took more photos of the incredible scenery and waited patiently for the others to show up. Soon we were all ready to take off down the Robertson Glacier. Wietse was a little nervous about his first back country ski descent on a glacier but he took off gamely! I was talking to TJ when I glanced back down the Robertson and noticed little pieces of Wietse's gear scattered over a large area of glacier! Wietse himself was face down, presumably taste testing the glacier - I guess he likes to get comfortable with new terrain... ;-) I skied down to assist him and I must say that he was very determined to get down that hunk of snow and ice.
[Incredible views of Monro (R) and towards McHarg, Onslow and Defender Mountains.]
[Rod gets ready for the ski run down the Robertson Glacier. Birdwood, Pig's Tail and Commonwealth rising over the Burstall Lakes at the bottom of the run.]
[Megs arrives at the col with Sir Douglas rising above her.]
[Looking back up windblown (crappy) snow as Megs and TJ prepare to launch down the Robertson Glacier.]
[TJ always makes the skiing look effortless no matter how bad the snow is!]
We stayed high on skiers left until we were far enough to drop down into the bowl of the valley at the toe of the Robertson. I think you could go right down the middle of the glacier too, but there would be more crevasse hazard over the bulge - if there are indeed very many crevasses. We only saw some small seracs on this particular day.
[Sticking to skier's left as we continue our ski descent. Note the small serac field to the left?]
[The rest of the ski out looks fun!]
[Looking over Robertson's north ridge towards Galatea and The Tower (L).]
[Ready to lose some serious height off the glacier.]
[Megs and TJ wait for Wietse and I to descend.]
[This makes it all worth it!]
[Off the Robertson Glacier and heading towards Burstall Lakes and the Burstall Pass trail.]
The rest of the ski out was pleasurable and warm. The trudge back to the parking lot from the lake was a bit of a bore but we made good time and came to the cars about 8 hours after starting out. Not a fast time but we weren't really out there to race. That would have been a waste of the weather we were lucky to enjoy!
[Looking back at our descent route down the Robertson Glacier - a very foreshortened view.]
[A gorgeous day to be on skis! Skinning back to the Burstall Pass trail.]
[Megs and TJ were starting to wonder where we were! :)]
This was one of the best ski days I've had so far on my A/T gear. A wonderful trip for a clear day - it wouldn't be worth the effort or risk on a snowy or really cloudy one.