by Steven Threndyle
Every skier worthy of the name needs to try a traverse at some point in his/her career. Sure, lift-accessed slackcountry offers some security and easy first tracks. And it's pretty great to be able to sit down and dry your socks and powder-soaked jackets in the cozy confines of a backcountry lodge.
To truly experience wilderness, though, you need to throw off the cloak of external comfort and immerse yourself for at least a week in the high mountains of British Columbia. The Bugaboos to Rogers Pass traverse was first completed by a group from Calgary, Alta. that included the legendary Chic Scott way back in 1960's, and had seen very few crossings since, due not just to its remote location – the start near the CMH Bugaboos lodge is pretty much heli-access only – but also because of significant route challenges – including a vertigo-inducing rappel between two massive glaciers. The trip was guided by internationally certified mountain-guide Karl Nagy of Canmore, Alta. and organized through the Alpine Club of Canada.
Food, clothing, tents and stoves were carried in overstuffed expedition backpacks. On most days, we tied ropes into our climbing harnesses while skiing on glaciers creased and gashed by crevasses. When the sun came out, it was blazing, but that heat also created thick afternoon clouds that could also brew up flash snow squalls and brief, violent storms. It often took a couple of hours to roust off the effects of fatigue and to carefully fold and pack all of our gear into our bulging packs and then heft 'em up for several hours of skinning.
One day, the fresh snow that had fallen overnight heated up so quickly that avalanches thundered down the mountainsides around us. On two occasions, slides obliterated our tracks mere minutes after we had finished traversing a slope, meaning that speed was of the essence when it came to negotiating the heavy, sloppy snow that, by now, was sticking and weighing down the climbing skins affixed to the base of our skis. On the fourth day, Nagy had us rope up and then guided us as we warily snowplowed down a crevasse-strewn glacier in a whiteout.
Without doubt, though, Nagy's most stunning trick was to set up a series of belay stations on the sheer cliff face of the Deville Icefall and then lowered all of us – and our packs – down a series of vertical pitches. Throughout it all, he remained the picture of cool; as thoroughly at home in the mountains as most of us are behind a desk. During a lunch break, Nagy said that he had spent more than 300 nights in either a tent, snow cave or hut in the previous year – a modern-day mountain man!
On the final day, low clouds and fog once again obscured visibility. Snowflakes swirled and darted from dark clouds and our fearless guide was once again hunched over his faithful compass and topographical maps, charting our course to the Trans-canada Highway and Rogers Pass. We followed our Pied Piper of the Selkirks out from under the mist and found perfect ankle-deep powder on the Illecillewaet Glacier, where you could hear the train whistles and transport trucks grinding up Rogers Pass well before you could see the road. Cruising along the valley bottom, all objective danger was relegated to the back of our minds. It was oddly comforting to be heading home (my wife was pregnant at the time) and the entire adventure seemed mildly irresponsible. And isn't that what you hire guides for: to lead you through terrain that can kill less-experienced and foolhardy people? Tragically, Karl Nagy would die in his beloved mountains several years later while instructing a group of aspiring young mountain guides near Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. There is now a scholarship fund set up in his name to both mentor and develop home-grown guiding talent.