For most university students, the end of the academic semester is related to high-stress levels, many all-nighters and too much caffeine. But for our team, Julien Cossette, Nicolas Flliatrault, Edward Goulet, Laury Grenier and Brendan Morden, all Thompson Rivers University (TRU) Adventure Guide Diploma students, this period was characterized by endless glacier ski descents, face shots, near-frostbites and epic barefoot river crossing.
As the final assessment of our diploma and in preparation for the training program of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG), we chose to organize a 10-day ski-mountaineering expedition ; an experience that aimed to encompass and evaluate all of the technical and guiding skills we learned during our last two years of studies.
Here is the story of our adventure.
Before the adventure
The first significant step of our journey was to find a destination, which was more complicated than it sounds. The goal of our trip was to combine both a basecamp and traverse style trip to develop a variety of ski-mountaineering skills, including navigating in complex glacier terrain, steep skiing and steep snow climbing.
With so many possible venues, a limited budget, a tight timeframe and diverging personal objectives, we had to find an area that would challenge us to our best and make everyone happy.
After many times, the group found the perfect location for our trip : The Freshfield Icefield. This area is located North-West of the popular Wapta icefield but sees significantly less traffic due to its remote position. Complex glaciers and seracs characterize it, with multiple high ski summits over 3000m and a challenging 55km traverse to get back to the car.
Team's training and mindset
To be able to be part of this kind of expedition, every team member had to train physically and mentally hard. The critical thing to consider is that none of us started from zero before this expedition. We all had different ski backgrounds, which explained why we had other ways to train for this trip. However, each group member was responsible for being fit and ready for ten long days and significant vertical gain.
To make sure that we were physically fit, some of us went out skiing in the backcountry up to 60 days before the trip. Others were going to the gym, running or biking. We had to train to ensure we were efficient with our safety system and training (crevasse and avalanches rescue).
We kept developing our knowledge by taking the backcountry skiing progression courses offered by TRU, and some extra professional training such as Avalanche Search & Rescue Advanced Skills course, Introduction to Weather course, Girls Do Ski course or/and Practicums for ski lodges.
For this kind of expedition you need to be physically and mentally prepared, but also have an adequate diet. Everything you do in the backcountry involves burning calories. Sleeping outside, melting snow to have water, maintaining the camp and backcountry skiing for over 6 hours is physically very demanding.
A team that performs a ski-backcountry trip will bring food that fulfilled the daily needs of 5 000 calories. It is on that number that every team member organizes their menu which was was mainly composed of oatmeal, granolas, cheese, dried meat, dehydrated food, packaged diner and Näak bars.
We were thankful for having a sponsorship with Näak since we could represent a local product and because their Ultra Energy™️ bars were the perfect fuel for our adventure. The 7 grams of protein made the bars ideal for accompanying our oatmeal in the morning. The 4:1 Carbohydrate: protein ratio was perfect for keeping us skinning up long distances and high elevation gain.
Every team member had 2 Ultra Energy™️ bars and a waffle a day to ensure good performance throughout the expedition! We were also proud that Näak was supporting our project since 4 of the team members are from.
On our first day of the expedition, we took a flight from the Golden Airport, and we were dropped at the Helmer-Barlow Col right outside of Banff National Park. When we arrived, the wind was whipping, and the air had a bite. We rummaged through our packs looking for our biggest puffy and then descended the Freshfield Glacier for kilometres until we reached our basecamp location.
Our camp was located at a flying site with panoramic views and access to the most desirable descents and peaks. We spent our first afternoon setting up base camp and preparing for the day.
Despite it being late April, we woke up to -20 on our first morning. On our first day of skiing, we set off for the glacier ramp above camp and got a lay of the land with a possibility of a few summits.
We skinned to the summit of Gilgit Mountain and then turned around on the summit of Nanga Parbat due to the intense wind and cold. With the wind chill, it was well over -30, and the margin error was low in these conditions. We descended an 800m glacier run back to camp, and planned for our next day.
On the second day of skiing, we ascended the sub-peak of Barnard and descended the East face. We climbed the Walker col, which set us up for an aesthetic and steep descent that we had observed from camp. The snow was ankle-deep, dry and stable. The perfect conditions for more significant terrain!
The next day consisted of attempting a summit of Mount Freshfield, the highest peak in the Freshfield group behind Mount Barnard. We wove through the convoluted and crevassed terrain from camp and traversed a high bench beneath a rock outcrop to gain the glacier.
We switchbacked a large East facing slope before wrapping around to the South Face to where we began our boot pack. At 3200m, shortly after we transitioned to bootpacking, we encountered a thick wind slab that turned us away from pressing onward to the summit. We enjoyed a massive descent down the sustained face we had skinned up.
The following day consisted of skiing along a glacier run off the Walker-Bulyea Col and a long 600m 40-degree descent of a no-named summit seen from camp.
On the last day of our basecamp, we had a pleasant smaller day skinning to the summit of Barlow and enjoying a long glacier run back to camp.
We were getting weather updates on our satellite phones, and we saw that bad weather was heading our way, which forced us to leave for the crossing a day early. From camp, we made a long climb to the Lambe Glacier, from where we would access our long glacial descent to the Blaeberry River Valley.
In the space of a few hours, we experienced it all: powder on the north face, brittle crust and corn snow. We established camp in the valley and enjoyed the pleasures of not melting snow for water and escaping the wind and frigid temperatures of the alpine.
The bears were out, and we saw their tracks in the nearby forest. In the middle of the night, we were awoken by howling wolves. It may have been winter in the alpine; however, the animals were active and ready for spring.
After spending a night in the valley, we travelled along the thick forest of the Blaeberry River until we reached the bottom of Wildcat Creek. We ascended the Wildcat Creek towards Mistaya Lodge and were back at the tree line just before dark. We set up camp, ate some dinner and were asleep early.
On the last day of the traverse, we skied up Trapper-Baker Pass to access the Wapta Icefield. A long day spent in a whiteout, traversing the Wapta Icefield to our van at Bow Lake. The peaks were not to be seen, and there was no definition in the rock, so we had to rely on our compass to follow the bearings.
After a week of sunshine and incredible powder on steep and big terrain, travelling in a whiteout was a small price to pay for fantastic conditions in an extraordinary place. We look forward to returning as a group one day and skiing new lines, and tackling new summits.
Some of the team member's feedback :
Laury: The waffles were my daily treat !! I kept them in my tent, and every night, I would warm up a waffle by putting it on my Nalgene filled up with hot water. That way, I could have a warm snack every evening before going to bed!
Oh, and fun fact, on almost every day, we would trade our favourite bars in between each other. My favourites ones : Mocha and Peanut butter :D
Nicolas :Love Naak produces! Every day I had 2 bars & 1 waffle! I had some routine to go through them! The first bar was in the morning. I ate it after my oatmeal as a reward for finishing my breakfast, as I am not a fan of oatmeal. I took the second one during the summit of a peak or on a long way up. It gave me the energy to either keep climbing up or shredding down. The last one was kept in case of an emergency. I saved my favourite one for this: the Mocha! We never had any trouble on our trip, so I ate it at camp during the post-trip guide meeting. I had my waffles during our transitions (from skinning to skiing or boot packing). All of the bars were very good. I had to be careful not to eat them all at once!
Brendan:I was super excited to try out NAAK's products. I was familiar with the product due to its popularity in the running community and was looking forward to trying a variety of NAAK bars, waffles, etc. The NAAK products made up the majority of my fuel for the trip while we were out climbing and skiing. I typically would have the bars and waffles stashed away inaccessible pockets to feel them throughout the day. My favourite product was the vanilla energy waffle. They are incredibly light while still being substantial enough to give you the necessary boost to get through the next climb.
Edward : Naak products are my new go-to products for adventures. I decided only to bring naak products for my snacks during the expedition, and I was not disappointed. They gave me everything my body needed while still being light. Every morning, I would grab a Caffeine Ultra energy bar to start the day. During the day, I would always carry a bar and a waffle in my jacket in case I needed more energy. We were in a harsh environment with frigid temperatures, and we needed all the energy we could get, and we got most of it from the NAAK products. My favourite product was the berries and nuts bar.