320 km, 21 days, 8 major icefields: 'Amazing' ski marks 50th anniversary of historic traverse
Four skiers who travelled 320 kilometres over mountaintops and glaciers through the Rockies on one of North America's greatest ski traverses were welcomed at the finish Tuesday by one of the men who made history by completing it five decades earlier.
Four friends — Alex Heathcott of Calgary, Darren Farley of Canmore, Alta., and Lynnea Baker and Eliot Brooks of Revelstoke, B.C. — spent 21 days skiing the Great Divide Traverse from Jasper to Lake Louise.
"It was a pretty amazing trip," Heathcott told The Calgary Eyeopener.
"I think we saw some of the most spectacular views in the entire Rocky Mountains. There were definitely ups and downs but I think it was one of the most amazing trips in my life."
The incredible journey was first completed on May 23, 1967, by Chic Scott, Don Gardner, Neil Liske and Charlie Locke, after previous attempts by other groups had failed. They also did it in 21 days.
While many people do parts of the Great Divide Traverse these days, it's still rare for skiers to tackle it all at one go. The friends think they're the first to do the traverse in full this year to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic trek.
"It was the classic ski traverse in Canada," Farley said. "It had a lot of historical significance so if you are a ski adventurer it's kind of the one to do."
And one of the original adventurers was on hand to greet them Tuesday afternoon as they skied out of the trees behind the Great Divide Lodge, which sits along the Trans-Canada Highway between Lake Louise, Alta., and Field, B.C.
"The one thing that you can say about this trip is it hasn't become much easier over the years. Some adventures, like climbing Mount Everest, are not what they used to be, but skiing the Great Divide Traverse is still as big an adventure as it ever was," said Chic Scott.
Scott said when he completed the trip 50 years ago — wearing wool clothing and using cross-country skis — the hardest part was finding the route.
"It's not like a polar trip where you're going across a flat expanse of snow and ice. This is mountain terrain, so you're going up and down and around. It's very complex," he said.
'Amazing' trip covers 8 major icefields
The friends on the latest adventure — who are all in their early to mid-twenties — said their main motivation was to hang out together while skiing such an epic route.
"It's an amazing trip that covers eight major icefields…. It's also quite a remote area of the world and this is one of the few ways to access it," said Baker.
"It's fun to go hang out with your friends for three weeks in the backcountry and challenge yourself and ski around, see cool terrain in places you would never go otherwise."
It was a lot of work under some challenging conditions, Heathcott said.
"You suffer from avalanche conditions, whiteouts, wind, rain, snow, anything nature can throw at you along the way," he said.
When asked how the route had changed since the original 1967 trip, Baker said the glaciers had likely transformed the most.
But one of the biggest challenges of the traverse is that it's weather-dependent, she said — so everyone who does it likely does variations on the route.
"You could not do the same route twice," she said.
"We did a combination of the original route, the high route and some of our own stuff, which worked sometimes and didn't work other times, but that's part of the challenge and that was part of the fun of this trip."
Biggest challenge: alpine athletics or running out of coffee?
Because they all either work in the ski industry or ski all the time, their fitness levels were up to the trip, Baker said.
They had access to backcountry cabins on the first two evenings and the last two evenings, but slept in tents in the snow for the other 17 nights.
Because they wanted to carry as little weight on their backs as possible, they largely dined on homemade dehydrated meals.
Brooks even ripped a book in half before leaving so he wouldn't have to carry the extra weight — and burned the pages as he read them so he wouldn't have to pack them for the rest of the route.
But he started to run out of reading material even though others traded their books around, he said.
And that wasn't the only thing that ran scarce.
The biggest challenge, according to Brooks?
"Running out of coffee," he joked. "Having to limit my consumption."
But would they do it all over? Definitely, says Brooks.
"Oh, yes, absolutely," he said, calling it a "bonding experience!"
'Great adventures in good style'
Scott said it was great to see another group complete the trip.
"There are many, many fine young men and women out there ski mountaineering and doing great adventures in good style," he said.
A new art exhibit in Banff also pays tribute to the 1967 trek. Acclaimed Ontario artist John Hartman captures the trip in paintings now on display at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies until June 11.
See the photos below for more of their adventure: