What did it take for me to kick my mountaineering goals up a notch? I made a conscious decision to do more, learn more, and stop merely wishing and dreaming.
It doesn’t seem that long ago, but it’s already been close to a year since we walked the icy Matchlee Glacier.
It was a hot three days in mid-July 2015y, two friends and I hired Island Alpine Guides to lead us on an unforgettable trip to Matchlee Mountain on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It wasn’t just a trip – it was a journey of learning. By the time we left the mountain, we were confident in the skills IAG taught us. And I fulfilled two bucket list items in one go: ride in a helicopter, and learn proper technique for travel on glaciers.
|Matchlee Map and Photographs|
Taking a course with Island Alpine Guides offers more than theoretical knowledge that could be learned in a classroom, and it’s more than just going for a walk. IAG courses are exceptionally well-organized backcountry adventures. Our guide was a Jan Neuspiel, a seasoned explorer. His skills as a guide are great, his knowledge as an instructor is excellent, but the depth of his experiences and the stories he shared were beyond my expectations. Above all, he listened; he listened to what our goals were, and over the next three days, he made them happen.
We gathered in Gold River to start our adventure. Everything about the trip exhilarated me, starting with our transportation: a helicopter. Even on the helipad – motionless, blades tied down – the helicopter captivated me. The long rotor blades dangled high overhead, whispering an ominous message: beware. I felt the need to cower slightly as we loaded our gear beside the craft.
We each wore a headset to protect us from the noise, but the sound was still deafening. During the flight, the vibrations of the motor as well as every gust of wind passed through me. The agility of the helicopter was apparent. Within moments, we swooped at a steep angle, and then we were banking. As I watched out the window, I could see I was nearly facing the ground! In our short 20-minute flight, we were treated to expansive views of the coast and of the terrain around Matchlee Mountain. The pilot then expertly dropped us on a tiny section of flat rock at the base of the Matchlee Glacier.
Guided by Jan, we spent two days building on our prior experience, and learning a lot of new skills as well. While practicing self-arrests, StasherBC – always brazen – charged the steep snow slope and dove headfirst. He twisted midair before landing on his back, headfirst, sliding down the slope and gaining speed. I watched, agape, as he slid quickly past me; then he flipped over, pierced the snow crust with the pick of his mountaineering axe, and ground to a halt before reaching the rocks below.
|Patrick leading on ice, ShasherBC belaying|
As we climbed higher on the mountain, we could see the impact of the poor winter on the glacier. There was little to no seasonal snow left; it was all compressed ice from previous seasons, and exposed sections of the glacier. Deep rivulets formed on the surface, pouring off the glacier and into a gully we used for accessing the base of the glacier. We discovered moulins, caverns, and small crevasses opening up.
|StasherBC under the melting glacier|
We each have experience with lead climbing and rope work, but here we used ice screws and quick draws to lead lines up steep sections of the Matchlee Glacier. Jan guided us in the procedures for building bombproof anchors, and taught us skills to belay each other up the side of the glacier, with or without the use of an ATC. I’d watched the videos on YouTube before, but of course, living the experience was different. The leadership and instruction provided by Jan gave me confidence to set up and use the skills correctly.
Building the anchors and testing them was a highlight of the trip. We visualized ourselves in a situation where we were unable to use the best placements for the anchors, and instead had to rely on poorly-constructed anchors. We used pickets, ice axes, and flukes, and we built abalakovs and bollards. In each scenario, Jan inspected what we had created and talked us through the process. We each discussed and evaluated our thinking. Then the fun began: trying to break the anchors!
To test each anchor, we attached a climbing rope to the anchor and took running starts, trying to break them. When I tied into the first anchor, I was nervous and only tentatively tugged at it. But as our confidence in the anchors increased, so too did our determination to break them. Soon I was taking a ten-foot run at the anchor – and still it wouldn’t budge! Ultimately, we had all three of us on one rope, running in unison, trying with all our might to break these questionable anchors. Of all the set-ups, we were only able to break one, which used an ice-axe in a t-slot. Remember, it was a questionable placement; we’d placed it only six inches below the surface of the snow. Yet even then, it took multiple tries with all three of us running 10-15 feet in unison to break the anchor! It was definitely strong enough to rappel on. The other big surprise? The fluke! By the time we were finished testing with it, we had to dig through nearly five feet of snow to recover it!
|returning to our tarn at the end of a good day of learning in the mountains|
Travel by helicopter has certain luxuries. It’s far from my typical backcountry experience of carrying a heavy backpack and eating dehydrated food out of foil bags. Instead, this trip was a taste of the good life, complete with a BBQ each night and a few canned beverages, resting beside a large turquoise glacial tarn. The BBQ made the trip! The days were jam-packed with learning and practice; it was great to head back to camp and relax. We each brought our own proteins, and split the sides up potluck-style. I brought new potatoes (pre-steamed), packed in tinfoil with butter, garlic, parmesan, and rosemary. When that pack hit the BBQ, the fireball started! The potatoes reheated, the butter and cheese melted, and oil leaked out of the packet and into the fire. The resulting fire put the perfect Chicago finish to my ribeye steak.
|the rocks on fire, the setting sun lit up the ridge above our camp on Matchlee Mountain|
The camp location was better than a kick in the pants too! The ledge overlooked the Quatchka Creek valley, and we were rewarded each night with amazing Vancouver Island sunsets. Chris was the only one to partake of the swimming pool in the turquoise waters of the tarn. As I relaxed and watched the tarn my mind wandered to our recent weather, hot dry summers and mild soggy winters. The existence of the tarn is a sobering reminder of Vancouver Island’s changing alpine. As I examined my map it revelas no lake. Inrevealson the map, there is a large snowfield. Big changes are coming for the alpine and the watersheds on Vancouver Island.
|and then darkness overcame the day|
Our last day was a combination of skill-building and summiting. We picked a route for the fun of it and the chance to practice, not for speed or ease. Jan taught us some short roping techniques, and we practiced these skills while moving in a deliberate way up the long ridge above our tarn. The route was filled with opportunities to put those skills into practice.
|men of the mountains|
|former ice field, and our camp|
The final 20 metres to the summit was a fun section of slab leading to the rocky summit. Chris and Jan just scrambled it, but I wanted to use some of the gear we’d carried, so we placed a few stoppers as we worked our way across to the summit. The summit provided quite the view: the blue skies gave us a near 360-degree view, including a view off the west coast. We ate our lunch and chatted about the skills we’d learned. Before too long, we were heading back to camp, via the more direct and easy route.
|the return route took us below the ice|
Looking out the window of our helicopter on our way back to Gold River, I tried to process the three-day experience – it was a lot to take in. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot already, but I’m ready to jump in with both feet and head for those distant hills!