Considered the greatest ski traverse in North America, the journey from Jasper to Lake Louise across the Great Divide has reached mythic proportions since Chic Scott, Charlie Locke, Don Gardner and Neil Liske originally completed it 50 years ago.
Now, another Canmorite can add his name to the local ski lore.
Darren Farley, who actually shares a byline with Chic Scott on the local tome Ski Trails of the Canadian Rockies completed the trip on May 2 with Lynnea Baker, Elliot Brooks and Alex Heathcott of Revelstoke.
Farley didn’t plan on completing the journey on the 50th anniversary – he actually tried to plan it last winter – but the stars aligned in late April when the crew of Revelstoke guides and ski patrollers asked him to join the trip.
Heathcott was out of work and able to spend much of the winter planning the journey, which helped the logistical game immensely.
“It’s a neat coincidence in a way. I’ve worked with Chic in the past. We were keen and it’s special to do it on the 50th anniversary,” Farley said.
The 320 kilometre journey across eight icefields took the quartet 21 days to complete, as they lucked out with consistent temperatures ranging between -5 and -15 C each night.
Warm weather melted snow quickly later in the trip, and Farley guesses if they had waited only three extra days, the journey would have been in jeopardy. They actually started the trek with another group who were forced to bail at the halfway point.
“We ended up deviating from the normal route. We didn’t go on the Columbia, and had to bypass it on the back side because conditions weren’t safe,” Farley said.
Carrying 50 to 60 pounds of gear in their packs, Farley said they managed to ski six to eight hours a day through some of the most spectacular country in the Canadian Rockies. The ACMG apprentice guide, who has previously worked at Assiniboine Lodge and the Haig Glacier, said the journey was an incredible learning experience.
“Most of the difficulty came from carrying a pack, day in, day out,” Farley said. “Ascending on the Lyell, climbing 1, 800 metres that day to get to the col, there is an overhang, so it’s a scary place to go. You move quickly, but it’s spectacular.”
Scott, Locke, Gardner and Liske completed the journey in 1967 on cross-country skis using ropes and shovels as their ‘special gear.’ They had to carry extra pairs of skis, something the 2017 crew didn’t have to worry about.
“Our gear was more reliable. They had to cache skis, because a broken ski would have been a big problem. We’re happy we didn’t have to do that,” Farley said. “Sure, there are a few new logging roads you can see back there, but there are not a lot of human changes from when they did it.
“Maybe we crossed a few new summer trails, but you’re pretty much in the wilderness. The Lyells are getting trickier to gain, due to melting. The tongue is harder to gain. But a lot of it looks the same (as old photos).”
The actual journey included a lot more climbing than fun descents. Many of the runs proved to be quite technical, and the weather didn’t exactly co-operate. Compasses and GPS became integral to finding their way.
“The weather was OK. We never had a high pressure system, so it was cloudy or a whiteout the whole time. You are two to three days back from the highway, so you see mountains you’ve never seen before. A lot of the 11,000ers are back there,” Farley said.
“Navigating was tough. We definitely had some late starts where we had to wait out the weather and sit in the tent. On other days, we tried to move ahead of the weather with our compass and GPS.”
Bear tracks were visible in most valleys, Farley said, adding the only wildlife they saw was a lone Canada Goose on one of the glaciers. Because the trip is so remote, they rarely saw other skiers, other than a team on Balfour Glacier.
Traversing several glacier fields, including the Hooker, Chaba, Clemenceau and Wapta, the foursome became adept at navigating treacherous terrain. They followed the classic route, high route and improvised their own sections as well.
At the end, Scott was there to greet them, for a pleasant finish. They were later invited to the Whyte Museum, which is hosting a new exhibit on the 1967 trip.
“Chic met us at the end, which was nice. He congratulated us on doing it, and shared a beer.”
Farley’s crew was likely the first to complete the journey in 2017, but not the last. Banff’s Phil Widmer is expected to finish his journey this week.