December 19, 2015
Coquihalla Pass, BC
Markhor Peak is rather just a small peak extended from the long NE Ridge of Needle Peak and is well documented in John Baldwin’s Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis as a half-day ascent from Coquihalla Pass. However, this is not an easy winter ascent and requires steep skinning through forest, a class 3 rock step and of course, a stable snowpack. The weather was not the greatest and the condition was certainly not the best, but we like the fact it’s a “short ascent”, so with only half a day available Alex, Ben, Alin and myself headed up the Coquihalla for once again after our usual early start. The highway crew plowed a spot for us and we parked at the Zopkios Rest Area.
We entered the forest right at the start. There’s no trail, marker or anything like that but the basic direction was to follow the broad NW Ridge up. The snow coverage at the lower elevation was fine, the initial forest wasn’t too thick, but as the grade got steeper we entered some increasingly bushy terrain, making some challenging skinning. Thankfully the condition gradually got better as we ascended higher, and soon enough we reached the first open area – an isolated granite slab below treeline. We skinned up the slab (covered by snow of course) to avoid the bush and exited on its climber’s right side. There was still some bush coming but the terrain was getting more and more open and all the sudden we came to an opening with some fresh avalanche debris dumped from above. Alex led the way across and up through a steep gully feature on the far side (some steep skinning).
Another party of two caught up with us from behind during this stage and after the gully feature the terrain became much more gentler with only isolated steep rises. Here we were on the NW Ridge proper and the ascent was fairly straightforward. We avoided some steep bits by going to the climber’s right side. Unfortunately the snow was fairly wind affected (icy and crusty) and the wind picked up as we joined the N. Ridge near the summit.
After 20 m or so up the N. Ridge it’s time to ditch the skis and bootpack. The class 3 rock step along with the terrain immediately after that looked fairly intimidating. Alin and the other group decided to wait while Alex, Ben and myself resumed the rest of this ascent. There’s one flattish snow arete leading to the base of that step (easy, but knee+ deep post-holing). The step was actually even worse than appeared. I thought by utilizing the snow just to the climber’s right of the ridge I could just easily kick-step up (despite the exposure), but upon inspecting up-close I found the snow coverage was fairly thin and what’s underneath was nothing but smooth granite slabs… But I was not going to give up easily.. Using my ice axe to gain a tiny bit of texture I carefully and (very) slowly tip-toed up using whatever that (seemed) to hold my weight, and the next thing I realized I’d already cleared the crux. The section immediately after the crux was a steep snow arete with cornices on one side, but at this point I could already kick firm step into the snow so it was fairly easy, although there gotta be some wonderful down-climbing half an hour later…
Alex and Ben cleared the crux shortly after and we continued the ascent. The next part was easy and flat but again, we had to deal with the knee+ deep post-holing, and then it’s the final rise towards the summit where the second (easier) crux was. After traversing horizontally out to the right for about 10 meters we got to ascend a short, but very steep band of snow (50+ degrees). Thankfully no more snow-covered-slab to deal with and we all cleared it fairly quickly. The summit offered some of the best perspective of Needle Peak (especially in the winter conditions), but knowing Alin was still waiting down by the plateau we didn’t linger too long on the summit.
The upper snow band was fairly straightforward to down-climb and the plodding on that flat section wasn’t too strenuous neither as we had already made the tracks/holes. But then it came the crux. Plunging down the snow arete carefully we all got to face inwards at just a few meters above the crux as we started to feel the slabs underneath. The down-climb was fairly intense with basically no hand hold (hands only for balance and a little bit of stemming here and there). The tip-toeing seemed way more sketchier than on the way up and I used at least a few tries to figure out the sequence and spent at least 2 or 3 x the time, but in the end it all worked out. Alex and Ben found a smarter way to get down this thing. It’s only a few meters high and the landing (if you’re careful), was right on the lower snow arete, so they just slid the jumped facing outwards.
The other group had already done a lap down the steep East Bowl and since we were doing good on time, we decided to follow for some fun. The East bowl, although in the opposite direction as the ascent route, offers some of the best skiing on this peak. We dropped in from higher up than those guys and then traversed into their bowl about halfway down. The skiing was awesome and from below the run looked very big and steep…
The skinning back to the ridge crest was steep but didn’t take too long. Meanwhile a 3rd group showed up and they also dropped in this bowl for some fun, and once we all got back up it’s time to get down to the car. Skiing down the upper NW Ridge wasn’t as bad as I was expecting and then we followed the ski route into the big north bowl. Getting into the bowl involved some very steep tree skiing (mostly side-slipping for me). The bowl itself was fun but once entering the bush lower down it’s a different game. For about 200-300 vertical meters it was nothing but thick forest that I had some big trouble with. But lower down the forest became more open and it’s fun skiing again.
We got back ever earlier than we thought (before 3 pm) and overall this was an excellent day spent in the mountain bagging a satisfactory summit in winter conditions. The Coquihalla never fails to amaze me in one way or another.