December 16, 2016
Pemberton / Duffey Lake Road, BC
Over the past year or so I’ve heard more than just a few good stories about an area called Steep Creek accessing from the south shore of Duffey Lake. This is not an area famous for the alpine mountaineering opportunities, but rather for the endless skiing terrain it offers. Now I totally understand why. Given some stable conditions one can easily spend a week here skiing different steep slopes on each different day. “Steep Peak” is an unofficial name given to the highest peak directly south of James Bond Basin (Darkside Lake) at the head of Steep Creek. There’s some confusion regarding where exactly this peak is, and my reference is John Baldwin’s Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis.
Towards the end of the last cold snap I figured I should at least take some advantage of the powders. The skiing quality was reported to be at the finest for years and I really didn’t want to miss this opportunity out. The problem was that I hadn’t really started my skiing season yet so technically I was looking at something not too outrageous. Again some last minute decisions saw me locking my objective at Steep Peak as this seemed like the “easy” objective I was looking for, at least by just looking at the topographic maps. Leaving home at 5 am in the morning I cruised my way northwards down Sea-to-Sky Highway and then Duffey Lake Road. The driving was rough. The road surface was mostly compacted snow and the thermometer reading kept dropping. By the time I pulled out near the trail-head it had dropped to below -25 degrees and that’s a wee bit colder than what I was mentally prepared for.
The temperature was demotivating but I have to say that it wasn’t nearly the coldest I’ve experienced. It just seemed ridiculous for the west coast standard. After quickly gearing up I walked about 100 m further east down the highway to the start of Steep Creek FSR. Skis on right away the initial 5 km stretch was a mere plod up this logging road. Except for the frigid temperature there wasn’t too much to take note of. There were a few junctions but with a pre-drawn GPS track the navigation was easy. Beyond the end of this road I followed the “highway” of ski tracks up a mini headwall feature and then it’s that frozen Darkside Lake. I hadn’t taken any break yet up until now mostly due to the coldness and luckily for me, there’s a cabin nearby providing a luxurious place for a snack break.
With the impressive north face of Steep Peak looming in front showing how much work still required I didn’t want to waste too much time in the cabin, so out I went into the coldness again. There are multiple ways to access the long, undulating NW Ridge but the general direction is to hit the broad shoulder branching NE from the ridge. Straight up from the cabin provided a wooded path but I opted for a line further to the climber’s left utilizing a giant slide path. The condition was bomber and I didn’t want to deal with too much forested travel. The skin tracks were distinguishable but mostly drifted in so I had to break my own trail on top of others’ tracks. The trail-breaking wasn’t too bad as long as I stayed on the tracks and I slowly and steadily worked my way into the upper draw.
A short flat stretch was soon followed by a steep ascent up the final headwall (a couple large switchbacks) and then I crested that shoulder. Now turning left onto some very wind-affected terrain I soon worked my way up the NE facing slopes ahead, and then onto the NW Ridge. It was here that I experienced the first beams of sunlight on this day and another bonus for me – it wasn’t too windy up on the ridge.
The bulk part of elevation gain was already behind but the traverse along NW Ridge was quite undulating with lots of micro-terrain. The views were amazing, but the drag was a bit longer than I thought so that by the time I eventually reached the summit I only had less than 1.5 hours of daylight time to spend. My original idea was traversing to the nearby “Peak 2318” but seeing the elevation drop ahead I wasn’t keen on that anymore.
Keeping the skins on I quickly made my way back across the NW Ridge. Earlier in the day I already made a call to steep-ski one of the few couloirs on the NE side and upon approaching the planned one I was surprised to see a large group of skiers coming up this way. Not wanting to deal with a heavily tracked route I skipped the snack break, did a fast gear transition and then dropped into the couloir before those guys. The initial few turns were steep and committing thank to the crusty surface but after a while I entered some deep powder. From there on I got to enjoy perhaps one of the finest skiing I’ve done in the mountains, from high up on Steep Peak all the way to Darkside Lake. It was a blast and I certainly made a good call to haul the ski gears this high up.
Darkside Lake Cabin was the natural place to take that well-deserved snack break, and after saying goodbye to the other group I went out again. It was very tempting to stay a bit longer in the warm cabin but doing so would require skiing down the logging road with head-lamp on which I certainly wasn’t looking forward to. The return was infinitely faster than snowshoeing and except for one long flat stretch it was a cruise sailing back to the highway.
It’s the driving time now. In no time I started to get very tired and sleeply, but there wasn’t a good place to pull out after the Joffre Lakes trail-head. Somehow I managed to not fall asleep driving down that steep switchbacks and once down to the flats I pulled out and took a 2-hour nap. Another half an hour was spent in Pemberton for a food break and then I knocked off the rest of the drive in one single push. Oh by the way, the northbound traffics going into Whistler was crazy in Friday evening and I was super glad I didn’t have to go the opposite direction.