It’s 6:30 a.m. and we’re turning onto the Akamina Parkway in Waterton National Park, when a large, cinder-colored shadow leaps in front of our truck and races off in front of the headlights, putting distance between our moving vehicle and itself. Quick, rhythmic pulses course through its body with each stride. Its tail lashes side to side. Jarad guns the accelerator, the engine roaring to get closer, but it’s too late. With one bound, the cat clears the guardrail into the safety of the trees, gone as quickly as it came—its only trace, paw prints in the new snow. We haven’t even stepped into skis yet, and already we’ve participated in an impromptu drag race with a mountain lion—not a bad start.
The idea to ski tour in Waterton National Park belonged to Brian Ladd, a stalwart partner who is quietly more dedicated to skiing than everyone I know. And I live in Jackson, Wyoming. He’s logged thousands of miles in and around the valley over the last 20 years, and he takes his month-long “staycation” every spring so he can really go skiing, most of which is in the deepest recesses of the Teton Range, a day’s trek in and out, where he laps remote peaks, staying away from the spandex-clad ascensionists who litter not only the Grand, but also cyberspace with their overly detailed blogs illustrating minute-by-minute, calorie-by-calorie summations of how they shaved time off the Grand Teton for the eighth time this season. And I don’t blame him.
Brian’s steadfast curiosity when it comes to exploring the snowy wilds takes him to unlikely places that oftentimes yield wonderful results. Hence, Waterton National Park, with our friends Jarad Spackman and Lance McDonald. I would never have thought to come skiing here. There’s Roger’s Pass, Nelson, Revelstoke, Whistler—the list of destinations in Canadian skiing is very long, but Waterton?
Well, Brian had traveled to Canada on a skiing trip years earlier and made a detour to Waterton Lakes on a whim. He rode a bike into Cameron Lake from the winter closure and saw the residual snowy peaks looming large in the distance—their broad faces and steep avalanche paths—and kept a note to ski these peaks when the time was right. Like now.
Cameron Lake, our first destination, is at the end of the Parkway, close to the U.S. border. Because Waterton is an obscure location to go skiing, it would be appropriate to seek out an obscure objective to ski. We set our sights on Mount Custer. Ascending over 3,000 feet, it’s an ugly, formidable peak with broken terrain falling in all aspects. From a ridge on the southern slopes above Cameron, we spot a chasm in the cirque above Lake Nooney on Mount Custer. It looks protected from the wind, so we decide it could be a relatively safe but challenging objective.
At dawn, we skin the two miles to the lake, then two more to reach the southern shore. We gain 1,500 feet over the northeast flank of Mount Custer passing just below Herbst Glacier. Wet slide debris from earlier in the week have produced refrigerator-sized refrozen cinnamon rolls of snow that slow our descent into Lake Nooney. At the far end of the lake, the entrance to the cleft is worthy of The Lord of the Rings. A monumental wall, jagged with a cliff bands, rises off the shoreline. The cleft is dark and ragged, as if hacked into existence long ago from the downtrodden souls of wretched, misshapened beasts of Middle Earth.
Our objective fades in and out of focus as we trail across the lake. Wind slows my body, and loose snow stings my cheeks. The hood of my jacket doesn’t help; it flaps violently when a gust meets me straight on. Speaking is useless, as there’s no way to hear above the deafening wind. Changing our angles does nothing to alleviate the gale.
Wind, cold and the grey will slowly and surely drain a party’s enthusiasm: it causes second guessing, indecision, and fatigue, which results in smoldering dread. Yet, the only thing to do is press on. “What else are we gonna do today?” deadpans Brian.
Off the lake, we move up the apron toward the mouth of the couloir. Post-holing in the backcountry unnerves me. Wallowing in thigh deep snow I normally turn around, and if everyone else would have felt the same, we’d have retreated. That said, it doesn’t feel slabby—just difficult. We all take turns breaking trail as the post-holing gets more loathsome. Below the terminus of the couloir, I yield my stint on point after getting frustrated with the constant chest-deep drudgery. I try getting on all fours. I try swimming, all the while telling myself I’m in a stupid place, and that nothing good comes out of trying to boot up couloirs with so much unconsolidated snow. It’s a frustrating feeling that’s rooted in justifiable fear.
Jarad, less unnerved, is able to shimmy around me and progress into the white quagmire, shoving large amounts of snow between his legs, gaining inches, and losing a few, yet somehow straddling the white swarm, and finally reaches some semblance of bottom with which to gain more stable footing. It isn’t pretty, but he makes it happen. Lance follows, rising to the challenge of moving upward through the cascade of loose snow.
Once at the top of the chute, my anxiety subsides, my confidence returns. Spindrift swirls a white haze in the air, but the steep walls provide enough of a handrail to see down the couloir. I dig a trench for my transition, my pack hanging from an axe as I swap crampons for skis. It’s been a challenging day, but our group works well together, a virtue of good partnerships. And even if the skiing is terrible, having good chemistry on the journey is enough of a reward.
For a long, lasting moment, I look just above me toward Jarad and Lance readying themselves for a precipitous plunge into this snowy abyss. To my left Brian is clicking into his skis, his uphill hand reaching into the snow to steady his body. We’ve spent the last eight hours seeking out a cold, dark mountainous dead end—with purpose, I might add. We’re in the proverbial middle of nowhere, engaged in the otherwise ridiculous enthusiasm of ski mountaineering. The only thing eclipsing the sheer absurdity of the experience is the experience. That, and the memories built upon it. Why else would we do it? And then we are deep in it.
Author’s Note: Last March Jarad Spackman died from injuries sustained in an avalanche in Grand Teton National Park, our home playground. A prodigious presence in the Tetons, Jarad had many partners throughout the years, and a distinguished resume of climbing and skiing in the range and beyond. He is missed by many.
Jeff Burke is a writer living in Jackson, Wyoming. He works winters for the Jackson Hole Ski Patrol, and just finished his rookie season as a summer mountain patroller.