By Steve B
The original plan was to ski up the Saskatchewan Glacier and onto Castleguard Meadows Friday, dig snow caves then climb Castleguard Mountain on Saturday and ski back out on Sunday but plans change.
Friday morning at 9:00 am nine members of the club loaded up packs and pulks at the big bend in Highway 93 and headed over the hump and onto the long approach to the Saskatchewan Glacier for the clubs final tip of the season.
The weather was warm with a beautiful blue sky and no wind which made for a relaxing ski up the valley. Last season we skied up to the toe of the glacier over wind scoured ice for much of the trip. This year there was a lot more snow, a few inches, which was nicer to ski over but a sign of things to come. We paused for some quick photos of the glacial ice which is a favorite subject of mine as it changes every year.
We arrived at the toe of the glacier before noon and had a quick lunch then headed up the glacier towards Castleguard Meadows. The glacier is not very steep but this was my first time using a pulk and I found that pulling the pulk uphill requires different leg muscles than skiing with a pack but the sled slid smoothly over the snow and it was nice not having the weight on my back.
With clear weather we got some teasing views of our next days objective, Castleguard Mountain. As we approached the steep moraine below Castleguard Meadows we began to scout our exit off the glacier. In previous years they had taken a ramp to the left in the image below which is less steep than some of the other options so we headed there to take a peek.
The exit ramp was a mix of wind loading over ice crust over rotten snow topped with a nice cornice so we backed off and started looking for an alternate route with fewer hazards. We looked at a couple of other options but most were plugged with pretty sizable cornices so we made the decision to switch to Plan B and camp below the meadows then look for a safer route the next morning.
Skiing up the glacier we had spotted several potential areas up on the meadows that offered great potential for snow caving but found no suitable drifts below the moraine. Out came the probes and we found a location with some deep snow pockets and decided to build a hybrid snow cave/quinzee. The plan was to dig down as deep as we could and pile the snow, then dig in and up creating a heat trap in the sleeping chamber. I really missed having a drift to dig into where you can let gravity haul your tailings away but having pulks along saved the day! We broke into two groups and began excavating our homes for the next two nights. Some worked as moles digging while others worked as mules hauling sleds full of snow out of the pits.
Saturday we woke to cloudy weather and headed out looking for a safe path up and over the moraine, still hoping to climb Castleguard Mountain but all the routes were full of sketchy snow and cornices. It was time to switch to Plan C and head up the Saskatchewan Glacier to get some better views of the surrounding mountains, Castleguard would have to wait for another season.
The weather was still warm and the clouds cleared above us occasionally but the Columbia Icefield appeared to be socked in pretty thick and the wind had picked up. On our way back to camp we came across an ACC Edmonton group who had come up the glacier earlier in the day planning to camp in the meadows and climb Castleguard, like us, they found the exit off the glacier to be too hazardous and decided to set up camp below the moraine.
Back in camp the wind was still building so we fortified our wind breaks and started on dinner and drinks. The sun set and we crawled back into our caves. Not exactly “crawled” as our cave had standing room in the aisle with lots of headroom on the sleeping platforms and room for five so we were pretty comfortable.
Sunday we slept in, packed up and headed back down the glacier for home. Another beautiful day had us quickly shedding layers. My pulk tried to race me down the glacier and on the steeper sections I would ski with pulk ahead of me allowing it to pull me towards my demise.
We were taunted by one last view of the meadows and Castleguard Mountain then started making plans for next seasons trips.