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A Spearhead Traverse celebration

Fifty years after completing iconic route for first time, Karl Ricker returns to the Garibaldi backcountry to mark the anniversary

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The ski tracks that Karl Ricker and company left behind on the Spearhead Traverse in 1964 have long since disappeared. And yet, mountaineers and ski tourers the world over continue to follow them without fail each winter.

It's a Whistler ski story that pre-dates any chairlift arriving in the alpine: Ricker and three others from the University of British Columbia's Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC) — Bert Port, Chris Gardner and Alistair MacDonald — became the first to successfully navigate the horseshoe-shaped loop around the Fitzsimmons Valley, doing so through difficult terrain, unforgiving weather, and with an incomplete map printed in 1928.

Others from the VOC had tried, and failed, to complete the 40-kilometre route 10 years earlier, forced to abandon the attempt when weather turned nasty. But Ricker's group was inspired to try the traverse themselves after watching film compiled by the 1954 VOC party that came up short.

Arriving by train from North Vancouver in May after wrapping up exams, Ricker's party spent its first night camped out on Blackcomb Mountain near where the Rendezvous Lodge sits today. That was the beginning of a nine-day trek past a collection of then-unnamed peaks and glaciers that today are familiar to Whistlerites who have never set foot in the area.

Chairlift access has absolutely played a role in its popularity, but the Spearhead Traverse has been a revered excursion ever since Port printed his account of the 1964 trip in the VOC Journal. Publications like John Baldwin's Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis, and his "Backcountry Whistler" map — the go-to resource to navigate the wilderness behind Whistler Blackcomb — plus Chris Davenport's 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America have helped inspire new generations of mountaineers to try the traverse.

Five decades later, hundreds of skiers — if not thousands — complete the route every winter. But Ricker himself hadn't completed it again since that first trailblazing trip.

At least, until just a few weeks ago.

During the May long weekend, Ricker, Port and eight others went back to the alpine of Garibaldi Provincial Park to mark the 50th anniversary of the original traverse.

Although touring through the area this time around may not have been as groundbreaking, as taxing or as complicated compared to '64, the circumstances and significance of the trip certainly made it special in a different way for the 78-year-old Ricker.

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"It was Bert who suggested to me in March, when I was skiing with him at Silver Star, that we should reenact the traverse," said Ricker. "He's always in very good shape, despite the fact that he's 81 years old, so I went along."

Ricker's daughter, Olympic snowboard cross champion Maëlle, and her partner Mat Valade, an experienced alpine guide, joined up for the trip as well.

"It's inspirational to be in the mountains with those guys, period," Maëlle said of her father and Port. "I've done a few trips with my dad in the mountains, and it's always a good laugh.

"I thought it would be a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary."

Port — sporting the very same hat he wore for the '64 expedition — brought his son, Andrew, and Andrew's friend Eric Clemson. Also invited were Paul Allen and 22-year-old daughter, Petra, friends of Bert's from Rossland.

Rounding out the party were longtime Whistler resident Doug Wylie — who was doing the traverse for the first time — Ed Zenger and Eric Clemson, a friend of Andrew Port's.

Ricker spent some time skiing groomers on Blackcomb with a pack on his back to prepare, but still had some reservations, knowing that the Ports would be coming in fit for the trip.

"They cheated," said Ricker, as the Ports had completed the famous Haute Route in the Alps a few weeks before. "They had been up at 3,000-4,000 metres just about every day, so they were in really good shape.

"I knew I was going to be struggling on this trip. So I figured the only way to keep the pace to my level was to bring Doug along," he joked.

Greeted by sunny skies, the group reached the ski-area boundary around 11 a.m. on May 16, except for Clemson, who was lagging behind due to a prior commitment. Valade and Maëlle Ricker took turns leading the way over the Blackcomb, Decker and Trorey glaciers, en route to setting up the first camp on Mount Pattison. While making a long traverse down towards the Trorey Glacier, Valade set off a continuous avalanche the whole way along, said Karl Ricker.

"That more or less gave the rest of us a firmer surface to ski on, but it was a little unnerving," laughed Ricker.

Clemson was planning to catch up to them along the way, but missed the cutoff for the lifts by about 10 minutes, and instead was forced to bivouac at the base of the 7th Heaven chair, and took the 9th Hole shortcut the next day to meet up with the rest of the party.

However, the group awoke on May 17 to a thick fog that rolled in overnight, and some started to wonder if they should continue on.

"The naysayers — (Wylie) and Ed — said 'Let's go back,'" said Ricker.

Wylie quipped: "Our Plan B was to go back and have special coffee in the Rendezvous while these guys were dicking around in the fog. We could have followed our tracks out from the day before."

Undeterred, Valade used his VHF radio to call a buddy in Tofino for an hour-by-hour weather report, and the forecast was good. As the clouds began to break up right on schedule, the group pushed on.

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Not surprisingly, Maëlle hasn't spent a whole lot of time on skis in the past few years, but she wasn't out of her element off of a snowboard, said Karl.

"They'd get to a critical point where we either had to start going downhill again, or have a major rest break. She'd come whizzing back down the hill, skis still in her skins, check to see how we were doing, and 50 per cent of the time ended up taking my pack or Doug's pack back up the hill," said Karl, who said the entire experience of having his daughter along to celebrate the anniversary was "the part of it that was special for me."

With the fog lifting on Day 2, Maëlle and Valade fronted the group as they crossed the Platform Glacier, past Tremor and Shudder mountains to reach camp at Mount Macbeth.

Ricker said the group had a "tricky" time transitioning between the Macbeth and Iago glaciers early in the day on May 18 before continuing past Mount Fitzsimmons and the Overlord Glacier.

"In (Baldwin's) guide book, he recommends you walk down instead of ski it, but it was so sloppy there was no way you could," said Ricker. "We had to ski it, and we released a lot of slop."

Although Ricker hadn't done the traverse in 50 years, he returns to the region every year — in particular, to measure the Overlord Glacier. And having been a key figure in attaching names to the peaks and glaciers along the traverse, the other party members were keen to draw on his knowledge and experience in the area.

"The group were asking, 'Why did you name this that?'" said Ricker. "There was some of that going on every day."

With a drizzle starting as they reached Russet Lake, the Himmelsbach Hut was a welcome sight as they hunkered inside for the last night. Fog returned for the final day, but the party's spirits remained high.

"We had a little celebration on the top of Flute, because it was the only peak we climbed in four days," laughed Ricker.

According to Wylie, "the best skiing of the trip" came on the final stretch as the group made their way down Whistler, despite being forced to cross the service road four times.

In 1964, the only way back down to the valley off Whistler Mountain for the VOC group was along a path to the B.C. Rail Microwave Station. The road, cut by snowcat tracks, was horrendous and icy — "The scariest part of the trip," Ricker told Pique in 2002.

Needless to say, the 50th anniversary group had an easier time making it down.

They ran out of snow near the top of the Fitzsimmons Express, but with a little arm-twisting, were able to catch a ride to the bottom. After getting some grief from a patroller, who insisted they shouldn't be in the ski boundary at all, Wylie managed to sweet-talk a liftie into letting them download on the chairlift, rather than hike downhill through the bike park.

"I phoned up Doug (Forseth) the next day and thanked him for letting us on his lift, and told him the liftie probably stuck his neck out for us, so to let him know I really appreciated it," said Ricker.

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Nowadays, if the weather is cooperating, people regularly complete the traverse in a single day, something Ricker said would have been unfathomable for his VOC group 50 years ago.

"In those days, it wasn't possible because there were no lifts," said Ricker, adding that traffic on the traverse continues to increase.

"I know for a fact that the first good weekend in April... roughly 150 people passed and were doing it in one day," he continued, noting that B.C. Parks wardens counted as many as 400 people "out roaming around" on different parts of the traverse during one day last year.

There is more change coming to the route as well, with the Spearhead Huts project getting the green light from B.C. Parks earlier this year. The project calls for three new huts, each capable of accommodating up to 40 overnight guests, to be placed at Mount Pattison, Mount Macbeth and Russet Lake.

It was no coincidence that the group camped at each of the future hut locations. Maëlle, who completed the traverse in one day with Valade about a month earlier, said it's a different experience going at a slower pace, but well worth it.

"We definitely didn't take in the scenery as much as on the multi-day trip," she said. "We made a point of camping at where the cabin sites are going to be, and it's absolutely gorgeous, the views from all the sites. It makes you appreciate the area that much more."

That's exactly the impact that the elder Ricker is hopeful the huts will have down the road.

"I hope the huts will be used by people who get up in the morning and say, 'Well, let's go climb that peak and have a ski run down this glacier,'" said Ricker, who plans to do the Spearhead Traverse one more time once the huts are installed.

"They'll take their time and really savour the place and enjoy it, rather than trying to make a race track out of it."

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