Since the first gondolas began spinning out of the wooden shack at the base of Whistler Mountain at Creekside Village in 1966, local skiers have been looking for the next horizon. Longer runs. Steeper lines. First descents from the top of prominent peaks. The alpine area of Whistler mountain was true tiger country in the early days, accessed only by zealous skiers shouldering their equipment and hiking into the unknown.
More than 50 years later, Whistler Blackcomb has infilled much of its terrain tenure with a network of high-speed lifts and a few T-bars to help tip skiers over into backside bowls. Powder stashes — those nooks and crannies that seem to fly under the radar of the weekend crowds — are becoming an increasingly endangered species. In turn, resort skiers are readying themselves for backcountry travel en masse. Not just for untracked powder (that's getting harder and harder to source within earshot of the resort's boundaries), but for checking off local bucket-list objectives, solitude from noise both mechanical and human and most of all, for the sheer sake of exploration. But venturing out beyond boundary ropes is certainly not a modern movement, as Whistler's old guard attests.
Setting the skin track
When Eric Pehota first arrived in Whistler with his friend and ski partner Trevor Petersen in 1983, even acquiring ski-touring gear seemed like an uphill battle.
"I had to order my first pair of touring bindings from Monod Sports in Banff and get them shipped out," says Pehota. "It was a brand called Emery, the only thing they had available at MEC (in Vancouver) at the time were these old, shitty Tyrolia pieces of junk."
Completing the Spearhead Traverse (the ski touring route linking Whistler and Blackcomb mountains over the glaciers and cols of the Spearhead and Fitzsimmons ranges) had already become a part of local lore after it was completed in 1964 by Karl Ricker, Bert Port, Chris Gardner and Alistair MacDonald on even more remedial gear. There were still handfuls of groups per season attempting the Spearhead Traverse in the early '80s, but few went out there with the intention of skiing the aesthetic north-facing lines from the prominent peaks.
"We were getting after it pretty deep pretty early on," recalls Pehota. "We were a pretty solid group of skiers and would regularly get out to Fissile in the early '80s. Most of the ski touring that was going on was climbers trying to access terrain so they could climb. We'd use the alpine guide journals to see where they were climbing on summer routes and try to translate that into winter and spring alpine ascents and descents."
With some diligent research and trip planning, Pehota and Petersen set out from the top of what is now the Jersey Cream chair on Blackcomb (the highest access point at the time) with the goal of skiing the northwest face of Mt. Fitzsimmons, a line that's considered the Big Daddy of steep skiing in the Spearhead Range to this day. After overnighting in a tent and waking early for the climb, the pair skied the exposed 45- to 50-degree slope in good conditions without incident. They went on to nab a descent of Mt. Iago that day as well before returning to Whistler via the Singing Pass trail and walking into Merlin's to celebrate. Johnny "Foon" Chilton, who went on to ski many big wall faces around the world in his own storied career, was one of the bar regulars that greeted the duo upon their return to the valley.
"I'll never forget being at Merlin's patio late after a perfect slackcountry day when Trevor and Eric came sliding down with massive packs on, ice axes in the loops," recalls Chilton. "I could tell they were vibrating, stoked out of their minds. 'We just did the first descent of the north face of Fitzsimmons. It was perfect!' they said. I was like 'WOW.'"
In retrospect, skiing the flagship peak in the Spearhead Range was a watershed moment in Whistler's backcountry scene, but Pehota plays down the reception in 1987.
"It got out within the climbing community, which was super small back then," he says. "It probably only really mattered to about 20 people."
A stepping stone to greater mountains
The Spearhead ski-touring culture may have been small, but its members were not short on determination. Where Pehota and Petersen broke trail, others were seeking their own first descent glory. Jia Condon and Rich Prohaska were also getting after it and would often bump into their backcountry comrades in the field.
"We were the new kids on the block champing at the bit," recalls Condon, noting that he and Prohaska were eyeing the first descent of Fitzsimmons' northwest face themselves, but had to back away due to uncertain avalanche conditions.
"Our consolation was (skiing) the north face of Iago before getting the second-ever descent of Fitzsimmons on the same day. We weren't competing with (Pehota and Petersen) as much as we were aspiring to accomplish our own first ascents and descents after seeing what they had done. That motivation still continues with me quite heavily to this day."
Condon continued on his quest to be first, nabbing no less than 13 new ice-climbing ascents this winter, many of those in the Squamish area.
Another skier with a long list of first ski descents is JD Hare. Now a blueberry farmer in Pemberton, Hare moved to Whistler in 1997. But the seed was planted to explore the peaks of the Spearhead Range long before his migration west from Ontario.
"In 1992, when I was in Grade 9 back in uptown Toronto, my stepbrother sent me a T-shirt from his travels to Whistler. It was dark red, it had the Escape Route compass dial on the front and on the back was a cartoon ski scene extolling the wild 'Spearhead Traverse' and listing the names of all the prominent peaks of the range."
That T-shirt may have been the epiphany that not only led to Hare's move to Whistler in the hope of making a career out of skiing, but also to fuel his obsession with ticking off all the peaks of the Spearhead Range.
Studying the Spearhead Doctorate
Like those who set the skin-track before him and the others that followed, Hare started small and worked his way up to the bigger objectives.
"I cut my teeth in the Spearhead. I was trying to get noticed and eventually sponsored, so I honed my big-mountain skills back there. First with Blackcomb Peak, then Chlamydia, Decker and Fissile."
The grander peaks soon followed: Tremor, Fitzsimmons, Macbeth, Cheakamus and Iago. Around that time the sponsorship deals started knocking on the door, lending opportunities to ski and chalk up first descents in far-flung countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Georgia. Hare even scored a few roles in smaller ski movie productions. With bigger fish to fry at the time, Hare placed his Spearhead project on the backburner while travelling in the early 2000s. But it wasn't long before the home proving ground began to call his name again.
"With a well-earned global perspective, I could appreciate the Pacific coast as one of the absolute premier regions for big-mountain skiing in the world," says Hare. "I particularly appreciated the little Spearhead Range as the Coast Mountains' glaring, glowing heart. So around 2011, with a growing family and no more travel budget, I decided to make it my quest to ski the shit out of the Spearhead and attempt the very best line from every summit in the range."
If completing the Spearhead Traverse (a common Whistler rite of passage) is considered the local Bachelor's degree of backcountry achievement, then skiing off every single peak in the Spearhead range — down an aesthetic (sometimes steep and very exposed) line — can be considered the post-graduate doctorate. Hare finally ticked off the final line of the long list — the west face of Ripsaw — last season.
"It's taken me 20 years to get around to them all," says Hare. "All the peaks hold really great lines and are all worth doing. I hope that other people will be inspired to ski them all, too."
Where we go from here
With all but the final string of red tape ahead, the Spearhead Huts Society intends to break ground on the first hut at Russet Lake this summer. A recent crowd-funding campaign raised more than $78,000, a small amount compared to the $1.8-million price tag. But as Spearhead Huts Society Chair Jayson Faulkner explains, the crowd-funding campaign wasn't just about the money.
"What surprised us was the interest in the bigger donations, not just pre-buying a couple nights at the first hut," he says. "People wanted to give more than the minimum. But it also helped create a lot of awareness (about the project). We have our mailing lists, but your supporters are likely a lot broader than that."
The growth of backcountry skiing is no secret, evidenced by the Saturday-morning procession of hundreds of skiers and snowboarders out of the Blackcomb Glacier gate. It's a trend that has stretched not only across the continent, but to mountain destinations worldwide. Aspen, Colorado went as far as to implement an uphill skiing area where locals and tourists alike can opt to skin up a groomed slope within the resort, a popular trend now followed by ski resorts across the U.S.
"It's not just baby boomers, it's very clearly a younger demographic that has totally embraced backcountry as part of their skiing and snowboarding experience," adds Faulkner. "This isn't a bubble trend, it's a fundamental shift in skiing for a whole generation. A 24-year-old who's pretty keen on backcountry now isn't going to stop skiing backcountry when they're 45."
The Spearhead Huts Project has received an incredible amount of support — both financially and from the community — since it was announced in 2010. Complementing the substantial donation of US$700,000 from the Kees Brenninkmeyer Foundation, funding was also allocated from the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation and the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) through the Resort Municipality Initiative. With tens of thousands of dollars in in-kind donations of goods and services and a volunteer army at the ready, the first of the Spearhead Huts could see heads in beds by the fall of 2017.
Another boon for the Spearhead Huts will be for the ski-guiding community. The Spearhead and Fitzsimmons ranges have long been the go-to area for local backcountry guides, both in summer and winter. The Spearhead Traverse is currently a two- to four-day expedition that requires hauling tents and sleeping gear in heavy packs. While that pure option of the traverse will likely see a decrease in usage, there are still plenty of options in the area for roughing it in relative solitude.
"It's really not that hard to go off somewhere and be by yourself. Instead of going to do the Spearhead, you can go do the McBride Traverse," says Justin Lamoreaux, former pro snowboarder turned Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) Assistant Ski Guide.
"The Wapta Traverse (in the Rockies) is a pretty world-renowned hut-to-hut ski traverse. I think having something similar to that on the coast will add to the mystique of Whistler. It will be really appealing to the European clientele that are used to that sort of thing (in the Alps)."
The McBride range — known as the "backbone" of Garibaldi Provincial Park — requires a lot more preparation, fitness and skills than the Spearhead Traverse. Over its roughly 79 kilometres from Diamond Head in Squamish to Whistler (it can be done in both directions), it gains almost 7,000 metres of elevation over six to eight days, though the speed record stands at 18 hours, 21 minutes. Getting caught halfway in a snowstorm can turn out to be a dangerous — let alone uncomfortable — affair.
Another option closer to Whistler is the Currie to Blackcomb Traverse from Pemberton to Whistler. This option is more in the same realm of the Spearhead Traverse with around a 2,100-metre elevation gain over approximately 44 km (route variations exist), taking around two days at a good pace.
Despite the inevitable increase in human traffic the Spearhead Huts will bring to the range, it will continue as a proving ground for aspiring big-mountain skiers. The dedicated backcountry travellers have been making it work for decades already, but with a warm shelter on the shores of Russet Lake, on the Pattison col and at the foot of the Macbeth Glacier, the standard weekend out in the Spearhead will set a new benchmark.
"There's some long, exposed lines that are really good for training your technique," says local professional skier Matty Richard. "It really helped me prepare for freeskiing comps that only had visual inspection of the face allowed before your run. It was pretty crucial for me because I haven't spent much time on a (snowmobile) over the years. Having the close proximity access is key, and after a while you realize that objectives that look far off only need a few hours of hustling to reach."
Like most locals, Richard would prefer fewer people around when ski touring out the back of Blackcomb on a sunny Saturday, but realizes that his career as a professional skier is tied to the growth of the backcountry industry.
"I'm gaining out of that growth, it keeps me employed in a way so I can't really be upset at the popularity of it," he says. "You're still going to have people doing stupid stuff back there, but I find now there's so much more awareness about getting trained in avalanche safety."
While Spearhead Huts Society hopes to keep safety at the forefront of the huts' development, a system of hospitable shelters along the Spearhead Traverse does include a caveat that potentially provides a false sense of security.
"The biggest concern is the complacency that might follow with those comforts, having the blinders on when getting to that hut and thinking you're going to be safe," says Condon. "Ultimately, you're still in a serious mountain environment, it doesn't matter if you're sleeping on a mattress or in a tent."
Just as the Spearhead Range was a stepping stone for hundreds of skiers and snowboarders that went on to professional careers in the industry, the Spearhead Huts will usher in a new era of possibilities just a few hours' access from Whistler Village. It will be built and the people will come. But the vast expanse of B.C.'s Coast Mountain Range has plenty of unturned stones left for determined explorers.
"(The Spearhead Huts) makes me think of Europe, which is about a century ahead of us in terms of mountain culture," says Condon. "And I'm not offended when I go to Europe, I think it's very civilized and B.C. as a whole will have a long, long time to become what Europe is. If that's not your thing, it's really not that hard to have the solitude experience in B.C."
describing the Spearhead Range
Johnny "Foon" Chilton: "The Spearhead Range was my post-secondary school classroom. We discovered the basics of backcountry skiing going out to Spearhead and Blackcomb Peaks. Then Decker, Tremor, Fitzsimmons... they just kept going. The level of adventure went up the farther out you got, and it was almost guaranteed that you would be on your own."
Eric Pehota: "It wasn't about the speed and breaking records. What are you going to see doing the Spearhead Traverse in four hours besides the tips of your skis and the sweat rolling down your brow? Good on the guys that are doing it, it just wasn't my thing. The last time I did the Spearhead (Traverse) in a day we skied the north face of Fissile at the end. That makes it a sporty day."
JD Hare: "Now that my younger boy is in Valley Kids (ski school), I'm driving to Whistler three times a week and still skiing new stuff out there all the time. Different winters present different lines, and there are so many hidden aspects, and 3,000 metres of vert!"
Jia Condon: "(The Spearhead) is a stepping stone into the greater ranges. It's very user-friendly and has those quick access points to amazing objectives. But they're not to be taken lightly — there's still a huge amount of hazard back there. It gave me a huge training ground to pursue more remote venues."
Justin Lamoreux: "It's an amazing zone to have access to so fast and so easily. You take lifts all the way up and in 20 minutes you can be standing on top of a crevasse field or a giant couloir. There's some pretty serious training you can do up there."
Matty Richard: "The Spearhead is what developed my love (for the backcountry) early on. It made me realize just how special the mountains are and made places like Mt. Waddington and Chamonix more feasible in my mind. We're pretty lucky to have it."
Andy Traslin: "What I really enjoyed about the range is the ability for day trips from the lift and the ability to progress your steep skiing and fitness. I've done the Spearhead Traverse 25 times — it would have been great to have an official race all the way around."
Weighing in on the Spearhead Huts
Justin Lamoreux: "The huts are totally going to change the dynamic (in the Spearhead). It will be a whole lot easier to stay up there, but at the same time there's more than enough options to go off and be by yourself. Instead of going to do the Spearhead, you can go do the McBride Traverse."
Jia Condon: "I think it's positive and forward thinking. I think it's very close-minded to try to 'preserve' it for another sort of experience. B.C. is so broad and expansive, to have those shelters out there and to have more people experience it in a safe way, I think that's progressive."
JD Hare: "I'm absolutely shaking to see these huts built. I can't wait to be linking all the lines way out back, and skiing to Billygoat, and Cheakamus, and the McBride. It's a new era."
Eric Pehota: "Maybe when I'm 75 I'll get my kids to drag me out (to the huts) when I'm half blind to reminisce about the old days. I like people, but I like them best when they're not around."
Johnny "Foon" Chilton: "The experience will never be the same. One of the reasons we kept pushing farther — getting really remote — was because that is an integral part of the experience. So something important is lost, for sure. But I think that putting more people out there is a good thing. The mountains of the Coast are so vast. If you're pissed that your little sanctuary has people other than you skiing in it, go find another one. I guarantee you won't have to look far."
Matty Richard: "I think it's about time we put some huts out there, to go super fast and light. I'm hoping they're going to sell food up there, so I can get a fresh schnitzel or something."
Andy Traslin: "The huts will bring in way more people. You'll just have to go further. Because ski lines close to the cabin for sure will get tracked out. But there's also the safety aspect. I've personally had to spend two unplanned nights in snow-cave bivies without a sleeping bag in a whiteout and it's not fun. On the Spearhead Traverse, I could have used a warming hut for sure.
The Spearhead Doctorate
Twenty years in the making and fuelled by an adolescent obsession of Greg Stump ski movies, JD Hare wasn't satisfied with just standing on every peak in the Spearhead. The following is a portfolio of what Hare terms "the best lines from every summit of the Spearhead Range." The Spearhead Doctorate stands as a new benchmark for backcountry big mountain skiing in Whistler.
February 1998: Mt. Whirlwind, "The Whirlwind Chutes" (with Tasso Lazaridis)
March 1, 1998: Mt. Trorey, north face (with Kenny Cocktail)
March 2, 1998: Tremor Mountain, west face (with Kenny Cocktail)
February 1999: Cowboy Chutes (with Cara Dolan)
April 23, 1999: Mt. Macbeth, Curtain Glacier (solo, thanks to Heather Roberts)
April 29, 1999: Mt. Fitzsimmons, north face (solo)
March 1999: Mt. Whirlwind, from the summit
April 12, 2000: Enchainment of Cheakamus Mountain, north face and Mt. Iago, west face (with Scott McLorie)
March 2001: Mt. Phalanx, the "Heli Run"
April 22-23, 2011: Enchainment of Fissile (Psycho Chute, Sunset Face, Banana Chute, Overlord, Refuse Pinnacle "Tears of the Valkyrie" (first descent); Mt. Benvolio "The Wave" First descent); Diavolo West Face, Angelo "The Angel's Gown" (first descent); Overlord East Face (from summit); Whirlwind Chutes, Fissile "Beer Run."
April 29, 2011: Quiver Peak, west face
January 2, 2013: Trorey, south side (with Kelven Vail)
March 23, 2014: Mt. Benvolio, north face (with Kevin Smith)
April 15, 2014: Mt. Phalanx, Foon Alley (with Mike Buchanan)
March 7, 2015: Spearhead Traverse (with Kevin Smith, Nick Velan and "the pups")
March 24, 2015: Mt. Pattison, north face (with Ben Johns)
April 8, 2015: Enchainment: The Ripsaw West Face (with Matty Richard and Eric Hjorleifson); Tremor Mountain North Face; Tremor Glacier "Valentine Chutes" (with Mikey Nixon)
January 23, 2017: Fitz Knoll, "The Twilight Zone" (with coach Mathieu Miller and Curtis Blewett)
March 30, 2017: Mt. Phalanx, east-face chutes
April 3, 2017: Enchainment: Mt. Fitzsimmons, east-northeast face and Mt. Iago, west face