When Jerry Auld read explorer David Thompson's account of his journey up the Whirlpool River in two-metre deep snow and -30 C temperatures with a broken snowshoe, which culminated in his first crossing of Athabasca Pass in 1811 with his guide Thomas the Iroquois and 13 men, Auld thought, "man, that sounds tough."
Exactly 200 years later-to the day-on Jan. 10 Auld reached Athabasca Pass, but found he'd followed a little more literally in Thompson's footsteps than planned.
Author of the historical novel Hooker & Brown, which centres around events related to the remote mountain pass which reigned as the key fur trade route through the Rockies to the Columbia River through much of the 19th century, Auld was one of 27 people who planned to ski to Athabasca Pass to celebrate the bicentennial of Thompson's first crossing.
On Saturday, Jan. 8, Auld and Dustin Lynx, author of Hiking Canada's Great Divide Trail, applied skins to their ski bases, hoisted heavy multi-day packs and began skiing the 58 kilometres from the Meeting of the Waters picnic area to Athabasca Pass.
While three groups totalling 14 skiers, including several Jasper National Park public safety specialists had skied the route on Jan. 5 and 6 to break trail and set up a base camp complete with a wood stove-heated walled tent at Kane Meadows eight kilometres below the pass, by the time Auld, Lynx, mountain writer Chic Scott and ski partner Margaret Gmoser, and nine others started out, a storm had dumped 40 centimetres onto the trail the public safety team had set to help facilitate everyone's travel.
Of those who set out Jan. 8, only Auld and Lynx would ultimately reach the pass.
"It was tough terrain-up and down and twisty," said Auld who had travelled the route on foot twice before.
As they skied on the frozen and snow-covered Whirlpool River, they encountered sections where cracks in the ice allowed water to pulse up from beneath the surface.
"The water comes up then mixes with the fresh snow to create a kind of slush," Auld described. "As soon as your ski hits this stuff, it bonds to the ski instantly, adding about 40 pounds. You pull your foot up and it's like having a bucket of water attached to the tip of your ski. You can't go anywhere until you hack it off with your shovel."
After setting out in reasonable -15 C temperatures, Lynx and Auld camped the second night in -33 C temperatures next to Scott and Gmoser at Scott Gravel Flats, with a view of the Scott Glacier.