The Garibaldi Neve is a classic ski traverse in the Coast Mountains, from the Red Heather Meadows near Squamish to Garibaldi Lake, near Whistler. Although I spend many, many hours at both ends of this traverse in winter and summer, it’s seldom that I spend time in the middle portion, on the glaciers north of Opal Cone. Last year my friend Ryan guided me along the Neve High Route, which was incredible, and my first time venturing into the incredible area past the Gargoyles. The Neve High Route was beautiful and wild, and I knew it was just the start of many trips to this amazing area so close to home.
After the High Route, I felt a draw to trying the “normal” Neve route, as it felt like I skipped a step. I also wanted to get out there and do it more independently, as Ryan totally guided us through the Neve High Route. Jen and I decided to team up and make it a goal for the season to do the Neve together, just the two of us, doing all the navigation and route-finding on our own. And while the navigation for the Neve isn’t hard, I needed to improve my skills around glacier travel and crevasse rescue, so I was excited about getting out there and feeling confident!
We wanted to move through the route as efficiently as we could, while stilling carrying a ton of safety gear just in case. To prepare, we both got fancy Petzl RAD kits and practiced crevasse rescue twice before the trip. Jen also took a course through a guiding company, and as I couldn’t make it, I learned from her like a parasite. We also had a really fun map viewing / planning session in Jen’s garden the week before, just staring at FatMap and my giant paper map of the route, visualizing key landmarks along the way, and deciding about some decisions along the route, like whether to transition for short descents or not. To benefit from cooler temperatures and more stability for avalanches and crevasses, we decided we’d suck it up and leave the house at 4am on Sunday.
On Friday night a huge storm system came in, bringing lots of fresh snow on the route. This would mean the Neve would be slower, and we wondered whether there would be a skintrack or not by Sunday morning.
Saturday before the trip was spent relaxing, faffing with gear, and one final crevasse rescue practice before bed. By 10pm, I was in bed, and ready for my 3:30am alarm clock!
Early wake-ups aren’t so bad
3:30am Sunday came quickly, and I was surprisingly sharp-minded and efficient for once. In thirty minutes I’d taped my feet, eaten a leisure overnight oats, changed, and done a final gear list check. Not like me to be efficient and on-time, so this was a pleasant surprise!
By 4am we were rolling through Squamish drinking coffee, heading up towards our familiar Red Heather trailhead. At the chainup area, I made an out of character, very bold decision to drive up in the snow without chains. I really surprised myself with this move, as that’s something I never do… I always park lower and walk from the chain up area. But the coffee, and Jen’s encouragement got the best of me, and Shamu the Subaru was able to get us all the way up! At the top, the parking lot was already a bit of a party, with many groups already arriving and setting out for the Neve. The early wakeup was well worth it, just to see the spectacle of stars above.
To Elfin, and beyond!
At 5:20 we set off, and Jen set a super-quick pace on our beloved Red Heather Hut trail. It turns out she got a PB to Red Heather Hut, and beyond that she didn’t let up. The trail from Red Heather to Elfin is rolling with a lot of descending with skins on– at several points I tried to eat Clif Bloks on the move, but quickly realized I would get dropped if I didn’t just focus on these awkward descents! We considered taking the summer route from Red Heather to Elfin as it’s actually shorter and more efficient, but we worried that there might not be a skintrack in, as it snowed on Friday evening. In retrospect, we made the right choice in sticking to the wanded winter route.
By this time, the sun had risen, and we were being treated to a glorious bluebird pow day.
After the Elfin hut, we continued to move very efficiently, deciding not to transition and just to skin all the little descents as you head north-east toward Ring Creek. Thankfully, there was still a skintrack for this section. I face-planted twice skinning down the powder on this section, but it was a good way to wake up! We passed many campers along the way who seemed to still be lingering over first coffee. This navigation was all straightforward, but we had to check our navigation app several times to avoid other tracks that tempted us, which were likely heading toward the Gargoyles. At this point, I started getting us hyped about going to the best pizza place in Whistler (Creekbread!) for lunch at the end, and we both became very focused on that goal.
Eventually, we worked our way to a nice long climb from the bottom of Ring Creek to Opal Cone, which essentially follows the summer trail. Here we got another reward for starting early, as the whole skintrack was still very cold in the shade, as well as the slopes to our east. As Ring Creek is essentially a giant terrain trap, it felt very comforting to be in this area while it was still so cold and shaded.
After Opal Cone, we had made it to the Neve! Here, many groups were camped out on the glacier. If I had to guess, I would estimate 10 different parties, all spread out far and wide! One camper tried to sell us coffee for $20 but we declined. We were on our way to apres in Whistler, and planned to spend our $20 on fancier drinks…
Luckily for us, a skintrack had been set for the entire climb to the high point of the Neve, so this section was all very straightforward. It was the perfect time to just relax and look at the views! Here, I could see the Neve High Route from last year, which skirts just below Atwell and Garibaldi. It looked intimidating, and I was happy to be admiring from afar! At the top of the long climb, we realized that we’d passed all the other parties on the route, and now we got fresh tracks for our first descent! Having snowed Friday evening, the snow was awesome. It felt like having a beautiful powdery blue run all to ourselves! I let Jen lead down the slopes, figuring she’s likely better at avoiding crevasses.
Now at the lead of the many, many groups doing the Neve that day, it was time for us to take a turn trailbreaking, just a small section for the final climb up near Glacier Pikes. At this point I saw a super-sunscreened Maria, who had lent me a harness, and was skiing the Neve in reverse that weekend. At the end of this final mini climb, we could see the giant mass of snowy Garibaldi Lake in front of us, which is always very welcoming and familiar to me. Here we stayed skier’s left, and got some great, steeper fresh tracks down to the lake.
Indulging in Garibaldi Lake
I’m not sure why people seem to despise skiing Garibaldi Lake as part of the Neve. For me, it’s beautiful, and it’s a great time to just relax, not think about navigation or crevasses, maybe down a few chocolate-covered almonds. Perhaps it’s the wonder of crossing this ginormous lake, and all the memories of hanging around this area with good friends in summertime. I can’t help but love the blue gatorade lake. It feels like a big hug to me.
Jen and I did a fun experiment on the lake. I started by skate-skiing, and she started out skinning. After half a kilometer of skating, I looked back and noticed that I wasn’t really gaining on her, despite an insane amount of energy I was spending. With the conditions of the day, it felt very similar in slog spectrum to the time I skate-skied up (part of!) Moraine Lake Road with a fresh 15cm of snow. My watch beeped, telling me that my skate-ski kilometer was over 10-minutes. That’s when I realized my skinning pace would be faster, so I switched and it was the best decision ever. Three minutes of transitioning later, I started really enjoying every step. And, the skinning was quite a bit faster given the fresh snow, soft-packed conditions on that day, getting down to 8:30 kilometers in comparison!
Arriving at the north end of the lake, I couldn’t wait for our final descent of the day… the barrier! The skiing had been so great all day, and I was excited for another long, 500m+ descent. Maybe we will get some amazing spring slush, I thought. I told Jen how great this was going to be. Our last big ski of the day, yay!
The Barrier is boss
And then the Barrier started. And it owned me. It’s steep yes, but I don’t mind that. What surprised me is that the thing is full of micro terrain, so it’s easy to get too close to cliffs, if you don’t know the lines (like us). Two minutes into the descent, we got too close (for my comfort) to a cliff and I proceeded to hide in a tree away from the cliff, unable to move. It was a mini meltdown, in fact, in which I asked Jen to come back and block the cliff, to which she declined, not wanting to re-introduce herself to the danger. Fair enough! She’s just so strong and fearless, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Here I was, 3 meters from the cliff, basically hugging the tree and unable to move in any direction. I was literally squatting underneath it, my legs shaking because the low tree branches forced a very deep squat position. After a whole day of feeling capable, and like we were crushing the route, I had devolved within the first two minutes of the Barrier to a much-lesser version of myself. I was spooked, like my cat Bartholomew.
“You’re going to have to get yourself out”, Jen reminded me.
I couldn’t help but think of my friend Aggie on a trip to Mount Rainier in 2012, when a tree branch caught her backpack strap and threw her off a ledge. She fell 10 feet onto her back, fractured many things, and had to get search and rescue assistance to get out safely. Here I was, wearing a giant pack with many dangling straps, under the strongest part of the tree. Unable to adjust my pack in my awkward position, I was worried that the big branches would interfere with my pack and send me off the cliff!
After what felt like 20 minutes, but Jen says is 3, I finally summoned a rage-like feeling and bashed through the large branches. Cliff dodged!
The rest of the ski out, we had Gaia out the whole time to make sure we didn’t fall for any other traps. We enjoyed a mix of terrain ranging from rock-solid mini slide debris, firm icy “fresh tracks”, and breakable crust. Next time I’m going in with the expectation that the Barrier is going to suck! I’d rather ski Garibadi Lake five times than the Barrier once…
With that attitude, it took us over 40 minutes to ski the Barrier! Trying to navigate the connection to the Rubble Creek trail was tough, as it’s a bit technical, and hard to keep looking at the phone. Jen was doing most of this work at the end, as I’d sort of lost my self control in the tree incident. To cap off our experience with the Barrier we overshot the connection to the trail by only 30 meters, and had to crawl up a steep eroded bank, kicking steps in and all.
Back on trail with about 2km to go, we switched to walking shoes (track spikes for me) and proceeded to enjoy the last 2km of the day, walking down the familiar icy switchbacks to the end. By the time we got out, Julien had arrived to pick us up in the fancy Volvo. The great thing was, it was still only lunchtime! Now we got to celebrate over Creekbread pizza, which is honestly one of the best motivators there is. Next stop, happy hour in Whistler…
Thank you Jen!
It will be really tough to top this experience on the Neve! It was an amazing experience to team up with Jen, and to move through the Neve so quickly together. It was fun, fast, supportive, full of awesome teamwork. I’m really excited to do so many more missions together. What’s more, the snow couldn’t have been better on the glacier!
Trip planning tools for nerds
I thought I would share some of my trip planning information, in case it may benefit others planning on doing the route! I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to documentation and trip planning…
Key milestones chart
As mentioned I am a bit of a trip planning nerd, so I made a little table showing all the key milestones along the way. I actually printed this out and kept it in my pocket all day, it was nice to know what was coming up as we went! (Before the trip I had estimated times between each milestone, which were nice little goals to shoot for. Now that we’re done, I’ve added in our approximate actual times between each milestone.)
|Milestone||Time it took us to the next milestone||Ski or Skin From Here?||Stats Until Next|
|Start||0:00||Skin||400m up, 4km|
|Red Heather hut||0:49||Skin||80m up, 5km|
|Elfin Lakes hut||1:50||Skin – rolling, do short descents with skins||Rolling 50-100m up and down, 3.8km|
|Ring Creek Bridge – at the low point of the creek||2:30||Skin – long 700m gain to Neve high point||200m up, 1.5km|
|Opal Cone (start of bishop glacier)||3:00||Keep skinning – keep Opal Cone to our right||550m up, 4.5km|
|Neve high point / south pitt glacier high point||4:22||Ski – quick ski just past Sharkfin – keep Sharkfin to our left||150m down, 1.5km|
|Just past Sharkfin||4:40||Skin – quick skin||100m up, 1.5km|
|Glacier Pikes||5:00||Ski – keep Glacier Pikes to our right||400m down, 3.5km|
|Garibaldi Lake South||5:33||If firm try to nordic ski (classic or skate), if not, skin!||Flat 6km|
|Garibaldi Lake North||6:30||Ski||580m down, 4km|
|Exit of the Barrier – at 890m of elevation||7:38||Ski||300 down, 2km|
|Finish||8:21||Lie in grass!||Done!!|
Here’s what we brought along with us! Because the temperatures were quite cold that day and it was our first time self-supported on the route, we went fairly thorough and conservative with our gear choices. Safety is sexy.
Safety Gear at the Bottom of the Pack:
- Avalanche probe and shovel
- RAD kit, 1 per person
- Extra prusik, sling, and carabiner added to RAD kit, 1 per person
- Inreach Mini, 1 for group
- Headlamps, 1 per person
- Extra battery pack and charge cable for phone navigation system (personal peace of mind thing)
- Mini first aid kits, 1 per person
- Emergency blanket, 1 per person
- Warm winter clothing: down jackets, goretex jackets, extra shirt, toque
- Tape on a credit card (for blisters, gear repair, etc.)
- Mini screw (for binding fixes)
- 3-4 zap straps per person (useful for skin failure, boot buckle failure, ski carries, etc.!)
- Extra batteries for avalanche beacon
Gear We Wore:
- Backpack with lots of easy-access front pockets for easy snacking + water access
- Avalanche beacon
- Lightweight harness
- Protective clothes from sun exposure (long-sleeve shirt, hat, neck buff)
- As it was a super cold day starting at -5C, I wore baselayer merino wool pants with lightweight nordic ski softshell pants overtop. It was perfect!
- Sunglasses, the bigger / more protective the better
- Helmet (just Alicia)
- GPS watch for easy scanning altimeter / maybe loading route onto it if possible
- Phone for navigation with route added to Gaia/Strava
- Runners for the last 2km on Rubble Creek Trail (I brought track spikes and they were perfect for the icy/dirt trail! Also nice and light in my pack!)
- Mini sunscreen in accessible pocket (I am ginger!)
- Water in accessible pocket (I brought 1 liter, which isn’t a lot for many people. For me I actually finished with quite a bit of water left. Instead of carrying the extra water weight, I downed lots of coffee and water before setting out in the morning.)
- Food, enough for 200 calories per hour plus an extra 500 calories contingency. I brought chocolate almonds, clif bloks, dried apricots, a Caramilk bar, Tall Tree fresh sourdough with nut butter and honey… all was delicious and easy to eat!
- Skin glidey wax
Considered but decided not to bring this time:
- Yaktrax for runners: the final kilometers on Rubble Creek Trail are often icey! We decided we would just walk more slowly rather than carry Yaks.
- Ski Crampons — decided against this after seeing how mellow the route is, even if icey, we figured any slips would be low consequence.
- Extra set of skins — always a good idea for long tours, but we brought zap straps instead this time.
- Ice axe — the route is mellow and we weren’t planning on adding any summits.