Johnny Collinson: The SickleWednesday, January 4, 2017
The trip started out as most do—especially when working with Sherpas Cinema. A vague email describing an idea with general dates and pretty much zero info on what we will actually be doing. Perfect. The email was this: “Hey Johnny, want to do a Rockies trip with Mac, Pondella shooting in May?”
Now let's back up a little bit, to March. I left home and headed to the Yukon for a Sherpas trip—camping out and skiing spines in the far north. From there I headed straight over to Alaska with the TGR crew to film in Fantasy Camp—a dream of its own. After that I FedEx’ed some stuff home, and headed straight to Lake Tahoe for the TGR closing shoot, then over to San Francisco for some North Face design meetings. The point I’m making I guess is that I’d been on the road quite a while, but under no circumstances could I pass up a mysterious ski mountaineering trip in Alberta with Ian McIntosh—my favorite ginger.
OK, now the stage is set. We all arrive in Canada, and roll up to Lake Louise. It was my first time being there, and the beauty of the area just blew my mind. The striated Canadian Rockies are something to behold. I couldn't wait to get on top of one and scope out the whole range! We walked up to the lookout area at Lake Louise, and joined the selfie stick wielding throng of tourists—I’m in my element here, chucking selfies around like a seasoned pro—but from here we get a glimpse of our objective; The Sickle. It’s a 2,000-foot line off of Mt. Victoria. It’s pretty spectacular looking, especially from the concrete safety of the parking lot. After meeting up with the rest of the crew, more of the blank spaces filled in. We would be staying in a hut—Abbot Pass hut, at the head of the valley—for only three days … a quick strike mission, as long as the weather stayed charming.
Other than hanging out with my favorite ginger, there were a bunch of factors that drew me in to this trip. The mountains themselves are just so inspiring—and having never been there, I felt overdue for a visit. The Rockies in this zone, because of the climate, are notorious for bad snowpack throughout most of the winter—hence why I’d never been. Springtime offers the chance of bonded layers, and if you play your cards right, a nice corn harvest. And who can say no to that? For the most part, I also like to end my seasons with a nice ski mountaineering trip. After a winter of deep pow and testing the compression factor of my body, it’s always nice to get a little scared on the way up, top out a beautiful peak and earn those turns. Simple logic. The Canadian Rockies also are more or less the birthplace of North American alpinism, so I figured it would be awesome to follow in the footsteps of some of the guys that explored the areas we now love so much.
As we packed up we went over the protocol for the next day. To get into the hut this time of year (first week of May), you walk the edge of the lake, then follow a nice trail up to where the Glacial Moraine starts. After weaving through loose rocks and boulders you get to the snow and start skinning. After a while of this, you get to what we were calling the “Death Trap.” The valley narrows down until there are 500-foot cliffs on either side, the northern of which has huge looming seracs, with wide-open, snow-filled faces above.
To navigate this safely we started off at 3:00 a.m., in the hopes of getting through the “death trap” before the day warmed and the seracs and hanging snowfields became a hazard. The idea of rushing through this zone became pretty comical. Even though this was a “quick strike mission,” and our packs could have been microscopic, we were traveling with a full-fledged film crew. Red Cameras, multiple lenses … the whole nine yards of dozens of pounds of metal, glass and batteries. That being said, we weren’t exactly Speedy Gonzales while in the crosshairs of the trap. Plus, as a nice side note, it started raining once we started skinning up the glacier, which didn't do much to lighten the load, or make the traveling easier. But blah blah blah “it was hard.” I sound like a wimp. We all knew exactly what we were doing and loved it. The only reason we do shit like that is ‘cause you have to suffer at least a little! Or else what fun is it?
By the end of the day we were all curled up in the hut, safe and sound while a storm raged outside. How could it get any better than that?
The next day we spent our time climbing nearby Mt. Lefroy. We climbed and skied the north face, which had slid a couple days before. This resulted in a 2000-foot steep, refrozen bed-surface and debris pile ski run. Not the worst skiing Ian and I had done, but the filmmakers on the other hand, had to ski the same line; narrow chokes, cliff bands, high exposure, ice etc. with 50 pound camera packs. Hats off to those boys for sure—climbing and skiing with insane loads. From up on Lefroy we were able to see the Sickle in all its glory, and get an idea of when the sun would be on it, and for how long. The best route up to assess snow was straight up the face, so we wanted to make sure we were climbing it before too much warming happened—and not hang out on top too long before it got that perfect corn!
The timing on film shoots always ends up being a game of hurry up and wait. Especially when helicopters are involved. So, in order to be poised on the ridge at sun-up for the “dramatic flyover shot” we left the hut just after 3:00 a.m. In the dark we navigated our way to the start of maybe the scariest thing I did all winter. We had to traverse our way over to where we would start the climb, and this traverse was on a steep slope. With recent slides it was refrozen runnels and troughs, all hanging above a 400-foot cliff. Plus, it didn't help that we were just following the little circle of light provided by our headlamps. It was like having a monster under the bed. You know it’s there but you just can’t see it. And any mistake—putting your foot over the edge of the bed—will put you at its mercy. Then, we had to perform our changeover, switching into crampons and putting skis on our packs.
Once all of us were good we started climbing. The easy part! After the adrenaline rush of the monster under the bed scenario, the climb was a breeze—a nice stair master workout. Although the climb was nice, the previous day’s Mongolian stew was apparently having an after party in everyone’s tummies. As Ian delicately put it, “I’m gonna fucking shit my pants.” So everyone except me blew off a little steam, and we did our dramatic flyover shots. Now was the tricky part though—playing the guessing game on when most of the face would be perfect. Because it is so large, there was going to be big differences in the snow quality at the top vs. bottom. But waiting too long would make it dangerous for the guys skiing at the end, so we just guessed. The heli got in position and I got to send it first. I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. I didn't want to encounter ice like the day before, because any fall would not be OK. The old monster under the bed was clearly visible and waiting for someone to slip up. But after dropping in I was more than pleasantly surprised. A nice warm up of the top few centimeters was perfect to get those edges in and open it up a little bit. It was still frozen just under, but damn was I stoked! Two thousand feet of near perfect corn? Hell yeah! Everyone killed it, nobody spilled, and we re-navigated the sketchy-guy traverse. Boom. Call it a day!
Of course, I always say once everyone makes it home safe, then the adventure is complete. But true to the past few months, my journey wasn't over, and I spent a couple more weeks on the road, getting dinged up in bars around the west, and nursing the hangover with more travel. It was only a few days in the hills, but a full rollercoaster of conditions. True to the rest of the season, the snow may have been variable, but the company was all time, turns were made, and everyone got out safe! What more can you ask for?