Tantalus Traverse

Words by Stephen Ziff, Images by Matt Gunn
(Lea Zhecheva’s poetic trip report can be found here)

The texting begins on Tuesday.  Unlike this past stormy winter, the forecast is actually great for the weekend and Matt mentions one of our unfinished goals for the season: the Tantalus traverse.  We think about a three-day trip, but the fact that I have to work Friday and some time studying Google Earth and the GPS tracks of friends who had done it in the last few weeks, convince us that two days will work.  Plus, three day packs are heavier.

All I have to do now is will my body to heal the chronic pain I have been feeling in my left hip flexor for the past two weeks and figure out how I will get myself to Squamish to meet Matt at some super early time on Saturday morning, since my family needs our one car.  I tell myself that chronic muscle issues usually work themselves out while on approaches and Nick, who is psyched to join us with his friend Lea, can offer me a ride.

Lots more texts to figure out the usual logistics and it feels like we are ready to go.  But then I get a text while at work from my wife informing me that her father is in the hospital.  Looks like they will be a party of three.  However, after talking with my wife and father in law, who is feeling better, I continue to plan and pack as if I am going and decide to make the final call on whether I go or not on Friday evening.  He continues to feel better, so I set my alarm for 2:35am.

A fitful and restless “sleep” has me wondering what the hell I am doing.  Nevertheless, I wake up quickly, get downtown in an Evo car and enjoy the surreal experience of hanging out on a corner waiting for a 3am pick up from Nick and wonder what stories passersby tell themselves about that guy they saw with an ice axe on his pack and skis in his hand. An hour and a bit later, Nick is unloading the bike at the river crossing spot for tomorrow’s shuttle and I ask why the bike has no seat, and he says, with an unconcerned tone, “ask Lea”.

By 5:05am, Matt, Nick and Lea head off up the trail with skis on their packs but I linger a little longer with some unfinished business.  As I walk the trail alone a few minutes later, I start playing what I call the “doubt game” in my head.  It has been a favourite of mine for some years now when I am not feeling quite right before a big trip.   I am sure some of you know the game and sometimes play it.  You find yourself walking slowly in the early morning light, alone with your thoughts and you start to wonder about your decision to do this traverse as some part of your body is not 100%, you are tired from an early morning wake up after a late-night packing frenzy, and all you can think about are the cruxes on the route ahead of you and that critical point on any traverse: the point of no return.  I had the added bonus of realizing everybody on this trip is more than a decade younger than me and of thinking about my father in law.  Nice way to start a trip.

Up Sigurd Creek Trail

As we gain elevation and the snowline, the doubt game is starting to fade.  I am starting to feel better and worrying less.  Minor decision making and conversations have helped me to focus on the here and now, as has Matt’s attempt to go for an early morning swim while crossing a river.  He was content to only get one foot wet.   Finally, we get the skis off of our backs at around the 1000m mark and start to head up the long climb to Pelion. Setting a skin track always gives me great satisfaction, and today is no different.  The process buoys my hopes and gives me energy, and my body feels stronger and my mind more alert.  When we reach the col, we all decide to get across the south side of Pelion as quickly as possible as the sun is heating stuff up and we don’t want to get stuck here waiting for things to stabilize.  Nick heads off first and things look bumpy with runnels.  We also notice the snow below his tracks is releasing but nothing above is moving.  Once we are all safely across, we chat about how it felt longer than it looked and how are thighs were burning coming across.  I also realize that I had crossed a point of no easy return without even really thinking about it.

Descending to the Pelion Zenith Col

After a short “north shore” ski experience, we arrive at the Zenith-Tantalus col in the early afternoon and contemplate whether we want to cross the Rumbling Glacier in the evening once things cool down, but given the heat, we decide on a 3:30am wake up and an early morning crossing and use the afternoon and evening light to piece together a route through the complex terrain.  Two sets of old tracks help, of course, but staring at the glacier, the doubting starts again.  After the trip, I find John Baldwin’s description from his guidebook that reads, “…if there was a terrain rating higher than complex, this trip would be it”.  Yep.

Rumbling Glacier viewed from camp.

After an early dinner, Matt convinces me to try for the summit of Zenith.  An almost empty pack sure feels nice as we gain elevation along a lovely ridge towards Zenith.  Looking below I see Zenith Lake and I recall my first coastal trip after moving to Vancouver in 1991.  A 3-day BCMC trip to climb the North Ridge of Tantalus on the Canada Day long weekend.  Interestingly enough, the two leaders of that trip, Paul Kubik and Blair Mitten, were also part of the group that first pioneered the route we are following.  The summit slopes were sloppy in the heat, so we could not summit, but Matt was happy he could see his house from our high point.

Checking out Zenith

The next morning, with harnesses on from the get go, we slide down onto the glacier and start to navigate across avi debris, runnels, and the Nunatak.  Once there, the glacier ahead was less broken, and travel was much easier and faster.  As I attempted one crevasse crossing with a lot of bottomless probing, I was thankful for Matt’s second set of eyes that spied a better and safer crossing a little further downslope. As we continued across, we had a great sunrise to the east and we kept looking up to the summits of Dione, Tantalus, and the Witch’s Tooth.  What an awe-inspiring position to be in so early in the day.

Traveling across the Rumbling Glacier

By 7:30am, we were at the top of a high col on Dione’s shoulder facing a super hard snow/icy descent onto the west side.  This was not going to soften up for some time and we had to get down the south side slopes of Serratus before the heat, so we descended as best we could – two bootpackers and two slide sliders – and arrived at the lovely Jim Haberl hut.  We pushed on quickly and wrapped around Serratus in search of the best way down to the Russian Campground.  We were rewarded with the best turns of the trip.

Heading to the Serratus-Ionia Col

As we made our way to Lambda lake, I saw Matt below me, backtracking.  “What’s up?”, I inquired.  “You won’t believe this, but I broke my ski!”.  I actually could not believe it.  Matt had broken another ski the weekend before descending from Wedge, so it was a little strange that it had happened again.  As Nick and Lea arrived, they too were flabbergasted.  We all agreed, better here than anywhere else on the traverse.  With the broken ski on the uphill foot while traversing, Matt had little trouble continuing.

In spite of some wet spots on Lake Lovely water, Nick felt it was safe and led us down to the water’s edge and we slide across shallow pools.  Nick was right, thick ice on the lake got us to the trail in no time.  After crossing the broken bridge by the hut, we once again put our skis on our packs and proceeded to descend 1200m to the river crossing.  Nick and I tried skiing short sections, but it was faster to boot pack the patches of snow.  Four sets of eyes made sure we did not lose the trail and soon enough, all traces of snow were gone and the bugs attacked in the 600-800m elevation range.

Across Lake Lovely Water

Once down at the cable crossing, doubt started to enter into the equation again.  Matt and I had always used a canoe whenever we had crossed here in the summer, Lea had not been here before and Nick, who had walked the cable and done a Tyrolean across, stated that one is a heady and the other, physical.  With some trepidation, we chose the physical.  Nick helped us get set up for the Tyrolean and then went across first.  When Matt asked what it was like going uphill on the cable, he responded, “it all sucks”, or at least that is what I heard.  As I watched Lea style her way across, I hopped on the cable.  Within 5 minutes, I realized that this would be frustrating, slow, and hot.  It was worse.  Since Matt, Nick and I wore our lightweight ski touring harnesses, it was also quite painful.  These micro harnesses are great for touring, but pretty crappy for hanging in upside down for any length of time.  Nick, the superstar that he is, then biked back to our car in ski boots on a bike with no seat.  But I never did ask Lea about the missing seat.

Photos from the Tantalus Traverse

Below Ossa

Ascending Pelion


Views of Tantalus.

Climbing towards the Tantalus-Zenith Col, a view of the descent across Pelion in the background.

Climbing towards the Tantalus-Zenith Col.


Early to bed.

Early to rise.

Heading off towards the Rumbling Glacier

Zenith in the background.

Crossing the Rumbling Glacier.

Ascending towards the nunatak col.


Navigating through some large slots

The final climb to the shoulder of Dione

Descending west off the shoulder of Dione

All downhill from here!

Haberl Hut


Short bootpack to the Serratus-Ionia Col

Descending to Lake Lovely Water

Across Lovely Water

Heading down the Lovely Water Trail

The final walk to the Squamish River road.