Time for another installment of Print's Not Dead! This time it's Dan Milner's epic splitboard mission deep into the heart of the Tantalus Range in British Columbia with Jeremy Jones and Jonaven Moore. This one's a doozy, so roll up that doobie and settle in for a real face-melter. Enjoy!
For the first time in my life I’m glad the snow is hard and crusty. I'm swapping the sure-footedness and edge hold of soft snow for guarantees that the snow-bridges over the crevasses are still firm and safe to cross. I can’t see them, but the crevasses are out there somewhere, swallowed up by the looming darkness. All I have to go by is a small pool of light from my head torch as it dances on the narrow, icy track left by Jonaven Moore’s crossing of the glacier the previous afternoon, back when the snow was soft. Jonaven’s still out there, alone, doing the solo bivouac mission it takes to drop into the line he wants to ride at sunrise. He might be alone, perched on a dug-out ledge on top of a meter-wide snowy ridge, but at least he’s still in bed. He’ll wake just before seven, eat some breakfast and toss his loaded pack down the 45° face before following its tumble in a ruckus of Mach 10 powder turns.
As for myself and the two filmers with me, we’re left to cross the glacier in the dark to arrive at our planned photo spots in time to catch both Jonaven’s pack and his turns; three isolated pools of light working their way slowly across a field of ice. For someone who has never relished the idea of pre-dawn starts, crawling out of a warm sleeping bag to wrestle on frozen snowboard boots and splitboarding across a glacier before sunrise is about as welcome as missing breakfast. On that note, that’ll probably happen too.
Mount Tantalus and its Rumbling Glacier are our home for three days, and we’re getting to know their contours and icy forms well. Working with Jeremy Jones and Jonaven always sees to that. Perched 2,603 meters above the town of Squamish in the Coastal Mountains of British Columbia, Mount Tantalus is visible from the counter of the downtown Starbucks. Just out of reach, its Alaskan-style spines and surrounding pointed peaks sit teasingly as if to say, "come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough".
Four years ago Jonaven thought he was and rushing up to the Tantalus by heli he found himself in the deep end when his fellow rider released a massive slope-wide avalanche that nearly took both their lives. It’s a different story now though. Big mountain rider Jonaven spent the following four years watching and waiting, biding his time as he regarded the glacier from the window of his converted railway car-cum-home near Squamish. His near death experience helped force a change in the direction of his snowboarding, turning his back on the media-frenzied pressures of risk-saturated pro riding.
The avalanche experience also meant he knew that to scratch the Tantalus itch properly meant taking the time to do it right. Over four years he studied the mountain's moods and formulated a plan, one that would work only when both weather and snow stability factors converged; it would involve a base camp and a lot of splitboarding. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the planets aligned.
Our Tantalus mission represents a regrouping of friendships, some established a year earlier during Jeremy’s Deeper project Alaskan epic – a 27-day splitboard snow camp out in the Glacier Bay National Park. This was the trip that put splitboarding firmly on the map for good, but for riders Jeremy Jones and Jonaven it was merely a honing of the direction their snowboarding is going. The splitboard ethos –approaching your line by your own power, on your own two feet- sits squarely with the two riders' re-evaluated priorities in snowboarding: it’s less about riding for other people and photo incentives and more about doing it for yourself.
However the splitboard program came about for our group, one thing is for sure; without splitboards up here on the Tantalus, we’d be stuck. As twilight arrives and our visual sense is returned to us I pause to look back at our cluster of tents, perched on a far away ridge. I’m surprised how far we’ve come in a couple of hours, way faster than snowshoeing and a lot safer across the snow bridges too. Within another forty minutes we’ll be at our vantage point, nestled between gaping open crevasses in time to film Jonaven slay yet another big mountain line. “That’s the best night's sleep I’ve ever had”, he says, pulling up to us and grinning widely, his slough still rolling to a stop. “It was so peaceful up there.”
"Peaceful" is almost guaranteed on the Tantalus. Although you can see the suburbs of Squamish and Highway 99 towards Whistler from the corniced ridge on which we’ve sited our handful of brightly coloured tents, we might as well be in another world: around us is nothing but ice and snow. While far below is a world waking to another day of normality, of driving to work, of coffees to go, of paying the bills, our world has become one of eternally melting snow for drinking water and trying to prevent our boot liners from freezing solid at night.
Our last link to the mechanized world came in the form of a 5-minute heli ride up to the glacier. While restrictions keep the Tantalus free from heli-skiing, we were able to set down with our excess baggage of amassed camping kit on the edge of the national park. If we could, we’d be hiking the 2,000 m up to our camp spot too, but in BC’s Coastal range such high pressures are rare and short lived: "wasting" a day to hike up there is not an option.
Our weather window, if the forecast is correct, is a pretty generous three-day affair. But even then, at the end of the third afternoon, we cut it tight, being plucked out of the park as the wind picked up to almost heli-grounding force and another approaching storm gathered in the wings, the skies over our ridden lines darkening by the minute. The experience of sitting out a ten-day storm in our camp in AK the previous year made the Tantalus, with its five-minute heli access and cell phone coverage seem like a luxury vacation by comparison.
The decision to hit the Tantalus came unexpectedly. For a month prior the whole of interior BC had suffered a major weak layer in the snowpack, rendering almost any slope avalanche-prone and a potential killer. While the Coastal range escaped this layer, it also suffered from a distinct lack of snowfall, something highlighted at the nearby winter Olympics. Suddenly with a change of fortune, several days of windless snowfall were followed by our three-day high pressure window, coming right out of the blue.
After three weeks tip-toeing around the fragile slopes of interior BC, the sudden proposition of hitting the Tantalus came as a just reward for the frustrating weeks that have passed. Jeremy Jones already knew about Jonaven’s itch, and took no further persuasion to join the group. Nor did local rider Mikey Nixon. Canada is on the Jones’ annual radar, though he usually thinks of the trip as a pre-AK warm up. But by the time we’d finished our boil-in-the-bag dinners on our second night in camp, the Tantalus had changed Jeremy’s perception of Canada. “Within an hour of leaving our base camp I realized we were in terrain every bit as intense as Alaska,” he admitted, supping on a mug of tea, then adding with a smile, “This is no warm up, this is the real thing!”
The "real thing" for Jeremy, and anyone with him, means early starts, often before sunrise. Simply put, the man is a machine. It's this envious energy and experience that tells him not to waste time when weather is on your side, and within a half hour of our arrival he had our whole group on a recon mission, following his skin trail up the ridge that sat just north of our proposed camp spot.
What looked like mini-terrain from the heli on the inbound flight, now seemed big and overpowering. I felt dwarfed by my surroundings and swallowed down my fear as I shuffled along the exposed skin trail, trusting my split board skis. To my right the slope rolled away into a 45° blind void, coated in wind crust, and a meter to my left the ridge dropped into a 70° cliff face. Exposure, it seems, is an alarmingly regular part of shooting the Deeper experience.
When the riders disappear down a gully ahead that they needed to negotiate to reach their target face, I decided that I was already in as good a vantage point as any to shoot their lines. I kicked myself a snow platform and dug in for the show to come. It took the three riders a further hour to climb back up to their mini-peak and a further half hour to dig a snowpit to assess the snowpack. Happy about stability, first Jonaven drops into an insanely steep chute, airing into it to be slingshot into a long backside slash on a vertical windlip. When Jeremy slides into the convex entrance to his steep line, he triggered a release that cascaded down before him. He paused, recomposed and then rips his line, sluff tumbling about him, before floating a 10-meter air off a windlip hip in the run out. Finally Mikey drops a similar line, leaving myself and Garry suddenly feeling quite alone on a very exposed ridge.
Over tea back at camp we mulled the options. The sun was heating up the snowpack quickly, and it wass clear we needed to turn our attention to the east-facing slopes. East meant early, though. From his drop in spot, Jeremy had seen another face, steep, spiny and east-facing. It’s perhaps another two hours of hiking to reach it, but he said it would be worth the effort. He called it the ‘Wizard’s Toque’. As night falls, we hunkered down in the small dining area we’d excavated in the snow for as long as we can keep warm, chatting about the day and generally buzzing from making it this far, before the plummeting temperatures forced us into sub zero sleeping bags. We crawled into tents as the camp was bathed in the last rays of sunset.
It was 5 o’clock when filmer Garry’s alarm wrenched me from my slumber. “Shit!” he said, “we’re late.” I’m groggily aware of having heard Jeremy and Mikey crawl from their adjacent tent at some unearthly hour of the night and am glad for my extra time in a warm sleeping bag, but it's small compensation for still having to clamber out into a sub-15 degree dawn. We didn’t have time to brew tea and with frozen fingers attached our splitboard skins for the half hour slide to our shooting point.
All too rapidly the inky blue night was being diluted by the first glow of light; we had to hurry. Knowing the snow was hard I clipped on my splitboard crampons and headed up, setting the kind of pace that will leave me soaked in sweat. We made it just in time, as the first magenta rays of sunlight touched the face above which Jeremy is poised to drop in. From our vantage point the "Wizard's Toque" looked insane: a jumble of spines that radiate down a perfectly triangular vertical wall. Within ten minutes both Jeremy and Mikey had slain the face, leaving nothing but tracks and a pile of amassed slough debris at the bottom. A 3:30 am start and a four-hour hike is a lot of effort for one run, even if it is the Wizard's Toque, and Jeremy shared that opinion, or at least it seemed so. Just as I started to pack up my camera gear, I saw Jeremy about turn and begin the hike back up the face for another run. I watched as he billygoated back up the impossible climb and then dropped back into the kind of face that I can only dream of being able to ride. All this before the population of nearby Squamish had even brewed morning coffee or tucked into their bowls of Cheerios.
Back at camp things were starting to warm up and we saw sloughs self-release on several of the big faces surrounding us. It was too late in the day at that point to hit anything south- or west-facing. With one day of our weather window left, we decided to save energy for one last push, targeting a set of east-facing spines the following morning that sat on the far side of the Rumbling glacier. Jonaven and Garry set off to cross the glacier but were forced to retreat instead of crossing below a 1000-meter face of avalanche danger. Garry arrived back at camp exhausted. Jonaven covered the rest of his bivvy mission alone, once the sun dipped and the snow firmed up again. Meanwhile we traced a possible route between the crevasses through binoculars, memorizing it for our hike in the dark next morning.
By the time the 4:30 am alarm sounded, raising our group from its slumber next morning, I was half excited about what we were about to undertake and half anxious to get it over and done with. We strapped on our boards for a pitch black descent down frozen snow and I tried to stay on Jeremy’s heels, using his body language to help me read the terrain that loomed at a rapid clip out of the darkness ahead.
At the bottom we split our boards and attached our skins. “Fuck!”, came a voice out of the darkness. Somewhere along the way, one of Jeremy’s skins had disappeared. There was little chance of finding it in the darkness and most likely it had slid hundreds of meters down the mountain, lost in the void. He threw his board on to his pack and retraced the hike back to camp to get another. By the time myself and the two filmers had arrived at our spot to shoot Jonaven, the Jones will had caught up to us again.
For years Jonaven had looked up at the Tantalus and wondered if he’d get another stab at its challenging terrain. He was stoked to be able to share it with Jeremy, and Jeremy paid back this trust by doing justice to Jonaven’s invitation, picking out a maze of spines that funnel into one main exit.
It’s a line that requires a lot of commitment and represents a serious undertaking on the way up too, including navigating a gaping bergschrund. We watched Jeremy’s progress as he clambered up an impossibly steep face, fighting for every step. The Tantalus has rewards to offer but she doesn’t give them up easily.
Jonaven knows this well, and his amassed group of friends who were sharing the experience were learning it too. In an hour Jeremy would ride one of the most demanding lines he’d ever accomplished in Canada, one that would mark a milestone in the whole Deeper project. It was watched by five people standing on a glacier and, if any of them had binoculars at the time, who knows how many more, chai lattes in hand, at the Squamish Starbucks.
Words and photos by Dan Milner