PhAtwell Project – The End of Winter?

Earlier this month Bret phoned me with an excited tone to his voice and crazy proposition: an overnight assault on a mountain face that had been taunting him all winter. Bret lives in Squamish and the face he’d been staring down happened to be the Southeast face of Mt. Atwell, the dramatic diamond-shaped 2655m peak that looms above Howe Sound in the Garibaldi complex.

Bret and Atwell, or the other way around?
Bret and Atwell, or the other way around?

A casual 3pm departure from Vancouver ensured that we didn’t get to the Diamondhead parking lot until after 5, but thanks to the long spring days we still had hours of sunlight left. We donned shorts and sunscreen and I dug the neon orange hawaiian print rayon out of the closet to make use of its incredible wicking and mood-enhancing abilities. We quickly climbed up through Heather Meadows and raced up the Gargoyles to secure an epic camp site on the narrow col overlooking Diamondhead and Atwell. With freezing levels of over 4000m, we didn’t bother with a tent and just dug shallow trench to get out of the wind while we made dinner and enjoyed a psychedelic alpine sunset.

Tantalus Sunset 3
Tantalus Sunset 3
Glacially coloured
Glacially coloured

Sleeping under the stars made for a restless night, but we planned to be up before the sun anyways so waking up wasn’t a problem. We chowed a quick breaky and broke camp under an equally spectacular sun/moonrise, climbing up the icy shoulder of Atwell for dawn. As soon as the sun hit, we realized the race was on and we charged up to the base of SE face that was already shedding rivers of slush off the exposed cliffs.

Full Morning Sun
Full Morning Sun

After managing to skin up the bottom of the debris fan, it was skis off and crampons on as we battled up against flowing wet snow in 15-20+ degree heat. After some technical crux-y pitches and nearly being flushed off the mountain several times, we gained the East ridge and looked longingly up at the summit, a mere 50 or so meters above us. Unfortunately, the sun was already too high in the sky and any more time on the face would risk heavier and dangerously consequential slush flows. We pulled the plug and transitioned with an awesome view of the whole of Howe Sound.

"I can see my house from here!"
“I can see my house from here!”

We were both nervous to be dropping into the steep, wet face, but as it was Bret’s mission I made him commit first. I slopped my way down after him, careful to manage the wet sluff as best I could to avoid flushing Bret out onto the Diamond Glacier 600m below. With the sun already high in the sky, we re-applied sunscreen and started to hot, sticky walk back to camp and eventually the car, some 17km away. With some minors detours and one epic peak (almost) bagged, the trip was over with a casual 35km traversed and an elevation gain/loss of well over 1600m in less than 24 hours. A fitting end to an awesome winter, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to the end of ski season. Bring on the ski boot tans!!

As usual, a huge thanks to G3 for making skis so light that even I can haul them to the top of Mt. Atwell. And an even bigger thanks to all the people I skiied or schemed with this winter! The end….

...Of winter, but not ski season.
…Of winter, but not ski season.

2 thoughts on “PhAtwell Project – The End of Winter?

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