Spring’s late-onset has done no great favour for mountaineering. A Cool April and May allowed late-season snow to add to an abundant snowpack, enabling cornices to persist beyond their normal range. Our quartet faced this when we set out to summit Malaspina Peak on May 22, 2022.
Malaspina Peak is one of the mountains that is low on most people’s radar. It’s way out there, and at an elevation of just around 1550 metres, most people don’t give it the time of day. But it’s on our list.
Though most folks use the massive gully on the northeast of the main summit, we trusted the gully to be one long deathtrap considering the conditions. We approached from the south via an adjoining ridge. Under the right conditions, this route goes. This winter, a pair of skiers used a variant of this route and summited Malaspina. But the spring conditions had us beat; it just took us several hours to realize it.
We were on snowshoes trudging up the valley toward the ridge from the end of the logging road. By the time we reached the saddle at 1000 m, the snow was already warming. At times water seeped through my pants and tricked down my leg into my boots.
We attempted to traverse steep terrain on the east side of the prominent ridge. Not only did the exposed route travel through obvious terrain traps, but the warming snow created the potential for wet avalanches that could sweep us off the mountain. With such a risk we changed our plan, backtracked to the saddle, and picked a new route.
The new plan was to gain the toe of the higher ridge, intending to descend the other side of the mountain and join up with our original route plan. Going was slow and hot! It took us nearly an hour to gain the next 200 meters in the steep snow. The unlucky person in the front made steps by compressing 15-20″ inches of snow with each step. At 1200 metres, the terrain forced us back toward the south face –the butt end of the adjoining ridge– which formed an impressive rocky pinnacle.
The bowl that formed below the end of the ridge had clear sight lines, easy navigation, and enough runout to protect in the event cornices dropped. We headed for a visible notch on the east end of the ridge above us, a low spot we hoped to use to get up and over the form and regain our route.
The new new plan was to summit the subpeak we were so near. Standing on the crest, we dared not get too close to the edge because we could see cornices hanging off the ridge on our left and right. We found one spot that might have allowed us to traverse to the north side, but no one was keen to travel under the bus-sized cornice hanging immediately over the route. As we discussed options, we observed a human-sized cornice snap off and careen across the route. That sealed it; no Malaspina for today.
Back down the slopes, we traversed through the bowl, cutting a wide berth below the feature. Quickly, we gained the ridge to the west of the peak. I used the mountaineering axe and kicked in deep steps, following the narrowing snowy rib toward the false summit. On my left, I could see that I was on a snowy feature that had already lost its cornice. The slopes on either side fell away steeply. I didn’t bother making it to the top to explore the route. I could see a higher rocky pinnacle ahead of me.
The pinnacle didn’t deter me — It was only about 10 m higher, and we did bring a small rack– it’s what lay between us and the base of the feature. In the less than 50 metres between us was a gap filled with a cornice. We’d viewed it from below as we approached. To get to the pinnacle –get across the gap — we’d have to walk on top of it. Another option was to use our axes to hang off the opposing side of the cornice and traverse the exposed slopes. I didn’t trust that the cornice would hold.
In pursuit of the useless, being rebuffed by this unnamed feature –one that wasn’t on our list — still felt like a defeat. But the choice to turn around went uncontested. We were all happy to turn around and focus on a safe return to the car. Even that had its more delicate moments, including rappelling with snowshoes to manage the risk of wet slides and exposure.
It was a good day in the mountains.