Broken backpacks and beaver fever; a Purcell adventure

Broken backpacks and beaver fever; a Purcell adventure

Written by Steve Tersmette Photos by Steve Tersmette and Shawn Emmett

On September 17, 2017 we stepped out of the trees and onto the shoulder of the TransCanada highway Northeast of Rogers Pass. Cars whizzed by Shawn (Emmett) and I: two filthy, stinky dudes tainted by twenty four days of living in a tent, crashing through the bushes, wading through creeks and sweating with the exertion of covering over 270km and 21,000 vertical meters along the way. Yeah, we were a sight to behold. Shawn’s beard had easily achieved ‘sea captain’ status over the last three and a half weeks while it looked like someone pencilled in a couple lines on my face with a sharpie. We took a photo of ourselves, one of only two ‘selfies’ I can ever remember taking in my life. Our smiles were an odd combination of masked pain, relief, pride, exhaustion and satisfaction.

Our journey started on August 25, 2017 from the Dewar Creek car park near Kimberley. The objective was to establish the first complete summer traverse of the Purcell Mountains on foot. Our trip was plagued by uncertainty right from day one. Numerous malfunctions and physical ailments gave way to the one event that was certain to end our trip.

On day 9, hours after leaving our first food drop, we received notice via satellite messenger that the backcountry had been closed and we had to figure out an exit point. Unfortunately with the announcement coming on a Saturday of a long weekend, it was unlikely that we would get any sort of clarification until the following Tuesday. Fortunately, my wife was able to quickly establish communication with the BC Wildfire Service and the Ministry of Forests and by the end of day 10, we had permission to continue North to the Bugaboos.

Every day, for the next fifteen days, we relayed our path of travel, camp location and intended route for the following day. The fact that our travel was generally right on the perimeter of the closure area, high in the alpine on glaciers and rock and that, with the exception of our final food drop, we had no requirements to have a vehicle come in on a forestry road, all contributed to us being permitted to continue. Yet, we found ourselves questioning daily if today would be the day that the trip ends.

For all the things that didn’t go quite right for us, including: broken hiking poles, broken backpacks, soles of boots coming apart, lost sunglasses, Shawn’s feet troubles over the first 8 days and my bout of Beaver Fever midway through the trip, there were a lot of things that did actually go our way. The weather was amazing for 21 of the 24 days, and even though smoky at times, we had sun and blue skies for the majority of the trip. When the weather turned on day 15 and 16, we happened to have found shelter in the Malloy Igloo, a 12’ fibreglass dome North of the Bugaboos near the Conrad Icefield. Even though we fell two days behind after waiting out the storm, we set out across the glacier on day 17 with backpacks full of dry gear.

The Purcells are a rugged, beautiful mountain range and still offer a sense of remoteness, even though they’re bound by highways to the South, East and North. The Purcell Wilderness Conservancy is truly wild with no developed trails or infrastructure within the park boundary. This made up the first seven days of the trip as we stood high atop seldom climbed peaks and thrashed through the thickest alder either of us had ever seen. The next six days took us from Toby Creek to the Purcells, high on the glaciers and above the headwaters to many of the watersheds that feed our communities. The next six days saw us go North from the Bugaboos across the largest glaciated feature, the Conrad Icefield, to McMurdo Creek. From there the end was in site as we hiked along Caribou Ridge before dropping down and sprinting out a very overgrown Beaver Valley trail to the TransCanada.

Over 24 days, the mountain range threw everything it possibly could at us. Without the luxury of trails, we had to deal with plenty of loose talus rock, days of bushwhacking, countless creek crossings and exposed ridges. All of our skills and training were put to the test as we crossed 19 glaciers, rigged more than a half dozen rappels from ridges and over cliffs and climbed loose, exposed terrain. Months of preparing meals and gear paid off as we only required about 55lbs of gear each in our packs. Years of careful route planning were evident on our trip as we never once had to backtrack, other than to navigate around crevasses on glaciers.

At the end of the day, the biggest factor contributing to our success was great teamwork between Shawn and myself. It was so much more than just being roped up together and travelling safely as a pair. We supported each other through the toughest days of the trip. When I was sick and all I wanted to do was lie down and not get back up or when Shawn’s soul had been sucked from his body after thirteen hours of bushwhacking, we were there to push each other and prop each other up.

A trip like this doesn’t just happen with the two of us. Shawn and I would both like to thank our partners, families, friends, coworkers and Kimberley’s amazing community of adventurers for their support. We would like to thank Mountain Equipment Coop for providing us with some gear through their Expedition Support program. In February of 2017 Shawn and I were awarded the MEC Adventure Grant from the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival which allowed us to cover some of the costs of an otherwise self-funded expedition. Thank you to Sonia Bianchi with MEC and Tom Wright with the VIMFF.

Finally, the biggest thank you to Dave Quinn who was the inspiration for this trip a decade in the making!