The Spearhead Traverse is often done over two and three days but more and more parties are choosing to go light and complete it in a single long day. The easiest route starts at Blackcomb Mountain and departs the Blackcomb Glacier via the Showcase T-Bar.
It usually takes a fit and competent party 8-10 hours to return to Whistler Village via Singing Pass but when the mistakes add up, 12-14hrs isn’t unheard of! I’ve compiled some tips to help parties move as efficiently as possible
1) Know your route:
You might not know every turn and shortcut on the route but different variations can result in 500-700m more gain covered throughout the day. If it’s your first time, you can’t be 100% sure of the route but you can do your homework and set yourself up for success.
- Ask a friend – get the inside info on where the shortcuts are and which variations are best for your group.
- Read route descriptions – find out where the navigational cruxes are by where others have had issues. Look at pictures that show the route options.
- Download a track (and load it into a GPS watch) – this is huge as a confidence booster if you aren’t sure while looking around a glacier. If you can follow breadcrumbs, you’ll be way faster. It’s also really important if weather moves in. If you are on the back half of the Spearhead (say at the Overlord-Fitzsimmons Col) and you get stuck in a whiteout, it’s much shorter to be able to rely on a GPS track to get back to Singing Pass than to try to reverse your route to Blackcomb. Remember though that any GPS track is prone to error both by the GPS receiver itself or by the fact that glaciers and alpine terrain change every year and even within a season. Just because someone set a particular track a few weeks ago, doesn’t mean it still goes!
- Review it on Google Earth – GE is a great tool for visualizing terrain. Overlay your planned route track and get an idea of where the crevasses are in the summer, note what the Col you have to shoot for looks like, and generally get a feel for the surroundings.
- Grab a track from Evan Steven’s website or download the Ullr Maps App.
Often the alpine lifts on Blackcomb don’t start spinning immediately. This usually means a bit of a wait at the Glacier Creek Lodge. Grab a snack and don’t worry. If you are starting from the backcountry gate by 10:15am in the springtime, you have plenty of time to complete the traverse.
For a 9-hour traverse, shoot to arrive at the Tremor-Shudder Col in around 3:15-3:30hrs. This Col is approximately the 1/3 point of the traverse and beyond this, it’s generally easier to continue on than return the way you came. If you get here much beyond that timing, or you are feeling totally worked here, consider returning back to Blackcomb via the Decker escape route.
2) Pack light:
- If you are trying to move efficiently and complete the traverse in a single day, you’re probably not going to be skiing pow. Use lightweight touring skis less than 100mm underfoot, lightweight pin bindings, and good touring boots.
- Pack appropriately for the conditions. If there’s 10 cm of fresh snow on top of a nice chalky base, an ice axe and crampons may not be necessary. If there have have been several days of melt-freeze, ski crampons could be a lifesaver! Ropes are always a topic of debate. The huge Coastal snowpack generally hides even the biggest slots. That being said, people have fallen in crevasses on the Spearhead! Modern glacier kits like the PETZL RAD Line take up almost no space in the pack and make leaving them behind a bit silly.
- Here’s a basic gear list that shows some good examples of what I’d bring on an early-spring Spearhead traverse.
3) Speed up your transitions:
- There are a minimum of 21 transitions on the Spearhead. These take up a huge amount of time and shortening each one is your biggest chance to make up time and prevent finishing in the dark!
- Top transitions should just be ripping skins and adding a layer if necessary. Learn to take your skins off without taking off your skis. Even a fast moving party can lose two hours to transitions during a nine hour traverse.
- At the bottom of a descent, do your transition right away, then have a quick snack and drink of water. Shorten your bottom transition to 5-10 minutes instead of 15-20.
4) Keep the pace even:
- Don’t race out the gate. It’s easy to get excited and sprint up to East Col and Decker Shoulder but you lose a lot of energy this way. Try to maintain the same pace on the first climb as the last climb.
- Take breaks along the way to enjoy the scenery and take photos but try to keep the climbs a steady pace. Make stops brief and get a gulp of water while you’re snapping photos.
5) Fuel like an athlete:
- On a single day Spearhead Traverse, it’s possible to burn 2000-3000 calories. You’re not going to be able to eat enough during the day to make these up but you should still fuel appropriately. Bring a real lunch to eat around the Tremor-Shudder Col. Burritos and cold pizza are my go-to easy alpine lunches. Bring a variety of snacks that you can keep in your pockets to supplement as you climb. Energy gels, nuts, cheese, and candy are all good.
- Water is important too. For a 9-hour Spearhead, I drink 2.75L of water. That’s almost half my pack weight if I’m not carrying my DSLR. One litre of that is sport drink. Plastic water bottles that can be crushed when they are empty work better and weigh less than a classic Nalgene.
6) Practice your skiing:
- There are a few challenging descents on the Spearhead. The finish out Singing Pass is especially challenging! If you have to take a break every few turns, it’s going to take a LONG time to get down. Head to the resort in the weeks (and season) before to get in some long ungroomed runs!