The Atwell Project: A Springtime Slushfest

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Words and photos by Sterling Pearce

Early last month Bret phoned me with an excited tone to his voice and a crazy proposition: an overnight assault on a looming mountain face that had been taunting him all winter. Bret lives in Squamish, B.C., and the face he’d been staring up was the southeast side of Mount Atwell (2,655 meters), a dramatic, diamond-shaped peak that looms above Howe Sound in the Coast Mountain’s Garibaldi complex.

Bret Shandro skins toward camp, scoping lines on Mount Garibaldi (2,678 meters). [Photo] Sterling Pearce

We didn’t leave Vancouver until 3 p.m., which put us at the Diamondhead lot around five, but thanks to long spring days, we had hours of sunlight left. Bret donned shorts and sunscreen, and me, the neon-orange Hawaiian-print rayon I dug from the closet—it has incredible wicking (and mood-enhancing) properties.

The bedtime view over Mount Atwell. [Photo] Sterling Pearce

We quickly climbed through Heather Meadows and raced up the Gargoyles to secure an airy campsite on a narrow col that overlooks Diamondhead and Atwell. With freezing levels above 4,000 meters, a tent was unnecessary, so, from a shallow trench we dug to get out of the wind, we enjoyed dinner under a psychedelic alpine sunset.

Mount Atwell at sunrise. [Photo] Sterling Pearce

I had a restless night’s sleep under the stars, but we planned to be up before the sun, so waking wasn’t a problem. We packed camp as light broke, and began climbing the shoulder of Atwell. The sun hit us and the race was on as the southeast face began shedding rivers of slush from cliffs. We skinned to the bottom of the debris fan, then removed skis, booted up flowing, wet snow in searing heat.

Sun up skin up: Bret en route toward Atwell. [Photo] Sterling Pearce

After some technical pitches and nearly being flushed off the mountain a few times, we gained the East ridge from where the summit was just 50 or so meters above. 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. So we decided to pull the plug and transition above the sprawling view of the Howe Sound.

Shandro climbing the steep slush on Atwell’s southeast face. [Photo] Sterling Pearce

I was nervous about dropping into the steep, wet face—and it was Bret’s mission—so 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 him onto the Diamond Glacier 600 meters below.

With the sun still high, we reapplied sunscreen and started the hot, sticky walk back to camp and, eventually, the car, some 17km away. It was a fitting end to winter. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to the end of ski season….

Riding out Atwell a few hundred meters above the Diamond Glacier. [Photo] Sterling Pearce

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