Drive into or past Squamish on a clear day and one mountain all but pokes you in the eye. Often incorrectly referred to as Diamond Head or Mt Garibaldi. Seldom climbed due to loose rock, steep ridges, and overwhelming radness.
All season I have been proposing Atwell as a good ski tour, if we skied together this year you may have heard, “it’s probably not as steep as it looks”. Luckily I crossed paths with Sterling Pearce, a member of Canada’s EI ski team, who was equally stoked to go have a look at the south face of Atwell. Regardless of the freezing level pushing 4000m and alpine temperatures above 20 degrees!
Extreme Alpine Start
The base of Atwell is 17 km from the Garibaldi Parking Lot. Appreciating the distance we had to cover Sterling and I agreed on an early start. Typical alpine starts are usually a couple of hours before sunrise. We started way earlier, 530 pm Saturday afternoon to be exact, a full 12 hrs before sunrise. Despite leaving at such an early hour in the afternoon everything went smooth and the only forgotten item being Sterling’s ice axe.
Ask anyone who has spent their share of time exploring the backcountry and they will tell you tales of sleepless nights shivering from dusk til dawn. This was not one of those experience. Skinning to camp in shorts and t-shirt (or Hawaiian shirt). We reached the shoulder of the Gargoyles in time to catch an amazing sunset behind the Tantalus Range. Opting to sleep beneath the stars leaving the tent packed.
Planning to reach the base of Atwell’s south face before sunrise in an attempt to minimize our time on the snow melting south face. Easy to say, a lot harder to do. Waking at 445 with the sun on the horizon meant we had to get moving. After a slow breakfast and the remaining hour approach the snow was plenty soft which made it possible to skin up the initial ~200m. From there the face kicked back to +45° and the climb was on. Falling snow melting off the loose sun-baked volcanic rock added unnecessary spice to the climb.
From the ridge the first pitch of steep wet loose snow made conservative turns very nerve-racking, knowing that any slip would ensure a fast ride through the steep choke we intended to bypass. Despite a bad case of elvis leg we rode/skied above the choke and safely to the start of the second pitch. Pausing to wait for a break in falling snow before continuing down the rapidly warming south face. A few turns initiating size 1 loose wet slides. From here the descent was straight forward and the only thing to avoid was the trenches of flowing snow some enjoyable turns lead returned us to the Diamond Glacier.