Siffleur Sufferfest, Take Two

The second time’s the charm.

Outdoor · 3348 words · 17 min read · 1053 views

Three seasons ago, I attempted the Siffleur Traverse with a friend. We bailed on the second day due to horribly slow travel conditions: bare ground, breakable crust, overgrown trails. It isn’t a popular traverse, just something my friend and I schemed up one day.

As is often the case with outdoor sufferfests, time has a way of blurring the bad memories while sharpening the good—classic “Type II” fun. It had now been long enough for us to forget the misery of our last attempt, so, this January, the same friend and I—and another one too—decided to make a second attempt of the traverse.

In the three years since my last attempt at the Siffleur Traverse, I had not attempted any other multi-day ski traverses. A piece I wrote in 2022, Equilibrium, explored why. In it, I mused over changing motivations, wanting perhaps to explore other aspects of life besides singularly focusing on the outdoors.

In re-attempting the Siffleur traverse, a part of me wanted to prove to myself that I’ve still got it, that I could still suffer, that it wasn’t yet time to hang up my proverbial skates (or skis). I used to live for ski traverses, training all winter with the goal of being in the best possible shape for spring expeditions. This ultimately informed my move to a ski town in 2020.

Was this attempt to be a confirmation of ongoing ski prowess, or, on some level, an echo of past glory, a nostalgic throwback to a bygone chapter?

I’ve often wondered in the outdoors about the degree to which success or failure on an objective depends on conditions versus preparation. If conditions are appropriate, a lack of fitness or experience, or gear issues, can be limiting factors. Conversely, top fitness and dialled gear cannot overcome impossible conditions. In 2021, conditions shut us down. Now, in 2024, success seemed less contingent on conditions than it would be on capability.

The traverse starts at the Kootenay Plains trailhead (confusingly in Banff National Park not Kootenay National Park) east of the Saskatchewan River crossing. It follows a largely valley-bottom route south to Lake Louise over about 85 km. It is not a common traverse as it is relatively flat. This means few ski turns—thus minor avalanche risk, making it appropriate as a mid-winter mission. Think of it more as a “winter backpacking” objective. We were hoping for more snow coverage than the last time in mid-April and would take the tradeoff of less daylight hours.

Our plan was to winter camp for three nights, which would bring us to Skoki Lodge on day four. I needed to get back to work on day five, so my initial plan was to skip the final night at Skoki and complete the final 10 km ski out before driving back to Revy at the end of day four.

As we all come from different cities (Calgary, Vancouver, Revelstoke), it made sense to spend a night at a hotel in Lake Louise organizing group gear. Creature comforts like this have gotten easier to indulge in over the years, compared to a younger version of me that would have insisted on dirtbag camping at the trailhead (and balked at the $82 for one third of a hotel room).

After the deep freeze of mid-January 2024, a warm weather window opened. We left Lake Louise around five in the morning on day one to stash cars at Lake Louise Ski Resort then headed north to Kootenay Plains. We started in the dark, a trend that would continue over the next four days.

The route starts by following a hiking trail in the forest that turns into a straight cutline. Travel was quick enough at the beginning, but, the farther into the wilderness we got, the more overgrown the trail became. In some places, fallen trees blocked the trail for tens of metres, making progress infuriatingly slow.

In 2021, we had made it 22 km on day one, well short of our objective. This time, we made only about 18 km on day one. (In order to save phone battery life, I did not track any of the days, so distances here are all estimates.) Another slow start. We set up camp just as light was fading, cooked dinner, and were in bed by 7 PM.

A 4:30 AM wakeup started day two. In winter camping, I usually budget about two hours to wake up, eat breakfast, and break camp. The worst part is always putting on not-quite-dry ski boots. A trick I learned years ago was to put my ski-boot liners inside my sleeping bag overnight to prevent them from freezing. We were on the move by 6:30 AM.

Three hours into day two got us to our intended camping spot for day one, around 9:30 AM. Behind schedule, but at least travel conditions were slightly better than in 2021, with enough snow coverage that clambering over and under deadfall with a big backpack wasn’t complete anguish.

A lot of the day involved bushwhacking, which was maddeningly slow. Navigating off-trail in a forest, even with a GPS route to follow, required going for a few steps in one direction, diverting around an impassable cluster of trees, getting a new bearing, and correcting course. One kilometre as the crow flies was much more than that in practice: if we’d tracked our actual route, it would have zigzagged like a stumbling drunk.

Other times we found the trail, a delightfully efficient thoroughfare. Removing the route-finding made for less mental taxation. Travel gradually improved: less deadfall and more open meadows, though crossing such open spots almost inevitably meant losing the summer trail. Another seven hours on the go (ten total for the day) brought us to a camping spot in a valley-bottom meadow. Bedtime was 7 PM again; we were too exhausted for much socializing beyond finishing some bagged wine with dinner.

Day three started in the dark as usual. My fuel ran out cooking breakfast, so we applied austerity measures to our remaining fuel canisters, sourcing water from open streams rather than melting snow (one advantage of our valley-bottom route).

Early this morning, we saw a wildlife camera along the trail. I would love to see the look on the face of whoever sifts through its images next summer, seeing three headlamped skiers passing by in the dead of winter. Look at this here, a pack of three homo sufferans.

Our route for the day took us over Pipestone Pass, where we finally got above treeline. Leading up to the pass, a supportive crust made for the easiest travel conditions of the trip. At the top of Pipestone Pass, a large Parks sign warned “TRAVEL NOT RECOMMENDED” along our intended route. Perhaps this was more relevant for summer travel, though the lack of defined trail again made for exasperatingly slow progress. I made maybe three ski turns descending Pipestone Pass before skinning up to descend a 10-degree downhill slope (with six inches or more of ski penetration).

After more downhill bushwhacking, I opted to drop down into a frozen creek and follow it as it descended. The topo map showed well-spaced contour bands in this area, so the likelihood of getting stuck above a waterfall seemed low enough to justify the easier travelling along the frozen creek.

My gamble turned out to be wrong.

Around the corner of a steeper bit of the canyon, the creek disappeared. I was not about to go right to the edge and see how far the drop was—far enough that we weren’t getting down it (nor did we have gear for slinging a tree and rappelling). It was already mid-afternoon, so this setback was going to cost us both time and morale.

A few hundred metres back up the canyon, a nasty side hill with many tight kick turns got us out of the canyon and onto a more gradual treed slope. More downhill skinning brought us to a flat, open part of the valley. We were well behind pace at this point, so we decided to continue in the dark. As this was day three, our fourth day would require us to get to Skoki, which was still well over twenty kilometres away. If we didn’t hustle now, we’d face the possibility of another night camping.

After twelve hours on the go, we set up camp in a small clearing by a creek. Given the longer day, the usual routine of setting up camp, cooking, eating, and going to bed took us until 8 PM.

Day four started the earliest yet. Having streamlined our morning routine, we took only 90 minutes from wakeup to leaving camp, which meant we were moving at 6 AM. Fortunately, we found the summer trail near Fish Lakes, the end of the “TRAVEL NOT RECOMMENDED” section, and followed it for a while.

The forest opened into a series of broad meadows. Navigation was easy, but progress was slow due to the deep trail breaking. Our moving pace did not get much above 2 km/h. We passed the turnoff for the Drummond Glacier, which is a slightly more popular ski traverse in the area—one with more than three downhill turns too.

Around midday, we approached the turn off from the Pipestone River to Little Pipestone Creek, which would take us to Skoki. The trail curved southwest to the Little Pipestone warden cabin before heading back east up the Little Pipestone Creek. We decided to try a more direct route by cutting this corner and bushwhacking.

After the waterfall incident, we were zero for one on shortcuts. Fool me once… However, this shortcut worked flawlessly. A punchy but brief climb got us up out of the river valley and onto a flat plateau, where we soon found the summer trail. In places where the trail disappeared, the straight edge of an occasional chainsaw-cut fallen tree indicated that we were on track.

We kept moving throughout the afternoon. According to the GPS, we’d have a substantial climb out of the valley to get to Skoki Lodge, which would best be done in daylight. After passing yet another open meadow, the climb began.

In fading light, I broke trail up one of the steeper ascents of the trip. It consisted of bushwhacking in the twilight then dark, making those annoyingly tight kick turns in dense trees.

Around six PM, still a few kilometres from the lodge, we found the most exciting thing we could have, short of the lodge itself: a skin track! Day trippers from Skoki lodge routinely ski around Skoki mountain, so now we had but to follow an existing track to the lodge.

I had been feeling fairly strong over the trip, with back-to-back 10–12 hour days, breaking a lot of trail, but I can say that if not for this already broken trail, the final two km to Skoki would have taken close to three times as long as it did, pushing the boundary of Type II fun into Type III.

We arrived after 7 PM, in time for a late dinner, thirteen hours on the go. Thanks to a friend already at Skoki and InReach texting, they knew we were coming and had food for us. The food is already high end, but four days of dehydrated food and negative caloric intake made it all the more exquisite (caesar salad, roast chicken, pavlova). The trend of early bedtimes continued: we were all too knackered to socialize much, despite having made it to a safe place to do so. Thus concluded four very long days.

I messaged work to say I’d be late getting in the following day (Thursday). After crashing the night in the main lodge, I ate a breakfast of eggs Benedict (similarly fabulous as dinner), then solo skied the exit, getting ski turns four through ten coming down Deception Pass. It took me 2 hours and 35 minutes to get back to my car at Lake Louise Ski Resort. I then drove back to Revy and got in to work around 2:30 PM, which involved more snacking than usual.

After three years, we finally completed the Siffleur Traverse.

(Here are some photos from the trip, with some rare shots of yours truly.)

Similar to how our route took its share of detours, I’m now going to take a new direction with this piece. In the introduction, I alluded to wanting to explore other directions in life besides skiing, which is what we’ll discuss now.

Years ago, while chasing skiing zealously, I used to joke that skiing could solve basically all your problems. Many of the things people struggle with—loneliness, sedentary lifestyles, lack of purpose, boredom, and their oft-associated self-destructive coping mechanisms—can be cured by pursuing outdoor sports. With mountain pursuits you get camaraderie, fitness, purpose, and adventure all in abundance. The joke stops being so funny when you encounter mortality, though.

The outdoor experiences I have been privileged to have are of the kind that most city people will never get to experience. There is no denying the privilege that goes into such activities either—learning to ski costs a lot of money, something I do not take for granted.

And yet, for all the rich experiences skiing has brought me over three decades now, I cannot help but feel at a bit of a crossroads in my outdoor career. I’ve accepted that I will never be a professional skier, and I have no interest in guiding as I already work in a more lucrative ski-industry-adjacent job. The question is what skiing looks like for me going forward: where does it go from here?

(As an aside, watch The North Face film Earthside. The film showcases four skiers of the highest ability on an expedition to Baffin Island to ski some remote lines, getting into why us skiers do what we do while also giving an honest treatment to the darker side of the outdoor life.)

I’m not the first aging outdoor athlete to wonder about such matters. For another perspective on the topic, let’s consider the 2022 climbing novel Native Air by Jonathan Howland.

In the first act of Native Air, protagonist Joe Holland and his climbing partner Pete Hunter dirtbag (if “to dirtbag” isn’t a verb yet, I am making it one now) their way through the US rock-climbing scene in the 1980s, finding success when they climb together before they drift apart when Joe leaves climbing to enter the ministry. The novel then follows Joe over the next few decades of his life. He eventually reconnects with Will, Pete’s son, who also takes up climbing.

One of the many quotations that stuck with me came later in the novel: “When he was young Will felt disdain for the day hikers for whom an alpine lake was sufficient. Now he envies them. The adequacy of a captivating slice of wilderness, the safety of a trail. The severe beauty of the vertical backdrop, minus any inclination to join oneself to it.”

I don’t think I have ever heard my last decade in the hills so succinctly described. I have gone from feeling condescension toward adventure-shy city people to now understanding the appeal of a stable, simple life, where adventure can simply mean going for a walk to a lake. Who am I to judge others for not sharing the same definition of adventure?

I have long since mastered skiing and am now at the point of doing self-guided, multi-day ski traverses, per the first half of this essay. But the thrill of such expeditions isn’t what it was in earlier years. Do I need to keep pursuing bigger and better objectives? Or, has my ski career already reached its plateau, found its Equilibrium? (One of my working titles for “Equilibrium” was “Logical Conclusions,” the idea being that you pursue your passions until their end becomes fairly clear.)

Perhaps the answer is to pivot, to try something different. I’ve kept up my annual Christmas surf trips, where my surfing ability improves every time I go. It’s still very much at the fun part of the learning curve. I also recently heard of another skier who bought a dirt bike to challenge himself in a new way.

Or—here’s a question—are outdoor pursuits in and of themselves not the answer?

Mountain guide Victor Saunders had the unlikely career path of working as a successful architect in London before changing careers to mountain guiding in his forties. In his memoir Structured Chaos: The unusual life of a climber, he reflects on the many years he spent in the hills:

It has taken me a lifetime to realize that, all the while, it was people and not places I valued most. I have now been on more than ninety expeditions, accumulating seven years under canvas. I have climbed on all continents, many of the trips involving big adventures and occasional first ascents. And yet it is not the mountains that remain with me but the friendships. In 1940 Colin Kirkus said: ‘going to the right place, at the right time, with the right people is all that really matters. What one does is purely incidental.’

This book is about what really matters.

Perhaps this is what all of us mountain people are truly grasping at, under the façade of adventure and achievement: simply connecting with others.

This is not a new idea; let’s zoom out even further.

One of the longest-running studies on human happiness is The Harvard Study of Adult Development, started in 1938. Current study director Robert Waldinger explores what it means to live a meaningful life in his TED Talk, What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness. In following a cohort of both rich and poor boys from Boston over many decades (many of these men have now passed), the study assessed its subjects’ health by collecting data from sources such as interviews, medical records, brain scans, bloodwork, and talking to their families.

Amid the mountain of data collected, an unmistakable message arose: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” Wealth, fame, and ambition—the typical aspirations of the young—mattered little. Waldinger describes three important findings about relationships:

  1. Social connections are beneficial to both our happiness and physical health, whereas loneliness is toxic.
  2. The number of friends that you have does not matter, nor does being in a committed relationship; rather, the quality of your close relationships is crucial.
  3. Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they also protect our brains.

Waldinger encourages us to lean into our relationships and ends his talk with a quote from Mark Twain: “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

Relationships, therefore, are what we really need to pursue.

In years past, achieving success on an outdoor objective like a summit or a traverse—especially after repeated attempts or less than facile conditions—lead to a feeling of accomplishment. Having a goal and working single-mindedly toward it over decades should understandably be a cause for celebration.

And yet, glory is fleeting. I have found success in my outdoor pursuits—and elsewhere in my life like my professional career—but triumphs in these spaces can too often feel like little more than “a chasing after the wind.”

My point here isn’t to suggest that such pursuits are not worthwhile, but rather that glory and attainment need not be the ultimate goals of such undertakings. Relationships are, as we’ve seen here, what really matters.

In all my years of skiing in avalanche terrain, I have always skied with partners. Companion rescue—having some to dig you out if you get buried in an avalanche—won’t do you much good if you have no companions. In a way then, what I’ve spent so many years striving for was right in front of me the whole time: sharing experiences with others.

If there is anything I feel called to pursue more these days instead of the outdoors, it is to be more relational, to continue developing meaningful friendships, both in the context of the outdoors and beyond.

Thanks for reading this trip-report-turned-philosophy-piece. See you in the hills—or maybe just the coffee shop.

UPDATE: An early reader commented that in Into the Wild Cristopher McCandless came to a similar conclusion when he wrote his final words, “Happiness is only real when shared.” This is precisely the same thesis I’m making here. Thanks for sending that in!

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