With 13 glaciers offering hundreds of turns, the 35-kilometre Spearhead Traverse is a classic ski tour for good reason

winter-spearhead_map_t270Despite the proximity to the busy Blackcomb and Whistler ski areas, the Spearhead maintains a wild and remote feel with excellent scenery and numerous high passes in big mountain terrain. But what makes it the most popular Coast Range ski tour is the easy access. With the assistance of Blackcomb's lift system, you won't even break a sweat reaching the alpine.

The Lowdown

The Spearhead Traverse follows the height of land behind the Whistler-Blackcomb resort area. Most people begin by riding the lifts to the Blackcomb Glacier and end the tour on the ski runs at Whistler. The climbing is easier in this direction and it gets the hardest terrain out of the way on the first two days. From the top of Blackcomb, the traverse jumps from one pocket glacier to another, over ridges and through small passes. The first good campsites can be found on the Trorey Glacier. From here the route continues southeast, skirting below peaks with good views into the remote valleys of northern Garibaldi Provincial Park. At Tremor Mountain, the route turns south, crossing the aptly named Platform Glacier. There are several good ski runs here including the Ripsaw and MacBeth glaciers. It's also a good place to camp, which saves the most notorious climb of the trip for the next morning-1,400 feet up to the high point of 8,600 feet on Mount Benvolio. The route then turns west toward Whistler Mountain, and arrives at the Russet Lake Hut—not just a welcome refuge from the elements but also the end of the technical terrain. From here you have several options: Descend directly down the Singing Pass trail joining the ski area lower down or continue along the height of land to the Piccolo area of Whistler ski resort.

When to go

A deep snowpack and Whistler-Blackcomb's long operating season combine to give the Spearhead a big window, from December until June. Early season crevasses can be an issue. March and April are popular times. Coastal weather tends to improve as the spring progresses, but it can be snotty any time.

Time needed

Greg Hill holds the record—four hours—but most parties will take three to four days. Three days is comfortable with an early start on day one, while four days provides more leeway for ticking a summit, getting in some turns or being tent-bound by the weather.

Accommodation

If you are doing the traverse in four days, you'll spend the first two nights in a tent or snow cave. Most people stay in the Russet Lake Hut, close to Whistler, on their final night. The cabin is free and open to anyone, first-come, first-served.

Fitness required

Of the three trips covered here, this is the most taxing, despite the easy start. There's more than 5,000 feet of climbing, the packs are far heavier with a tent and sleeping pad, and trail-breaking can be tough. This should not be your first trip of the year.

Experience needed

Don't be fooled by its location: Just because Whistler's pumping nightlife is never more than 10 kilometres away, this is not a tour to be taken lightly. Much of the route is exposed to avalanche danger and there are several places where crevasses can be a problem. With the majority of the route above treeline, you need to be competent at navigating in a whiteout. The skiing ranges from easy glaciers to 35-degree chutes to tight trees.

What to take Unless you're going for a speed record, opt for a powder ski with lots of flotation to deal with the inevitable wind or sun crust on the route. A four-season tent, full-length sleeping mattress and winter-warmth sleeping bag (at least -20°C) will make nights comfortable. Avalanche and crevasse rescue gear should always be close at hand. Most of the route has cell reception.

Resources

Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis, by John Baldwin, has a detailed route description. Pair it with Backcountry Whistler, a 1:25,000 topo map with the Spearhead Traverse and other ski tours and hiking routes drawn on, also by Baldwin. (Book $40, map $20; johnbaldwin.ca)

Guides

The Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau leads four-day Spearhead Traverses in March, April and early May. The trip includes tents, guiding services, and crevasse and avalanche equipment. Food is extra. ($500; whistlerguides.com)

Getting there

Drive to Whistler (1.5 hours from Vancouver) and park in Lot 5, the only lot where overnight parking is allowed. Leave a note on your car that you are camping and walk 10 minutes to the Blackcomb base. Buy a backcountry lift ticket ($45). Work your way up the lift system to the Showcase T-bar near the summit of Blackcomb. On the way back you'll end up on the lower Whistler Mountain trail system.
Plan your next great adventure with explore!
Off the beaten path locations, tips and tricks, interviews with intrepid explorers and more.