In 1967 a crew of young Canadian skiers linked the high glaciers between Jasper and Lake Louise into a three-week backcountry adventure. Over 40 years later, a young group of Canadian skiers travelled to a Chilean volcano to film unreal lines into its crater. The true trips couldn’t be more different, but they were so much the same.
In May 1967, Chic Scott, 21, Don Gardner, 20, Charlie Locke, 20 and Neil Liske, 29, completed the first high-level Great Divide Traverse from Jasper to Lake Louise. Pictures from the trip show them happy in a laid-back, devil-may-care way with their flannel plaid, deep tans, windburnt skin, and hair askew. They had saved and planned for months, made some of their gear by hand and refused sponsorship offers. They were the first Canadians to complete an epic ski traverse, but they won’t talk much about it for a whole decade afterwards.
In September 2009, Chris Rubens, 24, Mark Abma, 29, and Eric Hjorleifson, 26, travelled to the Andes for their epic adventure, armed not just with today’s best skis and expedition gear, but also with the latest tools for capturing the trip on film. True to modern form, the same sponsors that pay them to ski for a living covered their significantly large travel bill.
So very different, the pictures from the1967 and 2009 trips share some hallmarks: satisfied smiles, shaggy beards and some incarnation of plaid. And even though the approach to skiing has changed drastically over the last few decades, the spirit of that first generation is now part of the Canadian backcountry skiers’ genetic makeup. In many ways, a Chris Rubens is a Chic Scott 42 years later.
Chris Rubens climbs a peak in South America
Good Day Sunshine: Chic Scott and the Great Divide Traverse
Chic Scott’s home on Muskrat Street in Banff, Alberta, is like an archive of mountaineering: photos plaster the walls, old ice axes hang with his many expedition keepsakes from around the world. His home is warm, like him, and a fire crackles away in the living room. An old hand at recounting tales, Scott is open and willing to share. “Ask me whatever you want, or you can just let me talk,” he says. “Fifteen minute and I’ll give you the whole story of the trip.”
Scott is a master storyteller and his knowledge of local mountaineering efforts is encyclopedic. His passion is evident in the nine books he has written and the endless presentations he has given. His voice is rich and smooth, as he eloquently recounts the tale of the first high-level Great Divide Traverse that has inspired an ever-growing number of backcountry skiers over the years. The journey through massive glaciers and past the Rockies’ highest peaks is an audacious undertaking even today.
As early as the 1930s Scott explains, respected mountaineers tried to connect the high glaciers of the Great Divide into a continuous line from Jasper to Lake Louise but always failed. Hans Gmoser, one of the founders of modern mountaineering in Canada, had himself been forced to retreat on his attempt in 1963, so people were right to be skeptical when four young men decided to give it a go. Parks Canada even made the group sign a waiver before they left, stipulating the quartet were responsible for paying the rescue bill the parks service felt was inevitable.
“The zeitgeist of time was that you could only be a great mountaineer if you could yodel,” explains Scott. “People thought, ‘Canadians play hockey; they don’t do mountaineering.’ We subconsciously really wanted to show that Canadians could be good mountaineers.”
Despite the lack of confidence from Parks Canada, the four-person crew showed exceptional maturity in their intense planning and preparations. They used aerial photographs and dug up hand-drawn maps, the best available at the time. They carefully gathered the required gear, making some of it by hand, and prepared almost double the amount of food caches they would need, just in case. They didn’t carry harnesses and only had one shovel between them, which doubled as a frying pan. GPS, avalanche beacons and satellite phones were years off. They used lightweight cross-country skis imported from Norway and kick wax.
Still, between the four of them, there was probably more enthusiasm than expertise. “We had never taken any avalanche courses, but we were cautious enough,” Scott maintains. “ I never for a moment thought we wouldn’t do it. We were always going to make it.”
In their 21 days out , the team covered over 300 kilometres and gained 10,000 metres of elevation, while crossing nine different icefields. Navigation was the trip’s real crux. The four climbed cols and passes that had not been attempted before and some had likely never been seen. Tight trees and open-river crossings greeted them whenever they descended into the valley, but the real challenges were up on the white expanse of the glaciers. Negotiating crevasse-riddled glaciers, they climbed technical ground up to 3,380 metres with skis on their backs, and they descended unfamiliar slopes that included rappels. Serendipity stepped in and the weather held - for all 21 days.
“We were lucky it was a good ski year and that we all got along” says Scott. “It was the best trip of my life.” As if to prove his point, he starts to sing the song that was stuck on repeat in his mind during the trip: the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine.”
Yes, the crew had bagged one of the biggest ski mountaineering prizes of all time. As it turns out, they had also helped lay the foundation for a sport that would grow beyond what any of them could have imagined. The Great Divide Traverse gave Canadian skiers a new range to roam with their dreams, including a group of young bucks who, 42 years later, geared up for their own trip of a lifetime.
1967. Photo: Niel Liske/Chic Scott
To the Ends of the Earth: Chris Rubens in Chile
“When you get a good group of people together, with a positive attitude, stuff just kinda works,” remarks Revelstoke, BC-based Chris Rubens of his epic 2009 plan to ski into the crater of a Chilean volcano named Puyehue with modern-day ski heroes Eric Hjorleifson and Mark Abma for the camera of Sherpas Cinema. it was an ambitious trip: travel 17,000 kilometres to ski into a volcano most of them had never even seen. And it all almost ended before it began.
After a long flight to Osorno, Chile, south of Santiago, they made it to their first stop, a remote Chilean ranch. When the winter storms finally abated after five days, they loaded 17 horses with gear and spent two hours riding up to Refugio Caulle, a primitive mountain hut partway up the volcano. The energy and planning required to get to the hut with three skiers, two cinematographers, one photographer and all that gear was more involved than the 1967 trip. And that's before they even put on skis. And then the weather got bad. Really bad. And the forecast looked even worse.
The group started to wonder what had made them think they could saddle up with all the modern ski and camera gear money could buy - or rather, that sponsors would give - and charge up a volcano, then ski directly down into the crater. It had never been done before, let alone attempted. Cameraman and Sherpas founder, Dave Mossop, was the only one who had ever seen the volcano, and that was 10 years before from an airplane - in summer.
“Mossop spent his down time sculpting a letter to Salomon explaining the weather and why the trip wasn’t going to work,” says Rubens. The outside pressure, which was the sponsor’s $20,000 investment, was now squarely on their shoulders, something Chic Scott’s party had managed to avoid. On the 10th day, completely against all predictions, the skies cleared.
The team put in a huge morning, trekking four hours and 6,500 vertical feet to the top of the volcano before they could see the lines they had come to ski. And because the length of the unexpected weather window was completely unknown, warm-up lines were out of the question. Charging hard, they had to squeeze every last filming possibility out of the day to get enough footage and photos worthy of the enormous effort, while not getting hurt. Bad weather shut them down after only two days.
The impressive ski footage and exotic storyline worked together perfectly for a Salomon Freeski TV segment, an article for Powder magazine and a part in Sherpas Cinema’s film, All. I. Can. The short, adrenaline-filled lines were vastly different than Scott’s three-week-long push, but the lasting effect on the team was the same.
“It was the coolest thing I’ve ever done. For sure,” says Rubens. “It was a positive vibe with good guys that got along well. Like those guys’ trip [the 1967 traverse], there was a big possibility it wasn’t going to work out.”
Notice something? Chris Rubens spends his winters redefining what’s possible on skis in the backcountry. Chis Scott did too. But the comparisons end there. While Scott financed his own trips, Rubens has made a name for himself filming segments for Matchstick Productions and Sherpas Cinema, as well as gaining coverage in magazines and online. His combination of ski talent, ambition and likability have turned him into one of Salomon’s most marketed athletes. Salomon pays him a salary and covers his expenses so he can chase powder around the globe.
The idea of being a professional freeskier wasn’t even a dream in Scott’s day. The gear Rubens uses, and helps sell, looks nothing like the options Scott had. The actual “skiing” styles between the two are polar opposites: one covered land on cross-country skis, while the other plunges down the steepest runs possible on fat skis. On top of that, the ski industry and media landscape that document exploits have vastly changed over 40 years. But the more you listen to the two of them, the more you hear similarities. The mountains and their effects on people, it seems, have not changed.
Chic Scott by Glen Boles.
The 1967 Jasper-to-Louise crew was offered $500 for the story before their trip, a lot of cash back then (Scott’s rent was only $35 month for reference). But the group decided against accepting it. “We didn’t want to look foolish,” Scott explains, “and we didn’t want to the pressure of disappointing anyone if we had to back out.” In contrast, the remote Chilean expedition would not have been possible without sponsorship; it’s a different proposition than getting to the Jasper-to-Louise traverse, “you can get there and back on a bus,” Scott points out.
Scott also notes that today’s financial rewards seem to be encouraging a new breed of trailblazers, and that may not necessarily be for the best. “Selling your soul to ge money to go on adventures is not new. It used to be done by big-time adventurers, like polar explorers, for big-time money,” he scoffs. “But for the average person to want to do that is new, and it’s becoming more pervasive. Every little kid in the clinging gym wants to be sponsored not.”
True, sponsored expeditions might not be new, but making a livening as a ski bum, the way Rubens does, is a relatively modern phenomenon, and to a certain degree, Scott’s endeavours played a hind in that. His guidebooks and inspiring talks and trips have helped popularize backcountry skiing. An industry is now built around the sport of backcountry skiing that wasn’t there before, and its marketing dollars support certain athletes as they push the boundaries.
“Selling your soul” has a negative connotation and suggests giving up something. But from Ruben’s perspective, being a professional freeskier has allowed him to do what he loves: skiing all over the world. “You get to go to this rad place, with some of your best friends, and you get to ski,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like a job.”
It seems the same sentiment and goals that led Scott away from sponsorship actually led Rubens to it. Both parties came back from the expeditions claiming, “Best rip of my life.” Does it matter how they got there?
Chris Rubens ready for modern adventure.