9 Women. 3 incredible guides. An iconic mountain hut. 6 days of adventure, epic meals, and camaraderie.
The ACC Women’s Climbing Camp, sponsored by Marmot, is an annual event akin to the well-known General Mountaineering Camp (GMC). Run over one week each June, the camp’s focus is to provide women the opportunity to learn, enhance their skills, and challenge themselves in climbing, mountaineering, and alpine leadership with other like-minded women, under the tutelage of ACMG guides. For our week, our guides were Kirsten Knechtel and Erica Roles, as well as Madeline Martin-Preney, who was our Camp Manager, Chef Extraordinaire, and Amateur Leader.
For the first time in its history, this annual camp left the Rockies and headed west to the Tantalus Range, part of the Coast Mountains in the Pacific Ranges of southern British Columbia. Located northwest of Squamish and known as Tsewilx to the Squamish First Nations, it covers 4600km2. Its highest peak, Mount Tantalus, stands at 2603 metres. While accessible by foot from the Squamish River or Sigurd Trail, the preferred (and much easier) approach is by helicopter.
Our basecamp for the week was the Jim Haberl Memorial Hut—a hut designed, built, and maintained by volunteers from the Haberl family and friends, the ACC Vancouver section, and the 192nd Airfield Engineers. Unbeknownst to us, this was the trip that almost wasn’t, given that the Haberl Hut was to undergo roof replacement the same month.
Completed in 2006, the Jim Haberl hut is perched in Serratus-Dione Col. A beautiful wood frame building with vaulted ceilings and room for 12, it offers spectacular views from every room. The hut stands as a memorial to Jim Haberl, an avid mountain guide, photographer, and writer who was killed in an avalanche on April 29, 1999 in Alaska.
We were slated to depart from Black Tusk Helicopters at 08:00 sharp on June 15th. But, as we all know, mountain weather is subject to change without warning and our flight was delayed until 10:00, giving us ample time to get to know our guides and each other. For some, this would be a re-introduction to alpine climbing and mountaineering, having put those activities on hold for years while raising children and navigating careers. What brought us together was a shared thirst for adventure and a chance to dedicate ourselves to the mountains, even if only for a brief time.
As the group trickled into the staging area, a mountain of gear and food boxes began to materialize—a significant pile that would require 3 flights to deliver. Flying in groups of four, our pilot Darren Taylor (Black Tusk Helicopters) took us on a scenic tour as part of our approach, flying over Lake Lovely Water and the Tantalus Hut, and hovering near the surrounding peaks we hoped to soon climb. With gear unloaded, it was time to dig out our ‘fridge’ to store the coolers and set up the first of many pots of snow for melting. Camp chores were completed early enough to allow for a ‘rock refresher’ at a small crag near the heli pad and some easy climbing near the hut.
Our first full day began with a staggering assortment of breakfast choices. We fueled up, then set about making pack lunches for the day. The morning was spent in ‘snow school’ where we practiced kick steps, self-arrests, and tying-in for glacial travel before roping up in teams of four and heading out across the snow toward the base of Dione under bluebird skies and brilliant sunshine. The crevasses were starting to open, affording us our first learning experience in route finding. As we neared the moat near the base of Dione, our weather window closed, providing a great opportunity to stop for lunch. After a welcome break, we set out for a short scramble adjacent to Little Dione to enjoy the views.
The next day would be our re-orientation to trad placement, as well as gear and natural anchors, followed by some scrambling and cragging on the ridge below the hut. This all in preparation for the next days’ objective: the summit of Alpha.
Our Alpha day began with an alpine start at 04:30 for breakfast, lunch-packing, and gear organization. Setting out in teams of 3 and 4 with camp participants taking the lead, our route took us down the Serratus Glacier, between an ice fall and tricky rock step, and up a steep snow climb that skirted around crevasses to the Alpha-Serratus Col. Finally we headed up a short rock scramble on the west ridge of Alpha to the summit. The weather stayed clear and bright with short periods of cloud cover, but no hint of the whiteout conditions and wind that was experienced back at the hut. We arrived back at the hut by 18:00 tired, hungry, and incredibly proud of our accomplishment that day.
After such an epic adventure, a later start was well appreciated and we spent the morning in the col next to the hut practicing snow anchors and more self-arrests. We roped up to traverse back to the moat at the base of Dione for an afternoon of crevasse rescue, for which Madeline graciously volunteered as ‘victim’, going over the edge repeatedly for rescue demonstrations. By means still unknown, she yet again managed to beat the rest of us back to the hut to have a hot fire burning and appetizers set out upon our arrival.
Our final day arrived far too soon. And, in the true spirit of mountaineering, we were reminded us yet again that mountain weather is subject to change without warning. What appeared to be a clear window in the late afternoon threatened to change, so the decision was made to fly out earlier in the morning. As our final practice in group leadership, the question of the days’ objective was put to us: working on navigational skills in Squamish, or a day of cragging in the Smoke Bluffs. A unanimous decision brought us to a new(er) crag in Cheakamus, Electric Avenue, where we rounded out a phenomenal week with fun sport climbing until late afternoon.
It was bittersweet to say goodbye. We had arrived mostly as strangers, with just enthusiasm and a quest for adventure binding us, but left as friends with memories that will last a lifetime, and the hope that the Women’s Climbing Camp will once again head West.