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“The steepest line in the Canadian Rockies is 53 degrees. This was way, way steeper than that.”

Out of anyone else’s mouth, I would have called this cocky, know-it-all bullshit. But this isn’t just anyone. This is Ian. And Gig is sitting next to him sagely nodding so it probably isn’t even an exaggeration.  They’re talking about Kluane National Park after all.

Very few people would purport to know the steep lines of the Canadian Rockies so well as to be able to confidently state they know the steepest line out there – let alone follow it up by insisting they skied something “way, way steeper”.

Check out more by Phil Tomlinson on MountainWagon.com.

Meet Ian and Gig

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of these two, but when it comes to ‘steep’, they’re experts. They don’t show up in movies, or magazines, they don’t do it for fame or glory. They ride steep lines for themselves. Just pinning them down to discuss their Kluane expedition took serious effort.

What is steep? I mean, I’ve skied short sections steeper than Ian’s 53 degrees – but Ian’s talking sustained, full-line pitch. That means Ian says the steepest line in the Rockies averages 53 degrees and this line he’s talking about was “way, way steeper than that”.

Yea, we measured the roll-in at 68 degrees – so I sent Gig first. – Ian Holmes

Ian and Gig are two peas in a slightly fucked up pod. They’re quick to smile, and those smiles extend to eyes bursting with crows feet earned by countless hours in blazing alpine sun and howling wind. There’s cocky bravado aplenty, but there’s an earnestness when they speak that makes sharing their stoke unavoidable.

Ian and GIg hanging out at the Cold Garden

Gregarious in turns, they tell me their story like stoked teenagers. Enthusiastically reminding each other of details or simply trampling all over each other it comes tumbling out. Despite being two very alpha personalities, I think I see why they get along so well. I think they feed off each other’s stoke.

I’ve known Gig for about four years and a mutual acquaintance of ours once called him ‘the most passionate guy he’s ever met – about everything’ – and in that moment, sitting across from him, he’s at his most passionate.

Gig’s an ex-racer and brings that racer technique to the backcountry. Having skied and climbed a fair bit with Gig, I’ve found he’s a curious mix – he’s completely unafraid of anything, but he isn’t reckless. Big objectives are approached with a shit eating grin belying the continuous assessment of conditions and risk. I don’t think he’s afraid of dying. I think he’s afraid of not getting to play in the mountains he loves any more.

Ian I don’t know too well, though we travel in the same circles. Sort of a larger than life kind of guy, he runs Ascension, a gym in town that caters to mountain athletes. He’s dedicated his life to being fit and fast in the mountains. Ian’s also known for organizing the local backcountry skiers’ Facebook group and organizing a bunch of community events – he’s a stoked, vocal driver of the community. He’s also that rarest of ducks – a split boarder you don’t have to wait for. In fact, he’ll ruin you going up or down. Ian radiates energy. He might be the only person more passionate than Gig.

I’m sitting across from them at the Cold Garden Beverage Company in Calgary on a warm fall evening. It feels like we should be talking about climbing trips this time of year, not skiing – but I’ve finally pinned these two down in order to hear about this incredible trip they did this past spring. The story that’s unfolding is something that I’m realizing needs to be told.

So let’s start at the beginning.

Kluane National Park

Two years ago Ian was out in Kluane National Park and was scouting for steep shit. He’d heard that the steepest lines weren’t in Alaska, but were actually on the Canadian side of the border. Doing research on the internet, he’d come across a photo taken from a photographer’s overflight of Kluane. The photo, by Darren Foltinek of Frontrange Imaging, showed a perfect triangular face – massively fluted and steep – but there was something there. Ian became obsessed.

The photo – Darren Foltinek

Ian spent two weeks searching for this perfect triangular face in the Pinnacle Peak area with not much more to go on than that single photo. He found lines on those huge peaks, but not THE line. He also found huge weather. Conditions were either blue ice or deep powder over blue ice. It was two weeks of “we’re gonna die, we’re gonna die, we’re probably not gonna die”.

The trip left Ian feeling like he had unfinished business with Kluane. His perfect face was out there still. Looking out the window of his ski plane on the way out, he noticed a cirque and had the pilot do a quick loop so he could take some scouting photos hoping he’d find it. Nothing jumped out at him, but he decided that cirque needed to be explored.

Within the cirque was a huge peak – the 4250m tall Mount Kennedy. Normally climbed from its mellow south side, the mean looking North West ridge plunged down to the glacier below. It looked almost impossibly steep and fluted, but with the right conditions, it would go.

Back in Calgary, staring once again at that photo he’d found, stewing on that sense of unfinished business, he started to obsess about returning.

The problem is, you can’t ski these sorts of lines with just anyone. He needed someone who had the lack of sense of self-preservation to be willing to try some of the steepest lines in North America and the technical skill required to survive. The consequences in this terrain are as high as it gets and rescue is a day away assuming you’re incredibly lucky, and weeks away if you’re not.

Ian decided that Gig might fit the bill but needed to be tested – and probably convinced. So Ian started grooming Gig, they teamed up on bigger and bigger lines and Ian started to whisper about what was waiting in Kluane. Turns out convincing Gig wasn’t that hard, all he had to do was show him that photo he’d been obsessing over. That one photo had Gig just as convinced – the lines looked huge, but they looked doable. Gig was sold and the planning started.

Going For It

Mere weeks later, with the trip planned, Ian flew into Whitehorse three days before Gig. He used the lead time to sort out food, get landing permits from Parks and touch base with Discovery Icefields – the only crew who will land you up there.

When Gig arrived, he found everything sorted and ready to go, if a little chaotic.

“Ian picks me up at the airport and it’s like 12:30 at night in the Yukon airport and there’s a woman at the carousel with a dog, because it’s the Yukon airport. We grab skis and load into the car and drive to the hotel. As we get to the hotel there a crew of guys piled around a car, drinking, and being super loud idiots and they offer us cocaine as we enter this random hotel in the middle of nowhere. It was a wild start.” – Gig

The next morning they’re at the airstrip loading gear into a ski plane and hoping to hell they actually have everything they need. Forgetting your skins, in this case, is extra bad.
With the plane loaded, Ian and Gig fly into the cirque and almost immediately after landing they notice a discrepancy with their planning.

Flying into Kluane with Discovery Icefields

The cirque is way meaner in person. The plane was banking when Ian was scouting. The angle was off, the perspective distorted. Actually standing there in camp, looking up at it, it was steeper. Way steeper.

They scouted around immediately after landing and noticed a manageable looking wall which they named the Kid’s Wall because it was the mellowest stuff in sight.

Looking from camp across at the Kid’s Wall – because that’s as mellow as it gets out here

With camp built, they headed to Kid’s Wall for a few days to warm up and get a feel for the snowpack. It turned out the mellowest line, on the mellowest face in the area was about 50 degrees. Nearly as steep as the steepest thing in the Rockies.

It may have been a steep warmup, but conditions were prime. They knocked down a series of steeper and steeper lines, building their confidence in conditions and in themselves.

After a few days of this, they found themselves on another killer face. Just before their last line of the day, Ian glanced over his shoulder and froze.

There it was. His perfect triangular face. The reason they’re in Kluane. The North West ridge of Kennedy – home of the biggest lines Ian had scoped from his flight out the year before terminates in a perfect triangular face. Super fluted. Almost impossibly steep. The reason they’re there.

Ian’s perfect line below and left of the prominent ridge- dwarfed by Mount Kennedy

There was no question that the next day – they’re going for it.

The Line

Instead, Kluane’s fickle weather warmed up too much to be able to move safely and quickly, and they found themselves pinned in camp despite blazing sunshine. Pinned, and wondering if the weather would recover enough to let them make an attempt on Kennedy’s Ridge or if it was going to slip through their fingers.

Luckily, the weather cooled down again a couple of days later and they headed out to a line they’d named Sun Line due to the swath of light that cut across it later in the day. They wanted to assess what the warmer weather had done to conditions. It turned out conditions were still good, and Sun Line marked an incredible return to riding after a day off.

The next day was make or break for that perfect triangular face on Kennedy. It had to go that day, or Ian would be leaving with more unfinished business.

They headed out early and spent an hour sitting below the line, waiting for the light to hit it. As dawn crawled across the face, it revealed a sea of blue ice and snow formed into unending spines. In behind the triangular terminus of the ridge, the massive bulk of the mountain loomed and as the sun hit it, enormous seracs began to come crashing down across the face they were going to have to climb to access their line.

The Line

“A face, at it’s minimum angle 50 degrees, with a ‘schrund to get across and a huge icefall behind it. So what do you do? You put Gig in front and make him break trail and just try to get through it as fast as possible. The whole way I’m thinking ‘okay, this is steep’, mentally preparing for how steep this is. And Gig, he’s thinking about how to get us through the approach, how to get over the ‘shrund, and once we get through it, it’s just beautiful corn snow up a 50 degree slope the rest of the way.” – Ian

Easy approach – just send Gig first

On top, they’re protected from the ice fall behind them, but now they’re facing their line. Two incredible steep riders, facing one of the steepest lines in Canada, thousands of kilometers from home, hundreds of kilometers from anything even vaguely resembling help. Totally alone except for each other and their objective. And their line? It looked vertical.

“We get to the top and we’re 700m above the bottom and there’s this cornice. We don’t have a clue how big this thing is. I tie into the rope, grab my shovel and Gig belays me out and I start digging. I dig through and I look and I go ‘fuck’. Gig’s like ‘what?’ and I tell him to come out to where I am. Gig takes me off belay and comes out to join me. Where the line is, good snow. Problem is, I don’t know if this near vertical roll in is going to go to rock when we drop in. I measured it at 68 degrees. What are the odds anything will stick to that? We decide Gig will go first – a boarder can hold toe side edge and use ice axes to get down – a skier needs the snow. I spent 7 minutes talking Gig into it. From the top, if you look over the edge and down this fucking line, all you do is look down, it just looks vertical.”

Well that’s steep…

“700 vertical meters, a 40 foot ‘schrund and the bottom where it mellows out is 53 degrees, as steep as anything in the Canadian Rockies. So Gig puts on his gloves, walks to the edge, and then it’s fist bump, stomping, pole whacking, me making fun of him, encouraging and goading and then he drops in. Just vanishes, boom, gone. Neither of us rode it nicely, we were terrified of how steep it was. It was the kind of line where you’re standing on your snowboard and your pack is touching the snow behind you.” – Ian

Holy fuck. Just think about that line. Think of how steep it is that when Ian’s on his heel side edge, his pack is dragging in the snow – even if it isn’t quite vertical, it feels vertical. And it’s sustained for nearly 700 meters.

Now Ian claims that neither of them skied it well, but looking at a photo of their tracks I’m calling bullshit. What I see is perfect turns straight down a spine hundreds of meters long. If that’s not ‘riding it nicely’, I don’t know what is.

And they call that ‘not riding it nicely’ – looks like incredible turns to me…

“At the bottom where things mellow out, Gig hits his line and vanishes – what the fuck happened? Then his head pops up and all I can think is ‘he’s not dead’! He’d just sent a cliff, but he’s not going anywhere – the motherfucker lost a ski. Now I’ve got to ride the spine while Gig’s stuck, and the slope is sluffing. I drop in and it’s the line of a lifetime. Crazy beautiful. Nothing I’ve ever ridden can compare. It wasn’t pretty, but I made turns down it, just glad I made turns.

“I look at Gig. I’m thrilled. Gig’s livid. Gig has these stickers on his skis– they say ‘Send It, Pussy’. Above the cliff, Gig thinks ‘I should send it’ then thinks, ‘no, I should go cautious’ (he’d had reconstructive ACL surgery just months previously and didn’t want to blow up his warranty). So instead of hucking he tries to minimize the air and instead falls in a hole and blows up. He should have just fucking sent it – a backslap worst case. I’m in a great mood and stomp over, and Gig’s in a fucking hole. So we get Gig out, I ski down, Gig walks down with one ski. Few meters down we find Gig’s ski sitting on a snow bridge 10 feet down in the 40 foot ‘schrund.“ – Ian

Gig grabs an armload of rope, dives into the ‘schrund and grabs his ski. On the far side they rip down the runout of the line – now into the ‘only’ 53 degree slope which takes them to the flats below.

“I don’t know why it was such a crazy moment, but you ski out onto the flats, sun into shadow, and hit this black line. From super warm, to freezing cold. It was just this incredible moment. That was the trip. The next day I handed Gig the sat phone and told him to call his brother – if we were to try anything that day we’d just kill ourselves trying to top the previous day. I got up in the morning and sat in the sun with a coffee while Gig made pancakes.” – Ian

All that remained was to get out – and in typical Gig and Ian fashion, it was as much of a clusterfuck as anything else they do.

“So I call Lance, a buddy of mine who works at Discovery Icefields. When we landed, the pilot said we would probably need to go up the glacier to meet the plane. The day before when we were killing time, we dropped some gear 2 miles up the glacier where we think we’re getting picked up. Morning of, 6:55, I call Lance, tell him weather is perfect for a landing – bulletproof snow. “Have you moved camp?” “no” “well, we’re picking you up in an hour”. “

The plane finally arrives

“We have to break camp, pack everything and get two miles up the glacier in an hour. We’re not being careful with anything, hurling things into bags, still wearing our sleeping shit.  At 7:15 I call Lance ‘we need more time’ “nope, pilot will be there in 30 minutes”. It’s chaos. I tell Gig to run to the gear we left at the pickup and I’m following wearing all this sleeping shit, dragging 100lbs on sleds, uphill. We get there at 8:25 and there’s no plane. We move up the glacier a bit. Make coffee at 9:15. Sit around. Take a shit at 10. Plane finally arrives two hours after it was supposed to. Pilot says Lance knew we’d be a disaster and told him to go kill time, so the pilot went to Mount Logan, dragged some poor climbers out of their tent 10 minutes after they called for pickup and flew them out. The pilot says the snow is so good he could have just landed at our camp. You must be fucking kidding me.” – Ian

When Ian and Gig finish their narrative, it ends almost abruptly on that ‘you must be fucking kidding me’ note. The three of us sit there for a minute watching Gig’s dog Allan get his leash tangled up in the legs of other people in the busy brewery.

Allan is unimpressed

I’m thinking about that line on Kennedy. I’ve skied sustained 50 degrees; it’s steep. What these guys accomplished makes that look flat. There were no guides, no support crew, new camera crew, no heli or ski plane sitting there on standby in case something went wrong. Two guys and some of the steepest lines in North America.

Looking back on the line and it’s no less incredible from the air – photo: Zach Clanton

Ian and Gig’s trip wasn’t about glory. I think that’s what I love about it. A lot of people who ride a line like that tell everyone, try and get featured on fancy websites and seem awfully concerned with everyone knowing how rad they are. Other than a couple of photos on Instagram accounts, they barely mentioned it at all. I had to twist their arms just to get the full story.

Despite not being terribly public about their story, I think more people need to hear it – because, to me, their pursuit of steep captures the spirit of exploration in the mountains.

Ian and Gig rode one of the steepest lines in Canada because it was beautiful. Because it captivated their imaginations. Because they wanted to experience a singularly perfect moment in a singularly perfect place. Two friends. A mountain. A fucking steep line.

 

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