Taking on the Great Divide

For 20 days Gerry Heacock kept a checklist running in his head: valleys to traverse, ice fields to cross, passes to navigate. And, at the end, membership in a small club of backcountry tourers stretching back to 1967.

  • Jun. 28, 2011 10:00 a.m.

For 20 days Gerry Heacock kept a checklist running in his head: valleys to traverse, ice fields to cross, passes to navigate. And, at the end, membership in a small club of backcountry tourers stretching back to 1967.

The Great Divide Traverse, which Heacock and a team of friends skied this April, stretches more than 300 kilometres, from Jasper to Lake Louise. While attempts of the Traverse are popular, only a handful of teams had completed the trek since it was first mapped by Canadian explorer Chic Scott.

Heacock’s four-person group brings the tally to 25 adventurers, or eight teams.

An avid backcountry skier who moved to Nelson to further his hobby, Heacock says the Trek is “sort of notorious” because of its length and difficulty.

“It’s long, and then there’s lots of cruxes,” he explains. “Every couple days you’re going over a pass or over some glacier, and I think there were seven of eight ice fields that you had to get up on to, across and off of. It was always tricky. And then there’s the weather too.”

In the three weeks on the trek, conditions varied from fair to completely whited out, requiring the team to pause twice to wait out the weather. Many days, they navigated the route solely by GPS, using coordinates Heacock logged in before departure.

While cold temperatures were a constant, Heacock says the real difficulty of the trip was food. Team member Carsten Moldenhauer skied three food drops in ahead of time (Heacock, a chef at Bibo Wine Bar, prepared the dehydrated dinners).

But two pounds of dried pasta, peanut butter and Cliff Bars per day was only just enough to keep going.

“We were never really satisfied,” he recalls. “Never hungry, but never satisfied for three weeks — so we were pretty hungry when we got out.”

Most days, there were few people to see, though one of his other skiing pals and his father met them at the spot where the Traverse converges with another popular backcountry spot (happily for the trekkers, they brought fruit).

By the time the team hit the end of the route, hot food and hotter showers were all anyone was after. And though he remembers the trip fondly, Heacock points out no one who’s completed it has gone back for seconds.

“Every day you’re seeing new things and there’s always something exciting to do — or something that you’re kind of worried about. There’s always a next step, like, ‘okay, we have to get up out of this valley and then we can worry about whatever else,’” he says.

“It was euphoric… it was spectacular. But you just wanted to be done. To eat as much as you wanted and be warm and clean.”

To trace Heacock’s route visit theskitraverse.com.