Rainbow Mountain, North Glacier & East Face. If Rainbow doesn’t mean anything to you, glance West next time you are on the patio at Citta’s. Look up, higher now, above frenzied Olympic tourists and fleeing locals, keep searching up above the valley sprawl, and behold that massive mountain, hidden around the corner of the lesser Sproat, a glacier and peak or two that can be glanced from the Valley floor. This be the Rainbow massif, perched above the head of 19 Mile Creek. — Or, you can take a chopper, and get a closer look.
Though Rainbow is one of Whistler Heli-Skiing’s playgrounds, and its southern as well as northwestern flanks are accessible to sleds, the East Face remains a coveted descent in the Coast Mountain range. The 1200m face is long and exposed. Some tricky navigation leads through glacier features and above a steep headwall, which must be bypassed on skier’s right through a narrow choke. Skiing the choke’s sharp terrain leaves one exposed to cornice fall and avalanches from above. Once committed from the broad col at the top, you’re in. And for that reason, hitting this line with the right conditions is a mix of luck and nerve. But on this day we were blessed. Avalanche conditions were moderate, winds light, clouds high and dry, and the boot-top powder was blower on a firm crust. Even the morning’s fog did not deter our flight. After being dropped off at the summit thanks to Paul at Blackcomb Helicopters, we skied on down the fantastic curves of the North Glacier to about 1600m. As we descended lower, the powder turned a magical deep velvet on protected slopes.
We stopped at treeline above a conspicuous lake. At this point we intersected old tracks from a Whistler heli-ski drop. Time to skin up and climb the ridge for a 700m elevation gain, which took us close to two hours.
As we crested into the alpine, we were struck by the majesty of the mountain’s large and open glacial bowls – each about twice the size of Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb – and the perfect conditions underfoot. A firm crust supported our skins, and there was no slippery ice to battle.
As we skinned up to meet the foot of the North glacier, before it dropped down its first roll, we stopped for lunch. From here, looking southwest, we observed a strange tumour protuding from the side of Rainbow’s southwestern peaklet. From our vantage it looked like a perfectly made ski jump had been carved into the top of the face. The huge cornice, though massive in size, was of course behind the corner of the peak. What I should have realised at the time was that we were being tricked by foreshortening, which caught us off-guard several times that day. Foreshortening, like mirages in the desert, occurs when looking at juxtaposed objects over vast distances. Unlike a rear-view mirror, objects are not closer than they appear: they are farther away. With sections of the foreground and intermediate terrain lost to the mirrors of perception and the tricks of perspective, terrain that promises to be close is often inaccessible and distant, leading to possibly disastrous decisions in route-finding.
After lunch, we skinned up toward the large moraine separating the North and Northwestern glaciers, following the ridge to the looker’s left col. From here, a short but steep line brought us down to the Northwestern glacier, from which we quickly bootpacked up firm snow to the col of the East face. The short descent delivered on 50 degree turns before a straightline across the flats. I had hoped this face, with about the same aspect, exposure, and pitch of the East face, would give us a sense of the conditions that might await us should we chose to descend the East face’s expanse.
Standing at the top of the East face, the decision was clear: all systems go. The conditions were firm, the snow light, and most of our route remained in the shade. At this point, foreshortening again caught us off guard. We even noticed the Tumour above us from another angle, as part of the cornice formation behind Rainbow’s peaklet, and not part of the peaklet itself. But from this view looking down the East face, we supposed we could ski left to the trees on the left side, where we could see distant tracks. Had we tried to achieve this line, we would have run into sun-exposed and sloughing snow above a rock and ice headwall, and into tricky and steep conditions all but unskiable. We later discovered a single chute that could have provided us an exit on skier’s left, hidden above an exposed cliff traverse. Needless to say, the beta from Baldwin’s guide stuck in my head: keep right. And though at the top our line was deceptively dangerous looking on the right, shadowed by a massive rock rib and beset by large glacial crevasses, as we descended we realised that we needed to keep moving right, skipping from rock prow to prow.
As we moved underneath the East face’s open glacier, we navigated through the route’s choke, exposed to avalanche hazard from above. Avalanche debris littered sections of the choke. Below us, though we could not see, were sections of rock and glacier ice. I hit a rock patch taking a more direct line, which made us realise we needed to keep skier’s right.
From the East glacier, which we had to navigate skier’s left to avoid crevasses, the route above was awe-inspiring. A massive headwall stretched across the expanse of the face. Of course we had seen this from the chopper. Learning to remember a line from a brief glance out the chopper window is a skill indeed. It takes some mental agility and imagination to translate aerial perspective to downward-bound ski topography.
Once down & out across the short East glacier, we traversed toward a Whistler Heli Ski pick-up, had a snack, and continued on down a powdery knoll. From here we skinned up the third and last barrier in the valley, to see if we could take a more direct line down and avoiding traversing through thick trees alongside the Creek. We should have taken our cue from looking up at the previous two barriers, which were blocked by cliffs on their Eastern sides. These barriers appear to be rock walls formed in part as terminal moraines from the glacier’s retreat.
At the midpoint of the knoll we tried to ski down the valley to the East, but realised we were above steep and uncompromising cliffs. Had we continued to the end of the ridge heading South, we could have cut a pleasant line through trees and pillows out the valley exit. Instead we rode back down the ridge from whence we came, and began a long slog out through slowly descending terrain, at first through dense brush, but as we cut right, through pleasant enough trees that were only marred by increasingly poor snow conditions. We went from fluff to mank, mank to crust, crust to death ice. Our poor splitboarder Dan had one hell of a time. We managed to keep the skins off all the way through, preferring to pole & push while keeping momentum on the icy sections. A few deep and exposed creek chasms were cause for celebrity jumps and near misses.
After hitting the flank trail at 1100m, right at the bridge across 19 Mile Creek, we had a rest, then proceeded to ride down a death-defying and knee-mangling flank trail. Luckily none of us did anything stupid on this final, exhausting leg.
Is Rainbow mountain a worthwhile endeavour? Indeed. There are many routes from the summit and several possible exits, though most lead down to 19 Mile Creek. See Lee Lau’s report for other alternatives to the East face. See below for GPS coordinates and elevation profile. Most of us felt the experience was in the top 5 descents of the Coast Range. That said, more looms on our horizon: Tantalus, Wedge, Currie….
Over & Out./— tobias c. van Veen