Spearhead Traverse Online Guide
Unquestionably one of the classic tours of the South Coast, the Spearhead Traverse is a spectacular route linking the Blackcomb and Whistler ski resorts via a horseshoe of glacier-clad alpine terrain. The traverse connects 11 glaciers while weaving around 17 peaks.
SPEARHEAD TRAVERSE FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Where is the Spearhead Traverse located?
The Spearhead Traverse begins and ends in Whistler, British Columbia, 1 hour and 45 minutes north of Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
How long is the Spearhead Traverse?
The Spearhead Traverse is approximately 34 km long and involves approximately 1700 m of elevation gain. The route is regularly completed as both a multi-day trip and as a long day trip. Overnight groups typically take 2-4 days; a three-day trip breaks the daily effort required into reasonable sections and aligns well with high quality campsite locations.
How hard is the Spearhead Traverse?
The Spearhead Traverse crosses numerous heavily -crevassed glaciers and requires extended travel in a complex avalanche terrain. The route requires excellent navigation skills both to manage the avalanche and glacier hazards and to continually navigate through specific terrain features. Weather can create very challenging travel and route finding conditions at any time of the year. A high level of skills, training and experience in ski mountaineering, route finding, glacier travel and avalanche decision making are required. For more information about hazards in the Spearhead Range click here.
Excellent fitness is required whether groups are completing multi-day or one-day trips given the significant elevation gain and distance involved. Backcountry snow conditions can vary significantly from powder to ice and from wind crust to isothermal slush. The traverse involves numerous descents including steep terrain over cliffs and short runs down rocky chutes, depending on the route selected. Groups should have strong downhill skiing or boarding skills.
When is the best time to complete the Spearhead Traverse?
March and April are likely some of the best months of the year to completed the Spearhead Traverse, given the increased snow cover over glaciers and crevasses later in the season. May can also provide excellent travel conditions and better weather; however, solar impacts on the snowpack can be more significant at this time of year. For more about seasons in the Spearhead Range click here.
How do I get to the Spearhead Traverse and where to I park?
The Spearhead Traverse is accessed from the Whistler-Blackcomb Ski Resort, about 1.5 hours north of Vancouver along Highway 99. Click here for more information about getting to Whistler. There are several day lots used for parking by resorts skiers which can be used for backcountry skiers. For those parking overnight during the traverse, Lot 4 is the appropriate location to park. For more information about overnight parking in Whistler click here. Click here for more information about parking in Whistler.
What permits are required for the Spearhead Traverse?
No permits are required for day trips into the Spearhead Range. For overnight camping trips, a Wilderness Camping Permit is required from BC Parks. To learn more about obtaining a Wilderness Camping Permit click here.
How much does a lift ticket cost to access the Spearhead Traverse and where do I get a lift ticket?
Lift tickets are available from ticket booths located near the base of the Creekside Gondola, the Whistler Village Gondola, the Blackcomb Gondola and the Base II Excalibur Gondola midstation.
Backcountry skiers can purchase a discounted backcountry day ticket ($62 in the 2021/2022 season) that allows the use of four lifts to access a backcountry gate. Buy backcountry tickets from one of several Guest Services counters (at the base of all gondolas) or from the ticket booth at Base II. Be aware that ski patrol assesses daily whether or not to make backcountry tickets available; these tickets are rarely released under high or extreme avalanche conditions. Individuals must sign a Backcountry Access Agreement, describe the specific lifts they will use to reach the backcountry and show that they are carrying an avalanche transceiver, probe, shovel, skins or snowshoes and a cell phone.
What huts are located on the Spearhead Traverse?
The Spearhead Huts Society is in the process of building a three-hut chain along the Spearhead Traverse. At this time only one hut has been built, the Kees and Claire Hut at Russet Lake. This hut is located near the end of the traverse; it provides a nice destination for the final night of the trip, particularly for a 4 day, 3 night trip.
Whistler Backcountry Guidebooks
SPEARHEAD TRAVERSE ROUTE DESCRIPTION
Stage 1: Blackcomb Glacier to Decker
The Spearhead Traverse alternates between ascents and descents as it links a series of glacier and navigates over and around numerous ridge systems. The following images from a variety of trips depict the various sections of the route starting at Blackcomb resort and ending back at Whistler Village.
The Spearhead Traverse begins at the Blackcomb Glacier Backcountry gate after riding the Blackcomb Resort lifts to the top of the Showcase T-Bar. From the backcountry gate the route leads up a short climb to the East Col. The gate is often a busy, social space and the track can be a steady line of parties heading out for the first part of the day. Once at the East Col a descent leads past Circle Lake towards the base of Decker Mountain. The descent from East Col is often wind and sun affected; combined with heavy ski traffic, it’s not uncommon for this slope to offer marginal snow conditions. Several options are available, one heads down to Circle Lake and then down to Decker Lake; this route sets parties for an ascent to Decker Shoulder through rock outcrops. Another route traverses along the north flank of Disease Ridge followed by a traverse onto Decker Glacier above Decker Lake; this route, which climbs through popular ski terrain below cornices, sets parties up for an ascent of Decker Glacier to a high point on Decker’s North Ridge. Both ascents offer great views back at the Spearhead and Circle Lake terrain. Decker is a popular destination so it’s quite likely there will be many groups in the area.
Stage 2: Decker to Pattison
The next stage of the Spearhead Traverse is to navigate from a Decker Mountain to a crossing of Mount Pattison. From Decker Shoulder, the route descends a short, steep chute and then open slopes down to the Trorey Glacier. Alternatively, from a high point on Decker’s North ridge, open, wind exposed slopes lead down through rock outcrops to the Decker-Trorey Col which can be followed east until it is possible to Traverse onto the upper Trorey Glacier. Once on the Trorey Glacier groups must choose to head for one of two high points on Mount Pattison, either the Trorey Side Col north of the Mount Pattison, or the south ridge of Pattison. The Trorey Side Col route involves steeper terrain for both the ascent and descent, but also better ski terrain. The south ridge route, at the head of the Trorey Glaciers longer and involves more elevation gain, but travels more moderate terrain. The south ridge ends in a short bootpack to the proposed location of a future hut in the Spearhead Hut Chain.
Stage 3: Pattison to Tremor
From Mount Pattison the Spearhead Traverse descends onto the Tremor Glacier by two different routes, depending on whether parties crossed over the Trorey Side Col or Pattison’s South Ridge. Once on the Tremor Glacier there are two commonly used ascents to Tremor Col but most parties tend to use a route that begins by ascending climbers left before making a direct ascent to the Tremor Col. The ascent of Tremor Glacier is one of the longest climbs in the Spearhead Traverse and marks the start of travel beyond the area where most day trip parties venture. By this point the terrain starts to feel more remote and removed from the bustle of the Whistler resort, and the dramatic aspects of Tremor Mountain tower above groups as they make the long climb. The upper Tremor Glacier makes an excellent campsite for parties engaged in a multi day trip around the Spearhead Traverse.
Stage 4: Platform Glacier
From the Tremor Col the next ascent and descent involves minimal elevation gain and loss as groups make their way across the Platform Glacier. This section begins with a consistent traverse to skier’s left, maintaining elevation below rocky terrain while aiming for a prominent wind scoop in the middle of the Platform Glacier. The wind scoop marks the transition to ascent and makes a good campsite location for multi-day trips. A gradual ascent past the wind scoop leads up the Platform Glacier to the Quiver-Ripsaw Col.
Stage 5: Ripsaw & Naden
From the Quiver Ripsaw Col, which makes an excellent campsite for multi-day trips across the Spearhead Traverse, the next section begins with a traversing descent across the Ripsaw Glacier aiming for an access point in the ridgeline separating the Ripsaw Glacier from the Naden Glacier. A short skin may be necessary to reach this access point. From the access point it is necessary to negotiate a steep descent through rocky terrain onto the Naden Glacier. Several options exist including a left, central and right option. This descent can be challenging, depending on conditions and likely will require some downclimbing via bootpack. These routes are depicted in detail in the Spearhead Backcountry Atlas. Some parties may use ropes for this section. Once on the Naden Glacier, a straightforward traverse across the glacier leads to a short skin to the MacBeth-Couloir Ridge Col, which provides access to the MacBeth Glacier. This col is a popular location for camping on the Spearhead Traverse and is roughly halfway around the route in terms of energy output.
Stage 6: MacBeth & Iago
From the MacBeth-Couloir Ridge Col a groups must descent partway down the MacBeth Glacier before traversing left in order to access the ridgeline that links Couloir Ridge to Mount Iago. Accessing the ridge is fairly straightforward at the base of Couloir Ridge’s southeast ridge and may involve a bit of sidestepping. Once on the connecting ridge there are several options for accessing Mount Iago. The most aesthetic involves a traverse along the ridge crest, often involving bootpacking, until it is possible to drop east off the ridge onto the Iago Glacier. Alternative routes descend east more directly onto the Iago Glacier. These options are depicted in detail in the Spearhead Backcountry Atlas. Once on the Iago Glacier, make a steady ascent up to Iago’s east ridge, an aesthetic location that makes a fine campsite for those on a multi-day crossing of the Spearhead Traverse. A notch in the ridge provides access onto Iago’s south flank, where the Spearhead Traverse continues.
Stage 7: Iago & Diavolo
From Iago’s East Ridge long, large slopes descent Iago’s south aspect onto the Diavolo Glacier. Theses slopes are significant avalanche slopes, and sections of this descent are exposed to travel above cliffs. Timing the descent of this slope can be an important consideration when solar exposure impacts avalanche stability. Once at the base of Iago’s south aspect, the Spearhead Traverse contours around the base of Mount Fitzsimmons and ascends the Diavolo Glacier to the Fitzsimmons-Benvolio Col. This long climb is the last significant ascent of the Spearhead Traverse and has been referred to as Heartbreak Hill given the effort required late in the traverse. The ascent provides excellent views across to Cheakamus Mountain for the duration of the climb.
Stage 8: Overlord Glacier
From the Fitzsimmons-Benvolio Col, the next section of the Spearhead Traverse crosses the upper Fitzsimmons Glacier towards the Overlord Gendarme. This crossing involves minimal elevation gain but travels on a glaciated bench below steep rock walls and above heavily crevassed terrain. Once at the Overlord Gendarme, the most common version of the Spearhead Traverse wraps around the north aspect of Overlord Mountain to the Overlord Rock Step, a short descent onto the upper Overlord Glacier below the ridgeline connecting Refuse Pinnacle to Overlord Mountain. This rock step can vary considerably in difficulty, ranging for a short steep ski side step or straight-line, to a short, easy bootpack descent, a short easy downclimb on loose rock, or to a longer difficult rock descent. Conditions vary year-to-year and throughout each winter. Some groups rappel the step using an established anchor, others bypass the area entirely by making a long descent of the Overlord Glacier from the Overlord Gendarme and ascending back to the upper Overlord Glacier east of Whirlwind Peak.
Once past the rock step, the route makes a long descent below Refuse Pinnacle to a flat section of the Overlord Glacier. This section is exposed to overhead cornices and crossed significant crevassed terrain where ski touring parties have experienced closed calls with crevasses falls. The Spearhead Traverse then makes a long gradual ascent up the Overlord Glacier to the Fissile-Whirlwind Col.
Stage 9: Whirlwind to Singing Pass
From the Fissile-Whirlwind Col, pleasant slopes lead down a pocket glacier south of Fissile Peak to low angle terrain surrounding Russet Lake. These slopes are exposed to significant wind and solar impacts, but offer an excellent aspect for late afternoon and evening sun. The flat terrain surrounding Russet Lake can be crossed without skins to a low point in the terrain, just below the Kees and Claire Hut. A short skin leads up to the hut; another short skin beyond the hut leads to west facing slopes which lead down through open trees to Singing Pass.
Stage 10: Singing Pass Trail Exit
From Singing Pass, generally the fastest and easiest descent is out the Singing Pass Trail. This trail is approximately 11 km and makes a long traversing descent across forested slopes above Fitzsimmons Creek back to the Whistler Village. The trail involves narrow sections with tight turns, some of which are above significant slopes on one side. The trail also involves some flat sections that require significant polling, particularly on a section where the trail follows an old road bed. The conditions of the trail can vary greatly depending on time of year, snow levels in the valley and recent weather patterns. Cold conditions to the valley floor after a recent snowfalls can provide the best experience, particularly if a track is in. Ice conditions can be jarring but fast. Warm, wet weather can make for a tedious exit when skis stick and excessive polling is required. Late in the season or in bad snow years snow may be inadequate to ski to the valley floor necessitating walking in the later sections.
Alternate Exit: via Musical Bumps
An alternate to the Singing Pass Trail is to cross the Musical Bumps and descend the Whistler ski resort back to the valley. This is suitable for those who do not like the long, low angle Singing Pass Trail (split boarders may fall into this category) or for times when low elevation snowfall is inadequate.
Interested in a quick tour of the Spearhead Traverse? Check out this video of a great day trip across the Spearhead. An interesting note: we forgot an ice axe on the Platform Glacier on this trip. I wanted to figure out how to ask the ski touring community if anyone found it in subsequent days. This directly lead to the creation of the South Coast Touring Facebook Group.