Canmore climber believed to be 1st woman to summit a major subarctic peak in winter
'There's really nothing stopping us,' Pascale Marceau says of the growing list of feats by female mountaineers
Once mainly a male domain, mountaineering and mountain sports have become increasingly gender-balanced.
Head out to the crags at Grassi Lakes these days, or the slopes of Sunshine Village, or the climbing gyms in Calgary, and you're likely to see nearly as many women as men.
But there's one type of alpine activity where Canmore resident Pascale Marceau would still like to have some more female company.
"There are not a lot of women that are tackling these winter, prolonged, extreme expeditions," she said, after returning from a trip to the summit of Mount Wood, Canada's sixth-highest peak.
It's believed to be the first time that a woman has reached the summit of a major, subarctic mountain in the winter.
Female mountaineers have reached higher peaks in other seasons, and some have done winter ascents closer to the equator. But Marceau's feat is widely recognized as a first for women at a subarctic latitude during the coldest season of the year.
Marceau and her partner, Lonnie Dupre, made it to the summit of Mount Wood — some 4,860 metres above sea level — at 3:10 p.m. on March 11, a week after being dropped off by plane on a nearby glacier.
It took months of planning and research to find a viable route to the summit through the rugged mountain terrain of Yukon's Kluane National Park and Reserve.
"We spent a lot of time on Google Earth and with topo maps. But, in the end, it's never like it looks on that little computer screen when you get there for real," Marceau said.
The pair travelled on custom-built skis they crafted themselves with yellow birch harvested from Dupre's home in Minnesota. The skis are extra wide and more than two metres long, to help span glacier crevasses and reduce the risk of falling into a deep pit of ice.
The pair had to move slowly, avoiding at all costs any sweating, which can be deadly in such cold and windy conditions. Bit by bit, they forged a path up the mountain that no one had ever followed before.
"That's the beauty of these climbs. That's what actually draws us to do these things," Marceau said. "There's no guidebook. There's no written route."
Even getting to the area was a challenge. It took some negotiation with Parks Canada, which is not accustomed to having people in that part of Kluane at that time of year, and some searching for a pilot willing to fly a plane onto such a remote icefield.
"There's not a lot of pilots willing to do glacier landings in the winter in uncharted territory," Marceau said.
Travelling to the peak involved all sorts of challenges, from keeping dry to dodging crevasses to navigating steep, icy slopes.
But Marceau said the biggest obstacle was the wind.
"The icefields in Kluane National Park and Reserve are just really windy," she said.
"It's really odd. You can have these bluebird days with gorgeous sun and no clouds and just howling, 80-to-100 km/h winds. And when it's –40 and you add those kinds of windchills, you can't be outside. You will freeze your hands and face and toes too quickly. And the thing is, it's hard to forecast. It can come from out of nowhere, real quick."
Marceau said they were fortunate, however, to have relatively warm and calm weather for the first few days.
But later on, as they made their first attempt to reach the summit, they were forced to turn back when the wind picked up to dangerous levels.
'We thought it was over'
"We had to turn around just an hour from the summit," she said of the first attempt.
"And we had a horrible forecast for the next day, so we thought it was over. It's always hard to turn around, right? So I had a good crying session that night in the tent and we were getting ready to go down the next day because there was a massive storm coming in."
But when they awoke the next morning, the clouds started to lift and the wind died down. With a potential weather window opening up, they decided to give the summit one last attempt — and made it.
They didn't linger long at the top, however, as the storm was fast approaching. Time was of the essence if they wanted to get back down before its full force hit.
They made it back to their camp, packed up and called for a pickup from their pilot.
After more than a week out on the icefields — where there are no trees, no animals, no forms of life other than their own — Marceau said it was an adjustment coming back.
"The thing is, when you come back, the sensory overload is even just in the airplane," she said. "You can smell the grass, you smell moisture, you smell life, just through the airplane. And then when you touch down and open the windows and doors, it's just like wow, it's just really a big contrast."
Looking back on the expedition, Marceau feels fortunate to have had the weather they did and hopes the accomplishment will prompt more female mountaineers to get out into high-altitude, high-latitude places in the wintertime.
"There are still a handful — at least two handfuls — of higher peaks than Mount Wood that haven't been climbed by women in the winter," she said.
"So I say, let's go. Come on. Let's go get them."