It Only Rains at Baker
On Canada’s West Coast, staged in a neat line along the Squamish River, the Tantalus Range rises boldly in a single unbroken view from the Sea–to–Sky Highway.
The thickly wooded wilderness gives way to violently fractured alpine glaciers studded with nunataks and spires, capped by permanent flutes of snow that hang perilously on near-vertical faces. A largely untapped four-season paradise for climbing and skiing, the snow seems to shine from within, beckoning even on cloudy days.
No other mountain range on British Columbia’s south coast has inspired as much admiration and trepidation in backcountry travelers. The range’s European name comes from the Greek mythological figure Tantalus, who was forced to stand beneath a tree with the fruit hanging tantalizingly close but just out of reach. Early mountaineers felt these sentiments as they gazed upon the steep peaks and endless alpine ridges — tantalizingly close but out of reach, given raging rivers on one side and deep fjords on the other.
Modern mountain exploration began here with the first recorded ascent of the 8,540-foot (2,603-meter) Mount Tantalus in 1911. The party, led by prominent Canadian mountaineer Basil Darling, attempted an unorthodox route up the immense Rumbling Glacier to gain the benched East Face. Darling was so taken with the range that he returned in 1914 to claim Alpha, Serratus, Lydia, and Red Tusk ascents. But these Europeans were not the first to venture across the emerald rivers for alpine prizes.
According to local indigenous history, a group of goat hunters and their dogs were stranded in a ferocious blizzard. Frozen in place, they were transformed into the jagged peaks seen today, cast in permanent snow. Tantalus’ traditional name is Twi’lix — named after one of these hunters — and is home to the highly sought ‘Xwexwselkn’ (mountain goats), which are hunted in November when their coats and meat are best, but which is also one of the foulest months for weather. These hunts led to the development of early equipment similar to alpenstocks and crampons, and they used ropes made of woven cedar.
Until the late 1980s, the Tantalus Range was reserved for climbers. Still, as the newly-minted genre of ski mountaineering was taking hold on the south coast, a select group of courageous and visionary skiers from Whistler — Trevor Petersen, Eric Pehota and Johnny ‘Foon’ Chilton — set sights on the beautiful lines. Pehota had climbed in the range during the summers between stints as a logger in Northern British Columbia. “It looked like the Alps, and we were like — we’ve gotta ski that shit!” he recalls.
Access has traditionally been the most significant hurdle. Pehota cites early ski missions crossing Class 2/3 whitewater in a fully loaded canoe, hiking 3,600 feet (1,100 metres) up near-vertical slopes encased by a thick matrix of green vegetation before they could start skinning the next 4,600 feet to reach the actual ski lines.
Despite the Tantalus’ proximity to civilization, there are no roads. Its remoteness requires complete self-reliance as the price of entry. Pehota recalls a pre-cell phone attempt to ski the Tantalus traverse — a classic summer mountaineering route. On the way up, the group of five kicked off a slide, burying Foon and fracturing his leg. Drawing straws, half of the group completed the two-day traverse to get help. Skiing south, eventually connecting with the summer trail, the team downclimbed and bushwhacked in ski boots, pulling themselves across the river along a steel cable, then finally hitching a ride into town to hail a helicopter that returned, now days later, to pick up Foon and Petersen still huddled in a snow cave.
Eventually, Black Tusk Helicopters began to offer flights into the Tantalus Range from the Squamish airport. This was a game-changer for access. In 1991, an eight-minute bump to the alpine dropped Pehota and Petersen at the Serratus-Dione col. Their goal was the most prized line in the range — the East Face of Tantalus — a prominent feature visible from the highway viewpoint, but it wasn’t meant to be as the rapidly warming day forced the pair to abort partway up the route. After that, there were several attempts to land atop the face via helicopter, but a relieved Pehota remarks that he would much rather climb the face than be dropped blindly on top. Others who attempted the line claimed it to be impossible.
It wasn’t until 1999 — three years after Petersen’s passing that Pehota and Foon, carrying some of Petersen’s ashes, started up the mid-fifth-class rock step at the base of the face. Pehota recalls, “We got to this awkward move, and I told Johnny to stand on my shoulders, and I’d give him a boost. He said, ‘Fuck Eric, I’ve got crampons on, I can’t do that.’ So, I just moved my pack a bit, and we got up the thing.”
The rest of the climb went smoothly, and the 57-degree spines on the descent were everything the pair had imagined. That is until they reached a rock-step crux. The initial plan was to rappel the 30–40-foot drop, but Pehota convinced Foon to jump it instead.
The line has not been repeated to this day, speaking to the boldness and intimate knowledge required to succeed in the fickle range. More recently, their sons Kye Petersen and Logan Pehota have officially taken up the torch, building on the knowledge passed down by their patriarchs. Kye, 33, and Logan, 28, have revisited some of their fathers’ lines in the Tantalus when they form up and have claimed first descents of their own, like Kye’s jaw-dropping line on the north face of Mt. Osa.
The mercurial nature of the Tantalus Range is known all too well by Ross Berg, co-founder of Altus Mountain Guides. “The mountains are so exposed, some of those lines only form up every few years.” Recently, summers are getting hotter, wreaking havoc on permanent snow fields and glaciers, and strong Arctic outflow winds strip the north faces bare — ruining the big lines for an entire year in a single afternoon. Sadly, some lines are likely never to be repeated.
It took reknown Whistler photographer Guy Fattal years to enter the Tantalus Range in both physical and photographic terms. Fattal saw the Tantalus as the ultimate embodiment of his desire to showcase the elusive natural beauty of wilderness in combination with a high-performance element.
Finally, in April 2022, an unseasonably cold snowstorm deposited a dense blanket of snow across the range, followed by a stellar blue sky the next morning. Conditions were perfect, and a mix of trepidation and excitement filled Fattal as he boarded a helicopter at first light with pro skiers Tom Pfeifer and Chad Sayers. The group, led by local guide Monte Johnston, boot-packed up a steep couloir to the pristine tongue of snow named the Whale’s Tail that drops steeply off the west shoulder of Dione. A quick stability check confirmed that conditions were good to go, and following Johnston’s line, it was Fattal’s turn to drop in.
Standing above his life’s steepest, most beautiful ski line, snow crystals danced and sparkled in the cold morning light. Golden hour waits for no one, so Fattal must get into position. “I’ve never been so focused while skiing,” says Fattal.
Linking turns flowed naturally until he reached his position, shaking from the adrenaline. The face was so steep that Fattal — facing the wrong direction — had to twist and shoot over his shoulder as repositioning was impossible. His tunnel vision focus paid off — he made the most of his one opportunity to get the shot as the skiers dropped into the golden morning light.
Years later, Fattal still aches to recreate those magical moments, but the elusive lines have refused to deliver that balanced equation of snow quality, stability, and light since that day. Nevertheless, history shows that tireless devotion trumps boldness in the Tantalus, and those willing to put in the time are rewarded with some of the best ski lines imaginable. For those patiently drooling, there’s always space at the iconic Tantalus viewpoint to dream and plan with binoculars … and wait for that perfect moment.