Category Archives: Mount Seymour

Just another day

In the morning, a dawn climb to Brockton Peak to watch the sun rise over the Coast Mountains before skiing back down.

Coast mountains at dawn

At lunchtime, the first #30daysofbiking ride in sunshine beneath cherry blossoms.

#30daysofbiking

In the evening, skiing through the sunset and into the floodlit night on Grouse.

Grouse sunset

And all of this was sandwiched around a regular day at work. Just another day in the best place on earth.

Making the best of it

Sometimes your ski day just doesn’t go according to plan.

Tercel breakdown at Britannia BeachAvvy ratings were high, so we’d planned to head for Telemagique in the Callaghan so that we could stay on the ridgeline if the snowpack seemed too touchy. Sadly, we never got there. We stopped for coffee at Galileo, and then the car refused to start. Whacking on the starter motor with a tire iron didn’t help, so after much debate in the warm coffee shop C eventually called a tow truck and the three of us packed into two seats for a cozy drive back to Vancouver. The tow truck left us at C’s garage, where my wonderful friend R picked us all up and delivered us to the various places we needed to be.

We’d started so early that it was still only 11am when S and I found ourselves back in his parkade, where I’d left my truck. We debated our options for a few minutes, then piled our gear into my trunk and headed for the North Shore in the hope that we could salvage something from the day.

Seymour

We weren’t really expecting much more than a good hike up the access trail and then a rocket down the groomed runs on the frontside. But the snow just kept falling, and when we reached Brockton we both agreed it was worth trying to get to First Peak. The Seymour backcountry is interesting – there’s lots of fun terrain right out of the access gate, but it’s very easy to get in trouble and there’s not much in the way of sustained skiing, especially on a day when conditions mean you need to avoid terrain traps.

We slogged our way through the fresh snow to First Peak, where the first run on the north face was disappointing – too heavy and low angle to really build momentum. Then we hiked back up and dropped onto the south side, and suddenly it was all worth it. I found myself descending through waist-deep, absolutely bottomless powder that billowed up around my face, obscuring the world. Huge face shots, drifting, sinking deep and then rising back up. It was dream skiing, the kind we hope for all season long and so rarely get.

Seymour backcountryEventually we funneled through a small, steep slot that dumped us back out on the trail, where we meandered very slowly back to Brockton and a riot of a run down the groomers to the parking lot. When we got there, we were both still slightly speechless. That might just be the best salvage mission I’ll ever have.

Dawn Patrol

On Tuesday I joined a BCMC group for something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time: the Mount Seymour dawn patrol.

6.30am found us in the freezing dark in the Seymour parking lot. With a chill wind whipping down from the mountain above us, it felt considerably colder than the Coquihalla on Sunday. I geared up as fast as possible, put my heaviest downhill mitts on my frozen hands, and crunched over to the dim whiteness of the icy trail.

We began the climb by starlight, the lights of the city glittering below, and just a hint of blue around the edges of the sky. As we headed upwards light gradually filtered into the landscape around us, and a thin band of gold formed on the far horizon. By the time we topped out on Brockton Point, the sun was just starting to rise above the eastern mountains and alpenglow lit up the peaks to the west. We pointed our skis downhill and tore down the untouched corduroy, hollering all the way. I realised afterwards that it was the first time I’d skied a groomer since mid-December.

Throwing my gear in the car, driving downtown and starting the workday felt completely surreal, and yet somehow that was almost the best part of it: starting an ordinary day in such an extraordinary way.

Seymour dawn patrol

Seymour peaks

With fall turning rapidly to winter, we managed to catch a rare window of good weather for a hike to the three peaks of Mount Seymour. I’ve been to First Pump a number of times now, but for a variety of reasons had never made it to the other two.

First Pump Peak, Mount SeymourIt was a really enjoyable hike, especially given the weather. It’s right in our back yard, it’s relatively quick with lots of ups and downs, and the terrain is rugged enough to be a lot of fun without quite descending into a full scramble. The views into the Coast Mountains from Third Peak were incredible, and more than worth the extra distance.

Third Peak, Mount Seymour

Third Peak also seemed to be a mecca for birds. As we ate our lunch two ravens staged an elaborate aerial dance near the bluffs, and six eagles soared close overhead. It was a wonderful way to wrap up a great fall hiking season, and make the most of the spell of sustained high pressure that took us into November. Now, though, it’s time for the snow to start flying.

Spartan Sprint

It’s mud run season!

Spartan Sprint finisher!

The Spartan Sprint, like last year’s Warrior Dash, was located on Mount Seymour. However unlike the Warrior Dash, which took place in 30+ degree heat later in the summer, the Spartan Sprint came with a lot of snow that the organizers helpfully incorporated into large sections of the course.

From the start line we launched straight into a dash through knee-deep, heavily churned up snow  all the way to Mystery Peak and back. The sandbag carry and rock drag were both located in this part of the course; the rock drag (which we dubbed “walking your pet brick”) was significantly more challenging given that every time you stopped or slowed, the concrete block would start disappearing into the snow. The snow definitely added an extra element of challenge to the course, although as a non-runner it  also made the first part way easier on my knees. It did feel very strange to be plunge-stepping on foot down slopes that I know so well on skis.

Spartan Sprint start

My cranky shoulder, which seems to be deteriorating daily at the moment, precluded much of an effort on the monkey bars but wasn’t as much of a problem as I’d feared on other obstacles. The snowmelt had left the lower part of the course muddy and slippery, and we saw some nasty tumbles on the high wall. The cargo scramble was excellent fun, and I was very surprised when my spear throw successfully nailed a hay bale and spared me an additional 50 burpees. The barbed wire crawl was an uncomfortable wallow through very rocky, gravely mud, followed by a failed rope climb (50 burpees) and a flying leap over a wood fire to the gladiators at the finish line.

Battling gladiators at the Spartan Sprint

Once again we had an excellent time, and were inspired enough to sign up for the 7 Summits Adventure Race in Washington state this fall, which looks to be on a whole different level than the obstacle races we’ve done so far. I need to do a whole bunch more running between now and then, and also do something about getting my shoulder back on track.

The lure of the skintrack

After our amazing day on the Red Heather trail the lure of the skintrack was overwhelming. In lieu of a visit to the gym on Friday I threw my gear in the truck and instead headed over to the North Shore, where the mountains have been pounded with the greatest amount of December storm snow in living memory. The road to Seymour was almost unrecognizable, with backhoes trying to clear an additional lane between walls of snow that were taller than I was.

Seymour winter wonderland

Snow swirled down from the sky as I started uphill into a winter wonderland. As I was on my own I stuck to the marked backcountry access trail, and planned to turn around at Brockton Point rather than moving out into the more challenging terrain beyond the access gate. With so much snow falling over the past couple of weeks I’ve been keeping a close eye on the avalanche bulletins, and a quick compression test supported recent reports: failures at about four and eight inches down on the first palm strike.

Compression test

As I neared Brockton Point the cloud closed in and strong winds whipped the falling snow across the ridges. For the first downhill run I dropped down from the point and rode a small powder slope back into the ski area, then took the groomed runs back down to the trailhead. Even inbounds, the snow was soft and in perfect condition.

I quickly transitioned back to touring mode and started up the trail for a second time. A small whiskeyjack dropped out of the trees and cruised along from tree to tree beside me for a while. The snow finally began to ease off, although the cloud remained wrapped tight around the upper part of the trail.

WhiskeyjackThe scouring wind near the peak had already started to form some obvious slabs, and even on the uphill I was seeing a lot of fracturing of the top layer of snow under my skis. After transitioning back to downhill mode I skied cautiously back down the first couple of slopes and then cut away from the trail to the soft, deep snow to the sides. An enormously fun run followed, with a few glorious powder turns on a steeper slope through the trees just above the creek drainage. Getting back to the trail was a bit of a slog uphill through the deep snow, but it was well worth it.

I’m still out of touring condition and I could feel my legs tiring on the second lap, but it was so much better to be out there in the snow and the cold air than to be stuck inside on a Stairmaster in a gym. You can’t beat a workout that includes powder turns.

Mountains are my Prozac

It’s been the warmest October of my life. A handful of leaves blushed into fall colours after a windstorm last week, and there’s a chill in the mornings and a low mist hanging over the ocean that hints at fall, but the days are shirtsleeves warm.

For my birthday we both took the day off work, and made a very last-minute decision to trade up a spa visit for climbing a mountain. There won’t be many more days like this, and we want to make the most of them. We headed for Seymour under a sky so clear it could have been June, not October.

Seymour hike

I know the route up to Seymour peak pretty well. I’ve climbed straight up the wall on snowshoes (and then fallen down it afterwards.) I’ve skirted around the peak to the west on a skin track, and looped up to the top through the gulleys. But I’ve only ever done it in winter, when even the complex terrain beyond the backcountry gate is softened and hidden by a coating of snow.

It was amazingly different. The trail I know so well was completely unfamiliar: rough boulders, logs, little bridges that I had no idea existed beneath the white winter carpet. The wall we climbed and fell down was a forbidding barricade of near-vertical rock; there would be no way to emulate a similar route in the summer without climbing equipment. The face that B and I accidentally skied onto after a wrong turn during a backcountry excursion was equally intimidating, and J gasped when I pointed it out.

Nearing Seymour Peak

The final climb up to the peak was the strangest of all. I’m used to an area of domes and curved gullies; instead I found shattered boulders and steep rock, odd tiny lakes, and one small patch of frozen snow lurking in the shadows. We scrambled up the bare rock to the peak and hugged and laughed at where we found ourselves on a random Wednesday morning in October: under a burning sun, at the place where the sky began.

Seymour Peak views

We debated continuing on to the next peak, but by this point our water supplies were running low in the heat and we had a birthday dinner and champagne cocktails waiting at home. We headed back down, with a brief detour to visit the snow patch so that I could give a nod to Ullr. While my thoughts are very much on the winter to come, the hike cemented my goal to spend more time hiking in the alpine next summer. I love this crazy contrast between summer and winter mountain landscapes, the alternate universe created by the passing of the seasons.

Birthday snow

Teachable moments

Today my friend B and I went for a last-minute excursion in the Seymour backcountry. When we got to the parking lot the sky was a dome of perfect blue and the peaks in the distance were gleaming white with snow. We took the access trail up to Brockton Point, handling the steeper climbs and downhill stretches much better than our last outing on the same trail when we were both brand-new to skins and AT bindings.

Shortly after passing through the Brockton gate we left the trail for a skin track that took us around the western side of the peak. It looked like an easier route than the laborious bootpack up the wall where J and I fell last season, and we weren’t aware that the marked path would have taken us around to the east on a much less exposed route.

By this time the sun was climbing in the sky and the skin track took us to open slopes that were already experiencing numerous point releases and small wet slides. We looked for safe zones and traversed up one at a time; the slides weren’t large enough for burial to be a concern, but there was a big drop into a gully to our left if one of us did get carried off the track.

After cresting a small ridge the track took us to a steep switchback with a potentially nasty fall right behind it. This was where my ski slipped out on the kick turn. I couldn’t prevent the instinctive urge to dive forward, which left me with no easy way to get back on my feet while being sure that I wouldn’t slide back and over the edge. I released my bindings and bootpacked a little higher to a spot where I thought I could get the skis back on, but there was too much snow built up on my boots and with a layer of ice under the surface snow, I couldn’t get a solid platform to work from. I ended up bootpacking the rest of the way to a small plateau where B was waiting, surrounded by trees buried deep in rime. Beyond that, it was an easy skin the rest of the distance to the summit.

We took a break on the peak, then got some great turns down the north face on gorgeous fresh snow before climbing back up to ski out from the top. On the south side the snow was wet and heavy, and solar warming was triggering numerous large wet slides lower down. Some poor route-finding left us on a very steep slope with a lot of loose snow, which neither of us felt completely comfortable skiing. We slid hastily down with a disturbing amount of wet snow coming along with us; by the time we reached the foot of the slope my legs were buried to the knee. After that, we bootpacked the path the rest of the way to Brockton Point where we ducked a rope and skied back along the ski area boundary.

It wasn’t our most successful outing in terms of the downhill reward – we had just the one good run of around 200m on the north face of the peak – but it was certainly an excellent learning experience. The scary exposure on the skin track and the sun affected snow gave us some great practice at making safe travel choices. We were probably a little more conservative in our decisions on the ski out than we really needed to be, but we’re both conscious that we’re still very new at this and in the backcountry the consequences for poor choices are serious. I need to practice my kick turns more – a lot more – to be able to manage those steep switchbacks safely, and I need to remember the lessons I learned last Friday about how much better I handle variable snow conditions when I stay out of the back seat. We made some pretty elementary mistakes today, but it didn’t diminish how much fun it was to be out there in the sunshine and snow.

Shred for the Cure

Saturday was a huge fail. I aborted my planned Whistler trip just outside Squamish due to some of the scariest road conditions I’ve ever seen on the Sea to Sky. Freezing rain, sheet ice, black ice, and cars fishtailing everywhere. After passing a really ugly six-vehicle pileup I decided it wasn’t worth it and headed home.That’s a first for me in the seven winters I’ve lived here. I’ve never seen so many cars turning back on a powder day.

Since visitors are going to make skiing opportunities thin on the ground in February, I headed up to Mount Seymour after work last night for Shred for the Cure (formerly Girls Ride Free.) The parking lot and runs were wrapped in dense fog when I arrived, with the cloud glowing in the floodlights and chairlifts sliding away into shrouds of mist. There’s something otherworldly about skiing at night in fog or falling snow; the mountain seems to exist in a completely separate space, with no connection to the world below.

My physiotherapist thinks my knee is more than strong enough to ski without the brace now, so I took a deep breath and left it in the car. Without it, my left leg felt strangely naked and horribly exposed. The nerves made me rigid and tense, and my first couple of runs were an ugly mess of skidded turns in the backseat. Then I began to relax as I adjusted to the absence of the brace, and immediately started skiing better than I have in a long time. The reaction lag and imbalance that have been affecting my turns disappeared. The brace is so light that I hadn’t felt like it was impeding my technique at all, but without it everything seemed to move quicker and easier on that side.

By this time I’d abandoned Mystery Chair due to the lineups, and as Lodge got busier I took a little detour into the trees and found the beginner terrain park. Given how good the knee was feeling, I figured it was time. I took a moment to focus, and then let my skis run toward the small kicker. The first time I hit it I was going so slow I probably only got a foot or two of air; that’s less than I’ve been getting off natural features this season, but somehow being on a man-made jump for the first time since the day of the ACL tear was much more nerve-wracking. Having landed safely once I herringboned back up the hill and hit it again with a little more speed. Half a dozen jumps later, I was getting some respectable air. The knee didn’t twinge once. It felt huge (much bigger than the kicker warranted); a big step toward getting my skiing back to where it was before all this began.

The slopes emptied out at around 9pm, and I had time for a few faster runs. At speed my carving felt smoother than it has done in a very long time, and the left leg felt strong and stable. Between ditching the brace and hitting the jump I left the mountain grinning from ear to ear: even after all this time, there are still milestones in recovery.

Avalanche Skills

As I mentioned in my last post, getting out of the resort and into the backcountry is one of my biggest skiing goals. But that brings a whole set of new challenges and risks with it, and it’s smart to be prepared for those. So for my birthday J bought me a place on Canada West Mountain School‘s AST1+ Avalanche Skills Training Course.

We started out with an evening classroom session on basic avalanche theory. As someone whose job involves delivering training courses on how to be a good trainer, it was fascinating to see how attentive every single face in the classroom was for the full three hours. There’s no better motivation than to have your life depend on what you’re learning.

Two days later we found ourselves on Mount Seymour at the crack of dawn for the first field day. A thick layer of cloud blanketed the city and wrapped itself around the middle of the mountain, but higher up the skies were blue and the sun rose in a blaze of colours as we gathered at the trailhead. After another week of clear skies and freeze-thaw temperatures, the skin track was bulletproof ice and we immediately got a crash course in what our instructor described as “skinning 403, rather than 101.” Every step of the hike was an education as we looked at terrain features, tested the snow pack, learned more about the layers and crystals we were looking at, and periodically fell on our faces on the sheet ice on the steeper sections.

By the time we reached Brockton Peak the clouds had closed in and we carried out our practice beacon searches in a thick fog. It was a totally different experience trying to locate buried beacons compared to testing them out at home or in parks. We also found that it’s pretty tricky probing for something as small as a single beacon, especially when there are tree roots and branches in the way in a relatively thin snowpack.

Beacon searches complete, we dug a snowpit and practiced stress testing on snow columns before heading back down the icy ski runs to the lodge. A second classroom session covered snow metamorphism and decision making models for backcountry travel, a fantastic tool which I can see being very useful in many other outdoor situations. I left with my head literally swimming from all the information, and very excited about day two.

For the second field day our group was scheduled to meet at Blackcomb’s Base II at 7.45am, which meant a 5.30am departure. Blinking and desperately in need of coffee, we found ourselves on the Sea to Sky under a full moon that blazed as bright as day and drenched the waters of Howe Sound in silver light. I’ve travelled that highway more times than I can count, but this was something completely new.

At Blackcomb Base we debriefed and then rode the lifts up to Seventh Heaven on a bitingly cold, clear day. We skied about halfway down Cloud 9, then cut across Lakeside Bowl and left the ski area for a skin over to Disease Ridge. Again, every step of the way was an opportunity for a lesson, and the deep alpine snow couldn’t have been more different to the bomber crust at Seymour. We stopped for a variety of terrain assessments and snow tests, and then skinned all the way up into Body Bag Bowl before making some memorable turns down the bowl and out through the meadows.

I can’t even begin to describe the joy of travelling through the backcountry on skis, or skiing turns you’ve earned with a long slog uphill. It’s a totally different experience to riding the lifts. You can’t cover nearly as much ground, but the terrain you do travel on is silent and pristine and it belongs to you in a very different way. This is still very new to me, but it’s already changing my understanding of what it means to be a skier.

After the run down we regrouped and carried out a multiple burial drill, where we buried backpacks with beacons in them on a simulated avalanche path and then groups of four took it in turns to search and probe for them. Our group uncovered six “victims” in thirteen minutes, and also practiced forming a probe line to search for bodies without beacons. It was a very different exercise to the single beacon searches the day before; with multiple signals and multiple searchers it was very easy to see how confusion sets in.

We made the time for one more run down a meadow full of soft snow and small trees, and then cruised back into the ski area and down to Base II where we did some final debriefing and received our certificates. B and I celebrated with a stop at Milestones for the largest steaks on the menu before heading home to Vancouver.

The course was a fantastic experience, and one I would highly recommend to anyone considering getting into backcountry travel. It was a great mix of classroom theory and learning in the field, and our instructors really knew their stuff and had an amazing array of experience. I found myself both inspired and a little bit daunted at the end of it. I have a new appreciation for just how much I don’t know yet, which I think is a very good place to start.