Category Archives: Mount Seymour

Earning my turns

I’ve waited a very long time for this day.

It’s been one of my big skiing goals to get out into the backcountry. My original plan was to get started in 2009/10, but a mistimed jump in the terrain park put paid to that. Last year I was lucky to ski at all, and the restrictions I was under meant off-piste was out of the question. Over the past two years I’ve built my rig one piece at a time – skis, skins, avalanche beacon – knowing that it would be a long time before I could use it. Today, I finally made it.

I’m spending most of the rest of this week in an AST-1 training course with my friend B, so we figured it made sense to get out there and test the gear before the field days. B flew in from Rupert a couple of days ago, and this morning we headed up to Seymour with a ton of enthusiasm and very little in the way of practical knowledge or experience.

We cruised a couple of groomers to warm our legs up, then left the ski area for the backcountry access trail. I was expecting a bit of stress getting our gear set up, but in the event it all seemed pretty straightforward. Fixing the skins to the skis was just a matter of attention to detail, and adjusting the boots and bindings was easy. We hooked our helmets to our packs, put on our toques, and headed upwards.

Ski skins are amazing. I couldn’t believe how well they gripped the snow. The only problem I had setting out was that I kept walking like I was snowshoeing, and lifting the skis up with each step. This tired my quads out pretty rapidly, and was a good reminder to kick forward and glide. We trucked along happily for a little bit, practicing flipping our heel risers up and down as we transitioned from flats to climbs, and then we hit our first downhill. We both went straight into the backseat, which meant that we stopped like we’d hit a wall when the slope flattened out.

The next time we kept our weight forward on the downhill, which made for a much smoother slide. Unfortunately this slope turned to the left, and turning when you have skins on and your heel isn’t locked into the ski is an entirely different experience than making a regular carving turn. As we hit the deck one after the other, we both commented that it felt exactly like being a beginner all over again: having these enormous things strapped to your feet and not knowing how they’re going to respond to your efforts to control them.

After that we hit a crazy steep stretch, and not knowing any better we just ploughed upward without thinking about why skin tracks normally form zigzag traverses. B was wise enough to clue in and take his skis off; I kept going and eventually hit a point where the icy hardpack had formed little ridges, and there wasn’t enough surface area pressed against my ski to provide grip. I slid backwards for several metres, then fell flat on my face – a bonus feature of having AT bindings.

All of this was exactly why we’d come out there: to figure out what worked, what didn’t, and to learn from our mistakes. By the time we emerged, sweating and triumphant, on Brockton Peak, we’d both learned some pretty valuable lessons and were grinning like maniacs. We’d made it to the peak on our own two feet, on skis, on a hard-packed access trail. We locked our heels back in and put our helmets on, and cruised down some crusty bumps back into the resort. Even though I’ve skied those runs a hundred times, they felt totally different when I’d earned the turns rather than riding a chairlift to the top.

After lunch we skied a few groomers for fun, then headed back to the access trail for another try. This time we motored up, bootpacked the one slope we’d realized was unskinnable, and cruised the downhills. The clouds had cleared and we set out under a bluebird sky, then found ourselves hiking into the most amazing sunset. We arrived at Brockton Point with a fiery sky burning over Vancouver to the south and the moon rising over the mountains to the north. On any day, it would have been a jaw-dropping view. Having just hiked up a 5k skin track to reach it, it was one of the best views I’ve ever seen.

We got very little downhill in, but I had a fantastic day and left the mountain with a grin a mile wide. I’ve waited such a long time for this, and it was everything I wanted it to be and then some. I’m a complete gaper on skins, but the only way to go from here is up. This is exactly where I want to be: out in the backcountry, taking my skis to new places and different kinds of snow. Skiing from Brockton Point down into the sunset, it felt like a new beginning.

Dog Mountain

On Sunday we headed up to Seymour and took the First Lake trail to Dog Mountain. The snow pack is very thin in spite of the November storms, but it was still a beautiful hike to the lake (which was covered in happy dogs and surrounded by little whiskeyjacks who flew down and perched on our hands to sample crumbs from our lunch) and then up to the peak. The views were amazing, the sun was bright and warm, and we chatted briefly to some campers who had stayed on the mountain overnight. I looked out to the west, to snow-capped mountains and green valleys, and couldn’t imagine a better way to start a day than seeing the sun rise from among the peaks.


Praxis Backcountry: first impressions

It’s been a long time coming, but yesterday I finally got to ride the amazing Praxis Backcountry.

Before I talk about the skis, I should note that this isn’t in any way a proper review. Because I wasn’t sure if my knee was up to handling a ski that size, I took it over to Seymour for the day and spent most of the time on groomers (albeit with a ton of rather wet new snow on top.) I plan on posting a full review of the BCs after I’ve had a chance to take them out touring and ride the gamut of conditions, which may not be until next season.

I skied the Shoguns in the morning – another knee test that went well – then switched to the BCs in the afternoon. The first thing that struck me when I clicked into them was how impressively light they were for their size. Lighter by far than the Shoguns; possibly even lighter than the Silencers, though it’s hard to make a direct comparison when I don’t have the numbers to hand and there’s such a size difference. I knew that Praxis had focused on keeping the weight down for touring, but even so I was blown away that such a big, powerful feeling ski could weigh so little – especially with the relatively burly Marker Baron bindings.

I tried the ski out on a few different runs, including a couple of blue cruisers, an ungroomed black, and even a little rather soggy powder. The first thing that struck me was that the ski has quite a bit more tail than I’m used to. I couldn’t decide whether this was down to the extra length, the relative stiffness of the back portion of the ski, or a combination of the two – I’ll probably get a better sense of this as I ski it more, and attack more varied conditions.

The second thing that struck me was the smoothness of the ride. The snow was pretty horrible – choppy, wet crud – but that big rockered tip just flew over everything in its path. The few stashes of fresh snow that I found weren’t deep enough for a proper assessment, but I definitely had a sense that these boats are pretty much unsinkable. Seymour isn’t big enough to really open up and let the ski run, so although I got a great feeling for how it handles poor conditions I don’t have any impression of its performance at speed.

The standout for me was that this ski doesn’t feel like anything I’ve ridden before. I was expecting to find some parallels with the Shoguns or the Doughboys, but the size coupled with the light weight and the tip rocker created an entirely different experience. I don’t think these would be quite as much fun on the groomers as the Shoguns, but I can already see them becoming my powder day ski of choice for Whistler as well as my go-to for touring.

I was stoked that my knee was able to handle such a big ski – the biggest I’ve ever ridden – even though it definitely put my new ACL through the toughest test it’s had yet. I’m sorely tempted to take it out and try it in the kind of conditions it was built for, but underneath I do know that it’s too soon for the knee. Nonetheless, I can’t wait to explore some of the potential that I know I wasn’t able to tap yesterday. This ski is powerful; I could feel it wanting bigger runs, steeper slopes, and deeper snow.

Overall, I would say that yesterday’s very limited test gave me a lot of confidence that this ski will be everything I thought it would – and then some. The only very slight negative is that I don’t think the beautiful topsheet will last too long, as it already has three noticeable chips (two next to the sidewall, one on the tail) from yesterday’s outing. But really, although I love the way the ski looks, what I care about is not the appearance but the way it feels to ride. And for that, the Backcountry is already a clear winner.

Day one

Tomorrow my new ACL is six months old. And today…today I skied.

My physiotherapist had told me I was okay to go as soon as I could run figure eights and jump forward a half-dozen times in a row without discomfort. I actually passed the tests about a week ago, but the whole falling down a mountain incident put things on hold for a few days. The knee felt stiff and achy for a few days afterwards, but once that wore off it felt great. In fact this week it has felt stronger and closer to normal than it has since surgery.

I went back and forth on whether an attempt at skiing this weekend would be a good idea. The weather forecast wasn’t great, and a freeze-thaw cycle at the end of the week had made for icy conditions on the north shore mountains. At the back of my head, too, was the fear that the knee might simply fail: that it wouldn’t be up to the task. In the end J and I decided that we’d go snowshoeing on Mount Seymour today, put the skis in the car just in case, and make a final decision when we arrived.

Driving up the mountain felt like the morning of the first day of school. I’ve been waiting so long for this moment; I can’t remember the last night I didn’t dream about skiing. I was excited, and nervous, and worried about how the knee would hold up, and underneath it all quite unable to believe that this might really be the day when I skied again. A light snow began to fall as we arrived in the parking lot, and we walked over to the Lodge Chair to take a look at the runs. They were hard-packed with a layer of fresh snow, and not as icy as I’d expected. No reason at all not to give it a try.

Clicking into my bindings felt like a hug from an old friend that I hadn’t seen for far too long. I skated slowly over to a gentle green run and there were no tweaks or twinges at all; nothing to stop me. I paused for just a second at the top, still somehow unable to believe that I was going to slide, and turn, and ski. And then I did.

It felt better than I had expected. In fact, it felt fine. It didn’t even seem to be as awkward as my first turns last year, which were shockingly bad. I can see from the photos that I was pretty tense and rigid for the first couple of runs, but as my confidence in the knee grew that eased off a little and my stance improved. I skied the green run a few times and then took a couple of turns on the short blue run under the Lodge Chair, where the pitch was a little steeper and I could get going a little faster. A few muscles that have gone unused since Gaper Day protested a little, but the knee itself felt fine. The left leg is definitely weaker than the right, but not nearly as much as I feared it might be. I had no problem putting good, solid pressure through that side in carving turns.

After a half-dozen runs I took the skis off for a couple of hours and J and I wandered along the snowshoe trails under clearing skies, hiking past frozen lakes and little creeks tumbling along under the snow. Afterwards J headed to the lodge and I took the chair up to Mystery Peak for a few longer runs. The first stretch below the peak was sheet ice, but below that I was able to let some speed build and open it up a little. On the last run of the day a burning sunset lit up a band of low cloud over the city, and with the cold mountain wind in my face and the snow flying under my skis I felt like I’d come home.

It’s been a long road, and part of me still doesn’t believe that the day was real. I’ve dreamed of this so many times; surely it was just one more dream? But the photographs are proof that 183 days after surgery, I’m finally back on my skis. There’s still a long way to go, but this is the moment I’ve been waiting for. This is the day I got my soul back.

First turn

Lucky escape

Things not to do while rehabbing an ACL: fall 100-odd feet down the side of a mountain.

We spent the first two days of 2011 snowshoeing. On Saturday we went out to Cypress and hiked around the paid trails, and on Sunday we went to Seymour and took the access trail into the backcountry. The group we were with were keen to do the Mount Seymour Peak, and even though I could see that it was an exceptionally steep face of slippery, sun-warmed snow I cheerfully agreed. Our snowshoes actually didn’t have enough uphill traction to make it up the main face, but we found a chute to skier’s right with a few little trees at the top and eventually managed to scramble up.

When we reached the top the tough climb was worth it a thousand times over; I’ve seen many views from many mountain peaks, but the difficulty of the approach and the fact that it was by far the hardest thing I’ve done since surgery made these seem extra spectacular. The sun was shining down, the air was as clear as glass all the way to the Cascades, and there on the highest peak for miles around it felt like we were standing on the edge of the sky itself.

And then we had to get down.

We started back down the same chute, using the little trees at the top for purchase.  J was inching her way down a few feet below me when the branch I was holding slipped out of my hand, and I began to slide. With the slope dropping off below the trees I made a grab for the trunk of the lowest one, but was already moving much too fast and just bounced off it. At that point time suddenly split into two channels, one where I had an eternity to appreciate that my brand-new ACL and I were just about to fall more than a hundred feet down a near-vertical face and one where there was a tumbling blur and then all of a sudden I was lying in a snowdrift at the foot of the slope. I do recall the sheer speed of the slide, and stabbing vainly at the snow with my hiking pole to try and self-arrest. I also remember seeing the heel of my bad leg catch on the snow, and trying to yank it into the air and out of the way as I tumbled.

When I picked myself up out of the snowdrift, nothing seemed to be damaged. By the time we’d hiked the 5k back out to the parking lot my knee was aching a bit and I had a sore spot on the shin, but it was hard to tell whether this was from the steep scramble up the slope or the tumble down it. The next day the knee felt achy and a bit stiff but otherwise okay, although my arm had bruised up impressively from the bounce off the tree. On Wednesday the knee felt much better, and my physiotherapist gave me a thorough once-over and pronounced me intact and very lucky. (He also gave me a bit of a talking to about acceptable risk at this point in rehab, which I took on the chin as I thoroughly deserved it.) Today the knee felt great.

I have to admit that while I’d likely have dived down the slope voluntarily if I hadn’t had the healing graft to worry about, the fall was pretty freaky and I spent a fretful couple of days in its aftermath. I was very conscious that I’d put myself in a really stupid situation, and that if I had done some serious damage I would have had no-one to blame but myself. I know that I’m not good at evaluating physical risk, and I really should have kept this in mind when I was assessing the situation.

This was definitely a lucky escape, and hopefully a valuable lesson learned for the future.

Seymour Peak views

Day twenty

I got day twenty after all.

On Tuesday, after pushing and twisting my leg every which way in its new brace and checking the condition of my revitalized quad muscle, my physiotherapist told me I could ski again. Yesterday, six weeks to the day after tearing my ACL, I did.

It’s hard to describe how strange it felt. While skiing has rarely left my mind since the injury, all I’ve been doing for the past six weeks is trying to come to terms with the fact that it might be years before I can ski again. In the Seymour parking lot, strapping my boots on, it seemed completely impossible that I’d be on the slopes in just a few minutes. Even on the Mystery Chair, I couldn’t imagine it.

The first few runs were weird. Initially it seemed that my left leg couldn’t remember what it was supposed to do, the way it was supposed to move to pressure the ski through a carving turn. But once I’d made it down a few times without pain, my confidence grew and I realised that the hesitation was all psychological. When I made myself put the weight through the leg for a turn and transition, it actually felt just fine. And then it hit me, as I finally linked a reasonable set of carved turns: I was back on the mountain. I was skiing. Slowly, carefully, nothing like the breakneck charging down open bowls that I was doing before, but I was skiing again. At that moment, I couldn’t have been happier.

We skied for about five hours in total. I was tempted to carry on, but was also wary of pushing it too far in the heavy, slushy spring snow. For all that I want to ski more than just about anything, I’m also very conscious of the risks associated with ACL deficiency and the last thing I want to do is cause additional damage to the joint, especially given how little time has elapsed since the original injury. It felt pretty good afterwards; I iced it when I got home and apart from a little stiffness today, it doesn’t seem to have suffered any adverse reaction. Skiing did highlight the fact that the injured leg is still significantly weaker than the other side, so I’m going to spend at least another couple of weeks on aggressive quad strengthening before the next outing.

Yesterday I was on top of the world; today, oddly, I’ve been pretty bummed out. Yesterday all that mattered was that I skied; today all I could think about was how shot to shit my technique is now, the things I won’t be able to do on the slopes till after surgery and recovery, and the distance from here to the way I was skiing before. Lost progress; lost time. Getting so close to normal – or rather, what normal used to be – reminded me just how far away from it I am now, and how long it will be before I can get there again. But really, that’s not the way to look at this. Yesterday was a gift, a day I never thought I would have, and more than anything I’m grateful for that.

Skiing is the best medicine

Didn’t make it to Whistler this weekend. We’ve both been under the weather this past week, and the theft of my bike on Friday night left me in a serious funk that I couldn’t shake. I’m disappointed, especially as all but two of the day lots closed on Monday and Whistler is now largely inaccessible until March 1st. It’s ironic that the arrival of the Olympics is going to make it so much harder to participate in my favourite winter sport.

Fortunately there was my regular Monday night at Mount Seymour yesterday to cheer me up. The forecast rain materialized as a rather wet and heavy but much-needed dump of snow, making life challenging for beginners (I saw more people going down the mountain on stretchers after catching edges last night than I’ve ever seen in a single four-hour stretch) but improving things immensely for more confident skiers and riders. There’s also something particularly appealing about skiing after dark in a snowstorm: it’s like the mountain is wrapped in its own softly glowing bubble of light inside the night, a silent and ethereal world far removed from the noise and the craziness below.

When the lineups got too crazy I spent some time in the small terrain park; the slushy conditions made it hard to get much air on the jumps, but I solved the problem by climbing a small hill to increase the runup. At this point the size of the jumps became an issue as the extra speed led to me overshooting the landing. Once the apres-ski party started at the lodge I headed back over to Mystery Chair and amused myself hopping off rocks and banks for the remainder of the evening. I’m really, really happy with how much my confidence in the air is improving, and can’t wait to get back in Whistler’s terrain parks.

By the end of the night I was dog-tired, but feeling much better about life in general. I still have to figure out what to do about the bike situation, especially with Olympic road closures and transit lineups looming, but with skis on my feet it was easy to forget about it for a while.

Riding free and backwards

Last night I took J up to Mount Seymour for the Girls Ride Free experience. J isn’t a skier, but having married a fanatic she’s been trying out a few different snow sports over the past few seasons. She finally found her calling last year after we were given a snowboard by our friend K, although unfortunately we didn’t figure this out till spring.

Yesterday was her first time out since then, and she did awesomely – she has really good control of the board, and her heelside turns are smooth and confident. She’s not quite linking turns yet, but by the end of the evening she was awfully close. Conditions were damp and warm, which meant the snow was slushy and grippy and she was able to get a good feel for the edging.

Because we stuck to relatively low speeds on greens and blues, I practiced some technique drills and then decided to work on skiing switch, which is something I’ve never been able to do. My friend B advised me to really exaggerate the movement with the lead ski to carve, and after a few unintentional 360s I finally managed to string together a half-dozen turns. I don’t think I’m ever going to be a strong switch skier, but this was at least a start. At the end of the night I also took a quick run through the terrain park, though with the wet snow it was hard to get a decent runup to the jumps.

All in all a fun night – it was great having J on the mountain with me, even though conditions weren’t outstanding. A few more turns on the snowboard, and I think she’ll be ready to come exploring at Whistler.

Girls Ride Free

This Monday marked the start of one of my all-time favourite promotions: Girls Ride Free at Mount Seymour. The way it works is very straightforward (if you’re a girl): you pick up a voucher at one of the numerous in-town partners, then hand it in on the mountain for a night’s free skiing on Mondays. Instead of paying for your lift ticket, you make a donation to the BC Cancer Foundation to support breast cancer research. Free skiing and the chance to support a great cause at the same time – you can’t go wrong.

Monday was a beautiful night, completely clear and just a little windy. It was also great to be back on Seymour, which was the first North Shore mountain I skied at and has a very mellow, laid-back feel to it. They’re doing better than Cypress, which has been completely washed out by the recent warm weather, but the Lodge Chair is closed and the snow was pretty icy. No matter; on a clear night when the lights of the city are spread out below the mountains, dropping into that first run is like falling into a carpet of jewels. I put some tunes on and spent a happy couple of hours cruising the runs that were open, practicing my carves on ice. The conditions did mean that it was surprisingly quiet for a Girls Ride Free night; last year they were characterized by lift lines a mile long, though no-one really minds when you’re riding for free.

There’s no better feeling after a long Monday at work than throwing your skis in the back of the truck, heading up the winding mountain road, and carving a few turns high above the city. If you’re in Vancouver and you haven’t tried it yet, you really should.