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.