There aren’t really words for this one. Two huge slide paths yielded runs that I’ll be dreaming about for days and months to come, high above Duffey Lake as a storm approached.
Remember way, way back when my buddy and I won a catskiing day in Rossland? We went to Red Mountain and had a fantastic time, but fluctuations in the freezing level skunked the catskiing part of the trip. The next year, there was no snow. Fortunately Big Red Cats are awesome, and they gave us a raincheck to 2015/16. Some things, it turns out, are well worth waiting for.
B and I were the only people in the group with avvy training and gear, so we helped out with the morning drills for the rest of the group. Then we headed out into the Monashees for a day of skiing some of the lightest, coldest snow I’ve ever encountered.
We were booked on an intermediate/advanced cat, and it was strange for me – so used to lagging behind my far more experienced and technically capable ski buddies – to find myself the strongest, fastest skier in the group. Our final run of the day was a grand finale on Mount Neptune, and with legs that still felt like they had miles in them after being shuttled around by the cat I was happy to charge right behind the guide through perfect Kootenay coldsmoke in the trees.
An amazing day out, and getting so many powder runs in a single day really gave my untracked skiing a big boost that would hold through the rest of the season. If you’re ever in Rossland, I highly recommend giving Big Red Cats a go.
It happened on Zoa, of all places. It happened there because we’d made the right call earlier in the day, knowing that conditions were considerable and there was more new snow on the ground than the forecast had called for, so we’d backed off on our plans to ski Thar. Instead we opted for the simple terrain on the other side of Falls Lake, the tried and trusted Zoa, a zone where the consequences would be small if something did go wrong. That call was good; not all of our calls this day would be.
We saw a little bit of cracking once we gained the ridge, but nothing that set off significant alarm bells. We dug a pit on the first aspect we planned to ski, and while we found obvious planar shears at the expected depths they didn’t let go easily. We were careful to take our first run on a low angle, shorter slope, but nothing moved and there were no other signs of instability. For our second run, we moved across to the longer slopes on the east side of the peak. Again we went carefully, one at a time, picking a consistent fall line with no obvious weak spots. Again, nothing moved. The snow was light, fast, fun.
Given how solid things seemed, we started our third run on a slightly steeper pitch. That was the first of two obvious mistakes that we made: letting the seeming stability of our first two runs lure us into forgetting that we were still out in considerable conditions. The second mistake was deciding that things seemed stable enough for us to ski the third run together, rather than continuing our one-at-a-time approach.
S went first, his board kicking up a big arc of powder. I followed him down, the turns fast and light and dreamy. I’m pretty sure I was smiling. Just ahead of me, S crested a small convexity that dropped onto the steepest part of the slope. And then he yelled “Avalanche!” and the world broke apart around us.
That moment is still seared into my memory. S disappearing over the convexity, the snowpack fracturing beneath my feet and sweeping him away with it. Somehow my brain processed that the fracture had happened on the convexity and I was at the very top of it; instinctively I cut hard, hard to my left toward a small stand of trees. Blocks of snow slid away below my skis. Then the ground solidified and I was off it, momentarily away from the chaos.
I took a deep breath and looked at my surroundings. My “safe” spot was less than reassuring; cracks were shooting out from beneath my skis, the entire snowpack around me completely unstable. Somewhere below me was S, but the trees were blocking my view and I couldn’t see where. The slide wasn’t big; the crown above me was about 30cm. But I was desperately conscious that if S was in the runout zone and the rest of the slope gave way, it could easily bury him.
I yelled and he called back that he was safe. I tiptoed away from the spot where I’d stopped, back onto the bed surface of the slide. From there I could see S, who’d managed to self-arrest with his board and was about 50m downslope with his airbag deployed. The slide, while relatively small at the crown and not deep, had pulled out the rest of the bowl below us and the surprisingly large debris field had funnelled through the gully at the foot of the bowl.
I sideslipped carefully down to safety, and S worked his way across the slide path to join me. We were both shaken, relieved, and already starting the analysis of how we’d triggered the slide. S began the process of deflating and repacking his airbag; he noted that the deployment might actually have done more harm than good, since the part of the slide he was caught in wasn’t that large and the inflated bag prevented him from being able to see what was happening upslope.
The mistakes were so obvious with hindsight. We let the seeming stability of our first two runs lull us into a false sense of security, and then we stopped taking the precautions that should be essential in considerable conditions – safest line, one at a time. But we also made the right decision very early in the day, when we backed off on Thar in favour of a much safer, less consequential zone.
I’m not at all sorry we made those mistakes. I’ve been skiing in the backcountry for almost five years now; that was my first avalanche involvement. It would be too easy to believe that all of the previous days were the result of good choices, good assessment, knowledge and judgment; but if we’d stuck to lapping our first two lines on Zoa, we could have gone home believing that was the case on this day too. It’s good to be reminded that we’re human, we make mistakes, and that we can never, ever let our guard down. We’ll make better, more careful choices in the future as a result of making the wrong ones today.
Our group has this weird track record with the upper Callaghan. We’ve been out there three times now, and somehow have barely managed a downhill turn. The first time was the physics-defying Telemagique tour, which only went up; the second time we underestimated how long it would take to get to the lodge and had to turn around immediately after we arrived; most recently, a freezing level bounce had left everything below 3,000m completely unskiable. When we set out for Journeyman today, we weren’t hopeful – could we finally break the jinx that had taken us through 88km of pointless slogging?
C and I took a cat bump to Callaghan Lake, then hot-footed it to the lodge as fast as we could. We were unable to resist the temptation to stop for a hot chocolate and a real bathroom (how can you not, when these things present themselves deep in the backcountry?) but we still had plenty of time to climb the additional 750 vertical metres behind the lodge to Journeyman peak.
Last time I visited the lodge I wasn’t skiing, but one sunny morning had given me a glimpse of the limitless terrain that surrounded it. As we climbed higher, I realised that the views from the valley floor had barely touched on the potential of this zone. Hidden, Callaghan, Ring, Solitude – towering peaks and endless fall line surrounded us in every direction.
We transitioned just below the true peak, and prepared for an epic run back to the valley. But to my surprise, when I pushed off the first roll my skis barely moved – it was as though I still had skins on. My first thought was that the curse of the Callaghan had struck again, and I’d suffered some epic wax crisis that was going to doom my downhill turns. But then I discovered a thin layer of ice on the base of my skis that was easily removed with a credit card, and the fun really began.
We skied back down the north-west aspect we’d climbed, which gave us nearly 2km of skiing and 750m of vertical descent through smooth, silky alpine bowls and then through deep powder in steep trees. It was the run of the winter for sure, and we were laughing for joy as we tumbled out of the trees and back onto the valley floor.
It was the winter that began with a whimper, slumped into a coma, and ended with a misadventure. On what would turn out to be the final day, we set out with high hopes for Mount Baker’s Skyline Divide. After a brief moment of over-ambition on the access road when we almost sank the car in snow that was deeper than we expected, we found a safe parking spot and headed a short way up to the trailhead and a beautiful hike through a fairytale forest. A light breeze span snowflakes from the trees, and they glittered and sparkled in the sunlight like a reminder of better winters that had come before.
The snow cover on the lower half of the trail wasn’t great, and as we hauled our skis up half-exposed steps we all acknowledged that it might be a challenging exit. But then we came to open meadows where the snow was dense but thicker, and finally to the open ridge of the Divide where Shuksan hovered on the horizon and a series of progressively steeper drop-ins led to a huge, dreamy open bowl. The snow seemed very stable and we agreed that no pit was necessary, but we should ski one at a time for the first run.
It only took two turns for disaster to strike. I was fiddling with gear and had let the other three go slightly ahead, with M taking the first run. By the time I concluded my binding adjustment and joined them, M was down and clutching a knee a couple of hundred yards below us and D was on his way down to join him. J told me that M had fallen and was hurt, and that D was going to check things out.
After a few minutes of watching M rock back and forwards over his knee, I realised that we weren’t dealing with a trivial situation. This is a guy who’s tough as nails. Conscious that we hadn’t done any testing of the slope, I asked J to stay on the ridge and skied down to join D and M. A pale and shaky M explained that he’d hooked the back of his ski as he turned, and it had twisted his knee and he’d heard a pop as he went down. At that point I knew that our day as we’d planned it was over, and that whatever it had turned into was going to be long and hard.
All three of us agreed that our initial priority had to be getting off the untested slope as soon as M felt he was able to move. D and I thought we were going to have to carry him, but he insisted that he could make it on his own if we were able to take his skis and backpack. One agonizing step at a time, he slowly and painfully crawl-hobbled back to the ridge. Once we were there he collapsed in the snow, and we began a proper assessment of our situation. M kept insisting he wanted us to ski at least one run before we began figuring out how to extract, but D and I were firm that the only remaining objective for the day was to get him down safely.
We did a quick skills and equipment inventory. D was the best equipped to look at making a rescue sled from M’s skis; I had more first aid experience, particularly when it came to knee injuries. We had three decent first aid kits between us. J, unfortunately, didn’t have a first aid kid with him – a lapse that M would later note that he needed to address in trip requirements.
We pooled resources and I used adhesive bandage to strap M’s knee securely, and then used his ski skins, a powder leash and two triangular sling bandages to construct a splint that would hold the joint in place. With the splint secured he gingerly tried taking some weight on the leg and announced that he thought he could begin the walk down on his own. The snow was starting to soften in the midday warmth, and the seven kilometres between us and the car seemed like a very long way indeed.
It was a painful journey down. M was determined to make it under his own steam; the ski skin splint held together and gave his leg the stability it needed, but every now and then his foot would sink in the snow or he’d trip on a root or step and yell out in agony. J kept skiing far ahead until D finally told him he had to stay closer to the group in case we needed him. The snow was heavy and wet higher up and patchy and thin lower down, and even on skis it wasn’t an easy journey. M’s determination and courage was astounding, even as his pace grew slower and slower.
Eventually, amazingly, we reached the trailhead. At this point I went ahead to the car, which was only a few minutes down the road, and made sure it was open and ready for M to collapse in a seat as soon as he arrived. I shoveled ice into a plastic grocery bag so that he had a makeshift ice pack waiting. After that, it was just a case of speeding him back to the land of socialized medicine as fast as we could.
In retrospect, we did a lot of things right. We made sure we weren’t all on an untested slope at the same time. We prioritized getting off that slope. We overrode M when he wanted us to take a run before starting the extraction. We had the right mix of skills, experience and equipment to be able to deal with the injury and prepare for the eventuality that M might not be able to walk down on his own. And if the worst had happened, I was carrying a Delorme InReach that we could have used to activate a rescue.
We were also lucky. If M hadn’t been able to walk by himself and endure the pain that went along with that, the extraction would have been much longer and harder. And there were some lessons to be learned. J was really uncertain as to how to deal with the situation; we could have harnessed him better with some direct instruction early on. It was also not ideal that we had someone on the trip who wasn’t carrying even the most basic first aid supplies.
Overall, it felt like the right day to call time on a winter that fell so short of our hopes.
In March we defied another round of skyrocketing freezing levels and headed out to Journeyman with our friends C and S to finally experience a night in a backcountry lodge. I was very hopeful that this would be my first trip in some time that didn’t begin with my skis on my back, but I was wrong.
Fortunately I was able to get my skins on well ahead of C, S and J, who were all on cross country skis. It was about 2km before we reached snow consistent enough for everyone to finally be able to gear up and begin sliding. Even in a low snow year, the trek out to the lodge was strenuous but very beautiful. The terrain was wide open until we reached Callaghan Lake, where we transitioned into rolling hills through a fairytale forest.
We were all pretty tired by the time we’d covered the 15km to the lodge, and were grateful to trade our ski boots for cozy slippers (I was especially grateful, having done the full distance in hard shell AT boots) and sink into cozy couches. Outside, it unexpectedly began to snow lightly – the first snow I’d seen in weeks that hadn’t fallen as rain.
The food began arriving almost immediately, with trays of delicious appies filling the gap before dinner. Our luggage arrived by snowmobile shuttle very shortly after we did, with bottles of wine tucked away in our clothing. As well as the very comfortable communal lounge, which features a pool table, dart board, selection of games and a guitar, the lodge has a beautiful sauna situated a few minutes away on Madely Creek.
We had a couple of hours to get cleaned up and chat to our fellow guests as they drifted in, and then it was time to head downstairs for a four course candlelit dinner. The food was proper apres-ski fuel, hearty and very good. Later we retired to the lounge for a few rounds of pool and Pictionary until the generator shut down and the lights went out at 10pm.
J and I woke early the next morning, and went for a walk in the frozen dawn. All around the lodge peaks soared into a sky so blue it dazzled the eyes: Hidden, Journeyman, Callaghan, Solitude. The volatile freezing level had left the snowpack bulletproof ice so I knew that none of it would be good skiing in current conditions, but the terrain was the kind that dreams are made from.
We ate breakfast in an alcove looking out toward Solitude, and I couldn’t take my eyes from the mountains. S and I had an interesting conversation where I tried to explain this endless pull toward these empty landscapes that to him present as nothing but wilderness; for me, they are all possibility and potential. Under a cover of snow the mountain changes into a place where movement becomes fluid and flowing, where you’re no longer forced to take a single step at a time but free to fly across the surface of the world.
We set out early for the hike home; C took a snowmobile, S and J hiked, and I skinned and then skied down once we’d crested the ridge above Callaghan Lake. It was a beautiful trip spent in amazing surroundings and luxurious backcountry comfort, with the promise of so much incredible skiing on future visits. It was also a fine way to see out our time with C and S, who are off on a whole new adventure of their own for the next year. They’ve been great company on these mini-adventures, and we’ll miss them.
We tried this winter, we really did. But it was a bleak year for the Pacific Northwest. I’ve lived here ten years now, and never seen anything like this.
There was one silver lining to the desperately high snowline: access. And particularly, access to Metal Dome. The Brandywine FSR melted out all the way to the top by early March, and suddenly we were able to drive to 800m and hike up to the col below the summit in just two hours from the car. We went back time and time again, scoring some of the best days in an otherwise forgettable season.
There were a couple of days of okay resort skiing at Whistler, with semi-decent snow and far too many people. There was a huge storm at Red Heather, the only one of the year that actually dumped right down to the highway, where I skied the only true powder outside of that first return to Metal Dome. There was a day out with a new backcountry skier that wasn’t particularly memorable for the snow, but where the group had to make some difficult decisions due to a split in comfort levels and experience and I learned a lot along the way. Mostly, though, there was a lot of hiking.
Metal Dome. Scene of the hundred buck heli drop, the most amazing place I’ve ever been. Perfect spring snow beneath skies that barely looked real. Empty alpine bowls ringed by jagged black rocks, incomprehensibly huge, so far above the noise and chaos of the world that it took days to get over the shock of reentry. Could it ever be as good again?
The terrible snowpack this year gave us a rare opportunity to rally drive my truck 5km up the Brandywine FSR, chains on all four wheels, before abandoning it when it finally got too steep to continue. Dawn threw strange colours through a thin scatter of cloud high above us as we readied our gear, and everything promised a beautiful day.
The final 2km up the FSR were easy but steep, with sledders buzzing by en route to Brandywine. At the snowmobile hut we detoured over a bank and continued up on a steep, narrow trail that eventually took us through a winter wonderland of trees and then into the wide open alpine on the south side of the peak. The snow around us was deep and soft, lighter than air when we ran our poles through it.
Higher in the alpine the wind had the arctic on its breath, a promise of a massive overnight temperature drop to come. We gained the col right below the summit and stopped to dig a pit; with a slide burying a sledder in this area earlier in the week we didn’t want to take any chances. We found the layer that the slide had gone on about a metre down, but even an aggressive rutschblock test didn’t release it and we felt confident that a skier’s weight wasn’t going to be a problem.
It was strange to see how bare the bowls are this year. So many more rocks, open crevasses either side of the glacier, so much more black against the white. Yet still stunning beyond words, with the Callaghan valley sprawling far below. As we transitioned a helicopter dropped a group off directly across from us on Brandywine, and we watched them arc turns they’d paid a thousand dollars for on a slope more or less identical to the one we’d just walked onto.
And then we dropped into the col, and I forgot everything. The heliskiers, the climb, the pit, the viciously cold wind that by then had me shaking from head to toe.
This rotten winter aside, we’re generally blessed for snow on the coast. We get a lot of it, but at a high density: wet and heavy. This was the lightest snow I’ve ever skied. It felt like there was nothing beneath our skis, no resistance, as though we were floating through clouds. We flew down, hollering with sheer joy on every turn, barely able to believe it. So different, and yet Metal Dome had delivered once again.
We debated a second run, but weren’t sure on our time so opted instead to climb back to the col and then go for a joyous, whooping run down through Brandywine Meadows, leaping from little ledges into the powder below, leaving trails of coldsmoke with every turn and grinning like maniacs when we regrouped to admire the vistas ahead and make sure we were still reasonably close to our descent route.
Getting the car off the FSR was interesting, since the road had been entirely shredded by sledders and we still had a fair number of steep downhills to negotiate. But some very careful driving in low gears got us down safely, with massive high fives all around when we stopped to take the chains off.
Once again, Metal Dome provided one of the best days out that I’ve ever had. Stunning views, incredible skiing, and a fantastic group that gelled really well even though only two of us had skied together before. I can’t wait to go back.
Another day, another hike.
There was snow higher up, and it wasn’t as ugly to ski as we had feared it might be. A layer of consolidated powder sat on top of a supportive rain crust, making for some reasonably fun turns once we got away from the tracked out bowls below Round Mountain.
A week later and conditions at the trailhead had changed completely. It was skins on from the parking lot, and apart from a couple of little rock gardens I was able to ski all the way back to the first corner. In the meadows, a foot of fresh powder.
Oh, winter. It’s been a tragic start this year, with everything below about 1500m pretty much bereft of snow and most of what’s higher just shark’s fins and rain crust. The same pictures of bony terrain everywhere, from the Duffey down the Sea to Sky and all the way out to the Coq.
But it’s winter, dammit, and we should be skiing. So last Sunday a determined group of us drove up Glacier Creek road, strapped our skis to our backs, and went for a long slog up the bare earth of the Heliotrope Ridge trail and an icy Hogsback in our ski boots. (Bad mistake on our part; we should have taken approach shoes.) The first part of our day was just a pleasant walk in the woods.
Then we crested the ridge, and there they were at last. The jumbled blue blocks of the icefall, the wind-rimed rocks of Colfax and above it all, the towering peak of Baker. A wind we couldn’t even feel tore spindrift from the summit, and I suddenly realised that the last time I was on skis I’d been standing up there, inside the sky, higher than I’d ever been.
As we set out onto the Coleman the rain crust creaked beneath our skins and the deep green of the valleys behind us told the sad story of the snow that hasn’t come this year. But it didn’t matter. With each step the world fell a little further behind us, and I was finally back in the landscape I’ve been missing since the moment I left it. It’s such a wild, staggering beauty that we find out here in the mountains, in places that were never really meant for people.
I wasn’t holding out a lot of hope for the ski down, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. On the Coleman the rain crust wasn’t icy but very dense and chalky: a glacier groomer. We flew down as far as the Hogsback, then clattered over ice to the bare earth of the trail and a very uncomfortable 5km hike back to the car. It was a lot of walking and not the finest skiing, but that was the last thing I cared about. It just felt so incredibly good to be back in the mountains.