We knew it wasn’t going to be good. It was terrible.
I’m not sure if winter’s really over; I think it’s just higher up.
It started at a roadside cafe where we basked in shirtsleeves in the early morning sunshine and sipped strong coffee as we discussed plans for the next two days. With conditions and weather perfectly aligned the goal we set was as ambitious as it could be: the summit of Mount Baker. At the trailhead we layered on sunscreen and strapped our skis to our packs for a long slog up a dry trail. It didn’t seem remotely possible that by the end of the day, we’d be skiing.
After a draining 5km shouldering all our gear on our overnight packs, we reached snow consistent enough that we were finally able to switch to skis and skin the final stretch up to Heliotrope ridge. I’d been near this place before, but at the tag end of winter beneath a layer of snow it looked quite different. We scouted a few patches of bare rock, but they all led to sharp rollovers within a few metres. With no better options, we set camp on the glacier.
I was very conscious that I’d be skiing at least part of the descent with a much heavier pack than I’d ever carried before, and so I chose not to bring a tent. After digging a snowpit and laying my sleeping bag in a bivvy sack that resembled nothing so much as a giant burrito wrapper, I started to question the wisdom of this decision. At this point, though, it was much too late to do anything about it.
We did an hour or so of crevasse rescue training, including self-arrest and setting up a ratchet system, and then with a couple of hours to kill before sunset we headed up to the Black Buttes for some glacier skiing before bed. Cloud closed in around us on the ascent, then blew away as we skied back to camp. It was a glorious place to be at the end of the day.
By dinnertime the temperature was dropping and the warmth of the rehydrated food was almost worth the horrible taste. With a forecast temperature of -5 overnight, I filled my Camelbak with hot water from the jetboil before wriggling into my burrito wrapper. I also put on every piece of clothing I had with me: puffy, shell, heavy gloves, toque, two pairs of socks, even my ski boot liners as extra foot insulation.
It was a strange night. Cold and uncomfortable and lonely, but intensely beautiful. In one direction, the burning sun was sinking over the ocean behind the dark ridges of the North Cascades. In the other, Colfax and Baker dominated the horizon, glowing gold in the fading light. As the night wore on and I drifted in and out of strange metadreams where I was at home and rushing to get back to the mountain for the summit attempt, every time I opened my eyes I saw the tangled ribbon of the Milky Way sprawling across the sky and Baker peak stained silver by stars brighter than any I’d ever seen. It was stunning and surreal.
Finally I woke to see a deep blue dawn seeping into the edges of the sky. In its indigo shadows we rose quickly, ate a swift breakfast, strapped our skis to our backs and began cramponing up the icy face of the Coleman. An hour or so later, the sun finally broke over the horizon. High on the glacier, with nothing but rock and ice all around us and the distant shadows of green valleys falling into darkness far below, it felt like the morning of the first day on earth. As though I’d never seen the world before, at least not like this.
Then, the climbing. I’ve worked hard this season. I’ve done back-to-back days of 2,500m vert on a few occasions. I’ve pushed myself to new zones, taken my fitness to places it hasn’t been before. This turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done by some distance.
Up and up we climbed. Slopes that looked like one straightforward stretch actually turned out to be hiding two, three more steep sections. Seeing the tiny dots of other groups ahead of us, and the immense amount of ground still ahead of them, made me realise that I’d completely failed to understand the scope of what I’d set out to do. It was bigger, higher, longer, and on an exponentially larger scale than anything I’d ever contemplated before. Yet it was also the most dramatic and inspiring place I’d ever been. The towering ice cliffs of Colfax; the giant, jumbled seracs of the icefall; the gaping blue maws of incomprehensibly deep crevasses.
Right up until the ridge below the Roman Wall, I was doing great. I was feeling strong, skinning hard, happy to set the trail. We took a break below the ridge, ingesting as much food as we could and melting water to top up our supplies. Then we switched to crampons and ice axes and began the final climb that would take us onto the Deming and eventually, up the unbelievably steep Roman Wall to the summit.
I haven’t used crampons much, and not at all on consequential slopes, so I slowed down at this point as I figured out how best to place my feet and maximize upward momentum. Even so, I was still feeling reasonably good. But as we transitioned onto the Roman Wall and the grade steepened again, the altitude hit. Kicking steps into a 40 degree slope with skis on my back after seven hours of climbing would have been hard at the best of times; at 10,000 feet, it was exponentially harder. I kept going as steadily as I could, very conscious of the growing sprawl of the Deming and its open crevasses beneath me. I knew by this point that I was going to make the summit, but also that it was going to be the toughest thing I’d ever done.
One step, two steps. Kick and stamp. Take your time, set your foothold; otherwise your crampon’s going to slide in the softening snow and your effort will be wasted. You’re almost there. One step, two steps. Breathe deep. Keep going. One more step, another step, another step. The top of the world is so very close. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. Just keep kicking, one step after another after another.
Then somehow, in all the sweat and slog and gasping breath of it, there wasn’t any more up. Just a flat plateau, drifting in and out of view in the huge clouds of sulphur that were swirling across from the fumaroles. We jumped back into our skis and raced across the snowfield to Grant Peak, adrenaline giving us the burst of energy we needed.
And there it was: a little bump on this immense plateau in the sky. Just a few more metres of climbing to take us to our final destination, the highest I’ve ever been. Everything was below us; the entire world. The peak of Shuksan, which normally dominates the landscape, was more than a thousand feet down. Every direction I looked, there was so much beauty: peaks upon peaks, and yet this gaping chasm of vertical distance between them and the mountaintop where I was standing. It was staggering.
I’d wondered for a long time about how this moment would feel, if I ever achieved it. It’s something I’ve been dreaming of for years, since the very first time I saw Mount Baker floating on the horizon and began to appreciate its immensity compared to the mountain ranges around it. In the end, there were no deep thoughts. I was too exhausted for reflection. It was just about being there and drinking in the sight of it all: these views so hard-won, so unique, so much more than I’d imagined.
Here’s what I didn’t imagine, though. That if and when this ever happened, I’d leave the summit on skis.
The initial descent was nerve-wracking. For the steep roll off the Roman Wall from the summit, I executed an ungainly sideslip. Then I coaxed my burning quads into a first turn, let it run out, and then came back for another. And suddenly realised it was okay, and let it fly. The run that followed was unbelievable, the mother of all ski descents. Ten hours of climbing disappeared in 45 minutes of beautiful spring corn. My legs were beyond tired and I had to pause periodically to let them recharge, but seeing the glacier disappear so fast beneath us and the green valleys drawing closer was pure magic.
The last stretch was tough. We stopped briefly at camp to pack up our gear, and then skied another couple of kilometres in deep, heavy spring snow before we had to put our skis back on our packs for the hike out. By this point my quads were a quivering, burning mess, and the final 5km on the hiking trail felt like it took a century.
It was a week before my legs felt like they belonged to me again. My face was badly burned in spite of multiple coats of SPF 50, and I learned the hard way that it’s very important to put sunscreen up your nose when you’re on a glacier. The night in the snowpit was probably the most uncomfortable I’ve ever had. But somewhere in there were moments of magic, moments of awe, scenes I never thought I’d see. Somewhere in there I stood on the roof of the world, not just touching the sky but actually inside it. The rewards were beyond measure.
And that’s the end, at least for this year. Ski season’s over now. There’s still so much to reflect on, such a crazy amount of learning that went far beyond the things I did on skis, but the world where these things happened is going away for a while. It’s never easy to say goodbye, but that was a fine way to go out.
I can’t deny that the season’s drawing to an end. But I’m not ready for the door to close on winter, for this world to be lost to me until November rolls around and the snow comes again. So for now, I’ll keep chasing the receding snowline as hard as I can and as far as I need to.
Last weekend, the freezing level danced way up the mountains while the weather forecast offered a vague mix of sun, cloud and snow flurries. We knew we’d have to go high, but had no idea whether or not we’d have visibility when we got there. We set our sights on the Duffey and arrived at the Joffre Lakes parking lot to lightly falling snow and a patchwork covering of cloud. Neither of us knew the area and we had no GPS track, so we’d resigned ourselves to the fact that if we reached the cloud ceiling on the climb up we might just be getting a very scenic workout.
The first lake crossing was sketchy as hell. After poking our poles into a foot of slushy water on top of the ice, we debated pretty hard as to whether we should attempt it. But the ice below the surface melt seemed very solid, and the bridge looked mostly secure. After making the call to give it a go we spread out and moved fast, and both breathed a sigh of relief when we made it to solid ground on the other side.
In the trees the snowpack was pretty thin, and a creek that would have made a great uptrack was already half unfrozen with huge holes looming between the pillows. It was early enough that the snow beneath our skis was still rock hard, but we could feel the warmth in the sun when we emerged on the boulder fields. When we reached the upper lakes the views suddenly blew wide open and we understood for the first time why this area has such a reputation. We were surrounded by peaks of such immensity they took my breath away: Joffre, Matier, Slalok, Tszil, and Taylor. Landscapes I’d dreamed about were right there in front of me, the crazed chaos of the shattered blue icefall spilling down from the Anniversary Glacier toward the lake.
We had a loose plan to head for the Taylor-Tzil col, but once we’d crossed the lake and climbed into the alpine it became apparent that the south side of the valley had been sun affected and we’d be better off staying north. We decided to climb a very steep shoulder between Matier and Slalock, following a skin track set by an earlier group, with the goal of skiing back down our ascent route.
The climb started reasonably but as the shoulder steepened the skin track followed and we found ourselves just barely hanging on, setting our skis with care on each step to avoid slipping backwards and working our way through some of the highest angle kick turns I’ve ever attempted. The final haul was over a sharp convex roll that gave me a few nervous moments, as I felt I couldn’t completely trust that my skins would keep gripping on the wind-scoured snow and it would have been a long fall to a rock outcrop directly below.
Then we broke over the roll, and suddenly, before we’d even said a word to each other, we both knew that the plan had changed. We’d reached the Stonecrop Glacier, a huge sweep of perfect snow that led from a ridge just below Slalok peak all the way back to the valley floor. We were maybe two-thirds of the way up and breathing hard from the lung-searing climb, but once we’d seen the glacier we knew there was no way we were going anywhere else.
We took a break for some food and then followed a much more reasonable skin track to the ridge. We passed one huge open crevasse, a gaping chasm of glassy blue leading to unimaginable darkness below. Over on the far side of the valley the clouds briefly rolled back to reveal the shark’s fin peak of Cayoosh, and as I caught my breath on the ridge and looked back toward it I felt like the winters had come full circle.
We transitioned quickly as clouds were closing in and flattening the light. The first few turns from the wind-scoured ridge were a mix of ice and snow pockets, and then we dropped into some of the best spring snow I’ve ever skied. It wasn’t corn; it was dense, surfy, boot-high powder that billowed up around us on every turn. We rode it all the way down to the toe of the glacier, where we dodged through a rock outcrop and back to the valley floor. Here we found the corn, and raced on silky snow all the way down to treeline and the lake.
The ski out through the trees was nowhere near as bad as I thought it might be on the way up. I think I’ve done enough of these crazy bushwhacks now to have developed techniques to deal with them. The low snowpack made for a few challenging moments as we skated over snow-covered logs and bounced off slushy boulder pillows, and at one point I ended up upside down after mistiming a jump from a log, but overall it felt way easier than the descent from Metal Dome.
Back at the parking lot S and I high-fived, celebrating one of the best days of the season. (Definitely the best day that didn’t include a helicopter ride.) We climbed hard, got ourselves into a beautiful area, and found incredible snow on the way down. If that’s the way the season ends, we sure went out in style.
I don’t want to admit that this might be it, even though I know that with the incredibly low snowpack and recent warm temperatures we might be done. For all the lack of snow, I somehow managed to have the best winter of my life. Part of it was amazing timing in the early part of the season, when every day off seemed to line up with the rare storms. Part of it was the crazy luck that led to the Metal Dome day. But the biggest part of it was meeting C and S. It’s not only that between the three of us we were able to get into the backcountry most weekends, it’s that we also formed a team where I was learning and pushing myself in one way or another every single trip.
Things are changing. I have a new job, and my focus is going to be elsewhere for the next little while. It’s not a bad time for things to be drawing to a close. But it’s never been harder to imagine the door shutting on the winter world, and I’m going to do whatever I can to hold onto it through the warmer months to come.
Some days change everything.
(Photo credit: Alistair Crompton Photography)
It started a week ago, with a tentative email enquiry about putting a team together for a low cost heli drop in the Whistler area. It got real just a couple of days later, when weather and avvy conditions lined up and suddenly there was a date and a destination. And when I realised that the destination was the same peak I’d been dreaming about since I first saw it six weeks ago on that beautiful day in the Callaghan, there was never any question what my answer would be.
So on Saturday morning I found myself in a helicopter, headed for Metal Dome. It all came together so fast that even as the heli prepared to take off, I still couldn’t quite believe that it was happening. Heli skiing has never been on my radar because of the cost; even a one way trip like this wasn’t something I ever thought I would be in a position to do.
The pilot took us low over the trees then rapidly gained elevation, passing over the gleaming snow-covered peaks of Rainbow and Gin. The excitement level, which had been running pretty high, reached fever pitch as the Metal Dome and Brandywine alpine appeared ahead of us, unbelievably huge. It seemed unfathomable that we were just moments away from standing on top of it.
The heli flew over Metal Dome summit and then swept in a dizzying circle around the landing zone, with the horizon line leaping and shaking as high winds from the peak buffeted us. It felt like some crazy fairground ride, too surreal to be scary. The pilot tipped our nose toward the snow, and seconds later we were touching down. I left first, crouching just in front of the heli with the rest of the team while Michael hastily hauled out our gear. Then with a massive rush of air and wash of spindrift and snowflakes the heli lifted back up, swept over us and away, and all of a sudden we were on our own on the mountain.
When the hollering and cheering had died down, we spent a few minutes taking stock of our situation. Strong winds were blowing across the peak, but the sky was completely clear and the views were limitless. Metal Dome summit just to the south, Brandywine towering to the north, Black Tusk and Garibaldi far off to the east, and Rainbow and the Callaghan peaks ringing the valley. Below us, slopes of such immensity that I couldn’t completely comprehend the sheer scale of the zone that we’d arrived in.
In spite of the sunshine exposed flesh was chilling rapidly in the bitter winds, so we geared up and briefly discussed our next move. Two of the team wanted to drop into a very exposed chute on the far side of the peak (respect!) while the rest of us planned to ski the steep, smooth line down directly down the north face.
I hadn’t been entirely sure about this based on Google Earth, which made it look terrifyingly steep and quite possibly beyond my skiing capabilities. But the reality, while far bigger than I’d pictured, didn’t actually seem bad at all. (To be honest, the adrenaline was still running so high at this point that I’d have tried to ski almost anything.) The snow was pretty firm in the morning chill – it was barely 9am – but there was plenty of edge grip, and I was able to arc some fairly respectable turns down to the initial regroup spot.
As Michael and I waited for Jeff to ski down, I had time to take in the whole expanse of the alpine. I’d been fantasizing about this place since the day I scoped it from the Callaghan base lodge, dreaming of what it would be like to stand on the glacier and the lines that I might find there. I knew from the first moment I saw it that this was a zone with endless possibilities, and yet standing within it I realised that I hadn’t even begun to guess how huge and limitless it really was.
The length of that first run – and all the runs that followed – was staggering. The turns just kept coming and coming, over rolls and down ridges, steeper here then flattening out for a moment there, the snow fast and chalky and fun. I’d started cautiously while I figured out the conditions but it quickly became apparent that holding back wasn’t necessary. Al and Dan rejoined us as we crossed the ridge that separated the two main alpine bowls, and all five of us flew the rest of the way down together.
We stopped for a brief break before transitioning, speechless at the immensity of the landscape around us. In the endless expanse of black rock and pure white snow, beneath a sky that was the deepest blue I’d ever seen, it felt like we’d left the world somewhere far behind. We could have been standing on the surface of the moon, or somewhere else entirely.
Our next goal was to bag the Metal Dome summit, and ski from the peak down through the col and the full length of the glacier. The sun was starting to beat down fiercely by this time, and we were in shirtsleeves for the climb. It was a long, steep trek up to the col, where the winds suddenly resurfaced and lashed the snow to spindrift. From there a final climb led skier’s right to the summit plateau, with a new set of mindblowing views toward the black spires of Fee and distinct pyramidal peak of Tricouni.
The run from the peak was even longer and more epic than the first one. The snow on the col was starting to soften and speed limits were forgotten. We rocketed over the ridge and sharply down through a crazy, steep-sided valley between two perfect triangular snow formations. It looked like nothing I’d ever seen on earth, a completely alien landscape.
We paused briefly for lunch, then headed back up along the ridge to the base of our landing zone. Michael’s thermometer showed 13 degrees in the sun, and we were pouring sweat on the steep climb. This time we took a direct route down over an insanely huge convex roll and then all the way back into the valley we’d just left. I was starting to feel my legs by this point but on the perfect spring corn, it was impossible not to be a hero.
For our final line we hiked back up to the col just below Metal Dome summit, this time letting the run down carry us all the way out of the alpine. Pausing just below treeline to refuel for the ski out, none of us could take our eyes from the zone we’d just left: it towered above us, gleaming white and silver in the sun, too amazing to be real. Within sight, it already felt like a dream.
The ski out, which would have been quite fun in good conditions, was challenging. The snow was heavy and wet, the trees closed in tight around us, and we had to negotiate a couple of partially-melted creeks before we finally hit the logging road. My legs were completely done now – I’d logged around 2,500m of vertical in back-to-back days – and I mostly poled my way along the flat stretches as we made our way the final 4km to Callaghan Valley Road.
The return to civilization was jarring. Up there in the alpine, in that huge monochromatic landscape that felt so very far away from the world, we hadn’t seen a single other person since the helicopter left us. Human constructions like roads and cars seemed alien and strange, complications we’d already become unused to.
This was one of the most extraordinary days of my life. It’s so hard to come down from an experience like that; I feel like part of me is up there still, like I haven’t completely reconnected with the world. I know that I’ll be remembering this for a very long time.
(Photo credit: Alistair Crompton Photography)
In the morning, a dawn climb to Brockton Peak to watch the sun rise over the Coast Mountains before skiing back down.
At lunchtime, the first #30daysofbiking ride in sunshine beneath cherry blossoms.
In the evening, skiing through the sunset and into the floodlit night on Grouse.
And all of this was sandwiched around a regular day at work. Just another day in the best place on earth.
Last weekend was a tricky one for choosing a destination. S and I had originally planned to head for Rainbow Peak, but that objective was skunked by the avvy ratings in the alpine. At the same time, the freezing level was high enough to rule out some of our normal go-to zones. In the end we opted for the Callaghan and the first part of the Rainbow tour, to Gin Peak via Hanging Lake.
We started out on the same cross country trails that I’d skied with J and the other C and S on that beautiful bluebird day in February. It was almost as warm, but the cloud ceiling was disturbingly low and we both realised early on that the visibility might not be in our favour.
The steep climb to Hanging Lake was more or less my favourite kind of uphill, with the exception of some epic skin glopping due to the warm temperatures. Fortunately S was prepared to scrape my skis free periodically as half the mountain tried to come along with me. The trail itself was broad, steep and clearly marked, and a nice cardio slog.
As we climbed the south ridge out of the outlet stream depression below Hanging Lake, the visibility – which had held on tantalizingly through the trees – wavered, trembled, and then disappeared completely. There were two other groups of skiers on the mountain, and first one and then the other broke away from the trail and began transitioning. S and I discussed it briefly, and decided to keep going for at least a short while. We were still hopeful that conditions might clear if we gave it a bit of time.
At this point things became interesting. With no-one ahead of us, we were relying on my fairly new skills with the GPS to wayfind. Following the route was simple enough, but I was also conscious that we were now at treeline in an area with an avvy rating of considerable and we needed to steer clear of avalanche terrain, even though we couldn’t see it. Attempting to read the contours and guide us safely through the hidden landscape around us was both very challenging and an intensely valuable lesson in backcountry navigation.
We wound our way slowly toward the summit, remaining hopeful that the visibility would clear. Unfortunately, the cloud closed in around us as we transitioned and when the time came to ski down, we found ourselves in a whiteout so intense that it was impossible to tell up from down. We’d slide, start to gain momentum, then hit a point where the contour of the slope changed and immediately crash.
It was pretty grueling for the first 150m or so of the descent. S fell off a ten-foot cornice he hadn’t seen coming. I dropped off a rise and then somersaulted into neck deep snow when the slope suddenly flattened. At times we both thought we were going down, then looked at our skis and realized we weren’t moving and probably hadn’t been for some time. It was utterly disorienting.
Then, thankfully, we reached treeline and gained some definition amid the murk. The snow was still crazy heavy, but with the confidence to ski it faster we were able to stay on top and get some decent turns in. The final part of the run down to Hanging Lake was pretty glorious, and we both found ourselves jonesing to come back on a better day and ski the entire stretch again.
The first part of the run out through the trees worked me pretty good. It was easier for S on the splitboard, but with huge chunks of styrofoam snow kicked up by earlier groups on steep slopes it was impossible to stop my skis taking wild deflections. Then the snow smoothed out, and we found ourselves on an insanely fun little luge track that rocketed us through the trees and all the way back to the cross-country trails.
In spite of the terrible visibility, it was clear that this was a phenomenal area with some great runs. I can’t wait to go back on a day when we can see what we’re doing.
Fantastic though the Red trip was, afterwards I was itching to get back to the uphill. Riding chairs sure ups the vertical and distance you can log in a day, but skiing without the touring element is like driving an automatic after standard: it’s less effort, but something important is missing.
I had a bacon party (yes, that’s a thing) to go to in the evening, so we opted for Paul Ridge to give us fast access to turns and an early return to town. The snow had been pounding down overnight, and in spite of some rather flat light the first bowl beyond Round Mountain was looking pretty dreamy. Everything seemed incredibly stable, so we wolfpacked the first turns on smooth, beautiful snow.
It all seemed to be going fantastically well until one of my skis prereleased on a steeper section, sending me into a huge somersault. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but my best guess is that as I tumbled my pole strap hooked the activation handle of my airbag. Next thing I was face down in the snow with a loud hissing noise, a strong smell of rubber, and a growing pressure at my back. It took me a moment to realise that my airbag had deployed.
Never having released it before, I had no idea how to deflate the bags and once I’d retrieved my ski, I had to make my way down the rest of the slope with the two giant bags hovering behind me, threatening to lift me off the ground every time my speed increased. Once I’d rejoined C and S I dug out the instruction card, let the nitrogen out of the bags, and stuffed them haphazardly back into their compartments. For the rest of the day, the 6.5lbs of airbag was purely a weight training exercise.
I was more rattled by the incident than I realised, and on our second run I was all over the place. Once we’d climbed back to the top of the bowl I let C and S take the prime line down the face, and went over to the side to take a slightly mellower line. It gave me exactly the opportunity to hit the reset button that I needed, and I was more than ready to make up for lost time on the next run.
This time we descended on the far side of the shoulder to the east of the bowl, where the wind hadn’t reached and the snow was drier and softer. It was a glorious, freewheeling powder run, where our tracks ripped clean lines through the snow before briefly cutting across one another and then blasting out onto the plateau below.
The crazy thing is that it was the Saturday right after a big storm, and yet we didn’t see another skier all day. As we worked our way along the ridgeline, all we found was empty bowls of untracked snow. The entire zone belonged to us.
We skied until our legs had nothing left, then headed back to town where I ate my own body weight in bacon and brined pork sandwiches. All in all, an excellent day in spite of the accidental airbag deployment.
I must have entered a thousand “win a ski trip” contests over the years. Hundreds of hopeful submissions disappearing into the ether, because of course you never actually win.
Except this time, I did.
The contest, which was run by ski.com, involved taking some adorable stickers of a skiing kitty, sticking them to cool things, and then sending them in via Twitter for an online vote to determine the winner. My friend B set up a fantastic shot of the sticker on the tail of a helicopter and the next thing we knew, we’d won the vote and the two of us were off to Rossland for two days of skiing at Red Mountain and a day out with Big Red Cats.
Most important things first: Red was awesome. I had no idea how big it was; there were acres and acres of terrain, really long runs with incredible fall lines, and swathes of amazing looking backcountry beyond every rope. The weather lined up almost perfectly while we were there, with a first day of skiing under bluebird skies with unlimited views of the Monashees and a completely unexpected storm on day two that dumped fresh snow all over the mountain.
We rapidly established that the Grey Mountain side was our preferred skiing area. This is a new addition to the Red tenure (the chair just went in this season) and in itself is the size of Baker. On the day of the storm, the east slopes were experiencing tremendous wind loading and we scored incredible, unexpected powder turns all the way down through the trees that started boot deep and kept improving as the day progressed.
On the days either side of the storm we skied the long, steep groomers on Granite. They were icy, fast, and more or less deserted. With so few other people to worry about we pretty much cast speed limits aside. I’ve skied so little hard snow this season that it took a while to dial my carving back in, but once I did I had a ton of fun.
Rafters, which was named Best Ski Bar in North America by Powder last year, was our apres go-to. This was the part of the trip that felt the most crazily luxurious. I’m used to ski days that start with a 5am alarm and are book-ended by two hour drives, often in terrible weather. Sleeping in till 8am and having a leisurely breakfast before rolling out of the door onto the chair felt almost as unusual as lingering over beers in the bar at the end of the day.
The bad news, which came shortly after we arrived, was that a vicious melt-freeze cycle had scuppered the catskiing part of the trip. I have to give a lot of credit to Big Red Cats for how they handled this; they were still quite prepared to take us up if we wanted to go, and gave us the option of a two-winter raincheck if not. We opted for the raincheck once we’d had a day on the mountain to check out conditions. While the catskiing was supposed to be the point of the trip, I’m actually not sad at all about how things turned out: it gives us the perfect excuse to go back to Red next year.
It’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to check out a completely new area. We have so very much so close to home – the Sea to Sky corridor, the Duffey, the Coquihalla, Baker – that we could ski for a lifetime and never want for new terrain. But sometimes it’s fun to go somewhere else, experience a different snowpack, and be reminded that there’s still more out there than just the amazing Coastal ranges on our doorstep. I loved Red, and I can’t wait to go back. Thanks, ski.com – that was a fantastic contest prize.
48 hours later, I was back in the Callaghan in very different conditions for a second crack at Telemagique.
A huge snowstorm had swept in, and the landscape was barely recognizable. The trees were cloaked in white, and there was so much snow on the road that we were able to put our skins on and ski straight out of the parking lot. Since it was our first time in the Callaghan backcountry and we knew it was likely to be a long day, C and I took the easy route in and headed up the deserted Mainline cross country trail for the first 9km.
At Callaghan Lake we left the trail network behind and set out into a windswept void of white and grey. There was something eerie and yet deeply compelling about the lake crossing: the howling wind and creaking snow, the depths of ice and water beneath our feet, the emptiness ahead that could have been anything or anywhere, and above all a sense, stronger than I’ve ever felt, of striking out into the complete unknown.
That feeling – the strange combination of adventure and uncertainty, excitement and fear – is one of the things I love most about touring in a new place. It’s hard to explain how visceral it is, and just how strongly it compels me to keep moving forward. There’s this wild energy that charges through the world when every step takes you a little bit further out, a little bit further away from comfort, security, and all the things that are known and sure.
On the far side of the lake we found ourselves in a snowswept bay where the real routefinding began. C has a lot of experience at finding his way in a new area; me, not so much. We’d decided to approach this one from all angles, including map, compass, and GPS. We left the lake via a creekbed, and began climbing through the trees toward the ridge.
With limited visibility we couldn’t see much in the way of landmarks, so we relied on the map and GPS to guide us through this section. Our overall progress slowed considerably due to the tricky routefinding, and by the time we emerged on more open slopes near Puma Peak we decided to skip the very enticing downhill possibilities to make more forward progress. We were just past the halfway point of the loop by this time, with a long way still to go.
As we climbed through the meadows to what we thought would be the high point of the ridge, the snow – which had been falling softly and steadily all morning – finally eased, and we were able to make out Puma’s south peak behind us as well as a whole host of steeper skiable terrain to our left. This was definitely the prime downhill spot on the route.
Our hopes of having reached the high point turned out to be optimistic as the final draw led to yet another climb, and then still another in the saddle beyond that. We took it in turns breaking a steep trail through the foot or so of new snow, a heart-pounding, lung-searing exercise that seemed to go on forever. The GPS confirmed that we were still on track, but we were both starting to wonder where the downhill was.
After what felt like a million years of climbing, we finally reached a point where the ridge began to descend. We gratefully transitioned, thinking that it would be all downhill from there, but had barely gained enough speed to begin turning before the draw flattened out and we had to put our skins back on for another climb.
What followed was a seemingly endless stretch of rolling, frustrating terrain where we either left the skins off, picked up a bit of speed, then went for an exhausting wallowy sidestep up the next rise; or left the skins on for easier climbing, but lost our opportunities for picking up distance quickly on the downhill. Somewhere along the way there were some fun powder turns, but very few compared to the amount of work we’d put in to get them.
Eventually we both reached our limit with the endless ups and downs, and with concerns about losing the light starting to surface we decided to cut the final corner off the loop. We dropped into a gully to our right and almost immediately lost all of our remaining elevation, plunging rapidly down very steep, icy slopes beneath dense trees and through powder fields where the trees receded. A few minutes later we tumbled out of the forest and back onto the cross country trail, and were on the home stretch back to the car.
The GPS revealed that we’d traveled 26km in just over 8 hours, with 1,000m of elevation gain. It was easily one of the most strenuous days that I’ve had on skis. In spite of the rather skewed ratio of uphill to downhill, it was also a tremendously rewarding experience. Going somewhere new, doing all of our own routefinding, being such a very long way out. Sometimes, that’s all the reward you need.
Until last weekend, I’d never cross country skied. Impossible, I know, but true. So J and I headed out to the Tantalus View Retreat with friends for the weekend, and from there to the Whistler Olympic Park in the Callaghan Valley. We lucked out completely on the weather; it was a perfect bluebird day, without a cloud in the sky.
Putting on the skis was extremely strange. Totally familiar, and yet not. Firstly, the boots were squishy and comfortable. Secondly, the skis themselves were these insane skinny things that didn’t behave at all the way I expected them to. The two skis put together were still narrower than one of my regular skis and the lack of edges initially seemed quite disturbing, since it wasn’t possible to use them to turn.
After some basic instruction from our friend C that was enough to get us moving, we set off. Apart from the tendency of the skis to want to slide sideways whenever I was out of the tracks, this felt like far more familiar territory since it’s the exact same motion as skinning, with some slight adjustments for the length of the poles.
The downhills were hilarious. With no edges, the only way to turn was to try and force the skis into an aggressively weighted snowplough which occasionally seemed to move me very slightly in the general direction of the corner. A variety of crashes, slides, and close encounters with snowbanks ensued each time the four of us came to a hill.
By the time we’d worked our way around the loop I was feeling pretty comfortable, having come to the realization that cross country skiing is basically just touring with really long poles and crazy skinny skittish skis. Sliding along in the sunshine, Brandywine towering ahead of us, it felt strangely liberating to be on such incredibly light gear and unburdened by an enormous heavy backpack.
This is something I’ll be doing again for sure. I’d like to keep working on my technique on the skis since there’s clearly a lot to be learned there, and I’d also like to try the skate skiing which looks like an absolutely killer workout. Mostly, though, I’m happy that I found a new way to do one of the things I love the most: move through the mountains.