Category Archives: Snow Report

Considerable

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.

Zoa lunch spot

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.

Riding Zoa

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.

Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme

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.

Zoa slide

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.

Aftermath, Zoa

Anticipation

It starts with the little things. A certain chill in the air; leaves blushing amber then tumbling to the ground to form carpets of rust and gold; the first dusting of white on the North Shore mountains.

Then it gets bigger. A drive to Whistler where the snowline plunges toward the road as the car climbs. The first snowflakes, spiralling like tiny stars falling to earth. That particular greyness in the clouds. Air that grows heavy, laden with promise. A line painted across the mountains, drawing closer.

And you reach the breaking point where there is literally nothing but anticipation because the world you’ve missed so desperately, the world that doesn’t exist for six months of the year, is finally going to open its doors again.

You find yourself in this strange space that’s part dream, part hope, and part memory. The best days you ever knew blur together; from them you draw images of the lines to come, arcing through the trees, bursting over small rises, breathing the snow, moving through a place that feels too amazing to be real.

Skiing takes place in this strange, utterly unique space where gravity doesn’t apply, where reality isn’t what it appears to be. When the snow fills in the land, all the harshness is smoothed over. All you have to do is breathe, and drop into the white. Suddenly you’re flying across the face of the world itself. There’s no distinction anymore between the place where the air ends and the snow begins. All the rules that normally govern movement are broken. And your heart hammers, and your breath comes faster, and at the end of every run all you want is more and more and more.

We’re so close now. All my dreams, waking and sleeping, are of snow.

The first fall storm

Outside the rain is hammering down, dark clouds are scudding across the sky, and trees that have barely begun to don their fall colours are whipping in the gathering wind. And not so very far away, this rain is falling as snow. A metre at Whistler, right down to the Roundhouse/Pig Alley elevation; an astonishing 13 feet forecast at Baker; and 10cm for Brockton Peak on Mount Seymour. We’re not even into October yet. I hope this is an omen for the season to come.

Two magic words

…EARLY OPENING.

As the snow continues to pound down in the alpine, this morning Whistler announced the big news on their Facebook page: Whistler Mountain is opening on Saturday, twelve days ahead of schedule. Blackcomb will open as scheduled on November 26th. There will be three chairs open – Big Red, Emerald and Franz’s – with a mandatory download from the Roundhouse.

Now I’m torn. I’m not working Saturday; it’s so tempting to jump in the car and head straight up the Sea to Sky. However, with a metre and a half of fresh snow and every powder-hungry ski bum between here and the Rockies descending on the resort for opening day, it’s going to be hellish busy. I’ve got some owed time at work and could just as easily take Tuesday or Thursday off and catch a much quieter midweek day. I know perfectly well the runs will be less crowded, the lift lines shorter, and the whole experience much more satisfying if I can just be patient. But it’s been a long and snow-free six months (barring that one brief visit to Calgary) and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to help myself.

Whatever happens, the 09/10 season is officially on us and I’m stoked.

October season teaser

The first ski hill to open in North America this year was Calgary’s Olympic Park, which took advantage of an early season cold snap to start operations in mid-October. I was lucky enough to be in Calgary for a conference the week they opened, and was able to juggle my schedule enough to fit in a brief four-hour visit on October 21st.

The snow was better than I expected: heavy without being wet, and it improved considerably once night fell and the temperature dropped. The run included a small half-pipe, a couple of decent-sized rollers and a few impromptu jumps on the ridges under the light stanchions. There were scores of park kids doing flips and grabs in the pipe, a couple of telemarkers, and even one lonely snowblader. Part of the fun for me was wrestling the carving skis I’d been given by the rental store out of the tight GS-style turns they kept trying to make, and attempting to land a few small airs on a 70mm waist. (I learned the hard way that there was just no way those things were going switch.)

The Olympic Park is pretty tiny – it took me all of about 30 seconds to get from top to bottom – and to be honest, in mid-season I would have been bored within about fifteen minutes. But in October, after five months of summer sunshine, it was just great to be back on the snow.

Countdown

I can’t remember the last time I was this impatient for ski season to start. It’s not that I haven’t been just as eager to get back on the slopes, but for the greater part of my life I lived in a snow-free country and lacked the financial wherewithal to spend time in the nearest resorts in continental Europe. In fifteen years, my days skiing averaged out at less than two a season.

Then I moved to Canada and celebrated the fact that I was now just a two-hour drive from the best ski resort in the world by blowing out my left knee so badly that I couldn’t ski at all for the better part of two seasons. In 06/07, I crept back onto the local slopes with the aid of two enormous heat-treated carbon steel braces and realised that I was going to have to relearn my turns pretty much from scratch. In 07/08, I finally made it up to Whistler and began to regain my confidence on snow. And in 08/09, I skied 19 days and finally started breaking significant new ground.

It’s the 08/09 season that has made me so crazy to get back on the slopes this year. I don’t know how many seasons my knees have left in them, but I’ve already wasted far too much time. From here on in, I want to make the most of every moment.

The first big storm

Here in Vancouver, the rain has been hammering down for almost 48 solid hours. Mounds of soggy leaves are turning to slippery mush by the sides of the road; coming home from work yesterday, I was caught in a downpour so torrential that my waterproofs soaked clean through. Our balcony has accumulated small lakes here and there where the decking isn’t quite level, and the cats have taken to staring miserably out of the window and then back at us as though there might be something we could do to fix this. The Grouse Grind is closed due to hazardous conditions and there are rumours of mild turbidity in the drinking water.

In spite of all of this, I’m loving the endless rain because somewhere not far from here, it’s falling as snow. More than a metre forecast at Whistler in the space of a week, and they’re starting to send out emails that mention the tantalizing words “early opening.” There’s already more snow at mid-mountain than I saw during a handful of early season days in December last year. I’ve been refreshing the webcams obsessively, watching the coverage increase. It’s getting close. It’s getting really, really close.

Tonight I’m listening to the rain that keeps on falling, and I’m smiling.