Category Archives: Snowshoeing

The best days

On Sunday we were back at Red Heather again. The avalanche danger was considerable right through the Sea to Sky area, so we wanted to stick with simple terrain that we know reasonably well. Our main purpose wasn’t actually a ski trip, but a snowshoe with our friends C and B and B’s daughter. Needless to say I took my skis with me, but I also packed my hiking boots and strapped snowshoes to my pack so that I would be able to hike down with the others. I wasn’t counting on turns, but I was hoping.

After a slightly hair-raising drive to Diamond Head (we had to negotiate both an abandoned schoolbus blocking half the road, and a pickup that had ignored the mandatory chainup sign and then discovered the error of its ways and had to reverse back down while we were trying to drive up) we set out from the trailhead into the ultimate winter wonderland. Two feet of fresh snow, forest giants with branches loaded with white and rimed trunks, and clear skies after the storm.

The higher we climbed the more dazzlingly blue the azure sky above us seemed, and the deeper and whiter the snow coating the landscape. We passed a campground in a clearing, the tents bright splashes of colour buried deep in the snowbanks, and I couldn’t imagine a more perfect scene to wake up to (though damn, the night must have been chilly).

When we reached the warming hut our friends were ready for a break and some food, but J and I decided to press on for the ridge. I wanted to catch a few turns before the powder tracked out, and J wanted to photograph the views on the first clear day we’ve had on this trail. I left my snowshoes and boots at the hut, and we set off upwards through fields of soft new snow and ranks of ghost trees. Behind us jaw-droppingly beautiful vistas opened up: mountain peaks beyond counting cloaked in fresh snow, framing the horizon.

When we reached the ridge we stopped for a moment to admire the view together. Then J started back down, and I transitioned as fast as I could back to ski mode. I’m getting a lot better at this: I got the skins, bindings and boots sorted out relatively quickly, and in hip-deep snow the main challenge was actually getting back into my skis.

Most of the other skiers on the ridge were heading directly down the same slope, straight ahead from the brow of the ridge. I cut just to skier’s right of the stand of trees at the top to an aspect where the snow was still untouched, and found myself in another of those dream moments. An untracked slope in front of me, drifting cloud, bright sunlight, and those incredible mountains flanking the view in every direction. I took a deep breath, and skied down.

Even while it was happening, it barely seemed real. The snow was lighter than the last two times I’ve been to the ridge, and while I still don’t really have my weight distribution in powder figured out I’m starting to adjust to that feeling of surfing the snow rather than carving it; flying on the air it holds rather than digging my edges into the hard surface it provides when compressed.

You cannot buy these moments. You can’t find them in a resort. It’s not just about leaving behind lift lines and tickets and crowds; it’s about having earned every turn with the long slog up, and being in the wilderness where there’s only silence around you when you stop moving. It’s about being in the places you always dreamed about, but never thought you’d actually reach. For me it’s also about having the possibility of all of this taken away when I was as close to it as I’d ever been, and having to fight my way back to that possibility all over again. It’s about this.

Back at the hut we met up with our friends, and they started back down the trail with J while I collected my snowshoes and hikers. I skied down the trail past them, then put the skis on my pack with the boots clamped into the bindings and strapped on my snowshoes while they caught up. The A-frame carry was a little ungainly, but it worked well enough – and gave me some extra exercise on the way down.

In the late afternoon the shadows deepened and snowflakes falling from the trees filled the air with an endless shimmering glitter. As we passed a gap in the trees we stopped to look out over Howe Sound, silver in the sunlight.

Sometimes photographs are just a snapshot, a moment in time that doesn’t really represent the day. But every now and again, the day actually is this perfect. Good friends, incredible scenery, and J with me every step of the way to the ridge. Amazing turns and J and I crisscrossing each other’s paths on the way down. It still blows my mind that I live in a place where all of this is just an hour’s drive away. We are so very lucky to be here, and to have such great people to share these beautiful places with us.

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.


New ‘shoes

Last Sunday we took our new snowshoes (an early Christmas gift to each other) and headed up to Cypress for the first hike of the winter. The snow cover is still pretty thin, but we bashed through the little trees and branches that were poking out of the drifts and made it all the way to Hollyburn Peak. The views north to the Lions and east to Sky Pilot were quite incredible; there’s nothing like that feeling of standing on top of a mountain that you’ve climbed with your own two feet.

Of course now I keep looking at the snowshoe trails and seeing backcountry skis, skins, AT bindings and potential tours, but that doesn’t take anything away from how much fun snowshoe hiking is. I’m always going to have a soft spot for it because it was the thing that got me back into the mountains this time last year, when I was still months away from skiing again.

I love the way every snowfall changes the landscape in the winter; you can hike the same trail two days apart and find it almost unrecognizable, all the lines changed and gradients softened. I love leaving the city and driving up to the place where the world becomes clear and clean and white and the air has that beautiful crisp coldness that you only get above the snowline. I love being out there in the mountains, regardless of what’s on my feet.

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

Gains and losses

The PFS flare that was making me so miserable in my last post lasted nearly three weeks. In the meantime I did what I could, maintaining a daily workout of around two hours with no impact at all. The swarm of angry hornets that had been trapped under my kneecaps buzzed and stung until last weekend, when we’d planned two snowshoe hikes. Getting ready for the first one, it was like someone had suddenly injected my knees with a magical antidote. We headed up to Grouse and stomped around in a snowstorm with a big gang of friends, diving into snowdrifts and somersaulting down slopes. My knee suddenly felt a hundred times better, although being side by side with skiers made me exceptionally sad.

The next day I went up to Seymour with two friends, and led a hike that they later described as a “snowshoe death march.” I cannot begin to describe how good that felt: it never even occurred to me to slow down, because it never occurred to me that I could hike fast enough to cause anyone a problem. I probably should have been more considerate, but I was stoked when I realised that I’d set a pace that challenging. I felt like things were starting to get back on track.

And then someone stole my bike.

I know; it’s not the first time. But we’re pretty cautious based on previous experiences; we don’t leave our bikes in the parkade, which is completely insecure. We keep them chained to the stair railings outside our front door, right at the far corner of the top floor of the building and through two fire doors. When I opened the front door and saw the empty space I just felt utterly sick, especially as all of the medical and other expenses this year mean there’s absolutely no way to replace the bike.

We work hard for what we have, and it’s never easy to know that someone believes they have the right to strip you of possessions that you treasure for their own selfish gain. But this was the bike that was my constant companion through rehab. It was the bike I rode to the beach at five weeks post-surgery, when my PT okayed me to go out on the road against all the odds. It was the bike that took me to work on my first day back. It kept me sane during the long months dealing with the aftermath of my knee injury.

All thefts sting. Somehow, though, this one stings just a little bit more.

Back in the mountains

This weekend I was invited to go snowshoeing. I couldn’t see it anywhere on my rehab protocol, and didn’t imagine that it would be a recommended activity at this stage of rehab (too slidey and unpredictable.) So I was quite surprised when my physiotherapist told me to go ahead and have a great time, but to watch out for deep snow.

From the moment we arrived in the Cypress parking lot, I felt better about everything. I stood there for a minute or two just breathing that cold, clear mountain air, and it felt like my soul was being restored. Stepping out onto the snow with my snowshoes on was a strange moment; I felt like I owed my new ACL an explanation, the story of how this substance was responsible for its abrupt move from my left hamstring to the interior of my left knee. And then we started hiking, and I forgot everything. I was slow, I was plodding, I couldn’t walk downhill, but I was out there in the winter wonderland that I’ve missed so much. The trees were heavy with snow and crystals sparkled in a layer of unexpected sunshine above the clouds that blanketed the city.

When we reached the ski area boundary, my friend did her very best to convince me that “approved to snowshoe” did not mean “scramble up a stupidly steep slope with minimal snow cover that you have no idea how to get down.” By that point I’d come far enough that I was absolutely determined to get to the peak. In fairness to her, she was absolutely right – continuing was a really stupid idea. In fairness to me, I wasn’t having any difficulties with the climb and I was confident that I’d figure out a way to get back down.

Reaching the peak made it all worth it. I stood on top of a mountain that I’d climbed with my own two feet, with Howe Sound to my left and towering peaks to my right, and I felt as close to normal as I’ve been throughout this whole wretched rehab. I still can’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel, but standing on the peak I could finally start to believe that it was there. Over on Black Mountain tiny skiers carved their way down to the lift, and I looked at them and truly believed that 100 days from now I’ll be there too.

Of course I did figure out a way down; I took off my left snowshoe, held my bad leg in the air to keep it out of the way (30,000 SLRs have to be good for something) and slid down the steepest sections on my butt, using the snowshoe as a brake. Halfway down I realised I had absolutely no idea why I was sliding. When I actually tried to walk down, I had no problems; the knee didn’t hurt and I was just fine. It was more that every now and then my snowshoe slid in the soft snow, and I couldn’t guarantee that I could control that slide. Apparently I’ve learned caution somewhere along the way, although it doesn’t extend far enough to make me turn back when I really should.

I’m getting there. Snowshoeing may not be the same as skiing, but at least I can be out in the mountains. There are no words to describe how much I’ve missed them.