We knew it wasn’t going to be good. It was terrible.
On Friday I headed to Whistler with Epic Rides. I’d been meaning to try this company on my next solo outing, since at $35 it’s considerably cheaper than round trip gas. It was an excellent service – prompt, comfortable and quick, with no extra charge for bringing the bike. I do enjoy the early morning drives with the tunes cranked and a leisurely breakfast stop at Galileo, but this was far more cost effective.
And then: dust and dirt and sunshine and sweat and a bike that flies. More speed, more air, the bike easily clearing big doubles and touching down on the other side like I’d never left the ground at all. Huge berms and staggering views in the Garbo zone. It’s all about being in the air on this bike, looking for every opportunity to get the wheels off the ground and go higher, faster, longer. It’s a joyride from the first moment to the last.
It’s funny that I fell in love with Whistler in the summer right after I fell out of love with it in the winter. The ski resort holds no appeal for me anymore, except as a means of accessing the backcountry. The crowding and gouging is too much. But the bike park? It’s still not that cheap, but it’s cheaper; and it’s not that crowded in comparison. Not at all. And for someone like me, who’s still learning, the opportunity to bang out laps and just keep working, working, working on skills is pretty great. The only thing I miss is the uphill.
Monday: a hot morning on Fromme knocking out laps on the lower mountain and checking out the new Expresso. I surprised myself by being able to ride about 90% of it; obviously it’s no longer an old-school Shore black, although it retains a few stunts. There were more technical spots than I was expecting based on descriptions I’d heard, but nothing unmanageable and overall it was a lot of fun.
Wednesday: an after-work Squamish mission. Leaving downtown at 5pm gets us to the Ring Creek FSR in time for two solid laps. Trying for a third was a mistake; in the gathering darkness I missed seeing the branch that snagged my handlebars and whipped them around as I rode onto the final stretch of Pseudotsuga. My elbow and knee pads did their job but the boulder I landed on bruised everything in between. Fortunately it was a beautiful night and the riding more than made up for the tumble. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the views on the climb to Half Nelson.
Friday: day off and bike park! The weeks of cloudless skies have taken a bit of a toll on some of the trails, with B-Line and Heart of Darkness looking particularly beat up. Fortunately the Flatline proved up to the task of handling the washboards, and the lower half of Crank It Up was in much better shape. It was a day of heat and dust and sweat and airtime, and I’m fairly sure I didn’t stop grinning all the way home.
Last Friday I took the day off and headed back to the Whistler Bike Park to practice my downhill skills. I’d decided that it would be fun to rent a proper freeride bike for the day, and see how much difference it made to the experience.
8 inches of front and rear travel and a double crown fork changed the game completely. I found myself charging over things I would have balked at before, and rattling over washboard entrances to berms at full speed. And jumps! This bike *loved* the jumps. It leapt into the air at the slightest opportunity, and landings – even the ones where I overshot or fell short and came down flat – felt cushioned and soft.
There was no way I was giving that experience up. As soon as I realised the bike shop had the same model of bike for sale at a huge discount (last year’s model, identical except for the paint job) financial restraint was forgotten. I loaded the Flatline onto the back of my truck with a grin a mile wide.
And so now I own a park bike. I realise I’ll probably only use this bike a dozen times a year, if that. But I have absolutely no regrets. How could I? If Friday was anything to go by, the days I spend on the Flatline will be the most ridiculously fun of all.
And then nothing happened for ages. Or rather, some resort skiing happened, and it was hugely disappointing.
It seemed like a great idea at the time. We’d gone from a painful lack of snow to far too much in far too short a space of time, and avvy conditions went through the roof as the late Jan/early Feb melt-freeze layer and the loose facets sitting on top of it got rapidly overloaded by all the storm accumulations.
And to be fair, there was nothing wrong with the snow we found in the resort. We scored some great runs: untracked on Dave Murray in the morning, soft chop on the Blackcomb Glacier when it finally opened in the afternoon. Even the groomers were fun, because I hadn’t skied them in forever and sometimes it’s cool just to rip something smooth and predictable as fast as you possibly can.
It was the people. After so many days skiing empty, open slopes in the backcountry, it felt like trying to thread our way through a cup final sports day crowd. The lift lines were brutal, but they were just downtime. It was negotiating the hordes on the slopes that completely broke my spirit. Only the glacier was big enough to give us even a little respite from it.
This isn’t what I want anymore. I’m not sure if it’s Whistler itself that’s reached saturation point (Michael Beaudry thinks it is, and he might well be right) or just the resort experience in general, but I’m done. I don’t care if I only get to ski four runs, or one, during the course of the day. I know the lifts can speed me to thousands and thousands more feet more vertical descent than I can reach on my own two feet, but it’s not about maximum descent.
I’d rather climb. I’d rather put in the work and the sweat, and have the silence and the peace and that moment when you look down over the perfect unbroken snow and pick your line without being rushed or hurried or having a single thing to think about apart from the best place to put your skis and the way the snow’s going to feel beneath them. I’d rather be out there, somewhere a long, long way from anywhere, in a space where there’s just me and one or two companions and the mountain and the snow.
Skiing has changed for me. I thought I’d find a balance between the backcountry and the resort experience, but it’s kept inexorably tipping in one direction and now there’s no going back. This doesn’t mean that I won’t ski at resorts anymore – or even ski them often, at times, and have a lot of fun doing it – but my heart is never going to be there again.
On Saturday I paid my first visit to Whistler this season. It was brutal. The snow on Blackcomb was the worst I’ve ever skied there: a mess of little trees and rocks poking through an icy, chunky base layer. The snowmaking has been focused on Whistler and the coverage there was a little better, but the crowds packing into the little terrain that was open made the runs look like Grand Central Station. It’s the worst opening I can remember.
Having said that it’s really not possible for me to have that a bad time on snow, and seeing my friend W take her first turns in 4 years (after two ACL surgeries) more than made up for the terrible conditions. But riding the chairlift up, I realised that the resort experience is pretty close to being done for me. Beyond the ropes there’s space and time and silence, and it’s not the same.
So early on Sunday morning I found myself waiting in the dark and the rain for a stranger to pick me up and take me out to the Coquihalla Summit, where there’s been a ton more snow than we’ve had here on the coast. The stranger (actually a trip leader from the Vancouver Backcountry Skiing meetup group) turned out to not only be great company and an extremely experienced backcountry skier but also the nephew of J’s supervisor at work, so not really a stranger after all.
The storm intensified as we headed into the mountains, and we used the drive to discuss a plan for the day. Conditions above treeline were rated considerable, so we planned to do some pit digging before making go/no-go decisions. On Clayton’s recommendation we chose Zoa Peak as an objective, since it would provide some options for fun skiing even if the snow was too sketchy to venture into the back bowls. The rain was coming down steadily at the Falls Lake trailhead, and we chased the freezing level up the mountain until we reached a winter wonderland of powder glades and whirling snowflakes.
At the far end of Zoa ridge we stopped to do some evaluation of the conditions. The storm was in full force and the snow was accumulating fast, with at least a foot of fresh powder on the ground. We found some facets and slabby snow on the lee slopes, but on the windward side it seemed to be bonding well to the layer beneath. After two ski cuts where nothing moved, we decided that we were good to go.
Clayton went first and I followed once I saw him cruise to a halt in a safe zone, dropping off the ridge into cloud and snowflakes. The new powder was denser and deeper than the snow I’d skied the previous week on Round Mountain, and it took a moment to dial my turns in. When I did, it was golden. Beautiful powder surfing, smooth and fast and effortless. The lower half of the run steepened and dropped down toward a gully, and I was yelling for joy as I swept to a halt by the trees at its edge.
We climbed rapidly back up, noting the increasing effects of windloading as our skintrack crossed briefly onto the lee side of the ridge, and transitioned for a second run. This time I took the fall line a little further right, which was fantastic until I aired off a small bump and my left heel unlocked on landing (probably the result of icing, which has been a periodic issue on the Guardians). My turn compromised, I ploughed into a deep bank, double ejected, and went for a brief superman flight before plummeting face-first into the snow.
The third run was the best, with the snow still falling like crazy and glory turns all the way down. Even the ski out was a ton of fun, with some wonderful skiing through powder glades before the trees tightened and we dropped out onto the logging road. The final descent felt like skiing a resort groomer on a powder day, at least until we passed the freezing line and the snow turned to heavy cement and my quads finally decided to protest the back-to-back ski days. I slithered the last stretch in a series of sloppy backseat turns, still grinning all the way.
The two days couldn’t have been more of a contrast. It’ll be interesting to see how things go as the season progresses; right now, I can’t summon up much in the way of enthusiasm for going back to the resort. There’s so much more out there.
Today we went up to Whistler and carved as many turns as we could on the slushy snow that’s still clinging to the mountain. It melted out fast this year; there’s no snow at all below mid-mountain, and even the lower half of the runs above Solar Coaster have been roped off apart from a single fading cat track. The thin snowpack and warm spell in early spring took a heavy toll.
In spite of the poor conditions lower down, we were able to take some fun laps in the Jersey zone and get some decent carving in before the snow turned sticky and grabby in the latter half of the day. Then we skied as far as we could between the rocks and grass, rode Wizard the rest of the way down, and raised a glass on the Merlin’s patio to the season past.
Thirty days. I didn’t ski as much as I wanted to, but it was definitely a season that stood out for the quality of the snow that I did ski and a continued shift away from the resort and into the backcountry. After a great start in December the storms simply didn’t come the way they have in the past few seasons, and work commitments made scheduling ski days a huge challenge, but we made the time we did get count.
There are moments from this season that I want to remember forever. That unbelievable storm at Baker, where we dropped from pillow to pillow in the trees and our tracks filled in and were buried deep in the time it took the lift to deliver us back to the top of the run. The untracked basin out near Elfin Lakes where we skied hero powder under a perfect blue sky as 2012 ebbed away. Meadow skipping at Round Mountain the day after the huge storm that kept everyone out of the backcountry, mellow lines with unbelievable snow and the entire mountain to ourselves. And of course, the one that stands out above all the others: Cayoosh. The day I stood on top of the world, and looked out on a view that had never been more amazing. Nothing has been quite the same since then.
So many memorable days, but never enough. I’m starting to move into bike mode – I’ve logged a couple of longer rides, and signed up for the UMCA year-rounder challenge as motivation to get some serious distance under my belt this summer – but as always, it’s a grudging transition. I love the summer, the day-long rides and the ocean swims, but I miss the monochrome world that melts away every spring. It’s always such a long wait for the snow to fly again.
Spring skiing. Truly one of the most awesome things on earth. Goggle tans and patio lunches; t-shirts and hero snow. Straightlining through the slush, leaping off cat tracks, adapting to the changing snowpack and the bumps and jumps it reveals. It’s a time that’s bittersweet, because underlying the fun is the knowledge that the last of the season is bleeding away with the melting snow. But while it lasts, it’s impossible to stop smiling.
Snow was in short supply the last little while. But the sun came out, the temperature inverted, and with some time off to use up before starting a new job I got in three glorious days on the groomers.
Groomers are absolutely not my number one choice for skiing these days, but it was fast and fun and more than anything else, it was good to get the time in on snow after another lengthy period out sick.
A few nights later I went up to Grouse, where the snow was icy boilerplate in spite of an inversion that had the temperature at 9 degrees even after dark. It was worth the terrible skiing to be up there at night, high above the blanket of cloud that pulsed white and orange and blue and purple with the lights of the city below.
There are good days skiing and great days skiing, but there are truly no bad days skiing. If you have planks on your feet and snow to slide on, you’re in a good place.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks out of commission with a really nasty flu. My immune system, which had a very rough 2012, clearly isn’t ready to start fighting back yet.
I’d made plans for a Saturday ski trip to Whistler, and was coming around just enough for it to feel like a possibility. I did worry that it wasn’t an entirely wise one, but in the end it turned out to be the best thing I could have done. I spent the day wrapped up warm against a biting cold, skiing easy groomers and chalky bowls beneath a clear blue sky. And by the time the lifts stopped turning, I felt a million times better.