Category Archives: Backcountry

Journeyman, at last

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?

Journeyman skin track

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.

Upper Callaghan peaks

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.

Journeyman Peak

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.

Journeyman descent
It’s a long ways out from Journeyman to Alexander Falls, but at least the XC trails make it easy. And after finally breaking the curse of the Callaghan, we were grinning all the way.

Out with a misadventure

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.

Skyline Divide trail

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.

Skyline Divide

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.

J on the ridge

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.

Blown knee hobble
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.

Ski skin splint

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.

Wounded soldier

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.

Journeyman Lodge review

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.

Callaghan Country

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.

En route to Journeyman

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.

Journeyman

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.

Journeyman sauna

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.

Journeyman at dawn

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.

Solitude

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.

Leaving Journeyman

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.

The winter that never was

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.

Hiking

Driftwood descent

Dry times

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.

Metal Dome approach

Metal Dome descent

Metal Dome col

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 redux

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?

Car on Brandywine FSR

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.

Whistler from Brandywine FSR

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.

Toward Brandywine Meadows

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.

Brandywine Meadows

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.

Metal Dome

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.

Tim skiing Metal Dome

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.

Descent through Brandywine Meadows

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.

Metal Dome col

Filling in

Another day, another hike.

Diamond Head upper parking lot

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.

Garibaldi from Paul RidgeA 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.

Red Heather trailheadMaybe things are finally turning around this winter. It’s time.

Desperately seeking snow

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.

Heliotrope Ridge trail

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.

Tragic snowline

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.

Heliotrope Ridge

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.

Baker and Colfax

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.

Heliotrope views

The grand finale

I’m not sure if winter’s really over; I think it’s just higher up.

Coleman Glacier

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.

Setting out, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest(Photo credit: Chris Duppenthaler)

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.

Camp on Heliotrope Ridge

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.

Twin Sisters from the Black Buttes

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.

Sunset over the Cascades

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.

Baker dawn

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.

Dawn on the Coleman

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.

Climbing below Colfax

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.

Seracs below Colfax

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.

Onto the Deming

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.

Start of the Roman Wall

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.

Final steps to Grant Peak

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.

Baker Peak - on top of the world

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.

Skiing the Roman Wall(Photo credit: Chris Duppenthaler)

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.

Descent on the Coleman

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.

Climber's trail, Heliotrope Ridge

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.

Happy skier(Photo credit: Chris Duppenthaler)

Going out in style

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.

Lower Joffre lake

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.

Upper Joffre Lake panorama

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.

Stonecrop Glacier

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.

Cayoosh range

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.

Stonecrop skiing

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.

Cayoosh backdrop, Stonecrop Glacier

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.

Matier