Category Archives: Coquihalla

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

The Coq delivers

After our two day powder skiing adventure we headed to Mexico for a week, missing another large storm that unsettled conditions so severely that the CAC issued a special advisory suggesting that it would be a good weekend to stay home and play Xbox games. As we spent the subsequent two weeks recovering from Mexican food poisoning, a crazy weather pattern melted the snow all the way to the tops of the Sea to Sky peaks and then froze it solid, locking the mountains inside a layer of glassy ice.

By this past weekend it had been nearly a month since I’d had skis on my feet, and the need for turns and mountain time had become intense. There was snow forecast for Thursday night, but the 30cm that fell south and inland of us petered out to a miserable 3cm beyond Squamish. And so on Sunday morning C, S and I found ourselves eastbound on Highway One, prepared to drive as far as we needed in order to find new snow.

As we climbed into the mountains beyond Hope, things started to look more promising. In spite of generally thin coverage on lower slopes, there was a good coating of new snow. We initially thought we’d ski Lakes Ridge, but once we crossed onto the lee side of the Coquihalla Summit the snow didn’t look as good. We drove back to Zoa, and braved a biting cold (forecast temperatures were as low as -17) to gear up.

Skinning to Zoa, Thar in background

It was my third day in the Coquihalla, and the first with good visibility. As we skinned upwards the shadow of Thar loomed over us, awe-inspiring and full of promise for future tours. The higher we climbed the more the views all around us opened up, stunning peaks and ridgelines in every direction. So much potential.

I could tell I’d lost a substantial amount of strength and fitness during the three weeks I’d been ill, and there was more than a hint of underlying frustration given how well I’d been doing before we went away, but in spite of that it just felt so, so good to be back out in the mountains. I loved the golden beaches and warm ocean in Mexico, but it wasn’t really me. These cold white spaces are where I belong. Even just skinning up, I couldn’t stop smiling.

Thar

After an icy scramble through the trees we emerged to soft powder on the ridge. There was about 25cm overlaying a pretty solid crust, so the trick (which I figured out after the first run, where I got bounced around pretty good on a couple of harder carves) was to carry enough speed and keep turns low-pressure enough to surf the new snow and not bottom out.

We had four fantastic runs on the new snow. I wasn’t skiing all that well – my lack of strength and the month out translated to a much less confident and aggressive approach than our days out on Paul Ridge, and at least one unnecessary somersault – but I was so happy to be back in the mountains, and back on skis, that I didn’t care at all.

Zoa skiing(Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme)

The temperature began to drop rapidly in the early afternoon, so we called it a day and skied one final blast of a run down the logging road back to the car. On the way home, our thoughts were on the peaks we’d seen that held so much promise for future trips: Thar, Nak, Yak, Markhor, Bombtram. And on the fact that once again, in probably the worst weather spell of this entire ridiculous non-winter, we’d managed to spend the day skiing fresh powder. Long may our luck hold.

Zopkios

Somewhere new

The day after our big powder adventure I snatched a few brief hours of sleep before heading back out on the road before dawn, bound for the Coquihalla with a crew from the Meetup group. As the windshield wipers beat away the rain and the unusually snowy fields of the Fraser Valley rolled by outside I gave thanks that I’d had time to pick up a large coffee on the way.

We met up with the other members of the group at the Zopkios exit. The other girl who was signed up pulled a no-show, so once again it was me and the big burly guys heading into the woods. With the exception of the two guided tours we did at Baker I’ve always been the only girl on these trips, which other people tend to assume might be an issue but really doesn’t bother me.

Our destination was Flatiron Peak, a new area for me. I’d been warned that the first 90 minutes or so of the climb would be very steep, and I was curious to see how my legs would handle this after more than a thousand metres of climbing the day before. We left the salt sheds and headed sharply upwards through trees laden with new snow on a trail that couldn’t have been more perfect. I absolutely love this kind of skinning: steep enough for a solid cardio burn, and just technical enough to be completely mentally engaging.

I swear it wasn’t even close to 90 minutes later that we broke out on the ridge. The climb seemed to disappear in a flash. We headed onwards through a winter wonderland of ridgetop glades, glimpses of the strange rock formations on Needle Peak appearing here and there through the clouds.

Needle Ridge

We were all hoping that the weather would start to improve and look more like the forecast, which had promised mostly sun. Instead it continued to deteriorate as we emerged on a wind-scoured section of the ridge and the clouds closed in around us. We carried on through a bizarre, compelling landscape of frozen, windblown trees encased in rime and ice. There was no sign of the new snow here; the wind had ripped it all from the ridge long ago. We continued climbing over spooky, strangely hollow ice that occasionally cracked and buckled under our skis as we passed weak points near buried rocks.

Needle Ridge trees

The whiteout intensified as we neared our destination. The other skiers became ghosts in the mist, floating in a formless landscape where there was no distinction between earth and sky. Every now and then a rimed, windrazed tree would provide a moment of definition, only to be lost as soon as we passed it. Negotiating an icy passage around a barely seen rock band, the cloud shifted just for a second to reveal a massive drop just a few metres to our right. It was a strange and slightly eerie experience to be in a new place and so utterly blind.

Whiteout

The bowl itself, when we reached it, was nothing. Just shades of white in an endless sea without definition or context. We set a steep skintrack up to the top, where we stopped for lunch in a windscoured, icy hollow that could have been anywhere. In spite of our hopes the whiteout didn’t ease during our break, and we transitioned for a ski down that we’d all accepted wasn’t going to live up to expectations.

Picnic spot

To be honest, I’d thought that I would have to sideslip the entire bowl on the way down. But I managed it better than I expected. We stayed grouped close together and with the other skiers to provide definition, I was able to execute a few reasonable turns even though I had absolutely no sense of where my skis were. A true whiteout is such an incredibly strange thing. You literally cannot tell up from down; you might as well be floating, lost in space. Looking at what you’re trying to do makes things worse. You have to rely on sensation, not sight.

Flatiron bowl, whiteout

We made it back to the exit point, then started back along the ridge. The ice didn’t seem quite as bad the second time around. And then, as we crossed a large rock formation on the way back, the clouds suddenly shifted and revealed wind-protected glades to our right: steep, beautiful, full of fresh powder. There wasn’t much discussion, since we knew this was our shot. We did a quick check on the time, and dropped in. With the previous powder day under my belt I skied it better than I’ve skied glades before, able to duck in and out of the trees and seek out the best spots for turns. The snow was fantastic.

Needle Ridge glades

We regrouped above a gully, and transitioned for a swift, steep climb out. Having pretty much given up on the chance of good downhill turns, everyone was smiling at this point. The rest of the ridge passed by in a flash, and then we took our skins off and surfed back down through the powder glades – where we were able to get many more excellent turns – to the start of the steep descent through the trees.

This was where things went slightly sideways. We were aiming to descend just a little to the left of our route up, but we ended up traversing way too far over. The trees were densely packed on the steep slopes, and ground cover still isn’t that good. I know that if I’d gotten myself into a ski out like that at the start of last season, I would have been questioning how the hell I was ever going to make it down.

Needle Ridge trees

This time, I didn’t feel that way. I took my time, scoped out my turns, sideslipped a little here and there when necessary, and kept heading steadily downwards. Branches whacked me in the face, and every now and then I’d sling an arm around a tree and use it to propel me into a particularly tight turn. It was hard work, especially on legs that had just done two days of back-to-back climbing, and unquestionably challenging, but it was also manageable. I never doubted that I’d be able to keep going, and although I buried my tips a few times I didn’t fall.

One of the group was having a pretty hard time by this point, and it was interesting hearing his repeated comment that it was “bullshit skiing.” There’s hard skiing and there’s easy skiing, but I’m not sure there’s such a thing as bullshit skiing. The whole point of taking on tough things is that you learn from them and are better prepared to do it next time, which is definitely not bullshit. If you want to ski in the backcountry, you have to be prepared to deal with difficult conditions and challenging skiing. And you have to love the sweat and the slog and the difficulty because that’s why it’s still an amazing, mostly untouched thing. If it were easy, the backcountry would be just another resort. Every tough moment makes you fitter, stronger, more prepared for whatever comes next.

We eventually escaped the trees – with only one very brief bootpack over a large fallen log – and then skinned a couple of kilometres back up a gas line clearcut to the parking lot. On the final skin, I was so amazed that my legs didn’t feel done and I was even able to step up my pace toward the end. When I checked the GPS, I’d clocked up almost 2,500m of cumulative elevation gain in two days.

It was an interesting day out. Perhaps not the best conditions we could have asked for, but there were some good lessons in group dynamics, a really positive experience for me on the final descent through the trees, and always that sense of accomplishment that comes from having been somewhere new and pushed the boundaries just a little bit further than they’ve been pushed before.

Contrasts

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.

Snow grouse at Whistler

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.

Zoa Ridge trailAt 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.
Zoa Ridge skiing

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.

Powder gladesThe 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.