Category Archives: Garibaldi Provincial Park

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.

Epic oops

Fantastic though the Red trip was, afterwards I was itching to get back to the uphill. Riding chairs sure ups the vertical and distance you can log in a day, but skiing without the touring element is like driving an automatic after standard: it’s less effort, but something important is missing.

Uphill

I had a bacon party (yes, that’s a thing) to go to in the evening, so we opted for Paul Ridge to give us fast access to turns and an early return to town. The snow had been pounding down overnight, and in spite of some rather flat light the first bowl beyond Round Mountain was looking pretty dreamy. Everything seemed incredibly stable, so we wolfpacked the first turns on smooth, beautiful snow.

It all seemed to be going fantastically well until one of my skis prereleased on a steeper section, sending me into a huge somersault. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but my best guess is that as I tumbled my pole strap hooked the activation handle of my airbag. Next thing I was face down in the snow with a loud hissing noise, a strong smell of rubber, and a growing pressure at my back. It took me a moment to realise that my airbag had deployed.

ABS airbag accidental deployment

Never having released it before, I had no idea how to deflate the bags and once I’d retrieved my ski, I had to make my way down the rest of the slope with the two giant bags hovering behind me, threatening to lift me off the ground every time my speed increased. Once I’d rejoined C and S I dug out the instruction card, let the nitrogen out of the bags, and stuffed them haphazardly back into their compartments. For the rest of the day, the 6.5lbs of airbag was purely a weight training exercise.

I was more rattled by the incident than I realised, and on our second run I was all over the place. Once we’d climbed back to the top of the bowl I let C and S take the prime line down the face, and went over to the side to take a slightly mellower line. It gave me exactly the opportunity to hit the reset button that I needed, and I was more than ready to make up for lost time on the next run.

Easy line

This time we descended on the far side of the shoulder to the east of the bowl, where the wind hadn’t reached and the snow was drier and softer. It was a glorious, freewheeling powder run, where our tracks ripped clean lines through the snow before briefly cutting across one another and then blasting out onto the plateau below.

The crazy thing is that it was the Saturday right after a big storm, and yet we didn’t see another skier all day. As we worked our way along the ridgeline, all we found was empty bowls of untracked snow. The entire zone belonged to us.

Descending

We skied until our legs had nothing left, then headed back to town where I ate my own body weight in bacon and brined pork sandwiches. All in all, an excellent day in spite of the accidental airbag deployment.

Brined pork sandwiches

Elfin skin-a-thon

With no new snow and a vicious arctic outflow keeping the surface bulletproof, C and I decided the past weekend would be a good day to take J and his wife W for a combined snowshoe/ski as far as we could make it along the Elfin Lakes trail. It was a beautiful day for an outing, in spite of a cold wind whipping along the north side of the ridge.

Nearing Elfin Lakes

It was my first time actually inside the hut, and I was impressed with how spacious it was and how good the facilities were. I know it’s pretty hard to guarantee space in this one, but it’s somewhere I definitely wouldn’t mind staying on a future trip. The idea of being able to roll out the door and ski Columnar, Diamond Head or the Gargoyles is pretty appealing.

Garibaldi

We made excellent time along the trail back, and were able to watch the moon rising above the Mamquam Icefield. Given the very stable conditions we cut along the summer trail to provide a different perspective, and I was able to show J some of the lines that we’d skied on the last big powder day. It was so great to have her out there with me.

Moonrise over MamquamAbove the meadows C and I transitioned and took one run down over lumpy, crusty, tracked out snow before heading on down with J and W beneath the setting sun. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens as the current storms roll in; with a layer of facets and surface hoar overlying an absolutely bulletproof melt-freeze crust, we could be in for a massive slidey shit show.

End of the day

After the storm

It happened again.

It’s been the worst winter for snow since I moved here almost ten years ago. Yet somehow, when the storms finally roll in the timing just keeps lining up. This time, a big dump of snow on Thursday was immediately followed by my day off Friday, and the last day of S’s Christmas vacation. C wasn’t around Friday, but was into skiing Saturday. And thus followed two of the best days out that I can remember.

Dawn patrol, Howe Sound viewpoint

We kept it simple, since most of the snow was forecast for the Sea to Sky and all three of us are familiar with the evolving snowpack there, so we headed back out to Diamond Head on both days. It was like being plunged right back into the kind of winter we’ve been so sorely missing: the trail was skinnable from the parking lot, and the forest was full of snow ghosts.

On Friday S and I skipped the hut and headed straight up to the shoulder just below the peak of Round Mountain. We knew the big risk with the new storm snow was wind loading, so we found an aspect which was obviously wind-affected and dug a pit to check on conditions. The new snow was well-bonded, and a slightly stiff slab at the top wasn’t large enough to cause concern. We took the first run through the bowl cautiously, riding one at a time and waiting in safe zones, but things rode well and from there it was all systems go.

It was a glory day. The new snow – at least 25cm of it – was soft and powdery where it hadn’t been affected by the wind, and we were able to tear through the bowl over and over again. We hit up our drop-in spots from the last big storm, flew off little rises, and sent clouds of coldsmoke flying up in our wake.

Coldsmoke(Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme)

I had to be back in town for a memorial event in the evening, so we’d planned to start early and finish relatively early. On our final run, high on the side of Round Mountain with Garibaldi towering ahead, I tapped my poles and dedicated the turns to Cheryl – someone who knew so well how to make the most of every single moment, and never stopped smiling. It felt like a much better way to honour her memory than sadness, though that’s still inevitable when I think about how much of a loss her amazing spirit is.

Tantalus views

Saturday began with another dawn patrol, since I was seriously concerned that with a ton of relatively scarce new snow and a bluebird forecast the whole area would be a zoo. The parking lot was about half full when we arrived, but most of those were Elfin Lake overnighters since they’d been there when I left the day before.

Once again we skipped the hut, and this time headed straight on around the ridge to give ourselves a chance of getting away from the crowds. It was an absolutely perfect bluebird day, and I loved watching C’s reaction as he saw the jaw-dropping vistas from Paul Ridge proper for the first time. I’ve gained a great deal from having C and S as touring buddies this season, and it’s nice to be able to give a bit back to them.

Paul Ridge

C and I had had an interesting discussion about powder skiing technique in the car on the way out, which turned into an unprecedented opportunity. When do you ever get to take a lesson in powder skiing (he used to be a ski instructor) and then put it into practice on untouched snow all day long? The key point was that I was turning my body too far across the fall line on each turn. I tried to remember this as I skied, and the difference was dramatic. Turning from the hips down, trying to keep the upper body quiet, suddenly I was full of confidence on steeper slopes and leaving a much neater series of s-turns in the snow behind me.

Paul Ridge skiing

We stayed on north faces where the snow had been perfectly preserved by the cold temperatures overnight. It was basically a second full day of skiing perfect storm snow. C and I were completely on the same page about trying to maximize every moment, so I grabbed quick bites of food on transitions and we just kept skiing down, hiking up, and moving along as each we tracked each zone out.

The really weird thing is that we barely saw a soul out there. Two snowshoers heading back from Elfin, and one skier who’d stopped to rest a hot spot. That was it. It made sense later, when we dropped back into Red Heather Meadows and saw snow so torn up it could have been in a resort. In this lean winter, folk saw the fresh powder with just a few tracks and went full-on hungry for it. Hardly anyone made it past Round Mountain. I wish they’d seen it the day before, when S and I laid all those tracks down on completely unbroken snow.

Garibaldi

It was an amazing day. While we didn’t ski anything particularly hardcore, it was new for me to feel so completely confident on steeper faces. I think C’s instruction is going to be a game changer. I could literally feel my technique improving on each run.

At the very end of the day we hauled ourselves out of the drainage one last time, and then hiked back through the forest to find ourselves on the meadows just as the sun was sinking. Our final run back down to the forest was golden, glowing with the day’s last light.

Howe Sound sunset

I honestly can’t imagine back-to-back days much better than this. My cumulative stats were 37km of distance, and just over 2,500 metres of vert. I’m almost as stoked about the distance and elevation as I am about the turns. There’s still a ways to go, but it’s great preparation for the goal that we’ve set ourselves for the end of the season.

Cloud and ice

When S and I arrived at the Diamond Head parking lot on Saturday, things didn’t look good. The Christmas Eve rain had saturated what little snow remained lower down, and then the falling freezing level had turned it into slick, glassy ice. We started out on foot but switched to skins as soon as we were clear of the little rocks that peppered the first section, since it was impossible to walk on.

Red Heather bootpack

As we climbed the ice finally transitioned to very hard snow that took us all the way to the warming hut, where some hardy campers had lit an early morning fire while they planned their descent on magic carpets (!) At this point we were both feeling like we might have come out for a nice walk on the snow and not much else, since nothing was looking very skiable. Fortunately the clouds were clearing, and it was a beautiful day to be out in the mountains.

Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme(Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme)

As we climbed through the meadows to the lookout the snow started to look and feel a lot better, with a few centimetres of fresh sitting on top of the rain crust. We dug a pit just above the lookout and found layers in the obvious places, but nothing terribly reactive. The drifting cloud made for neat views, with mist obscuring the view ahead and the odd peak emerging with startling clarity.

Near a cloud but not quite inside it

 

The turns were surprisingly good. The rain crust wasn’t too icy and the new snow made for a slick, fast surface. We got bounced around a little crossing our old tracks and the flat light was a periodic challenge as we descended into the cloud, but it was so much better than conditions had indicated lower down. We clocked up five runs in total, all of them well worth the effort it had taken to get there. And then it was time to face the ski out.

Red Heather luge track

It was clattery but reasonable going until we reached the diamond-hard, glassy ice on the lower stretch of the trail. Here I found that with some extremely aggressive edging it was possible to maintain control in either a sideslip or a snowplough. Not pretty, but at least doable on skis. For S on the splitboard, it was more challenging. Necessity being the mother of invention, he came up with the brilliant idea of putting his skins on backwards and walking down the trail. He made it look so easy that I stopped to do the same, knowing that the little rocks were going to force me off my skis soon anyway.

Reverse skinning

It worked perfectly. Our gait was a little funny given that none of our gear was designed for walking downhill, but the skins provided fantastic traction and enabled safe passage over what would otherwise have been a pretty sketchy walk.

Beautiful views, fun turns, and a small adventure on the way down. Another good day in the mountains.

 

Synchronicity

It’s hard being a weekend warrior sometimes. You watch the midweek storms come and go, dreams of unskied turns haunting the workday. This dry winter it’s been even tougher than usual. But last week, after planning a quick trip to Red Heather with my two new ski buddies to test out my new bindings on a random vacation day, for once the storm rolled in bang on schedule.

We left a snow-covered city before dawn on Friday, cutting fresh tire tracks on white roads. The Red Heather trailhead was back in full winter wonderland mode, with the little rocks almost completely covered up again. The snow kept falling all round us, coming down so thickly as we crossed the meadows above the hut that we could barely see.

Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme(Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme)

The storm finally eased at the perfect moment, just as we reached the Garibaldi lookout on the shoulder of Round Mountain. We hiked just a little higher to where the back bowls were waiting, locked in, and set out for the finest powder turns of the winter.

Round Mountain powder turns

It was a magic day. All thoughts of a quick gear test and early return to the city were completely forgotten; we just skied and skied and skied on the perfect new snow, climbing back up for the next run as fast as we could. We climbed little knolls and ridges, dropping in for big surfing turns, clouds of coldsmoke trailing behind us. The mountain was deserted; we had the entire bowl completely to ourselves.

Round Mountain powder

As the day wore on and the skies cleared, sunlight and shadows danced across the slopes and on the far side of the valley the icefields of Garibaldi began to emerge from the cloud. We kept skiing for as long as we possibly could, until the threat of the early winter darkness finally drove us from the mountain. We left behind a bowl criss-crossed with tracks, every single one of them laid down by the three of us.

Round Mountain skintrack

I still can’t believe how well the timing lined up. My vacation, C and S being available to tour even though it was a work day, the storm and the snow that it brought. That kind of synchronicity doesn’t happen often. The day it gave us was as perfect as it gets. 

End of a great day

Always better outside

The driest winter I can remember drags on, with hope ebbing out of every bullshit forecast as the days come around. With regional snowpacks at a fraction of their usual depth, ski resorts struggling to keep runs open and nothing very promising happening anytime soon, there’s still skiing to be had if you’re willing to work a little for it and accept that you might not be riding the perfect powder you remember from Decembers past.

On Saturday my new ski buddy C, his friend S and I headed up to Diamond Head to see what we could find. Rumour had it that with less than 50cm of snow on the Duffey, Elfin Lakes still offered the best coverage in the Sea to Sky region. I’d taken a nasty spill on my bike a couple of days before and was nursing a sprained thumb and badly bruised right leg, but the injuries weren’t serious enough to warrant staying home.

Red Heather bootpack

Things didn’t look all that great at the trailhead. Compared to three weeks ago, when I was there last, conditions had deteriorated considerably. The access road was a sheet of glassy ice, and the trail itself was devoid of snow for most of the first kilometre. Fortunately once we passed the Howe Sound viewpoint things improved, and we were able to put our skis back on.

When the storm caught us, we were suddenly plunged back into a winter wonderland. Heavy, slightly wet snow swirled around us all the way to the warming hut, where we found a mysterious plate of iced brownies and chocolate-dipped strawberries. We didn’t stop for long; the meadows above were calling and the snow was still falling. The trail was almost unrecognizable as it crossed the shoulder of Round Mountain, with so much ground cover still visible.

(Photograph courtesy of Sierra Laflamme)(Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme)

We stopped for our first run at the start of Paul Ridge. The slope was one of the NE aspects where the CAC had warned to be wary of windloading as the day progressed. We weren’t totally happy with the stability, but given that the winds had only just begun to pick up we made the decision to ski it cautiously, one at a time. S deployed his avalung to be on the safe side, and we dropped in to the fantastic sounds it made as he breathed in and out.

It wasn’t the easiest snow to ski. About eight inches of very dense, heavy new snow overlay an icy rain crust. C made it look smooth and simple, but when it was my turn to ski down I managed about three decent turns before I unweighted my downhill ski too much, slipped into the backseat, and turned a somersault. I picked myself up and headed slightly more cautiously down to our regroup zone. Clearing visibility made the lower part of the run a little easier.

(Photograph courtesy of Sierra Laflamme)(Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme)

By the time we regained the ridge the winds were picking up, and we were seeing some noticeable settling under our skis along with fracturing of the new snow. We agreed that we should stick to south aspects for the rest of the day, and headed on around the ridge.

In very poor visibility, with the snowpack so much lower than normal, I found it harder than I expected to figure out exactly where we were. It wasn’t until I saw one very distinctive rise that B and I dropped in from last year that I was able to orient myself and work out where we needed to go. It was a sobering lesson given how frequently I’ve skied the area.

Paul Ridge skintrack

The south slopes were much crustier, but didn’t have quite the same touchy feeling to the new snow. We took a couple of runs there; the conditions were definitely a challenge and it wasn’t my finest skiing ever, but by the final run I was starting to get more of a feel for it. Mostly I had to remember to be aggressive, and not sit back and let the crust pitch me around. I wish we’d had time for a couple more runs; it was a good learning curve.

After we’d trekked back to Red Heather the final run down through the meadows was a blast, with little buried trees to hop off and a ton of fun to be had scooting on and off the trail to keep our speed. By the time we reached the final bootpack, the light was fading and we carried our skis the last kilometre or so to the parking lot in gathering dark.

Paul Ridge skintrack

It’s funny; I really don’t care that it wasn’t the best snow, or that I skied it like a total gaper for most of the day. Learning to ski in variable conditions, including ones far worse than this, is good preparation for the less generous areas that you encounter sooner or later in the backcountry; sometimes the day’s end leaves you in a place where the conditions just won’t be kind, and you have to be able to deal with it.

The main thing, though, is that it’s always better to be outside than in. It’s better to be out there in the mountains, having an adventure of one kind or another, chasing the dream. That’s the thing about ski touring: every single day is different, and every single day brings beautiful moments. I lost count of the number of times one of the three of us paused, looked around, and said “It’s so good to be out.” I’m very glad I met C and S; hopefully we’ll have a lot more adventures together as the winter progresses.

Game on

And then the day came.

We’d already decided that this season should start where we want most of it to take place: in the backcountry. So we let Whistler’s early opening last weekend come and go, and instead waited for Friday and a trip to Red Heather.

Red Heather trail

I really didn’t know what conditions would be like. I’d heard that a supportive rain crust was making for surprisingly good skiing, but overall coverage still sounded pretty thin and we were heading up three days after the last big storm passed through. Mostly, though, I just wanted to be out there. Not shoulder-to-shoulder on a man-made ribbon of early season resort snow, but back out in the wide open spaces, away from people, where anything is possible.

Friday dawned clear and cold. We made good time out of Vancouver, stopped at Galileo for the ritual ski morning caffeination, and then headed up to the Diamond Head access road. There was some ice and snow on the final kilometre or so, but the snow tires held all the way to the upper parking lot without the need for chains.

Setting out

All the little things I’d missed so much. Cold air and frozen fingers fumbling with a million zips, straps and buckles. Beacon check. Ripping skins, sticking skins, jamming feet into ski boots, and then that unmistakable thunk of heels locking into bindings. It didn’t seem real until I lifted my foot for the first time, felt the weight of the ski, and began the kick-and-glide up the trail.

It’s funny, but I missed the uphill almost as much as I missed the down. That strange, unique, absolutely absorbing rhythm of the skin track. The sweat and the effort and the endless drive of it. Because each step up takes you closer and closer to the turns that are waiting. Even in familiar terrain, the snow is new every time. No matter how well you know the trail, you’re always en route to an adventure.

Uphill, Red Heather trail

In spite of our moderate expectations, the snow was looking pretty good. The trail was well packed with just the very occasional rock grazing the surface, and although overall coverage was still pretty thin the cold temperatures had kept the untouched snow light and powdery. We stopped to hydrate and chop some wood at the Red Heather hut, then headed on upwards. The meadows above the hut were caught somewhere between winter and summer, but wide swathes of snow between the trees promised good skiing to come.

Powder!

As I transitioned on a rise on the shoulder of Round Mountain, that sense of unreality overcame me again. Six months had passed since I last stood in this white world. Six months since I was last on skis with my heels locked in. And here I was, with all the rust and unfamiliarity of a long, long summer behind me, and a meadow of clean, beautiful, untracked snow in front of me. No resort. No groomers. No easy start. Just snow, untouched and amazing. I took a deep breath, tapped my poles together once, and skied.

First turns

The first couple of turns on the lower angle approach were awkward, but that’s true on my first run of any day. Then as my speed increased a little I pulled myself out of the backseat and flew down the meadow in what’s almost certainly the best first run of any season I’ve ever had. I remember small trees flying by, powder surfing underfoot, and then all too soon I was dropping down a small shoulder and back onto the trail.

Impatience had put me on a fairly short run; I wanted more. I transitioned in a blur of flying skins and gloves, and set out as fast as I could to the Garibaldi viewpoint. I ended up climbing just a little higher, to a point where a steeper run stretched before me without a single track marring the snow. I kept thinking that someone was bound to pop up and poach it before I could transition, but the reality was that there were very few other skiers on the mountain and I had it all to myself.

Dropping off the ridge was a religious moment.  It wasn’t in any way a hard slope – I’d refer to it as meadow skipping at any other time in the season – but it was steep enough for me to gain some speed and as I threw my skis into the first turn and felt them plane through the powder I couldn’t believe I wasn’t dreaming. I swept around small trees and flew off bumps formed by newly-covered features, catching air, sinking into the snow, surfing over it, grinning like a maniac, delirious with a euphoria I hadn’t felt in far too long.

Second run

There was absolutely no hesitation, no doubt. The summer’s rust was already stripped away, left behind somewhere on the first run. On this variable, unpredictable terrain, I felt like I clicked back in faster than I ever had before.

I was conscious that my ski buddy was waiting for me back at the hut, so I set a pretty direct route back up. It was a good reminder that the 6,000km I’d cycled since I was last on skis were not an adequate preparation for hard skinning. I’m fairly sure that nothing is. Breaking an uphill trail with 7lbs of weight on each foot and a heavy pack is quite unique in its cardio demands.

I made it back up in time for one more run on the next slope over, a slightly steeper line leading into a gully that plunged away through the trees. I couldn’t make myself stop, and rode it onwards and downwards until I couldn’t go any further.

Another fall line hike out followed. I crossed the trail, somehow found a way up the bank flanking it, and hauled myself a final stretch uphill to stand, sweaty and gasping, on the shoulder just below the peak of Round Mountain. For the last time I stripped the skins off, and dropped through the trees toward the lower angle meadows above the hut. On this south-facing slope the sun-warmed snow was noticeably heavier and stickier than the previous runs.

Skiing happy

With the low snow coverage the contours of the landscape were far more apparent than they are when winter really sets in. I had enough speed to jump the first creek (without really intending to, since I hadn’t seen it coming) before slamming into the bank and almost getting pitched over my tips on the second one. It didn’t matter. Nothing could have wiped the grin from my face at that point. Even the ski out was pretty fun; the trail is still soft enough that it’s not just a clattering descent on ice, and the waterbars made for some fun little jumps.

As first days go, that was the best I’ve ever had. My feet are covered in blisters, my quad muscles feel like quivering noodles, and yet all I want is to go out and do it all over again tomorrow and the next day and the next.

Ski season 2013/14 is here. Game on.

Surface hoar

Fun in the sun

Earlier this week we thought we’d head to Red Heather for some meadow skipping in the spring sunshine, an outing that turned out not to be particularly memorable from a skiing perspective. A swift skin up the trail to the hut revealed that the increasing slop I’d been noticing in my boots on inbounds days had started to affect their touring performance; both heels developed nasty blisters under their protective coating of duct tape.

Round Mountain

There was plenty of untracked snow around, but after two weeks of warm temperatures and no new precipitation it was very grabby and sticky and not all that fun to ski. After a few runs we retreated to the hut for lunch, where we met a pine marten – one of the cutest creatures I’ve ever seen. He was wary at first, sticking to the edges of the hut and chittering and growling at us from the doorway, but when he saw my salami sandwich he grew bolder and came right up to my boot to forage for crumbs.

Pine martenThe trail, which had been very icy on the way up, had softened nicely in the sun and the ski out was surprisingly fun. We rocketed down at speed, taking advantage of the little bumps and jumps that had formed as it packed down. There’s no snow on the drive in now, and I’m not sure how much longer it will linger on the lower part of the trail itself.

The skiing may not have been the best, but a day in the mountains – especially a spring day when you can ski in shirtsleeves – is always a good day.

Spring skiing

 

Red Heather meadow skipping

At long last, the snow returned. Unfortunately it brought with it a sharp rise in the freezing level that delivered pounding rain well above the peaks of the North Shore mountains. At higher elevations, strong winds and rapid accumulation led to this season’s first extreme avalanche danger rating on Friday. After a fun day of storm skiing at Whistler on Thursday, I watched the changing conditions closely over the weekend. By Sunday the risk was down to moderate at treeline and considerable above, and we decided to give Red Heather a careful try. This has the advantage of being an area that we know well now, with a wide variety of terrain to suit the conditions.

Howe Sound

Things didn’t look good at all on the skin up. The parking lot was a sheet of glassy ice, and the trail was absolutely bulletproof with a bare dusting of new snow on top of a rock hard rain crust. But the sun was shining, the skies were blue, and I couldn’t stop smiling just to be out in the mountains on such a beautiful day. We’d originally thought about heading out along Paul Ridge if the snow stability seemed good enough, but that plan was skunked before we even started testing when two snowshoers advised us that a big slide had taken out the trail on the far side of Round Mountain. At that point I was starting to think that we might have to settle for a nice walk on skis as our objective for the day. And honestly, that would have been okay: I have a rare love for the uphill part of the journey, and any time spent in a mountain landscape is a good time for me.

Round Mountain skin track

My early concerns about the downhill conditions started to fade as the new snow accumulations increased significantly as we gained elevation, and the meadows above the warming hut sparkled  in the sunlight. Only ghost trees shared the slopes with us; there wasn’t another person in sight. Near the peak of the mountain we finally came across two other skiers who had dug an enormous snow pit more than two metres deep. The storm snow on this aspect looked surprisingly well consolidated, and we decided it was safe enough to ski as long as we stuck to fairly mellow terrain. Our first run through the glades of snow ghosts laid all our concerns about poor skiing conditions to rest. The top layer was a little bit slabby in spots where it had been wind-loaded, but not enough to be a serious concern.

Round Mountain skiing

We spent the rest of the day skiing gentle northwest slopes from just below the peak of Round Mountain. The snow was unbelievably good, especially considering the high freezing levels. As the day warmed it settled to somewhere in between powder and corn, the lighter layer on the surface capping smooth, consolidated snow underneath. It felt fluid, liquid, not quite like anything I’ve ever skied before. The turns we took beneath deep blue skies and drifts of cloud floating up from the valley  were fast and flowing and smooth as silk, leaving me howling at the sky for joy at the end of each run.

Storm snow on Round Mountain

There are days when your perspective changes and afterwards nothing feels the same. This was one of them. A day that I’d gone into with no expectations, seriously questioning why we’d be heading into low elevation backcountry versus the managed alpine environment at Whistler, turned out to be one of the best days in the mountains that I’ve ever had. Seriously, what more could you ask for? An entire mountain of your own, all the time in the world to pick an untracked slope and ski it, and snow that felt like an unbroken ocean wave: glassy and silky and absolute perfection. 29,000 people fought for post-storm terrain in the Whistler alpine. We had an entire mountain to ourselves. Sure, we may not have been able to head out to steeper and more challenging terrain, but when the snow is that good meadow skipping is more than enough.

A job well done

Late in the day we ran into two BC Parks Rangers who’d been testing the snow on the far side of Round Mountain. On the slopes where the slide we’d heard about earlier had occurred, they’d found at least four reactive layers within the storm snow. We explained our strategy of staying on the slopes where the snow seemed well-consolidated, and sticking to relatively low-angle terrain (most of the slopes we were skiing were 30 – 35 degrees) and they gave us a thumbs up, which was a very reassuring pat on the back given that we’re still very much in the learning phase of backcountry skiing and trying our best to be smart about our choices. We asked them why they thought the slopes were so empty, and their theory was the same as ours – that big objectives weren’t an option, ruling out more advanced skiers, and the prominent news stories about the extreme danger earlier in the weekend had scared off a lot of people who didn’t realise that conditions would start to stabilize later on Saturday.

P1010360

When our legs finally ran out of steam after yoyo laps on the northwest side of Round Mountain, we headed down. For the first kilometre or so after the warming hut we slithered and bounced through slick, wet snow on top of icy bumps; then we ran out of options and had a choice between locking ourselves into the foot-deep luge track in the middle of the trail or clattering over the frozen snowshoe postholes at the side. It was pure survival skiing, and my knees (which are super cranky from a nasty bike accident about ten days ago) were complaining loudly by the end.

Whiskeyjack friend

In spite of the awful ski out, it was one of the best days I’ve had on snow. All day Monday, my mind drifted back to those perfect turns on slopes where the snow felt like liquid silk beneath my skis. The backcountry is messing with my head. It’s making me not want to ski in places where I have to jostle for space, for a place in the lift line, for a turn or two on untracked snow. Out in the backcountry I can have all of this every time I ski, and the price is nothing more than the physical effort it takes me to get there.

Red Heather skin track views