Category Archives: Garibaldi Provincial Park

Moments of light

After the late December storms, the Sea to Sky plunged into the longest dry spell that I can remember. A dirty ridge let the clouds flirt with the Whistler mountains without ever delivering. A few centimetres here and a few centimetres there promised storms that never came. Only Baker offered moments of redemption.

With no backcountry companions on hand to chase down the stashes of decent snow that remain, I’ve been waiting for the forecast to improve. It looks like things might finally be turning around toward the end of this week. And in the meantime, two friends and I went on a combined ski and snowshoe hike that at least gave me a dozen or so untracked turns to keep me going until the day  that the snow returns.

Climbing through the cloud, Red Heather Meadows

The Diamond Head access road was bereft of snow until halfway to the parking lot from the chain up area, which is testament to just how dry things had been. The Red Heather trail itself was shrouded in low cloud until we left the warming hut and started to make our way up to the ridge. As we emerged onto the shoulder of Round Mountain, we finally broke through the cloud into blue skies and mountaintops floating above the cloud.

Garibaldi above the cloudBeing a Saturday the trail was littered with skiers and snowshoers, so we left the marked route and climbed to the ridge just below the true peak of Round Mountain. Out of the sun the snow was waist deep and surprisingly light. In my excitement I fell over my own skis trying to turn around, and then had to wallow through the snow to a spot where I could transition. My snowshoe buddies headed downwards, and I locked my heels in and followed.

I’d been worried that the sun-warmed snow would be heavy and hard to ski, but in fact it was anything but. I dropped down from the ridge, took a long, low turn back toward the trail, and then let the speed carry me to the top of a steep knoll. Beautiful knee-deep turns followed until the slope flattened out and I let my skis carry me back to the warming hut.

Powder turn faceI dug a snow pit and did some profile testing as I waited for my snowshoe buddies at the warming hut, and then we all left the sun behind as we dropped back into the cloud and made our way down the trail to the car.

It may only have been one run, but it was a few hundred metres of untracked turns after way, way too long without. This is the challenge of the backcountry: when you’re learning, you really don’t want to be out there alone. I’ve been exceptionally lucky in that I’ve had someone of a similar ability level to ski and learn with, but when our schedules don’t line up it’s not like an inbounds day where you can head out solo. The compromise with the backcountry is that safety always comes first, no matter how much you’re jonesing for untracked turns. I’m just glad I got this run in, and that the sun shone on my brief downhill.

One perfect day

After twelve days in two seasons, I’m still a relative newcomer to the backcountry. Every trip is a learning experience, consolidating skills and learning to be a better skier in variable natural conditions. There’s nothing about backcountry skiing that I don’t love: the sweat and slog of the skin track, the weight of the skis on the uphill, the wild rides the snow can take you on, the endless gear adjustments, the careful checking of avalanche bulletins and snowpack conditions, the freedom that comes from taking yourself somewhere far into the mountains under no power but your own. The freedom that brings you to places like this.


Sunday morning found me behind the wheel on the Sea to Sky, driving through a landscape soaked in silver. The full moon reflected back from the ocean and lit up the snow-cloaked mountains in a light that leached the world of colour. On the Diamond Head access road the sun finally stole into the sky, but the moon still hung low and silver behind the trees.


At the trailhead we threw our gear on and started skinning rapidly upwards, warming up quickly in spite of the morning chill. At a brief break in the trees we were given a stunning glimpse back across Howe Sound in the blue dawn light. It’s funny, but when I checked the forecast I was briefly sad that we weren’t getting another huge powder day. After such a deep and sustained storm cycle I’d almost forgotten the glory of bluebird days in the mountains; we’ve seen so little of the sun this winter. Near the warming hut we stopped to check out the surface hoar, which fanned like tiny feathers across the open meadows. On top of what has so far been a really well settled snowpack, it will be interesting to see the impact of the current spell of high pressure when the snow returns.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnder the rising sun we skinned quickly to the top of Round Mountain, then took a fast warmup run down. Afterwards we hiked back up to the ridge, and with Garibaldi looming behind us we agreed unanimously that we should push on toward Elfin Lakes and explore some new territory. The trail took us through dense slopes of snow ghosts on Round Mountain, then through open meadows to the rolling slopes of Paul Ridge. The views opened up ahead and behind, vistas so incredible that I had to blink and blink to convince myself I wasn’t dreaming.


With the ridge dropping away to a gladed bowl below us, we climbed a small rise and transitioned to downhill mode. Preparing for the first run in the shadow of Garibaldi, it felt like the world was holding its breath. Ahead of us, a steep slope of pristine snow fell away into the trees. I watched B make the best turns I’ve seen him make in all our time skiing together, huge plumes of coldsmoke drifting in the wake of his skis. And then it was my turn.


I knew almost as soon as I dropped off the ridge that this was going to be one of the runs of my life. There was none of the hesitancy that I’ve sometimes had before in deep snow on unknown slopes: this was a foot of lightly consolidated powder on top of bottomless storm snow, and it felt like flying over silk. The turns were just – there are no words. I can’t describe it. You have to be there, to feel the snow, to understand. When I hit the runout where B was waiting, all I could do was yell incoherently and grin like a maniac.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the far side of the bowl there was a rough skin track leading up, so we forged a trail through the soft powder to it and then made the steep, zig-zag hike upwards to the ridge. Just before the crest I broke away from the skin track and led us over a rise to another open, untouched slope. As we paused for breath after the steep trek up I realized I was starving, and scarfed a sandwich while we transitioned.


The second run was even better. A slightly steeper slope, more untouched powder, and huge arcing turns that felt like surfing the face of the world itself. I know that in the greater scheme of things these were pretty short runs, and that there will be bigger and better lines to come, but as backcountry newbies these were, easily, the runs of a lifetime. The snow, our growing confidence, the blue sky overhead and mountains framing the bowl – it was utter perfection, the moments that I’ve been dreaming about since I first clicked into a pair of skis.

Paul Ridge run

After the second hike back out the clock was ticking, and we decided to head homewards. On Round Mountain a small cloud bank rolled in, cloaking the trees in a drifting mist and casting strange shafts of light from the branches. We had time for one final rollicking run down sunwarmed snow through Red Heather Meadows to the warming hut, and back to the parking lot down a trail so heavily used by snowshoe traffic (Elfin Lakes was apparently the place to be for New Year’s) that it felt more like a narrow groomer. There were enough bumps and jumps to make it a fun ride, and we were laughing and clinking ski poles as we passed the trailhead and skied out to the car.


What else can I say about this day? I spent it surrounded by beauty so profound that it took my breath away. I skied the kind of snow I’ve been dreaming about my whole life. Every single step that I took upwards was rewarded a million times over on the downhill. It was perfect. That’s all.

Back in the backcountry

And in December, everything finally started to come around.

Since Whistler’s dubious early opening, all it’s done in the Coast Mountains is snow. Storm cycle upon storm cycle, snowflakes the size of quarters spiralling endlessly down from the sky, snowbanks building higher and higher everywhere above the freezing level. Ghost trees, coated white in the breaking dawn. Cornices building; rocks gradually disappearing; mountains just waiting for skiers.

Red Heather trail

On Tuesday, everything aligned. A tiny break in the relentless storm meant avalanche conditions on the Sea-to-Sky dropped from angry red to a wary yellow. A vacation day randomly reallocated due to a work conference landed just perfectly. B and I picked up triple-shot coffees at Galileo, and drove up the Diamond Head access road in a whirl of snowflakes. We hiked up the access trail under stormy skies, with snowfall so heavy at times that we could barely see one another. The trail itself was barely a shoulder-width wide, with unbroken powder everywhere we looked. We were both on new gear; B strode ahead on brand-new superlight Dynafits, while I adjusted to the additional weight of the Guardians. We settled into comfortable but slightly varying paces, and I found myself smiling just to be back in that incredibly rhythmic, purposeful place that is the skin track.

Red Heather trail

I’d packed a couple of beers so that we could toast whatever the day brought on the way down, and the first hiccup of the day occurred when I tried to stash them at the warming hut. I sat one in  a snowdrift beside the hut, then watched in perplexity as it suddenly disappeared with such a neat whoosh that it looked as though it had been vacuumed. Note for the future: don’t put beer in snowdrifts above tree wells. I dug for it for a while, but after one unsuccessful attempt at retrieval that just pushed it deeper I decided we might as well wait until we came back. It clearly wasn’t in danger of being poached by anyone else (indeed, we only saw three other people the entire day.)

We lunched on cold pizza and peanut butter sandwiches in the warming hut, and then strode out for the ridge. We took one warm-up run directly above the hut, but the mellow slope didn’t really give us enough speed to get decent turns on the two feet of fresh powder. For our second run we hiked a couple of kilometres further along Paul Ridge, to greater elevations and higher angle slopes.

Howe Sound views

By this time the weather had taken a significant turn for the better. The snowfall finally eased, leaving our final climb to the peak of Round Mountain under clearing skies through blankets of fresh powder. There was no rush; there was no-one else there to poach the lines. The entire mountain belonged to us. We climbed a steep skin track through snow-shrouded trees while strange beams of sunlight danced through the cloud over Howe Sound and the Sea to Sky corridor, impossibly far below us. And then, on a small plateau just below the peak, it was time to fumble briefly with our gear and descend.

Round Mountain powder

It was deep. On the first drop I held back, and then I realised it was only going to get better the faster I went and I let myself rip through the trees back to the runout on the meadow. The Rockers blew through the powder like it was curling foam on the edge of an ocean wave. As snow fountained up around my waist I remembered exactly why I fell in love with this experience last year. You sweat buckets on the skin track up, and you may only get a handful of runs down, but they’re runs that are simply incomparable. Not just because the snow is better than anything you’ll ever get in a resort, but because it’s just you out there in the silence of the backcountry. There are no crowds, no rattling lifts, and in Garibaldi Provincial Park there are no buzzing snowmobiles. It’s just you and your skis in a space that’s as perfect as anything you ever dreamed.

Paul Ridge skin track

After that first run we got our skins back on as fast as we could and raced back up to the peak to fit one more lap in before the light started to fade. On the far side of Round Mountain steep rolls and mellow meadows beckoned, promising tracks on another day. We pointed our skis downhill and surfed through perfect powder one more time, cresting little rolls and dropping into deep snow on the runout to the hut. Powder landings are like nothing else: you almost don’t know where the air stops and the snow begins.

Back at the hut we invested a few minutes in digging out the runaway beer. Once it was safely retrieved, we sat by the stove and warmed our hands and toasted the day. 15 kilometres of climbing. Three runs, two of them ones that I’ll be dreaming of for a long time. And a perfect reminder of why backcountry skiing completely changed my perspective on my sport last season. As Steve Romeo said, “I think for people who really love to ski, and aren’t so caught up in the hype and the crowds, we’ll always be drawn to the backcountry. As long as you’re interested in fitness and getting a workout, why wouldn’t you want to climb up this untracked peak, on your own, and have this moment in the backcountry where you’re not being rushed to ski down the line? You can take whatever track you want, and always get fresh tracks, and have this orgasmic moment at the end, like, oh my god.”

Powder runs

We left the hut and flew the final 5k back to the car in gathering dark, flying off little bumps and jumps in the deep snow to the left and right of the track we’d taken up. As long as you’re a skier, and you love the snow, why would you want to be anywhere else? How could anything be better than a day like this?

The best days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Heather redux

On Saturday we went snowshoeing with J’s parents on the Red Heather trail. Or rather, they snowshoed and I took the opportunity to get some skinning practice. It was J’s mom’s birthday; not many folk can say they celebrated turning 71 by snowshoeing 10km in the BC backcountry.

On the way up to Diamond Head we passed the freezing line, and the rain that had bucketed down over the Sea to Sky changed to snow. After a fun tussle getting chains onto the truck in the slushy chain-up area (I hadn’t used them before, surprisingly) we headed to the upper parking lot. At the trailhead we found ourselves in a winter wonderland full of ghost trees and spiralling snowflakes. It was a little late in the day to be setting out, and all the way up we were passed by powder-covered skiers on their way down. By the time we reached the warming hut, the snowfall was just starting to ease off and we stopped for a late lunch by the woodstove. We decided that given the time, it made sense for J and the in-laws to head down while I headed for ridge and a few downhill turns.

When we stepped out of the hut, the snow had stopped. I turned my tips toward the ridge and started skinning rapidly upwards beneath a dark grey sky that was rapidly clearing to the south. I passed the only other uphill skiers a few hundred yards from the hut, and by the time I was halfway to the ridge I was completely alone. Everywhere I looked there was nothing but unbroken powder. A few rays of sun filtered through the clouds, and the realization dawned that I was about to have an experience that I’d dreamed of since the day I first strapped two planks to my feet.

The moment when I reached the top of the ridge is probably one of the highlights of my time skiing. The clouds had rolled back far enough to be a jumble of light and shade wrapping the peaks to the south; the sky overhead was blue, the slopes around me drenched in sunlight, and there was two feet of untouched powder between me and the rest of the world. I couldn’t transition fast enough. By the time I’d locked in my boots and bindings and put my helmet on the clouds had rolled back in, but the pristine snow was still waiting.

I skied the same line that B and I took down on our first skin up the trail. Over a small roll, down a steep stretch, around a stand of trees, and then down again through glades to the hut. Moderate angles to minimize avalanche risk (the profile was stable in spite of the fresh storm snow, but I was very conscious of being on my own) but steep enough for a little speed and fun. I cruised down through completely untouched snow, practicing weighting my skis for little swoops to the left and right. Like last time, it was like moving in another dimension. It felt like surfing, flying, floating over a strangely mutable yet supportive substance that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the groomers and crud and soft, choppy bumps that I know from the resort. There simply isn’t anything else like this. It’s not even close to the being the same sport as the skiing I’ve always known. It’s all the speed and adrenalin, but stretched out into gossamer-fine threads where you flow downhill like water and there’s an eternity to appreciate every moment of every turn. It’s where the skier’s dance with the mountain slows to silky perfection.

All of those adjectives, and yet my description doesn’t even come close to capturing the way it feels to ski a slope like that. It also sounds much more professional and controlled than it really was. I still haven’t completely figured out my weighting on turns, so I ended up pointing straight downhill more than I should have been. That was kind of fun too – watching my skis plane further and further out of the snow as my speed increased – but I do need a lot more practice at turning and weighting my skis in fresh snow. Even so, there’s just no getting around the insane rush of simply being in powder snow on skis.

As I passed the hut I dropped past a stand of trees into a sharp v-shaped dip which proved to be my undoing. My tips buried themselves in the uphill wall, and I flipped head over heels and landed deep in the snow. My skis were completely jammed, my poles buried, and my backpack weighed my shoulders down. I had to wriggle around to a point where I could release both bindings to get out, and it took me another ten minutes to dig out my skis and poles and get set up to continue downhill.

In spite of the somersault (and having to pole off a flat stretch a little further down), it was a golden run. I wish there’d been time for even one more skin up to the ridge, but we were so late getting to the trailhead that dusk was falling by the time we reached the parking lot. Even so, it was worth it; so incredibly worth it. I will never forget reaching the top of the ridge at the exact moment the storm broke, and seeing the sun light up the slopes that were waiting for me to carve tracks down them. In a lot of ways touring is like starting out as a skier all over again, but days like this just inspire me to keep learning.

Blisters and powder turns

Today was one of the best days that I’ve had on skis.

My friend B and I made an early start for Squamish, and after coffee and breakfast wraps at Galileo took the turnoff for the Diamond Head area of Garibaldi Park. After keeping a careful eye on the avalanche forecast this week the plan was for our first post-AST1 backcountry tour, and hopefully some powder turns.

We could see a ghostly cape of white on the mountainsides above us, and as we left the paved road the snow started to fall in earnest. The road changed from potholes and mud to a sheet of compact snow, and I switched the truck to 4 wheel drive. Shortly afterwards we reached the chain up area. I had chains in the back, but we both decided that we’d rather spend the time hiking than putting chains on for the last 2.5km. We strapped our skis to our packs and headed upwards.

The bootpack to the Red Heather parking lot was hard going (it was steep, neither of us was used to hiking in ski boots, and our gear was heavy) but very gratifying once we finally made it to the trailhead. We put on our skins and headed upwards into trees laden with snow and low cloud, with snowflakes falling around us in slow spirals.

About a kilometre into the skin I realized that I was developing some nasty blisters on both heels and my right small toe. I assumed initially that this was because I’d put the footbeds from my downhill boots into my AT boots, raising both my heels. B waited patiently while I yanked out both liners and removed the footbeds, only to discover that this didn’t solve the problem. After another painful kilometre I was forced to stop and apply copious amounts of band-aids to both feet. When I found that this didn’t help either, I decided to just grin and bear it. (On reflection, I’m pretty sure the bootpack was to blame.)

5km from the parking lot I caught a faint hint of woodsmoke in the air, and spotted the roof of the BC Parks warming hut among the trees. We headed in and switched our sweat-soaked outer layers for down jackets. Mine was a recent purchase with a Christmas gift voucher, and it was a revelation. I have terrible circulation and had just grown to accept the fact that I’m going to be freezing whenever I stop anywhere for more than a few minutes on a mountain hike; in the down I was warm as toast. We ate lunch, thawed some snow by the woodstove for water, and then headed on out.

I have to admit that my feet were feeling pretty chewed up by this point, and every step forwards was accompanied by the sharp sensation of skin dragging across raw flesh on my heels. But by this point I could see the ridge ahead – the slope I’d flagged on a distant June hike as one I wanted to ski down this winter – and there was no way I was stopping. We skinned up to the top of the ridge, paused briefly to dig a snowpit and do some stress testing, and then switched up our gear and locked in our heels for the ride down.

And then; and then. Then it was all worth it, every single moment. Not just the painful skin upwards, but every frustrating second that I went through last year as I was trying desperately to restore my left knee to something resembling functionality. In the fresh, untouched powder in the silence of the backcountry, I suddenly discovered what the Praxis can do in their natural element. I was flying. They were flying. Surfing in big, arcing turns across the snow, tips never dipping, it felt like I couldn’t sink them if I tried. Below the ridge we carried on through glades of trees back down to the hut and beyond, catching air with landings so soft it felt like floating on endless pillows.

This is the kind of skiing I want to be doing. There will always be days for the resort: days when you want to carve hard and fast on perfectly groomed hardpack, days when you just want the most vertical you can possibly get. But this – this felt like coming home. It felt like the reason behind that love I have for being on the mountain.

We cruised on downwards, riding powder and floating airs off little bumps either side of the trail until the trees closed in and the snow hardened and the trail eventually spat us out at the parking lot. We shrugged and kept on skiing for as long as we possibly could, straightlining the soft snow at the edges of the road and skittering across the tire ruts on the steeper stretches until finally the gravel grabbed at our bases and we had to put our skis back on our packs. The last half-kilometre or so to the truck was agony, as I trudged downhill with the sides of my boots grinding like sandpaper on my blisters.

In spite of the wrecked feet, it was a truly awesome day. I’d do it better next time, with an earlier start and chains to save the bootpack and and leave more time and capacity for skinning up and down the ridge. But this was our first true backcountry tour – one that didn’t involve guides or ski runs – and it taught me a whole lot about the kind of skier I want to be, and how much I still need to learn to get there.