Some days change everything.
(Photo credit: Alistair Crompton Photography)
It started a week ago, with a tentative email enquiry about putting a team together for a low cost heli drop in the Whistler area. It got real just a couple of days later, when weather and avvy conditions lined up and suddenly there was a date and a destination. And when I realised that the destination was the same peak I’d been dreaming about since I first saw it six weeks ago on that beautiful day in the Callaghan, there was never any question what my answer would be.
So on Saturday morning I found myself in a helicopter, headed for Metal Dome. It all came together so fast that even as the heli prepared to take off, I still couldn’t quite believe that it was happening. Heli skiing has never been on my radar because of the cost; even a one way trip like this wasn’t something I ever thought I would be in a position to do.
The pilot took us low over the trees then rapidly gained elevation, passing over the gleaming snow-covered peaks of Rainbow and Gin. The excitement level, which had been running pretty high, reached fever pitch as the Metal Dome and Brandywine alpine appeared ahead of us, unbelievably huge. It seemed unfathomable that we were just moments away from standing on top of it.
The heli flew over Metal Dome summit and then swept in a dizzying circle around the landing zone, with the horizon line leaping and shaking as high winds from the peak buffeted us. It felt like some crazy fairground ride, too surreal to be scary. The pilot tipped our nose toward the snow, and seconds later we were touching down. I left first, crouching just in front of the heli with the rest of the team while Michael hastily hauled out our gear. Then with a massive rush of air and wash of spindrift and snowflakes the heli lifted back up, swept over us and away, and all of a sudden we were on our own on the mountain.
When the hollering and cheering had died down, we spent a few minutes taking stock of our situation. Strong winds were blowing across the peak, but the sky was completely clear and the views were limitless. Metal Dome summit just to the south, Brandywine towering to the north, Black Tusk and Garibaldi far off to the east, and Rainbow and the Callaghan peaks ringing the valley. Below us, slopes of such immensity that I couldn’t completely comprehend the sheer scale of the zone that we’d arrived in.
In spite of the sunshine exposed flesh was chilling rapidly in the bitter winds, so we geared up and briefly discussed our next move. Two of the team wanted to drop into a very exposed chute on the far side of the peak (respect!) while the rest of us planned to ski the steep, smooth line down directly down the north face.
I hadn’t been entirely sure about this based on Google Earth, which made it look terrifyingly steep and quite possibly beyond my skiing capabilities. But the reality, while far bigger than I’d pictured, didn’t actually seem bad at all. (To be honest, the adrenaline was still running so high at this point that I’d have tried to ski almost anything.) The snow was pretty firm in the morning chill – it was barely 9am – but there was plenty of edge grip, and I was able to arc some fairly respectable turns down to the initial regroup spot.
As Michael and I waited for Jeff to ski down, I had time to take in the whole expanse of the alpine. I’d been fantasizing about this place since the day I scoped it from the Callaghan base lodge, dreaming of what it would be like to stand on the glacier and the lines that I might find there. I knew from the first moment I saw it that this was a zone with endless possibilities, and yet standing within it I realised that I hadn’t even begun to guess how huge and limitless it really was.
The length of that first run – and all the runs that followed – was staggering. The turns just kept coming and coming, over rolls and down ridges, steeper here then flattening out for a moment there, the snow fast and chalky and fun. I’d started cautiously while I figured out the conditions but it quickly became apparent that holding back wasn’t necessary. Al and Dan rejoined us as we crossed the ridge that separated the two main alpine bowls, and all five of us flew the rest of the way down together.
We stopped for a brief break before transitioning, speechless at the immensity of the landscape around us. In the endless expanse of black rock and pure white snow, beneath a sky that was the deepest blue I’d ever seen, it felt like we’d left the world somewhere far behind. We could have been standing on the surface of the moon, or somewhere else entirely.
Our next goal was to bag the Metal Dome summit, and ski from the peak down through the col and the full length of the glacier. The sun was starting to beat down fiercely by this time, and we were in shirtsleeves for the climb. It was a long, steep trek up to the col, where the winds suddenly resurfaced and lashed the snow to spindrift. From there a final climb led skier’s right to the summit plateau, with a new set of mindblowing views toward the black spires of Fee and distinct pyramidal peak of Tricouni.
The run from the peak was even longer and more epic than the first one. The snow on the col was starting to soften and speed limits were forgotten. We rocketed over the ridge and sharply down through a crazy, steep-sided valley between two perfect triangular snow formations. It looked like nothing I’d ever seen on earth, a completely alien landscape.
We paused briefly for lunch, then headed back up along the ridge to the base of our landing zone. Michael’s thermometer showed 13 degrees in the sun, and we were pouring sweat on the steep climb. This time we took a direct route down over an insanely huge convex roll and then all the way back into the valley we’d just left. I was starting to feel my legs by this point but on the perfect spring corn, it was impossible not to be a hero.
For our final line we hiked back up to the col just below Metal Dome summit, this time letting the run down carry us all the way out of the alpine. Pausing just below treeline to refuel for the ski out, none of us could take our eyes from the zone we’d just left: it towered above us, gleaming white and silver in the sun, too amazing to be real. Within sight, it already felt like a dream.
The ski out, which would have been quite fun in good conditions, was challenging. The snow was heavy and wet, the trees closed in tight around us, and we had to negotiate a couple of partially-melted creeks before we finally hit the logging road. My legs were completely done now – I’d logged around 2,500m of vertical in back-to-back days – and I mostly poled my way along the flat stretches as we made our way the final 4km to Callaghan Valley Road.
The return to civilization was jarring. Up there in the alpine, in that huge monochromatic landscape that felt so very far away from the world, we hadn’t seen a single other person since the helicopter left us. Human constructions like roads and cars seemed alien and strange, complications we’d already become unused to.
This was one of the most extraordinary days of my life. It’s so hard to come down from an experience like that; I feel like part of me is up there still, like I haven’t completely reconnected with the world. I know that I’ll be remembering this for a very long time.
(Photo credit: Alistair Crompton Photography)