Category Archives: Callaghan

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.

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

The Metal Dome heli drop

Some days change everything.

Photo credit: Alistair Crompton Photography(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.

Blackcomb Aviation heli

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.

Heli circling Chainsaw drop zone

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.

Blackcomb Aviation heli leaving

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.

Chainsaw landing zone, Metal Dome

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.

Skiing down from the landing zone, Metal Dome

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.

Metal Dome glacier

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.

Metal Dome

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.

Climbing from the col to Metal Dome summit

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.

Metal Dome summit

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.

The valley, Metal Dome

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.

Final climb, Metal Dome

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.

Metal Dome alpine

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.

Ski team at Callaghan Valley Road

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(Photo credit: Alistair Crompton Photography)

Traveling blind

Last weekend was a tricky one for choosing a destination. S and I had originally planned to head for Rainbow Peak, but that objective was skunked by the avvy ratings in the alpine. At the same time, the freezing level was high enough to rule out some of our normal go-to zones. In the end we opted for the Callaghan and the first part of the Rainbow tour, to Gin Peak via Hanging Lake.

Neverland redux

We started out on the same cross country trails that I’d skied with J and the other C and S on that beautiful bluebird day in February. It was almost as warm, but the cloud ceiling was disturbingly low and we both realised early on that the visibility might not be in our favour.

The steep climb to Hanging Lake was more or less my favourite kind of uphill, with the exception of some epic skin glopping due to the warm temperatures. Fortunately S was prepared to scrape my skis free periodically as half the mountain tried to come along with me. The trail itself was broad, steep and clearly marked, and a nice cardio slog.

Sierra and giants, Hanging Lake trail

As we climbed the south ridge out of the outlet stream depression below Hanging Lake, the visibility – which had held on tantalizingly through the trees – wavered, trembled, and then disappeared completely. There were two other groups of skiers on the mountain, and first one and then the other broke away from the trail and began transitioning. S and I discussed it briefly, and decided to keep going for at least a short while. We were still hopeful that conditions might clear if we gave it a bit of time.

At this point things became interesting. With no-one ahead of us, we were relying on my fairly new skills with the GPS to wayfind. Following the route was simple enough, but I was also conscious that we were now at treeline in an area with an avvy rating of considerable and we needed to steer clear of avalanche terrain, even though we couldn’t see it. Attempting to read the contours and guide us safely through the hidden landscape around us was both very challenging and an intensely valuable lesson in backcountry navigation.

Sierra in the mist, Gin Peak

We wound our way slowly toward the summit, remaining hopeful that the visibility would clear. Unfortunately, the cloud closed in around us as we transitioned and when the time came to ski down, we found ourselves in a whiteout so intense that it was impossible to tell up from down. We’d slide, start to gain momentum, then hit a point where the contour of the slope changed and immediately crash.

It was pretty grueling for the first 150m or so of the descent. S fell off a ten-foot cornice he hadn’t seen coming. I dropped off a rise and then somersaulted into neck deep snow when the slope suddenly flattened. At times we both thought we were going down, then looked at our skis and realized we weren’t moving and probably hadn’t been for some time. It was utterly disorienting.

Neck deep snow on Gin PeakPhoto credit: Sierra Laflamme

Then, thankfully, we reached treeline and gained some definition amid the murk. The snow was still crazy heavy, but with the confidence to ski it faster we were able to stay on top and get some decent turns in. The final part of the run down to Hanging Lake was pretty glorious, and we both found ourselves jonesing to come back on a better day and ski the entire stretch again.

The first part of the run out through the trees worked me pretty good. It was easier for S on the splitboard, but with huge chunks of styrofoam snow kicked up by earlier groups on steep slopes it was impossible to stop my skis taking wild deflections. Then the snow smoothed out, and we found ourselves on an insanely fun little luge track that rocketed us through the trees and all the way back to the cross-country trails.

Hanging Lake trail descentPhoto credit: Sierra Laflamme

In spite of the terrible visibility, it was clear that this was a phenomenal area with some great runs. I can’t wait to go back on a day when we can see what we’re doing.

Far out

48 hours later, I was back in the Callaghan in very different conditions for a second crack at Telemagique.

Stormy Callaghan

A huge snowstorm had swept in, and the landscape was barely recognizable. The trees were cloaked in white, and there was so much snow on the road that we were able to put our skins on and ski straight out of the parking lot. Since it was our first time in the Callaghan backcountry and we knew it was likely to be a long day, C and I took the easy route in and headed up the deserted Mainline cross country trail for the first 9km.

At Callaghan Lake we left the trail network behind and set out into a windswept void of white and grey. There was something eerie and yet deeply compelling about the lake crossing: the howling wind and creaking snow, the depths of ice and water beneath our feet, the emptiness ahead that could have been anything or anywhere, and above all a sense, stronger than I’ve ever felt, of striking out into the complete unknown.

Callaghan Lake crossing

That feeling – the strange combination of adventure and uncertainty, excitement and fear – is one of the things I love most about touring in a new place. It’s hard to explain how visceral it is, and just how strongly it compels me to keep moving forward. There’s this wild energy that charges through the world when every step takes you a little bit further out, a little bit further away from comfort, security, and all the things that are known and sure.

On the far side of the lake we found ourselves in a snowswept bay where the real routefinding began. C has a lot of experience at finding his way in a new area; me, not so much. We’d decided to approach this one from all angles, including map, compass, and GPS. We left the lake via a creekbed, and began climbing through the trees toward the ridge.

Telemagique approachWith limited visibility we couldn’t see much in the way of landmarks, so we relied on the map and GPS to guide us through this section. Our overall progress slowed considerably due to the tricky routefinding, and by the time we emerged on more open slopes near Puma Peak we decided to skip the very enticing downhill possibilities to make more forward progress. We were just past the halfway point of the loop by this time, with a long way still to go.

As we climbed through the meadows to what we thought would be the high point of the ridge, the snow – which had been falling softly and steadily all morning – finally eased, and we were able to make out Puma’s south peak behind us as well as a whole host of steeper skiable terrain to our left. This was definitely the prime downhill spot on the route.

Puma zone, Telemagique

Our hopes of having reached the high point turned out to be optimistic as the final draw led to yet another climb, and then still another in the saddle beyond that. We took it in turns breaking a steep trail through the foot or so of new snow, a heart-pounding, lung-searing exercise that seemed to go on forever. The GPS confirmed that we were still on track, but we were both starting to wonder where the downhill was.

After what felt like a million years of climbing, we finally reached a point where the ridge began to descend. We gratefully transitioned, thinking that it would be all downhill from there, but had barely gained enough speed to begin turning before the draw flattened out and we had to put our skins back on for another climb.

Telemagique

What followed was a seemingly endless stretch of rolling, frustrating terrain where we either left the skins off, picked up a bit of speed, then went for an exhausting wallowy sidestep up the next rise; or left the skins on for easier climbing, but lost our opportunities for picking up distance quickly on the downhill. Somewhere along the way there were some fun powder turns, but very few compared to the amount of work we’d put in to get them.

Eventually we both reached our limit with the endless ups and downs, and with concerns about losing the light starting to surface we decided to cut the final corner off the loop. We dropped into a gully to our right and almost immediately lost all of our remaining elevation, plunging rapidly down very steep, icy slopes beneath dense trees and through powder fields where the trees receded. A few minutes later we tumbled out of the forest and back onto the cross country trail, and were on the home stretch back to the car.

End of the road, TelemagiqueThe GPS revealed that we’d traveled 26km in just over 8 hours, with 1,000m of elevation gain. It was easily one of the most strenuous days that I’ve had on skis. In spite of the rather skewed ratio of uphill to downhill, it was also a tremendously rewarding experience. Going somewhere new, doing all of our own routefinding, being such a very long way out. Sometimes, that’s all the reward you need.

Skinny planks

Until last weekend, I’d never cross country skied. Impossible, I know, but true. So J and I headed out to the Tantalus View Retreat with friends for the weekend, and from there to the Whistler Olympic Park in the Callaghan Valley. We lucked out completely on the weather; it was a perfect bluebird day, without a cloud in the sky.

Putting on the skis was extremely strange. Totally familiar, and yet not. Firstly, the boots were squishy and comfortable. Secondly, the skis themselves were these insane skinny things that didn’t behave at all the way I expected them to. The two skis put together were still narrower than one of my regular skis and the lack of edges initially seemed quite disturbing, since it wasn’t possible to use them to turn.

Skinny Rossis

After some basic instruction from our friend C that was enough to get us moving, we set off. Apart from the tendency of the skis to want to slide sideways whenever I was out of the tracks, this felt like far more familiar territory since it’s the exact same motion as skinning, with some slight adjustments for the length of the poles.

The downhills were hilarious. With no edges, the only way to turn was to try and force the skis into an aggressively weighted snowplough which occasionally seemed to move me very slightly in the general direction of the corner. A variety of crashes, slides, and close encounters with snowbanks ensued each time the four of us came to a hill.

By the time we’d worked our way around the loop I was feeling pretty comfortable, having come to the realization that cross country skiing is basically just touring with really long poles and crazy skinny skittish skis. Sliding along in the sunshine, Brandywine towering ahead of us, it felt strangely liberating to be on such incredibly light gear and unburdened by an enormous heavy backpack.

This is something I’ll be doing again for sure. I’d like to keep working on my technique on the skis since there’s clearly a lot to be learned there, and I’d also like to try the skate skiing which looks like an absolutely killer workout. Mostly, though, I’m happy that I found a new way to do one of the things I love the most: move through the mountains.

Callaghan Valley trails