Category Archives: Cypress Bowl

Full body armour

I do most of my mountain biking with people who are far, far better than me. This means I’m continually pushing myself, but generally feel pretty inadequate when it comes to my own abilities. I’m too much of a weekend warrior, at least these days, to be able to put the time into closing the gap. Mostly I just try to be grateful that my riding buddies are patient types who don’t mind waiting when I have to take the long route around a gnarly descent or crazy stunt.

This summer, though, I started to become more aware of my own progress over the past couple of years. Trails – admittedly not the most difficult trails – that had once seemed hard had definitely become easier, and I’d begun cleaning sections that I’d previously had to walk. The Banshee stepped my game up a notch, proving that it is to some degree about the bike.

Nonetheless, when my riding buddy J proposed we ride CBC, I was unsure. I am not even close to being a double black rider; I’m only just getting comfortable on (easier) blacks, and still fall off skinnies and woodwork with tiresome regularity. CBC? Really? But there was also a lure of adventure and challenge that I couldn’t resist, and so on a bright sunny morning I found myself at the trailhead in body armour and a full face helmet, ready (or not) for the spills to come.

CBC skinnyish woodworkThe night before, I’d dreamed my way through strange realms on the bike: shadowy fantasylands filled with ghosts and caverns, a dark Narnia that I’d find myself revisiting in my sleep before every big bike challenge over the summer. I’ve grown to love it, because it means that the day ahead is about going far out of my comfort zone and into wild new territory.

CBC started off surprisingly reasonably, with armoured berms leading into awkward rocky descents and drops. J and I took one section at a time, pausing when we needed to. He was the best person I could have asked to tackle my first double black with: patient, analytical, and confident without being fearless. Watching him break the trickier lines down step-by-step was helpful for me when I reached spots where I initially balked.

James on CBC

To my surprise, I ended up riding about 90% of the trail. I skipped a couple of the crazier drops and ladders, but got more and more comfortable on the janky rocks and woodwork that made up much of the route. J blew my mind by taking one look at the mad rollercoaster leading to the Millenium Log and riding it clean on his first attempt. I was actually sorry when the trail ended and we spilled out onto Pinch Flat Alley, where we rattled down over the loose rocks and back into sunshine on Cypress Bowl Road.

CBC woodwork

I had fully expected to walk most of CBC, especially after a series of bad choices on my first visit to Cypress a week before that had resulted in my ass being thoroughly handed to me on an eroded skidmark of a black trail. Being able to ride so much of it, albeit a bit slowly and awkwardly, was a huge confidence booster. It was also great watching J push his own limits on some of the sections; his technical riding is infinitely far ahead of mine, and he’d go on to bigger and better things almost immediately, but the trail had plenty to challenge us both.

New ‘shoes

Last Sunday we took our new snowshoes (an early Christmas gift to each other) and headed up to Cypress for the first hike of the winter. The snow cover is still pretty thin, but we bashed through the little trees and branches that were poking out of the drifts and made it all the way to Hollyburn Peak. The views north to the Lions and east to Sky Pilot were quite incredible; there’s nothing like that feeling of standing on top of a mountain that you’ve climbed with your own two feet.

Of course now I keep looking at the snowshoe trails and seeing backcountry skis, skins, AT bindings and potential tours, but that doesn’t take anything away from how much fun snowshoe hiking is. I’m always going to have a soft spot for it because it was the thing that got me back into the mountains this time last year, when I was still months away from skiing again.

I love the way every snowfall changes the landscape in the winter; you can hike the same trail two days apart and find it almost unrecognizable, all the lines changed and gradients softened. I love leaving the city and driving up to the place where the world becomes clear and clean and white and the air has that beautiful crisp coldness that you only get above the snowline. I love being out there in the mountains, regardless of what’s on my feet.

Day four

The North Shore isn’t being all that supportive of my return to snow.

30cm of new snow fell on Cypress on Friday, and a friend who was up there midweek said the conditions were great. I packed up my gear and set off Saturday morning, looking forward to more fresh snow in the forecast.

There was certainly snow, but it wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for. I arrived in the teeth of a howling blizzard, with a vicious wind and wet snow blowing horizontally across the parking lot. I wrapped my facemask a little more tightly under my goggles, zipped my jacket up a little more securely, and climbed onto a violently swaying chairlift.

The first few runs on Mount Strachan were reasonable, although the snow was already pretty heavy and starting to pile up badly. I moved over to Black Mountain before lunch, where the snow was quite a bit better but the visibility was zero. I was very conscious of the risk of catching an edge, especially on the lower third of the mountain. I tried not to let the conditions distract me too much from the need to think about my technique, and managed a few brief sections of decent carving. Overall, though, flex and mobility in the bad leg is still lacking.

By about 11.30am the temperature had risen enough that the lower runs were getting really wet, and on the one run I took to Raven Ridge I found driving rain instead of snow. The knee tired badly in the heavy conditions, and I was struggling to force it through the piles of chunky, slushy snow that littered the runs. I stopped for a quick snack, but came back out to even worse conditions: even heading into the lower runs with as much speed as I could gather, the snow was so sticky it brought me to a dead stop. At that point I gave up and came home.

That’s four days out, two on boilerplate ice and two on wet, heavy cement. It made me long for the chance to test the knee out on smooth groomers where I can focus on technique and not on going ass over tip due to horrible conditions. The knee got a couple of sharp twists yesterday, although it felt okay at the end of the day. Overall, though, I’m feeling pretty disappointed with the North Shore mountains. I don’t think my leg is ready for a full day out yet, but I’m more than ready to go back to Whistler.

Day two

Day one was nervewracking, unfamiliar, and cautious. Day two was rough and ready, but a blast.

My regular ski buddy K and I were reunited for a day on the slopes at Cypress. The forecast was for light snow, but the heavy rain at sea level had barely solidified into slush as we arrived in the parking lot. After fretting considerably about the conditions for most of the previous 24 hours (I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea for me to be skiing in fresh snow at all, even powder) by that point all I cared about was getting onto my skis and getting out there.

The conditions were, by any normal standards, abysmal. Low cloud blanketed the mountain, and the semi-snow that was falling was just wet enough to cling to goggles and create an icy, impenetrable mask. About ten centimetres of slushy snow had fallen on top of the groomers, leading to piles of wet, heavy cement on every run. It was a perfect day for catching edges and taking tumbles, and about as unsuited to testing out a fragile new knee as possible.

My knee rode it all out, and then some. I’m still not skiing well; I’m contending with start-of-season unfamiliarity, a left leg that feels completely different than it used to, muscle atrophy, and underlying concerns about the knee’s ability to deal with skiing this far ahead of my official release to full activity. But once I hauled myself out of the backseat, I was able to ski strongly and well enough to build up some reasonable speed and cut through the piles of heaped, messy snow rather than bouncing off them. I even found myself missing my Shoguns like crazy; the rockered tip would have blown over all the wet, heavy crud in my path. I don’t think my leg is strong enough to manage them yet, but a few more days like that and it might just get there.

On the last couple of runs of the day I opened it up and let it rip as much as I could given the conditions and my own limitations. By that point my quads were whimpering in protest (I guess 300,000 SLRs and 100,000 leg presses still aren’t enough to prepare for the rigors of skiing) and the muscles around the knee were letting me know that they hadn’t been put through anything resembling this kind of workout for the past 8 months, but I didn’t care. For the first time in a long time, I was flying; and the last thing I wanted was to stop and find myself limping slowly away on the ground again.

I still don’t entirely trust that I’m ready for this. I know that my physiotherapist is 100% confident that I am; I know that in two weeks I’ll be 7 months out from surgery, and at the point in my rehab program where I start testing the knee as hard as possible before a release to full activity a month later. But I still don’t believe, for some reason, that I’m actually ready and able to ski. I don’t know how many days on the mountain it will take for me to have faith in myself, and to believe that it’s real. In some ways I hope I never lose the sense of wonder that I have right now, this feeling I’ve had since my injury that every day on the slopes is a gift.

I can’t wait for day three.

Back in the mountains

This weekend I was invited to go snowshoeing. I couldn’t see it anywhere on my rehab protocol, and didn’t imagine that it would be a recommended activity at this stage of rehab (too slidey and unpredictable.) So I was quite surprised when my physiotherapist told me to go ahead and have a great time, but to watch out for deep snow.

From the moment we arrived in the Cypress parking lot, I felt better about everything. I stood there for a minute or two just breathing that cold, clear mountain air, and it felt like my soul was being restored. Stepping out onto the snow with my snowshoes on was a strange moment; I felt like I owed my new ACL an explanation, the story of how this substance was responsible for its abrupt move from my left hamstring to the interior of my left knee. And then we started hiking, and I forgot everything. I was slow, I was plodding, I couldn’t walk downhill, but I was out there in the winter wonderland that I’ve missed so much. The trees were heavy with snow and crystals sparkled in a layer of unexpected sunshine above the clouds that blanketed the city.

When we reached the ski area boundary, my friend did her very best to convince me that “approved to snowshoe” did not mean “scramble up a stupidly steep slope with minimal snow cover that you have no idea how to get down.” By that point I’d come far enough that I was absolutely determined to get to the peak. In fairness to her, she was absolutely right – continuing was a really stupid idea. In fairness to me, I wasn’t having any difficulties with the climb and I was confident that I’d figure out a way to get back down.

Reaching the peak made it all worth it. I stood on top of a mountain that I’d climbed with my own two feet, with Howe Sound to my left and towering peaks to my right, and I felt as close to normal as I’ve been throughout this whole wretched rehab. I still can’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel, but standing on the peak I could finally start to believe that it was there. Over on Black Mountain tiny skiers carved their way down to the lift, and I looked at them and truly believed that 100 days from now I’ll be there too.

Of course I did figure out a way down; I took off my left snowshoe, held my bad leg in the air to keep it out of the way (30,000 SLRs have to be good for something) and slid down the steepest sections on my butt, using the snowshoe as a brake. Halfway down I realised I had absolutely no idea why I was sliding. When I actually tried to walk down, I had no problems; the knee didn’t hurt and I was just fine. It was more that every now and then my snowshoe slid in the soft snow, and I couldn’t guarantee that I could control that slide. Apparently I’ve learned caution somewhere along the way, although it doesn’t extend far enough to make me turn back when I really should.

I’m getting there. Snowshoeing may not be the same as skiing, but at least I can be out in the mountains. There are no words to describe how much I’ve missed them.

Day seven: a show of cloud and light

After a variety of Christmas excesses I needed to sleep in, so instead of heading up to Whistler on Sunday I made a leisurely trip up to Cypress. It was a perfect bluebird day, with a slight temperature inversion trapping a layer of dense fog over the Georgia Strait. All day long the cloud, land and ocean partnered in a strange dance of light and shadow, with fog teasing at the edges of the city. At sunset the entire bank of cloud caught fire, flaring briefly before fading into a deep blue twilight.

The skiing, unfortunately, wasn’t up to much. Most of the snow on Black Mountain has melted, leaving one open run which feeds into a narrow, annoying bottleneck that skirts the Olympic construction zone. A couple of laps on that side were enough to realise that it was worth enduring the lineups for the Lions Express. The snow on Mount Strachan was icy in the morning, but softened up nicely in the afternoon. I got in some storming lunchtime runs on Rainbow, straightlining the top of the face into high speed carves on the lower half. I’m working hard on quieting my upper body and getting more hip movement into my carving, and I was pleased to see some real progress at higher speeds.

After lunch the lineups on the lower part of the mountain became excessive, and rocks began poking their way through the surface of Rainbow and Horizon. Oddly the Sky Chair was mostly deserted, and in the afternoon sun Ripcord was almost like ungroomed spring skiing. Three awesome ski kids were doing cliff jumps in some of the tightest spaces I’ve seen, and oddly there were at least half-a-dozen snowbladers on the top part of the mountain. (Regardless of their limited popularity, the fact remains that snowblades are enormous fun.) The run itself was short, but probably the most challenging open terrain on the mountain: bumps, drops, pungy trees, and a few large rocks and small cliffs. The contrast between black runs at Whistler and black runs elsewhere always amuses me.

Later I took a ride on the Sky Chair with a Cypress ski instructor, and while chatting about the high cost of skiing and how I’d like to take a few lessons soon (it’s been 19 years since the last one) he made a blindingly obvious suggestion: take my Level 1 Instructors’ certification and start teaching skiing one day a week. It’s no more expensive than regular lessons, you get taught by the best, and end up getting to spend more time on snow while getting employee lift discounts the rest of the time. I said it had never crossed my mind because I didn’t think I was anywhere near good enough, to which he said that he’d seen me on the run and I was. I don’t have time this year (and will likely make my priority an avalanche safety course if I do get extra time) but next season? If my knees are still going, I’m there.

All in all a good day, in spite of the cruddy snow. The North Shore really needs a big dump ready for 2010.

Day five: laid back locals

On Friday my friend B and I took a short trip over to the North Shore for a laid back day at Cypress Bowl. It was chilly, with cloud hanging low over the mountain and a fine dust of snow falling. It’s the first time I’ve been up to Cypress since the new lodge opened and the Olympic construction has really gotten underway. The grandstand at the foot of the Eagle Chair, overlooking the half-pipe and freestyle zone, is mindblowingly huge. The parking lot closures didn’t cause us any serious inconvenience because so few people were on the mountain on a cold, gloomy weekday, but there was a fair bit of trekking around the lodge and the start of the runs. I was really impressed by the lodge expansion, especially the Crazy Raven bar and grill.

Both B and I wanted to spend the day working technique. We spent most of the day cruising runs below the Lions Express and Raven Chairs, concentrating on drills, weight and body position. By the end of the day, we both felt that we’d put a real dent in our close-season regression. The snow overall was not bad at all; there were icy stretches, especially on the Rainbow face, along with some very decent snow on the sides of runs and the lower part of the mountain. We took a brief run on First Sun, which was still closed; it was a curious but entertaining mix of pockets of deeper powder and icy ridges with just a dusting of fresh snow. Tracks left by previous skiers and boarders had frozen and the flat light left me completely unable to see them in my woefully inadequate goggles (my lovely new Smiths fell victim to a moment of inattention on my last trip to Whistler), which added an extra dimension to the run.

Overall the run closures didn’t really impact the skiing too much, although that’ll be a different story come 2010. After missing Cypress entirely last season (I did my local skiing at Seymour) it was a good reminder that it’s a pretty decent hill, and the discounted pricing makes up (for now) for the Olympic inconveniences. It’s a shame it’ll be out of commission for so long, although having Grouse open for 24 hours during the games isn’t bad compensation. I’m going to have to go for at least one all-night skiing session, just because I can.