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.
Under 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.
On 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.
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.