At long last, the snow returned. Unfortunately it brought with it a sharp rise in the freezing level that delivered pounding rain well above the peaks of the North Shore mountains. At higher elevations, strong winds and rapid accumulation led to this season’s first extreme avalanche danger rating on Friday. After a fun day of storm skiing at Whistler on Thursday, I watched the changing conditions closely over the weekend. By Sunday the risk was down to moderate at treeline and considerable above, and we decided to give Red Heather a careful try. This has the advantage of being an area that we know well now, with a wide variety of terrain to suit the conditions.
Things didn’t look good at all on the skin up. The parking lot was a sheet of glassy ice, and the trail was absolutely bulletproof with a bare dusting of new snow on top of a rock hard rain crust. But the sun was shining, the skies were blue, and I couldn’t stop smiling just to be out in the mountains on such a beautiful day. We’d originally thought about heading out along Paul Ridge if the snow stability seemed good enough, but that plan was skunked before we even started testing when two snowshoers advised us that a big slide had taken out the trail on the far side of Round Mountain. At that point I was starting to think that we might have to settle for a nice walk on skis as our objective for the day. And honestly, that would have been okay: I have a rare love for the uphill part of the journey, and any time spent in a mountain landscape is a good time for me.
My early concerns about the downhill conditions started to fade as the new snow accumulations increased significantly as we gained elevation, and the meadows above the warming hut sparkled in the sunlight. Only ghost trees shared the slopes with us; there wasn’t another person in sight. Near the peak of the mountain we finally came across two other skiers who had dug an enormous snow pit more than two metres deep. The storm snow on this aspect looked surprisingly well consolidated, and we decided it was safe enough to ski as long as we stuck to fairly mellow terrain. Our first run through the glades of snow ghosts laid all our concerns about poor skiing conditions to rest. The top layer was a little bit slabby in spots where it had been wind-loaded, but not enough to be a serious concern.
We spent the rest of the day skiing gentle northwest slopes from just below the peak of Round Mountain. The snow was unbelievably good, especially considering the high freezing levels. As the day warmed it settled to somewhere in between powder and corn, the lighter layer on the surface capping smooth, consolidated snow underneath. It felt fluid, liquid, not quite like anything I’ve ever skied before. The turns we took beneath deep blue skies and drifts of cloud floating up from the valley were fast and flowing and smooth as silk, leaving me howling at the sky for joy at the end of each run.
There are days when your perspective changes and afterwards nothing feels the same. This was one of them. A day that I’d gone into with no expectations, seriously questioning why we’d be heading into low elevation backcountry versus the managed alpine environment at Whistler, turned out to be one of the best days in the mountains that I’ve ever had. Seriously, what more could you ask for? An entire mountain of your own, all the time in the world to pick an untracked slope and ski it, and snow that felt like an unbroken ocean wave: glassy and silky and absolute perfection. 29,000 people fought for post-storm terrain in the Whistler alpine. We had an entire mountain to ourselves. Sure, we may not have been able to head out to steeper and more challenging terrain, but when the snow is that good meadow skipping is more than enough.
Late in the day we ran into two BC Parks Rangers who’d been testing the snow on the far side of Round Mountain. On the slopes where the slide we’d heard about earlier had occurred, they’d found at least four reactive layers within the storm snow. We explained our strategy of staying on the slopes where the snow seemed well-consolidated, and sticking to relatively low-angle terrain (most of the slopes we were skiing were 30 – 35 degrees) and they gave us a thumbs up, which was a very reassuring pat on the back given that we’re still very much in the learning phase of backcountry skiing and trying our best to be smart about our choices. We asked them why they thought the slopes were so empty, and their theory was the same as ours – that big objectives weren’t an option, ruling out more advanced skiers, and the prominent news stories about the extreme danger earlier in the weekend had scared off a lot of people who didn’t realise that conditions would start to stabilize later on Saturday.
When our legs finally ran out of steam after yoyo laps on the northwest side of Round Mountain, we headed down. For the first kilometre or so after the warming hut we slithered and bounced through slick, wet snow on top of icy bumps; then we ran out of options and had a choice between locking ourselves into the foot-deep luge track in the middle of the trail or clattering over the frozen snowshoe postholes at the side. It was pure survival skiing, and my knees (which are super cranky from a nasty bike accident about ten days ago) were complaining loudly by the end.
In spite of the awful ski out, it was one of the best days I’ve had on snow. All day Monday, my mind drifted back to those perfect turns on slopes where the snow felt like liquid silk beneath my skis. The backcountry is messing with my head. It’s making me not want to ski in places where I have to jostle for space, for a place in the lift line, for a turn or two on untracked snow. Out in the backcountry I can have all of this every time I ski, and the price is nothing more than the physical effort it takes me to get there.