There hasn’t been much going on recently. Some fun days at Whistler, but nothing out of the ordinary: ripping groomers, bouncing over chalky crud off-piste, searching out the last lingering powder stashes that were maybe good for a turn or two.
And then there was Saturday.
I signed up for a tour organized by a backcountry skiing Meetup group. I’ve been keeping an eye on this group all season, but between my schedule and avalanche conditions circumstances hadn’t lined up for me to join them. As a relative newcomer to the backcountry, I wanted to make sure that my first outing with new people was an objective that wasn’t outlandish on a day when ratings weren’t too touchy.
Saturday was perfect. A trip to Mt Rohr in the Duffey Lake area, on a day with a perfect weather forecast when conditions were about as stable as they get. Before the trip I was stoked but also nervous. With a new group I had no idea what to expect, and my only impressions of our objective were based on John Baldwin’s brief assessment and some Google Earth views. My main concern was that I wouldn’t be fit enough or good enough to keep up.
We met up in darkness in Vancouver, and were well on our way when a beautiful spring dawn broke over the Sea to Sky. North of Pemberton low fog hung in the river valley, shattering the sun into a million bright fragments that dazzled the eyes and made the landscape around us look smoky and surreal, like blurred and shining echoes of something that happened long ago. Mountains reared high into the sky on either side of the Duffey Lake Road; from the car their peaks seemed untouchable, unreachable.
After some discussion during the drive we agreed that given the very stable conditions, it made more sense to shoot for Cayoosh Mountain and the Armchair Glacier as our objective rather than the relatively tame slopes of Rohr Ridge. I wasn’t nearly as familiar with this route, and for that I’m glad. If anyone had shown me a detailed photo of it before the trip, I would probably have bailed on the grounds that it was beyond my current capabilities. Fortunately no-one did, and I would have been wrong.
We set out on a logging road, but very rapidly turned off it for an icy, awkward skin through steep trees. Michael, the trip leader, was a machine; aside from Joseph, the Peregrine Expeditions guide, I’ve never seen anyone move so fast uphill on skis or wayfind a new route so quickly and accurately. We broke out of the trees quite quickly, gained another couple of kilometres and increasingly spectacular views on the logging road, and then the fun began.
What followed was some of the more technical terrain that I’ve ascended on skis. Which isn’t to say that it was particularly tough in the bigger scheme of things, but it really opened my eyes as to what it takes to reach a peak that’s off the beaten track in winter. There’s a huge difference between bushwhacking an icy skintrack through dense, steep forest and following the more open glades of a summer hiking trail.
We crested one ridge, dropped down to a small lake, and then re-entered the trees for another haul uphill. At this point I wasn’t totally clear whether our objective was the broad, rolling landscape at the end of the valley to our left, or the much steeper slopes and black peaks directly above. When the trail eventually emerged from the trees, it turned out to be the latter. We were high above a series of cliff bands and avalanche chutes that I’d scoped from down by the lake. The skin track itself was well-angled and starting to soften in the sun, but after a couple of slips lower down on the shaded ice I set my kick turns very carefully. By this point, I was very aware that I’d left my personal comfort zone a long way behind.
The skin track is a phenomenal place for thinking, once you get beyond the realities of the kick and step and glide and the endless dripping of sweat generated by exertion and the spring sun. Looking down at a no-fall zone directly below me, I asked myself why it wasn’t enough to go out and carve beautiful powder turns on the low angle slopes of Paul Ridge. There was so much more consequence out here. I didn’t have an answer right then, although I’d find it before the end of the day. Instead I just kept going, conscious with every step that the blisters on my heels were feeling more and more like ground beef and that as far as skiing went, I was in completely new territory.
A little while later we broke onto the glacier, and everything inside me went still. Because this was the dream that took me into the backcountry. Seeing things like this. Having the opportunity to ski things like this. A landscape of white reaching far above me to where jagged shark’s fins of black rock flanked the upper ridges. Behind the black-and-white peak of Cayoosh the sky was an astonishing, jaw-dropping blue. It felt like if I could only walk that far, I’d be able to reach up and touch the roof of the world itself.
Backcountry is such a limitless term. There are the rolling meadows of places like Red Heather, where you can play in the powder miles from lift lines and every run leaves you yelling for the sheer joy of the snow. And then there are places like this, so huge and open and wild that simply to be there makes the world feel bigger and more extraordinary than you ever imagined. Wild magic.
Beautiful though our surroundings were, it was also a long slog up the face of the glacier. The sun beat down, unbelievably fierce for March. Every step ground a little more flesh off my heels. To my surprise, though, my legs didn’t feel done. I had no idea how I was getting from the glacier back down into the trees, because I hadn’t seen a route that looked particularly accessible on the way up. But I knew that from here, I could reach the top: and from there, somehow things would work themselves out.
When we finally made the ridge at the top of the glacier, a little ways below the true summit, the views – which had been growing more staggering with every upwards step – exploded. I’ve stood in some beautiful places in my life. I’ve watched dawn break over Baker from Heliotrope Ridge, the sky filled with stars that cast silver light over the glaciers. I’ve looked out at Black Tusk during a temperature inversion, mountain peaks floating like islands on a sea of clouds. I’ve watched the sinking sun stain Shuksan red and gold before fading to alpenglow. I had never, ever, seen anything that compared to this.
Peaks upon peaks upon peaks. Amazing, stunning expanses of snow-covered rocks and glaciers in every direction. Mountains marching farther and farther toward the horizon, filling every space in the sky. Joffre, Matier and Slalock dominating the far side of the valley. The Duffey Lake road, impossibly far below. Rohr directly across from us, looking so small in comparison. And the whole wide expanse of the glacier hidden just over the ridge, ready and waiting. Big wide slopes, tight rolls, perfect spring snow.
We took our time over the transition simply because it was so hard to leave that ridge and the views it had brought us to. I was still trying to wrap my mind around it: that I’d climbed to this point, completely under my own power, from the valley floor, on skis. And now, this. A reward beyond words, even before we’d started skiing down. Simply to be in that place was enough. It was a moment I wanted to hold onto for the rest of my life.
Then came the turns. On snow like this it was impossible not to be a hero. There were a bunch of tracks to skier’s right of the glacier from earlier hikers; we hung left and carved our way down on untracked, perfect spring snow. Turn after turn after turn. 1.2km of unbelievable snow. A whole slew of moments I’ll remember forever.
Right at the end the snow started to turn slushy and heavy, and we paused to figure out the best way out of the alpine. Some tricky scoping led us over a ridge to a narrow chute full of wet avalanche debris, where all three of us sideslipped our way down slowly and carefully. The debris was sticky and heavy, and I think we were all conscious of the need to move through the chute before anything else came down in the heat of the afternoon sun. It wasn’t easy going, and I took a couple of somersaults (including one directly onto my head) before we made our way out onto an open meadow of slushy, untracked snow that eventually led us back into the forest.
Once we were in the trees, a route much like last year’s descent from the Coleman Glacier eventually took us back to a logging road. This one was lower than the one we’d used to ski up, and was mostly flat with stretches of gentle uphill. As we poled and skated along, my poor macerated heels – which I’d successfully shoved to the back of my mind for most of the day – started to sing in anguish. The final walk across the road after I’d taken my skis off was excruciating, and when I pulled the boots off and ripped the layers of skin away from my heels the raw flesh underneath howled so angrily that it felt like time stopped.
It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that I’d pushed myself far out of my comfort zone, on a route that I might well not have attempted if I’d really understood what I was getting into, and I succeeded. The reward was not only some of the best moments I’ve ever had on skis, but a raging high that hasn’t subsided yet. I can’t imagine any drug in the world offering anything close to this feeling. I climbed a mountain that most people access by helicopter. I saw the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. I skied some of the best turns of my life. I learned so much.
It’s hard to explain why this tour felt so different, because it’s not the only big objective I’ve taken on. However it was the first big objective where a guide wasn’t involved, which made it a very different experience from a decision-making perspective, and it was my first time skiing in the backcountry with people I’d only just met. There was a sense of independence and weight to our choices that felt new to me. I have a ton of respect for the group leader for the responsibility that he’s taken on with organizing these events. When he said he’d be happy for me to go out with the group again, it really felt like I’d achieved something significant. I’m not as technically skilled or as strong or experienced as these guys, so if they’re willing to have me on board – well, hopefully that means I did alright.
I want to keep on remembering this day, the things I learned and everything I saw and did, and more than anything the way I felt at the end. In spite of a strong risk-taking streak that people who know me are very familiar with, I’ve tended to be very cautious with my choices when it comes to the backcountry because I’m aware that I’m just at the start of a lifetime learning curve. But it’s only by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone that you have the opportunity to grow. And on this trip, I feel like I grew more than I ever expected.