Game on

And then the day came.

We’d already decided that this season should start where we want most of it to take place: in the backcountry. So we let Whistler’s early opening last weekend come and go, and instead waited for Friday and a trip to Red Heather.

Red Heather trail

I really didn’t know what conditions would be like. I’d heard that a supportive rain crust was making for surprisingly good skiing, but overall coverage still sounded pretty thin and we were heading up three days after the last big storm passed through. Mostly, though, I just wanted to be out there. Not shoulder-to-shoulder on a man-made ribbon of early season resort snow, but back out in the wide open spaces, away from people, where anything is possible.

Friday dawned clear and cold. We made good time out of Vancouver, stopped at Galileo for the ritual ski morning caffeination, and then headed up to the Diamond Head access road. There was some ice and snow on the final kilometre or so, but the snow tires held all the way to the upper parking lot without the need for chains.

Setting out

All the little things I’d missed so much. Cold air and frozen fingers fumbling with a million zips, straps and buckles. Beacon check. Ripping skins, sticking skins, jamming feet into ski boots, and then that unmistakable thunk of heels locking into bindings. It didn’t seem real until I lifted my foot for the first time, felt the weight of the ski, and began the kick-and-glide up the trail.

It’s funny, but I missed the uphill almost as much as I missed the down. That strange, unique, absolutely absorbing rhythm of the skin track. The sweat and the effort and the endless drive of it. Because each step up takes you closer and closer to the turns that are waiting. Even in familiar terrain, the snow is new every time. No matter how well you know the trail, you’re always en route to an adventure.

Uphill, Red Heather trail

In spite of our moderate expectations, the snow was looking pretty good. The trail was well packed with just the very occasional rock grazing the surface, and although overall coverage was still pretty thin the cold temperatures had kept the untouched snow light and powdery. We stopped to hydrate and chop some wood at the Red Heather hut, then headed on upwards. The meadows above the hut were caught somewhere between winter and summer, but wide swathes of snow between the trees promised good skiing to come.

Powder!

As I transitioned on a rise on the shoulder of Round Mountain, that sense of unreality overcame me again. Six months had passed since I last stood in this white world. Six months since I was last on skis with my heels locked in. And here I was, with all the rust and unfamiliarity of a long, long summer behind me, and a meadow of clean, beautiful, untracked snow in front of me. No resort. No groomers. No easy start. Just snow, untouched and amazing. I took a deep breath, tapped my poles together once, and skied.

First turns

The first couple of turns on the lower angle approach were awkward, but that’s true on my first run of any day. Then as my speed increased a little I pulled myself out of the backseat and flew down the meadow in what’s almost certainly the best first run of any season I’ve ever had. I remember small trees flying by, powder surfing underfoot, and then all too soon I was dropping down a small shoulder and back onto the trail.

Impatience had put me on a fairly short run; I wanted more. I transitioned in a blur of flying skins and gloves, and set out as fast as I could to the Garibaldi viewpoint. I ended up climbing just a little higher, to a point where a steeper run stretched before me without a single track marring the snow. I kept thinking that someone was bound to pop up and poach it before I could transition, but the reality was that there were very few other skiers on the mountain and I had it all to myself.

Dropping off the ridge was a religious moment.  It wasn’t in any way a hard slope – I’d refer to it as meadow skipping at any other time in the season – but it was steep enough for me to gain some speed and as I threw my skis into the first turn and felt them plane through the powder I couldn’t believe I wasn’t dreaming. I swept around small trees and flew off bumps formed by newly-covered features, catching air, sinking into the snow, surfing over it, grinning like a maniac, delirious with a euphoria I hadn’t felt in far too long.

Second run

There was absolutely no hesitation, no doubt. The summer’s rust was already stripped away, left behind somewhere on the first run. On this variable, unpredictable terrain, I felt like I clicked back in faster than I ever had before.

I was conscious that my ski buddy was waiting for me back at the hut, so I set a pretty direct route back up. It was a good reminder that the 6,000km I’d cycled since I was last on skis were not an adequate preparation for hard skinning. I’m fairly sure that nothing is. Breaking an uphill trail with 7lbs of weight on each foot and a heavy pack is quite unique in its cardio demands.

I made it back up in time for one more run on the next slope over, a slightly steeper line leading into a gully that plunged away through the trees. I couldn’t make myself stop, and rode it onwards and downwards until I couldn’t go any further.

Another fall line hike out followed. I crossed the trail, somehow found a way up the bank flanking it, and hauled myself a final stretch uphill to stand, sweaty and gasping, on the shoulder just below the peak of Round Mountain. For the last time I stripped the skins off, and dropped through the trees toward the lower angle meadows above the hut. On this south-facing slope the sun-warmed snow was noticeably heavier and stickier than the previous runs.

Skiing happy

With the low snow coverage the contours of the landscape were far more apparent than they are when winter really sets in. I had enough speed to jump the first creek (without really intending to, since I hadn’t seen it coming) before slamming into the bank and almost getting pitched over my tips on the second one. It didn’t matter. Nothing could have wiped the grin from my face at that point. Even the ski out was pretty fun; the trail is still soft enough that it’s not just a clattering descent on ice, and the waterbars made for some fun little jumps.

As first days go, that was the best I’ve ever had. My feet are covered in blisters, my quad muscles feel like quivering noodles, and yet all I want is to go out and do it all over again tomorrow and the next day and the next.

Ski season 2013/14 is here. Game on.

Surface hoar

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