On Saturday I paid my first visit to Whistler this season. It was brutal. The snow on Blackcomb was the worst I’ve ever skied there: a mess of little trees and rocks poking through an icy, chunky base layer. The snowmaking has been focused on Whistler and the coverage there was a little better, but the crowds packing into the little terrain that was open made the runs look like Grand Central Station. It’s the worst opening I can remember.
Having said that it’s really not possible for me to have that a bad time on snow, and seeing my friend W take her first turns in 4 years (after two ACL surgeries) more than made up for the terrible conditions. But riding the chairlift up, I realised that the resort experience is pretty close to being done for me. Beyond the ropes there’s space and time and silence, and it’s not the same.
So early on Sunday morning I found myself waiting in the dark and the rain for a stranger to pick me up and take me out to the Coquihalla Summit, where there’s been a ton more snow than we’ve had here on the coast. The stranger (actually a trip leader from the Vancouver Backcountry Skiing meetup group) turned out to not only be great company and an extremely experienced backcountry skier but also the nephew of J’s supervisor at work, so not really a stranger after all.
The storm intensified as we headed into the mountains, and we used the drive to discuss a plan for the day. Conditions above treeline were rated considerable, so we planned to do some pit digging before making go/no-go decisions. On Clayton’s recommendation we chose Zoa Peak as an objective, since it would provide some options for fun skiing even if the snow was too sketchy to venture into the back bowls. The rain was coming down steadily at the Falls Lake trailhead, and we chased the freezing level up the mountain until we reached a winter wonderland of powder glades and whirling snowflakes.
At the far end of Zoa ridge we stopped to do some evaluation of the conditions. The storm was in full force and the snow was accumulating fast, with at least a foot of fresh powder on the ground. We found some facets and slabby snow on the lee slopes, but on the windward side it seemed to be bonding well to the layer beneath. After two ski cuts where nothing moved, we decided that we were good to go.
Clayton went first and I followed once I saw him cruise to a halt in a safe zone, dropping off the ridge into cloud and snowflakes. The new powder was denser and deeper than the snow I’d skied the previous week on Round Mountain, and it took a moment to dial my turns in. When I did, it was golden. Beautiful powder surfing, smooth and fast and effortless. The lower half of the run steepened and dropped down toward a gully, and I was yelling for joy as I swept to a halt by the trees at its edge.
We climbed rapidly back up, noting the increasing effects of windloading as our skintrack crossed briefly onto the lee side of the ridge, and transitioned for a second run. This time I took the fall line a little further right, which was fantastic until I aired off a small bump and my left heel unlocked on landing (probably the result of icing, which has been a periodic issue on the Guardians). My turn compromised, I ploughed into a deep bank, double ejected, and went for a brief superman flight before plummeting face-first into the snow.
The third run was the best, with the snow still falling like crazy and glory turns all the way down. Even the ski out was a ton of fun, with some wonderful skiing through powder glades before the trees tightened and we dropped out onto the logging road. The final descent felt like skiing a resort groomer on a powder day, at least until we passed the freezing line and the snow turned to heavy cement and my quads finally decided to protest the back-to-back ski days. I slithered the last stretch in a series of sloppy backseat turns, still grinning all the way.
The two days couldn’t have been more of a contrast. It’ll be interesting to see how things go as the season progresses; right now, I can’t summon up much in the way of enthusiasm for going back to the resort. There’s so much more out there.