Always better outside

The driest winter I can remember drags on, with hope ebbing out of every bullshit forecast as the days come around. With regional snowpacks at a fraction of their usual depth, ski resorts struggling to keep runs open and nothing very promising happening anytime soon, there’s still skiing to be had if you’re willing to work a little for it and accept that you might not be riding the perfect powder you remember from Decembers past.

On Saturday my new ski buddy C, his friend S and I headed up to Diamond Head to see what we could find. Rumour had it that with less than 50cm of snow on the Duffey, Elfin Lakes still offered the best coverage in the Sea to Sky region. I’d taken a nasty spill on my bike a couple of days before and was nursing a sprained thumb and badly bruised right leg, but the injuries weren’t serious enough to warrant staying home.

Red Heather bootpack

Things didn’t look all that great at the trailhead. Compared to three weeks ago, when I was there last, conditions had deteriorated considerably. The access road was a sheet of glassy ice, and the trail itself was devoid of snow for most of the first kilometre. Fortunately once we passed the Howe Sound viewpoint things improved, and we were able to put our skis back on.

When the storm caught us, we were suddenly plunged back into a winter wonderland. Heavy, slightly wet snow swirled around us all the way to the warming hut, where we found a mysterious plate of iced brownies and chocolate-dipped strawberries. We didn’t stop for long; the meadows above were calling and the snow was still falling. The trail was almost unrecognizable as it crossed the shoulder of Round Mountain, with so much ground cover still visible.

(Photograph courtesy of Sierra Laflamme)(Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme)

We stopped for our first run at the start of Paul Ridge. The slope was one of the NE aspects where the CAC had warned to be wary of windloading as the day progressed. We weren’t totally happy with the stability, but given that the winds had only just begun to pick up we made the decision to ski it cautiously, one at a time. S deployed his avalung to be on the safe side, and we dropped in to the fantastic sounds it made as he breathed in and out.

It wasn’t the easiest snow to ski. About eight inches of very dense, heavy new snow overlay an icy rain crust. C made it look smooth and simple, but when it was my turn to ski down I managed about three decent turns before I unweighted my downhill ski too much, slipped into the backseat, and turned a somersault. I picked myself up and headed slightly more cautiously down to our regroup zone. Clearing visibility made the lower part of the run a little easier.

(Photograph courtesy of Sierra Laflamme)(Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme)

By the time we regained the ridge the winds were picking up, and we were seeing some noticeable settling under our skis along with fracturing of the new snow. We agreed that we should stick to south aspects for the rest of the day, and headed on around the ridge.

In very poor visibility, with the snowpack so much lower than normal, I found it harder than I expected to figure out exactly where we were. It wasn’t until I saw one very distinctive rise that B and I dropped in from last year that I was able to orient myself and work out where we needed to go. It was a sobering lesson given how frequently I’ve skied the area.

Paul Ridge skintrack

The south slopes were much crustier, but didn’t have quite the same touchy feeling to the new snow. We took a couple of runs there; the conditions were definitely a challenge and it wasn’t my finest skiing ever, but by the final run I was starting to get more of a feel for it. Mostly I had to remember to be aggressive, and not sit back and let the crust pitch me around. I wish we’d had time for a couple more runs; it was a good learning curve.

After we’d trekked back to Red Heather the final run down through the meadows was a blast, with little buried trees to hop off and a ton of fun to be had scooting on and off the trail to keep our speed. By the time we reached the final bootpack, the light was fading and we carried our skis the last kilometre or so to the parking lot in gathering dark.

Paul Ridge skintrack

It’s funny; I really don’t care that it wasn’t the best snow, or that I skied it like a total gaper for most of the day. Learning to ski in variable conditions, including ones far worse than this, is good preparation for the less generous areas that you encounter sooner or later in the backcountry; sometimes the day’s end leaves you in a place where the conditions just won’t be kind, and you have to be able to deal with it.

The main thing, though, is that it’s always better to be outside than in. It’s better to be out there in the mountains, having an adventure of one kind or another, chasing the dream. That’s the thing about ski touring: every single day is different, and every single day brings beautiful moments. I lost count of the number of times one of the three of us paused, looked around, and said “It’s so good to be out.” I’m very glad I met C and S; hopefully we’ll have a lot more adventures together as the winter progresses.

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