Traveling blind

Last weekend was a tricky one for choosing a destination. S and I had originally planned to head for Rainbow Peak, but that objective was skunked by the avvy ratings in the alpine. At the same time, the freezing level was high enough to rule out some of our normal go-to zones. In the end we opted for the Callaghan and the first part of the Rainbow tour, to Gin Peak via Hanging Lake.

Neverland redux

We started out on the same cross country trails that I’d skied with J and the other C and S on that beautiful bluebird day in February. It was almost as warm, but the cloud ceiling was disturbingly low and we both realised early on that the visibility might not be in our favour.

The steep climb to Hanging Lake was more or less my favourite kind of uphill, with the exception of some epic skin glopping due to the warm temperatures. Fortunately S was prepared to scrape my skis free periodically as half the mountain tried to come along with me. The trail itself was broad, steep and clearly marked, and a nice cardio slog.

Sierra and giants, Hanging Lake trail

As we climbed the south ridge out of the outlet stream depression below Hanging Lake, the visibility – which had held on tantalizingly through the trees – wavered, trembled, and then disappeared completely. There were two other groups of skiers on the mountain, and first one and then the other broke away from the trail and began transitioning. S and I discussed it briefly, and decided to keep going for at least a short while. We were still hopeful that conditions might clear if we gave it a bit of time.

At this point things became interesting. With no-one ahead of us, we were relying on my fairly new skills with the GPS to wayfind. Following the route was simple enough, but I was also conscious that we were now at treeline in an area with an avvy rating of considerable and we needed to steer clear of avalanche terrain, even though we couldn’t see it. Attempting to read the contours and guide us safely through the hidden landscape around us was both very challenging and an intensely valuable lesson in backcountry navigation.

Sierra in the mist, Gin Peak

We wound our way slowly toward the summit, remaining hopeful that the visibility would clear. Unfortunately, the cloud closed in around us as we transitioned and when the time came to ski down, we found ourselves in a whiteout so intense that it was impossible to tell up from down. We’d slide, start to gain momentum, then hit a point where the contour of the slope changed and immediately crash.

It was pretty grueling for the first 150m or so of the descent. S fell off a ten-foot cornice he hadn’t seen coming. I dropped off a rise and then somersaulted into neck deep snow when the slope suddenly flattened. At times we both thought we were going down, then looked at our skis and realized we weren’t moving and probably hadn’t been for some time. It was utterly disorienting.

Neck deep snow on Gin PeakPhoto credit: Sierra Laflamme

Then, thankfully, we reached treeline and gained some definition amid the murk. The snow was still crazy heavy, but with the confidence to ski it faster we were able to stay on top and get some decent turns in. The final part of the run down to Hanging Lake was pretty glorious, and we both found ourselves jonesing to come back on a better day and ski the entire stretch again.

The first part of the run out through the trees worked me pretty good. It was easier for S on the splitboard, but with huge chunks of styrofoam snow kicked up by earlier groups on steep slopes it was impossible to stop my skis taking wild deflections. Then the snow smoothed out, and we found ourselves on an insanely fun little luge track that rocketed us through the trees and all the way back to the cross-country trails.

Hanging Lake trail descentPhoto credit: Sierra Laflamme

In spite of the terrible visibility, it was clear that this was a phenomenal area with some great runs. I can’t wait to go back on a day when we can see what we’re doing.

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