Going out in style

I can’t deny that the season’s drawing to an end. But I’m not ready for the door to close on winter, for this world to be lost to me until November rolls around and the snow comes again. So for now, I’ll keep chasing the receding snowline as hard as I can and as far as I need to.

Last weekend, the freezing level danced way up the mountains while the weather forecast offered a vague mix of sun, cloud and snow flurries. We knew we’d have to go high, but had no idea whether or not we’d have visibility when we got there. We set our sights on the Duffey and arrived at the Joffre Lakes parking lot to lightly falling snow and a patchwork covering of cloud. Neither of us knew the area and we had no GPS track, so we’d resigned ourselves to the fact that if we reached the cloud ceiling on the climb up we might just be getting a very scenic workout.

Lower Joffre lake

The first lake crossing was sketchy as hell. After poking our poles into a foot of slushy water on top of the ice, we debated pretty hard as to whether we should attempt it. But the ice below the surface melt seemed very solid, and the bridge looked mostly secure. After making the call to give it a go we spread out and moved fast, and both breathed a sigh of relief when we made it to solid ground on the other side.

In the trees the snowpack was pretty thin, and a creek that would have made a great uptrack was already half unfrozen with huge holes looming between the pillows. It was early enough that the snow beneath our skis was still rock hard, but we could feel the warmth in the sun when we emerged on the boulder fields. When we reached the upper lakes  the views suddenly blew wide open and we understood for the first time why this area has such a reputation. We were surrounded by peaks of such immensity they took my breath away: Joffre, Matier, Slalok, Tszil, and Taylor. Landscapes I’d dreamed about were right there in front of me, the crazed chaos of the shattered blue icefall spilling down from the Anniversary Glacier toward the lake.

Upper Joffre Lake panorama

We had a loose plan to head for the Taylor-Tzil col, but once we’d crossed the lake and climbed into the alpine it became apparent that the south side of the valley had been sun affected and we’d be better off staying north. We decided to climb a very steep shoulder between Matier and Slalock, following a skin track set by an earlier group, with the goal of skiing back down our ascent route.

The climb started reasonably but as the shoulder steepened the skin track followed and we found ourselves just barely hanging on, setting our skis with care on each step to avoid slipping backwards and working our way through some of the highest angle kick turns I’ve ever attempted. The final haul was over a sharp convex roll that gave me a few nervous moments, as I felt I couldn’t completely trust that my skins would keep gripping on the wind-scoured snow and it would have been a long fall to a rock outcrop directly below.

Then we broke over the roll, and suddenly, before we’d even said a word to each other, we both knew that the plan had changed. We’d reached the Stonecrop Glacier, a huge sweep of perfect snow that led from a ridge just below Slalok peak all the way back to the valley floor. We were maybe two-thirds of the way up and breathing hard from the lung-searing climb, but once we’d seen the glacier we knew there was no way we were going anywhere else.

Stonecrop Glacier

We took a break for some food and then followed a much more reasonable skin track to the ridge. We passed one huge open crevasse, a gaping chasm of glassy blue leading to unimaginable darkness below. Over on the far side of the valley the clouds briefly rolled back to reveal the shark’s fin peak of Cayoosh, and as I caught my breath on the ridge and looked back toward it I felt like the winters had come full circle.

Cayoosh range

We transitioned quickly as clouds were closing in and flattening the light. The first few turns from the wind-scoured ridge were a mix of ice and snow pockets, and then we dropped into some of the best spring snow I’ve ever skied. It wasn’t corn; it was dense, surfy, boot-high powder that billowed up around us on every turn. We rode it all the way down to the toe of the glacier, where we dodged through a rock outcrop and back to the valley floor. Here we found the corn, and raced on silky snow all the way down to treeline and the lake.

Stonecrop skiing

The ski out through the trees was nowhere near as bad as I thought it might be on the way up. I think I’ve done enough of these crazy bushwhacks now to have developed techniques to deal with them. The low snowpack made for a few challenging moments as we skated over snow-covered logs and bounced off slushy boulder pillows, and at one point I ended up upside down after mistiming a jump from a log, but overall it felt way easier than the descent from Metal Dome.

Back at the parking lot S and I high-fived, celebrating one of the best days of the season. (Definitely the best day that didn’t include a helicopter ride.) We climbed hard, got ourselves into a beautiful area, and found incredible snow on the way down. If that’s the way the season ends, we sure went out in style.

Cayoosh backdrop, Stonecrop Glacier

I don’t want to admit that this might be it, even though I know that with the incredibly low snowpack and recent warm temperatures we might be done. For all the lack of snow, I somehow managed to have the best winter of my life. Part of it was amazing timing in the early part of the season, when every day off seemed to line up with the rare storms. Part of it was the crazy luck that led to the Metal Dome day. But the biggest part of it was meeting C and S. It’s not only that between the three of us we were able to get into the backcountry most weekends, it’s that we also formed a team where I was learning and pushing myself in one way or another every single trip.

Things are changing. I have a new job, and my focus is going to be elsewhere for the next little while. It’s not a bad time for things to be drawing to a close. But it’s never been harder to imagine the door shutting on the winter world, and I’m going to do whatever I can to hold onto it through the warmer months to come.

Matier

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