Back country skiing is really damn hard.
I’ve been back country skiing for a bunch of years. That time has brought experience and practice. Being experienced and practiced means that ski touring doesn’t suck. Sometimes I forget that it's hard just because I'm used to it. Yes, there’s the continual challenge of avalanche hazard management or the fun of skiing technical lines, but the whole thing feels pretty comfortable and routine. But it really is frickin hard work.
That routine-ness is sort of a shame when you think about it.
There’s a solution though – you do a trip with a bunch of people who don’t have that mileage. You get to experience it through their eyes and it reminds you of how fucking hard it is to climb a damn mountain, on your skis, carrying a big pack and then ski back down it. It reminds you of how daunting and cool something as straightforward as a hut trip really is.
One of the most amazing things that my time in the mountains has given me is an appreciation of just how much someone can do on sheer determination and smiles. If you have never really pushed yourself in the mountains, then I really don't think you have any idea of what you're capable of. It's incredible. The VOC has a hilarious glossary of terms for people new to mountaineer. Synonyms for 'Beginner Friendly' are 'Sufferfest' and 'Death March'. Just because you don't have a ton of experience doesn't mean you can't push yourself to incredible feats.
That realization of just what we're capable of has allowed me, a slightly doughy mid-thirties desk jockey, to do some amazing things and I really enjoy any opportunity to help people realize that what you think of as 'tired' in the city is 'just warmed up' in the mountains.
When you're just figuring touring out - likely on slightly beat up rental gear - the learning curve is insane. You're figuring out how to make your skins actually stick to the ground while carrying a crazy heavy pack that you may not be used to. You also don't have any of the efficiencies that come with experience - you're picking your skis up with every step instead of gliding them forward, you're bobbing your upper body up and down like one of those drinking birds and you're fighting the terrain instead of using it. Oh and when you finally do get to the top, you get to ski down on tired legs carrying a way heavier pack than you would ever use at a ski resort through terrain that hasn't had a maintenance person come through with a saw to clean it up for you.
Ski touring is really fucking hard - but if you do it enough, you stop noticing that fact.
This past weekend I headed out to the Thunder Meadows Hut with a group with very mixed experience levels. We literally had the full gamut ranging from ‘can ski anything and break trail for 2000m’ to ‘first hut trip ever’.
Gig and Danielle are quite experienced; Conor and Colin have done a few things in the mountains but not a ton of ski touring; Kiran's a snowboarder who's seen the light and is getting into touring while simultaneously learning to ski, but has already racked up a bunch of trips; Leah's a really solid skier but had never done a real ski tour before I don't think; Ross had been snowboarding a few times at the resort and Ibrah used to snowboard but is basically doing a crash course in skiing as he gets into the backcountry.
Like I said, mixed party. Probably the most unifying thing about the party is I don't think I've even seen a group smile so much.
After staging in Fernie the night before, we started up the trail to the Thunder Meadows Cabin around 8:40am.
The route we were taking was the Cabin Ridge route – you park at the Mount Fernie Provincial Park and then tour up Island Lake Cat Skiing’s road until you reach a sharp bend at 11U 633030E 5484600N – about a 5km slog. There’s a signed departure from the road and you drop down into the drainage before you start climbing up the Cabin Bowl ridge before eventually breaking climbers right off the ridge and climbing up through a high col at about 1950m elevation. From there, it’s a short drop down to the hut. With good snow conditions, it should be a big day, but doable for just about anyone.
I did not really plan on abominable snow conditions.
We made it to our departure point on the road by 10:00am and I was super stoked with the pace people were maintaining. Despite heavy packs and a steady climb to the road, people were really cruising.
From there though, things got a touch ugly. The initial climb up the ridge is quite steep necessitating a lot of switchbacks. Furthermore, the snow down low has seen a number of melt-freeze cycles so it’s a rotten mess and back-sliding on your skins was an omnipresent danger.
It also really reminded me that there is a lot of skill that goes into skinning. It looks a lot like just hiking up hill, but there’s a million little tricks you pick up after years of misery – and a lot of the party just didn’t know any of them. They got up on gritted teeth, trial and error and sheer determination. I was super, super impressed how positive people stayed despite having to repeatedly climb the same slope they were backsliding down like some frozen-over Sisyphean nightmare.
I think I would have just thrown my toys and quit.
Yea, I know, on the way down, 20+ years of practice is going to really matter, but I really forget that there’s more to skinning than just putting one foot in front of the other – especially when conditions suck. Experience matters on the way up just as much as on the way down.
Watching Ross’s realization that small steps work better than big ones when it’s slick made me really realize that the world could probably use a few courses on how to skin – how to use micro-terrain to make a steep skin track easier to manage, how to use a combination of skin and edges to get extra grip and stuff like that.
Anyway, I was super impressed with everyone. It wasn’t the fastest ascent to the hut, but we got there nonetheless.
Gig and Danielle had blazed ahead to break trail and were staying in touch by radio. They called down when they got to the top of the pass to let us know that they had triggered a class 1.5 slide that we should be aware of. When we got there, it was impressive. Impressive enough that I immediately radioed him to ask if he had a spare change of underwear because if I’d dropped that on myself, I’d be sitting in an uncomfortable mess. He assured me that Danielle had a frilly spare set he’d borrowed.
It was one of the final slopes to the top of the pass that had pulled and the debris accumulated in a wind swale at the bottom of the face. Gig got partly buried by the slide and had to dig around for a while to find his ski pole. It was yet another incident this year where a touchy wind slab has pulled when the Avalanche Canada bulletin has called conditions Moderate. Time and again this is an issue this year and I’m starting to get super, super twitchy about ridge tops.
Anyway, after bypassing the slope that pulled and with everyone contemplating their mortality, we skied down the hut. We were stoked to find that Gig and Danielle had already gotten the fire going so we dropped our packs and started rehydrating and refueling in comfortable warmth.
A night of hanging out in the hut – stuffing ourselves with food and trying to figure out if we could drink all of the wine we brought (we couldn’t) helped recharge people’s batteries.
With the less than ideal conditions, Leah suggested we get a pretty early start on things Sunday morning and that ended up being a pretty good call. Our planned route out was going to be to tour up to the top of Orca Bowl and then ski that back to the Island Lake road and then ski back to the cars from there.
Apparently as recently as Wednesday, the snow had been great, but a wind system had really hammered the hell out of things and the result was some pretty stiff wind slabs in places. So stiff in fact that when Connor was breaking trail, even with his toes locked, one ski shot off – luckily lawn darting to stop off of a wind lip. Once we’d retrieved it, we continued up, but to keep the skin track safe I had to double back and break up the almost icy crust with my boots at one point. This was not a normal mid-season snowpack…
Given the activity Gig had seen the day before, we were super cautious dropping into Orca. Gig laid in a hard ski cut on a convexity which didn’t move an inch, but the rest of us still chose a line that sort of traversed back and forth across the face from island of trees to island of trees.
The skiing sort of sucked. It sort of really sucked.
It was the worst kind of breakable crust. Your skis would skate on the surface until the second you tried to make a turn at which point your break through and really had to hope that both skis were pointed in the same direction or else you were going for a header – and with the super stiff crust, if you bailed, you were going to go for a bit of a ride. Which Colin did. He managed to self-arrest, but his ski shot off down the slope so while he managed a seriously impressive job of skiing the slop on one ski, I ripped down, grabbed the ski and skinned back up to meet him half way up the slope.
As we continued down, we traded wide open slopes for slide alder punctuated tree skiing thanks to the currently low snowpack. The adventure of having ski tips snagged or try to rip tight turns through death-crust had smiles on everyone’s faces. Or something.
When you’ve spent a significant portion of your life alder-swimming, you sort of get used to this stuff and develop strategies for keeping both tips above or below a given branch. When you are used to nicely groomed ski resorts, this stuff has a STEEP learning curve.
Once again, despite seriously tough conditions, everyone was a trooper and suffered through it, making steady progress. We weren’t setting an FKT, but we did make it back to the cars before dark and no one got hurt which is all that really matters.
So basically, it was a great weekend, with great people in great terrain betrayed by less than great snow. It was super rewarding to get out with a party with as varied experience levels as this one because it really reminded me of how brutal it is learning how to do this stuff.
Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.