The roads are bad. It’s Monday afternoon, the sky has closed in and it is snowing hard. Debbie and I have set out for another foray into the mountains. I sometimes get asked why I am headed south when the weather doesn’t look conducive to travel. My answer always is ‘the worse the driving; the better the skiing.’ I’m hoping the adage remains true and with the weather as bad as predicted the skiing will be outstanding tomorrow. The avalanche reports have been a bit worrisome the last few days but they look acceptable for Tuesday.
Last night 42 cm of snow fell (hint number 1) in the Banff area. I’m up early preparing for a day in the backcountry and the blanket of white looks more than enticing. The last I heard B was on tap to go skiing and had some ideas as to where to go. There are a couple more folks that might join us. I check Avalanche.ca, https://www.avalanche.ca/cac/bulletins/latest , and things have changed, even below treeline the risk is ‘considerable.’ (hint number 2) I jump in the car and head to Banff. All the way in I am wondering if, with all the new snow and the avalanche danger being high for the past week, it would be wise to venture forth and pursue the untracked powder. I arrive at B’s place on time and ready to ski. B is shoveling his driveway and doesn’t have his usual ear to ear grin. I jump out of the car and B asks me where my ski boots are. Debbie had just called and left a message ‘you left your boots in the garage.’ (hint number 3) It was then that B said that in his opinion we should not take our chances skiing today. It’s funny but somehow I had come up with the same conclusion (hints 1+2+3=no go). I was not prepared for a day of resort skiing so I’m spending the day in Canmore killing time until tomorrow. After a day of the snow settling it should be OK to have a go. This decision is deflating but it is the right one. You can’t ski tomorrow if you get killed in an avalanche today.
It’s 6 am and I drag myself out of the sack one more time. No anxiety today. No new snow and there is not a chance that the snow that fell Monday night will be skied out. At least not where we ski. If things still look bad we will head out on a ‘tour’ (x-c skiing on alpine touring gear), not my first choice but at least I will get some exercise and fresh air. The avalanche report has not swung in our favour. I arrive in Banff and B says he knows a place where the slope is about 20 degrees and it should be OK to ski without a worry of sliding. D and D are going to join us.
The temperature is warm, about 0 C. We are headed south from Hwy. 1 on Hwy. 93 towards what is in the summer the trail to Stanley Glacier. On the way from Banff we take note there have been a good number of natural slides in the alpine, not just sluffs, but major avalanches. As we get out of the car we are almost toppled over by the ever present wind. Every time I have been skiing in that area the wind has been blowing hard. At 0 C it is not that bad but when the temp. nears -20 C that wind can suck the life right out of you while you are buckling boots and putting climbing skins on your skis. The presence of wind is also a concern when it comes to snow slides. Wind loaded lee slopes are prone to sliding with a minimum of disruption, like the weight of a skier. We all make note of that as we head up the track that the folks before us have kindly broken for us.
As we travel up the track, which follows the creek, we see several large lumps of snow that have sluffed into the water. The signs are starting to add up but the track has been set in safe terrain and we are still OK with a chance at skiing. We decide to depart from the set track when it traverses a slope much steeper than we feel comfortable with. We continue on the flattish ground and curl south to a knoll that will be our highest point on the mountain today. Beyond this point the terrain above the access routes is very steep and we do not want to be below it.
We look down on a slope of about 20 degrees with widely spaced trees and untouched snow. There is plenty of room for all of us to ski without having to cross tracks and to come up again for another run. D broke trail so he gets to go first. A rather dubious honour, as it is not always the case but if a slope is going to slide it will likely be with the first skier. Where we are the chances of an avalanche are about a slim as they get and he makes some fine turns. The snow is a bit dense because it is being hammer by the wind but it is about boot top deep and the skiing is smooth as a cold Coke on a hot day.
Lunch is on the lee side of a 2 M snow drift in the warming rays of the sun which is hovering just above the ridge of Mount Stanley. Out of nowhere J appears on the bank of the creek looking down on us and yodeling to get our attention. He had been behind us on the uptrack and we had bypassed him on the run down. His tracking skills had lead him to our lunch spot and he will join us for our second run. J is a retired U of Manitoba professor that did not alpine ski at all until he was 68 years old. I did not ask how old he is but he has discovered the backcountry and has managed to hone his skiing skills enough to pursue his new passion. Lunch is over, our packs repacked and we are off up the track for a second run. It’s to the road this time. We all choose untracked snow and head down. B steers us left of our last descent and we find a slope that is not wind loaded that looks like it holds some good turns. Sort of like what a sculptor must see as he stares at a raw chunk of marble. The slope is steeper than we wish to ski so we ski it one at a time. At the bottom we move away to the side and observe the others coming down one at a time. If there is trouble we are out of the possible slide path and will be available to help should someone get caught. The snow is knee deep with no wind crust at all and is 20 turns of absolute heaven. These 20 turns are the reason I will spend 2 or 3 hours walking up a mountain just to turn around and ski down in about 1/6th the time it took to go up. We are able to ski right to the road. Usually we have to ‘bushwhack’ the last couple of hundred meters but not today, we can see the car by the time we have to stop making turns and use our survival skills to avoid the trees.
I’m a good skier, the lift service piste still holds a certain amount of intrigue but backcountry skiing now holds my undivided attention. I remember in my early 20’s, my ski buddies and I would look up at all the untracked real estate in the snow fields high above the roadways that lead to the resort to which we were headed and dream of how it would be to access those untouched slopes. In my early 30’s I hiked many a day into the backcountry at Whistler Mountain and skied untouched snow in terrain that is now easily accessible by lift. In those days it was reserved for those adventurous enough to walk through the gates into the unknown. It took till I was 50 before I was connected to the dreams of my youth and was able to access the snow that so enticed me as we drove to Marmot Basin or Sunshine Village. There is no turning back. I now ski about 80% of my mountain skiing days in the backcountry and even though there are times when, because of the conditions that present themselves on the upward trek little skiing is done, I do not think that skiing at a resort holds the same lure as it once did. And no matter how bad the roads I will do my best to drive carefully and make it to the mountains one more time, all the time remembering if my knuckles are white it will be one hell of a day on the slopes.