Schweitzer Mountain, Idaho

I left Rossland Friday morning just as the winter carnival was beginning. Although I missed the festivities, I caught a little of the snow carving – very cool.

2013-Winter-150

 

I was headed to Sandpoint, Idaho with an appointment to get my broken rear window replaced. I was part bummed, because it meant I would miss a ski day and spend another unexpected $200. However, I was very thankful that the US welcomed me back in with minimal hassle, considering my expired passport and broken window. I got my window replaced in no time, and the repairman even complimented me on my van setup 🙂

Looking for something to do in Sandpoint, I google searched for a climbing gym. I found a great one, Sandpoint Rock Gym. It felt very DIY, and reminded me a lot of Off Belay, the bouldering gym I helped build in Chicago. I was greeted by the only employee there, and he had me sign in between turns in the dyno contest they were having. There was a solid crew of climbers, and they all introduced themselves when I walked in. I never felt so welcome at a gym. In fact, they didn’t even charge me. I didn’t have cash, and they welcomed me in anyway since they were only open for another hour. I was amazed how quickly I felt like friends with the climbers there, what a cool scene. The walls were not that impressive, bouldering only, no top-outs, plain plywood. But they made it a great place to train by the atmosphere they created and the routes they set. Route-setting makes all the difference in a climbing gym. I even got to meet the owner, Christian. He told me about the origins of the gym and how they built a culture of climbers where there was none. This story helped confirm my belief that climbers exist everywhere, whether they know they’re climbers or not. It’s simply a matter of exposing those susceptible to it. He and his crew did quite the job here, well done.

The following day I headed up the mountain to Schweitzer. I rode the bus up and left my car 9 miles below in the lower lot. I met an interesting character on the bus, Owen from Crested Butte. He was on his way to BC to drive the powder highway, similar to what I had just done. I helped him out with his bus fare since he was now the one without cash. We had a great chat about skiing. Turns out Colorado doesn’t have any snow for the 2nd year in a row. Climate change is hitting them hard right now, major droughts. Owen builds sustainable houses for a living. He just finished a 2 year project on a wet clay straw house. It’s a technique similar to straw bale, so we had lots to talk about on the way up. It’s great that people like Owen can make a living doing construction like that, and also have a lifestyle with so much skiing.

Schweitzer has character. On both trips here, I’ve met some great people with hardly any effort. I made it a point to talk to everyone on the lift, so many good people and good stories. I even met a woman from the family that owns it. It was built by a family logging business, and took 25 years to become profitable. I met a guy from Pittsburgh (of course), and a farmer with a geothermal system.

The mountain is really fun to ski. They had some new snow, so everything was fresh and soft. I spent the day picking lines through the trees. Schweitzer has more glades than any resort I can recall skiing. Every run seems to be open in the middle, with progressively denser trees as you move toward the edges. You start by finding fresh snow down the middle, then move deeper into the trees to find the lurking freshies at the end of the day. All day long I found fresh lines. One slight problem with it is the flat spots though. It has these big expansive bowls serviced by a single lift. So you get lots of terrain options, but they all end with a long flat haul back to the base of the lift. Even these sections were fun, because the flats are full of boulders, gullies, and interesting terrain. However, I could see that on a really deep snow day it would be a problem to keep your speed. All in all it was a great mountain and I was glad I made the trip here.

 

 

Advertisements

Red Mountain backcountry (Rossland, British Columbia)

I had a great trip to Red Mountain for the 2nd year in a row. It’s a little off the beaten track, but that’s what’s nice about it. You don’t come here for its convenience or luxury, you come here to ski. I was so happy Mike invited me to visit him again here. He rents a cabin every year for the month of January, and he knows the mountains like the back of his hand. He’s been skiing backcountry here for the past 10 years, so he knows where to find the snow and how to have a good time.

I don’t really know where to start describing this trip, but if a pictures worth a thousand words then this gallery should do some of the talking for me (click below)

I had 4 days of backcountry skiing around Red Mountain, BC. Suprisingly, I didn’t ski the hill once. “Ski the hill” is backcountry lingo for skiing at the resort. Lift tickets were $50-$75 per day, so I was glad to save some money by earning my turns instead of buying them.

I arrived at Mike’s cabin just in time for my second dinner. I had eaten early, and when they placed a pile of mussels in front of me with a side of salmon and cauliflower I couldn’t resist. Delicious. This crews knows how to eat well. I came to discover eating well is crucial to big backcountry days. In a typical day of backcountry skiing, you can burn well over 2000 calories. This is in addition to the 1500 calories your body burns per day just to function normally, so it’s essential to eat well to keep up for back to back ski days.

Day 1: Record Ridge with Keith

Although it seemed like a large crew would be touring from the night before, the morning revealed a different story. Mike had joint soreness and could barely move, Jim’s back was acting up, and Rob didn’t feel well. So Keith and I set out on our adventure. We drove up a ways, parked aside the highway, skinned up and started to walk.

Keith is a big time mountain enthusiast. He skis all winter and climbs the rest of the year. He makes his living as a climbing guide, skiing guide, avalanche safety training instructor, and a part-time therapist working for the government. He lives in Rossland, BC, in a straw bale house with his skiing family. His wife and two kids are all backcountry skiers as well.

We hiked continuously uphill for about 2 hours, switchbacking our way up an avalanche chute until we gained the upper ridge. The skinning was easy on the stable snowpack and conditions were very safe. When we reached the summit ridge, Keith checked his altimeter. We had climbed 3015 vertical feet. Not a bad start to the day. The first run was a good one, 1700 vertical on creamy untracked snow. The day was bluebird, and we planned our runs to catch the soft conditions on sunny slopes. Our first run was east facing, soaking in the morning rays.

We skinned back up, reusing our previous track most of the way, then veering left to catch a southern aspect for the second run. Our plan was brilliant, because we noticed the conditions change as the eastern aspect went into the shade. A crust was forming and we were wise to change aspects. The second run was great also. We took it all the way down to the road for the full 3000 vertical. However, the bottom 1000 feet was mostly bushwhacking through thick vegetation in the drainage, one of the necessary evils of backcountry skiing. I’ve always like skiing the woods though, so I never really mind this part even though it can be a challenge.

We finished around 3:00pm. It was a great intro and training day for longer days to come. That night we feasted on steaks and potatoes, recovering calories and stocking up for the next day.

Top of the world, Keith on Record Ridge

Top of the world, Keith on Record Ridge

Day 2: Old Glory with Keith, Ann, Jim, and Norm

Mike’s joints were still acting up, so I set out with the rest of the crew for another backcountry tour. We had our sights on Old Glory, the highest mountain in the Rossland range. At just under 8000 feet, it sits at the fringe of treeline. Given the stable snowpack conditions and high visibility, it was a good chance for us to ski the summit. Mike loaned me his ski crampons, a device I’d never used and wasn’t sure I needed. But halfway up the first ridge, we encountered a series of traverses over a frozen crust that the skis wouldn’t break through. Without the crampons, my skis were sliding sideways and I couldn’t use the skins for traction. However, with the crampons on, my skis held and I climbed with ease. These things make a huge difference! Without them, I would have to bootpack for sure.

Ski crampons improve traction on frozen crusty slopes - the difference between skis on and skis off

Ski crampons improve traction on frozen crusty slopes – the difference between skis on and skis off

After a few hours hiking we crested the first ridge and Old Glory came into view. It looked close, but we still had more than 1000 feet of climbing to go. As we rested momentarily and ate a snack, an old man with a long gray beard and skinny cross country skis came strolling up the ridge from a different approach. He wore blue jeans and gators over his boots. His gear showed his age, but he still manages to get around on it. As we marveled at him passing us by, Jim summed up his feelings about the sight, “If we get up to Old Glory and that old bugger shows up, I quit.”

"If we get to the top of Old Glory and that old bugger shows up I quit" -Jim

“If we get to the top of Old Glory and that old bugger shows up I quit” -Jim

We scoped the lines and made a plan to ski from the summit down the east face. This seemed to be the safest choice given the size of our group and the amount of daylight we had. If you look at the picture below, our ascent went from right to left across the base of the mountain, switchbacking up the steep left side to the ridge, and then up the back of the ridge to the summit. The descent was from the direct summit down the avalanche chutes at an angle to the left. Although it looks like a traverse in this photo, it’s a direct fall-line as evidenced by the avalanche chutes. The pitch ranges between 30 and 40 degrees, comparable to a typical black diamond.

Old Glory peak

Old Glory peak

The summit was beautiful. Just as we deskinned and got ready to ski, the sun came out providing perfect visibility and a bright orange sky on the horizon. The top portion of the run skied like crap. Frozen coral reef. But the terrain was really wild and inspiring. I could imagine it on a good day, what a line. The bottom half was actually great. The sun had softened the crust on the lower angle slope, giving us spring-like corn snow. The softened crystals yielded perfectly under our skis and sounded like broken glass as our spray skittered down the slope. We skied right down the center of the avalanche chute in the wide open direct fall-line. On less stable days, this route wouldn’t be possible, but every line has its day.

We finished the day by skinning back up the first ridge (where we saw the old bugger) and skiing Hannah trees. They were steep and north-facing. Although we expected more frozen coral reef, conditions were surprisingly good, the best of the day. I finished the line with a mini-cliff drop into the open snowfield below with a soft and forgiving landing.

View from the top of Old Glory

View from the top of Old Glory

Day 3: Hannah Peak with Crystal

On Wednesday they were calling for snow. Mike was back in action, but he wanted to use the hill (the resort) to access the backcountry. That way he wouldn’t have to push it as hard, and it would be easier to bail if he needed to. I wasn’t too keen on the lift ticket price, so Jim suggested I meet up with his friend Crystal for a tour. We decided to repeat the good conditions we’d found in Hannah trees the day before.

We made 3 fast laps on Hannah Peak, skiing steep glades on north facing aspects. It was fast and fun. Crystal is a strong backcountry skier. She skis telemark and doesn’t slow down for much of anything. She takes a steep skin track, preferring the direct approach over the path of least resistance. I was totally down with that. Crystal is a hardcore outdoorswoman. She works for the Canadian forest service as a firefighter, and loves her job. She gets the winters off but more or less sells her soul in the summer, since she’s always on call. But she gets to spend lots of time outside, and spends her time off skiing and trad climbing. She loves surfing, mout

On our final lap it began snowing, yay! The visibility started to go and we decided to call it quits there, saving some for tomorrow.

Our discussions that night concluded that if there were 20cm’s in the morning, we’d ski the hill. If there were 10cm’s, we’d do another backcountry tour. Everyone kept saying 10cm’s would make the backcountry awesome again.

Day 4: Kirkup with Rob

The morning came with 11cm’s of fresh snow. It came in from the southwest with a little bit of wind, and we figured we’d find the deepest snow on the leeward aspects – northeast. Jim and Mike wanted to ski the hill. I was thinking about the plan from the night before, and decided to hit the backcountry again, this time with Rob. We headed to Kirkup in my van.

Rob is an experienced mountaineer. He lives in Salt Lake, and typically skis and climbs the Wasatch range, but he’s been all over the world for climbing and skiing. He’s had surgery on both knees, but it doesn’t slow him down much. He gets up early, does elaborate stretches, and goes for daily walks to keep his joints loose. He told me the story of his torn ACL. He was skiing backcountry in the Wasatch range on a powder day. The fluffy new snow hadn’t bonded well with the layer beneath, and he triggered an avalanche on a moderately steep slope. “I’ll never forget the way the entire slope began to boil. I instantly knew what was going on.” Rob jerked his skis to the side taking a downward traverse out of the slide path. He made it out, but ended up partially buried with a torn ACL in the process. Had the slide flushed him out with the rest of the debris, he doesn’t think he would have survived. He was skiing alone. It was a fair enough trade.

I told Rob of my desires to ski mountaineer. I want to skin up Mt. Baker and ski down. I’d also like to do Hood, Shasta, Adams, and Ranier. He encouraged me, but also had some strong warnings. He said now is not the time. Do it in the early summer. There’s a reason everyone climbs the mountains then. The risk is too great otherwise. He advised me to look at current trip reports as well as trip reports from the previous year to get an idea when the right time is. People typically post their trip reports online for the benefit of other climbers, a great resource to have. Rob also recommended a book, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. He said it’s too detailed for most people, but with my technical background I would understand it and appreciate it. He tries to read it every year.

We had a great ski day. I parked my van aside the highway, and we skinned up the fresh snow, taking turns breaking trail up the north side of Kirkup. We discussed the snowpack and wind effects along the way, observing our conditions. Our first run was sweet. We went all the way to the summit and skied the northwest aspect. The first few hundred feet above the trees were wind-scoured, but the rest was fantastic. We cut the first tracks in the new snow, taking our pick of the best lines the whole way down. We skied one at a time, each person keeping the other in sight. The run consisted of a series of open alpine fields separated by tree bands. We skied an open slope, ducked through some trees, found the next opening and did it again. The run was so good we couldn’t resist a second lap.

On the way up the second time we saw another person utilizing our skin track. He was the only skier we saw all day. The next run we decided to ski a different aspect, dropping over the back of the ridge we skinned up from the summit. It was the northeastern aspect, where we’d expected the most snow. Sure enough, the snow piled up twice as deep on that side. There was an obvious sun crust underneath the snow here, and had some uncertainty about the bonding to the old layers. We decided to ski carefully, one at a time, keeping to the low angle slopes. It was great skiing, and again we took our pick of lines since we were the first skiers to arrive. Here are our tracks on the top half of the run:

Fresh tracks in the boulder field

Fresh tracks in the boulder field

We planned to ski the full descent, but about two thirds of the way down we ran into a fog bank. It was the sea of clouds we’d skied above every day. We got into it, and instantly couldn’t see anything. We couldn’t see the ground. Playing it safe, we decided to skin back up from there instead of skiing into the unknown.

Here you can see Rob descending into the clouds. We had to stop there because visibility was so bad you couldn't see the ground you're standing on.

Here you can see Rob descending into the clouds. We had to stop there because visibility was so bad you couldn’t see the ground you’re standing on.

Once again, it was so good we had to do it again. Rob broke trail up the deep snow, and I struggled to keep up with him. About half way up he stopped and commented how he felt tired, but he sure didn’t show it. This was our fourth lap, each consisting of 1000-2000 feet of climbing. We stopped at the top for a lunch break, it was only 1:30pm. We skied the same slope, enjoying every turn as much as the first lap. On our way back up we decided to avoid the wind-scoured skiing at the direct summit, and instead punch a track up the ridge. It was a steep track, and the last 150 feet were too steep to skin up without ski crampons. We decided to bootpack it. Rob made the track again, carefully assessing the conditions as he went. I stayed clear of his path, hanging back until he gained the ridge. When he gave the ok I started up, following his footsteps straight up. The crust was under about 6 inches of snow. It was too thick to break with our skis, making skinning impossible, but with ski boots we could kick holes in it creating steps to climb up. It worked great, and we were skiing again in no time. We finished the day skiing down our original line. It was our 5th run of the day. I’m not sure how much vertical we skied that day, but it was by far the biggest day of the trip and the best skiing. We hardly slowed down at all, only stopping at changeovers long enough for a drink of water.

But for every yin there is a yang, and we discovered the only downside of the day when we got back to my van. The rear glass was blown out. At first, I thought I’d been robbed. But a closer look revealed a snowplow had broken the glass with its debris as it drove by. The driver probably didn’t even know. Must have been a rock in the spray or something. Fortunately, all my stuff was still there.

No day can be perfect, but this one was close until this happened. Snow plow damage to the rear glass.

No day can be perfect, but this one was close until this happened. Snow plow damage to the rear glass.

Back at the cabin, Mike helped me clean up the broken glass and tape a piece of plastic over the broken window. We cleaned the surface with rubbing alcohol and used a hair dryer to get the tape to stick. It looked like it would be good enough to get me back to the US, where I would get it repaired. All in all it was well worth the experience and the great day of skiing. I’d much rather ski like that and have a broken rear window than not ski and not have a broken rear window. Fair enough trade.

Although I did not get to ski with Mike this trip, it was great to spend some time with him. He is a great person and true outdoorsman. He has also discovered a way to make his hobby of woodworking into a career in historical restoration and remodeling. He showed me pictures of one of his projects. It was absolutely amazing. He built a gazebo and elaborate trellis as part of a landscaping project using massive oak logs. The amazing part was the way it was built. He designed it and cut all the pieces in Pennsylvania, even though the project was in Ontario. Having looked at the arcing roofline and the way he jigsawed pieces together, it looked unfathomable to me to pre-cut the pieces on spec. In my experience building with wood, there’s always a little fussing you have to do to get the right fit because of the living nature of wood. It bends and bows, shrinks and grows, but somehow he got all the pre-cut pieces to fit. He used mortise and tenon joints and tied it all together with wooden pegs. It’s amazing to build like that on the scale he did, using hand-hewn oak logs up to 8″x8″ dimensions.

Mike and Jim have a special friendship. You can tell from spending time with them that they are not only good friends, but partners in adventure. It can decades to find a reliable partner for the outdoors, but they’ve found it. You need someone with similar motivation, interest, time off, and risk tolerance. The harder you push it, the harder these people become to find. Mike and Jim have taken many adventures together, from skiing the backcountry to bike touring across the USA. They had more stories than they could recall, and they were often discussing future adventures in the works. It’s great to see a duo like that.

2013-Winter-135

On the way to Red

On the way to Red I caught this amazing sunset. I was driving up a mountain pass after leaving Skaha. It was foggy and getting dark. I turned my headlights on to see the road. All of a sudden, the fog subsided and I was above the clouds. The sun was shining up here, I could hardly believe it. I was in the alpenglow, the mountains bathing in the last rays of sunlight. The view was astounding, looking out on a sea of clouds. Treetops popped out of the clouds like islands, and the mountains stood as a distant shore. This was a rare and beautiful sight by my standards.

Skaha (Penticton, BC)

After the climbing day in Squamish, my partner for the day Dmitry told me I should visit a sport climbing area east of Vancouver. He figured it was on my way to Red Mountain. Overhanging sport climbing, the best in BC. I was intrigued, but hadn’t figured out my next day yet.

So that night, I spoke to my buddy Will, a local Squamish climber who I met in Mexico. I found out he was in the area, Whistler! But he was in rehab from a climbing injury he sustained in Yosemite. He’s a soloist from time to time, likely out of necessity when he’s traveling alone.

He typically solos with a gri-gri, literally belaying himself up the climb. This is a slow procedure, because you have to tie down one end of the rope while leading the pitch. Once anchored, you have to clean the route and retrieve the tied end. That’s fine for single-pitch, but a climb 12 pitches long may not be possible in a day with that method. Sometimes Will free solos to speed things up and conserve energy on multi-pitch.

Unfortunately, he took a fall while free soloing in Yosemite a few weeks ago. This means no ropes, ground, smash. I asked him which pitch. “The first one”. “How many pitches were there?” “Fifteen”. “Lucky dawg”.

Mexico-98

Climbing with Will in Mexico, Land of the Free, 1000ft 5.11d

Will is healing up from some busted bones, nothing major thank goodness. I won’t get to climb or ski with him this trip, bummer! But stoked of course that he’s alright. So glad for him. I’m sure he had a good scare, and now has a great opportunity to learn from it. So do I. Free soloing is bad news. Will also mentioned he felt off that day. Some plans had been cancelled earlier and the entire day went south. Perhaps there were some signs. Free soloing is very mental, and you have to be all there. If something takes you out of the zone you’re not safe. This isn’t how I like my climbing.

Will also told me about Skaha, said it’s sick. There are some south-facing walls, so if the sun is out there may be climbers. I decided to drive there right away. It was 8pm and I was 5 hours away. I slept part way there to break up the drive and arrived the following morning. I didn’t have directions to the crag, so I stopped in the main town nearby, Penticton, to ask.

The first thing I saw in Penticton was an alley with the sickest graffiti murals I’d seen in a long time. I haven’t seen good graffiti like that since Europe, and I had to stop to take a closer look.

I got directions from the local gear shop, and I was on my way. The town seemed cool, probably a great place to live. I drove up the road toward the parking area for Skaha Bluffs. However, the gate was closed, so you have to park about a mile downhill from the lot and hike in. Everything is covered in snow. It wasn’t a sunny day, so I didn’t expect climbers in the -2°C cold. But there were a few other cars, so you never know.

I ran into a fellow when I was hiking up the road. He was a route developer, and uses the winter season to develop new sport routes. I told him I’m getting into this as well at the Red River Gorge. He said the rock was very cold and wet many places, so he wouldn’t expect climbers out today. He asked if I was going to climb solo. Thinking of Will, no way man. I’m going for a hike and to see the crags, but no worries it’s just nice to be outside. I trudged up the hill through the snow.

The climbing at Skaha looks amazing. I definitely want to visit here to climb someday. The route developer on the trail said April and September are the ideal months. Other times can still be good but those are your safest bets. He said on sunny days he would climb all winter, but its always cloudy in winter, so its too cold. In summer it gets hot, 35°C. If anyone who reads this wants to take a trip here in the fall let me know 🙂

Squamish

2013-Winter-81

I know its not the right season to be rock climbing in BC, but I couldn’t drive right through Squamish without a trip to the crag. The forecast looked good, considering the time of year, +9°C for the high and partly sunny Saturday and Sunday. My main problem was that I’d never climbed here before, and although its a world famous climbing destination, there’s no simple online guide like I’m used to at the Red. In fact I still can’t find the climbs I did today to see what other people are saying about them. Kind of crazy but the place mostly exists in guidebooks, not online.

So I reached out to a network I’ve used before, ClimbFind.com. I posted a partner call for anyone willing to do some sport climbing or bouldering in the cold, figuring why not? I got a response right away from a Russian guy named Dmitry. He said we’d meet at 10am to give the rock some time to warm up. Unfortunately, there’s not much sport climbing in the sun. Most the good winter lines are trad, and I’m a total trad rookie. But Dmitry knew the area and we made due with the conditions we had.

Dmitry was stoked to have a partner, this was his first time climbing outdoors this year. Mine too. We started at the Smokey Bluffs, an area with low angle slab climbing and mixed lines. Since I’m not a traddie, Dmitry lead the routes and placed the gear. I was reminded how terrible I am at slab climbing, and the 5.10s gave me a battle. It was really nice though, sunny and not too cold. The ground was frozen when we arrived, and the rock was dry, but by the time we packed up the ground had thawed and melted into a muddy mess. It felt really good to get on some rock again and get a taste of Squamish.

2013-Winter-79

We ventured next to Murrin Park for some sport climbing. It was colder here, shady and snowy. Unlike the bluffs, we were the only climbers. Dmitry said he always has trouble finding climbing partner. The locals from Vancouver only want to go when the weather is nice, but he just wants to go all the time. So he checks for partners online, and had some good stories about his experiences with randoms, like the girl who said she could climb 5.12 sport but pulled on every piece of gear on their 5.9 slab warmup.

At Murrin, Dmitry had me lead a 5.11b mixed line. It had two large cam placements at the bottom. I’d never placed a cam before, but Dmitry showed me the basics and I decided it was a good place to learn. The stances were very secure, and I had plenty of time to place my pro leisurely. One of the stances had a bomber fist jam and bomber kneebar. I was stoked. The placements felt secure and I moved on with confidence. Dmitry said the crux was at the 3rd bolt, and he’s never been able to do the move but felt confident I could do it. I eased my way up the bolted section to the crux, feeling good and warm. It tricked me at first, because the temptation of an obvious high right foothold lures you in. But after placing the foot and gauging the move, I decided it wouldn’t work for me. I repositioned and found a terrible high left foot on a tiny nub instead. Dmitry called it a “pimple”. But after the slab climbing we’d done earlier, I felt like it would hold. It worked, and I sent. Dmitry climbed it next, trying my beta in favor of his. It worked for him, too, and he sent for the first time.

After another bouldery 5.11b face climb, we moved to an overhanging section with some stout 11s and 12s. I jumped on the 5.11d, not wanting to push it too hard after a month of not climbing. It was a good choice, the route was fun and challenging. I climbed to the crux at the last bolt on point, but got spit off throwing to a tricky hold. I sussed it out and tried again, and again, and again. I must have fallen at that crux a dozen times. I was exhausted, and I really thought I couldn’t do it. The hold I kept going for was a sloper, and it just wasn’t good enough for me to stick it. I proclaimed I couldn’t do it, and I’d need to bail. But then it occurred to me that there might be a way to go left, instead of going right as I’d been trying. The holds looked unused, like no one goes that way, but what the heck. I gave it one go, and it went. Even in my exhausted and frustrated state it worked for me, some obscure beta that no one else uses. Dmitry followed, and after a few hangs his long reach enabled him to do the beta that kept shutting me down.

All in all it was a great day. Pleasant temps, a great climbing partner/guide, and numerous firsts. Today was my first day climbing of the year, my first time climbing in Canada (new country on the roster, whoot!), and my first cam placement. Good times 😀

2013-Winter-80

Whistler

2013-Winter-59

I came to BC because to me it has two definitions: British Columbia and Back Country. The two are synonymous when I think of this place and its endless snow-covered peaks. They just go on and on for days, weeks, months, years. A backcountry skier could spend a lifetime here and never thirst for another place. I’ve come craving this place.

It was the place I learned about backcountry skiing on a trip to Red Mountain last year. After earning an engineers salary in Chicago for a few years I was finally able to afford the gear I needed to venture beyond the resorts and into the untamed, untracked mountains.

But first, I needed to get into Canada… I noticed too late that my passport is expired, and I didn’t have time to renew before crossing the border. I discovered online that I can use my expired passport as proof of citizenship, and along with a valid driver’s license I should be able to cross. As expected, the expired passport was a red flag for the customs agent and I was sent for inspection. After a long line of questioning, they said I was inadmissible to Canada and would be turned away. Totally bummed, I started asking lots of questions trying to find some alternative. Eventually the patroller came around and said he could grant me a temporary residency permit that would be good for one border crossing and a limited stay in Canada. The fee was $200. Still determined to get here, I decided it would be worth it and I could cut the costs in other ways. I made it.

My first stop was Whistler. I arrived around noon picking up a hitchhiker along the way. He advised me on where to park and start out. Hitchhikers can be great sources of information. I found the free parking and hit the slopes, first dollars saved.

My next stop was the ticket counter. At $99 per day and no half-day rates available, I quickly concluded this is where I needed to make my next bit of savings.

2013-Winter-60

I saw a snowboarder passing by looking like he was headed to the bus. He had a lift ticket on his jacket. I asked, politely, if he was done using his lift ticket. He let me have it no problem. It was the sticky ticket type so I had to peel the sticker back and re-attach the wire, but in the same time it would have taken me to spend $100, I was riding the lift with no hassles.

2013-Winter-61

It was sunny and warm. Although no snow had fallen in several days, the snow quality was great. The snow was firm but forgiving enough to let me lay deep trenches on each turn. I went straight to the top, a journey that included 1 gondola, 2 high speed chairlifts, and 1 T-bar over the course of 45 minutes. Wow, what a huge mountain this is. I ended up on Blackcomb mountain on the same glacier that I visited for summer ski camp at High North years ago. This time, I had my eye on the steep chutes that I’d heard about back then, a run called Sudan’s Couloir in particular. This became my first run, and after loving it, my second run also.

It was steep and narrow with rocky outcrops you had to jump over in places. A fall would mean big trouble in places, but the snow was very secure and falling was avoidable through jump turns and cautious speed control. I saw a skier fall on it while riding the lift. He took a wide line, fortunately, because he fell at the very top and lost his skis. Once in motion, he couldn’t stop until the steepness relented several hundred feet below. He tumbled and slid over several rock outcroppings doing countless cartwheels on the way down. He was totally fine, but it was dramatic to see. This reminded me to ski cautiously without falling.

I view falling in skiing as mostly controllable. I remember being amazed that my dad would go for years without falling. But now I realize that he simply chose not to push it to the point of falling. For me, I would always push it as hard as I could, falling every single day I went skiing. I wouldn’t fall just skiing the slope, I would fall trying something hard, like a tiproll over a mogul or something. But I’ve found that nowadays I can ski at a high level without falling if I hold back just a little bit from the edge of my ability. That’s important in some terrain where falling could be hazardous.

2013-Winter-62

After the light went flat in the steeps, I found the terrain park. This is the Whistler I knew as a high-schooler, when I traveled here to learn new tricks from the pros. Back then, I would spend each morning building jumps at Seven Springs (PA) and each afternoon hitting them. But in Whistler, they had world class terrain parks and other people built jumps for you. This is the place where I learned backflips and railslides, corked 540’s and how to ride a halfpipe. I got to ride with pros like Shane McConkey, Shane Szochs, JP Auclair, Peter Olenick, JF Cusson, and the Three Phils.

Not much has changed. Whistler still has epic terrain parks, surely on par with any other place in the world. But nowadays, the kids are all going huge and throwing down so hard. The biggest change is that the average terrain park rider at Whistler is now as talented as the top pros were when I was training here. Everyone can throw cork spins and zero spins. Everyone can ride switch effortlessly. Everyone can throw 270s onto rails. No big deal. I spent two midweek days in the terrain park, usually off times for throwing down. I saw huge tricks constantly, stuff that would have been well beyond the top of my ability when I was training for it. I saw one guy throw a 1080 over one tabletop, stomp it, throw his hands in the air shouting in excitement for sticking it, then throw a second one over the next tabletop stomping it and shouting again. Another kid threw a switch 1080. Corked spins were commonplace, typically 720s and 900s both forwards and switch. I was blown away. I’ve never seen so much talent. This place is completely void of gapers.

I had a good day taking it easy and just tasting some big air again. Since living in Chicago, I’ve hardly skied in the past 3 years. For the first time in my life, I felt out of practice at jumping. I was rusty. Sure, I could still float a 720 over these perfectly manicured booters, but I was having trouble getting my grabs down and controlling how many rotations I ended up with. I landed several jumps in between 360 and 540 skidding the last bit around. I also had some surprising trouble taking off switch. I could do it, but it wasn’t comfortable like it used to be. These were all signs to just take it easy. I made as many laps as I could before the lifts closed sticking to tricks I knew I could pull off. I tried to perfect them rather than step it up. This is how I’d like to approach terrain parks these days. If I feel the need to throw something huge its going to be in the powder.

I decided two days in Whistler would be good on my limited trip to BC. So today I spent the morning blogging and hit the base area at lunchtime to clip another ticket. Another $100 saved 🙂

Today was pretty much the same as yesterday, except I felt a lot more comfortable on both the steeps and the jumps and held back a little less. I charged a steep line called Spanky’s Ladder that included a cliff drop into a huge bowl. It was awesome. After looking back up I realized I had picked the perfect line, as the other routes had big rocks exposed that would surely damage the skis.

I ventured to the terrain park again for more practice. I’m slowly getting my comfort back. I managed to pull off a new trick I hadn’t done before, 540 genie grab. I intended to do a 360 but underestimated the size of the jump. I like to do tricks no one else is doing, which usually involves some rare grabs or some blend of old school and new school. These kids still have a few things to learn.

I managed to ski Whistler 2 days for free. The only money I spent was on snacks at the coffee shop so they would let me use their internet and electrical outlets for free. I also skied near the top of my ability, but held back just enough to avoid falling. I’m pretty stoked that I can do that now. I like to keep it safe these days.

I have to add a bit to this post since I had a funny night out after writing it. I figured Friday night in Whistler might be interesting, so I ventured into town in search of some live music. I found some at a local tavern, acoustic guitar and drum kit. At first I wasn’t feeling it – lots of people paying way too much for drinks, somewhat of a rich crowd, not really my type. The band went on set break right when I arrived, bummer. I decided to grab a drink while waiting. The cheapest mug of beer was $5, more than my typical meal costs these days. Those are precious dollars for me and I begrudgingly paid for it. Bummer, it’s like paying 5x too much for PBR. Oh well. The cool part was every screen in the bar had on a ski or snowboard movie, and the lines they were riding were sick. I was getting sucked into one when I noticed some people playing a game I recognized, bite the bag! Except it wasn’t a bag they were going for, it was a $5 bill. If you don’t know, bite the bag is where you balance on 1 foot and try to pick up a standing paper bag with your mouth and stand back up without falling over. Once everyone does it, you fold down the bag, making it shorter and harder, until there’s a winner. A dollar bill is about the lowest anyone can go, since it’s basically just a few inches from the ground. It’s pretty tough, but I was feeling confident. After watching many people struggle for 15 minutes or more, I stepped in. I nailed it 3rd try, like a pro. BAM! I won $5 back, making my trip to the bar a freebie 🙂

2013-Winter-77 2013-Winter-78

Bham! (aka Bellingham, WA)

2013-Winter-50

For those not in “the know”, Bellingham is the northernmost coastal city in Washington. It is the portal to Mt. Baker ski area in the northern Cascades, my favorite of all ski areas, and just a few miles from the Canadian border. It is home to Western Washington University, and as a result draws a young, fun, cool crowd. The average local is into some kind of outdoor sport, whether its skiing, mountain biking, kayaking, sailing, mountaineering, triathalons or whatever, Bellingham has it. It’s also a bit of a hippie scene, and for those who still think I’m a hippie you really have no idea… There are parties constantly, and the night life is raging.

Best of all, in my opinion, is the music scene. It always surprises me that such a seemingly small city, about 80,000 people, could have such great music all the time. But I’m never disappointed by this place. In fact I seek out the live music whenever I’m here. It’s one of those places where you can see a live show any night of the week with musicians you’ve never heard of and have an absolute blast. People dance here. People sing, and make up lyrics if they don’t know real ones. This city is full of life.

I first started coming to Bellingham when I worked as a ski instructor at Mt Baker. Since Baker is located in national forest land, there’s no town, and the road is a complete dead end. There are a few towns between Bham and Baker, but most people end up driving from Bellingham for day trips and returning here after skiing. That’s the habit I fell into most of the time as well.

I came here primarily to ski and spend time with my buddy Nick. Originally from North Dakota, Nick fell in love with this place and became a new local. He’s now co-founding a music school where he teaches guitar and bass lessons along with his buddy Ryan, a drummer. Not surprisingly, they are both incredible musicians and play local shows several nights a week. Here’s Nick in his room with all his recording and editing equipment. Nick records and edits music, photos, and video in addition to teaching.

2013-Winter-8

Naturally, we saw a LOT of shows. The music is all original, with styles ranging from jazz to reggae to rock to bluegrass to hip hop. Most music is somewhat of a blend between genres, with guest musicians frequently stepping up from the crowd to join the band. We danced without holding back. Nick is getting into break dancing, so he was all about teaching me some moves. Pretty much everyone dances at the shows here, a big part of why I like the scene so much. There’s nothing held back.

My favorite dancer was this girl who we saw at nearly every show. She arrives early, wearing her dancing tights, and grabs the spot right in front of the stage. She wears earmuffs to protect her hearing so she can dance every night in front of the speakers in her own world of free expression. Here’s a picture. It’s tough to make out he striped tights and earmuffs, but rest assured they’re there 🙂

2013-Winter-9

The best show was definitely Nick’s band Snug Harbor. I saw them play two nights, a big jazz ensemble crammed with talent. Nick plays bass, but they also have drums, guitar, trombone, trumpet, and sax. They’re a really cool crowd too. Some of the band members can never get enough jamming in, so the night usually ends with them playing each others instruments for a late night improv session. Here’s the sax player, Frank, on the drums, lol 🙂

2013-Winter-19

My recent stay in Bham had many highlights and GREAT times with old friends as well as new ones, but I’ve got to mention specifically my friend Megeara. She and I met on Lopez Island where we built staw bale houses for the community land trust. We always had a special connection, but Megeara isn’t really a technology person so we only keep in touch in person. But every time I find myself in Bellingham I seem to run into her. That happened one night on the way to a free hip hop show at the Glow. We hung out and danced and talked, but it was late and we decided to get together the following day to really hang out and catch up.

Megeara always lives someplace interesting. I visited her years ago at a very hippie communal type place that included an alternative library, vegan cuisine, gigantic kombucha carboys, optional shoes and clothing, and many many loving people. Her current household is much smaller, only 6 roommates, but still has lots of character and loving people. The picture at the top of this blog is a mural painted on the wall of their living room. Here is a closeup of another:

2013-Winter-52

We had a great chat about all things in life over the past 4 years. Megeara enlightened me in many ways. She is a healer and mild clairvoyant. She tells me I’m a “world-bridger” capable of going between starkly contrasting worlds and bringing traits of one to the other. I see this in my life, like the contrasting worlds of Lopez and Chicago, or Seven Springs and Conneaut Lake, engineers and hippies, outdoorsmen and citydwellers. We discussed the world and the evolution that’s happening, as well as our roles in it. Megeara wants to start a midwifery collective on San Juan island to welcome the new souls entering this world. Megeara guided me through a great meditation session, and we went to her friends studio for a yoga session. After all the skiing I’ve been doing, this was exactly what my body needed.

We decided to have a potluck that night, a gathering of friends, to enjoy a meal together and make some music. I invited Nick, and we made a delicious Thai curry in Washington style, with yams, apples, and fennel. Delicious. It turns out that Megeara’s roommates are great musicians (surprise, surprise) and one of them used to play guitar for Nicks current band Snug Harbor. We had an epic jam session with acoustic guitars, banjo, cajon (wooden box shaped drum), vocals and whistling. Great times in Bham for all.

2013-Winter-54