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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Kudos to you on pursuing this journey. I wish I’d done the same in my twenties.
I enjoyed reading this post, particularly since I’m heading up to Red Mountain, Rossland for the first time. I’ve been itching to try back country skiing and think this could be a good opportunity since, like you found, the Chicago area is not ripe with options. Likely, I’ll rent skis, skins, etc. (I have some Scarpa freeride boots that can swap AT soles). What would you recommend for guides or finding folks who might take the time to show me some the ropes up there?
David and Douglas told me to check this out…Very nice! MGE
Damn mon, except for the broken window and poor vis it sounds like a truly epic adventure. At least the plow driver was an opportunist thief.