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.

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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

Best Powder Day Ever

Best Powder Day Ever

After skiing Jackson Hole, I drove through the night (and another snowstorm) to Sandpoint, Idaho, to check out Schweitzer Mountain. I learned about Schweitzer while living in Washington state, and it has a reputation for great terrain and lots of snow. It’s a real skiers mountain that caters to locals more than tourists. It was somewhat on my way, about 13 hours northwest of Jackson.

I arrived at 10am ready for powder. Schweitzer was reporting a 100” base and 20” of fresh snow overnight. I caught the bus up the mountain road and met some very excited locals. They were saying it would be the best day of the year so far. School was cancelled for the day, and lots of high schoolers were riding the bus to the mountain instead. After winding 9 miles up the snowy mountain road in a chain-equipped bus, we were greeted by fierce winds and blowing snow. I got to the lift to find it had been shut down due to high winds. They were reporting sustained 60 mph wind at the top of the first chair. I did some laps on the bunny hill to kill time and get warmed up for the runs to come, but the lifts never opened. At noon, they made the call that the mountain would not open today. I was super bummed to miss out on these phenomenal conditions, since I could not stay another day.

I went back down and continued my drive west. While driving, I found out that the solstice gathering I was headed to was a day later than the original email said it was, so I had an extra day. I was so tempted to go back to Schweitzer knowing that the 20” of powder was sitting there untouched. However, a call from my friend James got me psyched on Mt Baker instead.

Baker is known for having the most snow of any place in the world, and this year is no exception. They were reporting 130” base and 24” in the past 24 hours, still snowing. James told me he skied there on Monday, and half the mountain was closed due to wind. He expected it to open on Tuesday, making this mountain as appealing as Schweitzer. Tuesday morning came with 6” more snow overnight, bringing the total new snowfall depth to 30”. My buddies Nick, James, and I hit the road early to catch first chair.

I can honestly say I’ve never skied so many lines this extreme, this fresh, and this deep in a single day in my entire life of skiing. The visibility was perfect, and the clouds occasionally opened to blue skies and mountain vistas. When it wasn’t bluebird it was snowing, piling on still more snow. Having worked at this mountain a few years before, I knew the lines well, but I was still blown away by how everything skied in these conditions. I was able to ski lines that are normally impossible, far too steep for most conditions.

The truly unique aspect of Baker is the snow. It gets so much, and it’s not as light or fluffy as other places like Jackson Hole and Utah. This means more work skiing, but it also means sicker lines. The heavy cascade snow sticks to everything, including the steepest pitches around, and small pines act like roots for snowpack preventing sluffing. So lines that would not be skiable at most resorts are skiable at Baker. To top it off, the attitude here is to let people ski whatever they want within reason. There are ropes and signs like other resorts, but they act as warnings more often than barriers. They let you know you’re entering dangerous cliff areas, but they don’t stop you from going there or punish you for it unless it’s truly suicidal. They keep you out of the dangerous avalanche areas, but they let you ski terrain that would never be open for skiing at most resorts.

Nick, James, and I spent the entire day on the snow devouring as much powder as our legs would let us. They had a delayed opening on chair 6, so when the opened it mid-day, we had a whole new untracked world to explore. Our first run we got cliffed out, and ended up dropping a 20 footer. The rest of the day pretty much went like that also. A typical run went knee deep turn, narrow chute, waist deep drift, pillow line, face shot, 15 footer, tree jib, no lift line, repeat. I was smiling all day, a huge powder eating grin. Nick was worried about his knee injury, but the snow was so soft he was able to ride all day dropping cliffs and all. James improved his skiing drastically since I last skied with him a few years ago. He went from an intermediate off-piste skier to stomping 20 foot cliffs with confidence, landing in big arching turns between obstacles. All of us had one of our personal best days of skiing ever. When the lifts closed we could take no more, legs completely zapped.

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Nick and I loving life so hard :)

Nick and I loving life so hard 🙂

Brie, this one's for you ;)

Brie, this one’s for you 😉

James getting ready to drop

James getting ready to drop

The few, the proud, the midweek powder hounds

The few, the proud, the midweek powder hounds

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That grin never left my face all day, except when it was occasionally blasted with a face shot

That grin never left my face all day, except when it was occasionally blasted with a face shot

The Skiing Begins

I wrapped up a very prolific climbing week in Colorado with friends Curt, Andrew, Jeremy, and Fred on Saturday 12/15. On the final day, Curt and I hit up the Animal World crag at Boulder Canyon in some of the coldest temps I’ve climbed in all year. The temperatures were a challenge, but we got in a lot of climbing and had a great last day, including my first 5.12 flash in Colorado, a route called Days of Future Past. My favorite route of the five we climbed that day was an 11c called Animal Magnetism.

So after climbing all day, Curt went to work the evening shift at his restaurant and I hit the west bound road. I’m on my way to Lopez Island in Washington State for the winter solstice gathering. I had been hoping to ski in Colorado while I was there, but the resorts didn’t have enough snow to justify the high ticket prices. I saw that Jackson Hole had some snow in the forecast, and sitting 9 hours west of Boulder it seemed like a logical choice for the next day.

I arrived at Jackson later than expected, but still in time for a Sunday ski session. The wintery driving the night before suggested a good ski day ahead. The mountain had a 65” base with 7” of fresh overnight. It was cold, so the snow was light and fluffy. The constant wind piled drifts on the leeward slopes, and I found stashes of untracked powder ranging from boot-deep to knee-deep. I learned of a new expression for days like this, “free refills”. The snow kept piling on and the wind kept filling the tracks in leaving a fresh line for every run. It was the perfect first day of skiing. I explored the entire mountain nonstop, only stopping to ride the chairlifts. The new high speed chair Casper had some memorable lines. I found a section of trees completely untracked, and the fast chair let me do 6 minute laps. I cleaned out every fresh line through those trees in about 8 laps.

Jackson Hole has a few claims to fame. It is considered the most difficult ski resort in North America. It is also home to the largest vertical drop serviced by any lift in North America – the aerial tram, which rises 4,139 vertical feet above the base area. Although I was disappointed that the famous Corbett’s Couloir and other difficult descents were closed due to low snow levels, I was stoked to ski so much vertical. I skied the tram from top to bottom nonstop, and timed my runs to catch the last tram ride of the day at 3:30. When I arrived back at the base area, I was surprised to also catch the last gondola ride back up at 4:00. This was a full value day.

The aerial tram at Jackson Hole, WY

The aerial tram at Jackson Hole, WY

Straw man. Somewhere in Montana.

Straw man. Somewhere in Montana.

Sheep in road. I saw one of these signs, laughed, then saw a huge big horn sheep right in the middle of the road. How did they know?

Sheep in road. I saw one of these signs, laughed, then saw a huge big horn sheep right in the middle of the road. How did they know?

Snowy driving for days...

Snowy driving for days…

First time blog post

Well this is my first time posting on my new blog. I haven’t ever blogged before, so this may have errors or may not be interesting, yet. But I hope this will be my new tool to keep my friends and family updated on my travels, as well as document this great journey. Rest assured it will improve as the journey progresses.

I start this blog in the downstairs of Miguel’s Pizza at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. I’m here for the sport climbing. Fall climbing season is in full swing and we’re having fantastic weather. This weekend I spent my first 2 nights in my new van setup. I’ll try to attach some van photos with this post 🙂