Mt Baker Road Gap

I have eyed up the Mt Baker road gap for as long as I’ve skied at that mountain. Some day, I thought, that beast will go down. But its no trivial feat. The gap is 50-60 feet long and it steps down 15-25 feet from the takeoff to landing. It’s literally a large jump built on top of a cliff with a highway in the middle. This would take the right day, the right conditions, and the right crew.

When the day began, I had no idea we’d be gapping the road. In fact, I wasn’t even supposed to be in Washington state anymore. I had planned on going south to California a week prior, but I was enticed by another backcountry skiing trip in the Baker area. The same crew from the Mt St Helens trip – Corbin, Kelsi, and I – had planned on hiking and skiing Mt Baker summit, a massive glaciated peak over 11,000 feet in elevation. It was going to be the biggest mountain we’d ever attempted. However, the weather had a very different plan for us. A major winter storm hit, dumping feet upon feet of fresh snow on a poorly bonded interface, making travel in the backcountry treacherous and avalanche-prone. Coupled with the bad visibility, attempting to summit Mt Baker was unconsiderable. So I did what any ski bum would do and headed to the resort for some in-bounds powder laps.

The day was so sweet. Corbin and I shredded some familiar lines and dropped cliffs into waist deep snow. In less than 2 hours we had devoured so many sick lines that we literally had our fill. Then, just as we were about to drop again, I heard someone say “it’s open” and immediately knew they were talking about the Canyon. The Canyon is a really sweet terrain feature at Baker ski resort that has a large circular bowl that funnels into a steep narrow canyon. Its a terrible terrain trap, so ski patrol rarely opens it during storm cycles. But this day was the exception, and we were in perfect position to take first tracks down it. Without a moment’s hesitation we ducked the rope past the ski patroller flipping the sign from “closed” to “open” and swarmed the virgin snow. It was, without a doubt, the best in-bounds run I’ve had at Baker all year, probably ever.

Corbin and I cruised the whole way without stopping and re-grouped at the bottom. The line at chair 6 looked about 45 minutes long, apparently everyone just found out the Canyon was open. It was only noon, but we felt like we already had a full day. Unmotivated by the line, we decided to build a jump instead of waiting for more laps. Then the realization hit us, as if we’d both been thinking about it in the back of our heads for years but never had the right opportunity, we needed to go scope out the road gap. The decision was made.

There are two places to hit the road gap, and both had been hit earlier in the year. We found the old takeoff ramps, and took a guess at what the in-run would be. One side had a bigger cliff, but shorter gap. The other side had a longer gap, but less of a cliff, and more room to prepare yourself for takeoff. We decided we wanted to hit both, but we’d start with the shorter, longer one. If it went well we’d probably hit the taller one too. The spot we decided to hit was about 60 ft across with a 15 ft drop. We’d need to get a lot of speed to clear it.

We built the jump in no time. There was so much snow, and we were so motivated, that we built a jump bigger than my van in less than an hour. Our takeoff ramp was about 12 feet wide and 8 feet tall. The harder part was actually the in-run, since the fresh snow needed packed down from way uphill. About 3 hours into the process, we were ready to try it out. We each made 3 speed runs, getting a feel for how much speed we could get and comparing that to how much we thought we’d need. Each test run ended with the same conclusion, we need more speed. When we finally did hit the thing, we were starting way uphill in the ski resort, bombing full speed across a cat track, ducking the boundary rope, and cruising down our in-run max speed at the jump. We were finally confident we’d have enough speed.

Without discussing it, we somehow both knew I’d be the guinea pig. Corbin got the camera set up, and I made plans to call him 30 seconds before dropping in. I was so nervous, but at the same time I knew I’d be alright if I stuck to the plan. Hit it full speed, no speed checks, if I lose speed on the in-run for any reason, bail. For once, I was way less concerned with overshooting the jump than undershooting it. Overshooting meant you land flat in waist deep snow, probably buried but otherwise unharmed. Undershooting meant you hit a wall of plowed snow at full speed before falling 10 feet onto pavement with traffic. So I vowed not to speed check, prayed for safety, and dropped.

My first thought in the air was that I came up short. I had a sense, a knowing, that I hadn’t gotten enough speed and I would crash into the wall. I panicked and threw my feet out in front of me to try and absorb part of the impact. I was wrong. My carefully calculated speed was just right, and I cleared the lip by about 6 feet, phew! Next time I would have more confidence, next time I might even do a trick, lol. Corbin had the same problem as I did, and panicked mid air only to find he cleared the gap comfortably. We each hit it twice before losing daylight. What a day!

We returned the following day with our friends Brian and James. I’ve talked about hitting the road gap with Brian for years, and he was so stoked to join us. James was not that stoked about it, but after sleeping on the idea the night before he decided he was ready to give it a go. James had to work most the day, but he helped us with the in-run on his lunch break and came to hit it after work.

Brian, Corbin, and I decided to take a run before hitting the road gap. We did a hitch-hiking lap on a low-angle backcountry line called the Firs. It was really, really good. We were so stoked about it that we decided to take our chances with getting a ride and hit it again before the road gap. Worth it. The only problem was that another crew had arrived at the road gap, and they were claiming the taller side, the hit we passed on the day before. We wanted to hit that side too, but we gave them their space and hit the jump we built the day before.

We had a sick session. Of course Brian backflipped on his first hit, that guy is absolutely insane. Then he kicked off a backflip train that got us all inspired to flip it. Cars were creeping by, each hoping to see someone hit the jump as they passed through. Since two crews were hitting the road gap, some cars got jumped by two riders in different places. Lots of people stopped to take photos. We were sort of worried about getting reprimanded for breaking some rule or something, but no one hassled us. The DOT saw us several times, and we even had a ski patroller watching us. Apparently they don’t mind 🙂

The experience was everything I hoped it would be. Everyone cleared the road. No one got hurt. No one got in trouble. The experience was well worth the years of waiting, and we got some sick footage to remember it by. Corbin and I even got to hit the taller side once at the end of the day. In Brian’s honor, I backflipped it on my first and only hit. I knew he would have done the same if he hadn’t broken his binding earlier…

Here’s the video from our epic road gap session, enjoy!

To think we almost stayed home this day…

Let me keep it short, the pictures and video should do the talking here. I met some former Snoqualmie instructor friends in the morning with plans to ski Mt Hood backcountry. We hesitated in the morning, wavering between going and not going. There hadn’t been any new snow in over a week. The forecast was calling for overcast with a chance of rain. Wind was looking strong. We thought it might be a day better spent playing board games and just relaxing. Fortunately, our stoke to ride outweighed our lethargy and we decided to give it a shot. The decision to go for it was well justified, as it always seems to be.

Below are some photos and a short little video to describe our day:

About our crew:

My main motivation to ski at Hood was a chance to ski with an old friend, Deverton. Dev was an instructor at Snoqualmie the year I worked there. We became friends and even lived together in Issaquah for a short while. I’m eternally grateful to Dev for introducing me to slacklining. He showed me how to rig a slackline with some webbing and carabiners, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Dev makes his living with some of the most natural jobs imaginable – all of them involve nature. He worked for the forest service for years as a crew leader doing backcountry hiking trail development and maintenance. Nowadays he has a gig in Sequoia National Park leading crews of volunteers in invasive species removal and management. He and his girlfriend Rhiannon are true outdoors people. Rhiannon is working on her masters, studying endangered butterfly food chains. It seems they both have established lives doing what they love, spending as much time outdoors as possible, living simply, and doing service for the environment. I have great respect for these two.

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.

 

 

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