The Vancouver Sun: February 2, 2016
Driving into the hills above Squamish and into Garibaldi Park is a lovely and snowy affair on this day. We pass 30 vehicles parked on the side of the road. It’s a busy time; weekend warriors are out in force, hunting for fun and fresh tracks.
We stop to put chains on the wheels of the vehicle for the final icy section of road and arrive to a full upper parking lot. People wearing brightly coloured Gore-Tex jackets and pants get ready sorting gear, filling their packs and talking over plans for the day. A growing number of recreationalists are gravitating toward ski touring (also called alpine touring or back-country touring) as their preferred winter outdoors activity.
Friends John Gill, Lauren Powell, David Albert-Lebrun and I have also realized the joys of ski touring. We apply climbing skins to the bottoms of our skis, step into boots, test our avalanche beacons and set out from the parking lot — tramping upwards, skis squeaking and lungs puffing. Rain a few days earlier has created a hard crust on the surface of the snow, but the sub-optimal conditions are no deterrent. It’s a beautiful day in the hills.
It takes an hour to reach Red Heather Meadows. Here, the snowpack is a little thicker and the trees are further apart, allowing us to branch away and find some fresh snow on which to ski down. We pause for a moment to take in the view across the Squamish Valley and of the Tantalus Range before we change our skis into downhill mode.
The skins make a satisfying sound, “rrrrrrrrr,” when they peel off. We secure the heels of our bindings (from walk mode, to downhill mode) then the exhilaration of floating down. This is the rhythm of ski touring: Slow, steady up and fast, fun down.
Head Out to the Backcountry
Can’t Wait Until Next Time
Standing in Red Heather Meadows, the four of us get ready for our final run of the day, reluctantly removing the skins for the last time, a little sad that our day is wrapping up.
We step into our skis and begin a long, flowing descent back to the parking lot. The view of the distant Tantalus Range sinks into the trees. We pass by an assortment of people on skis and snowshoes.
Some, like us, are just out for the day while others are returning from a night at the Diamond Head Hut, farther into the park. Smiles are bright, despite the grey cloud cover and average snow conditions. People have enjoyed their time in the hills. Taking the gradual and well-worn trail down to the lot, my thoughts turn to the next time I’ll be able to get out for a ski tour. It can’t come soon enough.
*Photos by: David Albert-Lebrun*
Making Good Decisions
In ski touring, there are no lifts, and thus no count of tickets; exact figures on the number of participants are difficult to determine. One metric indicative of the number of people taking to the backcountry is the number of registrants in Avalanche Skills Training (AST) courses.
Avalanche Canada, an organization that seeks to minimize public risk in avalanche terrain, provides a number of services like public avalanche forecast and records of the number of people enrolled in AST courses. In the 2002-03 season, less than 3,000 people took an AST course in Canada. That figure jumped to about 8,000 last season.
Backcountry travel involves a real and objective hazard. Despite an increasing number of people in the backcountry, Canada hasn’t experienced an increase in avalanche fatalities. There are an average of 12 avalanche fatalities each year in Canada (10-year average). Last season, there were eight. The efforts of organizations like Avalanche Canada gives Canadians better access to the training and information required to make good decisions about backcountry travel.
On the North Shore, Brett Williams says he has observed a dramatic increase in the sale of touring equipment over the past several years. Five years ago, he said he didn’t even bother to stock skins, but now alpine touring equipment comprises about an eighth of the shop’s winter sales.
“All my friends who are getting into touring have been skiers for years and years and they are getting bored of getting into lift lines and going up the chair. They want to go away from the crowd and access better snow conditions,” says Williams. “Touring folks really appreciate the uphill and being out in nature and they’re not just there to take lap after lap after lap. They go for the quality lines, and less of them.
A look at market trends by Mountain Equipment Co-op reveals how the ski industry in Canada is evolving. MEC chief product officer Jeff Crook notes an uptick in the sale of backcountry equipment between 2008 and 2010.
“It’s part of the changing profile of how Canadians recreate these days,” says Crook.
“When I started working at MEC in the early ’90s, everybody identified with one activity, so you were either a paddler or a skier or a climber. Now what we see in the active Canadian population is that people tend to rotate through the seasons and the activities that their region affords them.”
For example, people who run or cycle in the summer are the same people who are driving, cross-country skiing, or backcountry touring, notes Crook. He says that skiers are also interested in broadening the scope of their skiing. “It’s like they’ve seen what is available on the groomers and so they start to look for something more.”
“Here on the West Coast, many people are schooled and brought up on the ski runs and have ski skills. Eventually, you start to look for something more, right? Or a more diverse mix of skiing experience.”
Crook points to the proximity of backcountry terrain to the lifts, as in Whistler. “It’s kind of logical that a proportion of people are going to start spilling over into that terrain and looking for different types of ski experiences and challenges.”
This part of Garibaldi Provincial Park is among many spots across the Lower Mainland, throughout B.C. and around North America welcoming an increasing number of backcountry skiers each year.
Improvements in skis and bindings, as well as better information about avalanche safety, are making ski touring more accessible. These technical advancements and an evolution in Canadians’ recreational pursuits have shifted skiing preferences. More Canadians are finding their way beyond the groomed runs at the local resort and out into the hills beyond. Outside of the controlled environment at ski resorts, there is a more objective hazard. As interest in ski touring grows, so too do concerns of heading into the backcountry unprepared.
Brian Jones, owner and lead guide at Canada West Mountain School (CWMS), remembers his first time ski touring in 1977. He recalls his trip to the Mount Becher area (now Mount Washington Ski Resort) using old-school, ankle-high leather boots and primitive skis. He notes how things have changed.
“Skis are now designed to be easy to ski, so virtually anyone with basic skiing skills can have an enjoyable experience in marginal snow conditions,” says Jones, whose company takes about 500 people a year into the backcountry each winter. “I used to see novice skiers struggle, even after many days of skiing in the backcountry. Now, I can take a novice out and they have a smile on their face after their first run.”
Jones also points to more information and avalanche training as facilitating change. “This has lowered the barrier for people to get into backcountry skiing as they can have more confidence in what they are doing. Much different than even 10 years ago when getting good information on conditions was hit and miss.”
After 30-plus years of skiing in the backcountry, Jones still appreciates getting away from it all. “Ultimately, I find that getting away from the artificial elements of our world that create so much stress is the main attraction.”