If Canada is the Mecca for adventure seekers then Whistler is the shangri-la of snow sports. Arriving for our five day whirlwind visit, Whistler was a hive of energy. 8,171 acres of powder, over 200 trails, Whistler boasts the longest unsupported gondola (4.4k,) joining the Blackcomb and Whistler peaks. In an average year they have 11m of snow making this a powder capped heaven! With a great mixture of blue, red and black runs Whistler has something for everyone.
During our (Martyn & myself) trip we ventured into the back-country for the first time with a guide. An experience that Martyn and I will never forget.
We met our guide, J.F from Coast Mountain Guides at the bottom of Whistler gondola with nervous anticipation as we talked through the avalanche safety gear and created a plan for the day. J.F is a highly experienced mountain and ski guide with years of experience, he probably shares more in common with mountain deer than Martyn and I though, as we stood there un-aware of the adventure that was about to unfold.
Coast Mountain Guides was started by Guillaume Otis with his Dad back in 1998.
They operate year round and provide mountain guiding services for a wide range of client’s skills and abilities.
The first challenge of the day!
Once at the top of the lift system, to make our way into the back-country we had to take a toggle lift – sounds easy right! Wrong. I managed to expertly fall off the long pole not once, but twice… The first time I hung on thinking surely I can pull myself back up, this turned out not to be the case, after a few seconds I collapsed into a crumpled heap in defeat as others slid by without a care, not struggling to sit on the pole that seemed impossible to me!
Third time lucky! With some help from J.F to balance the beast I made my way shakily to the top arriving with a smile and a sigh of relief! I made it. Wow…and we have not even started the challenging bit, I thought to myself!
After a short run down we entered the back country gate, making sure our transponder’s where working as we passed through we left the lifts behind and walked into Mother Nature’s playground.
The Ascent towards the unknown
Martyn and I had never been back country skiing before or, even walked up a glacier for that matter. So a brief lesson on how to split our board in two and then how to add the skins (sticky pads which ran along the length of each ski), so that we could climb the mountain. It was an odd feeling after being on a board to split it in half to use as skis it was easy to do once you got the hang of it.
We started the traverse to the summit. Using the ski tracks of the people that had been on before we slowly zig zagged up the side of the mountain not dissimilar to the way you would mountain bike up a steep hill.
Each binding had a heel riser so your heel stayed high to make walking up steep terrain possible, looking behind I was amazed at the distance we had covered considering we were moving slowly.
Reaching the summit, the Fitzsimmons Mountain Range stretched out before us in every direction, a majestic landscape, frozen and wild. The wind howled around us, whirling snow into tiny tornados. I felt in awe at the sheer power of the wind and the vast expanse of snow reaching out before us, I felt humbled by my surroundings and also a little chilly!
We worked quickly to remove the sticky skins wrapping them back in our packs, releasing our bindings from each ski and slotting them back together to form a board.
With the wind thrashing around us we swooped over the edge into pure white powder, it was like riding through whipped egg whites, the board carved through the deep snow descending quickly down the slope.
We traversed the side of the glacier bowl staying high so we didn’t end up in the flat valley below. It was unbelievable gliding through fluffy clouds of powder making fresh tracks where no one else had been.
Making our way to the next climb, we stopped beneath a ridge. The approaching storm shrouded the tops and the dark clouds looks ominous, our perfect visibility was about to be snatched away from us. It was time to split our boards, apply our skins and make our way into the cloud. It was hard, hot work climbing pushing your ski forward with your toe and the pushing down with your heel so the ski gripped the snow.
At the top we used our skis to compact the snow, to make a ledge to work from, then it was time to reassemble our boards. The trees gave us shelter from the wind, we worked quickly to avoid chilling off. Stopping anywhere in high mountains in changeable weather can be chilly work and the colder you get the slower you get.
Ready to go, the visibility was making our route through the trees tricky so J.F went first then I boarded down to just below him and then it was Martyn’s turn. My first tree run was good however, on my second run I didn’t turn quick enough and ended up as a tree decoration! The powder was so deep my left leg sunk out of sight and all the pulling in the world was not budging it, when I looked up all I could see was snow which was a little frightening. I shouted to Martyn who heard the slight panic in my voice and came to my rescue. Its times like these that you appreciate having mates around.
After extraction – we made our way down to where J.F had stopped to wait for us. J.F had scouted a jump for Martyn who expertly carved through the fresh powder launching off the lump and got good height landing softly in thick, thick snow.
As we split our boards ready to head back up through the trees the snow quietly fell and the only sound was coming from us, crunching back through the snow covered trees. It was hot work walking up hill and I was nicely roasting by the time we stopped.
Our last back-country run of the day was epic! The visibility had been reduced to about 15m because of the storm. It took all my concentration to work out the contours in the snow so that I could make good turns. Once we were lower the visibility opened up and we weaved through the trees and dipped out into a long run down to Whistler village. Buzzing from our day in the back-country – full of stories, memories and feeling exhausted Martyn and I stopped for a well-earned drink and to share some amazing memories of the day.
Tips for back-country:
- Hire a professional guide, the equipment for avalanche safety is expensive. With proper knowledge of the areas guides can help you get the most out of your experience
- Layers of clothing is king. Going from snowboarding down to skiing uphill – your temperature changes constantly so having layers to zip and unzip makes it more comfortable
- Food and hydration. My water froze so a lucozade type drink would be better, every time you put your skins on take a sip to make sure you stay well hydrated
- Being able to put your helmet and goggles inside your bag will mean they don’t fill up with snow! Mine did it was a brain freezing experience outing them back on!