Oct 29-30, 2016
With low expectations for the ski conditions the Halloween weekend, I took a few different steps to hedge against a bad time. I spent the prior week working on a Tyrannosaurus Rex mask, made out of paper mache, cardboard, a hardhat, and balloons. Instructions from SurpriseAholic. I spent hours applying layers and layers of paper strips to make it strong enough for skiing, followed by a few coats of acrylic paint to keep it semi-waterproof.
I have always wanted to ski with a costume for Halloween, but more often than not, the early season skiing involves too long of a hike to make it feasible to ski with my usual costumes. A bulky dinosaur mask/helmet was close to my upper limit for an awkward costume to travel with, especially when some tight tree skiing and ski carrying is involved. I have a tendency to make my costumes from scratch, honing in my paper mache skills. I don’t really have anything better to do. And I rather not buy something unnecessarily, like the inflatable T-Rex costume that looks amazing while skiing and climbing and on Amercian Ninja warrior.
Sometimes, it’s best to ignore the official weather forecasts. There is a strange micro-climate around me, where there is always a 100% chance of crust. There were calzones and Alex brought an apple pie up. I also brought my backcountry oven and chocolate walnut fudge cookie dough to bake in the alpine. I wasn’t motivated enough to go for a day ski tour, but a weekend camping in the mountains with your friends is always awesome. Any excuse to hold a meeting of the South Coast Pie and Beer Club.
Obligatory early season ski carrying shot in the forest to make people less jealous of the following photos. There was very little ski carrying on this trip though. That’s the nice thing about going straight up towards the consistent snowpack, rather than taking a trail that contours for a while, aka Tenquille Lake. In the earlier season, it’s best to stick to roads and trails when travelling below the skinnable snow level to avoid frustration.
There’s a rough flagged trail that goes up to Grouty Ridge, mostly for summer use. You could obediently follow the flagging, or just pick the most obvious line to gain the ridge. In the spring, you could just go straight up assuming a deep snowpack. From Railroad Pass, we bootpacked up along the “trail” but soon traversed up and right once our skis were on. There is some deadfall, some alder, and cliff bands that are exposed in early season, but all easy to manage and get around. We crossed some old avalanche debris, which came down in the rain earlier in the week. The snow depth was only 40-50cm, and the bed surface was down to the smooth meadowy ground, with some glide cracks above. Skinning was more precarious on the steeper firm slopes leading up onto the ridge crest, where the terrain opens up. A place to be more cautious in higher avalanche danger. A less exposed route takes tighter trees further to the south.
Approaches in early season can be long. Half of my giant loaf of rye flour banana apple bread was gone by the time we reached our base camp. It may have been shared. There were at least two other banana breads present. We camped at a small lake at 1850m, northeast of Railroad Pass. As much as I like to just slog forever with all my overnighter gear, it didn’t make much sense to go any further with our overnight gear. All the skiing was above and back down to our campsite.
My last trip up to Grouty Ridge was eight years ago, twice in one summer. I remember seeing expansive meadows up here and how open the terrain was once you dealt with the initial hike up through the steep forest and meadows. On the first visit, Pete and I had camped on the other side of Railroad Pass up at Semaphore Lakes. It was our first trip in the area and we had a great day of climbing around the various peaks, completing the popular Railroad En-“train”-ment” – Face, Faceless, Caboose, Tender, Locomotive. We didn’t get around to Handcar, a bit out of the way.
Semaphore lakes is super accessible, and we were hungry for more exploration. We camped at the lakes and then hiked back to the Hurley the next morning and wandered up through steep meadows into the alpine and continued northwards along the ridge, impressed by the views up here. It turns out, though, that we didn’t quite go to the true summit of Grouty, another kilometre beyond where we stood, on top of Mortar Peak. A few weeks later, I found myself on a long road trip with Tim Blair. After getting shut down on a paddling-mountaineering attempt of the peaks at the head of Chilko Lake, we tucked our tails and drove back down to the South Coast. Enroute to a mountaineering camp at the Harrison Hut, we stopped on the Hurley for a lap up to Grouty Peak. This time we went all the way to the true summit – Tim insisted.
On a clear day, the view from Grouty Ridge is spectacular. Even in the grey gloomy weather, we could look across to the snow covered peaks above Semaphore Lakes. The Pemberton valley was covered in clouds, while it started to snow lightly on us. The Whistler freezing levels were forecasted for 2200m on Saturday. Up on the Hurley, with more of the interior cold air, it was snowing at lower elevations. Just the right mix of cold air and precipitation to give us snow. The freezing level hovered around 1700m all weekend. I looked at a bunch of different forecasts on Friday and picked the one that I liked the most.
We followed the ridge north, in the flat light. I even skinned off a three-metre drop when I lost depth perception. I saw Alex and Maddy ahead, saw the skin track from Alex checking out the lip, but didn’t see the track leading around the wind lip. I went right over, even after having stopped and wondered, and cratered in the flat. I’m glad I didn’t hurt myself in that awkward fall.
Our highpoint on Saturday was 2050m. The visibility was poor, not suitable for travelling on the undulating ridge top with plenty of wind scoured rocks, and wind lips like that the one I found. We ripped skins and descended back to camp. My transitions were extra slow this trip, putting on the Rich-Saurus Rex mask on for each lap down. I made a point of skiing every run as “Richie-Saurus Rex.” The dinosaurs didn’t know how to ski, and neither do I. The visibility was already poor outside, so wearing something that restricts all your peripheral vision didn’t make much of a difference. The ski back to camp would have been awesome if we could actually see.
A short ski from the car to camp, followed by a 200m lap left us wondering what to do with the rest of the afternoon. Aside from the obvious of eating pie and drinking beers, the things you do as members of the South Coast Pie and Beer Club. There a small slope above camp, just big enough to build a small booter. The clouds were rolling in and out, and by the time we were done building it, there was only a small window of visibility for the first person to jump off. We were less than a hundred metres away from camp, but we chose to just stand up there on that slope, wondering if the visibility would come back. We waited.
We couldn’t see the tents. Pine needles were scattered across the landing, and then the booter too. When we couldn’t see that anymore. I threw my neon pink gloves on the slope for some definition. I don’t normally ski with those gloves, but they were an awesome find at the Salvation Army thrift store. We waited longer, but the visibility didn’t improve. Daylight was fading, and we all just went for it anyways. Richie-Saurus Rex jumped too. The visibility was just as bad inside the mask as outside, peripheral vision is overrated anyways. I approached the crest and popped off, wondering about my landing. I could only see straight ahead through the jaws, but not to the side and down, and was happy that I did not faceplant this one. At least I had a safety helmet on.
There is always a 100% chance of crust. Pie crust, or calzone crust. The pie of the weekend was an apple pie. This was not a fast and light trip. I brought the oven along. After dinner, we started with chocolate hazelnut cookies. The cookie dough is made at home, kept in a small round Nalgene container, and then I just spoon out the cookies onto the non-stick bottom half of the two-pan oven. The oven is finicky, there is a thermometer that reads “Warm-up”, “Bake,” and “Burn.” Try to avoid the last one.
Warm apple pie capped off our evening of hanging around the snow kitchen eating and eating. “Just finish your slice of pie, and then you can finally go to bed,” we told Mylene, Geoff and Breanne, who were new to this style of ski touring. The pie and beer meetings usually make for a calorie-positive weekend. If you’re reading this and wondering if you’ll be a good fit with the South Coast Pie and Beer Club (SCPBC), here are the club’s entrance question.
1) Do you like pie? What’s your favourite?
2) Describe the last four pies you ate this month? You do eat a pie a week right?
3) Do you have a skiing problem? Sorry. We just sit around and eat pie most of the time.
To apply for membership, please answer the questions above, and bring along a pie on your next ski trip. Hopefully one of us will be in the area to enjoy it with you.
The best part of winter camping is how long you can sleep for, free of distractions. This never happens at home, or at a noisy hut, but out here, you can get almost twelve hours of sleep without even trying. It’s the best. When I went out of my tent to pee at 5am, the stars were incredible. After a few weeks of rain, seeing the stars was a real treat. It was cold out for October, at least -5C out. The temptation to just crawl back into my sleeping bag was high. Clear skies were a rarity this fall, with what seemed like an relentless barrage of low-pressure systems, one after another. I don’t mind as long as it’s actually snowing up there. The worst was when it was warm too, and you knew it was just warm rain falling in the mountains.
I went back inside the tent to pull out my camera and took a few long exposures while trying to stay warm. I didn’t bring much for insulation on this trip, that’s why I eat a lot of pie. I crawled back into my sleeping bag, excited for a sunny day of ski touring in the Coast Mountains.
The sunrise was spectacular. Camping on a scenic ridge has its perks. At first, the sunlight only touched the top of Mount Sampson, the highest peak in the area. We watched the alpenglow travel over the Railroad Group – Locomotive and Face Mountain. There was some leftover cookie dough from last night, so I baked some more cookies for breakfast. The sunshine in the morning was a treat. It was cold enough outside in the morning, that the freshly baked chocolate fudge cookies cooled quickly.
Sunglasses and sunscreen on. We headed off towards Grouty Peak again, this time with a view.
From our highpoint at 2050m, the start of a rolling ridge towards Mortar Peak, we skied down an east facing line, taking open bowls at the top, which then funneled into slopes adjacent to a creek and then down to broad meadow at 1850m on the east side of Grouty Ridge. This was the most straightforward options, but you could easily pick a much steeper line on convex rolls and cliff bands if you were interested.
From Google Earth, the flat circular area east of Grouty ridge looks like a dry lake. I spend a lot of time on Google Earth planning out my ski trips, looking at the approaches and planning out the best way to navigate tight trees, trying to find weaknesses in the terrain. There was about 60cm of snow here, with open creeks cutting across the plain. There was the blue sky above us, but we could see the valley clouds rising up.
It was a bit surreal crossing the flats, aiming towards some glades on the southeast side of Mortar Peak. The light was spectacular here, the sunlight soft and diffused through the mist. Do we keep going into the whiteout? We were glad that the clouds dissipated quickly as we ascended. Warm sunshine and views of the peaks at the head of the Birkenhead River greeted us on the skin up. Our route re-joined the ridge leading to Mortar Peak at 2250m. We were not interested in the summit this time, which was just more mixed snow and rock walking. It was ski time.
The ski line was the 200m run from the 2200m col, down the northwest slopes to the lake at 2000m, known as Dental Basin by the snowcat company. They describe it as their sweet high elevation north facing zone. The entrance is guarded by big cornices on skiers left, but there was a spot on the right where we could ski onto the steep wind-loaded slope. I was a little surprised by how big the cornices already were. The upper 10cm, the new snow overnight, was breaking off into small slabs on this wind-loaded slope, while standing near the edge and pressing down with my skis. I managed to hit one rock a few turns down. A good reminder of the early season conditions, when plenty of hazards are still thinly covered. After a few steeper turns, the angle eases off quickly and turns into a long cruisey descent down to the lake. That was probably the best run of the season so far, and as fun as many other runs I’ve done in past seasons. I like these long cruisy runs, in the sunshine, that go on longer than you think.
We basked in the sunshine again. The calzones, beers, and whiskey came out to celebrate the awesome day and how lucky we were that the forecast was right, and it was actually sunny out. It’s nice to just sit around and enjoy the sunshine. I knew it wouldn’t last for long, there were already high clouds forming. Another system was already approaching from the south. This has been the Fall of endless storms – any break in the weather was gift.
We skinned up to the col to the west and then followed the ridge south. We contoured briefly at 2100m to avoid the rockier ridge above us, and then followed a small draw to regain the main ridge. Later in the season, the whole ridge is groomed by the Pisten Bully. It was a little hard to imagine at the time, with all the rocks poking out of the windswept snow.
We glided back to our camp, hitting the booter on the way down. It was only fitting that it clouded up and we were back in a whiteout just when we wanted to jump off. I don’t how if I could go ski touring without my oven anymore. While packing up up the tent, I turned the oven on, warming up the last half of my calzone, and slices of banana bread. Gooey cheese, not gooey gels, my motto in life.
It had rained on the open slopes leading down to the Hurley. It was cold enough that everything froze up into a solid crust. I sideslipped my way down the leg-chattering slope, making some occasional turns, but it was mostly survival skiing for me in these conditions. The descent was fast, almost all fall-line down through open slopes until 1500m. Coverage was thinner, the trees were tighter below that. We walked the last 100m down to the Hurley River road.
I can imagine that the skiing above Railroad Pass in these trees (1400-1800m) is awesome in the winter, with sled access. It would still be reasonable to skin up the road to get to Grouty, such as in the spring or when the Coast has a mediocre low-elevation snowpack. Even if you can drive to the Tenquille Lake Branch 12 turnoff at 1000m, you are only four kilometres away from the pass. The Hurley is off-limits most of the winter to a sled-less ski tourer, so it was quite nice to get up there for an early season ski tour when the roads are still drivable to a high elevation. The access to Grouty Ridge from Railroad Pass is quick and direct, and well worth checking out if the conditions are right.