November Turns – Red Heather, Black Tusk, and Baker

I wish it was colder and wetter this past November. I would be perfectly happy if it was 4C in Vancouver, and raining every single day. Unfortunately it was either warm and wet in Vancouver, with an atmospheric river directed right over the local mountains after an initial tease of light snowfall, followed by a cold arctic front in the past week. Most of the snow fell above 2000m, helping to fill in the high alpine features, but skiing at low elevations was mostly marginal.

Red Heather:

This trip was for Jen’s birthday. The plan was to head up to the Red Heather hut to enjoy some drinks and tasty treats. We arrived the parking lot, completely snow-free. I almost left my skis in the car, but realized if I was going hiking, then I might as well bring my skis for a walk. I was determined to get some turns in.

With low expectations, I strapped my skis to my pack and started walking up the road with others. The  snow started shortly after the waterfall, with continuous snow just below the hut.

We feasted on bacon and bread, pumpkin cinnamon rolls, fresh guacamole, pavlova and more, accompanied with beer and mulled wine. Motivation was still low. Why would I want to leave? Daniel was the only other person with skis, so we headed off up to Round Mountain to see if there was any skiing to be had.

We found two short pitches off Paul Ridge, with 40cm of heavy snow overlying smooth heather slopes and small stunted trees. Ironically, this was above average skiing at Red Heather for me. I’ve been here countless times in heavy elephant snot-like snow. Where any downhill movement requires constant pushing with my poles. Or even those days after a massive snowfall when turning on the low-angle slopes is just possible with skis at least 120mm wide at the waist.

First day of the season. Check. Best day so far.

Birthday Crew
Bacon and mulled wine

Dan telemarking off Paul Ridge
Winter's embrace
A great day to take the skis for a walk!

Black Tusk Meadows:

The day after, Sarah Paul Ned and I headed up the Rubble Creek switchbacks in search of snow around the Black Tusk meadows. It goes without saying that skiing in November is all about searching for snow, and training the legs for later in the season. It’s not about the snow quality or even quantity. Sarah was going to write something about this, but she’s now distracted by empanadas and granite spires in Patagonia. This trip almost didn’t happen. Sarah woke us up, and told us to go back to bed because it was pouring outside. This was a good thing. The forecast called for a fast moving cold front, followed by clearing weather. I’ll take it!

After another delay at the coffee shop because “it was raining,” we drove to the Rubble Creek parking lot. It was cold and wet, without a trace of snow anywhere. Once again, I strapped my skis to my pack and took them for another hike. Rain dripped off the forest canopy above, the ground was steaming from the morning moisture, and my goretex was barely working. Too cold without the jacket, and too warm with the jacket on. We started skinning at the 5km mark, leaving our shoes behind. There was snow before that point, but it was just as fast to hike in my trail runners.

Snow depths at the Black Tusk meadows was 40-50cm. We skied the south facing glades below the Black Tusk. The smooth ground cover with minimal rocks makes for a suitable early-season ski destination with the anorexic snow pack. It was cloudy most of the day, with limited views of Garibaldi Lake and the surrounding peaks.

On the way down, we skied down to the Taylor junction. I should have taken my skis off earlier to save them from a few new scratches. We finished the day with daylight left at the car, a clear sign that we didn’t ski enough.

Best day so far.

Jumping for Skiing!

Beautiful forest on the way up to the switchbacks
Lunch at the Black Tusk Meadows
View across to Sentinel Bay
Ned skinning up in a brief clear period
Snow Feathers
Ned's hat is awesome
40cm of powder over frozen grass
Skiing below the Black Tusk
Beautiful Black Tusk Meadows
Hiking down the Rubble Creek switchbacks

Mount Baker Backcountry:

A serious amount of rainfall happened in the last weekend of November, with warm wet rain coming straight from Hawaii. The Mount Baker ski area almost opened on Thanksgiving day. Unfortunately overnight rains washed away more of their snowpack, with water ponding under the ski lifts. There would be no lift-served mashed potatoes that day.

And then an arctic front took over the region, dropping temperatures from above seasonal to well below seasonal averages. Whistler record a low of -25C. Blackwall Peak at Manning dropped to -26.9C. At Baker, it was “warmer” at a balmy -15C. Once again with low expectations, Agi Adam and I planned to check out the backcountry area outside the ski area on Saturday. The telemetry was looking promising in the morning, ten inches of new snow. It’s a useful tool for planning a trip. It’s important to know that it’s raining at the parking lot beforehand.  The column on the left for temperature and the column on the right for 24 hour snow amounts are key. Remember, 32F is 0C.

Cold temperatures, northeast winds, and the crowds kept us away from the nice north slopes off Table Mountain into Bagley Lake. I like those runs, but there is also a lemming-like frenzy of people dropping in from above, somebody skiing down the slope, and more people switchbacking right back up the same slope.

Instead, we wandered to the south slope of Table Mountain, in search of sunshine and fluffy snow. The first run down was interesting. The snow. Ten inches of new snow, incredibly low-density. But on every turn, I felt the raincrust below. A pit later confirmed that the rain had saturated the snow pack to ground. Snow depths were highly variable, ranging from 40 to 90cm.

The next run was better. We found a consistent slope, free of suspect boulders, avalanche debris and sheltered from the wind. It skied beautifully, turn after turn of coldsmoke down into the creek below. Good enough for second lap. So up we went. This lap wasn’t as good. The winds had scoured some snow around. Maybe I was crossing my tracks, but something felt off.

I was curious about the slopes by Ptarmigan ridge, somewhere when Jen Mark and I enjoyed some fantastic spring skiing last March. Adam and I found a nice west facing line, windloaded at the top, leading into a small sheltered trough that held undisturbed snow. I smiled as my skis carved down through the silky smooth snow. It was all about skiing the right combination of slope elevation, aspect, and angle today.

As for the latter, we tried to ski down a steeper pitch down into Bagley Lakes on the way back to the ski area. The powder on top was decieving. With every turn, I sank down through the top layer and bashed my edges onto the hard rain crust below. It was purely survival skiing between the natural early-season terrain features of alder and bushes and rocks to get back to the groomed cat track.

I’m taking a break from skiing this weekend. That should give me enough time to repair some scratches on my skis and a new coreshot. Meanwhile, please snow.

Skier descending south slopes of Table Mountain

Brrr... northeast winds
Windy and cold on the south side of Table Mountain

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