Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Line of the Week: Arethusa S Couloir

Keeping with the Highwood theme, this week's Line of the Week is yet another classic Highwood quick hit. At under 600m vertical, you can be back at the Banff Film Festival or a ski swap spraying about your adventures.
Typical Highwood. Wind Loaded chutes above boulderfields. Not a great ride if you trigger the windslab...

The Arethusa Cirque is much quieter than the other Highwood cirques. Park at the next drainage south of the pass and ski up the creek. Head left towards Arethusa up a neat boulder filled valley to the base of the line. The top of the line gives you a bird's eye view of the madness going on in the Ptarmigan Cirque. The conditions when we skied it were quite sporty with breakable windslab!

Hillmap Route
Total Elevation Gain: 520m
Round Trip Distance: 5km
Top Elevation: 2700m
Line Length: 130m
Other Lines in the Area: The meadows on the approach to the line can offer some good, but short skiing. This line shares the same approach as the Mt. Storm couloir, so either the couloir or the fans below can be alternative options.

Video of Mt. Storm and Arethusa

Other Lines of the Week .
Other Highwood Pass lines

Monday, June 19, 2017

Line of the Week: Tyrwhitt Cirque Couloirs

Highwood Pass opened for the summer just before last weekend. So in honour of the opening, how about some Highwood lines?

If you haven't experienced the Highwood Pass initiation with a "ski" in the Ptarmigan Cirque side, I suggest you stop reading now, and check out that area first. It is an essential part of the Highwood Pass initiation experience.

The Tyrwhitt Cirque and it's many options. In Spring
On the other side of the road from the parking lot at the pass are the Tyrwhitt and Pocaterra Cirques. The trail in, trending north from the parking lot and contouring into the bowls does a fairly good job of weeding out those who are unfamiliar with bushwacking and sidehilling and descending on skins. Once into the first open bowl, the Tyrwhitt Cirque, there is a wide variety of lines topping out or almost topping out on the ridge. The lines are short, so you might want to do a couple of them before calling it a day. Those familiar with the Purple Knob area, might notice some similarities.
In Winter. When it gets filled in before the road closes. The first couple of chutes are accessed from the first bowl.

While more chutes can be found in the 2nd bowl. The aspect changes slightly so keep that in mind when thinking about snowpack, wind, etc...
Inside the cave

Beware of the human factors. The acronym FACETS is helpful, particularly the last two, Tracks and Social Facilitation. The skiing at Highwood Pass is extremely crowded early season, especially when word gets out that someone was able to ski without hitting a rock every other turn. This means that skiers might push above or beyond the current skintrack to get a fresh line, putting them into untouched and riskier terrain and new features. And if one group pushes into some gnarlier terrain, don't try to one up them without considering the spatial variability of the snowpack! Tracks are not a sign of intelligent life!

The ridgewalk between the chutes can be tricky, so it's best to climb the line you intend on skiing.

A surprise awaits if you are able to top our the ridge. The south bowl.
The South bowl

Hillmap route:
Top Elevation: 2550m
Line Length: 150m
Vertical gain: 450m (definitely do more than one), 720m if skiing the South bowl.
Round Trip Distance: 5km

Other Lines of the Week .
Other Highwood Pass lines

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Line of the Week: Mt. Buller "Crack of Noon" Couloir

A lot of the previous "Lines of the Week" are fairly self explanatory: If you can see it, you can ski it. The same can be said about this roadside hit. The couloirs and gullies coming off of Mt. Buller certainly catch the eye of skiers as they drive by along the Smith Dorrien road to ski something more appropriate in the winter. "One day", you say. While the broader gullies might catch the eye of the less imaginative skiers in your crew, I've avoided them for various reasons. Massive cornices, variable depth snowpack, and they get the snow blasted off of them for highway avalanche control work.

The "Crack of Noon" chute, is certainly one of the more aesthetic lines that regularly fills in on the mountain, though the thin choke at the bottom doesn't fill in to something wider than ski width until the spring snow sloughs into it. Despite the casual nature that the name "Crack of Noon" implies, this line can be hard to time. This area just doesn't get as much snow as the mountains to the immediate south and might have a faceted snowpack. The 2500m top elevation means that it is susceptible to high freezing levels. In the end, we blasted up this thing fairly late in the season (still not the worst freeze I've ever had) and found good coverage, but wind affected snow.

As I mentioned the highway avalanche control program earlier, one thing to note about these lines, and any on Buller is to watch out for the "AVALANCHE AREA. NO STOPPING SIGNS". It means that while these are pretty much roadside hits, you might have to park a km or two up the road and out of the avalanche path. But you're a skier who has done avalanche training, you should know that! You can either walk along the road or traverse up through the different avalanche paths. Then boot up the thing until you top out on the ridge!
Topping out on the ridge

Thin crux at the centre
The narrow choke at the bottom takes some slough to fill it in

It's a quick one. We returned our rental ice axes before the guy at the rental shop thought we had used them.

Line Length: 500m
Total Elevation Gain: 780m
Round Trip Distance: 5km
Top Elevation: 2500m
Other lines in the area: There are lots of other options on Mt. Buller if you are keen on them. Otherwise, I would keep driving to where there is more snow. There are endless lines in the Tower, Galatea, Chester, and Headwall drainages.
Hillmap route (the map is probably wrong as there is no snow for reference in the google maps image!)

Other Lines of the Week .
Other Kananaskis lines.  

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Argentiere Basin of the Rockies

Although I have never been to Chamonix, I have seen pictures and videos from the Argentiere Basin, a "playground" for ski mountaineering with slopes ranging from fairly mellow to the current leading edge. A quick ski up the valley leads to a multitude of adventures and possible enchainments. Some so serious you must start by headlamp at an hour when many partiers are going home. But you get to watch the sun rise over a sleeping town from high up on the mountain. A place where you can choose from a buffet of lines, be gripped one moment, and sitting on a patio a half hour later.

First light

While acknowledging my inexperience with the real Argentiere, I must say that after skiing up past Lake Louise, I was wondering about the similarities. Surrounded by ski lines on both sides: Surprise Pass, Mt. Aberdeen, The Mitre, the "death trap" leading up to the West face of Mt. Lefroy and the Sickle on Mt. Victoria, the NE and N faces of Mt. Victoria, the south facing bowl coming off of Popes peak. Not to mention the skiing that can be done on the other side of the mountains into adjacent valleys. The temperamental Rockies snowpack makes most of this area off limits for much of the season, but the skiing really shapes up in the spring with spring snowstorms plastering the steep, high faces, and a melt freeze crust in the valley bottom providing quick travel. Certainly quicker than stumbling up the trail and the scree and boulder moraines in the early season, or wallowing in faceted snow in the mid season.

On a perfect day, we were surprised to find ourselves alone high up in the valley quite the contrast from the bustling shoreline down below. The mountain was waiting for us to make our move, but we wouldn't be pushing it today especially with a couple of season's worth of lines to be skied.

While waiting for the snow to soften up, we enjoyed the sunshine and the stillness. When we got bored, it was a quick ski down, enjoying corn up high, traversing, avoiding avalanche debris, and finally skating and contouring the valley before the first signs of other life appeared: deep footprints from someone venturing up the valley in shoes. And finally back into the crowds along the lake, not long after being perched up high on the glacier, no doubt the subjects of many vacation photos.

Joel in front of Abbot Pass



Thursday, June 8, 2017

Lines of Last Week: Skyladder and Silverhorn

Eventually, I instead of merely writing about lines, the FOMO kicked in and decided to go out and ski some. So instead of writing about favourite lines that I have not yet mentioned, let's look back to last week. With a solid melt freeze going on, excellent coverage on the glaciers and some stoked partners, I got dragged to the icefields.

The parking lots at the icefields are certainly an interesting place. During a nice weather system like the one we experienced, it morphs into a bit of a village with parties camping out to get an early start on their objective, whether it be skiing onto the icefield, steep skiing on Athabasca or Andromeda, mountaineering, or alpine climbing (mountaineering without gaiters). Of course rolling into the parking lot at the casual hour of 04:00 and seeing headlamps bobbing up and down the toe of the glaciers coming off Athabasca and Andromeda quickly makes things seem very real. Maybe I should have gotten up earlier. Oh well, I'll just move faster and make it up on the trail.

The loss of the "climber's" parking lot has been lamented over, but we are really only talking about a kilometer of fast walking in running shoes to shake the legs out.


Skyladder is a classic alpine climb and also a must-have in every Rockies shredder's resume. Travel through the moraines was quick with a well beaten trail. Once we put the ski boots and skis on, a firm crust also provided fast travel, though requiring finesse on the sidehills.
The line poking out over the glacier. Rumour has it that the glacier is starting to cause issues for more and more climbers.

A fast crust and no issues on the glacier. Sounds like that is easier said than done for this glacier

It felt good to be back booting up steep snow. I kicked it into high gear.

The "cold shoulder" above the main slope of Skyladder was shaded and the angle did not let up that much. It made for some scratchy skiing on the way down before we sunk our edges into Skyladder's softening slopes.

Safely down after a great ski

Top elevation: 3450m
Total Vertical: 1450m
Round trip distance: 12km
Line length: 500m (from glacier to subpeak)
Hillmap route

Silverhorn: A white Silverhorn in the sun was staring us down as we walked back to the cars after skiing Skyladder. There were no questions what our objective for the next day would be.

I've been turned around before on this mountain. It is easy to underestimate one of the "easy" ways up a mountain with so many routes. When the Ramp Route is in ski-able condition, it is also puckering, requiring a traverse across a steep slope above seracs. I had a harrowing experience there two years earlier when a ropemate triggered a small wind pocket as we tried to gain the ridge. The plug was quickly pulled on that day.

Once again, we were able to make it up a decent way with shoes on. The freeze wasn't quite as good as the day before which was a bit of a bummer for the ski down. We were not able to enjoy prime corn conditions up on the glacier so that we could ski a gully down to the moraines before it got too warm.

The Silverhorn. Great coverage this year!
 After skiing up the glacier, we skied onto a skintrack from a previous day across the Ramp. After a puckering traverse, we looked up onto the ridge and saw 28 climbers from the Spokane Mountaineering School!
I'm not usually one to care about summits, but I had no desire to "experience" the Ramp Route ever again, so I made sure to tag the summit. We also put the skis on and skied along the ridge.
 One would say the trail up the ridge and across to the summit was well beaten in. I put on skis and skied off the summit, booted back up to the Silverhorn then put skis back on for the main event.

 The skiing was firm with a bit of windslab and was a little more gripping when the slope rolled over midway down.
Finding some soft snow at the bottom
Skiing most of the steeper pitch non stop, my legs were burning and we waited a little for the glacier to corn up, before realizing that the crust was probably too thin for good corn turns. We managed to make it down without catching too many edges for another great day.

Top elevation: 3491m
Total Vertical: 1500m
Round trip Distance: 10.5km
Line length: 270m
Hillmap route

line of the Week
Icefields Parkway