When it comes to winter travel, I’ve always been motivated by finance over fancy; as such, I’ve found my adventures by boot or snowshoe. But in December 2016, I bought a used set of ski touring gear, which has opened up a variety of options for travel. Although I’m familiar with hiking and snowshoeing — can one really be anything other than a competent walker? — I’m only a novice skier. Any choice to take my skis rather than snowshoes means I might end up boot-packing my skis down crappy terrain. This was certainly the case on my November 19th attempt to summit Mount Elliot.
The drive along Highway 19 included long wet sections. In places, it rained so hard that ditches overflowed, and water poured several inches deep across the highway. When we hit the worst section at 90 km/h, the water peeled off the sides of the Jeep, well above the height of the vehicle — it was scary! As we climbed the logging roads, the rain let up, but left the snow wet and heavy.
Given the long logging road approach to our route, I picked my skis over snowshoes. In the lower elevations, the rain had washed swaths of snow off the road, leaving deep channels. Here, the snowshoers had the advantage; while on skis, I awkwardly spanned the gaps or stepped down into the mud, causing me to question whether skis were the best choice. But, in the higher elevations, I moved more quickly, which caused a route problem for the group when I picked the wrong approach to the summit.
Rather than wrapping around the west ridge — the route we used on our successful summit of the mountain — I ascended between the northwest and west ridge. The ascent up the early-season snow was punishing. As we crossed a section of logging slash, there was a real danger of falling into pits, where the snow wasn’t deep enough to cover the stumps and logs. Those on snowshoes made a direct approach up the slope, which forced them to stomp down the snow with each step. In many areas, the snow compressed more than two feet with each step, and still, periodically, they found themselves neck-deep in the snow when their footing collapsed beneath them. On skis, the terrain required long switchbacks traversing the hidden stumps. Before we reached the old-growth, the snowshoers caught up and even overtook me. At this point, we were well off-course; but because of the time, we committed to the route we were on.
By the time we reached the bowl at the base of Mount Elliot, and the two ridges (~1400 metres), it was clear that our day was over. Ahead of us, there was a long slide zone running from the ridge above to the base of the cirque. We identified a few routes that might work in the summer, but in today’s snow we were faced with too many obstacles, and obvious avalanche conditions. We turned around at about 12:00 pm. As we descended, the temperature started to drop; it’s well enough that we had turned around, because we were each starting to feel cold. Colleen even told us she was becoming “hypothermic”.
The descent on the steep slope was problematic. My skis proved too narrow to float on the soft snow, and my skill too inferior for the conditions. Within a few minutes, I was far behind my friends on snowshoes. I pulled off my skis and threw on my snowshoes, descending to the road with my snowshoes on. Even this wasn’t as easy as it sounds because as I stepped down, the skis strapped to my backpack caught in the snow. At one point, I toppled headfirst with my snowshoe stuck in the deep snow, and my backpack, with skis attached, pulling me headlong down the hill.
Even back on the logging road, I carried on with my snowshoes for a long time, but when my friends decided to stick to the road, rather than cut down through a forested section, I didn’t waste any time putting my skis back on. It was a great day in the hills with crumby conditions. I’ll continue to carry my snowshoes, but I’m keen to build some skills for skiing in more varied conditions.
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