Tryst lake ski tour

Trip Start Apr 23, 2005
Trip End Mar 31, 2006

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Flag of Canada  , Alberta,
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

In a country of amazing skiing, this was an exceptional day.

It all started back in the beginning of the season, listening to stories about heading out on backcountry trips to isolated spots and finding mountains of untouched powder on steep, challenging, and most importantly, really really fun terrain. I decided then that I wanted to get into it. When a sales rep from a backcountry skiing outfit came to Sunshine hawking his wares, I signed up for a pair of touring bindings and avalanche safety gear and waited to find the right skis and the opportunities to get out there.

Ski touring is a combination of cross country and downhill skiing. The cross country skiing is used to get to the top of the hill and the downhill is used to ski back down again; all
on the same pair of skis (mine are a pair of Volkl Gotama fat powder skis). With special bindings which detach at the heel so that you can 'walk' in the skis using skins which attach to the bottom of the skis so you don't slide backwards when walking up hills. Using these, the process of getting up a hill is made achievable (I won't say easy because it's bloody hard work). Once on top of the hill, you just take the skins off and re-attach the bindings so that your skis become just like a pair of downhill skis and then the fun begins. Here's a piccie of my set-up:

Why go to all the effort of climbing mountains to go downhill skiing, when there are countless ski resorts which have chairlifts that do all the work for you? Well, ski resorts are full of other skiers - cheeky buggers who have the nerve to get there before you and ski that fresh deep snow before you do, and then because of that easy chairlift access, do it again and again. With ski touring, its not about finding fresh tracks, it's about which fresh track, of a whole mountain-full, you would prefer to ski.

There are also the disadvantages. The backcountry is.. well... backcountry. You are isolated from the normal amenities like trail maps or hot chocolate from the cafe at the top of the chairlift. More importantly, you are isolated from help. There is no avalanche control done to make the hill safe to ski and there is certainly no ski patrol around to help you when you get in trouble. So ski touring takes a lot of preparation, practice and know-how to make it safe. And you need at least one other person who knows what they are doing. It's a team sport - you rely on your partner for encouragement, safety, discussion and evaluation of the terrain and snow and, if you are unlucky enough to get buried in an avalanche, to dig you out. The actual skiing you do by yourself, but everything else is done in a team.

My two workmates Kyle and Louis and nextdoor neighbour Johnny 5 (Last name is Fife) got everything packed and headed out about 9:30. It was a little overcast in Canmore, but the weather looked like it was going to hold out for us. It was only as we drove through the pass that took us up to the Spray Valley, that we were remininded how quickly things change in the mountains. Big dry snow flakes were puking down, reducing visibility and making the drive a lot of fun (I must say here that Canadians are good at driving in the snow. Where we would be spinning off the road at 20km/h they are cruising happily at 80). We arrived at the trail-head with-out incident or injury (except for my noticibly white knuckles) and prepared to head out. The first section was an easy flat section which finished with us skiing over a tree truck crossing a small creek. We then started the ascent up the ridge - that's when the legs and lungs started complaining. I haven't done sustained hard excercise for a long time (even skiing every day doesn't really count) and by the time I was half way up, my lungs, legs and lower back were burning and I was beginning to see spots in front of my eyes. Ironically, Johnny 5, who is the oldest of the group, a smoker and doesn't ski for a living, rocketed ahead of us and managed to have a conversation with some other tourers and sit down for a smoke while he waited 20 minutes for the three of us to struggle, exhausted and panting, up the final bit.

The exhaustion and sweat quickly evaporated as we took in our surroundings. Perched on a steep ridge with untouched chutes falling away from us all the way down to the frozen tryst lake far below, the excitement was quickly building. The snow was still falling hard and there was around 30cm of fresh powder which had already come down in the storm. That made things a bit tricky. 30cm of soft light snow over a fairly hard base makes for a high probability of sloughing or avalanches. Just above us, the trees finished and the alpine slopes start, tempting us with a huge field of uninterrupted skiing. But without trees to provide extra stability for the snow, it would be suicide, so we decided to stick to the chutes.

First to go was Kyle, who took some hard turns on top of the ridge at the right side of the chute to try and set off any instabilities below, before jumping-in off a 10ft drop. The explosion of snow was awesome. Here is a picture I caught of him mid-flight:

Johnny 5 followed down the left of the chute with his dog Sammy close behind:

Louis followed and I took the next chute across which was just full of waist deep powder.... Hero snow. It's hard to go wrong in this stuff because even the most awkward fall just lands you in a big, soft, fluffy pile of snow. Adrenalin surging, and yelling hoots of joy, we met up at the bottom and headed back up the ridge to do it all again.

We hiked back to another chute and I took the first line which dropped in from a large cornice above the left of the chute. The snow looked potentially unstable on the side of the chute, so I skied quickly over the cornice to see if it would let go. The cornice itself held, but a 20m fracture about 30cm deep ripped out below the cornice and went sliding harmlessly down the chute. Satisfied, I dropped in, and landed in an explosion of powder before pointing my skis straight down and laying out huge turns all the way to the bottom. This is me dropping in. If you look really carefuly you can see the fracture line just below me that I set off previously.

Kyle skiing in the trees in waist deep pow:

and getting ready to skin back up to the top before skiing down the other side of the ridge and back to the cars.

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