6:45 PM, April 3, 2021
It’s magic hour and I’m in the middle of Upper Arrow Lake, taking the ferry from Galena Bay to Shelter Bay, on my way back to Revelstoke. I had spent the day mountain biking at Mount Abriel, which had gone on longer than expected due to the unusually mild weather (shorts and a t-shirt) and high stoke, necessitating a quick, out-of-the-way detour into nearby Nakusp to refuel with take-out pizza.
Despite being relatively close to Revelstoke, day-trips to Nakusp often feel longer than a single day. Something about catching a ferry and the associated scheduling concerns (time it wrong and you have to wait for up to an hour or more) make it feel further away than it actually is (105 kilometers each way). It’s thus a great way to get a change of scenery without the commitment of an overnight trip.
I’d been hoping for exactly such a change of scenery as the day before had been skiing at Rogers Pass, in decidedly unmild conditions. In what was to become one of my final ski-touring days of the season, we toured up to the Dome Glacier in severely windy conditions. The skiing was almost entirely breakable crust for 1200 vertical meters—knee and soul destroying—so my ski psych was flying dangerously low compared to its normal cruising altitude.
A friend of mine was also on the same ferry, recognizing me despite my new wheels (RIP, Ruby1), so we chatted for a few minutes.
Overhead, pastel hues colored scattered clouds. Slightly lower on the horizon, snow-covered mountain peaks rose out of forest-covered hills. When viewed directly, the foreshortening makes the below-treeline portions of these mountains look impossibly steep, despite having numerous cut-blocks wherein heavy logging equipment could presumably operate without tipping over sideways and rolling downhill. Looking north (or south) from middle of the lake gives a unique perspective: ridges can be traced from where they begin at the lakeshore all the way up to treeline and beyond. The angle of most of these slopes is around 30 degrees, so, a peak that rises 2000 vertical meters (2 kilometers) above the water level would have a continuous ridge over six kilometers long as it stretches from the waterfront into the alpine. This kind of vertical scale is nowhere to be found in the prairies.
The sunset was not so memorable that I got out my camera—today, you get the thousand-word version of this moment instead of a pretty picture—though I couldn’t help but stop for a minute and bask in the natural splendor of the valley: lake, mountains, forests, cut-blocks, and all. My camera would imperfectly capture it, even had the sunset been of the superlative quality, and my words also suffer a similar inefficacy. What a ridiculously gorgeous, wild place to live! Beautiful British Columbia, indeed.
The sun set, and the rain started as I exited the ferry and began the 25-minute drive back to town.
Normally, spring means ski traverses. For the last five years (except March–April 2020, when the world shut down), I would plan, prepare for, and attempt ski traverses come late winter. These traverses, especially of the multi-day, tent-bound variety, are some of the most rewarding experiences I have had. To go on such expeditions, and to spend time camping on glaciers, summiting remote peaks, crossing frozen lakes, and generally being out there, sometimes a day or more from the nearest highway, is such a pure form of adventure, hard to find anywhere in or near a metropolitan area.
My ski season is usually preparation for traverse season. When living in the city, I would bicycle commute, occasionally at minus 30 (yes, I was one of those guys), and do weekly upper-body workouts to help prepare for hauling a big backpack over multiple days (the highlight being able to do one-armed pull-ups for a time). But the best training for skiing is skiing—and also the most fun—so that meant spending both weekend days and vacation time ski-touring around Kananaskis, Banff, Rogers Pass, or even the coast, for the entire winter. There were a few years there where I could not get enough skiing.
Naturally, I skied as much as possible this season: 34 days of touring (the windy Dome ski was Day 32, more on Days 33 and 34 in a minute), and 21 at Revelstoke Mountain Resort (RMR). I basically haven’t resort skied in five years but got a season pass to RMR in order to attend occasional “IT meetings” in the gondola. (Even with the season pass, the average cost for every time I skied RMR was still around $60, which hurts my notoriously parsimonious attitude. I’m on the fence about getting another pass next year.) I skied only one summit this year (Video peak) and two couloirs (Christmas couloir, and the Northeast couloir on Glacier Crest).
The more memorable ski days of the season were mellow powder laps at an area known as St. Cyr. To get there, you drive about 20 minutes beyond the Revelstoke dam then start skinning up a forested ridge for around a thousand vertical meters. From there, you can ski some delightful, steep, north-facing tree runs and can easily log a 1700–2000 meter day without venturing above treeline. You can do this in the Rockies, but you’re skiing eight laps instead of two. To finish the day, you ski back down the way you came up, getting fabulous views of the Columbia river and Frisby Ridge across the water.
Despite a good volume of skiing, this year was not typical in terms of my ambition. A few traverse ideas were thrown around mid-season but none ultimately caught. I spent much of the ski season with my motivation stuck in a vague funk and ultimately opted not to even try a big, multi-day expedition this spring. I suspect that it was some combination of a new town, new ski partners (though not exclusively—I did reconnect with some city ski friends this winter), a new job in the avalanche patch2, having two friends injured and heli-evacuated out of Rogers (one of which I witnessed), and, of course, everybody’s least-favorite pandemic.
Living in Revy means much shorter commutes than in Calgary, and I don’t recall setting an alarm any earlier than 6 AM for most of the ski season (in Calgary, 5 AM—or earlier—wake-ups are normal). This only served to lessen my desire to wake up early, an incompatibility with spring ski missions. Despite other parties ticking off impressive objectives this spring, I was not in the right headspace for doing so myself—though it would take one final ski trip to finally appreciate this.
Ski Days 33 and 34
About a week after that lovely day of lakeside mountain biking in Nakusp, a friend sent me a message along the lines of, “Hey, want to come to a stupid sufferfest?” The route was an obscure valley traverse in the Rockies, from Siffleur falls near the Saskatchewan River crossing, to Lake Louise via the Siffleur and Pipestone valleys, and Skoki.
A relatively short, easy-to-organize, low-risk, non-technical (we did not bother with glacier gear) ski traverse, without all the planning and commitment of a larger expedition, almost certainly involving suffering?
Needless to say, I replied yes.
The route isn’t in any guidebooks that I know of but does share some terrain with the Bonnet-Drummond traverse, which goes through Mosquito Creek and eventually exits at Johnston Canyon. I had made an attempt on the Bonnet-Drummond a few years ago, where we turned back on the second day largely due to the lack of fast-travel conditions (breaking trail in powder instead of a supportive melt-freeze crust), and concerns about finishing the trip in time after a late arrival to our camp on the first day.
Our Siffleur traverse would be a total of about 100 kilometers, which we decided to do over three days. If you get the right conditions, covering 30–40 kilometers a day on skis is quite reasonable. Despite a light-and-fast approach, we packed overnight gear, and my pack was probably just under 50 pounds.
On April 17, we dirtbagged overnight in the Siffleur Falls parking lot and were on the go just after three AM the next “day” (somehow alpine starts seem easier when they’re not from your own bed). All the snow had melted at this low of an elevation, so we carried our boots and skis on our packs.
Our route took us along a cut line for about six kilometers until we could put skis on. We started skinning, though it was slow going. Snow depth varied from a few inches to a few feet, almost all of it a breakable crust—again, knee and soul destroying—over the notorious Rockies facets (incohesive, sugar-like granules that collapse when weighted). Breaking trail consisted of punching a ski through the 1–2 inch crust, then taking a half step backwards to unhook the other ski from the crust above it, kicking down the corresponding heel to raise that ski tip up, then punching it down again as the crust and facets gave way. It took an hour to go two kilometers; the only breaks were areas too thin to ski that required walking.
We pushed on until after four PM, 13 hours on the go. We had made it 22 kilometers, 10 short of our day-one objective. Tent, dinner, rehydration, bed.
At some unreasonable hour the following “morning,” we awoke. The sky had been mostly clear—ideal for radiative heat loss and thus snowpack strengthening—but a few test steps around camp indicated that the crust had maintained its annoying breakable quality. The numbers did not add up: trying to go any further in such horrible conditions would compound our progress deficit rather than alleviate it.
So we bailed.
The return trip, with a track already punched in, took a few hours less than the 13 to get in, but there were no ski turns due to the flat nature of the route. I did not remove my skins once.
This kind of suffering I usually live for, but this experience effectively dissolved all my FOMO of seeing others pull off big objectives this season. When you’re not genuinely excited to be doing something and you force it, at best it won’t be any fun, and at worst, it’s outright dangerous as you aren’t bringing your A-game to a committing objective. Still, it was exquisite to escape basically all reminders of the pandemic for just a few days.
We made it back to Banff that evening and camped at Tunnel Mountain. I tried to ignore my phone, for, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, I was still out in the middle of nowhere for one more day.
They say that most people come to Revy for the skiing, but summers here can be equally as fun. After this last ski trip, my skis were relegated to the closet.
I finally replaced my 2012 mountain bike (a Santa Cruz Tallboy LT, 29-inch wheels, 150 mm/135 mm travel, upgraded 1x12 drivetrain) with a 2020 Norco Optic C2 (29-inch wheels, 140 mm/125 mm travel, 1x12 drivetrain) that I was somehow lucky enough to score on the used market. This required making a trip to Kamloops, where the seller said people were offering to drive from Vancouver and buy the bike site unseen if I didn’t grab it.
The Tallboy was ahead of its time as a long-travel 29er in 2012. If possible, I would have kept it going longer, given how well I maintained and upgraded it. Over its lifetime, the Tallboy received a new fork, front wheel, dropper post, stem and bars, left brake lever, full drivetrain, shifter, a few bottom brackets, plenty of tires, plenty of chains, and plenty of freehubs (four, I think). Geometry changes—longer wheelbase, slacker head angle, shorter chainstays, all to improve bike handling—were one part I could not swap out and upgrade, however. You may be wondering why I went down in travel with the Norco rather than with equivalent or more. The Optic won Pinkbike’s 2019 Mountain Bike of the Year, with its intriguing mix of relatively short travel and exceptional handling—more of a scalpel than a hammer. The Optic is deliriously fun to rip around on.
I have also become reacquainted with another old friend: rock climbing. I always told myself that if I lived in a mountain town with nearby crags, I would put more effort into my climbing. Too cheap to pay for a climbing-gym membership in the city, my climbing was too sporadic to progress very far. From the city, with a combination of driving and approach time, it was usually 1.5 hours before you were climbing—and climbing the Rockies notoriously chossy or polished limestone at that. Climbing and I had had a falling out, the kind where you slowly lose touch, then realize that it’s been years since you last talked. Here, the rock is excellent, so climbing and I have rekindled, and I’m climbing the hardest I have in quite a few seasons (leading bolted 5.10s—modest, but strong for me).
Though it rains a lot this time of year, it nonetheless feels like the valley fog that so enshrouded us for most of the winter has lifted. When moving somewhere new, it takes some time to get your bearings and establish your crew. I have found great people and am genuinely psyched to spend my free time outside this summer.
Living in Revy still feels like a dream. I don’t miss waking up in the middle of the city, nor do I miss rush hour (despite having cycle commuted), nor do I miss the frigid prairie winters (especially having cycle commuted), nor do I miss how your postal code correlates to your paycheck (we’ve got only two postal codes here—that includes you, Snob Hill). I could go on but don’t want this to get whiny. As I discussed in my last reflection, there are pros and cons to mountain life. (I guess that makes these essays a software pro’s prose on mountain-life pros.)
Another perk to living in a ski town is that city friends come and visit every so often. It’s great to see friends when they’re relaxing and on vacation mode—probably when most people are at their best. I would like nothing more than to have a place of my own and a spare bedroom for visitors; alas, the real-estate madness makes that difficult at the moment. Some day, perhaps.
It’s now warm out, and pandemic restrictions have shown the first few signs of loosening. There are trails to bike, pitches to climb, and water to jump into. The magic of summer in Camp Revy extends so far beyond the twice-daily magic hours.
- I replaced Ruby with a 2013 Ford Escape SE, with 96 000 kilometers, purchased in Salmon Arm. The used car market, like most second-hand markets in Revy, is full of obscenely overpriced rubbish. To price your used car, simply follow this formula: find the going rate for your vehicle in a nearby city, then double it (triple if it’s a Tacoma or 4Runner). Then add 20% for every 20 000 kilometers under 200 000 kilometers on the odometer. Guaranteed to sell in minutes!↩
- Now that my day job is focused on avalanche safety (at least indirectly), recreational skiing is no longer as strong of a juxtaposition to my work week as, say, structural engineering was. As I now receive a dose of snow safety during the week, perhaps it means that a lesser dose on the weekend suffices. The extreme case of this phenomenon are the ski guides who abandon recreational skiing as they ski enough at work.↩