Eagle Pass Mountain

Located not too far from Revelstoke, Eagle Pass Mountain is the perfect destination for a challenging, but not overwhelming, day trip into the alpine.  photo (5) (1)We hiked it one afternoon not too long ago on the Canada Day long weekend, which was probably a bit too early given the not yet cleared blowdown on the Crazy Creek FSR and the amount of postholing required once we were on trail.  From the trailhead, the route climbs about 800 meters over 3.5k to a lookout on the peak at 2281 meters (7483 feet).  The last 50 meters of the climb is a teensy bit scrambly and a bit exposed; there are definitely a few spots where if you fell, you could expect to drop a good 400 meters with a hard, rocky landing.  At the top, the lookout is really just the stone foundation of what was probably originally a fire or forest service shelter, and it frames panoramic views of the Monashees and Selkirks.

 

Ski-touring the Cascade Volcanoes: Part 1

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When Andy asked me if I wanted to join him for his annual spring “volcano-fest” (ski-touring a succession of the Cascade Volcanoes), I was excited, but also a little nervous.  I knew nothing about glacier travel, and apart from a vague childhood memory of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, had been basically oblivious to the mostly dormant volcanoes that made up part of the circum-Pacific belt or “Ring of Fire“.  Nevermind the fact that I’d really only been downhill skiing for one season (and hadn’t exactly proved to be a natural). “It looks steep,” I quipped, squinting up at Mt. Shasta’s intimidating 14,179 foot peak as we pulled into the parking lot at the Bunny Flats trailhead.  Andy, patient as ever, reminded me that the slopes almost always looked deceptively steep from a distance, and that there was really nothing to worry about.  Certainly, with our crampons and ice axes, I was unlikely to actually fall off the mountain.

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Due to this year’s drought, the snowpack at Shasta was significantly less than is typical of late May.  Whereas Andy remembers skiing all the way to the parking lot as late as early July in previous years, this year we hiked for at least a few miles through the woods before the trail disappeared under enough snow to warrant skis & skins.

After about 6 km’s and 3,500 feet of climb, we arrived at Helen Lake, a somewhat sheltered spot where a few others had pitched tents & seemed to be set-up to spend the night.  The uptrack had been relatively easy until that point; the climb had been strenuous to be sure, but not overwhelming, and it hadn’t been too hard to stay in the skintrack, even with occasional patches of icy snow.  But all of that was about to change.  From Helen Lake, we climbed from about 7,000 feet to over 10,000 feet, putting on crampons partway up when the pitch steepened & the snow became too slippery to skin.  Thankfully the elevation didn’t bother me much, although it was certainly slower going and I found myself pausing to catch my breath every couple of steps once we got up to around the 8-9,000 foot point.  But the views from up high were every bit worth the work.

Looking down toward Helen Lake

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To my enormous surprise, the ski down was fun, and not at all, as I had imagined, too steep or technically challenging.  Andy had certainly tried to reassure me that volcano corn snow would be mellow and easy to ski, but because I sometimes think he overestimates my skiing abilities, I hadn’t fully believed this.  I was wrong by a long shot, and on subsequent volcanoes, started to actually look forward to the ski down (as opposed to being utterly freaked out in anticipation of bodyslamming trees, as I typically am in the woodsy places we skitour in B.C.)

What I hadn’t been fully prepared for was the effect of a full day of solar radiation at elevation. Thankfully I’d picked up a pair of volcano glasses beforehand, so my eyes survived the intense glare, but foot cramps from dehydration and electrolyte depletion, and skin that felt like it had been microwaved made me realize that even SPF 50 sunscreen applied just once in the morning wasn’t going to do the trick.  Nor would one liter of water see me through a long day on the mountain.

The plan was to tour several more volcanoes over the course of a few weeks, including S. and Middle Sisters, Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Baker.  Unfortunately, bad weather forced us to call a few of these off including Hood just before getting started at the ungodly hour of 2 a.m. when gale force winds threatened to blow us out of the parking lot, and Baker, due to rain.  But the rest of the trip went ahead and before I knew it, three weeks of vacation had blown by.

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“Rock-skinning” part of the Middle Sister uptrackIMG_7195

Crevasse on South Sister

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Mt. Adams: SW Chutes

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Near the peak of South Sister: Andy contemplating the incoming clouds

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Baldy

Ostensibly at least, this blog began as a forum for writing about running and hiking in and around the Kamloops area.  Running and hiking were absolutely, for me, entry points to a broader ouvre of backcountry outdoor pursuit – avenues that I imagine I’ll continue to write about for as long as both continue to function as means of exploring, both outward and inward.  At the same time, however, curiosity and a sense of adventure have always lead me in a variety of directions, and as I’ve increasingly witnessed what skis (and maybe a bit of climbing chalk) might render possible, my gaze had begun to turn in those directions.  I’m always looking around … The world is full of so many options, and seeing them, I’ve let myself start and abandon all sorts of things.  I’m aware of a lifelong tendency to struggle with and oscillate between the value I recognize and know in repetition, practice, commitment and the resulting depth of knowledge versus the sheer excitement of the new and the deeper philosophical kick I get from getting into a beginner state of mind.  Maybe there’s a more simple & forgiving way to frame all of this: when I say running and hiking, I’m speaking figuratively.  I might as well be writing about skiing.

And so … last weekend, Andy and I hiked, then skinned up Mt. Baldy – the one accessed via Little Fort in the Wells Gray/Cariboo B.C. interior.  We drove as far as we could get on a forestry road, then skied the rest of what turned out to be about 9 kms (18k RT), around 900 meters up.  Baldy has one of those classic tin wind shelter shacks held taught by wire at all four corners at the peak.  Inside, there’s a ratty mattress, a chair, a woodstove and a load of cedar.  The whitewashed walls have been appropriately tagged by every teenager since 1982, and as with every interior B.C. landmark, they bear full testimony to the Grateful Dead and Neil Young.   But the best thing about Baldy is the stunning view it affords of Dunn.

Dunn from Baldy

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Dunn from Baldy

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Heading up the forestry road

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Love shack on Baldy

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Andy and shack on Baldy

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Near the peak on Baldy

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View from inside the shack on BaldyImage

 

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Getting pretty close to the peak
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The end of the forestry road – for us.  Loading up …10365775_10152042862540872_4362929329071066778_n

The Gorge: backcountry ski near Sicamous

A few weekends ago, Andy and I headed east to ski a spot in the mountains just past Sicamous known as the Gorge.  We’d heard good things about the terrain & were excited to check out a backcountry ski destination so close to home.  The only catch seems to be that the access logging road isn’t regularly plowed, so most of the time you probably need a sled to get in.  Despite temperatures hovering around -20C, logging operations had swung back into action that week, so the road was plowed & we drove right up to the start of the skin track.

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A bluebird day, the sun took the edge off the biting cold, and I even broke a bit of a sweat as we skinned up around 800 meters through the trees, and then across a large bowl & up to the summit.  It’s shocking just how quickly you chill down in those temperatures.  Out of direct sun, all it took was a minute or two for me to feel my fingers freezing up, and if we hadn’t had Hot Shots, things could have gone south very quickly.

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From the top, the skiing was really really nice: wide open subalpine, knee deep & almost totally untracked powder & a handful of possible routes.  I’m comfortable admitting that I’m still very much a student of this sport.  (Apart from a few months nearly 15 years ago, this is my first real season on skis).  I had never downhilled in powder this deep before, and the slope also felt significantly steeper than anything I’d ever attempted.  The result was undoubtedly a bit challenging to watch: I couldn’t seem to keep my skis above the snow & I felt gravity pulling my torso down the mountain ahead of my skis.  And then I would fall – face first, cartwheeling basically, head over heels again and again down the mountain.   Andy was amazingly calm, picked routes where I was less likely to body-slam trees, and talked me through some tricky steep bits in the trees.   I felt pretty calm through it all, and just focused on the terrain at hand.  And apart from a bit of a torqued knee, which resolved itself in a day or so, I managed not to injure anything.  What’s more, I resolved to nail this powder skiing thing … or break my legs trying.  The mountains are just too beautiful to abandon during the winter, and although I’m definitely more about the uptrack, the skiing is (mostly) a ton of fun.  99% of the time I feel relaxed about doing something that takes me totally out of my comfort zone.  It’s humbling to try to do something you utterly suck at – to put yourself in the position of being a beginner.  And it’s 100% worth it.

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Learning to ski

I grew up on the southernmost tip of an island off the coast of British Columbia.  Winters were typical of the mild, temperate Pacific Northwest with perhaps one or two “blizzards” – just enough snow to cause chaos in a town with maybe one snowplow & possibly the highest ratio of front wheel drive Volvo wagons to grey hair & tweed in North America.  Despite a solid ski lineage on both my mother and father’s sides of the family, Mt. Washington, the closest resort, was a good 3.5 hour drive north.  Bored of the constant fall/winter/spring mono-season drizzle, I fantasized about snow for much of my childhood & relished our annual trips to visit extended family in Utah and the Cariboo in the interior of BC.  In fact, I actually remember sawing the corners off a couple of 2X4s, tying them to my rain boots, and trying to slide down the approximately 8% grade hill that was our backyard.

My uncles Thor & Helge Nilsen – probably at Alta or Snowbird, UT in the 1950s

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My first actual ski lesson took place in the powder mecca that is Alta, Utah.  I was five.  After immigrating from Norway, my father’s family had settled in Salt Lake City, Utah; we visited almost every winter, and presumably because my parents wanted to do something outrageous like ski some of the best pow in the world, they dropped me off at a kiddie lesson.  I was a pretty smart kindergartener, and certainly ahead of the curve in a number of ways.  Skiing was not one of them.  I remember the sheer terror I felt, losing my grip on the rope tow, hurtling down the bunny hill, my skis crossing over one another again and again as I struggled to master the snow plow.  I remember crying, feeling humiliated & wanting nothing more than to disappear as the rest of the class – a troupe of precocious 5 and 6 year olds – eagerly jumped on the lift to pizza down a green run.

I really have no solid recollection of why, exactly, 20 years later, I felt the urge to become a ski bum.  A sort of post-BA “gap year” found me bartending in Salt Lake City of all places, & I somehow decided it was time to finally learn how to ski.  Naturally, I got a job at Alta in Little Cottonwood Canyon.  I remember very little about this time, apart from a few visual images of the dark closet I slept in, in the Alta Lodge, several odd conversations with the handful of personalities there who took it upon themselves to teach me to ski, and being (again) reduced to tears when a bunch of fellow lodge employees & avid telemarkers decided I’d gotten good enough on the groomers to go off piste.  All I remember is sinking waist deep in powder again and again in the trees, and my friends admitting that perhaps, bringing me wherever it was we were, may have been a bit … premature …

Decades later and I’ve somehow become an avid mountain runner.  Last winter, I bundled up and went for long back-to-back 3-6 hour snow runs every Saturday and Sunday.  Don’t get me wrong; something in me craved this particular form of … whatever it was … solitude, punishment, gratification, effort … I’m not sure … Nevertheless, by the end of the winter I had firmly resolved to embrace winter for what it is, and to trade off running for skiing.  Nevermind the fact that I couldn’t really ski.  I’d spent every possible moment of the summer and fall of 2013 in the mountains, running and hiking, and wanted nothing more than to continue that momentum.  I’d read about Killian Jornet and others who ski mountaineered through the snowy months with no detriment to their running fitness.  I’d seen photos of the alpine terrain I loved to run in in the summer months, all covered in snow under brilliant sun during the winter.  I wanted to do that.

Then I met Andy.  It would be false to say he has had nothing to do with this.  An avid backcountry skier, the best way to put it is perhaps that he blew some wind into a sail I was readying to raise.  I’m perpetually surprised that he wants to ski blue runs at Sun Peaks with me – me practicing my turns while he hurtles down, waiting at this corner or that, ready with whisky and a smile.  Even better have been our little trips out into the backcountry, me learning step-by-step how to ski powder or trees, he waiting patiently at this corner and then the next.

Unless you have ready access on a daily basis, you can’t really learn to ski in the backcountry.  So I’m putting in my time at the hill.  But I’ll take a day skinning up a remote mountain over riding up the lift any day.  I think the photos make the reasons why more than a little bit clear.

Zoa: skin track up off the Coquihalla

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Halfway Hotsprings, New Years ski & camp

For New Years, Andy and I skied out to Halfway Hotsprings in the West Kootenays.  Halfway is one of several undeveloped hotsprings in the B.C. backcountry & the idea of trying out winter camping somewhere where the exposure to the cold would be somewhat mitigated by access to what is basically a hot bath sounded ideal.

Skiing up the Halfway River Forest Service Rd.

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The snow was unusually wet & sticky, such that we took our skins on and off at least four times, trying to find the best way to move forward along the gentle uphill grade.  Most of the route was sufficiently uphill that skiing without skins meant constant, frustrating, backsliding.  At one point, Andy – whose skins were sticking far worse than mine – put his skis on his pack & opted to hike behind me in ski boots.

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After skinning up the forest service road for about 3 hours, we hit the final section of the route to the hot springs – a steep downhill switchback that descended about 70 meters over just about 300 meters of “trail”.   We did this in the dark, skis strapped to our packs, no idea of exactly what the destination would look like.

As it turned out, the “main” pool was a beautiful if rustic wooden tub with water piped in from the nearby springs.  When we arrived, the water was hot enough to boil an egg; we couldn’t keep even a toe in for more than a second or two.  So we turned off the pump to let the water cool, set up camp & came back the next morning.  By then, the water was lukewarm, but a few seconds of hot spring water changed that & New Years Day breakfast in the secluded springs was … brilliant.

Climbing back up the hill from the Halfway Hotsprings to the Halfway River Forest Service Road:

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The main soaking tub:

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Halfway River:379716_10151844968231674_1398396710_n

Camp:

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Hippy changing area.  Yep, it’s the Kootenays …

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Getting there: Halfway hotsprings are located between Revelstoke & Nakusp, BC, not far from the commercial resort at Halcyon Hotsprings.  To get there from Kamloops, we drove east on the #1 to Revelstoke, then turned south on the #23 until Shelter Bay, where one of the handful of free ferries that are part of BC’s highway system took us across Upper Arrow Lake to Galena Bay.  About 23 kilometers south of Galena Bay, you cross a bridge over Halfway River, and a few hundred meters south of that, is the Halfway River Forest Service Road.

I’d been a bit worried that we might find it a bit challenging to identify the correct forest service road, and indeed, we initially drove too far south on the #23.  About a mile south of the Halfway River, we saw vehicles and a few tents along the edge of what we thought was the road into Halfway Hotsprings.  In front of two tents was a blackened fire pit with empty bottles and other signs of the previous night’s, uh, activities.  A few minutes later, some kids in their twenties crawled out of one of the tents.  They told us that they’d tried to make it to the springs the previous day, but a tree was down, blocking the road.  After a bit of deliberation around whether to leave the vehicle in what seemed like a potentially risky, exposed place, we decided to go ahead.  Skis, skins, and enormous overnight packs on, we headed up the road.  What we’d neglected to ask them, however, was which hotsprings they had tried to reach.  As we learned, a few miles up the road when they caught up to us, they were headed to St. Leon, not Halfway.  Hoping for a bit of privacy & set on our original plans, we turned around & headed back to the car.

With a bit of help from Garmin, we found the Halfway River forest service road, and although it had about a foot and a half of snow on it, decided to follow the 4X4 tracks a little ways up to cut down on our travel time.  We’d already blown a couple of hours on our “detour”, and weren’t too confident we’d be able to reach the springs before dark.  The road to the springs is about 12 kilometers, but we managed to drive about 4 km in, following 4X4 tracks, until the risk of getting stuck seemed too formidable.

Joffre Lakes, Thanksgiving overnighter

I drove the Duffey Lake road from Cache Creek toward Pemberton this weekend. There’s something about the angle or quality of the light this time of year that makes the south and coast Cariboo appear vintage, lit up with the gold and copper hues of turning leaves, shimmering Cottonwoods reflected in the dark glassy lakes that dot the road.  I was on my way to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park for an overnight backpack this Thanksgiving, and with the temperatures dipping down below freezing at night, I figured I’d have the place to myself.  To my surprise, the parking lot was full of cars, and the trail, packed with day hikers & trail runners.  Thankfully, by 3 p.m. when I started setting up my tent at the third lake, everyone save two other small groups of overnighters had disappeared back down the trail.  And considering that the other backpackers pitched their tents well out of sight & sound from my little lakeshore spot, I enjoyed the illusion that I was more or less alone at the lake.

The trail to Upper Duffey Lake, the third of the turqouise-coloured glacier water lakes on the route, is just over 4 kilometers with about 400 meters of elevation gain from the parking lot.  The first mile of the trail is extremely smooth & has been very well maintained by BC Parks.  After that, the route becomes quite rugged; it’s rocky, rooty, muddy, and sometimes a bit scrambly.  Nothing ridiculously difficulty, really, but with a 35 Ib pack on my back and a thick layer of frost on the boulders, it was fairly slow going.

The groomed trail at the start of the route, just past the first lake …

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About a mile in, the trail winds along the shore of the second of the three lakes.

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Maybe 500 meters before the third lake, you pass this waterfall …IMG_6648

Then, after a series of stairs, more slippery boulders and a few sections of muddy rooty trail, the uphill grind rewards you with a view of Upper Duffey Lake.

Best view from an outhouse, ever …

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The backcountry campground is located on the far side of the lake, and it has a bear cache, an outhouse, and several flat tent pads scattered along the lakeshore.  As it’s basically situated at the base of a boulder field, I was a bit concerned about tenting in an area where rockfall (and in the winter, falling ice) could be a potential issue.  It didn’t help that I could hear rock slides (and the very loud sounds of boulders crashing down the mountainside) for most of the evening & well into the night.  Granted, the active slides were on an adjacent slope, well away from the campsites.  Nevertheless, it’s quite apparent that boulders roll down into the campground regularly …

Never mind the rocks; the place is stunningly beautiful.  Just 10 feet from the water’s edge, my tent looked out across the lake at Mt. Joffrey.  Behind me, the visible edges of the Matier Glacier were lit up in striking shades of pink as the sun slipped behind the peaks.

When darkness set in, I piled on layers of wool, fleece & down and climbed into my sleeping bag.  I was irreversibly tucked in by 8 p.m. in an effort to stay warm, and didn’t venture out of my tent again until the sun came up around 7 in the morning.  This is the first time I’ve “winter” camped (ok, ok, it’s not really winter yet), so I packed an extra fleece to put inside my sleeping bag, which (in addition to wearing pretty much all of my clothing) must have helped.  I stayed warm, despite the fact that the temperature dropped to -5C; when I got up in the morning, my drinking water had frozen solid and the lake had a skin of ice across its surface.

I sat by the lake for a couple of hours drinking tea and watching the sun slowly light up the slopes around me, before packing up my stuff & heading back down the trail around noon.  Although not exactly your traditional turkey & cranberry holiday, it was, in fact, one of the better Thanksgivings I’ve ever had.

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