Spring is here! Not that it feels like it. The snow is here, and it keeps on coming (40cm in the last week!)but it’s also STILL COLD! This has been the coldest year I remember, but it is warming up enough to get outside and have some adventures.
I went on my first ski tour of the year at the weekend (IN MARCH?! Unheard of!) It’s been an incredibly busy winter, and backcountry conditions haven’t been all that favourable both from a travel and avalanche perspective. Up until quite recently it’s been necessary to ski icy or facet-y* tree gnar to get to the goods, and it turns out I’m a lazy skier. But I’m OK with that, and I have patience as I know that there is still plenty of winter left and plenty of places to explore. That reminds me, I should go and plan the traverses I have in mind for April… BRB.
Ok that sorted out, I can tell you about our recent mini-tour to West Nile. With the recent storm, the slopes are loaded with fresh snow on top of existing layers of problems and concerns. I have my AST Level 1, and probably 50 or more trips into the backcountry with more experienced leaders from whom I have gained invaluable knowledge. That being said, every time you venture into the backcountry (any area outside of controlled terrain such as ski resorts) it carries with it an inherent risk. Whilst you can evaluate all the conditions, weather reports, snowpack reports, dig your own snow pit to see what’s going on below the surface, you can never be 100% sure that you have considered everything. And conditions can change very quickly. I have known of many groups ski a slope and have the last person trigger an avalanche following virtually the same line as everyone else. So what am I saying? If you are not confident in your ability to make good choices, travel in terrain suited to that knowledge, and have the training and practise to rescue someone should an avalanche occur, then perhaps it’s best to hire someone to take you to the best places. For as little as $195 per person, it’s well worth the price.
So Mary & I set out for West Nile. Located about 20 minutes up the Icefields Parkway, Highway 93 north of Lake Louise, it took us about an hour to drive there from Banff. The highway had been plowed, but not that recently so there were areas of deeper snow for the truck to plow through. Similarly when we reached the parking lot that was probably 3 feet deep in snow so we backed out of that quickly and re-parked slightly further up the road in the Mosquito Creek parking lot. This is typically reserved for guests of the Mosquito Creek hostel, but there was just one mini bus in the lot so it didn’t feel crowded. This was my first tour with someone of the same level of knowledge as me, but I wasn’t overly concerned. We had both been to the area a couple of times before so we knew where we were going, and although avalanche hazard was considerable for the alpine and tree line, we would not be leaving the trees and the rating was moderate there. Not to say that we didn’t have hazards to watch for, we would need to manage our terrain choices and be watchful of tree wells and other terrain traps. The weather was still, patchy cloud and a glittering of ice crystals in the air, but no discernible wind, sun or snow.
We headed out along the skin track and soon started the ascent. It was a perfect temperature for me – starting out in all my layers but maintaining a comfortable temperature, and taking layers off as I warmed up. I soon got very warm on the ascent and was peeling layers off frequently! Within 45 minutes we had reached our highest point for the day, had a quick bite to eat and some water and switched our skis ready for the ride down.