Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Line of the Week: Mt. Whymper North Glacier

Chickadee Valley is described in Chic Scott's guidebook in the "Powder Slopes Near the Road" section, specifically detailing the yo-yo potential of the menacing, south facing, slidepath runouts off of Boom Mountain that have been the scene of a fatality over the years. But the area really comes into its own when stability improves by the spring. Ignore the southwest facing slidepaths and focus on the large NE cirques and southerly morainal glacial approaches and it can be hard to believe so much great skiing and scenery can be packed into just one valley.

The north glacier run off of Mt. Whymper into Chickadee Valley is my all time favourite backcountry ski run. It presents 900m of skiing broken up into three pitches of steep-ish skiing. The first pitch is pure glory dropping into a wide open north face. The final pitch is the most interesting with morainal spines or gullies. The line can be approached either by centerpunching straight up it via the Chickadee Valley, or as a loop, best done with a bike stashed at the BC/Alberta border to blast the 3km of highway back to the car at the Stanley Glacier parking lot. These are big, open slopes with lots of mass, so you definitely want good stability before you even think about attempting them.

The upper pitch gets the thumbs up!

From the Stanley Glacier parking lot: Stash a bike at the BC/Alberta border sign. Finish the drive to the parking lot. Cross the highway, ski up through the burned trees trending towards a hanging valley. If you stay east of the gully coming out of the hanging valley, it is possible to avoid having to climb directly up the gully. Once in the hanging valley, wrap around and make your way up the steep slopes to the col. From the col, one can leave the skis behind and top out Mt. Whymper.

From Continental divide parking lot: Ski up Chickadee valley. The run is the 2nd "skiable" bowl coming off of Mt. Whymper (the first skiable bowl also offers good skiing, but on a much shorter run!). Climbing the first pitch you have 2 choices: Steep moraines, or mini couloir. Pick your poison. For the next pitch there are two more options: Climb up the main bowl, or work your way up through the rocks connecting steeper snow patches. The last pitch is obvious. You've got to find a way to the top!

Other options: As mentioned, the Chickadee Valley is home to some amazing skiing. My personal favourites are the south facing morainal runs at the end of the valley rather than the south west facing slidepaths off of Boom Mountain.

Elevation Gain: 1100m
Total Distance: 12.5km
Top Elevation: 2680m
Line Length: 900m

A photo posted by Peter Knight (@peteyknight5) on

While skiing/climbing the middle pitch, you might notice a couloir! This is an exciting option and it even tops out to the ridgetop if you push it hard enough.
A photo posted by Peter Knight (@peteyknight5) on

Hillmap route 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Line of the Week: Mt. Storm couloir (Highwood)

Not to be confused with the windblasted Storm Mountain on the Continental Divide (described in Chic Scott's Summits and Icefields), Mt. Storm's north facing couloir is a striking feature visible from Highway 40 dropping from a notch in the west ridge. As Highway 40 over Highwood Pass is closed from December 1 until June 15, it can be hard to nail the conditions on this line: Full on winter instabilities before the gate drops, and possibly filled with runnels and debris by the time the gate opens. And like most other terrain at Highwood, the snow can be heavily wind affected.

The approach from the roadside parking just south of the main Highwood Pass parking and up through the Arethusa cirque is a little quieter than the pandemonium that goes on at the summit of the pass as people head towards either Ptarmigan or Pocaterra Cirques.

Total Distance: 4.5km (add another 40km if you want to do this one between December 1 and June 15!)
Total elevation gain: 700m
Top elevation: 2850m
Line Length:250m

Other options: Arethusa cirque holds some good, short, low angle terrain. The bowl below the couloir can be good for a couple of laps. Look for the Arethusa south facing couloir in a future write up.

Hillmap Route

Friday, January 13, 2017

New Kastle TX 65 ?

TX65 pictured from the podium of the "sandbagger category" at the Mountain Attack Race in January 2017 in Saalbach, Austria.
I've enjoyed skiing Kastle skis ever since I had a junior pair with Batman on the topsheets. Craig and I are big fans of our "team ski" the Kastle TX 97, a ski that comes in around 1700g in the 187cm length. It's stiff enough underfoot, has a proper 24.5m radius and has big, softer tips that reward you with stability and float when you take a more forward stance while skiing. Although they are a little heavier than I would like for skimo training (may I should have got the TX 87 instead?) and sometimes they struggle in slabby snow compared to something with more tip taper like a Dynafit Cho Oyu, but I feel privileged to ski such excellent quality skis!

I caught wind that Kastle would be coming out with a skimo race ski while listening to an episode of Cripple Creek Backcountry's Totally Deep Podcast with Chris Davenport. Ski performance is not always a first thought when thinking of ski mountaineering race ski, but there are obviously some that ski better than others (it would be nice to be able to compare a bunch of them. Given Kastle's ability to make high quality skis, I've got high expectations for the Kastle TX 65!

nananananananananananana Batman!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Line of the Week: Mt. Bell Main Couloir

At 6.5km, the ski up the Taylor Lake trail (from the Taylor Parking area on the Trans Canada Highway) seems long. It never seems to get any easier. But it provides efficient ingress/egress to 2100m. I'm told this area is busy in the summer, but there might be only 1 or two groups in the area, often none at all. Once at the trail's namesake lake, the main couloir is still not visible. While skiing across the lake, the broad couloir will start to appear: first its upper bowl, then its distinctive vertical wind lip-spine will appear. A crux appears early: Just getting up to the moraines from the lake requires a couple of steep, awkward, kick turns on a snow-covered waterfall. The skin up the moraines to the couloir is fairly self explanatory. As the slope steepens, decisions need to be made. There is a convex roll as the couloir drops from the upper bowl into the steepest part of the line. I've attempted and backed away this line a couple of times in stormy weather, and it appeared that the line was getting loaded up by snow blowing down the line as I was getting blasted by spindrift and sluff.

The couloir isn't necessarily steep or narrow so only a short bit of bootpacking is required to gain the upper bowl.

Distance: 22km
Elevation Gain: 1210m
Top Elevation: 2750m
Line Length: 300m

Other Options in the Area: There are options for safe and other shorter, steeper skiing off Panorama Ridge. There are also a couple of big skinnier couloirs in the area, you are really only limited by your imagination. Stay Tuned for future lines of the week. The moraines also make a good lap.

Skiing the windlip-spine: This is a fairly advanced alternative. Each turn atop the spine will send snow cascading down on either side. The spine steepens (i.e. it rolls convexly!) and becomes planar forming a classic trigger point. Sluff on either side might prevent an easy escape should something happen.

Hillmap Route

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Castle Mountain Skimo 2017

A cold snap eased up on the weekend and allowed us to race the Castle Mountain ski mountaineering race in excellent conditions.

Once again, a sprint race took place on Saturday afternoon before the main event on Sunday. The sprints were action packed with upsets, misfortune, and glory thrown in there: blown skins, skis releasing, skis falling off backpacks, forgotten backpacks, crashes on the descent 😏, "photo" finishes, body contact, broken bindings, and a 14 year old knocking me off the podium!

Photos: Glenda Zamzow
Heading for a photo finish!

Skiing a little too aggressively on the descent, trying to set up for a pass further down.

I don't sprint nearly as much as I should. Honestly, it is the one discipline someone from Edmonton should practice more than anything else and will be a focus point leading up to worlds. I felt strong and raced without the major mistakes that have cost me in previous races (binding step in, fumbling with backpack straps). I was 99% there, but needed that extra 1% in what was quite a skilled heat in the finals. It  was cold so I raced with thicker gloves to keep my hands from going numb. Take the line that will allow you to execute cleanly, not necessarily the fastest.

 The next day we were greeted with an inversion up high so we would be racing into the warmth! I started off hard, lingering not far behind the leaders and skinned well once the course left the initial groomed run drag and into the freestyle skintrack up through the chopped moguls. I lost contact after my skins failed (I should have put them on inside) but was able to hop back in after Travis.

"Hey Nick, did you remember your backpack?"

from Castle Mountain Resort Facebook

from Castle Mountain Resort Facebook

The cold snap of December destroyed any cohesion that the snow had, and so the course skipped the rocky, descending bootpack along the ridgetop, and joined into the bootpack at the saddle. Travis passed me on the descent. Excellent ski conditions with some fresh snow on top of wind buff skied very well on the race skis. The second climb was as steep and relentless as I remembered and I was unable to chip away at my deficit to Travis. Skiing down through the cat ski terrain was a real leg burner lower down once the snow was deeper and less wind affected. I ended up 4th, but 9.5minutes back.

It is interesting to look back at the GPS files and check out the stats on the final climb up the cat road, which other than being a single skintrack set beside the road, with a bootpack in 2013, has remained a constant in this race. In 2014, we did this climb twice on a weather-altered course, so the times are taken from where the bottom transition normally goes.

YearElapsed TimeElevation Gain (Garmin, m)Ascent Rate (m/hr)
*Transitions look to be in the same place, but there is a ~25m difference in elevation gain. If only I had the paced myself to climb at the same rate as last year?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Is ski mountaineering race gear durable enough for everyday use?

In Europe, the answer is obvious, and is "yes". Easy enough with specialty shops that know what they are doing at the base of every mountain and at pricing cheaper than pro deal pricing for North Americans. I'm sure if any issues arise, it is not uncommon to be able to get problems solved at the beginning or end of the touring day.

In North America, you can spend a small fortune on your equipment: a significant premium over more readily available recreational backcountry ski gear. This stuff is not stocked in local shops (unless you live near or Cripple Creek Backcountry, etc...) so you are looking at at least a week downtime for replacement parts while you wait for your online shipment to come.

Titanium and aluminum wear faster than steel. Carbon is much more expensive than plastic, wood, and aluminum, and is layed up much thinner. Skis, poles, boot cables and boot levers have also been known to break during races.

I recently had the scary experience of breaking a toepiece while training a week before the race. I don't ski on my race gear as much as I should: my bindings were 4 years old, but probably not even 100 days on them. I'm glad I had access to a spare set of toe pieces lying around, I'm doubly glad I didn't break the toes while in no-fall terrain. The same toepiece is featured on the Dynafit Speed Superlight binding, a binding marketed more towards every day touring. I urge users of that binding to check them over regularly for cracks.

There are people out there using race boots and race bindings to shave weight off their everyday setups. Unless one is regularly going for fastest known times (FKT's) and speed records, the lack of durability does not make up for the weight savings to justify the safety risks and the cost.

If the goal is to improve your skiing by skiing on your race equipment more often, then I think it makes sense build up an inexpensive training setup: soft boots and short, narrow skis are easy to come by, and save the race setup for racing, and ironing out the kinks before racing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The ski industry has a carbon problem

Winter sports athletes and ski industry executives understand the risks posed by climate change. Lower and unreliable snowfalls and warming temperatures lead to less lift tickets bought, hotel rooms booked, ski gear purchased, and greater snowmaking expenses. So it is in their best interest to promote action against climate change lest their businesses melt away.

The media the ski industry creates to sell product and experiences often venturing to untouched regions of the globe or the wilderness to capture the act of gliding through pristine snow. Travelling to these lesser known regions is not efficient carbon-wise: it involves going further than anyone else is willing to go, or into sparsely populated areas, requiring carbon intensive methods of transportation (snowmobiles have worse MPG economy than the large pickup trucks that tow them to the trail head, we don't even need to discuss the carbon burned by air planes and helicopters), at population densities that make public transit non existent. All of this while selling disposable (they don't make 'em like they used to) model year gear that quickly becomes next year's waste. Not to mention flying around for film premiers, POW (Protect our Winters) meetings (hey, we have this thing called teleconferencing, it was supposed to make business travel obsolete), or other industry retreats.

Ok, the pro skier has got to eat too. I'm sure if you tallied up the carbon dioxide produced by a jet-setting POW snow sports professional, it would top that of the typical Albertan oil sands worker, who are already tired of getting shit on by the east coasters (who are employed to make the cars and air planes that actually burn the oil to produce the carbon dioxide). All for what is basically a hobby.

And what they are really doing is selling the dream to enthusiasts in the cities who will then hop in a plane and fly across the continent or load the family into the V8 SUV and head for the mountains. Or me. I drove 400 kilometers each way just to get to the mountains, and then drove up to 1 hour each way per day just to go ski touring. I wish I lived closer to the skiing. Leisure makes up a significant proportion of my carbon footprint.

I expect better from ski media. I want to see a film where someone spends a year where they walk, ski, or bike directly from their house in town to a trail head. I'm tired of watching a movie or reading a ski magazine talk about how bad the oil sands are, but with "I bought carbon offsets for my heli and sled time, brah!" or "stop idling in the Timmies drive thru, but you'll pry my sled from my cold, dead hands" thrown in. As consumers of this media, maybe it's time to temper our expectations of untouched and exotic for something better resembling the typical ski experience: crossing a track or two and having a great time at our local spot. Like urban skiing? That's right, jibbers are setting the best example.

In my opinion, greening up skiing requires societal change. Just as planners discovered the importance of incorporating green space into urban areas and its impact on well being, sacrificing some land which could be used for other productive uses, it is now important to surround people with an environment that does not require them to have to travel across the continent to experience their favourite hobbies. I'm envisioning moving chunks of city and industry into the mountains in such a mass that makes it feasible for public transit to move people around between home, work, and play areas. The idea is that people will travel and drive less to be able to do the activities that they enjoy. Lack of industry (good paying jobs) and affordable housing are currently blocking this mass movement. Of course this does not go down well with NIMBY's and environmentalists wanting to protect the wilderness who will fear crowding and habitat loss, but it is time to view this global environmental problem on a scale larger than one's backyard.