Sunday, March 23, 2014

One "slightly crazy" family's unique approach to backcountry skiing

As an adventurous family, backcountry is no stranger to us.  We explore the backcountry regularly in the spring, summer and fall.  To explore wild spaces using one's own energy is where our passion for outdoor adventure is fuelled.  Time has come to add winter to our backcountry list of adventure things to do.  Enter backcountry skiing.

Getting ready to ski down the hill we snowshoed up marking our first backcountry ski experience.

Backcountry refers to where the skiing is being done, while terms like ski touring or ski mountaineering describe what type of skiing is being done.  For us, as a family, backcountry skiing will not be pursued as a thrill seeking activity nor will we put ourselves in dangerous situations.  That would be foolish, especially on our first attempt.  What we are looking for is the ability to move through our natural surroundings using our own energy, finding wild solitude in winter landscapes, and appreciate the experiences we create together. 

As responsible parents and adventurers, starting a new outdoor pursuit must be done safely and within our capabilities; both physical and in knowledge.  There are three areas on Vancouver Island, where we currently go to snowshoe, that would serve as great beginner backcountry skiing slopes.  Not too steep, easily accessible, and low risk of avalanches yet provides some learning opportunities on avalanche awareness.  Physically I knew the family was ready.  Earlier this winter I witnessed Ben and Liv climb up a snowy hill and ride toboggans back down. (Sometimes they strapped on the boots and skis) They enjoyed this for hours with nary a complaint.  Without even knowing it, they were developing the strength, strategies, and confidence required to get themselves up a slope so they could reward themselves with a fun ride down.  They were mimicking backcountry skiing. 

It seemed logical then, for our next outdoor adventure, to combine the kids ability to climb, use the current gear we own, take all the necessary safety precautions and try something new.  It was a bit unorthodox, but it was a plan. I use the term backcountry skiing loosely. What we had in mind was backcountry Shoeski.  Snowshoe up the hill and ski back down.

This idea turned into more than just an adventure.  It was an experience that pushed our limits, built teamwork, gave us a sense of accomplishment, provided some great outdoor learning opportunities, gave us time to be together, and had us laughing so hard it hurt. Really, who in their right mind decides that towing +80 pounds of downhill ski gear in a sled up a crusty snow packed hill in snowshoes is the perfect way to spend the day? 

Packing up the gear in a highly sophisticated manner
We did and Wood Mountain Ski Park, an abandoned ski hill referred to by locals as the Old Forbidden Plateau Ski area just outside of Courtenay, B.C. was the perfect location for this crazy adventure! A beautiful setting; overlooking Comox, Courtenay, the Salish Sea, and the Coast Mountains.  Even the character of the once thriving ski hill is present with motionless chairlifts and rundown ski chalets decorating the hills.  Upon our arrival we quickly got busy with the gear.  Being our first backcountry ski experience (can I call it that?), we did not race out and purchase touring skis, boots, and skins for the four of us.  We used the gear we already had.  Snowshoes, downhill ski equipment, backpacks, and a sled.  The laughs started as we loaded up the sled with all the ski gear and proceeded to tie it down with the measly string we had. (forgot the tie straps).  More laughter came when the sled’s rope broke 10 minutes into our snowshoe climb and I had to willingly jump in front of what seemed to be a missile coming straight at me.  

Would you step in front of this if it was barreling down at you?
A few bruises were the result but I saved the gear.  The real laughter, the gut busting laughter, with the whole sled/gear combination comes later.  First, I will share with you the story of pulling the sled, loaded down with about +80 pounds of ski gear, up a significant hill. And by we, I mean Joel. This is where pushing our limits and teamwork enters the adventure. 

Normal folks would choose a less steep hill to snowshoe up.  In fact, everyone who snowshoes here does!  Yet, we choose to go the steep way and I’m not sure why.  What happens next was beautiful.  I knew the hill was going to be tough for the kids so I set out making switchback tracks up the hill.  No way was I going to be behind the sled again and risk more bruises.  Liv dutifully followed and slowly, about an hour and a half later, we made our way up the abandoned ski run.  Ben took a more direct route, which was effective, getting him up the hill first.  That leaves Joel.  Poor, Joel. Pulling the sled up was not an easy feat but he kept at it.  Just before reaching the top I looked back at Joel and thought how in the world is he going to get the sled up the last section.  The pitch of the slope increased significantly.  Before I even finished yelling down at him, inquiring what the plan was, Ben jumped up and shouted to Joel “Dad, I’m coming down to help.” Joel’s reply was, “Sure thing dude.”  There I stood at the the top of the hill, watching Joel give Ben instructions on how to body belay the sled.  Together they dragged the sled up the hill in a choreographed fashion; Ben pulled the slack rope up and held the sled, using the body belay technique, while Joel climbed up to where Ben was and used his arm strength to pull the sled up.  This was repeated several times until the top was finally reached. 


At the top of the hill with huge smiles and high fives, I saw my little boy grow right before my eyes.  At almost 9 years old, he is capable of knowing when help is needed, can assess situations, knows his own limits, and is one hell of kid.  I will never forget standing at the top of the hill sharing stories, praise, and laughter on the adventure so far with my three adventure partners.  There was a real sense of pride and accomplishment at that moment, as the four of us stood at the top of the hill, surrounded with more snow gear than at a MEC garage sale, laughing at our ridiculous effort, all in the name of outdoor adventure. The line between parent and child was temporarily erased and was replaced with pure friendship and respect between us all.  Until the cookies were brought out.  Then it was every man for themselves.  

After the cookie dust settled it was time to continue on with a little snowshoe adventure.  We left the ski gear here because the terrain from this point on was not going to offer any skiing opportunities.  Now it was time to play and that means keep a watchful eye out for incoming snowballs.  We were blessed with a beautiful March day.  Clear skis, warm sun, and mild temps.  It was easy to keep the kids moving and we made decent tracks.

An important factor to consider with any type of backcountry skiing is avalanche awareness and knowledge. Spending time in snow gave us a reason to talk about avalanches.  Before we even would consider expanding our backcountry skiing as a family, avalanche skills training courses would be required.  These courses provide basic knowledge on recognizing avalanche terrain, skills to initiate and manage a self rescue, understand basics of how weather contributes to avalanche hazards, and how to read and understand avalanche bulletins and hazard scales.  The conversations we had about avalanches along the trail were very basic.  We talked about snowpack, melting, and the landscapes where risk of avalanches would be high.  During our snowshoe trek, we happened upon a solo snowshoer and his dog.  Both were loaded down with gear that indicated they had camped overnight.  

We chatted with the young man, from Netherlands, and learned that he had intentions of camping but had hit snow that was knee deep, even with snowshoes on.  He assessed the terrain, avalanche risk, his abilities, his dogs ability and decided best to head back.  He was honest with himself regarding his avalanche knowledge and experience which reinforced everything we had talked about with Ben and Liv.  Safety must always be first and foremost with any outdoor adventure. A cool part of our time with the Netherlands outdoorsman was checking out the 5 foot snow pit he dug near the base of the hill.  It was more for curiosity, given it was a flat area, and to apply some basic knowledge on snow stability. Still, it was a cool visual for us and the kids to really see how deep the snow pack was and identify the different layers in the snow.

Checking out the snow pit to see if layers within the snow can be identified
Two of the three stages of our first backcountry ski experience were in the books; get up the mountain and snowshoe.  The only stage left to do was ski.  We made like Clark Kent and changed from snowshoers to skiers in a flash. But we were hardly super heroes.  In fact, Superman himself should have saved us from the embarrassment we were about to bestow upon ourselves.  But he didn’t show up so on we went and what happens next still has me laughing so hard the tears start to roll.  First off, the snow conditions were brutal.  The snow was hard and compact with overgrown trees covering most of the hill.  This means we had to try and keep our skis within the snowshoe trail.  Now, I don’t ski hills with my skis pointing straight down.  I need space to make beautiful S turns and snowplow.  I was very aware of what was about to happen next.  I executed a perfect arms flailing, legs going in opposite direction, out of control style of ski that sent my three adventure partners into a laughing craze.  Thanks team!  

One of these ski styles is not like the other!
But I got my chance to laugh too.  Ben and Liv both had similar styles, although they managed to stay on course.  The best though, was Joel.  Remember the sled we used to get all our ski gear up the hill with?  Well, now it was packed with our snowshoes and what comes up must come down.  So there is Joel, skiing down the snowshoe track, in an uncontrolled way but still maintaining speed, with the sled in hot pursuit.  At one point the sled hits a rut, is tossed in the air and begins to spin.  Now the snowshoes are being flung out like baseballs coming out of a pitching machine.  Yip, that’s how you do it folks! That’s how you start backcountry skiing as a family!

Sadly, no photos of Joel skiing down the hill were taken.  I was too busy trying to avoid trees...and busting a gut laughing so hard was not helping.  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this story. It was a great laugh of course, but also neat to see how you can have an adventure using the gear you already have, rather than going out and renting all new gear for the day. I love how your family worked together through it all!