On the first of November we were hammered by snowfall in Banff. I looked out the window and exhaled a sigh of relief. The previous seven or eight months felt like the longest season ever in terms of running around in the mountains and now I was ready for a break. I hung up my sneakers in the basement, swapped them for ski boots, and continued the whole practice of climbing and descending steep-ass hills, except with skinny planks clipped to my toes instead.
The first and most important thing that happened in November is that I stopped running. During the first couple days of the month, I fought the urge to go climb Ha Ling in whiteout conditions for no reason other than my habituation to doing it. I got a gym membership at the Canmore Nordic Centre, started lifting weights and killing myself with circuits, started walking more and stopped running entirely. My goal was to take my body completely out of running shape, into a more traditionally mountaineering, “slow and heavy” type of fitness, and move back into increasingly faster and lighter activity starting in the new year.
All this is tempered by the fact that I essentially traded trail running for fast and light ski touring AKA “Skimo” as soon as I was able this season. Last year I purchased a lightweight Dynafit setup with the intention of staying fit and exploring the mountains during the wintertime when options for running in the alpine become limited. I didn’t expect to do much true backcountry travel, more avalanche-safe objectives where I can rack up some vert and get sweet views solo without the risk of getting buried.
The month started with a few forays to get myself reacquainted with being on skis. I skinned up to Sunshine Village the day before opening; broke trail halfway up the backside of Sulphur; climbed and skied unopened Mystic runs at Norquay and messed around at Nakiska too.
That was when a tingling lust for the Ski as a tool for mountain travel began stirring in my heart, and I felt obligated to reciprocate with some type-2 fun adventures…
The next three days, I hit the skis hard. The goal of climbing a thousand meters on skis stood out in my mind arbitrarily. On my previous trips this year, I just hadn’t been able to accumulate it so far.
On November 26, I skinned up the old Norquay ski-out that begins at the Juniper Hotel. This is my (and Sean’s) now standard route from town to reach the trailhead for Cascade Mountain. I fortunately found someone’s skintrack up the old black-diamond run but it was so steep I had to bootpack for long sections in deep powder. At last I reached the top of the yet unopened North American lift which services the longest and steepest of Norquay’s ski runs. The view overlooks Mount Rundle, the town of Banff and the Bow Valley corridor stretching towards Canmore. I shredded the wide powder slopes of North American then whizzed back down the narrow ski-out to the Juniper. (6.6km/838m/Movescount/Strava)
On November 27, I still hadn’t climbed a thousand metres on skis. I decided to stay close to home and see how far I could make it up Sulphur, my usual springtime stomping grounds. I started at the Cave and Basin, 0.5km from my apartment and walked for another half kilometre with the skis on my back before reaching good snow where I was able to start skinning. I made good time along the river and up my old tracks from the previous week, seemingly walked-in by someone (or something) and topped up with a few inches of fresh snow.
All of the various animal, boot and ski tracks petered out around my high point from the previous week and so it was trail-breaking time. I slogged for another four or five hundred vertical metres, step by painstaking step. The thought that I could turn around and ski down at any moment was as stifling and omnipresent as the sun but I continued to march — I wanted to touch that stupid observatory on top of Sanson’s Peak, just like in the summertime, but with skis on my back. I haven’t experienced that level of deathmarch in a long time.
Cue the boardwalk, the upper gondola terminal splayed open among tarps and cranes, and that little brick observatory sitting on top of the mountain. I threw the skis on my back and walked up the wooden steps, wading through the snowdrifts, to touch the stupid little brick house that means so much to me. I took some pics, walked back down, click-click, then skied one of the most fun downhill runs of my life. (18km/981m/Movecount/Strava)
Whilst deathmarching up Sulphur, I had plans to go ski touring with ultrarunners Majo Srnik (@majocalgary) and Andy Reed (@canmoremd) the following day. Fuck, I said to myself, I hope I don’t die… Next morning we met in a surprisingly busy parking lot at Sunshine Village at 8am, an hour before opening. Andy and Majo both had brand-new Dynafit PDG setups with race bindings which, combined with my last year’s PDG skis, definitively made us the Dynafit rando crew.
We reached the upper village in about an hour and proceeded towards Lookout Mountain AKA Brewster Rock via a wide arc just outside the ski area boundary. We approached the sustained climb up Lookout and Andy charged towards the sky, setting a steep track across hardened snow where little more than our steel edges gripped the slope. Did I mention Andy is “tapering” for TNF 50 in San Francisco next weekend?
The higher we climbed, the crustier the snow became and bare rocks started to punctuate the skimpy snowpack until we topped out at the Great Divide lift at 2700m, eleven hundred vertical metres above our start-point.
After a brief snack overlooking the crest of the continent, we skied down the run, ducked the rope and descended through steep crud to reach an area of thirty degree champagne powder that we milked for two laps of exquisite riding. Then we were off in another wide arc through the meadows — over rolling terrain that had us stripping skins for short downhills, then replacing them moments later — to reach Mount Standish at 2398m.
After taking in the views of Rock Isle Lake and a snowy continental divide, we stripped off our climbing skins for good, stashed them in our jackets and tore down through the ski area and back to our vehicles in the parking lot in less than twenty minutes. (23.5km/1446m/Movescount/Strava)
My newfound respect for the skis are akin to how I came to recognize the bike as a tool for mountain travel this past summer. Each tool has its place in the kit of a well-rounded mountaineer and I suppose the goal is to become competent in each domain, whether it’s running, hiking, climbing technical rock, skiing, biking, swimming, etc. Besides, if you live in the mountains in Canada and don’t ski, snowboard or do something to keep yourself busy, then winter just sucks, and as a summer-loving mountain runner it’s more like some kind of sadistic hell.
And now it’s a buttery heaven of lung-hucking bootpacks and surfin’ through pow. Hallelujah.