With the spring-like conditions we’ve been experiencing recently, there have been plenty of opportunities to get out into the backcountry. There isn’t a lot of fresh powder of course; the recent heat wave and high winds have consolidated a lot of the snow into various forms of crust. But if the avalanche conditions permit, there’s no better time to do some exploring.
Whenever we ski, tour or bike in new areas, it’s always good to go with someone who knows the zone, or at least has been there before and can recognize landmarks and exit routes. However, there will inevitably come a time when one of your friends will suggest a “recon mission” to a place unfamiliar to them. Hopefully your friend does some research, plans a route and brings a map before ushering you into the unknown and a potential day of endless bushwack.
This was the case when I went out with two friends a few weeks ago to explore a new area on the Duffey Lake Road. We had all seen Mount Taylor on the map and seen its peak from the nearby Joffre Group, so rather than head up Cerise Creek – an area we had skied many times before – we were curious if this route would reveal some new untapped terrain. My friend had done his homework with guidebooks and maps, but nonetheless, when we left the car he gave his disclaimer that he had never tried this route up to Mount Taylor. He would not be held responsible if the day turned sour, which was fair enough. The rest of us obliged him and off we went.
The logging road that was our access was incredibly overgrown with alder trees, the first warning sign. The snow that normally weighed the branches down under a hefty load had not arrived yet. We decided to give it about 10 min. of bushwhacking through the foliage to see if the alders would thin out. And they did – or so we thought. The gradient on the road meant we couldn’t see more than about 50 metres ahead, so whenever we reached a clearing – the one we thought would break us out of the spindly mess – another patch greeted us a little further up the road. We considered turning around several times, but by that point it would mean retreating and having an average day in average terrain we were already familiar with. If we could stick it out a little longer, we thought, we might just get to where we could access the old growth forest for a clear ascent to the top of the treeline.
We eventually cleared the alders and made a break for the alpine, but some unforeseen terrain features funnelled us into creek beds, which made for even more challenging skinning. After reaching our designated turnaround deadline (in order to get back to the car before dark) still in the trees, we lamented the fact that we had spent the whole day walking in the forest and getting wacked in the face by alders. The ski out down that overgrown road was even more frustrating than the way up.
There’s two different ways we could have interpreted that day we attempted Mount Taylor. You can stick to your known zones and only explore when you are positive the snow and the route will be in prime condition, or you can take a chance and be ready for the bushwack. You may end up nailing it for the most unforgettable backcountry day of your life, or you might spend most of your hours that day battling Mother Nature’s leafy limbs. You’ll never know until you go.
This column post first appeared in the Whistler Question in January, 2014