There’s always an underlying anxiety in the last 24 hours before embarking on a editorial assignment in the backcountry. Is the weather going to give me good light for photos? Am I going to ski powder all week or will I be touring on the same crust that’s plagued the Coast Mountains for most of the season?
Every travelling ski photographer, writer and filmmaker has a story about the time they travelled halfway across the world to get rained out, ski on sheet ice or otherwise have conditions so terrible that they came home with nothing but stories about what could have been. In the past, I’ve flown all they way to Northern BC to ski breakable crust with a permanent cloud ceiling, driven the Powder Highway to ski every type of snow except powder and trekked across one of the longest glaciers in the world only to have the snowpack so unstable that skiing anything fun would be a death wish.
But my trip to Selkirk Mountain Experience (SME) would not be one of those weeks. The lacklustre season in British Columbia was rather kind to the Durrand Glacier, with the early April snowbanks reaching well over two meters around SME’s home base, the Durrand Glacier Chalet. Flying in to SME from Revelstoke on April 4th with snow flurries whipping the alpine peaks, I braced myself for a week of dealing with socked in skies and trying to keep the camera gear dry.
As it turned out, that flurry on the Saturday gave a light coating to the alpine before moving northeast, leaving me and 14 other lucky guests with five straight days of sunshine. The light snow had fallen on top of a snowpack that was presenting concerns the previous week, but a recent 60-metre wide cornice failure on one of the loaded alpine slopes – with no triggered slide – gave us all confidence in the snowpack stability.
After a brief introduction by Ruedi upon our arrival, the groups headed out to the “soccer field” (a flat open, area a few hundred metres from the Durrand Glacier Chalet) for transceiver and avalanche rescue training. Having done these drills dozens of times, it’s easy to tune out like we all do during airline safety demonstrations. But every guide presents their methods of rescue slightly differently and unfortunately the likelihood of being involved in an avalanche in the backcountry is significantly higher than an airline crash. So I paid attention and learned some new things.
The next day the chalet stirred around 6am with everybody readying their gear, making their lunches and knocking back cups of coffee. Today was the day that Ruedi was going to “start the engine” as he put it, by leading the two groups up the Durrand Glacier. I was relegated to the “Steep Skiing,” group, which Ruedi always guides himself. In this group were four SME return guests whom had skied with Ruedi anywhere from six to 25 years. I’m 33 years old and I was the youngest by at least 15 years, Ruedi himself recently turned 60. The speed of the group belied our average age and weighed down by my photography gear, I realized the week wasn’t going to be a cake walk.
Topping out on Mt. Bastille (2699m), the group paused and took a few minutes to soak in the scenery while Ruedi dug one of his several daily snow profiles a few metres down-slope. The other group, lead by a young Swiss guide named Jan, stood on Symphony Peak a few hundred metres away ready to drop into their line.
“It’s good, hah!” Ruedi exclaimed as he walked back up to the summit and clicked into his Dynafit bindings. The four of us stood readied, good to drop in to our first steep ski line of the week. Ruedi allowed me to shoot from where he dug the snow profile and I giggled to myself as I see one by one, Ruedi and his three other disciples start their day with a 45-degree face overlooking the formidable Selkirk Mountains. I ski down after them, spraying the dry snow on every turn. One by one we dropped into the Bastille Couloir – equally as steep – before meadow skipping down the Centrale Glacier.
When we took a break at this transition and I began to get a feel for Ruedi’s guiding style. You’re either touring, skiing or making your transitions, unless Ruedi says it’s time for a break. There’s no picnic rug rolled out for the group at lunch time, everyone refuels and rehydrates throughout the day. When the group summits the peak, before I do anything else I’ve got my skins off and stowed, my boots done up and my skis scraped free of any ice build up. Then I can start admiring the landscape, take pictures or take a bite out of my sandwich. Rarely is there time for all three.
Ruedi’s style isn’t for everyone, when the climbing gets technical he’ll often curtly tell you how to adjust your skinning technique or remind you to concentrate on the task at hand. If the group is taking too long on an exposed slope he’ll start yelling to keep the everyone moving because it’s unsafe to be standing there. It took me a couple of days to get into the “Ruedi Rhythm,” but after a while I realized how much I was learning, how much more efficient I was with my time and energy. No one knows the terrain at Selkirk Mountain Experience better than Ruedi and he’s there to help you push yourself, both physically and mentally.
After more than 1900m of vertical climbing and skiing on our first day, kicking back at the Durrand Glacier Chalet with apres snacks and drinking locally brewed craft beer, I realized just how much I lucked out this week. Sun was in the forecast, we’ve got two satellite huts to reach even deeper into SME’s steep and glaciated tenure and the powder is light and dry on top of a stable snowpack.
I think this week is going to work out just fine.
Vince Shuley joined the Steep Skiing program at Selkirk Mountain Experience on assignment for Backcountry Magazine. The full feature will be published in the upcoming 21st volume in the fall of 2015.