A Day in the Country

In Blackcomb backcountry

I arrived, feeling nervous, at the meeting spot at the appointed time, 8am. There was no one there.

A day earlier, I had made a trip to the grocery store to buy lunch for the outing. In the evening I had collected the required gear from the rental shop: backpack, shovel, probe, transceiver, touring skis, skins and poles. I had all the gear, but wasn’t one hundred percent sure that I was ready.

Someone in a black Extremely Canadian jacket arrived and told me to check-in at the desk inside. I did, signing their liability release with all its yellow highlighted and bold text to make sure I actually realized this was going to be dangerous and that, if something went wrong, it was my problem – not theirs. In reality I couldn’t read anything because I had put in my contacts. They’re great for skiing, but crap for reading.

Then I met Matt, the guide for the day. Although Andrew and Colin had signed me up for a group backcountry tour as an Xmas present, Matt said it was just the two of us. My lucky day.

I have been out with ski guides before, and have the greatest respect for them. In their field, I think they are as skilled, knowledgeable and trustworthy as doctors are in medicine. Ski guides are also lovely decent people. Matt seemed to fit the mold. There are no guaranteed outcomes, in medicine or skiing, but I knew I was in good hands.

I told Matt that my only real concern for the day was my fitness level. I am a pretty good skier, and I’ve been in the backcountry before, but I’ve never had to do it the hard way. My previous experience was cat-skiing and heli-skiing, where the cat or the helicopter do all the work. But that was ten years ago, and this was different. This was a backcountry touring day. I’d need to ski *up* the mountain, before I could ski down. Was my 64-year old, city-slicker body up to it?

The weather was was shaping up for an epic ski day. There had been fresh snow overnight, but the skies were now clear and the sun was shining. A “bluebird” day.

Matt and I took the gondola up the mountain, and made a stop to go over the worst case scenario: avalanche. How to ski out or keep on top of the cascading snow. How to use the transceiver to search for a signal if Matt gets buried by snow. How to use the probe to locate him, and then the shovel to extricate him. These were important and necessary skills that I hoped never to need.

To reach the entrance to the backcountry, we took another chairlift, then a T-bar, followed by a short climb and ski traverse across the Blackcomb glacier. Once there, Matt taught me how to transition from downhill to uphill skiing. Bindings adjusted, skins on; we were ready.

I looked up at the route ahead, and my heart sank. It was like something from the Klondike gold rush. Skiers ahead of us were moving slowly, making a switchback trail up a very intimidating ridge line. Our destination was nowhere in sight.

The first climb.

We started up slowly, Matt in front, and me trying to keep up. At first, we followed the trail made by others, but Matt cut a new, less aggressive, route in some places.

Eventually, lungs heaving and heart pounding, we reached the top. And it was spectacular! I quickly forget the climb, and revelled in the amazing white and blue vista before us.

Matt and SMB in Blackcomb backcountry
Matt and SMB in Blackcomb backcountry

From there it only got better. We skied down on pillowy fresh powder to a frozen lake, where we stopped for lunch. We “said how rich we were and how warm we felt” having that time together.

We managed two more runs, each an absolute blast, but the climb didn’t get any easier. By mid-afternoon, we had climbed roughly 650 m (plus or minus) which is a pretty decent effort, for an old guy. We decided to ski around to rejoin the in-bounds runs at the Seventh Heaven chairlift, then skied to the base.

So, was it worth it? Abso-f-ing-lutly. Matt reconfirmed my opinion that ski guides are superheroes. His skills and especially his patience were exemplary. I’d love to get the chance to do it all over again.

In Blackcomb backcountry
In Blackcomb backcountry

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