Skins, Skis and Aching Knees

Sunrise on Atwell

“I’m concentrating on Ice Climbing this Winter, not Skiing”

I foolishly uttered those words to myself last Fall believing I would hold fast in my convictions. I truly believe that if you want to get good at something, not just passably capable, you need to pick one pursuit per season.

I’ve consistently broken my own rule in this regard. I’m like that dog in the film “UP” that has all the intentions in the world of doing one thing only, until SQUIRREL! I see a SQUIRREL!

Coming into Winter last year I wanted to work solely on my Ice Climbing. It was all going well for a while, we took a 5 day ice climbing course in Canmore, Alberta and we tried to go Ice Climbing near Lillooet, BC for a few weekends but the shiny new skis of my friends kept glinting in the corner of my eyes.

You see, when I’d chosen to focus on Ice Climbing, my circle of friends had not received the memo. They’d all chosen to focus on learning to backcountry ski. I staved off looking at that Squirrel for a few trips, whilst I wallowed through the powder in my démodé snowshoes. But eventually I couldn’t take it any more. I caved.

MEC, our outdoor gear mecca, was clearing out of all their Ski gear for their Spring stock and had slashed their prices. Myself and my other half went in and bought everything we needed; skis, skins, boots and bindings. We already had ski poles and avalanche gear but still, it was a big chunk of change to get going.

After the dust settled and we had our newly acquired Alpine Touring Ski setup laid out in our spare bedroom cum walk-in-gear-closet we wondered “now what?”

Our friends, who had been touring on their skis all winter, invited us on an overnight trip to attempt a couloir on the East face of Atwell Peak. We wouldn’t be skiing this gully, only skinning up to it and then boot packing our way up to the summit. Nevertheless, just getting to the campsite below the base of Atwell, ~32 kms return with ~2000m’s of elevation gain, would be a big undertaking, seeing as this would be our first time in the backcountry on touring skis.

Skinning upWe were apprehensive but I knew that the first half of the route is a common trail for beginner backcountry skiers, leading to the Elfin Lakes Hut. If we felt like we were way out of our depth by the hut we could always temper our plans, stay at the Hut for the night and spend the next day practicing our backcountry skiing in the vicinity.

We decided to go for it. I’d been wanting to summit Atwell Peak for a while as it’s visible from most places in the town I live in, Squamish, and the window to safely reach its summit is narrow. You need a perfect mix of conditions; low freezing temperatures, clear skies and firm hard snow and ice on the summit pinnacle as it’s made up of chossy, loose, volcanic rock. The weekend of the planned trip promised these conditions so I wasn’t about to turn it down.

5 of us met up on the morning of the 23rd of March. We quickly geared up and applied our skins to our skis and myself and my other half, Spring, tried to figure out the difference between the touring mode and downhill mode on our ski bindings. We quickly got it.

The first few steps were awkward and we looked like we were trying to walk with snorkeling flippers on our feet for a while, but, eventually, we got into a groove of just gliding forwards in the skis and letting the skins bite and stop us from sliding backwards on the uphill.

Something we had not factored for in our research about touring on skis was what to do when we’d encounter short sections of undulating terrain. We had no issues thus far with skinning uphill but for the short downhill sections we had some issues.

We could switch into downhill mode but this would require removing the skis, then removing the skins and then switching our boots and our bindings into downhill mode. This would waste a lot of time for what would be a few seconds of downhill. The other option was to just ride downhill in touring mode.

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I’m sure this will be something we’ll both get used to and I’ll laugh when I look back over this in the future but it’s definitely the area of ski touring we had the most problems with. In touring mode your heels aren’t connected to the binding so you lose a lot of control and “feel” for the skis when going downhill. You also still have your skins on your skis. Skins are great for uphill but they can grip awkwardly on the downhill and affect your balance.

It’s this mix of having unclipped heels and awkward gripping of the skins that leads to the ubiquitous ski touring face plant which we both had the pleasure of experiencing a number of times. As Newton says “a body in motion tends to stay in motion” so when we’d be hurtling downhill, out of control, and our skins would suddenly grip awkwardly our bodies would continue to move forward whilst our skis had come to a full stop. As the toes of our boots are clipped in to the skis you have no choice but to just faceplant forward into the snow.

Our friend Dean, who is also new to Backcountry Skiing joked that instead of getting stronger muscles from this activity he was getting thicker skin on his face to better endure the constant faceplants.

You learn to laugh it off and just ride your skis downhill like standing, faced forward, on a surfboard. We haven’t perfected it, but that will likely come in time.

Anyway, we eventually made it to the Elfin Lakes Hut and had lunch. It was quickly filling up with people for the weekend so we scarfed down some calories and continued on. Apart from the downhill shenanigans in touring mode we felt pretty comfortable on our skis so we made the decision to join the rest of the group heading towards Atwell.

From the Hut we started the slow descent into Ring Creek. It involves a lot of undulating terrain, sidehilling and navigating through avalanche paths. I’d definitely define it as Type 3 fun. This descent is a part of the Neve Ski traverse, that crosses crevassed glaciers and a frozen lake but still, the first question most people will ask with trepidation about the route will be “How was getting down to Ring Creek?”.

Below the Gargoyles

We eventually all made our way down and tried to put that memory behind us. We now had to start ascending out of Ring Creek to get to a shoulder below Atwell that would be our camp for the night. We continued on and in about another hour or so we were at our campsite.

It had been a long day, with a lot of ups and downs both literally and figuratively. I was glad to finally drop my heavy backpack and know I wouldn’t need to move another inch forward until the next morning.

Myself and Spring had opted to reduce our pack weights by planning to sleep in a snow pit with a tarp over the top rather than in a tent. We’d be carrying shovels anyway as part of our avalanche gear so why not use them to make our shelter. I love making snow pits as you can design them differently each time, dig out compartments and shelves and when you need water you don’t have to go outside, your shelter is made of frozen water.

In about 30 minutes we had our shelter mostly made and started to get dinner ready for the night. Everyone wanted to be in their sleeping bags as soon as possible. The following day was going to be big, we needed to ascend Atwell and then return to the parking lot. As the light faded I was wary though. The forecast had called for clear skies and a low freezing level. But, at our camp, it felt warm for this altitude and there was a high haze of clouds above us. I knew that if the clouds persisted throughout the night that they would stop the temperatures from dropping as low as we needed them to get. I zipped up my sleeping bag and shut my eyes for the night and hoped for the best for the coming morning.

Our wake up alarms came all too soon. I stirred awake and could tell right away that the temperature was too warm. Spring left to go to the toilet and when she got back she reported that the snow was still too soft. We made the decision that both us weren’t going to attempt Atwell right then and there. The route to the summit of Atwell that we’d be taking was a steep couloir filled with snow. We needed it to be firm to ascend it quickly. With loose, soft snow you end up in a “snow treadmill” where you try to step up only for the snow to give out causing you to slide back to where you just where.

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Two guys in our group decided that, since they were already up, they’d at least go investigate the route to see if it was as we imagined. They headed out and a few hours later we could see their headlamps at the base of the route for a while before they turned around and started coming back. They radioed over a walkie talkie that the conditions were as bad as we’d feared and they, or us, would not be summiting Atwell this weekend.

I was a little bummed out, but knew we made the right decision. Once the two guys who had left got back they crawled back into their sleeping bags to catch some zzz’s while the rest of us started to lazily pack up.

The ski out was definitely more fun, only Type 2 fun though. Our short amount of experience with resort skiing had not prepared us for skiing in the backcountry with a heavy backpack on. We managed to get a few awkward turns in though.

The skin out of Ring Creek went fine and before we knew it we were back at the Elfin Lakes Hut. We chilled out in the hut for a while, eating the last of our food and letting our feet have a few precious moments out of our ski boots.

Steps into the Elfin Shelter

The final portion of the trail back to the cars can either be really enjoyable or a bit of a pain. Unfortunately, on this day, it was the latter. The last few kilometers of the trail follows an old road and if the conditions are icy and there is enough traffic a trough will form in the snow making turning or doing a snow wedge to decelerate difficult.

Our knees really took a hammering trying to hold a snow wedge while weaving in and out of this icy snow trough. People were still coming up the trail also so we couldn’t gain too much speed for fear of mowing them down. We gritted our teeth and rode it out and made it back to the cars in record time.

Overall, myself and Spring didn’t get to summit anything but we got a worthwhile baptism of fire in backcountry skiing and the ache in my knees from skiing that road has finally subsided. A few weekends later I returned to the same road again and skied down it and loved it that time as there was no trough and some fresh snow had fallen on it. I’m looking forward to getting more mileage on these skis now and being able to look back at this trip, our first time backcountry skiing, and laughing at how green we were. I’ve not lost sight of Atwell either, if anything, this trip only succeeded in moving it higher up on the list of summits I hope to reach one day.

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Author: Leigh McClurg

I grew up in County Dublin, Ireland and moved to British Columbia, Canada with my wife in 2010. I fell in love with being in the Backcountry and Mountains that are all around me here and try to spend all of my free time exploring those wild places. My main goals are to chase happiness, see as much of this planet and its cultures as possible and grow every day through knowledge and experiences.

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1 Comment

  1. Great trip report. Thanks for sharing. I attempted Garibalidi peak last May long weekend and turned back a few hundred meters from the summit due to white out conditions. I didn’t have back country gear so we went on foot thinking the snow would be hard or packed. Wrong! Leaving the snow shoes in the parking lot was the wrong choice. Boot packing the whole way was quite the workout. I now have a splitboard and would love to give it another shot.

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