Saturday, January 31, 2015

Solitude, eh? Canada weeks 23-26

I'm not sure when you're supposed to say "eh" in Canada.  I think it's after you've said something significant and that you want to make sure the other person gets.  That would be never in my case, 'course I won't let that deter me.

They do have a lot of big open spaces with relatively few (to the US) people in it.  They have protected these spaces and have labeled them "their heritage".  The power of labels.  Harder to strip mine or frack your heritage, eh?

Here's the view behind our rental.

It's actually hard to take pictures here.  The scale is so vast.  Imagine six national parks linked together along with several wilderness areas and you get the idea.  For us, in January, it's a lot of snow, but the locals call this a low snow year.  Climate change.  Unless your ideology says otherwise.  We're in Yoho National Park, on the Eastern border of British Columbia. 
To continue the salvation theme, we're staying in the basement of a place called the Old Church House.  It's a former Anglican Church, complete with pews for seats.  Now it's a private home.  And no, we haven't been struck by lightning.  Yet.   It's going to be hard to leave this one alone. 
Anyway, the powder snow is waist deep in the trees and less likely to avalanche.  So that's where we start looking for, as backcountry skiers like to say, "the goods" - untracked, blower, pow.  We check the avalanche and weather reports everyday, then go hunting for the goods.
This is the goods:

The goods include ice climbs, like this one.

Not this one:


The ice climbs look good, or at least better than this guy, but we decide to concentrate on skiing first and get better at avalanche avoidance.  The avi forecasts are specific to each national park, but generic in the sense that local conditions vary greatly.  They vary from alpine, to treeline to below treeline and from windward to leeward sides of the mountain.  And the conditions even vary locally from one 1000 ft, sorry - 300 meter, section to the next.  Added to that we're a couple of bumpkins from West Virginia.  Think it's time for an avalanche course, eh? 

We contact Yamnuska Mountain Guides and hire a fella by the name of Grant Meekins.  He grew up in  the Yukon Territories, has lived North of the Arctic Circle, and has every guide certificate imaginable in his 30 years of experience as a guide.  He also trains other guides to the high
Canadian standards.  Plus his wife is a two-times world champion extreme skier.  We're in good hands and he can explain things clearly. 

We're pretty serious about learning this avi stuff.  We've had a one-day course in Colorado and read the books.  Brenda's a physical chemist and understands ice crystals, vapor pressures, temperature gradients, among other geeky stuff.   But we don't know enough for the Canadian Rockies.  Grant does.  In our two day course, he demonstrates critical features of the local snowpack, and we practice a simulated avalanche and partner rescue scenario with a buried avi beacon on the mountain side.  We find it and dig it out in 5 minutes.  A buried skier has 15 minutes.  This is not casual stuff.

We spend most of our time learning about the terrain - where to go, where not to go to avoid a real rescue scenario.  There were plentiful opportunities to learn where not to go, because other people are skiing there.  Luckier than smart.  Even though we have all the avalanche safety equipment, including float bags, the idea is to not depend on luck and rescue gear.  We also have these things now called brains.

On our second day, we ski with Grant at a place just above treeline called Hidden Bowl - after carefully assessing the conditions. 

Especially the cornices to the left and above the safe-ski zone.  There's also a hanging bowl of snow on the right and above that slides on a regular basis.  It's only safe in the center. 

Here's Brenda enjoying the fresh powder  in Hidden Bowl.  Hey diddle diddle, right down the middle.


The latter half of January got warm.  Record temps - near 50 near Jasper, Alberta.  That's pretty far North if you're curious.  More climate change.  With it so frequent now, our strategy is to adapt.  The snow melted and refroze and it didn't snow again for a while.  As you can imagine, the skiing sucked.

Most ice climbs are in avalanche terrain, or have that above them.  But with the frozen snow, the avi danger was low - time to break out the ice gear and swing some tools.



And the drive back home after ice climbing is not too bad either.  Oh, Canada:

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