A few long weeks at work, until midnight on Thursday, pack quickly for this trip on Friday morning, then zip into work for a frantic afternoon of trying to get a software release out (didn’t happen), before heading back home around 5:30 to meet Kathy and drive out to Golden. Meet everybody at the Dreamcatcher hostel, we arrive around 10:30. Great to see Marc and Mel again, and meet the Colorado folks. Whew, looking forward to this holiday!
The morning is cloudy as we drive up to the Golden Alpine Holidays staging area and wait for our flight in. Sunrise hut is socked in, but we manage to get our four flights into Sentry – everybody in, everybody out, and we arrive at the new lodge!
The lodge is huge, three stories high, and buried up to the 2nd floor in snow. Huge drifts all around, with 230cm of snow falling last week, and continuous snow forecast for the week. The snow is so deep they have had to dig a stairway down 6 feet to reach the 2nd floor balcony and then get down to the main floor entrance. After unpacking and storing food we gear up and head out for transceiver practice. I spend some time with Kathy showing her how the new Element works, and she finds it super intuitive and quick. Lots of confidence in the new transceivers!
We go for a steep tree run behind the lodge, pillows and drops, and the snow is heavy and tough to manage. Some getting lost in the forest, and separated by cliff bands; I have to hike back up to rejoin the group after a double-ejection and somersault after landing a small drop puts me downhill from the main ridge. Oops.
We have two custodians, instead of just one because the water source pipe is frozen and so we need to haul water. “Quebec” Fred is a carpenter, who built this lodge after the (beautiful!) old one burned down in 2009. This is the 2nd winter season for the new Sentry lodge. Fred excitedly shows us the machine room, with the micro-hydro electric supply, battery and water storage. All the guys go for the tour, and inspect the gear. Laughter. “Fuzzy” Colin is a canoe guide in the summer. Both are great, fun guys, hauling water from the lake for us, getting the sauna going every evening, and joining us for dinner every evening.
Today is my birthday – a fantastic way to spend it! In the evening we have little cupcakes and everybody sings – but there’s no party as we’re all tired and in bed by 10. Party later, there’s skiing to do tomorrow!
We break into two groups. I’m leading one group, with Andre and Kathy, up to ski Rampart trees. Avalanche conditions are very bad, with a buried surface hoar layer 1.0 – 1.5m down that is very weak and causing very large, destructive avalanches all over BC. We are nervous, and with us today are Seattle Brian and Keri, Colorado Seth (backcountry newbies), and Colorado Kendra and Mel. Rampart is a broad, low-angle ridge, and we work our way up towards treeline. Dig a pit that collapses with a whump on the hoar layer, here about 1.3m down, as we are digging it. Eeeep!
We ski Archers trees, which is excellent, 30 degrees, tight enough to be fun and quite safe. Pit shows soft slabs down 30 and 60cm and hoar layer down 1m, which is a big concern because the two near surface layers are prime depth for human triggering and the big weakness at 1m could be triggered by a step-down of a surface avalanche.
Howling winds all night and in the morning. We all sleep in and then some folks head out around noon. Super tired and not feeling well, so I pass on the afternoon ski and just hang out in the hut. Feels good to have a rest day.
Forecast is clear(ish) so we get up early and plan to go high. We are out of the lodge by 9, and everybody heads up to Rampart. One group is planning on checking out a ridge run east from Gauntlet Peak, and the rest of us (9) are planning on going up Sentry Mtn if the visibility holds. There are good clear patches coming through regularly, and we head off across the ridge towards Sentry.
We all gather at the top of Rampart and pose for pictures before heading down slightly along the ridge and then up towards Sentry.
The snow formations along the ridge between Rampart and Sentry are amazing, with completely snow-caked trees and 2-3 meter drifts. Route finding and trail breaking are difficult, through this convoluted terrain but it is just beautiful. On the way up towards the false summit on the ridge, we are going up a mellow gully, with trees on the right side. We cannot move through the trees because they are tight and full of convoluted snowdrifts, so we are just on the edge of the gully, as close to the trees as possible. The gully looks suspect, and Mel starts up, hugging the trees in case anything moves. I’m following her, Kathy is behind me, about 50m apart, and the rest of the group is waiting at the bottom. As we approach the top, the side of the gully cracks and settles with a loud WHUMP. Mel and I freeze, and yell down. Everybody has heard and felt the settlement, and we realize that the failure was the full length of the gully – 150-200m long – but did not move due to the low slope angle. We come up one at a time, and there is no more settlement or movement.
Beyond that is wind-scoured terrain, with rocks and sastrugi, all the way to the summit. The weather is holding, with cloud / snow to the west and south, but reasonably clear over Sentry Mtn itself. We decide to push on, and quickly get up to the summit and then descend, pure survival skiing and picking our way carefully thought the thin, hard snow and rocks.
Some people walk, some keep skins on, some wreck their skis… Once we get off the ridge, the run down Sentry trees and into the valley below is excellent! A long skin track, expertly built by Till, climbs back out of the valley and into the meadows of Secret Valley and then around Rampart, back to the lodge. What a treat to have had some visibility today!
Storm comes in last night, again, and it dumps hard, another 20 on the ground and it’s snowing in the morning. Kathy, Andre, Cam, Jen and I head over to Archers for a ‘quick’ day over there. Jen is feeling very tired, and they return to the hut after a run down from the bench level. K, Andre and I go up for one more – the snow quality is excellent, with ski penetration of 50cm or more! We keep getting sucked into old tracks, though – Archers trees is a big place, but it has been heavily skied this week. We go to the top of the ridge where we run into Colin, Till, and Fred. We drop down thought the snow-drifted little trees at the top, over the bench, and down through the forest, squealing and giggling in the deep snow.
On the way back to the lodge, Fred finds us in the creek below the final up track and talks us into doing one run down “elevator shaft”, below the lodge. It’s steeper and fantastically deep, untouched by anyone in the last few days. Fred starts at the top roll, a classic convex “to be avoided” roll, but he is confident in the slope, and rips a line down on his snowboard. Kathy and I head over to the left side of the run, which avoids the roll and is more sheltered by trees. The line is still steep – 30-35 degrees – and knee-deep snow – truly fantastic conditions with numerous faceshots! On the lower part of the run are a couple small mushrooms – Kathy has been looking to do her first mushroom drop – so I drop the bigger one, which turns into a triple mushroom as there are two more below the first one – and then tell Kathy that all is good to go. She drops the smaller one, then is surprised by the second one below it, hops over it, and floats to the bottom of the run with great style. Big smiles all around, then Colin tours over to us from the opposite side of the valley, thrilled by all the whooping and hollering from us as we skied that superb run. Thanks for taking us down there Fred!
And still it snows…
Suddenly we are at the last day of this amazing week of continuous snow and excellent skiing, and people are commenting on how fast and slow, simultaneously, it appeared to go. Various groups head off to various areas – last chance to ski what you want to. Kathy, Andre and I start off with a good-morning run down Elevator Shaft, and then loop up past the hut and head to Rampart Trees.
The sky starts to clear as we head up the ridge, which gets us more excited – this is only the second time this week we have had any sort of decent visibility. We end up doing three runs off the ridge, as the sky alternately clears and then clouds in again. There are some spectacular views of Surprise Valley, but as soon as the sun is out, the snow gets heavy and wet, reminding us that this is indeed spring. A stunning last day of skiing!
When the sky clears and we have good visibility, for perhaps half an hour at a time, we are able to look around for avalanches that have come down in this week of high avalanche hazard. There have been a few, but not as many as we were expecting to see.
Later in the evening, after dinner, the sky clears almost completely and the stars come out. There is a hint of northern lights, and the sky is glorious as I head out, about 100m past the sauna, with tripod, star tracker and camera to capture the night sky. I’m in radio contact with the group, and occasionally folks come out to look at the sky and say hi. Till comes out with his camera, thrilled to see the northern lights, and we hang out taking pictures for a while.
Time flies when you’re having fun, and by the time Till and I get back inside it’s been three hours (!) and the gang has done a good job of finishing the alcohol and partying hard. We turn the lodge lights off, turn our headlamps to flash, and continue dancing until late.
At some point the northern lights pick up again, and everybody who is still awake heads out onto the patio to dance under the aurora – an amazing finish to a great week!
Darren Foltinek, 2012