feature 410 

Piece o’ cake When untracked snow fields lie just beyond a rope it’s hard to resist temptation, but there is a price By G.D. Maxwell There’s a genetic short-circuit in the DNA of people who slide on snow for pleasure. Given a choice between wealth, world peace or first crack at a field of virgin powder, the result is a foregone conclusion. Few things are as seductive for a skier or snowboarder as a wide open, untracked slope of glistening, white snow. On powder mornings, hundreds of them will be lined up at the base of Whistler and Blackcomb in the receding darkness, anxiously awaiting the lifts’ early openings for Fresh Tracks and First Up. It’s not the haute cuisine of these breakfast programs they’re after; they can get eggs at home and muffins anywhere. They’ve come to gorge themselves on powder, to sate — if only momentarily — an insatiable appetite for fresh, deep snow. When you live in skier’s paradise, and close to 2 million snow junkies slide on the local hills in any given season, the quest for powder becomes problematic. No matter how much falls from the skies, it doesn’t take long to shred it into tatters. Regardless of how early you’re on the hill, things start to look pretty worn by mid-morning and positively threadbare by day’s end. Except, of course, for that pristine field just beyond the ski area boundary. On the other side of the rope, the snow is whiter, the tracks are fewer and the siren song more seductive. "Come ski me; I’m yours," it calls. Like the last cold beer you know is in the fridge, it’s just a matter of time before you succumb to the image of ecstasy your mind creates. Just south of the Resort Municipality of Whistler, lies Cheakamus Lake. Cheakamus is a largish, blue-green glacier-fed lake barely inside the western boundary of Garibaldi Provincial Park. A short trail leads from the trailhead parking lot — following the course of the Cheakamus River — to the lake. It continues another four kilometres, following the lake’s north shore. From all along its shoreline, mountains rise steeply: Corrie Peak, Mount Davidson, Overlord, Fissile, and Whistler. It’s a wonderfully easy hike, affording great views, deep forests, and peaceful camping. The first time I hiked into the lake, on a warm summer’s day, I was amused and confused by signs posted four or five metres up in some trees. They said, "Ski Out This Way." I wasn’t sure for whom they were meant. Exhausted cross-country skiers who couldn’t remember skiing out was just the opposite of skiing in? Or were they just someone’s idea of a joke? Off Whistler Mountain’s Peak Chair there is a blue run: Highway 86, named for the year it was cut, the year the Peak Chair was installed. It winds around the south side of Whistler Peak and affording relatively easy egress from the Peak to mid-mountain on days the fog swallows Whistler Bowl. To skier’s left, across the boundary rope, past the big red signs warning against entering it, is one of those alluring fields of snow skiers and boarders find so hard to resist. From the vantage of traversing Highway 86, you look down into an open, almost treeless meadow dropping gently to the near horizon: a perfect, uninhabited blue run. It's irresistible and inevitably leads many toward it each year. Some — mostly locals — know what they’re getting into and know how to find their way out. Most don’t. They cut S's in the snow as the slope steepens almost imperceptibly. After a couple of minutes of perfect skiing, most stop and look uphill to the ski boundary. At that point it seems an exhausting 45 minutes to climb back up to the rope they just ducked. The slope ahead — an intermediate pitch — lures them further downhill. The good skiing runs out in another 10 minutes. Increasingly confusing choices present themselves, trees begin to crowd in, the line between skiing and hiking pretty much vanishes. Welcome to the Cakehole. At least it looked like a piece of cake. For many, it might as well be named Hellhole. The next three hours — three if you know where you're going or have a good sense of mountainous landscape, maybe seven or forever if you don't — are a slog through dense conifer forest. Gullies that look attractive, if you can overlook their avalanche potential, end in cliffs. You have to traverse high, double back, lose altitude slowly, pick you way through the exposed detritus of the forest, and follow the natural contour of the land. On a good topographical map, the contour lines at this point are pretty much touching each other. It’s rewarding, if strenuous, hiking under normal conditions. But you're still on skis or a snowboard unless you've taken them off in favour of walking and sliding on your butt. You're side-slipping and picking your way through woods Hansel and Gretel would feel at home in. This is prime black bear hibernation habitat; listen closely, you may hear snoring under the mounds you're crossing. You're exhausted. If you have enough energy and the presence of mind to notice, and it hasn't snowed too much during the last 24 hours, you'll cross a trail 200 feet or so above the Cheakamus River. You might even see one of those signs advising you the direction to ski out. If you don't notice, you'll eventually get to the river. You might try to cross it. But you’ll start gaining altitude if you do, so you’ll probably cross back, confused. Seeing only dense brush and trees, you'll wonder how to follow the glacier-fed river downstream. Or are you sure downstream is the right direction? Is any direction the right direction? Can you be sure in the growing darkness? If you’re fortunate enough to finally spot the trail, you’ll come to the parking lot in another 45 minutes. Or you’ll end up at the lake because you’ve gone the wrong way. From the parking lot, it's another eight kilometres of cross-country skiing — in downhill boots and skis — back to Highway 99. Less of it is downhill than you'd like to think. It's exhausting. Every year, Ski Patrol and Search and Rescue pull a couple score of people, who didn’t have a clue where they were going or where they ended up, from the valley below that seductive, south aspect of the mountain. As long as people ski on Whistler, as long as they see tracks leading down that slope, and as long as they’re stupid enough to follow tracks towards the unknown, it's inevitable. But it takes a certain fool to do it intentionally. Welcome to my world. About a year ago, while researching a feature on Ski Patrol, Bernie Protsch, Whistler’s Patrol Manager, wondered how we could keep the uninformed from going down the back side of the mountain. At that time, it seemed people were being rescued from the Cakehole about every other day. It was getting tedious. And expensive. He offered to lead me down in the hopes a cautionary tale might be written. I muttered something about pigs flying and managed to dodge the issue for the rest of the ski season. When, early this season, I had the bad judgement to mention the idea to Bob Barnett, Pique editor, his response was, "Let’s go." You work for a crazy man, you do crazy things. So, on an overcast, but otherwise glorious day off last month, Bernie, Bob, John Evdokimoff and I, ducked the rope off Highway 86 and skied down toward Cheakamus. It was 11 a.m. John, the Mountain’s Planning Manager, came along ostensibly to survey the terrain in hopes of working out some signage plans, an effort to help people out once they get sucked in. At least he said it was work. He certainly smiled a lot. We took a few big, sweeping turns and stopped after about one minute. Sure enough, looking behind us, we were being followed. A 20-something, male Japanese skier was nonchalantly on our trail. He hesitated in coming closer but was hailed over by Bernie, who asked, "Do you know where you’re going?" He looked at us, thought about his answer or maybe interpreted both the question and answer, and, as if to demonstrate the point, asked more than stated, "Ah, Green Chair?" It would have taken way more professionalism than anyone in our group had, to not laugh at that moment. He may as well have answered, "Vancouver?" After a lot of gesturing, a bit of Japanese and lots of loud English, he was resigned to taking his skis off and climbing back uphill to the boundary. He was clearly unconvinced trudging uphill for 15 or 20 minutes was nearly as good an idea as continuing to ski behind us, but we weren’t exactly the Welcome Wagon. "This was a pretty good example of what I’m talking about," Bernie said when we stopped later. "He’s got no water, no food, no clue where we’re headed, and only his ski clothes to survive an overnight stay once he’s lost. If it weren’t for the relatively mild nights we have here, there’d be a lot more people dying." Five minutes of pretty easy skiing after we’d left our shadow hiking back up to Highway 86, the snow crusted over. Warm days and no new snow had created an ice crust maybe two inches thick. Sometimes it held, sometimes it broke. It was about at this point, breaking through the crust and pulling myself back up — repeatedly — I began to wonder why anyone would fail to be satisfied with 6,000-plus acres of lift accessible terrain. This was not going to be my best moment. But looking back up the mountain, I also knew I would never voluntarily choose to walk back up. Neither would anyone else in the same position. Twenty minutes later, I was exhausted and most of the good skiing was behind us. We stopped to shed a layer, have a drink, and let the writer avoid a heart attack. Bernie seemed as though he could go on endlessly but I wasn’t sure how fast he could travel carrying my lifeless body. Uphill and downhill, the slope was open, with only a few small trees dotting the landscape. One unfamiliar with backcountry travel — as are most who unknowingly venture down this way — might marvel at their good fortune in finding such a beautiful, wide open run on what is otherwise a heavily forested slope. Avalanches cut the run, idiot. Avalanches keep it clear. But this wasn’t an avalanche kind of day. The snowpack was stable, almost bullet-proof. The day was beautiful and warm, if overcast, and the view across the valley was stunning. And the end of open skiing was in sight, maybe 1,000 metres below us. We pushed on, mostly side slipping the rock hard crust. Just before the forest closes in, there’s an open, flat area. It’s one of the few places a helicopter can safely land to pull somebody out. Unfortunately, it’s in a place very few people would stop and wait for rescue. To the right, a steep gully descends. Follow it and it widens a bit, and leads you through the forest to a drop-off. We could see footprints marching up the gully. They were left by a snowboarder, shortly before our trip, who’d spent a couple of days boarding down, climbing back up and generally being lost. Now, we were picking our way through trees. I’d asked Bob to stay behind me. Actually I hadn’t so much asked as suggested it would be a good idea, unless he wanted to write the back page of this paper himself once I became forever lost after falling far behind. Right about then, I caught a downhill edge and tumbled, head first, toward a tree trunk. I’m sure, given enough time and an act of God, I could have gotten myself out of the undignified position I ended up in, but I was really glad someone was behind me at that point. Knowing your limitations is half of any good adventure. For the better part of two hours, what could have been a beautiful walk in the woods was, for me, an ordeal. We side slipped, stepped, jumped and lowered ourselves between, around and over trees, both standing and fallen. More than once, I opted for carrying my skis and falling downhill in boots. Neither method seemed inherently superior. Gravity definitely sucked. Snowshoes or crampons struck me as more appropriate footwear than six foot long levers. It was clear we were getting closer to the trail leading out, but it was also clear we’d have to find it. Fortunately, since we’d had no new snow for a while, it was visible. Of course, if you didn’t know to expect a trail, it would pretty much be impossible to notice it. Even knowing it was there, John, either trailing us or way ahead of us, overshot it and had to climb back up. Just recently BC Parks has agreed to allow Whistler Mountain to place non-intrusive signs along that part of the trail out. They can put them up in late fall, but they have to come down in early spring. Other than the signs, there aren’t likely to be many other improvements making it easier to get down that side of the mountain. "We have some concerns about making it too easy to get out of the area," Tom Bell, Area Supervisor for BC Parks explained. "The ski area boundary has to be the primary area for stopping people." At the trailhead, enjoying a brief rest and a visit from Mr. Jack Daniels, Bernie regaled us with Cakehole stories. I kept my ears cocked, hoping to hear the drumming of a helicopter coming to pick us up. I remembered being as exhausted before, I just couldn’t remember how many years ago it had been. The idea of a resting heartbeat seemed a distant memory. I was looking forward to skiing down the road and catching a ride to our destiny with cold beer. I’m not sure when, but sometime between last summer and this winter, someone reversed the grade of Cheakamus Lake road. The first three kilometres were flat and uphill. Modern plastic-shelled ski boots are wonders of technology. They’ve all but eliminated ankle injuries. But they are sheer hell to cross-country ski in. I was about ready to quit the whole business when the road finally started to descend, only to flatten out again... and again after that. There are people in this town who consider the Cakehole a great ski run. They’ve been down it numerous times. They know the terrain and, short of injuring themselves, pose no real risk of requiring rescue. It is said, in that apocryphal Whistler way, some have done the trip twice in one day. But then, there are some really strange characters living here. Who knows? Reliving, or more to the point, trying to forget about the whole trip over rehydrating pitchers at Dusty’s, we wondered aloud about BC Parks’ position that the problem of uninformed, backcountry skiers had to stop at the ski area boundary. The existing signage is pretty clear and the Mountain is considering adding universal "Don’t go there" symbols — man on skis falling over cliff. But we came to the conclusion there was only one way to keep the unknowing from venturing down the Cakehole. I’m not sure how the management of the mountain will take to the idea of guard towers and tranquilizer rifles though.


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