Winterstoke returning for Year 3 

Guides eager to grow backcountry skiing

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - Explorer Julia Niles is excited to guide at the third Winterstoke Backcountry Festival.
  • Photo submitted
  • Explorer Julia Niles is excited to guide at the third Winterstoke Backcountry Festival.

Julia Niles is planning a mystery.

As part of the Winterstoke Backcountry Festival coming to the Sea to Sky this weekend (Jan. 27 to 29), the Extremely Canadian guide has planned a guided tour in a mystery location, announcing only the night before exactly where to meet.

"It'll surprise me, too!" she said. "I follow conditions... The line that was perfect the week before is no good anymore and you have to find something new. You have to be on your toes and adaptive and know a thing or two about the weather."

And, of course, you have to be the type of person who appreciates avoiding the ruts and routine many people can find themselves in at times.

"I'm always up for an adventure. My favourite days are when I go somewhere new, and I'm not afraid to take people somewhere new," she said. "I see it as an adventure and I feel like it's important to keep that sensation going.

"I really like to show people a good time out there. I have big days and really try to find an adventure."

Niles, a Squamish resident, grew up skiing in Vermont and guided all over the Americas before settling on the West Coast, appreciating the many advantages of the Sea to Sky.

"The terrain and the snow are amazing, just unreal. We have so much snow and it's safer. You can hit mad lines all winter long. We don't have that persistent weak layer. I used to guide in the Tetons and you'd be tiptoeing around with your tail between your legs all season there," she said.

The magical mystery tour has sold out, as has Niles' other tour, the Women's Big Rip, which she's also excited to lead.

"It feels very organic and empowering to see a whole bunch of strong women on the mountains following their dreams and doing what they love," she said. "But there's no difference. Women and men, they're just people."

Festival founder Ross Berg, who will also do some guiding of his own this weekend, noted most events sold out fairly quickly, though there is still some space in a couple beginner events at www.winterstokefest.com.

"I didn't really put it out there too much and they filled up in a week," he said. "It's neat to see how many people are wanting to learn higher-level, more advanced skiing."

Berg explained the interest is there to run many of the clinics several times over; alas, as with many popular services in the resort, getting the guides to instruct is the hold-up.

"There's just not enough guides. I looked for guides all over the place and I got as many as I could. That takes away from the capacity, just how many guides are around," he said. "Ski touring in Whistler is just so busy. It sounds like all the stores are just slammed. It's a busy time right now."

Berg said when the festival started, a significant wave of athletes started to embrace backcountry exploration, so it feels like a group is progressing together.

"It's kind of like a lot of people got into it at the same time. The whole community is getting better and more experienced. It's a whole group moving together," he said. "Two years ago, there were a lot of people doing more intro AST 1 (avalanche skills training) and now I see that whole community has advanced and they're doing ski mountaineering or they're doing AST 2.

"You see it from what people are skiing, for one. People are skiing more challenging lines more often than a couple years ago. Maybe people are just more experienced now. And you see it in the vocabulary that people are using in Facebook posts, having advanced snowpack observations."

In addition to the clinics, Berg noted that on Friday night, Jan. 27, there will be a screening of

A Skier's Journey at the Maury Young Arts Centre at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the door in support of the Winterstoke Fund. Berg's goal is to raise $1,000 to allow one student to attend Howe Sound Secondary School's outdoor leadership class.

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