There are few better experiences in the world than spending a winter season in the mountains. It’s very rare for anyone to regret it. What’s not to like? You get to live in stunning surroundings, whilst enjoying the best snow conditions that the season has to offer.
Nonstop’s 6 week “Master The Mountain” off piste camp is an amazing way to get the very best out of an extended trip to Canada. Last year Whitelines snowboard magazine visited us to find out what the program was like (check the article out here). Also, one of the skiers on the camp this year, Dan Broidy, has been putting an awesome blog together here. It’s a great insight into what the courses is like. To follow is a summary of his experiences, with direct quote from Dan in italics.
Dan and the rest of the MTM crew flew out to Calgary on 17th January 2012. There timing was perfect, as Fernie was getting one of the biggest dumps of the season, with over 120cms of snow falling in 48 hours! As exciting as that was, unfortunately travel conditions were less than perfect, so with access roads completely blocked with snow the whole MTM crew had to spend their first night in a motel near Calgary. Spirits were high though, in anticipation of what was awaiting them in Fernie.
After the minor delay they got to experience Fernie at its best, with a day “warming up” in knee deep powder. The course started in earnest the next day though, with the first of the lesson days. Here’s an extract from Dan’s blog:
We met up with Wendy and Dwight this morning, who will be our main instructors for the duration of the course. They are both incredible skiers and i can already tell it’s going to be a huge learning experience to be taught by both of them. It certainly opened my eyes as to how hard it is to make it look that easy! Our standard seemed fairly equal throughout the day, possibly with the exception of Will who has been here 3 weeks longer and had the pleasure of skiing ‘The 17th’ too…
Following the first day out with instructors, the crew enjoyed their first of their many visits to see the Fernie Ghostriders play Ice Hockey (just across the road from the Red Tree Lodge).
The Fernie Ghostriders are the local B side junior hockey team, but dont let the words ‘junior’ or ‘B side’ fool you. Its quick, skillful and brutal, with die hard supporters!
In the week or so that follows, there were plenty of epic powder days and loads of improvements made throughout the group, here are a few highlights:
In our second day of training we went off skiing with Shawn, who talked a lot about mountain conditions and avalanche dangers etc. which was very informative and gave a great understanding of the mountains around us. After skiing Morning Glory and the Lizard Glades, Shawn gave a few general tips to improve quick skiing in powder. One of them really highlighted a mistake i had been making for years, and immediately improved my skiing two-fold, until i got a bit cocky and caught my ski in some heavy snow, sending me down the hill in true ‘yard sale’ fashion.
Had such a good day today, mainly tuition in the morning (turns out i was really bad at pole planting!) but got some good first tracks on ‘blueberry’ early on too. Went up Polar Peak this afternoon which is the new lift to the highest peak. The ‘Barely Legal’ photo was the one we did, the runs off the top are mainly double black diamond due to the gradient and exposure, but the snow was soooo good and you could just glide down top to bottom on soft powder. We came down off Polar Peak and traversed and hiked across to ‘Lone Fir’ which is a chute off one of the ridges. It was pretty steep and lots of powder so you end up skiing through the sluff you knocked down the turn before which was really good fun.
Today Luke, a local freestyle instructor, has been brought in for the morning for those that wanted to learn how to do drops and jumps in the backcountry and make the most out of the mountain. Although i wasn’t going to be hucking any cliffs in my current state, i went along with Luke to watch the other guys give it a go and so i could pick up some tips for the future. We lapped Polar Peak 5 times in a row, and for good reason. Today was an inversion day. This basically means that the temperature at the top of the mountain is higher than at the bottom, so you can ski above the clouds. The result is nothing short of spectacular:
And of course there was lots of fun to be had off the mountain, here are a few of the things Dan and the rest of the MTM crew got up to:
The evening’s entertainment was in the form of curling with the MTM crew, which was a good laugh even though we lost every game. Next Riders game tomorrow too so should be going to watch them play. All in all a pretty amazing week. Found out we have an avalanche theory day on Saturday so that counts as a rest day before the next week of skiing, they definitely picked the right name for the company!
And it’s always nice to explore the mountain in a different way…
Most of the group had signed up for tonights social activity, which was a full moon snowshoe around the north side of fernie, down the river and back via the mountain bike trail. The sky was clear and the full moon was in full view. Once we managed to strap into the snowshoes and clear the edge of town, the whole area dropped into blackness except the mountains to the west of Fernie which were illuminated by the moonlight making the whole place look pretty spectacular. We romped along the river path and across the tracks, obviously pausing for a classic pose…
The highlight of the MTM is the 4 day backcountry touring trip, based in a remote mountain cabin. Of course, there’s a lot to do to prepare for the backcountry. It’s necessary to have a sound understanding of Avalanche dangers, as well as search and rescue techniques, so everyone took a two day avalanche safety course towards the beginning of the program. The first day is spent in the classroom covering the theory, then the second day is spent on the mountain learning the practicalities:
Now it was time for the field day. This consisted of 3 parts – Evaluation, Testing and Rescue. In the morning we met up with Steve Ruskay, one of the ski patrollers that keeps the hill safe to ski on every day. We went up the mountain and assessed some of the terrain such as the hangfire on the Lizard headwalls and the avalance debris in Cedar bowl. We learnt how to assess the terrain to find the safest way to move around the mountain when exposing yourself to avalanche danger.
They also spent the day testing snowpack with isolated columns, and worked on search and rescue techniques.
Of course, getting some touring practice is vital:
After a while we were all plodding around the base area in blissful ignorance with no real technique, trying to get up the little hill in front of us, and ski back down. Eventually Steve showed us how to decend with more stability by doing it telemark style, which really helps!
Before long we were climbing up towards the pass and going well.
After a pretty crusty decent down into a gully, we were then faced with the task of skinning up and climbing back out again, which was about a 1h20 ascent. All was well until the gradient got a bit steeper. When the skins can’t hold on anymore you need to reduce the approach angle to the slope. The idea is that you do switchbacks all the way up the mountain. This means you have to be able to do kickturns – spinning your uphill ski 180 degrees then horse kicking your downhill ski to keep the tip high when you swing it round. Most of us were ok, some even getting it down to a fine art. And then there was Leon. It was like our personal comedy roadshow, with entertainment on every turn! We made it up with no falls though, and after a quick blast down some untracked snow, we skinned up and out through Lost Boys pass to finish a good day in the backcountry.
After a few more days of training, they were ready to really explore the backcountry of Fernie and took the following day trip:
One more skin up and we’re back within the reaches of Fernie Alpine Resort. It was a long ascent but we managed to reach the pass in 40 minutes, ahead of schedule, so we decided to get some extra vertical and reach the highest point of Mammoth ridge that you can ski from. Turned out to be a great idea and gave us some awesome fresh turns on the way back into resort. In reality, the avalanche risk was quite low, but in the backcountry you take EVERYTHING seriously, and I have to admit, standing on that ridge ready to drop in and watching sluff coming off the cliffs above, I was pretty nervous!
Once we were down we headed straight for Corner Pocket for some apres ski entertainment. Its been an exhausting but awesome day in the backcountry and looking out the window at the snow falling with a beer in hand and a smile on my face, I sat there a very happy man.
And in preparation for that bottomless backcountry powder, there’s nothing better than a day cat-skiing:
Today was the best day of my life.
Thats quite a statement. I’m pretty sure that its correct though. The atmosphere was even apparent at a sleep depriving 7am breakfast, the gods had decided today was going to be a good day.
As arrived at the main bowl of the cat-skiing area, all the cloud had vanished and we were left with a beautiful bluebird sky. We parked up and looked at our ride for the day, and it was one bad ass piece of machinery. 14 people in the cab, quite an achievement!
At this point, we knew 20cm had fallen overnight, but we weren’t quite prepared for just how good those 20cm were. The silence was broken by whoops and hollas from every direction and when we regrouped the high fives were thrown and stupid grins beamed across every single face. The next few hours were an eclectic mix of powder slashes, hucks off cliff bands and windlips, tree lines and furious GoPro defogging.
The best was yet to come though, the 6 week Master the Mountain course all builds up to a 4 day touring trip, deep in the backcountry. So deep in the backcountry, it’s only accessible by helicopter!
Right from the very start of booking this course, i remember it being emphasised that the highlight of the trip is the Boulder Hut. I’ve actually really enjoyed doing the touring sessions with Steve over the last week and felt suitably prepared for what lay ahead.
With the logistics chat for the heli ride out the way we signed the legal waivers, finished our breakfast and hit the road to head for the heli-pad, which as it turned out was at a farm in the middle of nowhere.
The correct way to make any important life decisions is by way of rock-paper-scissors, so naturally the choices of front seat and 1st, 2nd or 3rd heli were decided that way. I ended up on the 3rd heli, but scored the front seat. Apparently i was pretty stoked about it… or maybe just in general… either way!
The heli swung round the final corner and headed for the ground, straight towards the trees. It was then i spotted the landing pad. A platform about 20′ square carved into the snow bank. ‘Really?! We’re landing there?!’ Sure enough that was the spot and the precision operation to unload the bags and supplies began. Time is fuel after all!
We headed in and met the locals. Mark & Sarah, the hut’s owners, their two children Grace and Aldin, guide Ben, helper Fernando, chef Shirley and last but not least was Rosie, the family dog, who joined us on the mountain every day.
After a few formalities, it was straight on to the important business of getting some fresh lines, as the group attached skins to their skis and started heading up the mountain:
Although there’s no piste map, Mark has named the runs down the mountain, as its basically his own private ski resort! We headed up City Park for our first and only hike of the day. It took us about an hour to reach the drop in point so we excitedly deskinned and stood awaiting orders. Mark explained the avalanche situation and the route down, then led us off by ski cutting the first pitch then beckoning for us to follow. Cat-skiing was great, but this time we were excited for a different reason. We’d walked up through the area we would be skiing down so got to assess what our line choices looked like. The conclusion was that it was very hard to make a bad one. Wide open pitches with big larch trees nicely spaced made for a superb introduction to the terrain we were going to explore for the next 2 days. We regrouped at the bottom and threw some high fives and fist bumps and I even remember making the comment ‘forget cat-skiing, that was insane!’ The powder was similar to FWA, but instead of 20cm of fluffy pow then old crust if you went too deep, here it was an accumulated total of 30cm that felt bottomless where everybody was getting effortless chestshots with each turn.
Contented smiles lingered on every single face and odd glances were cast at each other to acknowledge the sudden realisation that it was still absolutely dumping it down with no sign of letting up. The silence in that moment meant everyone knew that tomorrow was going to be incredible.
With snow still falling heavily, the best was yet to come. They woke up to a insane amounts of pow the next day:
Today was the best day of my life.
I seem to be saying that more often nowadays, but when the powder, terrain, company, food and even weather are as good as today, thats an equation with only one possible outcome.
Last night, it was pukin’. All night. We woke up this morning already grinning. Everybody knew, we just didn’t know how much. 15cm? 20cm? Nope. Try 35cm! The report from Mark was that the layer from yesterday was still powder too. The reason why? The snow we had last night was only 3.6% water, and for the record, thats about as light as it gets. It’s so light it just sat on top of the existing snowpack, giving us about 65cm of blower pow to smash today. WOW.
Its quite hard to tell how deep the snow is from a helmet mount. Luckily James was on hand with his camera. Here are a couple gems:
The rest of the day consisted of more of the same. On one pitch the snow was like a bouncy castle, launching you out of the snow on each turn before plunging back down into the depths of the white room. It was immense fun.
The next couple of days were much of the same, with epic riding aplenty! They were lucky enough to get an extra day at the hut because the weather came in and stopped the helicopter flying. Oh well!
It’s a sad day today. Although we got more than we bargained for by staying an extra day, it’s hard to leave a place where some of your greatest memories have been made. The skiing has been excellent. The location, food and company likewise, but the main factor that made it as special as it was had to be the hospitality shown by Mark, Sarah and family. They invited us into their home as strangers and for those few days we were made to feel just as welcome as they were.
After returning from the Boulder hut there were still another couple days of powder to be enjoyed in Fernie resort, as the snow just kept on dumping! Nearly a meter fell overnight. Here’s a pretty special video from inside Fernie’s resort boundaries!
So there you have it. Remember you can read all of Dan’s blog here. And for a video summary check this out: