Deep Summer slideshow

1 08 2011

My new job at the Whistler Museum has given me the opportunity to work on a bunch of interesting projects. For one, I’ve been contributing weekly content to  the new site Whistler Is Awesome (part of a network of “_____ Is Awesome” sites).  This week’s post is the second half of a profile I wrote about pioneer local ski-mountaineer Pip Brock; a longer version with more photo content can be found on the Whistler Museum’s own blog, Whistorical.

Writing for WIAwesome led to the opportunity to produce a slideshow to be screened during the intermission of the Deep Summer Photo Challenge, one of the marquee events of Whistler’s annual Crankwork mountain bike festival. Deep Summer was, as always, an amazing show and I was really excited to have my work shown during the event (click here to see the top 3 shows from Deep Summer).

The Whistler Museum doesn’t have many mountain biking photographs in our archives (something we intend on rectifying in the future), so I decided to put a show together featuring a selection of the great summer mountaineering photos we have. This seemingly simple task  was more work than I expected, but I’m not going to complain about a few days of sitting at my desk listening to a great song and looking at beautiful old mountaineering photos.

Check it out:


Mining Whistler’s Past

9 07 2011

This is a re-post that I originally wrote for the Whistler Museum blog.


Whistler draws people from around the world for any number of reasons: skiing, biking, wildlife viewing, night clubs, fine dining, mining… wait, mining? Although a largely forgotten aspect of our region’s past, the (mostly unfulfilled) promise of underground riches was one of the Whistler Valley’s main draws in the days before “world-class shopping.”

Our local mining industry is actually 10,000 years old. Squamish archaeologist Rudy Reimer has found obsidian quarries in Garibaldi Park that were in use shortly after the retreat of continental ice sheets permitted the initial peopling of the region. Used for razor-sharp blades and fine jewellery, this volcanic glass can still be found among Garibaldi Park’s ancient lava flows.

Because each obsidian quarry has a distinct mineral composition, scientists are able to “fingerprint” fragments found at archaeological sites and trace them back to their source. Garibaldi obsidian, a valuable trade item, has been found throughout southern B.C. and Washington state.

The first non-indigenous visitors to Whistler–William Downie, a Scottish veteran of the California  gold rush (a “49er”), and Joseph Mackay, a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee (a fur trader, not a retail clerk)–were commissioned by the colonial government to explore the territory between Lillooet Lake (Pemberton) and Howe Sound (Squamish) in September 1858, hoping to find a better coastal access route to the booming gold mines of the B.C. interior. Dwindling rations forced Downie and Mackay to press on to to the coast before exploring the surrounding mountains.

Scouring our archival holdings is a little like exploratory mining. Our archivists recently uncovered a gem, this massive 1916 map of recorded mining claims in southwestern BC.

Following on their heels, tens of thousands of goldseekers rushed into B.C. during the 1860s. While the majority of them travelled along the Douglas Route up Lillooet Lake then northwards beyond Pemberton,  many other prospectors came up from Howe Sound and rooted around the surrounding creeks and mountains en route. Since mining men are notoriously secretive, however, very few records survive of prospecting activity prior to the twentieth century.

Among Whistler’s earliest known commercial mining operations was the Green Lake Mining and Milling Company, beginning operations at least as early as 1910. Run by Mr. A McEvoy of Vancouver, the Green Lake Co. worked 10 small claims at the 1000 – 1300 metre level on Whistler Mountain above Fitzsimmons creek. The workers lived  on the mountain’s lower slopes in cramped, drafty housing with a regrettable male-to-female ratio. Sound familiar? They found gold, silver, and copper, but never in commercially viable quantities.

Harry Horstman, a lanky prospector from Kansas, was to have greater staying power but similarly meagre returns. Despite his prairie roots, Horstman was at ease up high, living for decades in a log cabin near the 1600-metre level on Mount Sproatt. Digging several tunnels, Horstman found enough copper to eke out a modest living (supplemented by trapping), but he never struck a major load.

Harry Horstman at his Mount Sproatt cabin.

The Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb is named after this pioneering local. Horstman was a fixture in the Alta Lake community for decades, but still appreciated the seclusion of his mountain-top retreat. I wonder what he would think of the neon circus that goes on every summer on his namesake glacier!

Beginning in 1916, a group of twenty-odd men began operations as Alta Lake Mining near today’s Alpine Meadows neighbourhood. They excavated bog-iron ore, which occurs when iron dissolved in run-off water forms deposits in bogs or swamps. At their height of operations they sent 150 tons of bog iron a day down the PGE railway to Squamish, where it was then shipped to the Irondale smelter at Port Townsend, Washington.

Other locals also pursued small-scale prospecting and mining. Fitzsimmons Creek, which runs between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, is named after  Jimmy Fitzsimmons, who prospected throughout his namesake valley. Mining shafts that resulted from his exploration can still be found along the Singing Pass trail.

In the 1930s, locals Billie Bailiff (who also kept a trapline in the Singing Pass/Cheakamus Lake area) and Bill “Mac” MacDermott also dug mine shafts on the north side of Whistler Mountain, hoping to find the north end of the Britannia Mine’s massive copper vein. They didn’t succeed, but interest in Whistler Mountain’s underground remained.

Most of us know that the first ski lifts on Whistler Mountain started from Creekside. Fewer realize that the original plans included lifts and runs on Whistler’s north side, rising from near the present-day village. These plans had to be abandoned, however, because the provincial government chose to protect mineral claims on that side of the mountain now held by two companies, including the Canadian giant Noranda.

Unsurprisingly, mining claims didn’t interfere when plans to develop the north side of Whistler Mountain resurfaced in the late-1970s, as the provincial government was now a key investor in the planned resort expansion.

While never developing on a comparable scale to the Coast Mountain mega-mines at Brittania Beach or the Pioneer Mine, the quest for underground riches still played a formative role in Whistler’s early days. If one knows where to look, traces of this past mining activity can still be found throughout the local landscape. Local whitewater folk are familiar with the abandoned Ashlu gold mine because it is the drop-in point for a popular kayaking run.

Kayaker at the entrance to the abandoned Ashlu gold mine.

Though interesting to history buffs, this hidden legacy also poses significant physical and environmental hazards. For more on this context, track down the Summer 2011 issue of Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine  for a short article on this titled “Rider Dun Gone.” (The article isn’t available on-line, but the magazine is free and can be found here.) For more info on industry and government efforts to track down and regulate Canada’s thousands of abandoned mines, check out the National Orphaned Abandoned Mines Initiative.

Want to learn more? Book an appointment to come mine our archives which contain old reports from the provincial Ministry of Mines, among other records. If you’re really keen you can even take your new knowledge into the woods and find some old mining ruins that haven’t yet been completely overtaken by the relentless coastal rainforest. But be careful! And remember, although relatively young these are archaeological sites; try to leave them undisturbed for others to enjoy.

Not So Humble Roots

11 04 2011

Growing up on a farm south of Winnipeg, I dreamt of British Columbia.

Totem poles and snow-capped mountains symbolized the west coast

province. I fell in love sight unseen with the west beyond the west.

In these opening lines of her best-selling history of British Columbia, The West Beyond the West, Jean Barman, nicely summed up the romantic sentiment that has inspired so many Canadians to “Go West!”

Boasting the mighty Gatineau Hills, the Outaouais region of west Quebec where I grew up was only marginally more mountain-like than Barman’s Manitoba farm. By the time I was in junior high, still a few years away from even seeing a mountain firsthand, I already knew that I would one day call “The West” home.

Overlooking the Ottawa Valley from the Gatineau Hills in winter.

The dominant orientation of nearly four centuries of North American history has been westward. While the lure of cheap land and abundant resources (enabled by the tragic effects of colonial encounter) propelled the continent’s initial resettlement, in later years, the call of the mountains helped sustain this westward migration.

North America’s first mountaineers (in the modern, European sense) came from eastern Canada and New England along newly-built railroads, seeking adventure in the famed Canadian Rockies. Even the Alpine Club of Canada was founded in Winnipeg of all places. Surely, every western Canadian town has strong eastern ties, dating back centuries and continuing up to the present. It is a recurring joke here in Whistler to wonder out loud if there are any people left in Ontario (or Australia, for that matter), for they all seem to have moved here.

Many of my friends here in Whistler went to the same high school as me, and I have childhood friends spread throughout western mountain towns. Recently, I uncovered two much older links between my childhood home and the Mountain West.

"Mouth of the Homathko River" by Frederick Whymper, 1864. The painting depicts the terminus of Waddingtons Road, also known as Waddington Harbour, where the Homathko flows into Bute Inlet. Source: British Columbia Archives.

I’ve been studying Alfred Waddington for a few years now. The British-born, Victoria-based entrepreneur was the brains, money, and enthusiasm behind an audacious plan to build a wagon road from British Columbia’s Bute Inlet to the booming Cariboo goldfields in the early 1860s. Despite having to pass through the incredibly rugged central Coast Mountains, by April 1864 the project was progressing well and the work crew optimistically hoped to complete the road that summer.

But it was not meant to be. Following a dispute over pay and maltreatment, a party of local Tsilhqot’in men attacked and killed fourteen of Waddington’s work crew. In response the colonial authorities organized a massive manhunt through the central British Columbia wilderness which ended with the hanging of six Tsilhqot’in men. This series of events, now known as the Chilcotin War, was one of the most tramautic and controversial episodes in British Columbia history.

(Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, an innovative tool for teaching high-school-level Canadian History, has a great account of the Chilcotin War here. Chapters 2 and 3 from Frederick Whymper’s 1868 Travel and Adventure in Alaska, provide a fascinating contemporary account of Waddington’s road project, the Coast Mountain landscape, and the Chilcotin War. Older brother of the famed alpinist Edward Whymper, Frederick visited Bute Inlet in 1864, en route to Alaska, leaving  just weeks before the Chilcotin War.)

The Chilcotin War put an immediate halt to Waddington’s road-building enterprise, and although his route was nearly selected as the final leg of the first trans-Canada railway, only a handful of people of European descent visited the region over the next half century. The central Coast Mountains became deepest, darkest British Columbia.

When Don and Phyllis Munday “discovered” a massive peak somewhere in the middle of this foreboding wilderness in 1925, they called it, appropriately, “Mystery Mountain.” And while this title remained widely used for decades, the provincial government preferred to honour the valiant, if unsuccessful, exploits of one of the province’s most energetic pioneers by officially naming British Columbia’s highest peak “Mount Waddington.”

The remains of Waddingtons trail through the Homathko Canyon. Photograph taken by Charles Horetzky, a member of the 1872 Canadian Pacific Railway exploratory survey, led by Sir Sandforn Fleming. Source: British Columbia Archives.

I’ve been fascinated by this story for some time, but only while reading an out-of-print biography of Waddington a few months ago did I learn of the man’s final years. Waddington spent much time in Ottawa promoting his national railway scheme, and it was here, in February 1872, that he succumbed to smallpox. As was common for prominent Ottawans at the time, he was buried at St. James Cemetery, across the Ottawa River in Hull, Quebec.

I have passed by this cemetery hundreds, if not thousands, of times, though I have never been in. It lies on the main route between my childhood home and downtown Ottawa, and is only a few hundred metres from my junior high. Little did I know that in that unassuming field lay such a close connection to the great peak whose jagged summit astounded even Sir Edmund Hilary when he, accompanied by Phyllis Munday, toured Mt. Waddington in a helicopter in 1955.

Alfred Waddingtons gravestone, St. James cemetary, Hull, Quebec. It reads: ALFRED WADDINGTON the original promoter of the CANADA PACIFIC RAILWAY. Born at Crescent House, Brampton, London, Oct. 2nd, 1801. Died at Ottawa, Feb. 26th, 1872.

At he time of Waddington’s burial, just a few kilometres down the road (in Aylmer, my hometown), lived a teenager named James McArthur, Perhaps he was prone to dreaming of mountains, sight unseen, as well. for within a few years McArthur made the move out west to work for the Dominion Land Survey.

"The Field Hotel below Mount Stephen, British Columbia" by Edward Roper. Painted in the same year as J.J. McArthurs historic ascent of the same mountain. Courtesy

In September 1887 while mapping terrain adjacent to the recently completed CPR, the same railway that Waddington promoted but never lived to see, McArthur climbed to the summit of Mount Stephen which looms above the village of Field, British Columbia just west of the Continental Divide. This was the first non-indigenous ascent of a Canadian peak above 10,000 feet, leading Chic Scott, in his excellent history of Canadian mountaineering Pushing the Limits, to proclaim McArthur “the first Canadian mountaineer.”

McArthur would have a long, successful survey career, first in the Rockies, and later in the St. Elias Mountains, eventually being appointed Canadian Commissioner of the 1917 survey to locate the boundary between Alaska and Yukon Territory.

When I was fifteen, on my first visit to the Canadian Rockies, I can recall being surprised to read the name “Mount Aylmer” written above a massive pyramid-shaped mountain on one of those interpretive panoramic photos which one finds at roadside lookouts in our national parks. I figured the name was just a funny coincidence with as little to do with my home town as the canned tomatoes.

In fact, the peak was another of McArthur’s many first ascents, and he felt it appropriate to commemorate his eastern roots by attaching the name of the west-Quebec logging town to the highest peak near Banff.

Many historians and public figures have celebrated Canada’s western mountains (often, incorrectly, referred to collectively as the Rocky Mountains) as symbols of national identity. Certainly, the allure of our mountain landscapes resonate far beyond their immediate neighbourhood, and it is perhaps worth pondering how many life trajectories have been shaped by these unyielding peaks.

Retro Natural History Artwork

25 03 2011

As a child I spent countless hours browsing through the world atlas and set of natural history encyclopedias that sat on my mother’s cluttered bookshelf. Nowadays websites like Wikipedia do an admirable job satisfying (and fuelling) this sort of wandering curiousity, and Google Earth is a pretty amazing update on the old-fashioned globe, but computer screens lack the pleasure of gliding your finger along the glossy coastline of Patagonia or a tiger’s gleaming tooth. (Then again, I don’t have an iPad. Yet.)

So I was thrilled when, a few years back, I came across a full set of the Illustrated Natural History of Canada at a garage sale here in Whistler. Unfortunately I was biking home fully-loaded with groceries, so I could only carry home two of the series’ nine volumes. The series was organized according to our nation’s broad environmental zones, so naturally, I chose “The Pacific Coast” and “The Mountain Barrier.”

What a find. I definitely need to track down the rest of the volumes through an on-line used book store.

"Eocene Life Fleeing a Volcano." Growing up, dinosaurs were probably my most serious mania. I really enjoy the thought that this exact scene, depicting the wave of volcanic activity that formed the Coast Mountains a few dozen million years ago, occurred just up the street from where I live today.

Beyond the inherent interest of the subject matter, I really enjoy browsing older environmental literature and educational materials for the window they offer into changing popular environmental attitudes. Published in 1970 by Natural Science of Canada, the series offers a cool expression of the growing concern for environmental degradation that followed such landmark events as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and which was reflected by major shifts in North American environmental policy.

The Illustrated Natural History of Canada, the publisher claimed, was “devoted to explaining and illustrating the entire natural formation and development of our country…. ” Beyond this popular science component, the series was clearly inspired by a desire to instill in the Canadian populace an appreciation of our nation’s natural wonders, and a concern for their imperiled state. Each volume concludes with a chapter outlining major conservation concerns in its respective region, offering as a scathing condemnation of the era’s over-zealous “development-at-all-costs” economic policies.

The science and advocacy are well-written, if a little dry, but the series’ major success lies in its wonderful use of images to fully express the drama and wonder of our natural landscapes. The publisher even went so far as to claim on the dustjacket that the series was an “important and unique event in Canadian publishing history” which constituted a “landmark in the visual portrayal of the full range and splendour of our natural history.”

I often find myself leisurely browsing through my two volumes, no less entranced than I was by Wings, Paws, Hooves, and Flippers two decades earlier, so I figured I’d scan a few of my favourite images and post them here.

"Nootka Whale Hunting"

"Mountains in the Making"

"Many Mountain Shapes"

"The Mountain-bound Indians." A completely accurate portrayal of day-to-day life of the region's indigenous peoples.

Whistler & Region Repeat Photography Project

29 12 2010

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a lot can be said about as picturesque a place as Whistler. Thanks to the efforts of a century’s worth of residents and visitors, a rich photographic heritage exists documenting the landscape surrounding what is today Whistler, British Columbia. While pioneers such as the Alex & Myrtle Phillip recorded the nascent settlement of Alta Lake, mountaineers such as Neal Carter and Don & Phyllis Munday captured images of climbers at play amidst panoramic alpine vistas. Since the start of ski resort development in the 1950s, the photographic record has grown exponentially.

Landscape is, arguably, Whistler’s defining feature. As any number of marketing campaigns plainly demonstrate, lifestyle-oriented residents and adventure-seeking tourists from around the world are drawn to Whistler by the beauty of the region’s natural environment. Natural it may be, but millennia of human activity, intensified over the last fifty years, have left their mark on our cherished landscape, for better and for worse.

Hunter and dog in the Fitzsimmons Range near Whistler Mountain, 1920s. Overlord Mountain and Glacier in background. Courtesy Whistler Museum and Archives Society.

Both local and global processes have effected our regional ecology. A First Nations trail followed by early prospectors and settlers became a dirt road navigated by keen post-war skiers, and is now the four lane Sea-to-Sky Highways linking Whistler to Vancouver and the world. A town of 12,000 (give or take, plus over 40,000 hotel beds) emerged seemingly overnight. Ski runs, chairlifts and gondolas crisscross (and even span between) two mountainsides.

Franz Wilhelmson pointing out the ski area that he helped develop. Early 1960s. Courtesy Whistler Museum and Archives Society.

Many strong visions for the development (and prevention thereof) of our surroundings have been put forth. Rarely have they gone uncontested. Recent examples include the Peak-to-Peak gondola; disparaged by many local residents as an expensive eyesore, it is an undeniably cool, if somewhat useless, ride. Meanwhile, the ongoing debate over logging in the valley demonstrates widespread misunderstanding divergent opinions of resource industries in our valley, past and present. In addition to these various human factors are many inherently capricious environmental processes–from wetland ecology to climate change. Clearly, our region’s current landscape is the result of a complex array of disparate factors.

Inspired by the Mountain Legacy Project and other initiatives, I figured that “repeat photography” would be an excellent way to simultaneously celebrate the Coast Mountains’ beautiful landscape and examine the drastic changes that our region has undergone over the years.

Essentially, I hoped to take old  photographs like the one above, and “re-photograph” the same location to show how the landscape and the people within it have changed in the intervening years. This pairing of past and present photographs will add temporal depth to the images, augmenting our capacity to evaluate landscape change over time. While historic-contemporary image pairings will be the focus of the project,  other archival materials such as climber’s journals, survey reports, and maps will also be examined to provide context for the photographs.

I recently received the good news that my proposal for just such a project, to be developed in partnership with the Whistler Museum, will receive support from the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE). Click here for the full list of projects NiCHE will be supporting this year .

For some rough examples of what a repeat photography exhibit would entail, take the following image pairs. These two  trail maps (not photographs, but demonstrative images nonetheless) illustrate the extent of  the ongoing development of runs, lifts and other infrastructure on Whistler and, later, Blackcomb Mountains, now North America’s largest ski resort.

A trail map of the Whistler Mountain from 1966.

Deforestation, erosion, and pollution have ensued, but the ski area’s ecological impacts are not as overwhelmingly negative as one might assume. For one, Whistler-Blackcomb has made efforts to ensure that cut ski runs remain viable wildlife habitat. Such clearings can often provide more food (shoots, berries, etc.) for large game animals than mature forest. This fact that was well understood by many indigenous societies which regularly burned wooded areas to support large game populations. Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains continue to support large wildlife populations, including the several dozen black bears that are a common sight in summer.

A current Whistler-Blackcomb trailmap.

These next two images, portraying Garibaldi Lake and Mount Garibaldi from the aptly named Panorama Ridge, span almost eight decades. In this case the photographic record clearly documents the effects of climate change–the  massive recession of the glaciers on the north slope of Mount Garibaldi–on a landscape that is widely recognized as “pristine” wilderness.

Mountaineers on Panorama Ridge take in the view of Garibaldi Lake, from a 1943 Vancouver Province article.

A contemporary image of the same vista, minus the hikers. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Although I hope that the image pairings will provide insight into ecological change, the project is not intended to produce results of a scientific rigour. Still, the precision of repeat photography makes the medium an effective means of informing dialogue about a variety of environmental issues.

Additionally, the aesthetic qualities of the Whistler landscape as well as the human presence in the photographs will present the opportunity to explore the cultural aspects of the human-nature relationship.

I have found several near-identical images, for example, of Garibaldi Lake like the two shown here. Drawn from a variety of newspaper articles, government reports, and tourism brochures from the inter-war period, these vistas of a serene lake amidst sublime glacial peaks were used to portray Garibaldi Park’s “diversified charms,” a recurring catchphrase in promotional literature for the park at the time.

If I choose to rephotograph the Vancouver Province image, or other pictures that include human subjects, I will also have the pleasure to get my friends involved as contemporary figures to contrast with those in the historical images, their fashions, activities, and attitudes. It is this potential to explore cultural and natural history at the same time that excites me most about this project.

Spearhead Huts

1 12 2010

Like most backcountry skiers, nights spent in ski huts are among my most cherished mountain memories.

Sleeping in a snow cave might put hair on your chest, but after a long day in the mountains, the basic comforts provided by a mountain hut can seem like the Ritz-Carleton penthouse.

Uniquely social places in the midst of barren alpine wilderness, a hut’s forced proximity and the shared excitement of a day’s skiing melts away the awkward social interactions of “down there,” making kindred spirits out of complete strangers.

And when things go awry, the safety net provided by mountain refuges can make all the difference.

Refuge Albert Premier, Le Tour Glacier, France. Photo: 

The other night I went to a fundraiser for the Spearhead Huts committee.  The initiative began as a memorial for a couple of avid backcountry skiers who tragically passed away while skiing a few years ago. Essentially, the plan is to build 3 or 4 backcountry huts throughout the Spearhead Traverse, the 40-kilometre long horseshoe of high alpine terrain that links Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

There are already several backcountry huts scattered throughout the Coast Mountains, including the Himmelsbach hut near the Whistler end of the Spearhead Traverse. This new project, however, would create the region’s first multi-day hut-to-hut traverse like those which exist in the Rockies and the Alps; the Haute Route between Chamonix, France and Zermatt, Switzerland being the most renowned.

Hut-based traverses are a wonderfully “civilized” way of experiencing truly dramatic and remote landscapes, enabling skiers (and summer-time hikers) to cover large swaths of terrain without the added strain of carrying camping gear and 24-hour-a-day exposure to the elements.  Dry clothes on day 3 are the height of luxury.

While the traverse has been completed twice in a single day in a pretty astonishing feat of endurance, those more intent on taking in the scenery, or actually skiing, generally cover the route over two to four days.

Some may complain that the construction of additional huts will increase traffic, and diminish the sort of “out there” wilderness experience that many backcountry enthusiasts seek, but really, what better location is there for the huts?The area is already some of the most heavily used backcountry terrain in the province, and the combination of relatively mellow glaciers surrounded by dramatic peaks is perfectly suited for hut-based touring.

The environmental impact of the project mught even end up as a positive, as there are currently no overnight camping facilities aside from the Himmelsbach hut outhouse, and the huts would concentrate campers into three or four specific sites. 

A 1934 Vancouver Province article following the first successful ski traverse of the Waddington Range. The adventurer's returned to Vancouver raving about B.C. as a "skier's paradise," advocating the creation of a system of backcountry ski huts to improve access to and recreational opportunities in the Coast Mountain wilderness.

At the fundraiser the other night the BCMC reps had a large map of the Spearhead on display which showed  potential hut sites. I can’t find this online yet, but when I do, I’ll post a link. So far, the region has been divided into 4 zones, with 3 or 4 huts to be built throughout the zones.

I, for one, hope they keep the Himmelsbach hut, or even upgrade  the spartan refuge with some insulation and a basic woodstove. It’s in a perfect location beside Russett Lake and at the base of Fissile Mountain’s amazing Northwest Face ski runs.

Also, in zone 1 (from the Blackcomb backcountry to Mount Pattison), the three potential sites are Decker flats, the east side of Decker Mountain, and the Trorey-Pattison col. I was told that the first option is being considered because it is more accessible for summer hikers, but really hope they opt for one of the latter sites.

Decker flats can easily be reached in an hour from Blackcomb’s ski lifts, and putting a backcountry hut this close to the ski area would further blur the distinction between in-bounds and out-of-bounds terrain that is already largely ignored in the area. The last thing we need is more unprepared people heading out into this unpatrolled, avalanche-prone terrain because they heard there’s a hut back there.

Also, I spent a night in a snow cave at the Trorey-Pattison col a few winters back and it’s a pretty spectacular spot,with full peak-to valley views of Wedge Mountain on one side, and Fissile mountain on the other. If they built a hut there, I’d want to move in full-time.

What excites me most about the project is how much more accessible it will make the prize descents of the range. Classic steep descents such as the north faces of Fitzsimmons, Iago, and Tremor, used to entail either a big approach, a big pack, or both. When the huts go in, you’ll be able to ski them and countless others with a day pack and only a modest approach. Awesome.

For more info, visit these sites:

I just found this on-line reader for Mountain Life Magazine. Check it out to see the images and page layout for my “Ancient Alpinists” article (page 88-89), and make sure to browse the rest of the mag’s excellent content as well.

Deeper: The Globalization of “Extreme”

21 10 2010

Autumn is a funny time of year in ski country. Anticipation for the upcoming winter builds into a palpable nervous energy, waiting to be released when opening day finally comes. Here on the wet coast, miserable fall weather adds to this anxiety, though this year the cruel irony of unusually clear skies is making ski bums nervous about the  coming winter’s snowpack. A snow-lover’s catch 22.

Unlike the weather, you can rely on the yearly onslaught of ski and snowboard movie premieres that hits ski towns every autumn, drumming up a frenzy (conveniently enough for the films’ sponsors, just in time for the flashy new gear showcased in the films to hit storefronts). Over the last few months Whistler has seen several new films, all selling out multiple screenings, but the most heavily anticipated is yet to come.

In two days I will attend the Whistler premiere of Deeper, the brainchild of Jeremy Jones, hands-down the world’s top big mountain snowboarder, along with a slew of fellow mountain slayers.

Video 1: Trailer for Deeper

Aside from the top-notch talent, what sets Deeper apart is the story it conveys. In a dramatic departure from other mainstream ski movies (including Jones’ previous film segments), all of the action in Deeper was accessed without the aid of helicopters or  snowmobiles (check out this “behind the scenes” article).

This low-carbon approach reflects Jones’ environmental beliefs (in 2007 Jones founded the climate change advocacy foundation “Protect Out Winters“), but the idea for a fully self-propelled snowboard movie also draws from an evolution in Jones’ approach to snowboarding, inspired by the sports’ international roots.

In this latter respect, Deeper is a microcosm for recent developments within the global skiing/snowboarding community: a convergence between two distinct big-mountain cultures that has become a driving force behind the sport’s’ continued progression.

A new era in skiing was born in 1967 when Swiss mountaineer Sylvain Saudan completed the first ski descent of the Spencer Couloir above Chamonix, France, earning him the nickname “Skieur de l’Impossible.” Soon more ski-mountaineers like  Patrick Vallencant, Jean-Marc Boivin, and Anselme Baud were tackling increasingly steep, technically challenging mountain faces and the sport of extreme skiing was born.

Death, for these extremists, was a fact of life. On most of these lines falling was not an option, so the skiing, like climbing, was slow, methodical, precise. The mountaineers’ skills and ethic of self-reliance continued to be revered.

Video 2: First descent of the Arête de Peuterey, on Mont Blanc, France by Patrick Vallençant and Anselme Baud in 1977.

A few North Americans ski mountaineers such as Bill Briggs would perform similar feats, but this brand of extreme skiing never became as popular, nor drew as much media coverage, as it did across the pond. In the 1980s, skiers such as Doug Coombs, Trevor Peterson, and Eric Pehota–all ski-mountaineers at heart–began experimenting with a new approach to the mountains they loved.

The iconic 1971 photograph of Bill Briggs ski tracks on the summit of Wyoming's Grand Teton, captured from a plane a few days after Briggs' un-filmed descent to quell disbelief.

At that time the American ski industry was in a period of growth, increasingly propelled by athlete-driven marketing based on action photography and filmmaking. Flush with corporate cash, film crews increasingly used helicopters to film in remote and dramatic mountain settings away from traditional ski areas.

With its unique combination of the imposing Chugach Mountains’, extraordinarily stable coastal snowpack, and overwhelming aura of wilderness, Valdez, Alaska became the mecca of North American extreme skiing, just as Chamonix, with its endless couloirs and deep mountaineering lore, was Europe’s.

Meanwhile, helicopters freed the athletes from many of the constraints of the mountaineering approach: fatigue, prolonged exposure to avalanches, heavy packs, and specialized ski gear that had to perform as well on the way up as it did coming down.

Ski-mountaineering traditionalists, meanwhile,  contended (and still contend) that helicopter-assisted skiing was a hollow victory. Such technological shortcuts severed the visceral connection between man and mountain which was essential to the ski-mountaineering experience.

While the ski-mountaineering purists progressed towards increasingly steep, hazardous, complex routes, freeskiers (as they came to be known) descended slightly less technical lines–coated in powder snow, preferably–but with far greater speed and fluidity. The greater influence of snowboarding in North America is evident, especially once aspects of freestyle riding developed in terrain parks began to be applied to natural terrain.

Which of these ski styles was most impressive is debatable, but freeskiing was definitely better-suited to film:

Video 3: The groundbreaking segment by Johann Olofsson (my favourite snowboarder growing up) in the 1996 snowboard film TB5. Filmed primarily in California’s Sierras and Alaska’s Chugach Range.

Video 4: The cutting edge of freesking: Eric Hjorleifson’s segment in Seven Sunny Days (2008). Most of the filming was done with helicopters or snowmobiles, but shots where he’s wearing a backpack were accessed on foot (they even show a few short clips of him ski-touring).

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s these two extreme skiing sub-cultures progressed in parallel but remained relatively isolated (with notable exceptions). In recent years, however, growing concern for climate change, massive improvements in backcountry ski gear, and the forces of globalization have led to the growing integration of these trans-Atlantic counterparts.

Video 5: A more contemporary look at European ski-mountaineering that highlights some of this convergence among the latest generation of skiers. Courtesy of the good folks at (who also happen to be putting on the Whistler premiere of Deeper).

I am particularly interested in this phenomenon because I see myself within it.  After several winters freeriding in western Canada,  four years ago I spent a season in Chamonix to experience new mountains, but also to learn about ski-mountaineering techniques in the sport’s birthplace. The next summer I returned to Canada with a broadened perspective and greater appreciation for the mountains, and anxious to apply my new knowledge in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains.

Once Jeremy Jones committed to climbing every line he rode, he explains in the trailer for Deeper, “it opened me up to a whole new world of mountains.” In Deeper, Jones fully embraces the ski-mountaineers’ ethic; his personal commitment has become much greater–in terms of time and energy expended, as well as exposure to physical risk and all the emotional fireworks that that entails–without the conveniences and safety net of helicopters. Each descent, has become a process, rather than a stunt.

Judging by the trailer, these added challenges haven’t toned down the end product. Climbing straight up massive Alaskan spine lines, charging down ski-mountaineering classics in the Alps, and testing new frontiers in Antarctica, Jones and co. are pushing multiple envelopes on the biggest and baddest mountains on Earth. By slowing things down a little, they’re getting more extreme than ever.

Does this look like globalization to you? Jeremy Jones' caption for this behemoth mountain face says it all: "Chamonix breeds with Alaska and has a kid in Antarctica."