Chronicles of Gnarnia: Volume 1 – Kootenay Pass

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
December 7th, 2010

“It could be gnarly…It could be heinous…It could be ridiculous even.” From the lead trail breaker charging up the knife edge ridge down through the zigzagging line of skiers like a childhood game of telephone, the final decision of the day ran its course.


In a game full of decision making that can determine whether you make it home or not, the decision to go on one last run or not, racing the sun to the horizon, was as difficult as the snow was deep that day. Sunday, November 28th–the first near-clear sky day following a storm cycle that dropped nearly a metre of fresh in the Nelson Range–was truly an ‘all time’ day.


Before getting too deep, I should preface the rest of the story with the notion that the best ski day I’ve ever had is the one I’m having at present. That said, however, this particular day of touring on the North side of Kootenay Pass could easily rank as one of my top five all time November ski days. If not number one. That’s saying a lot from a guy with over 1,200 ski days in and many epic November days from resorts around the world to compare.


As we made the final climb to the summit of Cornice Ridge, salivating at the bottomless steeps fading off to the East, philosophical questions ran through my head as I worked hard to keep thoughts of fading energy and increasingly tired legs at bay. What truly makes an epic ski day?


Clearly, great snow on great terrain is an essential. Kootenay Pass offers that and more.


We arrived at 10:00 AM to two rows of cars already filling the Bridal Lake parking lot (admittedly a late start as lattes, genital-resembling cinnamon buns and gunpowder-mint teas took precedence on this “social” early season ski tour). We decided to tour the often-overlooked and underrated north side of the pass, opting to leave the packed out up-track on the south side for the masses.


Muscle memory and synapses firing on all cylinders in the high altitude air quickly brought summer legs back into shape as our group of six charged up Cornice Ridge. Passing through the snowghosts, dodging low elevation boulder fields, past bomb shacks and travelling along an ever narrowing ridgeline, the four skiers, one telemarker, one snowshoeing snowboarder, and two dogs emerged into breathtaking the world of Gnaria.


When you think of your ideal ski terrain, images of endless alpine bowls linked together with ridgeline travelways fading into perfectly spaced sub-alpine terrain so good it makes one wonder if God himself was a skier come to mind. This is Kootenay Pass. From the summit of Cornice Ridge, as fog and rolling clouds allow, you can see nothing but perfect ski terrain for hundreds of kilometers in all directions. 1,000 foot vertical pillow lines? Check. Cruisy open bowl skiing? Check. Shit-your-pants steeps? Check.


With a snowpack sitting squarely in the safe zone (ranging from below threshold, topping out at threshold) the goods were indeed ripe for the ripping. Check.


Dropping in off the North-West Aspect of Cornice Ridge down a 1,600 vert shot through stubby, tree-lined chutes, the first downhill turns of the year delivered in All-Time Kootenay Pass fashion. As the lone free-heeler in the group, hard turns brought over-the-head faceshots fading into long, high speed arcing hero turns onto the apron. Check.


What else makes for an excellent ski day? Making a connection to nature, becoming part of the mountain scene as much as the flap of the ravens’ wings in a silent windless bowl. Indeed, one of the major differences between this and a day of in-resort yo-yoing is the peacefulness that comes in a world devoid of human noise. When the only audible sound is that of each snowflake catching on the woolen fibers of my toque seconds before the torrent of cold steel slices through bottomless fluff singing lead to a backup six person, two dog harmony of hoots and hollers, Satori has truly arrived.


One sharp turn left, shoulder checking a snowghost, a second longer, higher speed snow-blind turn right followed by a straight shot through a tight tree gap and a hop over a small rock ledge. On that first run I had successfully applied the secret handshake and Mother Nature opened up her spoils.


In that moment the difference between resort skiing and backcountry touring added another element. Rather than a competitive race for first tracks and battling against friends, the mountain and gravity alike, touring is an altogether different beast, a beast that, if shown respect, can be man’s best friend. Touring, far from the creak of sheaves, the beeping of groomers and distant highway noise is truly a cooperative sport; one in which working with your friends and working with nature is essential to both smiles and survival.


It’s also a game of decisions.As much a mental game as it is a physical sport. From controlling your thoughts and focusing on each step, on the greater beauty of the surrounding environment, constantly scanning for potential danger and safe routes or simply keeping your mind from wandering into thoughts of tiredness or how much further you have yet to climb; flexing your mental muscles is as critical to a good day as any quad, ham-string or calf.


After three glory-filled runs off two separate peaks, we were climbing back up the North-East Ridgeline to the Cornice Ridge Summit when the final call had to be made. One more run and one more climb, or one long descent back to the highway? With snow so good and a 1,500 vertical  steep shot of untouched, bottomless pow singing out its best siren song to our left, the fading sunlight after five hours in the alpine was cause for pause. A quick inventory of what supplies we had as a group that might be needed if indeed we opted for more turns and potentially faced one more uphill and downhill in darkness. That big what-if loomed large. We had had an outstanding and up to that point safe day with no injuries and no worries. One small accident, however, and we’d be facing a nighttime rescue.


Clearer heads prevailed, and the final 2,000 plus foot descent through rolling powder fields, stately trees and an ever-thinning snowpack at lower elevations finished off an epic day without the need for another up-track. Or so we thought. Being lured in by fall line that begged to be skied rather than traversed, we popped out on Highway 3 to passing snowplows and Big Horn Sheep tracks. There was more up to come.


The final half kilometre walk, skis on shoulders, boots click-clacking up the blacktop, gave one last chance to reminisce on what truly makes an all-time ski day. Perhaps greater than all other aspects, the critical secret sauce to this particular Sunday Funday was the people we shared it with. Without good friends, the best terrain and best snow in the world is but a series of electric impulses deep in our hippocampus. Friends truly are the catalysts that bring great experiences to life and generate memories that will last a lifetime…or at least until the next time we head out into the world of Gnaria.

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