By: Annaliese FitzGerald
The Pacific North West had a variable season this year, and that’s putting it nicely. But, for whatever reason April was the money month, so on an overcast April morning we set out to make the most of it and ski a line called… lets just call it AP shall we. Asian P***y is the long version, and I’m sure you can put two and two together. Excuse the crudeness please!
The line is a traverse high above exposed rock. A complete no-fall zone, like do not fall or you’re dead zone type of zone. It’s part of the Spearhead Range of mountains accessed via the back of Blackcomb Mountain in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada.
Let me tell you, there’s nothing quite as jaw dropping as the backcountry of Whistler Blackcomb. The mountains in the Spearhead range have a beauty that catches you out when you stop to consider them, making you stare in awe completely dumbfounded by their greatness. It is honestly a privilege to experience these mountains and this sport, and an attitude of caution while figuring out how to push your limits is the name of the game.
After catching the Glacier Chair to the top of resort we clipped in to traverse Blackcomb Bowl to the resort boundary. At the boundary we skied through the gate, one by one checking our transceivers were sending against the BCA transceiver checker as we passed.
Safety in the backcountry is as much about preparation as it is about making good decisions. You need all the standards such as a transceiver, knowledge of how to actually use it, as many practice searches under your belt as possible, a shovel and probe, and of course skins to climb. Another important element is to ensure you have a functional crew. Group mates of an equivalent to greater experience level than yourself are advantageous toward progressing your skill set, while having knowledgeable people in your group will likely reduce risk, juxtaposed to less experienced people. Experienced people will know the area, know how to read conditions, know their group’s cumulative ability level, know how to include all group members in the decision making process, and they will know how to make conservative decisions. You have to pick your partners wisely because it will only be the people you are out with who can do anything in the event of a mishap. It is interesting to note too, that avalanche accidents seem to operate on an inverse relationship to experience, in that the more you’ve gotten away with in the past, the more likely it is for a mistake to happen. Thus it is imperative you choose your group wisely and be wise yourself in order to have fun.
With these vital components checked off we put our skins on and began our accent. To get to AP it’s one hike up to the top of Corona Bowl and then you drop half the bowl, minding the wind lip and a crevasse or two (which isn’t fun with low visibility until you’ve done it a bunch), before a traverse hard left to a boot pack up to the top, and a walk along the ridge line to the right to the top of AP.
Nothing quite kicks your butt like touring. It is a specific fitness, one that seems no matter how much other training you do you still get it handed to you when you start out. It’s some kind of threshold you have to push through before your body adjusts to working at that rate. Intervals are the key for me I find.
After much huffing and puffing making our way cautiously through the cloud we found ourselves on top of where we wanted to ski. We assessed the conditions and made a group call on whether to do it. The decision was yes. Flo would drop in first and check the snow, myself second, and then Lucas third. So the moment of truth, one by one we dropped.
Upon my turn, I took a moment to think about what I needed to do, clicked my poles behind my back (a habit I have before I try something), and then I dropped. I was focused on taking my time and feeling the snow as I skied. It felt good and strange to know you were doing something you’ve thought about for quite some time. The snow was soft with a definite crust underneath. No problem usually, but being such an exposed line getting caught up on it was not an option so the utmost focus was required. One by one we made it to checkpoint one and re-grouped. No problems so far. I can’t recall if it was my imagination or memory but the noise of my slough over the exposure below was the loudest roar I’ve ever heard in person as I skied. Distracting. Given the poor visibility with it being overcast I tried to ski safely, not pushing for too many linked turns through the line in case I fell. By the end of checkpoint two the old leg burn had kicked in and I was labouring. Adrenaline had been pumping around the body for too long and the onset of fatigue you feel after being so pumped up had taken its hold. I was glad to make it to the safe zone at the bottom and ski out. I was happy and exhausted, done for the day between the walking and the skiing.
It’s hard to describe the weird addiction of physically pushing yourself to climb up a mountain off your own power and then having to re-group and focus to ski again. Touring is akin in my opinion, to running long distance or swimming for hours, the kind of activity where you’re sweating and out of breath for prolonged periods, really pushing your endurance. Skiing to me is a very different cognitive ability, physical yes, but overwhelmingly mental. It is not all about strength or brute force. You have to be strong but soft, calm and consistent, visualise what you’re going to do abate the fear and adrenaline and just go. It’s about controlling the mind and emotions and what you’re going to make your body do. If you’re too tired you won’t do it, similarly if you’re too nervous, you’re done. You have to walk away from the moment. On the other hand a little pressure helps. It’s a fine line. And you can’t hesitate or half ass because if you do, you pay. It is overwhelming mental, the art of mastering yourself. And because of that, it is endless. Even a bad day it is unequivocally a good day. There are simply so many components to developing the skills to be good. You have to navigate terrain, pick efficient and safe routes, read conditions, make judgement calls, operate with time constraints, figure your body out, what works to keep you running and what drains you, how to maximise an outcome while minimising you’re output, and figure out the most important calculation of all between risk versus reward.
AP was one of the most high consequence lines I have ever skied, although not the most technical skiing and boy was it rewarding. I believe you ski for yourself and if you overcome a boundary or do something that is hard for you, that is the greatest reward of all, and it applies beyond skiing. AP was that for me that day.