The Ledge has been on my mind ever since the Sea To Sky Gondola opened. The majority of people in the Squamish / Whistler area probably don’t know of it’s existence, but you can see it from many points along Highway 99, including the Tantalus lookout. It’s also visible from the gondola. But only the upper ledge is visible, and the lower 2/3rds of the line remained a mystery to me. After summiting Sky Pilot two months ago I started to piece together the two ramps that comprise the bulk of the business. Although I scanned what few pictures existed online, nothing could have prepared me for seeing it head-on, in the flesh.
The fact that top notch lines exist in the backyard is both a blessing and a curse. Instead of jumping on the a plane, you can jump on a bike and within a few hours experience full value. On the flip side though, this close proximity gives no excuses. Whereas that dreamline in Alaska or Pakistan can always wait due to job commitments and lack of cash, there’s no excuses in your backyard . . . lines just sit there waiting to be skied. Sometimes I wish Squamish had a bunch of standard stuff: straight-up couloirs and faces with clean runouts. Lines you do every season cuz they’re fun. Instead we have these funky geological features with exposed lines you only do once.
Committing weekdays and weekends to a job in the city, my usual spring build-up to harder and harder stuff hadn’t happened, and my last ski day (before my previous day’s mission with Eric) was two months before on Sky Pilot’s zigzag. My mission on Sky Pilot’s exposed Northwest was child’s play, but a good warm-up nonetheless. My body was out of shape and my technique wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough, and I knew my mind would be fine. Eric could sense what I was thinking and suggested I leave my ski and climbing gear at the snow line, on our hike back down to the Gondola. This would force me to at least come back in the morning to retrieve my gear.
In the morning I got to my gear stash and skinned towards Sky Pilot. Clouds overnight had held in the heat of the day, and the snow was a bit too sloppy. I began to think this would be a recon only. I removed my skins and contoured around the North ridge of Sky pilot. 30 seconds of side-slipping brought me to the col, where I met my match for the first time. Hard to describe what I felt when I first saw the line. The small amphitheatre had an immediacy and totality that was unnerving. It was so tight, my 70-200 lens could only take in half the line. The exposure of the line was absurd and the bottom cliff was beyond massive. I had once again underestimated the size of these little coastal mountains. Immediately I knew I probably wouldn’t ski it. Maybe there was a bit of fear and dread, but my mind wouldn’t let me linger on any concrete emotion and was only concerned with safety and reason. Wet snow avalanches ripping down the sun-blasted East face of Sky Pilot coaxed me into action. I stashed all dead weight in a pile: water, food, my long lens. Crampons and ice axes were the only things left in the pack.
As I skied to the base of the line I was fully engaged in the excitement of a possible first descent. Skiers seem to misunderstand the motivation for these descents. First descent’s aren’t amazing because you’re the first. They’re amazing because of the unknown. So even if if it later comes to light that you weren’t the first to ski it, that’s not the point. The point is that you have no idea whether it’s doable, and you push through the doubt.
I contoured to the base, put on my skins, and zigzagged my way up into the confines of the bottom entrance couloir, purely in the hope that I’d discover whether the bottom ledge was skiable. A wet snow slide slid lazily past, about twenty feet away. Once the slope steepened, I stashed my skins in a crack on the side of the couloir, put on my crampons, skis on my pack, and scampered up the couloir with a total disregard for my lack of fitness. The heat of the day was coming and the odd small chunk of snow was already flying from above. The atmosphere within the couloir was intense. Everything seemed to be overhanging, including the top ledge I was wanting to ski. I soon realized the bottom section of the lower ledge was skiable. I scrambled around a prominent rib and in and out of an ice gully.
Within a few minutes of leaving the couloir, there was already enough exposure that falling was not an option. But psychologically this section was easy. Full commitment came soon. I began to traverse upwards and outwards on the ledge. The angle of the slope changed and the rest of the bottom ledge was hidden around a corner. From this corner, the fall line of the ledge was officially pointing directly off the bottom cliff. This is the only point where I stopped to ponder. I wasn’t fully psyched about the snow, and obviously the exposure would be a mind bender. But I knew it was doable, and now that the severity of the line was etched in my mind, I knew that I probably wouldn’t return if I backed off.
The first obstacle upon rounding the corner was a ten foot steep wall of snow that had been carved out by constant avalanches from the Ledge above. After this the path was clear – make every move count, and move as fast as possible. I soon reached the edge of the ‘Ledge’ proper. This was the crux of the climb. The slope steepened and I could tell the snowpack was thin in this section. Soon I was punching through mushy snow on top of ice. I pushed onward because there was no way I was down climbing or putting on my skis in this precarious position. I saw some people scrambling up the south side of Sky Pilot, and made a game of beating them to the top of my line before they got to the summit of theirs. This, combined with adrenalin, got my food-craved body to the top.
I neared the top of the Ledge and elation hit as I found a shallow cave in the cliff. The idea of carving out a platform to put on my skis on the steeps had haunted me since yesterday. But here was a flat spot under the overhang that was perfect for taking off crampons and putting on skis. My goal had been to gain the ridge and climb to the summit, but the cornice above the exit was massive and the day was warm. Without a rope and a partner it would have been suicide, so it was easy to call it a day. Since every minute counted, and I had no food or water, I was soon skiing.
The skiing was a bit soft and I had to manage my sluff. But the position was incredible. I’d make a bunch of turns, then traverse, and make a bunch more. Soon I was at the crux where the upper Ledge met the lower. I didn’t trust the snow’s ability to hold my weight after a jump-turn, so I delicately slid my way through.
I was almost halfway down the line, but at the very height of exposure. After rounding the lower corner, things relaxed a bit. I still had to concentrate on the final turns, doing some delicate ballet across the ice gully, and traversing the last steep spine before the couloir. Once I reached my skins, all tension released.