Sky Pilot

After arriving home from the Weart mission, I wanted to take a day off and then do another mission before the forecasted storms changed the snowpack. Unfortunately the weather seemed to be coming earlier than expected, and Sunday was the last perfectly clear day. For my ski line I needed all of the sun’s energy to convert that thin sheen of ice into slightly softer hardpack.

sky pilot
Red line is the descent. Blue is the late 90′s line I did with Derek Flett. Click to enlarge.

During my first hike of the year up the Sea-To-Sky Gondola last weekend, I reacquainted myself with the zig zag line on the Northwest face of Sky Pilot. As the days passed, I knew I should probably give it a go. The gondola opens at 10am (didn’t realize it opens at 9am for backcountry travellers), so I knew I could sleep in a bit and commit in the morning. Of course I forgot about the time change, and woke at 9:30am. My legs were sore and walking was a little awkward, but I’d been resting all winter so I ignored my body’s need for a break and quickly packed. I decided to bring my bike as well, so I could ride down the access rode if I didn’t make it back in time for the gondola closure.

As soon as I hit the highway things started to go wrong. Realized I forgot my poles. My usual ones broke on the hike down the day before, and I’d forgot to replace them.

When I finally showed up at the gondola, they informed me that I couldn’t bring my bike. Suddenly my genius plan was falling apart. It was almost 11am and I wouldn’t make it back to the gondola on foot in time. One of the workers suggested I drive up and ride the access road.

Even though I knew it would take me too long, I headed up the Mamquam FSR anyways. Apologies for giving the gondola workers a bit of attitude, but I was lost in my own world at that point.

Soon I was headed up a secluded logging road. The sun was in my eyes and it was too late for me to see my right front wheel dropping into a small sinkhole. After getting the truck out and driving a ways, I sensed that I was in the wrong valley. After reversing most of the way, I turned around and found the right turn.

I never expected to be driving far, and realized my gas tank was on empty. But I continued anyways. Another ten minutes up my new road, and I began to sense it again – I’m in the wrong valley again! At this point I’d given up all hope of success, and was starting to realize my mind wasn’t firing on all cylinders. But I decided to find the right road in case I came up the next morning.

In the end, I drove all the way to the gate at the top of the access road. I’d just bike home if I ran out of gas. From there I biked past the gondola and towards my objective.  My 12:30pm start time was certainly the latest I’ve ever began a non-arctic ski mission.

Travel was fast, since the old logging road and steep trees above were free of snow and ice. Once I emerged from the forest into the first alpine bowl, the snow began and I started skinning.

Two hours after starting, I skinned onto the Stadium Glacier and my line came into view. There was an immediate feeling of defeat. It had been over 15 years since I had been to the base of Sky Pilot (when I skied the lower hanging face with Derek Flett).

This past year, always seeing it from the gondola, it just never seemed that big. I guess I didn’t give it enough respect. Now that I was sitting at the base of it, staring up at all the ramps and cliffs, I realized it was a little bigger than I’d thought and that I would be in for some hours of intensity.

My main concern was the top pitch near the summit. It was obvious that the sun was just barely hitting it.  Even if it was a sheet of ice, I knew I could probably scrape my way down it. But if I side-slipped the line, the art of steep skiing would quickly degrade into a mere stunt.

skypilot detail final
Taken from the top of the gondola. Because of the clouds, had to jack the contrast to see the turns

I sat in the snow for about 20 minutes. My body was tired and my mind was a little numb. Should I go home and watch a movie, or head up the standard route for a bit?

I started to realize that it was all the exposed climbing / traversing that was discouraging me as well. As soon as you start up the route, you’re on top of cliffs the entire way.  I saw a possible route that bypassed the middle bench, and decided to head up to see if it went.

By the time I realized this shortcut didn’t go, I was very close to the bottom of my original intended route. So I headed over and started to climb, and in this way I coaxed myself into action.

I’d skied the first slope when I was in still in University, so even though it was North facing and icy, I didn’t waste energy on thinking whether I could ski it or not. I also ignored what lay above, and just concentrated on the terrain immediately ahead of me.

Traversing onto the West-facing ramp was slow going and tiresome. The entire bench itself was incredibly easy from a climbing standpoint, but because of the ridiculous exposure I had to concentrate and front point most of the way.

Some climbers were coming down the regular route and shouted my way. But I was lost in my world and didn’t respond. After about 1.5hours I started up the final knife-edge ridge.

The first rock outcrop provided an interesting steep snow feature for me to navigate. Luckily there was a good rest afterwards, and I put down my pack and lay on a rock.

final summit pitch
Approaching the final summit pitch

The knife-edge was steep and exposed. No room for error. I really wasn’t interested in doing it. But there’s this idea in ski mountaineering: since conditions and opportunities for success are so fickle, and if you’re in a position to summit, you have the skills, and the conditions are not dangerous – you have to try.

I knew mentally and physically it was within my abilities, no matter how uncomfortable it would be.  I started along the ridge and immediately focused on my breathing – with few thoughts entering my mind.  The snow was perfect and I was able to get a lot of purchase from my 2 ice axes. Things started to steepen as I rounded the largest rock outcrop.

I kicked my right boot in hard a second time, and my crampons struck rock. Then my right axe struck rock. I was on a smooth and steep rock slab with maybe 5 inches of snow plastered on. I had no choice but to balance my way upward for about 10 moves.

Luckily the snow had been beaten down by the wind and sun, and was able to hold my weight. After the crux, the slope eased a bit, and I had an enjoyable climb to the summit.  On the final pitch, I’d lightly graze the edge of my ice axe on the snow, to mimic the edge of my skis. The snow was stiff, but turns would be manageable.


relax on the summit
Great evening to relax on the summit

It was 5pm and the sun was low in the sky, its rays lighting up the waters of Howe Sound and all its islands. The summit was flat and had ample room for resting. The tension I had from the climb was released, knowing that I could ski down.

I wrote a message in the summit book, but my hands were shaking and it took a hilarious amount of concentration. I called my brother-in-law Damien, to let him know what was about to happen. He didn’t answer and his message box was full.

Had a good laugh at that. My phone was dying (Mt .Logan murdered my phone battery), so I turned it off and enjoyed the view, ate a bar and meditated with my face towards the sun. After 30min or so I clicked into my skis.

north ridge knife-edge
On the summit, looking down the north ridge knife-edge on Sky Pilot. Aiming for the red arrow.

The first turn is always the best. Testing the snow below, telling myself that my edges would hold. Each turn down the summit ridge headwall was amazing. The position was incredible. Soon I was in the soft corn snow of the knife-edge ridge, past the crux, making the odd turn for fun.

I traversed the majority of the central bench, and then made soft turns down its prow.  Back on the North face I encountered some powder. Things got serious again when I had to traverse and side-slip down a very uneven icy section, where my edges were making little contact.

Back on snow again, I had a bunch of stiff but great turns down the last exposed sections and even some powder when I blazed out into the bowl.  Minutes later I was sitting on some moss at the edge of the forest, the snow and ice already becoming a distant memory.

Turns made off the summit pitch
Turns made off the summit pitch

Further down the ridge, past the crux
Further down the ridge, past the crux

end of the knife-edge
At the end of the knife-edge. Fairly smooth sailing from here. Maybe why I forgot to take any pictures after this shot.

Leave a Comment