Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a series written by Griffin Post, following his quest to chase winter’s last storms. Follow Post’s journey on Instagram: #HaveSkisWillTravel.
Our base-camp tent has 60 fabric panels consisting of triangles, trapezoids, pentagons, and hexagons, two doors, two windows, and a chimney. I know this because I’ve been staring up at it for four days, sheltered from a storm that only seems to worsen as the hours tick by. Five people in a 12-foot-wide main tent with a full kitchen, I’m beginning to wonder if our weeklong adventure is turning into a sort of jail sentence in a yellow cell. At times, the wind is so loud we have to shout over it and, when the heavier gusts unleash on our tent, the walls bow to the point that I’m nervous the entire tent is moments away from collapsing. This morning, the leeward facing door had a four-foot drift in front of it, requiring a stout hip-check just to get out to take a pee. I was prepared for stormy days in the mountains outside of Bella Coola, British Columbia, but this seems to be exceeding even my most conservative expectations.
Alongside perennial pro skier and tent-sitter Chris Davenport, photographer Adam Clark, and cinematographers Chris Christie and Cam Sylvester, we’ve essentially been tent-bound since we snuck onto a col at 6,000 feet via helicopter. Flanked by two massive peaks, the several-hundred-yard-wide col is peppered with small boulders, giving the area a certain moonscape look. While the winds are undoubtedly worse here than in the valleys several thousand feet below, the access to the surrounding terrain provided by this wind tunnel is apparently well worth the expense of the elements.
The first three days seemed easy, filled with conversation, reading, and the ever-entertaining game of “would you rather,” along with several exploratory missions around the perimeter of our camp during brief respites in the weather. But by day four, a certain anxiety is setting in and, although nobody is really saying it, our group is beginning to wonder if we’re ever going to get to climb and ski the terrain that’s seemingly at our fingertips.
In a winter that’s been filled with uncharacteristic weather and avalanche conditions across British Columbia, this seems par for the course. Instead of blower powder and the stability of a coastal snowpack, Bella Coola has been subject to high winds and heightened avalanche danger as of late. Still, the lure of the terrain in these Coast Mountains trumps this year’s weather anomalies.
Then, it happens: silence. No tents flapping. No graupel hitting the tent. Just the low hiss of our stove melting snow for water. We peek outside in the afternoon light and, sure enough, the winds have generally abated and the massive couloirs and spires are no longer occluded by clouds and blowing snow. While it’s by no means game time due to the heightened avalanche danger, it’s at least scrimmage time.
We make a move for the windward couloirs across the valley, tiptoeing and constantly assessing any changes in aspect or pitch. After a pit at the base of a pinner couloir, we finally begin our first ascent of the trip. Despite taking the brunt of the storm, the 1,000-foot couloir has manageable wind buff and, at this point, nobody is complaining about a little bit of texture in the snow that is otherwise forgiving.
Davenport drops first with his honed steep-skiing technique: turn, hop, float, turn. Although the snow varies from firm windpack to powder, we arrive at the bottom with the same excitement as if those were our first powder turns of the season.
For the first time all trip there’s a sense of success, however fleeting. An evening glass-off, fully revealing the terrain around our camp for the first time, adds to the excitement. The four days in the tent seem to fade to a distant memory and are quickly justified by a look in any direction.
Despite a resume that includes skiing on nearly every continent and summiting Mount Everest, Davenport still maintains the enthusiasm of a New Englander on his or her first trip out West. His relentless enthusiasm aside, when our fifth day in the mountains dawns cloudy and windy again, it seems to dent even his armor of optimism. We’re living a high-alpine version of Groundhog’s Day, and this might be the day that somebody drives down the railroad tracks.
Divinity in the mountains isn’t hard to come by, but sometimes it arrives at unsuspecting places. Often, godliness graces us on top of a remote peak, but other times it hits us behind a rock, squatting ass-out in the blowing snow. For me, it was the latter. It only took a brief glimpse of the sun, spires, and blue sky to kick the morning routine into high gear and send me sprinting back to the tents with news of the weather breaking.
Mobilizing quickly, we made a move for one of the trophy lines we’d eyed the night before. With a similar aspect to the prior day’s couloir, we hiked quickly, leap-frogging each other up the 1,500-foot chute, which was lined by massive granite walls. The weather continued to improve and the sun began to heat the snow. With blue skies now working against us, we dropped in quickly after an abbreviated celebration at the top.
It’s quite possible our hoots and hollers could have been heard throughout the entirety of Bella Coola as we came ripping out of the couloir. Smooth as a sheet of glass, the snow had been warmed just enough to eliminate any variability we felt on the way up. With motivation fueled by sitting in a tent for four days, we continued ticking off lines that seemed so out of reach just days before. We tackled wide open lines, massive spines, and narrow couloirs that ranked somewhere in Davenport’s and my top five list of lifetime lines, all made that much sweeter by the better part of a week of anticipation.
By the time our heli came to fly us out the following afternoon, we’d painted the blank canvas surrounding our camp with a respectable amount of smooth brushstrokes. Still, there was much left to do and our collective thoughts couldn’t help but drift into wondering what could have been had the weather played out differently. Then again, without four days of anticipation, I’m not sure each turn would have been as sweet.