Boots, Bindings, and Baileys

-Ski touring to Red Heather Hut in Squamish, BC-

I keep telling myself I need to stop spending money on gear. But then the possibility of a new adventure arises, and before I know it, I’m leaving MEC with any number of expensive items in an oblivious, spending-induced delirium. This month’s indulgence (or one of them anyway…) is a set of touring skis. For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, ski touring involves, at its essence, ski bindings that allow your heels to lift off the ski, which enables you to ‘walk’ uphill on your skis. Now, you might be asking, “well why would you want to go uphill anyway? Isn’t that what chairlifts are for?” Answer: the seductive, exhilarating call of the backcountry.

My first touring objective was a relatively easy one: Red Heather Hut on the trail to Elfin Lakes in Squamish, BC. The trail is located in the magnificent Garibaldi park, home to some rugged backcountry, and the intensely sharp and captivating peaks that make the coastal mountains so beloved by the locals. Some noteworthy peaks currently on the mountaineering to-do list on my refrigerator: the glaciated Cascade volcanoes Garibaldi and Wedge. Fun fact: Mt. Wedge is actually the tallest peak in Garibaldi Park (not Garibaldi/Atwell, as I had thought for years).

The triangle in the centre is Atwell, and, despite its appearance, it’s actually smaller than Garibaldi (the rounded peak on the left). At least that’s what the Interwebs keeps insisting…

Our day started painfully early (I’ve long given up Sunday morning sleep-ins). My alarm went off at 5am, and after meeting up with the team, we pulled into Squamish for a coffee-stop at around 8am. From there, we drove up past Quest University to Mamquam Rd, which provides access to the trailhead. While my well-used and well-loved Toyota Echo can manage this bumpy logging road in the summer, winter is not the time to experiment. For this one, you’ll want 4WD, and chains are required past the lower parking lot. There is often a ranger checking vehicles for chains at this lot, and today was no exception. If you don’t chain up, you’ll be leaving your vehicle at this lot and walking up the 2ish kilometers to the upper parking lot and trailhead. I’ve seen vehicles deep in ravines on the side of the road here, so please heed the vehicle requirements!

Once we hit the upper lot, we piled out of the car and starting gearing up. The plan was to strap on the skis and skins (which prevent the skis from sliding downhill with each step), set our touring boots to ‘walk’ mode (which allows the boots to flex), and glide up the hill for about 5 km (3.1 miles) to reach the hut. From there, we would have lunch in the hut, then de-skin, lock our boot-heels into the bindings, and ski back down the trail as per normal. As this was my first time ski touring, the goal was really to just try out my new gear. The skiing itself was nothing too tricky: near the hut itself, you might compare the trail to a blue run at a resort, and further down, more like a green run.

Parking lot preparations.

While I’ve done my share of grumbling about the pseudo-winter we’ve had here in Vancouver this year, I was a happy little sponge soaking up the brilliant winter sun. The uphill was steady, with small breaks of flatter terrain. I was pleased to find that climbing on skis was about the same exertion level as hiking or snowshoeing would have been. As we neared the hut, the snow really began to pile up.

Red Heather hut in all its winter glory.

When we rounded a bend and saw a forest of skis sticking out of the ground, we knew we had made it to the hut. It was a particularly busy day at Red Heather, as BC Parks rangers were running Avalanche Awareness Weekend. The rangers had set up various stations, such as a pit for snow composition assessment and a beacon practice area. As we were going no further than Red Heather, and not continuing on up Paul’s Ridge through to Elfin Lakes, we did not bring any avalanche-rescue gear. However, anyone wishing to complete the trek to Elfin should be aware that it does pass through avalanche terrain, so proper gear/training/condition assessments are required. Make sure to check out for local conditions.

Upon opening the door of the hut, we were hit by a wave of heat. Luckily, the fire was roaring, and we seized the opportunity to let wet gear dry and get cozy with lunch, an excessive amount of cheese and hummus, and a perfectly acceptable amount of hot chocolate and Baileys. The hut itself is small, but well-equipped with a wood-stove (dry wood is stacked outside for winter use), gas stoves and fuel, large pots for melting snow, tables and benches, and plenty of hooks for drying gear. The hut is for day-use only, and is a popular lunch spot for those continuing on to camp at Elfin Lakes, or just making a day-trip to Red Heather. The top of that stove gets hot, and I was thoroughly inspired by a family warming up grilled cheese sandwiches in foil on top of the stove for children in impossibly tiny ski gear. After lunch, and an avalanche safety lesson from one of the rangers, we emerged from the heat of the hut into the crisp sunshine and strapped on our skis.

While the ascent had offered just as much enjoyment as hiking or snowshoeing would have, the descent was what really sold me on ski touring. Cheerful sun, soft powder, crisp air, sapphire sky, postcard evergreens, joy of motion, grace of skis. Made that dent in my bank account worth it!

The total descent time was about 15-20 minutes, with frequent stops to re-group, and plenty of slow and cautious corners on the narrow trail (to avoid hikers lurking around every bend!). The parking lot approached staggeringly fast, and before I knew it, we were cruising back up the Sea to Sky highway discussing how much each of us would need to contribute to a down-payment on a group house in Squamish. But if MEC indulgences are questionable, then Vancouver real estate is entirely out of the question!

Trail Stats

This trail was completed in January 2019. We clocked in at 10km (6.2 miles) for the roundtrip. Total trip time, including a generous lunch break, was about 3.5 hours.

Do you participate in the world of ski touring? Have somefavourite routes you’d like to share? Did you know this was even a thing? Leaveyour thoughts for me below!

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