Beginner backcountry skiing off the Sea-To-Sky Highway

You don’t have to go far or to a resort to play in the powder

Squamish and the Sea-To-Sky region offer many opportunities for skiing and snowboarding. While most skiers will stick to ski resorts, an adventurous segment of the snow sports community will have dreams of heading into the mountains to find pristine slopes of deep powder to carve their turns through. 

We are fortunate to have a plethora of options for backcountry skiing, all mostly within a 90-minute drive from town.

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After you’ve conditioned your legs on the piste, learned about avalanche and glacier safety in the classroom and with a guide, you might be thinking about where to go first to experience the joy of backcountry skiing?

Consider hiring a local ski guide if you are unsure about your abilities with safely visiting the backcountry to ski. 

Here are a few locations to consider to experience ski touring this winter.

Red Heather Meadows:

An after-work classic near Squamish. Depending on the weather, the hardest part might be the drive to the parking lot.

Drive to the Elfin Lakes parking lot above Quest University. In winter, the parking lot is commonly lower than the summer lot due to the road being covered in packed snow or ice.

The approach to Red Heather Meadows in winter is on a narrow road for five kilometres. Once at the treeline, there is a warming shelter that is often busy on weekends. From the shelter, you can do short laps off of Paul Ridge and practice digging snow pits to determine avalanche risk. The ski out is usually enjoyable, back down the road, making this a good option for your first ski tour.

Elfin Lakes:

If the avalanche conditions allow, you can continue along Paul Ridge, above Red Heather Meadows, towards Elfin Lakes. The winter route follows orange wands that rangers of the park will have placed in the snow. Due to the popularity of this area, there will almost always be a broken trail to Elfin Lakes. If not, simply follow the wands. Knowledge of how to navigate the route is needed, as the wands can get blown over or buried. 

All along Paul Ridge towards Elfin Lakes and the shelter, there are opportunities for short ski laps down the open slopes below.

Little Diamond Head:

With decent visibility and stable snow conditions, you can continue past Elfin Lakes towards The Gargoyles and Columnar Peak. Once over the saddle at the Gargoyles (a cornice at the saddle you may need to navigate around) you can ascend up towards Little Diamond Head on mellow open slopes. 

From near the top of Little Diamond Head, you will have incredible panoramic views back towards Squamish and Howe Sound and will get to see the Garibaldi Massif that overlooks Squamish. 

This tour can be completed as a day trip all the way from the Elfin Lakes parking lot but an overnight stay, either camping or sleeping in the Elfin Lakes hut, is recommended. 

Gin Peak: 

Drive towards Whistler Olympic Park in the Callaghan Valley and park in the day use area. From here, it can be sometimes confusing to find the correct access, but if you ask around, someone there will be able to direct you as to where you need to go to access the broken trail up to Gin Peak. 

Once above the trees, you will see many options for open treed slopes to ski laps on. Note, that this area is used by snowmobilers, so being cautious of where they are is important. You will be able to hear them, but they might not be able to see you. 

To descend back towards the Olympic Park, you can link a series of old cut-blocks and open trees to get back onto the cross-country trails below. 

Disease Ridge:

While Whistler-Blackcomb is an excellent location for resort skiing, it also offers many options for backcountry skiing just outside of the resort. If you do not have a season pass for Whistler-Blackcomb, you can purchase a backcountry pass at the ticket office on the morning you wish to go ski touring. This will allow you to upload once on the lifts before you ski tour outside of the resort.

Either from the top or bottom of the Seventh Heaven chairlift, traverse skiers left outside of the resort below Blackcomb Peak towards Disease Ridge, a popular ski touring location. From Disease Ridge you have options to ski down open trees to the south known locally as “the Chuting Gallery” or head further north to ski the easy open slopes of the curiously named “Body Bag Bowl.”

At the end of your day, you can easily re-enter Whistler Blackcomb resort and ski out on the groomed ski runs back to the parking lot. 

Cerise Creek:

Heading further north of Whistler and Pemberton is the Duffey Lake Road and area. This road offers many jumping-off points for backcountry ski adventures for novices and experts alike. 

 

One of the most popular destinations in the area is the Cerise Creek drainage and the Keith Flavelle Memorial Hut, which you can expect to be full most weekends through the winter. If you do intend to visit and stay in the area overnight, bringing a tent is highly recommended. 

When approaching from Pemberton, the parking pullout for Cerise Creek is 21 kms along the Duffey Lake Road. From here you should be able to find a track leading down to the trees that will follow alongside Cerise Creek before rising up towards Keith’s Hut and the flat camping area around it. Above Keith’s Hut, there are numerous options for sheltered skiing in the trees and larger, more open slopes for skiing when the visibility is good and the snow stability is reliable. 

If you do plan to stay at Keith’s Hut for a night, remember it is a memorial cabin and should be treated as such. To make donations towards its upkeep visit keithshut.ca.

Mount Rohr:

This location is an excellent ski tour for those who have exhausted some other easier options closer to Squamish. The parking area to access Mount Rohr is from 17kms along the Duffey Lake Road, directly across from a large sand shed. 

Travel towards Mount Rohr is initially along an old road before you enter the forest. Knowledge of navigating is a requirement, as you will eventually come to a junction where the left will lead towards the Wendy Thompson Hut and the right will take you towards Mount Rohr. 

Continue right and up towards Mount Rohr, tackling a steeper headwall before entering the basin above. With good visibility and snow stability, it should be possible to ski all the way to the top of Mount Rohr and take in the expansive views from the top. 

The ski down is enjoyable, but care should be taken in the tight trees nearer the road. 

Happy skiing! 

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The Keith Flavelle Memorial Hut in Winter. - Leigh and Spring McClurg

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