The extreme frequency
February 24, 2004
BANFF, Alberta, Canada ” Leading to the summit of Lookout Mountain, one of five pinnacles that define the nearby ski area of Sunshine Village, are two separate boot-pack trails.
While both go to the same place ” the top, 8,954 feet ” an elaborate system of gates, ropes and bamboo poles distinguishes one path from the other.
The corralesque chute to the left is open to the public for 360-degree sightseeing, and last Friday a steady stream of gawkers made the three-minute walk to take in vistas that include Mount Assiniboine, the 11,870-foot high point of Banff National Park.
The other chute, however, has an odd metal gate barring passage ” it unlatches only if an approaching skier or rider emits frequency 457, the industry-standard wave for avalanche transceivers. For not only does Lookout Mountain offer splendid vistas, it’s the jumping off point into Delirium Dive, a double-black-diamond cirque with a special set of rules.
After talking for a while with Rowan Harper, Sunshine’s snow safety supervisor and a 20-year patrol vet here, I turn on my beacon and take the right chute.
Soon after, I’m feeling the onset of vertigo, and my mouth goes as dry as Sunshine’s famously chalky snow (7 percent water, second only to Jackson Hole, Wyo., at 6 percent, I’m told later). The edge of “The Dive,” as locals call it, is not unlike some cliffs I’ve peered over.
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Super-steep at the top at 50-plus degrees and corniced in places, the view reveals several rock and cliff bands, and distinctive chutes and gullies that taper off in severity toward the “run out” nearly 1,300 feet below.
Since I only had a few days notice to prepare for this trip, my knowledge of the area was limited to begin with. But I had taken the time to surf the Internet and find out (“oooouuut”) something about the areas, including The Dive, which is why I brought along a beacon, shovel and pack.
The flat-out burliness of the terrain, however, I did not expect. Leave it to the “Crazy Canucks” to redefine the meaning of “double-black diamond,” at least by Aspen’s standards.
I ask Rowan about the incidence of accidents in the area, which opened to the public five seasons ago.
“They tend to be pretty good,” he says, “you know, cliff falls, people getting a little too rambunctious or throwing themselves a little bit [bigger] than they should of.
“We get fractured legs, spinal injuries, and we had a dislocated hip in here once, but over the five years, with the exception of a couple of freeskiing competitions that we’ve run in here, we’ve really seen very, very few accidents. We see way more accidents down on our green runs on any given day than we see up here in an entire season.
“But because of the nature of the terrain, we didn’t want to operate it in a traditional sense. So we thought, by putting these restrictions on it, i.e. that you carry a transceiver, a rescue shovel and ski and ride with a partner, we could do avalanche control to make us happy. And it meant that we could sort of, I hate to use the term, but sort of have a ‘punter’ filter by putting these restrictions on it, where you keep mom and dad and the kids from venturing in there and put the shared responsibility into play.”
Rowan points out the different options, including Starbucks chute, the steepest of the lot, Pre-X, Delirium Proper, Steel Pipe, the Galaxy Chutes one through seven, and so on. Then he heads for a metal-grate staircase, added more recently to replace a rope that locals used to use to access the ridge before it was “open,” and climbs down.
I follow, stepping off the stairs onto sun-baked and slippery hard pack on the ridge’s south side. There are no flat spots to afford stepping into my skis easily, and I begin imagining my skis, myself perhaps, tumbling off the opposite side of the ridge from The Dive into shark-toothed rocks and gullies.
Finally, abandoning attempts to keep my skis perpendicular to the fall line, I trust my skis to their ski breaks, point them uphill one at a time, and click in. Whew! Now, at the very least, I’ve got edges holding me there. Rowan chuckles and says he lost a ski once in just the same fashion.
Traversing around another rocky knob, Rowan leads me into Delirium Proper, “the green run of The Dive,” he says. From then on, it’s just skiing ” albeit on hard pack in places at the top. Below, soft wind-blown powder presents itself in abundance.
The gripped feeling passes as we make our way down, through rock bands and gullies. It will stand as the best snow I’ve skied in my four-day, four-mountain tour of the Banff areas: Sunshine, Lake Louise, Ski Banff at Norquay and finally, yesterday, at Kicking Horse in British Columbia.
Low down in the cirque, we traverse over and then around 20- to 50-foot cliffs in Sugar Bowl, an ominous looking band that is cut up by several blue-ice-filled gullies. Fully fresh turns in places greet us along the way.
“Do people ski everything in here?” I ask ” though I’m already certain of the answer, considering this is far from a powder day.
“They ski everything,” he nods. “When there’s snow on it, they’ll go everywhere. They’ll huck themselves over the cliff band, everything. That was a real eye-opener for us, because we look at it from an operational point of view, but then you’re never really sure until you put the public in there as to where they’re gonna go and how they view the terrain. Pretty impressive to see some of the things they’ve done in here.”
Rowan points out one blue-ice gully a local Albertan hucked himself off for a Warren Miller film crew shot.
After traversing back to the ski area proper, Rowan then leads me into an area called Wild West, another restricted access zone that he plans to debut to the public as soon as the next dump arrives.
“I’m a big proponent of getting stuff open,” he says, noting that he plans to further expand “inbounds” offerings to even more extreme sections of The Dive. “What used to be extreme every 12-year-old’s skiing now. Give the people what they want.
“But because it’s the first go around in Wild West here, I want to make sure it’s OK, make sure it’s good when we open it. And if it doesn’t happen this year, it doesn’t happen.”
Then he looks over a precipice into Wheeler’s, a narrow and rocky, serpentine draw through the cliff band that defines the Wild West area, named for an area skier and mountaineer of the 1930s, and says, “It’s getting there though.”
[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is email@example.com]