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Cold play

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The Tetrahedron Outdoor Club ensures a warm welcome for visitors

Reached by ferry or floatplane, the Sunshine Coast, north by northwest from Vancouver on Canada’s west coast, is the kind of place people visit to get away from it all. The Tetrahedron is the kind of place Sunshine Coasters go to get away from it all.

As backyards go, the Tetrahedron tends to be on the large side. Six thousand hectares of mountains, lakes, streams, wetlands and forest make this Class A provincial park the perfect place for backcountry enthusiasts to explore.

It also makes the Tet, as it’s fondly known, an immensely challenging place to maintain for visitors. Charged with that formidable task is the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club, a hugely dedicated volunteer organization committed to maintaining the park’s four rustic cabins and the 25-kilometre trail network connecting those cabins.

“B.C. Parks owns the cabins and it’s their provincial park,” explains club president, Gerry Marcotte. “We are the stewards of the park and a have great working relationship with B.C. Parks, which goes a long way to keeping these cabins and trails up to date.”

Taking the long way around to avoid cornices, a snowshoer ascends Mount Steele, 5,114 feet above the Sunshine Coast, northwest of Vancouver.

The latest major project keeping the club’s volunteers busy has been the installation of a three-ton bridge spanning Steele Creek. Lowered by helicopter and installed by club members last month, the bridge cost about $20,000 – $12,000 of which was partially funded by a grant from the Sunshine Coast Community Forest Legacy Fund.

It would have cost more but for the donations of businesses – structural engineering, welders and lumber milling. The mix of grants, donations, partnerships and resourceful volunteers continues from a blueprint established more than 35 years ago.

In the mid-1980s, amid an economic depression, a group of backcountry enthusiasts united to mobilize more than 200 volunteers, 45 businesses, schools, community groups and several levels of government: their goal, to build cabins linked by a trail network.

The Tetrahedron Ski Club, as it was then known, secured more than $150,000 in federal funding and another $20,000 from the province, to build the cabins at Sechelt airport. The cabins would then be disassembled and flown by helicopter to be reassembled on site.

Forestry company, Canfor, and the Sunshine Coast Regional District donated timber, Sechelt Creek Contracting provided logging service, Airspan donated some airtime, Gibsons Building Supplies provided crane trucks and the Outdoor Recreation Council pitched in with chainsaws.

The tireless volunteers of the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club carry in culverts during a recent work party in the park.Tetrahedron Outdoor Club photo

An army of volunteers mobilized to clear trails while 18 people worked on the cabins, gaining valuable carpentry skills and learning about surveying and wilderness first aid. By the time the cabins opened to the public in 1987, the club had raised more than $300,000 for the project. Perhaps more remarkably, a single great idea had united governments, businesses and local volunteers.

So, what motivated such efforts back then and what continues to drive the club’s volunteers now?

“There are a lot of people in the Tet for pure recreation,” says long-time club member, Melissa Rayfield. “I think the difference with volunteering is that it becomes purposeful recreation. I think any volunteer would feel the same way, it’s part of their social life, part of pleasure and the fulfilment of getting something done.”

Melissa’s husband, Danny Fleischhacker, agrees, adding that the solitude and the elements amid the Tet’s wide-open spaces are hard to resist, especially in winter.

“Getting out into the backyard, being out in nature there’s a sense of throttling back, tapping the brakes and going slow, but looking around,” says Danny, who admits that he also likes to go fast. “I really love skinning in a blizzard with the wind blowing at me. (Skinning is the practice of sticking synthetic skins to skis, climbing a trail, then skiing down. Danny and fellow club-member, Sam Preston, are particularly fond of exploring ski terrain deep in the park and immortalizing perfect runs with names like “Heaven is a Halfpipe”.)

Melissa and Danny are stewards of McNair cabin, visiting about once a month for maintenance and monitoring. (Visitors are asked to clean up after themselves but that doesn’t always mean that they do.) Gerry and his wife Ellen steward Bachelor cabin. In between are Edwards and Steele cabins, each with their own stewards and the latter cabin being the highest, situated at the base of 5,114-foot Mount Steele.

It’s not uncommon to have to dig your way into the Tetrahedron’s cabins and outhouses, especially on Mt. Steele.

The cabins accommodate 12 to 16 people, are first come, first serve, and are well equipped with mattresses in the attic, firewood in the basement, a kitchen counter and a sink. The wood stove usually has the place toasty warm within an hour.    

Panther, Steele and Tetrahedron peaks loom over the park’s 10 lakes and some of the oldest trees in the country. Amabilis fir, mountain and western hemlock, yellow cedar and white pine can all be found here.

For Melissa and Danny, winter in the Tet means fun; summer means work. “It can take a herculean effort by a small number of people to accomplish some of the projects,” says Melissa. “Trail-clearing is never ending.”

(Veteran club member, George Smith, recently spearheaded a new trail to provide day-trippers with a beautiful new winter-touring option past Mayne Lake.)

Nor are the volunteers getting any younger.

Cheers to a job well done! Tetrahedron Outdoor Club volunteers toast the completion of the Steele Creek bridge crossing. – Tetrahedron Outdoor Club photo

“When you look at the group photos from the Steele Creek bridge project, you realize the average age of the volunteers is low-60s,” says Danny. “We need to bring down that average age, not that our volunteers aren’t uniquely capable – there are some extremely hard-working 70+ people. We all love the Tet and are very supportive of each other. There’s never a shortage of camaraderie.”

Funding is also a perennial concern for the club. Snow removal costs between $6,000 and $12,000 a year. Firewood is airlifted to the cabins at a cost of $18,000. Community members donate the wood, which is cut and split by club volunteers. (Visitors building winter bonfires outside of the cabins are a particular source of frustration for the club.) Then there’s cabin maintenance and major projects like the Steele Creek bridge. A bridge will soon be needed across Chapman Creek.

Danny Fleischhacker in his element at McNair Cabin, where he is a steward with his wife, Melissa Rayfield. Tetrahedron Outdoor Club photo

Cabin revenues of $10 to $15 a night help but the club’s major source of income is from the annual Banff Mountain Film Festival held at Elphinstone Secondary School in Gibsons. Tickets are on sale for the February 3 event, (see below for details) which is also a good opportunity to learn more about the club and consider volunteering. Otherwise, the best way to join is online at tetoutdoor.ca.

“We welcome everyone with open arms,” says Gerry. “We moved here in 2016 and were warmly welcomed and encouraged by the club and it still holds true today. The people we have come to know, the friends we’ve made – it’s absolutely awesome!”

Welcoming sunrise from the peak of Mount Steele on Canada’s west coast.

Visiting the Tetrahedron

  • Four-wheel drive and chains are essential for visiting the Tetrahedron during winter. For more information about conditions, visit the club’s Facebook page.
  • For information about the park, visit bcparks.ca/explore/parkpgs/tetrahedron/
  • There can be a significant avalanche risk in the park. Before heading out, visit www.avalanche.ca

Banff Mountain Film Festival tickets

Tickets for the Banff Mountain Film Festival, (February 3, 2023 at Elphinstone Secondary School) are available at:

  • Alpha Adventures, Wilson Creek
  • Elphi Cycles Gibsons and Sechelt outlets
  • High Beam Dreams, Gibsons
  • Trail Bay Source for Sports, Sechelt

Related stories: Men of Steele and Cabin Fever

Party on in Whistler

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The Dubh Linn Gate begins to fill up at the World Ski and Snowboard Festival.

It’s 4:20 p.m. on 4/20 in Whistler and the aroma wafting through the village is unmistakeable:  Axe body spray with just a hint of beef jerky. It smells like a high school locker room, which is probably why my 15-year-old son Ryan doesn’t seem to notice. Either that or he’s carrying too much Axe and beef jerky to notice.

The final weekend of Whistler’s ski season is also the final weekend of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival. That means all manner of free arts, music, and sports events. It also means free giveaways – Axe, beef jerky, Monster Energy drinks and yoghurt. It’s an odd combination, but a popular one among teens nonetheless.

It makes for an eclectic scene: Sweet-smelling kids amped on caffeine. (Monster drinks are for over-18s, but plenty of parents were indulging their under-18s.) Bandana-wearing dogs fresh from Whistler DogFest, mingling with toddlers and locals mingling with visitors to the beat of G. Love and Special Sauce, (they’re a band). Somehow it all works.

You want some Axe with that beef jerky?

You want some Axe with that beef jerky?

We’ve skied out to the village just in time for Fashion EXPOSED, a fast-paced, high-energy show on a catwalk set up by the main stage. Macklemore’s infectious hit, Thrift Store is booming over the speakers as models come and go every few seconds. G. Love and Special Sauce, the day’s first live act, are up next and pretty soon everyone from the decks of the Garibaldi Lift Company to The Longhorn to the crowd in between are swaying to bluesy hip hop. The lead singer looks like Justin Timberlake and plays a mean harmonica.

Aside from abundant yoghurt and beef jerky, our immediate après options look sparse with lineups at almost all the bars fronting the main stage. Thank goodness for the Dubh Linn Gate where there’s room at the back. Pints of Guinness and a poutine and fries later, we’re back outside for Vancouver’s very own enduring hip hop band, the Swollen Members. They’re a more than capable warm-up act for the ever-popular Big Air event and Monster Energy Shred Show. (Try saying “Shred Show” fast! It’s easier after a Monster Energy drink.)

Lab chills out to G. Love and Special Sauce.

Lab chills out to G. Love and Special Sauce.

As darkness and temperatures fall, pro snowboard riders soar upwards of 70 feet in competition for a $15,000 cheque and the 2013 Big Air title. It’s an impressive finale made all the sweeter by 18-year-old Canadian Maxence Parrot landing a Triple Cork to beat a Norwegian and an American for the victory. As the lineups to the village’s bars and clubs grow ever-longer, we head back to the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and find refuge in the Fitzsimmons Pub (The Fitz, as it’s known to locals) opposite the hotel. No lineups, great food and a solid beer list. ($13.75 a pitcher!)

Telus no longer sponsors the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, but that has not diminished the event’s appeal. On the contrary, organizers expanded the WSSF’s arts and culture scene this year. Open daily at the Whistler Conference Centre, State of the Art celebrated the mountain community in a variety of media. Storytelling and improv were the themes of the Mountain Multiplicity Show and the Chairlift Revue. And Vengeance in the Valley, the resort’s inaugural roller derby bout, sold out.

Skiing on Blackcomb continues until late May. Meanwhile golf season starts May 4. Visit fairmont.com/whistler for details of Whistler golf packages, starting at $139 per person.

For everything else Whistler, visit whistlerblackcomb.com.

G. Love's Garrett Dutton treats Whistler to a 'Booty Call'.

G. Love’s Garrett Dutton breaks from ‘Booty Call’ to harmonica.

Written by nevjudd

April 27, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Big White pops its cork for Champagne powder

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Written by nevjudd

December 10, 2011 at 9:25 am

Faster, higher, longer: Riding Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak Gondola

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The girls aren't too bothered about dangling by a steel thread 436m above Fitzsimmons Creek.

Confined within a steel and glass capsule, suspended by a galvanized thread 436 metres above Fitzsimmons Creek, Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak Gondola is no place for acrophobics. Fortunately, a fear of heights tends not to afflict skiers and boarders, who’d otherwise be stuck on the bunny hills forever.

In fact, judging by the hum of conversation in the cabin, our cruising altitude of 2,000-plus metres above sea level appears to concern no one.

“I’m gonna have a burrito for lunch,” says the 20-something Aussie woman in front of me. “What’s in that then?” replies her male English friend.

Grounded by just four towers, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola connects the top of Whistler to the top of Blackcomb — a distance of 4.4 kilometres.

A man from Pemberton, sitting across from my wife, is showing off his $600 goggles, which came with prescription lenses and a de-misting fan. “You’ll never need to buy another pair,” he tells her. I do the math and realize his goggles cost more than my family of four’s second-hand skis, poles, board, boots and goggles combined.

The kids on board are discussing their best wipeouts of the morning. (Funny how parents never do that.)

The miracle of engineering that put us here is the last thing on anyone’s minds and most passengers do not immediately appreciate the view. That could be because the journey’s so smooth, it feels a bit like we’re floating.

It’s more mellow glide than thrill ride.

Grounded by just four towers, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola connects the top of Whistler to the top of Blackcomb — a distance of 4.4 kilometres. Three kilometres of that distance dangles between two of the towers, making this the world’s longest unsupported span for a lift of this kind. It’s also the highest.

“It’s iconic,” says former Intrawest vice-president, Hugh Smythe, who started as a ski patroller in Whistler back in 1966. “It truly differentiates Whistler as unique.”

Smythe was skiing in Zermatt, Switzerland, in February 1997. An idea took shape while looking down at the vast expanses between peaks as he flew above the resort in a helicopter.

“I said, ‘Gee, we could connect Whistler to Blackcomb,” recalls Smythe.

It has been 10,000 years since the Overlord glacier that once connected the two peaks retreated to leave Fitzsimmons Creek on the valley floor. It only took 11 years for Smythe’s idea to be realized and for the mountains to be connected again. (Albeit by a cable 2 cms in diameter.)

In 11 minutes, the Peak 2 Peak does what used to take skiers like me half a day to do.

When the $52-million Doppelmayr-type lift opened two years ago, I wasn’t initially thrilled.

I’d always been fond of clumsily working my way down Whiskey Jack and Olympic runs from Whistler’s Roundhouse to ride Excalibur and Excelerator up Blackcomb. Admittedly, I’m the kind of person who longs for the days when keys, not swipe cards, opened hotel room doors, and when people raked leaves instead of blowing them, but really, must everything be sacrificed for the sake of time and convenience?

Then, on our first evening in Whistler earlier this month, I got talking to Stu from Utah in the hotel hot tub.

“I rode the Peak 2 Peak today,” he told me. “Whistler was socked in, but it was sunny on Blackcomb so we scooted over.”

Funny, I thought to myself. I’d never considered that.

Other unexpected benefits became obvious the next day when we finally boarded the Peak 2 Peak on Whistler.

Our modest party of 14, including six children, had spent much of the morning arranging meeting points by cell phone after becoming split up on runs or in lineups for chairlifts. After finally assembling at The Roundhouse Lodge, we moved next door to the Peak 2 Peak Gondola.

The lift’s 28 cabins each hold 28 people (24 seated and four standing). Two cabins are built with glass bottoms, reducing capacity. Fitting 14 people isn’t exactly a squeeze, and with a cabin departing every 49 seconds, lineups are minimal.

Each of the lift’s 28 cabins have room for 28 people to get cozy (24 seated and four standing).

The day we first boarded, it was Whistler village that was socked in, leaving us to glide across a valley floor coated in cotton candy-like mist. To the east soared the peaks and bowls of Garibaldi Provincial Park.

Below, the meandering black streak of Fitzsimmons Creek was just visible through the cloud.

And then skiers and boarders on Blackcomb’s upper runs came into view.

“Look at the ants, Dad, look at the ants,” said my daughter Emma, excitedly. Navigating black runs and occasionally dropping off into the trees, they might have been pine beetles on planks from where we watched.

Disembarking on Blackcomb, we paused to take group photos by the lift station before, inevitably, getting split up during the descent of Blackcomb.

The next day, I was back taking advantage of the fast track in the sky. The lower slopes were icy and fogged in. From mid-station up blue skies heralded an inversion that blessed both peaks with temperatures well above freezing.

But which peak to choose?

It only took 11 minutes to figure out.

Written by nevjudd

December 7, 2011 at 10:05 pm