On Saturday, December 08 2007 a whole bunch of us skinned up the the ski-out at the Sunshine ski resort in Banff National Park with the intention of bagging a small peak near the ski resort called Twin Cairns.
This was the biggest group I'd ever skied (or climbed anything with for that matter) but size didn't seem to be a problem on this gorgeous blue-bird day in the Sunshine Meadows. Participants in this trip were, TJ (I'm going to Dubai while you guys freeze your ___ off), Kevin (I may be 40 but I just climbed 40 peaks this year - how about you?), Chester (I'm a successful entrepreneur and I'll eat all day if you let me!), Raf (the crazy Pol), Paul (the sunniest disposition you'll ever meet), Allan (I'll huck anything you dare me to), Martin (I'll say anything that pops into my head at any time), Ken (what the heck am I doing on my first A/T trip with these crazy idiots?) and me (my glasses are too cool for school baby). Yep, 9 people ripping up the rocks, oops, I mean snow, in the Sunshine Meadows environs!
TJ organized this trip and it was a perfect choice for a day like Saturday. The snow had been piling up all week at Sunshine but with the wind and cold temperatures the avalanche hazard was very touchy. This meant we couldn't really go into any aggressive terrain without exposing ourselves to serious risk. A trip up the relatively tame slopes of Twin Cairns and then some yo-yo skiing in the meadows above Sunshine was the perfect way to enjoy the fresh snow without dying. (The avalanche warnings were proved correct with the very unfortunate deaths of two young skiers the same day we were out.)
We arrived at the Sunshine parking lot at around 8am along with the weekend hordes of lazy skiers (i.e. people who use gondolas and chair lifts to get up the hills). We skinned up and got under way as quickly as a group of 9 can do such things. The morning air was quite crisp (-25ish?) but it felt really good to get the legs moving and the blood pumping as we started up the hill. I can only imagine some of the looks we got as the gondola passed over our group meandering our way up the hill beneath. I'm sure that the Sunshine staffers were all on the lookout to see if we'd switch jackets once up at the village! Too be fair, we actually commented more than once how friendly the Sunshine staff were to us - something that's not always guaranteed when you're on ski resort property without a lift ticket.
[Grunting our way up the ski-out]
After about 1 hour 20 minutes on the ski out, we arrived at the village and everyone took a quick break in the shelter before heading off to the Wawa green run. We got quite a few curious stares as we skinned our way up under the chair lift and then up the hill beyond. I'm pretty sure people were wondering if maybe we were a little too desperate to avoid buying lift tickets! The day was slowly becoming one of those blue bird days in the Rockies that you only experience a few times a year - if you're lucky. As we got near the top of the green run we were greeted by bright sunshine and deep blue skies. The trees were all burdened with a fresh dump of snow and all was good with the world at this point. We made our way behind the lift at the top of the hill (again - quite a few surprised looks as we shuffled past) and stopped for a snack and a drink just out of bounds of the resort.
[About half way up the green run we start to experience the warmth of the sun and the world turns very bright!]
[Getting near the top of the run, TJ and Ben are looking directly at Twin Cairns]
Twin Cairns didn't look very big compared with the rest of the scenery up there! Mighty Mount Assiniboine was showing off with a nice plume of snow streaming off her summit and the mountains along highway 93 were doing their best to compete. Mount Ball looked impressive too and everyone kept thinking that the upper slopes of Bourgeau would be quite a hoot to ski down. As we made our way to Twin Cairns I was surprised at the supportive character of the snow pack. Ski penetration was only about 4-6 inches of light, faceted snow on top of a harder layer. The avalanche risk was enforced, however, by the occasional massive settling of this harder layer as we skied over the gentle rolls in the meadow. Thanks to good route finding by Allan and Martin we managed to keep things pretty safe all the way up the ridge of Twin Cairns. TJ did a good job breaking trail up the ridge and the panorama of summits became more and more impressive the higher we got.
[Raf and Martin looking at Twin Cairns. We traversed around to the skyline ridge and ascended that - NOT the ridge facing us.]
[Starting up the ridge]
[Raf stops just ahead of me to take a breather and suck in the awesome views.]
[Split peak is the one in the middle. To it's left is The Monarch. Barton and I are apparently going to climb Split Peak. After reading Bivouac.com I'm really looking forward to that one! ;-)]
As we neared the top of the ridge the terrain became a bit more technical and rocky. Martin had scouted out the traverse of Twin Cairns from his 'lazy chair' (chairlift) the previous day and so we were determined to keep the skis on for as much of the summit ridge as possible in order to facilitate a full traverse of the mountain. My new x-bows quickly became deflowered on the harsh granite underneath the shallow snow pack on the ridge but I wasn't expecting them to stay pristine for long so I sucked it up and tried to ignore the odd scraping sound! I think that was what made the day so much fun. Other than the odd outburst, there was no complaining and no major scuffles over which route or which line to take. We were all enjoying the weather and the views so much that I don't think anyone really cared about the details - just being 'out there' was enough. After thinking we had to ditch our skis, we skied almost the entire length of the ridge to the summit where we put on down jackets and settled in for a nice long lunch break. The crazy Pol pulled out a flask of good stiff yager-miester (sp) and we toasted Kevs 40th summit in his 40th year. After a bunch of photos and some discussion about routes we put our skis on our packs and continued the traverse down from the summit.
[The group tops out on the ridge and begins the traverse over to the summit.]
[Raf gets his equipment re-adjusted after a small impediment on the ridge slowed him down.]
[Mount Assiniboine shows a plume of blowing snow off her summit. There wasn't much wind anywhere else!]
[Our small (!!) group at the summit of Twin Cairns. Biggest group by FAR that I've ever enjoyed a summit with!]
[A labelled panorama looking towards the Sunshine ski hill and then over to Mount Assiniboine. ++]
[A panorama looking towards highway 93. ++]
There were a few tricky parts to descend on the traverse but nothing serious and soon we were de-skinning and getting ready for some real fun! TJ led the way off the ridge, dropping down into a nice bowl of fresh snow. And rock. Yep - still early season conditions in Sunshine Meadows! The snow was fresh and deep but unfortunately for our ski bases it wasn't very consolidated at the bottom yet. There were a few 'incidents' with the afore-mentioned rocks and even though Ben enthusiastically declared this the "best snow ever", not everyoneagreed with him!! ;-) I think some of those rocks probably learned a few new words on Saturday. They were just sitting there for millions of years in the peaceful locale of the meadows minding their own business until we decided to scrape our ski bases over them and teach them new language! Ah well. You can't stay innocent forever I guess...
[Winding our way down the ridge, completing our traverse of the mountain.]
[A line of skiers with thier skis in their backs - what's wrong with this picture?! NEED MORE SNOW!]
[Finally we get to the FUN part. Going down the hill for the first time this day!]
After WAY too short of time we were skinning back up the slope towards the ski hill again. It's amazing how fast you can come down something that takes half a day to climb! The meadows were a world of white, with a thick carpet of fresh snow over everything. It was a magical place and the sun was so warm in the protection of the glades that we had a hard time motivating ourselves to climb up out of there. We continued to hear major movement in the snow pack as we ascended and were once again glad that we had been conservative with our lines this particular day. At the top of the Standish chair lift we decided that we weren't all done yet and with the exception of Paul we all made our way over to the Sunshine Meadows lookout area.
[It was over too fast - but it was fun.]
[Time to go up again - but the weather was so beautiful and the scenery so peaceful that no-one really cared.]
[Still going up - the surroundings are still peaceful. There were long stretches of silence as we made our way up the meadows.]
[More of Sunshine Meadows]
[I was too busy taking photos to break trail. The others understood. I think. ;)]
[Getting near the top of the chairlift (it's on the other side of this hill). You can just spot the lookout structure above Chester's head.]
After another lunch break (yeah, it was that kind of day) we enjoyed an excellent run back down the meadows that was again, WAY too short! Thanks to Siddles we all (except TJ) skinned up for the second half of the descent (how smart was that eh - and we call the Pol crazy!?!) before climbing back out of the meadows towards the Sunshine ski hills. I don't think anyone of us really wanted to join the hordes of 'lazy people' but all good things must come to an end eventually, so reluctantly we skied down the groomed runs and proceeded to body check our way down the ski-out to the parking lot.
[Twin Cairns as seen from the lookout. You can make out some of our tracks in the meadows below it. We traversed from the right side of the photo down the left side.]
[The group ponders the best (and safest) line back down towards three isle lake.]
[Barton in waist deep snow on the way back up from the last ski run.]
[The gang making our way back in bounds.]
[Late afternoon shadows]
What a fantastic day with good exercise, good snow and most of all good times with great people! We capped off the day with supper and beer and some good laughs at the Bear Paw in Canmore before heading back to the concrete jungle.