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Words by Matt Coté | Photos by Bruno Long
AS JULIAN STODDART SLASHES slashes a waist-deep turn against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, a ferry dodges evergreen islands and grey granite cliff sides 1,000 metres below. From where I’m standing, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was Norway. But it’s not. It’s Howe Sound: a fjord 15 minutes northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia, one of the only major cities in the world you can ski backcountry directly above.
The shiny, modern town is home to 2.759 million people, but with surprisingly minimal effort, we’ve left them all behind and have a swath of cedar-and hemlock-strewn rainforest to ourselves. A cold storm has laced the Coast Mountains with a metre of fresh snow, and the settled snowpack is deeper than most any ski resort in North America’s—four metres. The skiing, which you can ride the city bus to, is as good as it gets.
Having such a busy engine of human civilization buzzing at the foot of this mountain is surreal. But, in this setting, urban backcountry feels less like a paradox than an alternate reality you can completely lose yourself in. It’s also something few metropolises on this planet can lay claim to. Vancouver, in turn, has cultivated one of the strongest local communities of dedicated ski-tourers in the world. Its duelling dynamic of globalism and wilderness is why companies like Arc’teryx, G3 and MEC choose to base themselves here. You can bag three laps on Hollyburn Mountain before work, pick from one of 600 sushi joints for lunch, then catch a Drake concert after dinner. On Canada’s west coast, life in the big smoke comes complete with world-class ski touring, and more and more people are tuning in.
“My dad took me to ski that for the first time when I was 13,” Stoddart tells me after we braid turns down a 300-metre natural halfpipe on the backside of Mount Strachan. Stoddart grew up here, not terribly far from Cypress Mountain Resort, and has spent a lifetime memorizing the area’s intensely disorienting nooks and crannies. Thickly forested and replete with couloirs and fluted faces, the terrain back here is no joke. North Shore Rescue is the busiest search-and-rescue organization in the country because of it.
“These mountains are next to the third biggest metropolitan area in Canada,” Stoddart reminds me, “but they’re pretty complex. It’s only by skiing every aspect year after year that I’ve pieced it together.”
While he’s taken us to an impressively quiet zone today, the established routes closer to the trailheads are much busier. We used the luxury of Cypress Mountain’s paved road this morning to rise 900 metres out of the rain at sea level into a parking lot with seven-metre-high snowbanks. From there, the peaks are only another 400 metres above: low-hanging fruit for the savvy, a rabbit snare for others. For our part, short bumps up each successive rise have let us trace the route of the Howe Sound Crest Trail with booming success, choking on pow the whole way.
“It’s funny if you think about the amount of people who drove to Whistler today to upload on a lift, ski tour the Spearhead, get turns that are fairly unremarkable, and then they have to drive home,” Stoddart says sardonically.
While the spoiled status of Whistler’s backcountry is up for debate, he’s right about one thing: when it dumps on the North Shore Mountains, it dumps. These ocean-side peaks ride the edge of the freezing level, but are first in line for storms, and only a stone’s throw from some of the most frenzied skiing in the world. From the top of Unnecessary Mountain, we can see Sky Pilot Mountain and Squamish’s Sea-to-Sky Gondola in the distance, the Tantalus Range just across from it, and, of course, Whistler beyond it.
Joining us today from the Sea-to-Sky zone is Matt Gunn, who runs the South Coast Touring group on Facebook, which boasts 11,000 members. While he most often skis at home in Squamish, this storm actually hit the city better, and he was happy to be in position. He says Squamish once represented a different idea than the city, but these days the two bleed together. Diehard outdoors people like Stoddart, who’s the B.C. sales rep for the outdoor brands Dynafit and Rab, are able to thrive in Vancouver; and urban planners, like Gunn, can thrive in Squamish.
“There’s certainly an increasing level of connection between Squamish and the city,” Gunn says. “The relatively short commute and high housing values in the city mean loads of people are moving to Squamish, in order to afford the form of housing they want while maintaining good employment in the city. At this point, we consider Squamish to be fully integrated in the Lower Mainland housing market.”
When I ask Stoddart why he doesn’t live somewhere smaller, like Squamish, he has a practiced answer.
“There’s more easy access to people who are into the same stuff as you in mountain towns,” he tells me, “but the people you meet who are into it in cities are exceptionally into it, because of how hard you have to work to make that balance happen. I feel it’s very vogue right now to hate on cities, but they’re one of the coolest human phenomena. Cities have existed since the birth of civilization and they’re diverse. I love skiing, I love climbing, I love biking, but those aren’t that important to humanity, you know?”
For Stoddart, it’s nice to not be ruled by his recreation. He can have every other kind of conversation in the city, though skiing is still clearly what’s most on his mind. He points south, and I’m smacked in the face by Vancouver’s iconic twin granite peaks, The Lions. Their hanging faces look like they’re right out of Chamonix, France. “The left one’s been skied, but the right one hasn’t,” he says, explaining he’s tried it three times without success. “It’s possibly the most high-profile first descent in North America, with 3 million people looking at it every day.”
IT’S RAINING SHEETS as photographer Bruno Long and I pull off the Mount Seymour Parkway and into an A&W. Long is buzzing over who we’re meeting here, as this city continues to feel like a constant game of juxtapositioning. This is possibly the last place I’d expect to find Jordan Manley, one of the most poetic visionaries in skiing. He cracks a shameless grin, tearing into a burger while waiting for his twin brother Chad, and their friend Michael Lis. Manley, who stormed the ski scene as a breakout photographer just over a decade ago, is now most famous for making the art house and award-winning film series A Skier’s Journey. These days he makes outdoor-focused films centered on ecology, big ideas and—sometimes—skiing.
In the winter months, it’s his multi-night-a-week ritual to meet here to go ski touring on Mount Seymour. When it’s cloudy out, the lights from the ski area reflect back down into the adjacent backcountry and make it visible. As longtime passholders, he and his friends like to skin up in the peace of the forest and then ski back down the lit in-bounds runs. While Seymour has plenty of backcountry that’s obviously more easily navigated in daylight, it’s being able to have a full day at work and still ski tour at night that compels this group.
Once Chad and Lis meet us, it’s a short drive up into the snow, where we stride out of the parking lot under artificially glowing cloud cover. Impressively, you don’t even need a headlamp. Manley and his brother grew up in the forest borough of Deep Cove at the base of this mountain. As we walk, he tells me he still feels a special connection to it, and all the facets of urban life that touch it.
“Vancouver is home, it’s where my family is. And I enjoy the diversity of what exists in a city. A piece of that diversity is the mountain landscape to the north. There are crowded spots and there are many spots where you never see or hear people—some places are nearly hidden from the low hum of the city. In the course of a few hours you can be immersed in such drastically different environments. That contrast hasn’t grown old on me.”
Neither has the skiing. Which, during the daytime, offers views that extend over the city into the Cascade Mountains, the Salish Sea, and the unfolding Coast Range as it leads all the way to Alaska. On a good year you can ski in this view from October to June.
For Manley’s brother Chad, and their friend Lis, it’s the tension between the human landscape and the natural one that allows them to have fulfilling careers. They’re both architects, and the city is core to what they do—but so is the wild.
“Western North America still is a frontier,” Chad says. “I think there’s a lot to explore professionally in that, and in the time I spend in the backcountry, and those two things feed into each other a lot. The future expresses itself differently in the city than it does in a small town, or at least a resort town. You come into contact with lots of different kinds of real people. I’m not saying people aren’t real in Whistler, but there’s an expression of global urgency in the city, and I think that’s important to me right now.”
Living these two lives is kind of like syncopation, he figures. The trick is to move to the counter beat of the city. With each step we take up the mountain, that’s exactly what it feels like. It beams beneath us as we regroup on a bald snow-capped summit behind the bull wheel of the Brockton Chairlift. A few minutes later, we slam our boots into ski mode, and tilt our tips downhill. I follow the frenetic friends down the soft run in a blitz, entwining left and rights as they pop off side-hits and slash rollers like kids. If conditions are good, they’ll do two or three laps.
“It reduces skiing down to something towards its essence,” Lis tells me later, settling into the Rock Chute Bar & Grill. A small family operation, Seymour evokes the past with more than just its natural history. It’s home to one of the last vintage ’80s ski bars in the province, which you’ll find hidden in the midst of one of the most heavily gentrified cities in North America. An early leader in densification, Vancouver has gotten so dressed up in the last 15 years it’s become the second most expensive city in North America—behind only San Francisco.
Lis says that, while he and his wife, a musician, both work in the cultural sector and require the bustle of the city, they have at times thought about leaving because of how costly it is. More than the work and the diversity, though, it’s the mountains that keep them here. “I’ve never skied more days in my life than since we started doing this [nightly ritual],” he says. “And I used to ski a lot as a kid.”
A COUPLE DAYS LATER the mountains are completely caked again. Vying with a contingent of devout dawn patrollers, Long and I line up for the road to Cypress to open at 7 a.m. When we finally get to the parking area below the uptrack to Hollyburn Mountain, we’re not alone—it’s slammed. Thankfully, Tara Mowat and Kieran Evans, two locals, are here to show us around, along with an impressively big gaggle of their friends. Stoddart is on the mountain, too, but running laps around us on his own focused program.
To manage our numbers, we split into smaller groups. Mowat and Evans lead us up convoluted terrain that would have anyone without local knowledge scratching their heads. After 30 minutes of punching trail, we emerge above a gorgeous tree run that leads to the flank of the mountain. Peeling skins, we drop into the loftily spaced old growth to find pockets of instability in some spots, but manageable hero snow anchored by the forest everywhere else. Evans’s skiing is so animated it almost seems comical, slashing every nuanced roll and buttering through the powder with pin bindings. His is the unbound energy of youth that’s cramped in a classroom all day. Evans is a student at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, studying fish wildlife, and works the phones part-time at MEC.
The effervescent Vancouverite grew up in Kitsilano, by the beach, but lives in East Vancouver now—the gritty, cultural centre of the city. He learned to ski on touring gear, on this very mountain, and wasn’t raised in resort culture. These local hills are so formative to him he has Howe Sound embedded in the custom graphics of his skis. He says he has no interest in Whistler, the North Shore Mountains are where it’s at, and he loves the city.
“Vancouver’s an odd one because it’s pretty unique in its proximity to fun. You can actually have a nice job, you can still ski on the weekends, you can still ski before work. It has a lot of those small-town perks of having mountains nearby, but you can also come home and not have to do that. You don’t have to live and breathe skiing every waking moment of the day. You can do other city stuff.”
While Mowat agrees, she admits to being a bit more conflicted. She lives in Deep Cove and works for Cycling BC, leading their development team. She’s candid that the city can be tough at times, especially during the foggy socked-in winters. “I get really sad down there,” she says. “But I can do a Brockton lap [on Mount Seymour] in an hour and a half from my house.”
The plus side of the city is the amount of people increases opportunity to meet interesting folks, and learn interesting things. Part of that, for her, is volunteering for North Shore Rescue as one of 50 elite members who get some of the highest-end rescue training in the world. Her athleticism and enthusiasm for tough stuff shines as she breaks trail to a corner of the mountain that gets us even farther from the crowds, and into a 300-metre gully with pillows lining each side. For a brief moment, I feel like I’m back in my home haunt of Revelstoke, B.C., as she and Evans howl down the run.
A few delirious minutes later, we transition back to walk mode for our final lap. While we skin, Mowat tells me she has found Vancouver cliquey at times (which it notoriously is), and that the cost of living does sometimes have her dreaming of a smaller, more affordable place. But in the end, she gets everything she needs here.
“I’m sure I sacrifice things, but I don’t know. I don’t go out [on the town] much. It’s kind of interesting, the equipment costs money, but what we did today, aside from gas, it doesn’t cost anything to go ski touring. Maybe I just keep so busy playing outside so that I don’t spend my money.”
By the time we’re charging back to the parking lot, the splintered factions from our full group this morning funnel back in from all sides. It’s 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, and many of these folks are already late for work. But it’s a powder day in Vancouver, and this is one of the few cities with a 20-centimetre rule.
“How was it?” Evans asks Stoddart, as he brushes off his snow-covered car. “So good,” he says. “Let’s do this again tomorrow!”