The weather in the Canadian Rockies in late summer and early fall can bring anything, including a very early ski season if you know where to look. This year I’ve already seen a few people get some turns in after a short period of snowfall in the high alpine. While I’m sure most people will continue waiting for an actual snowpack, I expect the trend of more people getting turns early on to continue.
If you’re a skier on social media, then I’m sure you’ve seen the “early season skiing is dangerous” posts in the past by all sorts of different accounts. And they aren’t wrong. Early season skiing has issues that are either not found once the snowpack is deeper or are at least worse early on. I’ve known more than a few people who have ended their season in September, October or November because they were skiing like it was February, March or April. If you are going to ski when the snow is low, you must change your mindset to match what is going on out there.
When skiing in the early season, I focus on building uphill fitness, enjoying being outside, gathering early season snowpack data and going slow on the down. Often, I will stay on summer trails or set an uptrack that is easy to follow back down at a slow speed. My focus is generally not on the downhill aspect; if I want to build downhill strength, I’ll head to a ski resort.
Before getting into all the dangers for the skier, I’d like to highlight one issue many seem to not think about, destroying vegetation. I spend most of my time skiing in National Parks, and one of the main reasons for such areas is to protect them. Skiing low amounts of snow over sensitive ground coverage can set back the ecology of the site for long periods of time. Vegetation at treeline and in the subalpine can take decades to grow back.
Long ago, places like Bow Summit and Parker’s Ridge in Banff National Park had signs saying you could not ski there until there was a snowpack of at least 50cm. Those signs are no longer there, and I have failed to find recent information about the rule, but it is still a good general rule to follow in most places for vegetation and general safety.
If you are skiing before there is 50cm on the ground, consider going up and down summer trails. Not only is there no vegetation to destroy on summer trails, but there are usually no rocks or fallen trees to hit. This can be a great way to keep yourself in check and still build some fitness for the long coming season.
While hitting rocks is always on my mind while skiing the Canadian Rockies, it is more so during the first few months of the season. Best case, hitting a rock at speed can damage your ski. Worse case, you can end up seriously hurting yourself. Skiing “light” and slow is my go-to way to combat those shallow rocky areas in the early season.
Core shots from rocks are one thing, but have you ever experienced a tib/fib break at the top of a ski boot due to hitting deadfall? I haven’t, but I’ve seen it. Trust me. It’s ugly. If you are travelling below treeline, you’re almost certainly going to run into downed trees or stumps. This issue can even hang around in the Canadian Rockies until mid-season depending on snowfall. Again to combat this danger, it’s best to slow down and keep your tips up. Following a well-set skin track back to the car is also a great option.
I grew up skiing a lot of bush as a kid, so it’s never bothered me, but over the years, I have realized that not everyone finds it so easy. While small plants aren’t going to break your legs or put core shots in your skis, they can trip you up, resulting in hitting trees. If you see a thick section of bush on your way back down from a day of skiing, either avoid it or slow down to assess.
Many will look to glaciers for their early season turns, and while there won’t be as many rocks and certainly no trees, there are other dangers to consider. Smaller crevasses could start to bridge, and while you won’t be able to fall into them, with some bad luck, you could get one ski stuck with the other still sliding. Larger crevasses may or may not be covered up. If they are covered, then it provides a serious trap. If they are not covered, you’ll need to note them and avoid them. Always bring a rope and rescue gear on glaciers and know how to do self-rescue.
Early wet snow can stick to steep north-facing glaciated couloir features, 3/4 Couloir is an excellent example, and September can often offer some great skiing in this feature. Skiing new snow that sits on ice or firn snow presents the skier with complex snowpack analyses. Moisture coming off the rock walls, or snow melt, can lubricate the interface between the glacier and the new snow, quickly releasing all the fresh snow without much warning. Starting early in the morning can still not guard against this issue as it won’t take much temperature change to get this process going. And if you arrive in the dark only to find yourself climbing 3/4 Couloir on bare ice, you might have to switch over mid-run off an ice screw belay, as I once did, so make sure to have an “alpine climber” mindset when attempting these features in the early ski season.
Glacier toes with drop-offs will either be hollow or have steep (or no) rolls to often flat areas. Some lakes found at glacier toes will have no or thin ice, which you should avoid. Melt channels might look like fun mini half pipe features in the early season, but the drain hole at the end might break your femur. So, if you didn’t check the glacier out in late summer for such traps, then skiing it in October might not be the most brilliant move.
Generally speaking, lakes in the early season should all be suspect. Even if the ice looks solid, it could have weak sections where the channels are flowing. If you are crossing a freshly frozen lake, you can test thickness with a long ice screw, but if it’s come to that, then maybe it’s best to avoid travelling over it in the first place?
Most rivers in the mountains run year-round. By mid-season, most are covered in snow. You will probably be disappointed if you think you can cross a river in November where you crossed it last March. Some people use industrial garbage bags over their ski boots to cross rivers, others remove their boots and dry their feet on the other side, while most will attempt to skin or walk across fallen trees.
Contrary to some online armchair skiers, avalanches happen in the early season and with shallow snow. Once those first layers start to form, you can get slides. Some avalanches will run off the ground because there isn’t much snow in the first place. Off-the-ground avalanches can seriously injure or kill you from trauma alone. River and lake terrain traps become even more severe due to not being frozen. Never underestimate how little snow can end up killing you in the mountains, and always take your avalanche and first aid gear with you.
Have Fun and Be Safe!
Backcountry skiing isn’t a race (no matter what those skimo kids say), so when the snow starts to drop, take a deep breath and remember that our ski season in the Canadian Rockies lasts like 75% of the year. There is no point in rushing out there to get injured over 15cm of powder over rocks. If you go out, make sure to ski to coverage, not to your ability, and consider that not everything will look or be the same as it was when you were there last spring. Even when there is low snow, bring all the avalanche safety gear you would on any backcountry skiing day and be prepared to spend the night out in case of injury. Most of all, have fun. After all, it’s just sliding on snow (or rocks, or stumps… through bush).