One of my favourite parts about the Coast Mountain Range is the wild and remote feeling you get from travelling in it's mountains. Overall, Canada is renown for it's vast wilderness and that wilderness is shrinking. Fortunately, the development of roads, town and industry has yet to have much impact on the Coast Mountains. Wilderness is important. It is nature in it's pristine and unaltered form. It's hard to put a monetary value to wilderness but more than money, wilderness provides an escape from our busy lives and has a beauty which transcends words.
For two to three decades access into this wilderness has been mainly limited to flight and travel on foot. Those with pockets deep enough could access the wilderness by helicopter or bush/ski plane. This led to a rapid rise in heli-skiing, where people would want to go beyond the range of a ski lift to experience this wilderness with the use of a helicopter. Heli-skiers, led by guides, fly to remote untracked powder slopes with incredible surroundings. After the heli flies away, all that is left to do is point the tips downhill and experience what wild mountains have to offer. After the helicopter lifts off with the group, all that's left on the mountain are tracks in the snow, not a spot of damage.
Contrarily men and women with the will to adventure and explore would set out on foot into this wilderness. Sometimes only for a day, sometimes for months at a time. With heavy packs, callused feet, time and determination these individuals could surpass the fuel range of a helicopter and explore the wilderness deeper than any other. With the assistance of ski/bush planes, transportation to remote locations and food drops could be arranged so that an individual on foot could, with effort, explore the wilderness even further.
Because of the difficulties, dangers and sheer length of time associated with travelling on foot, the number of people who were willing to travel through the wilderness this way was limited. With such a vast area and so few people travelling through it, it was easy to share.
In recent years though, a surge in snowmobile technology has given new wings to these machines allowing them to travel further and faster than ever before. These snow machines can now carry people up steeper hills, through deeper snow and for a longer period of time. Skiers soon realized that you could strap your skis to this machine and use it to shuttle you up. Sled-skiers take part in what heli-skiers have had to themselves for so long for a fraction of the cost. In addition, riding a snowmobile is fun. Many go up without skis just to experience the scenery and for the rush of riding the machine through deep snow and up steep hills.
The snowmobile's new wings was both a gift and a curse. Many sledders who have been sledding for years all of a sudden had access to mountains but had not acquired the proper knowledge to travel through them safely. Crevassed glaciers, avalanching slopes and the pure remoteness are huge dangers which remained, for the most part, non-understood by these snowmobilers. Likewise, skiers who had skied at the resort all their life did not understand the dangers of skiing similar slopes in the backcountry which have not been controlled like their ski resort counterparts.
Fortunately there have been leaps and bounds in education aimed at snowmobilers. Cabins were raised to provide assistance to stranded snowmobilers and avalanche courses were directed specifically towards this new target audience.
Ski touring also has continued to grow. Touring gear is coming closer to pleasing the needs of hard charging skiers and at the same time is becoming lighter and faster. Cabins have been erected to provide a comfortable sleep at night for those wanting to spend multiple days in the backcountry.
All this increased access into the backcountry is great. I feel that the wild mountains, rivers and valleys of Canada are for everyone to share and with more people visiting these areas it creates more reason for them to exist and remain as they are. Undisturbed.
With all this increased traffic in the backcountry, a silent war for terrain has arisen between the ski touring community and those using the power of machines for access.
Ski touring, being self propelled travel on foot, continues as always to be arduous and time consuming. Although an individual on foot can have a long range, many people who ski tour look for options which involve the most pleasure for the smallest effort. Given that most of us only have 1-2 days off work at a time, the amount of areas we can access in 48 hours from the road is limited. When ski touring, the number of runs you ski is also limited. How much you climb in a day determines how much you ski and because it's often not a lot, every run is precious. Ski touring is also very quiet. With no cars around, no civilization, the sounds are those of wind, animals, your skis sliding through the snow, your breath in the cool air and that of your throbbing heart. For many, that's how they like it. It is an escape from the noise of the city, of machines and thousands of other humans packed together, pulsing through concrete environments.
It is understandable that it comes to a ski touring group's dismay when a group of people on snow machines make seconds of a hill you took hours to climb, which continues past you growling and whirring with a loud 2-stroke engine and makes waste of the beautiful powder you had hoped to ski. Similarly, it is tragic to see a helicopter fly by overhead, humming and buzzing by to drop skiers off tracking out that snow slope you had eyed for hours.
Unlike the ski touring community, the snowmobiling community has no issue with having ski tourers around. They are happy sharing any terrain. After all, those who are ski touring make very little noise, leave very few tracks and can only travel so far.
If someone ski touring wants to avoid snowmobiles they have to choose from the limited options of "Non-Motorized Areas", Provincial Parks and areas where a snowmobile simply can't access due to difficult terrain. For the most part there are no issues this way but problems arise when snowmobilers and helicopters encroach on the limited terrain reserved to ski tourers. In the sea-to-sky corridor, the main examples are heli skiing in the Spearhead Range within Garibaldi Provincial Park and snowmobilers travelling through the Rainbow-21 mile-Callaghan Non-motorized zones.
I know it doesn't sound like sharing if we separate areas and say that snowmobilers and heli-skiers can't access them but in reality, this is the only way to share the wilderness. Snowmobiles and helicopters with all their range and speed have a much larger choice of terrain options to choose from than those of us who ski tour. For this reason, boundaries need to be respected so that everyone may find a piece of wilderness to enjoy in whichever way they choose fit.
Ski touring and snowmobiling are both rapidly expanding and there will be the need to work together so that conflicts don't arise. I don't believe that the answer is to create more non-motorized areas to accommodate ski tourers but to be able to share the wilderness. To make this possible a simple code of ethics is important to follow.
For those who ski tour:
-Understand the backcountry is not yours alone. Snowmobilers have as much of a right to many of these areas as you.
-If you are on a logging road in deep snow with a snowmobile coming, step out of the way, snowmobilers don't like veering off the road or stopping due to the risk of getting stuck.
-Learn the potential of spring skiing. In April, May and June, logging roads open up and provide access to a lot of new terrain. Spend time researching the potential for ski traverses and new areas to spend day tripping. You may have to walk at the trailhead but up high there should still be a lot of snow.
-Learn the potential of ski plane drop offs (and pick ups).
-Look up catered or self catered, guided or self guided ski touring lodges
-Understand that your machine makes a lot of noise and can be viewed as disruptive. Ski tourers don't mind if you come up close to say hello and chat but for the most part, keep your distance when passing by. If you are both on a logging road, slow down or make yourself known so that you may pass.
-If backcountry skiers are in the vicinity or the parking lot, choose to ride in a different zone so that they may have areas to ski. Do not just rip up a zone which a ski tourer will access later in the day, choose a far away zone. If the amount of terrain is limited and you cannot get to a farther zone, leave some untracked snow for the ski tourer.
-Do not high-mark or cut slopes above slow moving ski tourers.
Many who ski tour and snowmobile follow these ethics already but not all. I have had snowmobiles whirl circles around me, high-mark above me and destroy powder slopes I had hoped to ski. Likewise, many who ski tour feel that the wilderness should only be to those who make the effort to access it in a self propelled manner. This sort of thought process is an elitist and purist way of thinking. Everyone has a right to access the wilderness, the issue is not how we access it but how we treat each other in the wilderness. Simply it's about being able to share our wilderness.
As a continuation to this post, I wrote a piece about travelling the Wilderness on Foot, advocating self propelled travel.