Beware of men who ski with a gumshield…

Nick May 11th, 2010

Sunshine Village is one of three ski resorts on Banff’s excellent tri-area ski lift ticket. It sits a short 20 minute drive from downtown Banff. It’s one of my favourite places to ski – it has a huge amount of interesting terrain, dramatic scenery, a great snow record and a long season, with skiing available well into May.  Today was cold, bright and crisp with a load of new snow – perfect conditions for an adventure…

Saturday 10th April 2010: Michael Bennett (Ski Independence MD) and I found ourselves sipping small lattes in the Java Lift café in the amazing Sunshine Mountain Lodge, mid-mountain on Sunshine, waiting for our friend and guide for the day – Mike Moynihan. We had a cunning plan to ski two of Sunshine’s double black diamond extreme ski areas where special restrictions apply – both are gate-controlled by ski patrol, and both require avalanche transceiver, shovel and a ski companion. Nice.

Little do we know what is ahead of us… Mike obviously knows though!

We’d skied the first – Delirium Dive – with Mike years ago, and knew it was ‘testy’, but the second – The Wild West – is rarely open, and we’d heard it really was ‘wild’ in the extreme. There was a strong rumour that it would open today for the first time in months. Mike had mentioned ‘mandatory air’ and ‘extreme exposure’. We had mentioned going to the hot-tub – he was having none of it…

Skiing with Mike is always huge fun. He’s had so many injuries that he only skis half the day (his knees are both shot by lunchtime), but at the pace he skis it feels like a full day. He also skis with a gumshield! Oh, and he has a metal plate in his head somewhere… you get the picture. The day was heading towards 10 on the epicosity scale.

Mike turned up sporting an enormous pair of reverse camber skis – big, fat and shaped like a banana. The perfect skis for deep snow off-piste. We went for a very quick warm-up cruiser run on a nice blue groomer just to shake the cobwebs out. Most amusingly for my colleague Michael, these were his very first turns of the winter. How he laughed at the extensive warm up and gentle easing into a high adrenalin situation… Personally, I made sure my camera batteries were working.

Warm up run completed, we set off up the Continental Divide Express quad chair to head for Delirium Dive. At the top of the chairlift ride, we turned on our transceivers, shouldered our skis and headed for the gate. The electronic gate into Delirium will only open when it senses a live transceiver signal. It opened and we were through the gate. Now we had to climb to the top of Lookout Mountain to access Delirium – at just under 9,000ft, not easy when we live at sea-level. Although it’s only a 5 minute climb, it really gets the heart rate working. Once you get to the top and have a look over the edge into Delirium Dive, the heart starts pounding just that wee bit more.

Michael catching his breath before venturing on

We were some of the very first skiers to stand at the top of Delirium Dive after a couple of days of heavy snow. Perfect conditions awaited. As the slope is so steep, you have to hang the front of your skis over the edge of the cornice to actually peer over into the Dive – ouch. The sensation you feel standing on that edge really makes you feel alive I can tell you. Mike took us over to the high entrance to the Dive – a nice three mandatory turns entry which concentrates both mind and technique. Michael and I exchanged glances – I knew what he was thinking: ‘my second run of the season, and I’m standing at the top of a 45% slope with a really sketchy entry…’. Life’s for living, eh? In we went and survived the first three ‘must make’ turns to get into the Dive proper. Once you’re in, the slope widens into a huge bowl, with several descent options. The pitch was steep – really steep – but the snow was deep and light. After a few gentler turns to get into things, we were soon in the groove and shredding down the first section. As we descended, the snow pack changed and became slightly erratic – powder, a bit of slab and a few death cookies. We both managed to eat a couple of ‘cookies’! Needless to say Mr Moynihan was cranking big fast turns down the slope. The second section gives you a few more choices – we headed skier’s right across to and under a cliff band to the third section round the shoulder of the mountain into a new gladed area – untracked foot deep powder. The business! Fifty awesome turns in hero snow. Big smiles all around. Time for another run down the Dive before the Wild West area opened? – you betcha. More tracked out the second time down, and if anything an even sketchier entrance, but super fun all the way down. But now, time for something completely different…

As we headed over towards Goat’s Eye mountain and the Wild West, we knew this would be a totally different event. Different terrain style and a different technique required – where the Dive was all open space, big mountain, steep skiing, the Wild West needed sharper, more precise technique and route finding – basically the area is a series of rock bands interspersed with narrow chutes. Get your route wrong and you’d be looking for new troosers.

Just do a turn there and there and there… easier said than done!

The Wild West entrance again requires a working transceiver to open the gate – this time you ski through. The entrance is gentle and makes you underestimate what’s on the main course. Suddenly the terrain drops through a gladed zone into a series of steep chutes down to the cliff section. I gave a small prayer of thanks to the Six Gods of Skiing (Stenmark, Plake, Coombs, McConkey, Morrison and Schmidt) that we had a guide like Mike Moynihan who knew where the best route with the best snow stash would be. This was duly found. And we were duly found wanting…jeez, and I thought my tight turn technique was sound. Once we dropped into a 3 metre wide 200m long chute with 10m walls of solid rock of either side and a heinous pitch I soon realised that at 181cm my skis were perhaps just a tad long. Tight turns? Tight everything. We were spat out the bottom of the chute into another tight gladed section – fabulous fun skiing through undulating terrain. We stopped to look back up at a couple of boarders who’d taken the wrong route and were now faced with some nice ‘mandatory airtime’ at the top of the cliff band. Sob.

By this time Mike’s knees were exiting stage left so we headed for a well-earned lunch. All in all a perfect morning of testing skiing in great company.

I’m off to buy a gumshield and pair of new troosers…

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    One Response to “Beware of men who ski with a gumshield…”

    1. Michael Bennett says:

      One of my best days on the mountain to date. Still smiling. Next season I won’t even bother with a warm up run…….

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