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Skiing at Cypress

Cat Track 1

Yesterday was the last day of the ski season on Cypress Mountain ― and what a season it was! I can’t remember when I’ve seen as much snow on the mountain as I did this year. Total snow accumulation of close to ten metres and a base of almost four metres made for some spectacular skiing.

Collins Top

Not all years are alike on our local mountains (thank you, climate change), so I do not take a good ski season for granted. Cypress Mountain was the venue for the 2010 Olympics Freestyle Skiing and Snowboard events, but the conditions that year were close to disastrous. That snow had to be flown in by helicopter to make the mountain competition-worthy got a lot of media attention. And last year the snow conditions were just as bad, if not worse.

Upper Collins

If you are from Vancouver, you’ve probably been skiing since before you could walk, but for those of us who grew up on the flat prairie, hurling oneself down a mountain doesn’t come as naturally. I finally decided I should give skiing a try after I spent a week hiking in the Swiss Alps with an Australian who could not stop talking about how much he loved the sport. But upon my return to Canada, and after my first few feeble attempts at skiing down a mountain, I quickly realized I badly needed expert help and should take some lessons.

And then … I promptly moved to Toronto and spent a decade there, where, yes, skiing takes much more effort than when you live in a city surrounded by mountains. (No, Blue Mountain does not count. When a friend from Collingwood showed me where she learned to ski, I laughed. And laughed and laughed.)

Lower Collins

And so, after moving back west, with the urging of a co-worker who told me she was over the age of 40 when she learned to ski and assured me I could too, I found me some courage and signed up for the Adult Learn to Ski Program at Cypress. The program was a great bargain: five lessons, five full-day lift tickets, and five full-day rentals. Plus one night a week of night skiing for the entire season.

And here’s the thing I was thrilled to discovered: ski lessons are nothing like your grade school phys ed class. You remember those.

Howe Sound

Howe Sound as seen from Lion’s Express Chair

No, ski lessons at Cypress are much different. The instructors are careful, considerate, and skilled. (After all, it’s in the resort’s interest to make sure you have fun ― they want you to come back.) I do think it helped me that I was familiar with the sensation of sliding on slippery surfaces, thanks to all those lunch hours spent on my elementary school’s outdoor ice rink. When the instructor told me to do a “hockey stop,” I knew what he meant and could do it on my first attempt. But more than all that, learning how to ski was just so much fun.

Mount Baker

Mount Baker as seen from Black Mountain

The instructors begin by having you slide down a short incline in front of the ski lodge ― just a few metres to start. You move on to a longer incline, and before you know it, you’re on the bunny hill and learning how to turn.

After my first couple of seasons, I bought some second-hand skis and now, every year come December, I regularly check the ski report. The best are the blue bird days ― a brilliant day of sunshine after an overnight snow fall. Fresh powder is what you want. And then there’s spring skiing, which some years ― like this one ― can be awesome.

I know I’ll never be a great skier. No black diamond runs for me. But with 53 runs ― the longest is 4 kilometres ― and a vertical drop of more than 600 metres, there’s plenty on the Cypress Mountain to keep me challenged.

Vancouver can be a miserable place in the winter because of its rain. But all that rain in the city translates to snow on the North Shore mountains. So every winter, when I moan about how much it’s been raining, I only have to look up at the mountains and know that it’s going to be a great ski season.

Barring an early season Pineapple Express, of course.

Cat Track 2

Winter Wonderland

Cypress Snowy Trees 1

Last year around this time, I was bemoaning the lack of snow on the North Shore mountains. The ski season proved to be a washout ― one of the worst ever.

Cypress Snowy Trees 2

This year, the snow conditions couldn’t be more different. The North Shore mountains received a record amount of snow in December, and the three local ski resorts are reporting their best holiday season ever. The quality and quantity of snow we’ve received thus far this winter promises to give us one of the best ski seasons ever ― quite the contrast to last year.

The mountain where I play was operating at capacity the entire Christmas break. I witnessed those crowds for myself yesterday when I was up there to go snowshoeing with some friends. I’ve never seen anything like it at Cypress Mountain.

Cypress Snowy Trees 3

But for all the chaos, once we got going, it was like we’d passed through the Wardrobe Door and entered Narnia. It was certainly a winter wonderland. And that is what I love about Cypress: as busy as it gets, once you’re on the ski runs or the snowshoe trails, you have the mountain almost to yourself ― the resort is that big.

And it’s only a 20-minute drive from downtown Vancouver. I, for one, certainly don’t take that kind of wilderness access for granted.

Here are a few of the many photos I took yesterday. I kept stopping my friends so I could take yet another photo, although by the end of our snowshoe trek I did wonder aloud how many photos of snow-laden trees one might need.

Maybe just one more.

Whiskey Jack

Canyon Lights

Capilano Suspension Bridge 1

The Capilano Suspension Bridge has been a Vancouver attraction since 1889 when George Grant Mackay, the man who owned the land on either side of the Capilano River, built a footbridge out of cedar planks and suspended it over the canyon using hemp rope. The bridge and the park that has developed around it is still privately owned and, to my mind, far too commercialized and far too pricey for what it offers. There are heaps of forest walks and plenty of other bridges to be accessed for free on the North Shore as an alternative to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. It’s on those walks and to those bridges where I take my out-of-town visitors who want a taste of the region’s rainforest.

However, sometimes out-of-town visitors have an agenda of their own and you end up tagging along wherever they want to go. I’m easy. I mean, it’s their vacation, right? And who knows? I might learn something new or see something spectacular.

Capilano Suspension Bridge 2

Such was the case when last week a friend of mine in town for the holidays wanted to see the Canyon Lights at the Capilano Suspension Bridge. In its tenth season, these light displays are part of the park’s massive efforts over the past decade to draw in more and more visitors.

And here was the surprise for me: the Canyon Lights are tasteful and magical, and I highly recommend them as a Vancouver tourist attraction if you happen to be visiting during the holiday season.

Here, take a look. (Click on any photo to open up the slide show.)

Capilano comes from Kia’palano, the name of a Squamish chief during the early 1800s. It means “beautiful river.”

Totems and Lights

One last note: if you have a fear of heights, Capilano Suspension Bridge might not be the place for you. But here’s a pro-tip: in the dark, you can’t see how high up you are!

Cliffwalk

Snowshoeing at Cypress

Trees in Mist

It never happened.

The awesome ski season I was so looking forward to never happened.

In all my years of skiing, I’ve never seen a worse season than this past winter. What little snow the North Shore mountains received last November was washed away with an early season Pineapple Express. (A Pineapple Express is a storm system that moves in on the Pacific Northwest from Hawaii ― they are warm and wet and sometimes windy.)

Warm and wet do not good ski conditions make.

Ski Trail

The irony of me writing a post about our lack of a ski season is that today is Family Day. Family Day is a provincial holiday enjoyed by most Canadian provinces on the third Monday of February (which is also the same day as Presidents’ Day south of the border). But in British Columbia, we celebrate Family Day on the second Monday of February. In my mind, it makes for a weird holiday ― knowing that the rest of Canada is working, I can’t help but feel I’m playing hooky.

Why did BC chose a different weekend than the rest of the country?

I’m so glad you asked as it’s still a sore point for me. I would love to spend a Family Day long weekend with my family in Alberta ― but that’s not possible since our holiday weekends don’t coincide.

The reason our oh-so-wise provincial government leaders chose to set the mid-winter holiday Monday on a different Monday than our neighbours to the east and south of us is so that BC families could have their ski resorts to themselves. (An aside: now there’s a government with a good grasp of how much it costs to raise a family in BC ― did you know that British Columbia has the highest child poverty rate in the country? I bet having a family day on the slopes is a high priority for parents who can’t afford to buy their kids a new pair of runners, much less ski clothes.)

At any rate, here we British Columbians sit with a holiday weekend during which our government promised us we’d have our mountains all to ourselves.

Which we do, because, oh yeah, there’s no snow.

So, what to do instead? Well, even when there isn’t enough snow for skiing, there is enough for snowshoeing, another of my favourite winter activities. (Although, truthfully, I should say was, as even the snowshoeing season appears to be over. The local mountains post daily updates that they remain hopeful more snow is on the way, but I have my doubts that Mother Nature is going to cooperate.)

OK. Enough with the whining. I did have a great day playing in the snow on the mountain a couple of weekends ago with some of my friends, and sharing the photos from that glorious day is the reason I’m posting today.

My friends and I went snowshoeing at Cypress Mountain. Just thirty minutes from downtown Vancouver, Cypress used to be known as Cypress Bowl and consists of three mountains, none of which are named Cypress. Black Mountain and Mount Strachan are where the downhill skiers and snowboarders hang out, and Hollyburn Mountain is the Nordic ski area. There are 11 km of self-guided snowshoe trails on Hollyburn that interlace the cross-country trails and, if you so desire, you can follow those trails all the way to the top of the mountain.

Believe me, it sounds more arduous than it is. Snowshoeing, to the uninitiated, is as simple as going for a hike in the snowy woods. Modern snowshoes have crampons, so climbing or descending the mountain trails is fairly easy to do. Some snowshoers prefer to use poles; they can give you extra stability on the steeper trails.

Snowshoe Trail

The bonus for us on the day we chose to go play in the snow was that Hollyburn was encased in fog, so we had a walk in snowy, misty woods. (Another indication of our warm winter has been the amount of fog we’ve seen these past few months.)

Trail Markers

Part way up Hollyburn Mountain is Hollyburn Lodge, which has been the mountain’s refuge for skiers and snowshoers since 1926.

Hollyburn Lodge

The licensed café inside sells hot and cold food and drinks, although you’re welcome to bring your own food to eat in the lodge. There’s also live music on weekends. And if you chose to join a guided snowshoe tour, fondues (chocolate or cheese!) are part of the package.

Cafe

My friends and I are hoping to squeeze in one more day of snowshoeing this season, but if it doesn’t happen, I know we’ll be back as soon as we can next season.

Through My Lens: Misty Mountain

Fog on Mount Strachan

November is notorious for being wet and windy in Vancouver, but we skiers don’t care. The more rain in the city, the more snow on the mountains. But this has been an unusual November in that the weather has been cold and clear for several weeks now. (Naturally, “cold” in Vancouver is relative; it’s hovering around 0°C most mornings ― quite balmy by Canadian standards.)

Turns out that cold and clear is perfect snow-making weather. Machine-made snow makes an excellent base, so as long as it doesn’t warm up when it (inevitably) starts to rain, we’re looking at a pretty good ski season. I can’t wait.

Someone must have known that, because this weekend the local mountains opened for the season.

The above photo was taken from Mount Strachan at the Cypress Mountain ski resort.