K-Country is Calgary’s favourite backcountry ski range. So it was the natural place to meet one of Calgary’s favourite skiers, Rob Heule, for a day of exploring and making powder turns. Rob’s “little house in the woods,” as he calls it, sits where these mountains taper out into the foothills near Bragg Creek, making him about as local as it gets here. We took the opportunity to “follow the local” for a day and learn a thing or two. Here are a few of the lessons we learned:
You need a capable rig to drive the Smith Dorian road in winter. On this day, there was fresh snow, and the road had only been plowed half of the way from Canmore to Hero’s Knob. Rob’s 1991 Toyota pickup has been lifted with upgraded suspension, and those big tires smooth out the ride noticeably. The studded tires add traction and allow you to drive a decent speed and get to the skiing on time.
It helps when The North Face gives you all of the future’s best ski layers, but everyone can learn the layering lesson.
-In the backcountry, you want a top that’s light and breathable to keep you from getting too sweaty while touring uphill; a wind shirt, fleece or softshell. Maybe the Candide C1 Polar Fleece?
-A classic hardshell outer layer will keep the wind out when you are skiing fast and keep you dry when it’s snowing hard; gore-tex or a similar fabric like you’d wear at the ski hill but stripped of any insulation to keep it packable and as light as possible. Something like the Flylow Quantum Pro.
-A puffy jacket of some kind that keeps you warm when you stop or when the temperatures drops; down is light and very packable (remember this all goes in your backpack when you aren’t wearing it), synthetic puffy jackets are usually more affordable and provide better warmth when wet than down. Still, they aren’t as warm for their weight and don’t pack down as small. Try the Patagonia Down Sweater.
-Any shell pants will work, but the ideal ones for a ski tour will have big thigh pockets to carry every little thing you need and keep it handy. Bibs are popular because they keep all that deep powder out, stay up even when your backpack is riding down your back and often have a designated avalanche transceiver pocket. You’ll want leg vents for the up, as well. The Armada Novena 3L pants are nice!
We wrote about Rob’s skis, boots and bindings last spring. They’re the right kind of setup for K-Country, where the approaches are generally short, and an emphasis is put on the downhill, but you still have to keep it light enough to travel. Rob rides Line Skis and uses a Marker Kingpin when touring and no matter which model he's on, he makes them look fun and surfy in powder.
K-Country was fairly heavily logged back in the day, and the regrowth in those areas is brutal to try and ski through. I was skeptical when Rob started up towards one of these areas, but he assured me, “We’ll find an old skid road in there somewhere.” Sure enough, we bumped into one quickly, and it led us gently up and across to a more friendly, older growth forest further up the mountain.
Everyone learns this the hard way when their skis ice up in the back of a truck or water freezes to their skins: carry a scraper of some kind in the backcountry. An old ski pass will work, but a light metal snow crystal card lasts forever and may help you identify weak layers in the snow. It will certainly take ice off your bases and snow off your skins when you need it to.
There’s really no skiing in the Rockies without driving, so make the most of it. Bring a cup of coffee and share some good tunes. Rob’s old Toyota is sweet, but the stereo only has a tape deck which means finding a classic cassette that has survived a couple of decades in someone’s basement. Ian Tyson, Motorhead, Cat Stevens. It’s a surprise every time in the old truck.
The skiing is not always great, but you can always keep yourself in great company. We had fantastic snow but questionable avalanche conditions, so we skied short, well protected and safe slopes. It’s the kind of terrain that might not inspire some skiers, but we spent the day marvelling at the dramatic mountain faces around us and giving thanks for the great weather and soft turns.
You should bring a sense of adventure to K-Country, too. There’s usually a bushwhack at some point or a river crossing. There’s always somewhere new worth exploring, but you’ll have to climb over downed trees or bootpack up rocky sections. It’s all part of the fun if your crew has the right attitude.