Honored to present a story from new Canadian Jones Ambassador Joe Lax! Based out of Pemberton, Joe is a pioneering Coast range freerider who lives to ride rowdy spine lines and seemingly untouchable faces. In this feature story Joe shares thoughts on the experience, pre-trip planning and snowpack analysis that allow him to safely shred some of the steepest lines around.
Story by Joe Lax. Photos by Brad Slack.
The Coast Mountains in southwest British Columbia has been my home base for many years. Having a solid network of partners and friends and living close to the alpine walls and spines in the Pemberton Valley it has helped to maintain the mountain lifestyle I value so much. Balancing the realities of life with the drive to adventure and snowboard has it’s challenges, but every time I go into the mountains I am reminded that is worth it and it’s why I live where I do.
The backcountry around Whistler and the Sea To Sky corridor can sometimes be a very busy place. A concentrated combination of sleds, helis and skins puts pressure on the powder resources. There is definitely a hunger to be in the mountains that pulses through the area, especially when the sky goes blue. The steep fluted terrain and consistent snow is a huge draw, attracting both film crews and powder hounds alike. This season, cold winter storms locked in for nearly three months providing bountiful amounts of cold pow at the expense of many sunny days.
Adventure and exploration is a big part of the riding I do with my friends. We try to distance ourselves from the crowds, but we also like to maximize efficiency by getting somewhere where we know the riding is good — especially when the high pressure windows are short. When spring finally sets in and the confines of the winter weather loosen their grip a huge playground exposes itself in every direction. The days are also longer, and the snowpack is deeper making the lines in the high terrain a lot more achievable.
The maritime snowpack that is prevalent in the area is the main reason we can step to the bigger terrain sooner. The snow that falls at warmer temps is denser and has the ability to stick to steep terrain— often coating vertical features that otherwise wouldn’t be rideable. These consistent storms and moderate temps typically produce a faster settling snowpack, but this season has been a bit different that usual. During the early season we had more cold storms than I have every seen. The snow didn’t stick well in the alpine, leaving it rockier and leaner than usual while the sub-alpine and tree-line received the deep, wind delivered snow.
The weather patterns changed during the month of March with snow falling at more moderate temps nearly everyday. The consistent snow helped bridge the weak layers in the thin pack while adding meters of base in the alpine over a relatively short period. Though the Coast mountains have a more stable snowpack then many other regions, we can still get funky layers in the snow like rain and sun crusts, surface hoar and facets.
With the predominant wind direction out of the Southwest, heavy storm cycles can create huge cornices over the North facing terrain in the Coast range. A healthy respect for cornices is crucial and knowing where you are and what is solid ground on a given ridge line can be key to survival. It’s also in the back of my mind that a heavy cornice fall can have the ability to wake up suspect deep layers in the snowpack that have become dormant. I always prefer to be a moving target by avoiding or at least limiting exposure to cornices, especially during the heat of the day.
Relying on years of exploration and experience, pre trip planning is often just picking an area to ride with like-minded friends. We discuss our desired area to ride and whether it is achievable based on current conditions. Weather can change quickly and drastically around here so it’s often necessary to go somewhere with terrain options for stormy weather.
Cracking into seemingly locked up north facing terrain can be challenging to say the least. Having experience with the area we have a good understanding of what it takes to make it on slope. I carry at least 30 meters of rope to have the ability to rappel in if need be. On this day, we decided we could get on slope by standing on what we knew was solid rock and chipping away the cornice to make an easy entrance. As the season rolls on sometimes it’s a mandatory rappel as the height of the drop in gets extended and the exposure at the top of the lines is greater.
The avy forecast was rated moderate the day I rode this spine line. In general the stability was solid but I paid special attention to the potential of small windslabs as the high pressure brought heavy winds when the storms cleared. Choosing steeper, protected terrain can be safer at times as it’s less affected by the wind and steeper slopes tend to clean themselves more often, reducing the load. If I can, when I drop into lines I try to do a initial cut of the slope to knock away any slab buildups on the top of the line.
Photo - Delaney Zayac
With the steep spines and fluted features I like to ride, unexpected rocks, ice and heavy slough are all variables I think about. When dropping into lines with no fall zones I run through these variables in my head and make the call whether I can get down it safely and if I am feeling mentally confident as well. Certain terrain allows you to ride them in a right to left of left to right direction - this allows you to manage your slough. If the line is fall line I make the decision whether I need to go really fast or slower allowing the slough to move by. To me, this is part of the advantage of living near the mountains. If I’m not feeling something and the conditions aren’t right I can come back some other time when they are. Whether that’s in a few days, months or years from now, or maybe I never ride it. It’s never worth the consequence if the conditions aren’t right.
As winter turns to spring the dark north facing walls begin to receive light. My eyes open to new lines and possibilities that often causes a certain level obsession until the opportunity to ride them transpires. As we push deeper into the range - we utilize sleds, splitboards, ice axes and crampons to get into these remote zones to ride our dream lines. As much as I feel closed in sometimes by all the people that utilize the backcountry in the area there is always more to explore and it would take several lifetimes to see it all.