Going Solo

Hopefully, the snowboarders kill it, the shooter gets his shots, and the writer nails the story. It doesn’t always turn out that way–myriad unforeseen snafus regularly foil the best-laid plans–but the goal is always the same, and the pressure to “get the shots” within that window of opportunity can be taxing. Sometimes you lose sight of the fact that you’re at an incredible location, hanging and riding with some of the most talented snowboarders in the world (just trying to keep up with them, really).

So when a chance for a solo trip presents itself, I take it. When you’re by yourself, you’re more aware of what’s going on around you. You watch and listen, strike up conversations with total strangers, and generally meet some amazing people and experience things that would’ve never happened had you been traveling en masse with a crew.

It’s only logical. Imagine you’re at the local pub when a loud group of out-of-towners stumbles in and takes over. Feel like going over and introducing yourself? How about showing them the untracked tree shots the next day? Didn’t think so. On the other hand, one quiet, unassuming traveler is much more approachable, much easier to accept. Being alone opens doors.

One of those rare solo opportunities popped up last season. I was planning a trip to the Banff/Lake Louise area, up in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta. As it turned out, two of Snowboard Life’s photographers–Mark Gallup and Dan Hudson–live in the area. It meant they had the luxury of shooting over the course of the entire winter and spring, whenever the weather was good and snow conditions were right; there was no pressure to get the shots in some seven- or ten-day window. It also freed me up to experience Banff on my own terms, at my own pace. To ride where I wanted, when I wanted. No photo pressure, no having to coordinate six different schedules, no collecting pro riders out of the drunk tank at four in the morning.

It was a great trip The resulting story, “Banff–A to Zed,” starts on page 58, if you’re interested. The town of Banff, and the resorts surrounding it–Sunshine Village, Lake Louise, and Mount Norquay–should move to the top of your snowboarding wish list. And as usual, I came away with some special memories.

About halfway through my stay, I hooked up with Dan Hudson, who lives in nearby Canmore. He left his camera gear behind and showed me around the mountains he’s called home for a decade. No photos, no pressure, just freeriding.

After lunch one day at Sunshine, he stated that I was ready for Delirium Dive, a series of lines so gnarly that transceivers and rescue shovels are required even though it’s inbounds. The illustrator’s rendition of “The Dive” on the trail map didn’t instill much confidence in me, nor did scoping it from below. But I’d been riding with Dan for a couple of days, and he hadn’t steered me wrong yet. An accomplished rider with serious backcountry credentials, Dan had proved a calm, cautious, and capable guide. I trusted him. So we put on the Pieps and packs he’d stashed in a locker and headed up to Delirium Dive.

The Canadian Parks Service closed Delirium Dive in 1981, primarily because of the cost to avalanche control it. But in 1999, Sunshine Village won the right to control the Dive itself, gaining the opportunity to open it when conditions permitted. It’s a huge bowl featuring a consistent 40-degree face–approaching 50 degrees in some spots–lined with sketchy chutes, rock drops, and outright cliffs. It’s the site of Sunshine’s extreme competition, if that tells you anything. Dan promised to lead me down the “easy” way.

From the top of the Continental Divide quad chair, you pass through a gate that’s triggered open by the signal transmitted from the avalanche beacon you’re wearing. From there, it’s a short hike to the summit of Lookout Mountain, where a stairway leads you down a small cliffband, depositing you on the narrow ridge that runs along the top of Delirium Dive.

I was so scared as we stepped off the last stair and onto the ridge that my legs wouldn’t work. I froze up. Dan took my board from me, which freed up my hands so I could essentially crawl along the ridge to boarder’s right. Dan seemed to know all the skiers and snowboarders who were accessing the lines scattered along the ridge, and as they scrambled into position on some of the hairier shots, we continued along the ridge until finally Dan announced we’d arrived.

We sat on a snow-covered notch that rolled out into space. From the top, I couldn’t see the run I’d be taking. Dan tried his best to calm me down as we rested for a few minutes, describing the line and offering pointers. I relaxed a bit as we strapped in–somehow being attached to a board felt more natural than crawling on my hands and knees.

Finally, Dan dropped down and out of view. I knew he’d made just a couple of turns and was waiting for me to follow, but I couldn’t see him. Once I eased onto my toeside and committed, all anxiety was gone. I made the steepest, most critical turns of my life, freefalling in between them as slough raced past me. It felt incredible.

Further down, the bowl mellowed out and opened up. We ripped huge, laid-out powder turns to the bottom. Thoroughly exhilarated, I glowed with satisfaction as we hiked back out to the lifts. Because we didn’t have to please an entire group, and without the pressure of “getting the shots,” I was able to experience the highlight of my snowboarding career. It would’ve never happened if I hadn’t felt so at ease. But as grateful as I am for the opportunity traveling solo afforded me, this was one time I’m glad I wasn’t alone.

Best Regards,

Ewan Morrison