Ah Vancouver – so beautiful all year round. And when it snows, those North Shore mountains sure look like a winter wonderland.
That crisp mountain air and blanket of white are pretty tempting, and I’ll certainly be bombing down the ski hills on a snowboard soon.
But you don’t need to be a powder hound to get up in the mountains – it’s also possible to just take a winter hike, as long as you’re prepared.
To find out exactly how to prepare for a brisk winter’s hike in the North Shore mountains, we spoke to North Shore Search and Rescue team leader Mike Danks.
Danks said one thing he’s noticing right now is people heading into the mountains without a light, then being surprised when it gets darker earlier.
“A lot of people don’t carry a light source, so that’s a really key thing that people need to have,” said Danks.
“About 90% of our calls for lost or overdue hikers is because they don’t have an adequate light source.”
Headlamp. Check. And that’s just one of the 10 essentials that Danks recommends for any hike, but especially those in winter:
- Light, e.g. headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries
- Signalling device, e.g. whistle or bear bangers
- Fire starter, e.g. matches or lighter
- Extra clothes
“Have a little bit of extra clothing,” said Danks. “Clothing should be polypropylene, or synthetic. Cotton or wool will just soak up the water and we always recommend having a Gore-Tex shell or a jacket with you.”
“Be prepared for circumstances so if you do get injured, you break your ankle and you’re immobile, you need to be able to keep yourself warm and dry,” said Danks.
“So having some sort of insulating shelter you can use, even if that’s just a garbage bag, something that will keep you dry could save your life.”
- Water and food
- First-aid kit
- Navigation aid e.g. map and compass, or a cellphone
“If you’re using your phone to navigate, make sure you have a fully charged battery and a spare battery with you,” said Danks.
- Communication device e.g. fully charged cellphone
Once you’ve got all your equipment sorted, you need to properly plan your trip, said Danks. Make sure the hike you’re planning matches your fitness level.
“Make sure that you’re going to have ample daylight hours, and make sure it’s within your skill level as well,” said Danks.
Danks said they see a lot of people go out expecting to do very difficult, long hikes, with no hiking experience.
“They don’t really know how to navigate in the backcountry either. So that can really lead to disaster,” said Danks.
What about avalanches?
It may seem strange to talk of avalanches so close to Vancouver, but the fact is those ski hills are there for a reason. Snow is a reality on many winter North Shore hikes.
It may not feel like it, but once you leave the boundaries of Grouse, Seymour, or Cypress ski hills, you are entering backcountry avalanche terrain, said Danks.
“Some of the conditions that we’re getting into now, we’re going to start seeing snow in the backcountry, so people need to be prepared for snowy or icy conditions,” said Danks.
“You need to have a transceiver, a probe, and a shovel with you…and you need to understand how to use that equipment.”
To learn how to use that equipment, know how to choose your terrain, and mitigate the risks of getting stuck in an avalanche, Danks recommends an avalanche safety course.
Where to get avalanche safety training
Here are four places offering an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) Level 1 course in Vancouver:
- Cloudburst Avalanche Services – two-day course in classroom and on Cypress Mountain, $245
- Canada West Mountain School – two-day course in classroom and on Mt. Seymour, $235
- Grouse Mountain – two-day course on Grouse Mountain and in classroom, $225
- BC Ski Guides – two full field days on the North Shore and in Whistler, $250
If you’re entering avalanche terrain, Danks also advises bringing an ice axe, having crampons or hikers spikes with you, as well as your avalanche safety equipment.
And if you’re taking on hikes that are a little but more remote, he recommends getting Spot or Delorme InReach satellite devices, that allow you to call for help from anywhere.
‘You can be remote very quickly’
While many trails around Vancouver stay open for the winter, Danks says the backcountry of Lynn Headwaters, including Crown Mountain, Hanes Valley, and Lynn Lake are closed.
“That whole area is closed during the winter because it is in avalanche terrain. We’ve had a number of fatalities in those areas,” said Danks.
And while the Howe Sound Crest Trail is open during the winter, be aware North Shore Rescue has seen a number of fatalities in that area as well.
“Anywhere you’re going on the North Shore, you can be remote very quickly, so you just need to really make sure you understand the terrain that you are getting into,” said Danks.
“Either you’re with someone who has been to that area before, or I recommend that you stay away from those areas until you can get a better understanding in the summer.”
Check the avalanche bulletin
Danks understands the appeal of Mt. Seymour and the Howe Sound Crest Trail, but emphasizes the need to know the terrain and mitigate risks, especially of avalanches.
“We have some beautiful terrain on the North Shore, you just need to go with someone experienced, or you need to take a course before you venture out to those areas,” he said.
“You need to make sure you’re avoiding that avalanche terrain. And if you’re going in that terrain, you need to check the avalanche bulletin to see the current readings.”
To find the avalanche bulletin for Vancouver and around, and a comprehensive list of places to get avalanche safety training in your area, check here: avalanche.ca.
North Shore Search and Rescue is a voluntary organization and relies on donations to help fund their rescue operations. To donate, check here: northshorerescue.com.