Driving home to Squamish after a day skiing around the Blackcomb backcountry, the Tantalus Range stands proud amongst parting afternoon clouds. Swerving down highway 99, I crane my neck skywards, taking in the freshly coated peaks, lamenting that I’d not had the chance to visit the range, and pessimistic about my chances to get in there this season.
Throwing another trip onto the mental checklist of future objectives, I keep driving. Pulling into my driveway, my phone buzzes. “Wanna come to the Tantalus tomorrow?” texts Ross Berg, mountain guide and owner of Altus Mountain Guides. I hesitate all of a nanosecond before replying: “yes”.
Hastily packed, we meet at the Squamish airport the next morning. The crew consists of Ross, myself, Justin Lamoureux and Anna Segal. Justin is a local Squamish splitboard shredder, and has spent many a day ticking off lines in the Tantalus. Anna, an Australian Olympic Slopestyle skier, is a backcountry neophyte, and eager to learn more about skiing in the big mountains. It seems like an implausible jump from her recent introductory avalanche course in Whistler to the biggest mountains in the Sea to Sky, but her skiing pedigree speaks for itself. Her and Justin share Olympic history, Justin competing in Snowboard Halfpipe in Vancouver, and Anna, Ski Slopestyle in Sochi. Ross and I feel a little un-accomplished amongst these two.
The heli flight out of Squamish is surreal in its abrupt shift of landscape. A flight of a few minutes out of the Squamish Valley lifts us straight up into the Tantalus. From sea level into towering granite walls and teetering icefalls in mere moments, we touch down outside the Jim Haberl hut. The hut is perched at ridgeline, in as perfect a spot as a ski mountaineer could imagine. Walking off the front porch with your harness on is recommended, and a world-class list of objectives stretch in all directions.
Wind can howl over this exposed little spot, evidenced on arrival by the re-enforced outhouse with the door blown open, and a thick layer of ice coating everything. Contrasting with this wild setting is the readily available cell signal (live instagramming, anyone?), the glow of lights from not-so-far-off Vancouver, and the cushy digs of the well-appointed hut.
Our timing is spot-on. The first skiers into the Tantalus for the spring, we’ve hit the tail end of a storm that deposited over 40cm of cold, dry snow. Light winds and cold temperatures are preserving this recent bounty, and all the classic lines of the area are looking nicely filled-in. Being a Tantalus first-timer, my head is spinning from the flight in, and the seemingly endless options.
We quickly set up in the hut, get our gear together, and head out the door, intent on plundering the “local” lines on Serratus Mountain. The “warm up” run gets the blood pumping, and sets us up below the North Face of Serratus, untouched and inviting. Not letting our powder greed get the best of us, we poke around in the new snow, digging a quick test pit and discussing our options. Feeling pretty good with stability, I tip-toe onto a committing traverse out onto the face, taking us to the bottom of a boot pack to the peak. Many steps later we top out to 360-degree views, and a perfect fall line pitch from the peak to the glacier far below. The low-density surface makes for exciting sluff, but with near-perfect shred conditions it’s pretty easy to stay aggressive and keep ahead of the fast moving snow.
Confidence increasing, Ross breaks off the traverse line and puts in another committing uptrack, taking us further skier’s right on the north face. Afternoon flurries roll in and we get denied on the crown jewel line, but still wiggle pow turns back to the crevasse-riddled lower glacier. As we sit pondering our next move, the weather breaks again, and we head back up our original track, heading for an attractive ramp on the west side of Serratus. We slash down the ramp in glowing afternoon light, and with ample energy left we hit a shaded face next to our morning’s warm up line. The sun sets as we plod back up the Serratus Glacier back to the hut, where beers and dinner await.
The next day dawns splitter blue, and we leave the hut as early as we can muster, heading towards Mt Dione. The objective, the east shoulder, a series of steep broken faces spilling down onto the serac fields below. The entrance is tricky to find, guarded by a massive windscoop on the west side, and a knife-edge rock ridge between the scoop and the east face. We finally find a chink in the armour, and bask in the morning sun while debating the merits of our proposed objective. A steep entrance beside a gaping crevasse and above large cliffs means there is no room for error. As the morning sun starts warming up the rocks above us, we make the call to ski. Ross drops in first, getting his head in the game with a hard ski cut, and then making tentative turns beside the crevasse as a powder cloud from his ski cut hits the glacier below. He picks apart the technical upper face, and shreds the lower pitches, all the way to the exit traverse above more cliffs. With Ross safely down, the rest of us enjoy the run, reveling in the wild stance of this face, and of the Tantalus Range in general.
While we explore Dione, a couple more groups have flown in, no doubt enticed by the same conditions that drew us yesterday. We’re stoked to see friends out here, and secretly really happy to have flown in the day prior, and skied some prime lines already. We catch up with the newcomers on the Serratus Glacier, and continue up our pre-set track on the Serratus North Face, heading for the line that the weather denied us on the day before. Topping out, we run into the same issue: fast moving clouds obscuring the sun, and killing all definition on the face below. We hunker down and wait it out, finally rewarded with a solid window of sun, allowing us all to ski individual lines on the upper face in blower snow and crystalline light. Regrouping below, we ski the rest of the face together, finishing with a fun exit beside a big icefall.
Not done yet, we climb up the glacier that splits Alpha and Serratus, and put in the stairmaster up one of the west Alpha couloirs. The sun got to this yesterday, so the snow is not the blower pow we’ve become accustomed to, but it’s still an aesthetic line in a great setting, and acts as a good chance to do some route scouting for future trips. We jump-turn down the couloir, do our best heli-ski impression on the glacier below, and ski out to a treeline bump where we get picked up in the heli.
Another abrupt shift from full winter back to the warm, dry climes of the valley, and we’re deposited at the Squamish heli port, changing into flipflops and marveling over the last two days in the Tantalus.