High on Life

Between the years of 1991 and 2011 my husband and I used to pack up our son and drive to a mountain summit a few times every winter. They were once our favourite places to be: those white wide-open expanses.

An active community of winter lovers is still going to the summits: skiers, snowboarders, snow kite boarders, snowshoers, sledders and probably more, maybe even hikers like myself. And I wonder if there are still snow cave dwellers, in the snow berm. I think those were school kids digging out snow caves, to camp out that way.

Apparently, people have always gone to the summits. In 1999, the “long ago person,” called Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi in Southern Tutchone, was found by local hunters. He was found on the Haines Summit and his remains were carbon dated as up to 550 years old.

John Briner, a Skagway resident since 1997, has been cross-country skiing on the summit every single year he has been living in Skagway. He tells me the people have probably gone skiing on the Skagway Summit since the Klondike gold rush. The backcountry skiers are a close-knit community of Alaskans and Yukoners. For the residents of Skagway, the summit is a half hour drive; for people from Whitehorse, it’s two hours.

In 1991 my husband, Don, myself, and our baby Alexander would drive over the Haines Pass and enjoy the absence of everything except white snow and blue sky. We even enjoyed the all-white of white outs or fog.

Our goal in those days was to enjoy a winter weekend on the coast in Haines. We were quite naive and actually didn’t know there were people gliding in this white world – cross-country skiers – but we could see the possibilities. In the following years, we took some kind of sledding device. In those days, it was a GT-snow racer.

At the Skagway Summit, you only have to step out of your car for your first run down towards Summit Lake.

Around 1999, Jim Parkinson, our dear friend who has since passed away, bought a Bravo, a small snowmobile. He persuaded us into coming with him to the Skagway Summit.

Instantly we were hooked. Around 2000, Alexander became a devoted snowboarder. He and I would climb up the mountains on the summits and the snow was surprisingly hard and easy to walk on. He would snowboard down, and, initially, I would take my downhill skies, but being used to groomed slopes, I found the skiing surprisingly difficult and I mostly stuck to hiking or cross country skiing.

Don would watch the snowmobiling action. Once he and Alexander actually saw a snowmobile rolling down from the mountain on the west side of the road at the Summit Lake parking lot. It flew over the highway and landed somewhere at the lake. Luckily the driver was still high up on the mountain.

Interestingly enough, it was decided soon after that that we would like a snow machine and Don bought an Indy 500 skidoo. We also discovered the amazing Bear Creek Summit. This summit is less accessible, but closer to home for us.

Jim Parkinson especially liked to drag us out on Easter, as that is when it was “really” happening. The parking lot on the Skagway summit would be full of campers.

If we were lucky the sun came out, and we would lounge in sun chairs and drink beer. I loved it because it reminded me of beach tourism at it’s best. I loved it all: waking up frozen (we camped without a camper) and starting the van to warm up. Then, I would wind my way through the campers to find Cherlynn (a neighbour) and her sister, for a morning walk.

We would watch the slow waking up of this makeshift village: the rumble of snow machines being started and the laughter and chatter of the children. Alexander would climb the slope with his snowboard, or be towed up by a willing snowmobiler, hooking up in the process with other snowboarders. I would hike, cross-country ski or ride with Don and Jim – whatever I fancied.

If you are into “summit sports” you will know of the dangers beyond rolling a skidoo. If you are not, but would like to try, for your own safety, please educate yourself, as it is not a danger-free destination.

On Jan. 11 What’s Up Yukon published an excellent article about avalanche education. But avalanches are not the only hazard. Just stepping off the road, thinking you are stepping on what looks like solid snow, you could fall into a tree well or, once you are on your way, you could step off an invisible cliff. And do not get lost in a white-out.

It is essential to be aware of weather conditions. When I check the webcam from Fraser Camp, (Skagway Summit), first I get a frosted image and it looks like the eye of the webcam is frozen over. But on a later date I see it is still providing imagery of the conditions at that moment. And check the road reports: the highways could be closed, due to weather.

My husband Don prided himself on finding clear weather. In fog, when the air surrounding you is as white as the snow, you are not going very far. We would first always go to the Canadian/American border, but then would backtrack to Fraser, B.C. or even Log Cabin. We would never cease to find a sunny, or at least clear spot, somewhere.

Somehow, for us, Bear Creek Summit always had clear skies, and less people for that matter. I love Bear Creek Summit; it’s more remote and, probably due the fact that you can’t park your camper right by the foot of the mountain, it’s less busy. The Haines Summit, with its many possibilities, also became a popular winter destination in those years.

I like to dream that I will manage a trip to a summit again this winter.

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