Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Steep backcountry skiing in the Tablelands of Western Newfoundland

 by Keith and Heather Nicol

Andrew Stokes stands on large chunk of cornice debris
Close up of some of the avalanche debris
On Tuesday, April 23 the weather forecast predicted sunny skies and temperatures reaching 9 C in Corner Brook so a group of us decided to head to Gros Morne National Park to explore some of the steep couloir skiing into Winterhouse Brook Gorge.  Winterhouse Brook Gorge is adjacent to the popular “Tablelands Bowl” which attracts skiers and riders from across Newfoundland and beyond for late season skiing. This area is located between the communities of Woody Point and Trout River and there is a turn off and large parking lot giving quick access to the mountains. We were also interested in checking out the snow stability and likely cornice fall that had been associated with the previous weekend’s double digit temperatures (it reached 17 C in Corner Brook on Saturday). As we skinned into the bowl we could see the results of 2 large avalanches that had occurred since our last visit to the bowl on Tuesday, April 16 (see previous post). These recent avalanches were on the eastern side of the bowl and were likely the result of 2 events-fresh snow on Wednesday, April 17 which slid shortly after the storm. This avalanche was quite extensive and covered quite abit of the eastern side of the bowl. But more impressive was the cornice fall and resulting slab avalanche that was likely produced during Saturday’s very warm temperatures. Some of these chucks were easily the size of cars and the debris, although less extensive than Wednesday’s avalanche, was piled much deeper. You wouldn’t have wanted to be hit by either avalanche but Saturday’s avalanche would have been deadly for anyone in its path. 
Andrew Stokes drops into "Lunchbox Chutes"

      After investigating the avalanche debris we headed to across a sloping bench to access the chutes leading down into Winterhouse Brook Gorge. On Tuesday these slopes had been sitting in the sun and whereas the bowl had crusty frozen snow, the chutes held softening corn snow. The local name for this area is the “Lunchbox Chutes” and although the run started off fairly wide it constricted to a narrow slot between 2 rocks before opening out again. The slope was very steep but the soft snow meant that your edges bit into it giving good control. Andrew Stokes dropped in first and quite a bit of sluff followed him down the slope. We all followed suit and it was definitely my most exciting run in quite awhile. The snow extended just about to Winterhouse Brook in the valley floor and over all the vertical drop was about 280 meters. We alternately skinned and boot packed back to the top of the chute. We rested for a short time on the rocks in a spectacular spot with rugged Winterhouse Brook Gorge on one side and the blue waters of Bonne Bay and Gros Morne Mountain in the distance. While most of the group headed off to check out another chute I skied back to the bowl to take some more photos of the avalanche debris before skiing back down to the parking lot. For anyone heading into the bowl be aware of very warm temperatures that might bring down more cornice breaks and avalanches. 
View back to Bonne Bay and Gros Morne Mountain

At the end of the run in Winterhouse Brook Gorge 

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Ski Touring in the Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland

by Keith and Heather Nicol    
Some of the avalanche debris with Bonne Bay in the distance
 On Tuesday, April 16 we headed to the Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park to ski what many people simply refer to as the “Bowl”. The forecast was calling for highs of 8 C with sunny conditions so we thought the snow would soften nicely. Boy, were we wrong! As we skinned up from the Tablelands parking lot we could see that snow was not melting even though it was close almost 11:30. “It’ll warm up” we told one another. One of the reasons for heading into the bowl was to check out an avalanche that had occurred recently and it took us just 40 minutes to reach the toe of the avalanche on the western side of the bowl. Further down the slope were the remnants of a previous avalanche that had slid in the same spot earlier in the winter. This part of the bowl faces south east and is a location of frequent avalanches since the prevailing winds piles up the snow in this area and as it begins to heat up in the sun the snow loses its strength and slides.  The avalanche seemed to involve storm snow that fell on April 7 and it likely slid a few days ago. Although the slide didn’t look that big, we investigated the sizable chunks of debris and realized it could easily have injured and possibly buried a person.
Jamie Ryan carving through the sastrugi
      We took several runs on the western side of the bowl and found the best snow to be on bed surface of the avalanche! The slope was getting just enough sun to soften where as other aspects stayed frozen all day long. On the main climbing route up there seemed to be lots of sastrugi or wind eroded snow which will take some time to metamorphose into good corn snow. We tried a couple runs off on a steeper section closer to centre of the bowl but the crusty snow made for challenging skiing. There seems to be tons of snow around and we could easily ski back to the parking lot. There should be good skiing down in this area for awhile longer. From a snow safety standpoint watch out for slopes that are facing into the sun, especially if there is any new snow sitting on them. Thanks to the Canadian Avalanche Foundation for helping promote avalanche awareness in Newfoundland. Thanks as well to Genuine Guide Gear ( for assisting with equipment for avalanche awareness sessions.
Steve Howlett telemarks through some wind scoured snow

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Skiing around objects in the classic track

Photo 1-Begin to change direction early
 by Keith and Heather Nicol

Skiing around obstacles in the classic track can sometimes be tricky depending on  how quickly you need to change direction.Obstacles could be sticks, stumps or rocks in the classic track which are often an issue early and late in the season. Alternately you may want to pass someone that is skiing slower than you are. The key is to move from the track to the skating lane and back again as smoothly as possible. Be sure to start your change of direction well ahead of time. Often skiers will stop, step out of the track and then stop again before they ski back onto the trail. However you can do this more efficiently by gradually changing direction by smoothly striding out of the track. In photo 1 I have placed my pack on the trail and you will note that I am angling my left ski out to begin to change direction. I then stride past the object and then angle back toward the track as shown in photo 2.  Your focus should be to maintain your diagonal stride rhythm as you ski around the obstacle and back into the track. Thanks to Cross Country Newfoundland and Labrador as well as Rossignol skis and Infinity Ski Poles for sponsoring the video below which illustrates these techniques.

Photo 2-Angle back to the track

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Ski Touring to Blow Me Down Ridge, Bay of Islands, Newfoundland

by Keith and Heather Nicol     
John skiing up the flank of Blow Me Down Mtn
        On Tuesday, April 9, 2013 John Moores and I headed up to check out the snow stability and snow depths along the flank of Blow me down Mountain. I was interested in checking out the snow depths for general ski touring and also how well the snow from weekend’s spring blizzard was bonding to the crust below. Initially we were surprised how little snow there was at the Nature Trail Parking lot (UTM 21 0410043E 5434993N). But by walking uphill about 200 meters we reached pretty much continuous snow which we could see went right to the summit ridge at an elevation of 1500 feet. We had spectacular views of the Bay of Islands as we climbed and we found anywhere from 80 cm to 140 cm of snow in the gullies that we were following. The new snow came with temperatures close to freezing and it seemed to have bonded quite well to the crust below although several times while skinning across some steep sections I would end up going through the new snow and sliding on the crust. I suspect if it had been abit warmer on Tuesday the new snow might have been more prone to sluffing. As we climbed higher we found up to 25 cm of new wind packed snow, sitting on a very compact base of snow. The main snowpack was so firm I had difficulty penetrating it with my G3 Speed Tech probe ( Since this slope faces east it has cornices ringing the top section but we found a gap at UTM 21 0409216E 5433721N which allowed us to reach the ridge top. From there we skied along the ridge and had striking views of Humber Arm and we could see all the way to Corner Brook. 

View from the ridge with Humber Arm in the background
       The skiing on the way down was tricky since the variable thickness wind packed snow was not particularly user friendly. I was glad I had on alpine touring skis. If you see avalanches or large cornice falls in your travels let me know at and I will post it to my Newfoundland Avalanche webpage at: Ideally take a photo and get a GPS location if you can. Thanks to the Canadian Avalanche Foundation for helping promote avalanche awareness in Newfoundland.
Picking our way down off the ridge top

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Learning to Skate on Classic Ski Equipment

by Keith and Heather Nicol
Be sure to push off to the side
      Over the past couple of years I have received several emails from skiers asking about trying to learn to skate on classic ski equipment. Many skiers would like to try skating but are not sure about spending the money on new skating skis, boots and poles and so they are interested in trying it with their classic gear first. My experience is that you can certainly try skating on classic gear and you will have the most success if your skis as fast as possible. Therefore remove as much grip wax as you can from your classic skis so that they glide well. Classic skis are longer but as you should be able to skate just fine with them. Classic poles are shorter than skate poles but again you should still be able to skate well with these poles. For comparison, my classic skis are 20 cm longer than my skate skis and my classic poles are 10 cm shorter than my skating poles.Also the fact that traditional classic boots are lower means that you won’t have the ankle
Commit all your body weight to the new glide ski
support and stiffness of a skate boot but you can certainly get the feeling of skating with these lower boots. On a related note, I find that a pair “combi” boots works well since the extra support of the higher boot and plastic cuff makes it ideal for skating yet the flexible sole means you can also classic ski in them. In my case I really like the Rossignol Xium Pursuit ski boot which is actually the only boot I wore all winter. I found it worked well for both skate and classic skiing.
Even though classic skis are longer and ski poles are shorter you should be able to try skating on classic gear
         If you have waxless skis, then learning to skate will be quite abit harder since these skis glide so poorly.  But you can make up for some of the loss of glide by trying to skate down a slight downhill. Clearly you will have most success skating if you have the proper equipment but you can certainly try it out with well prepared classic ski gear. Just be sure to push to side as you skate since many classic skiers want to do a toe push which means that your skis are slipping and the tip will constantly get caught on the snow.  Think about pushing your skis to the side and you will have much more success. Thanks to Rossignol ski equipment, Infinity Ski Poles and Cross Country Newfoundland and Labrador for sponsoring this blog post.