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We stand at the top of the hill looking down the winding trail. Holy shit it’s steep! And long! How are we ever going to get down that!

We talk back and forth. Don thinks he’ll have to slide down on his backside, but he’s afraid that he’ll go so fast he’ll have no control. It really is kinda scary. I encourage him to take off his snowshoes and do it, saying that he can use his feet to slow himself down.

And then he goes for it!


Down the hill he goes. I take off my snowshoes and follow him. It turns out to be not nearly as scary or dangerous as we’d feared. The friction of our clothing slows us down enough that we even have to push a little at times. We make it to the bottom, strap our snowshoes back on and continue on our way.

It all started last year when a friend mentioned snowshoeing. What with the pandemic and all the restrictions, we were looking for something to do outdoors and impetuously decided to try it. Before that, each of us had only done it once before, years ago, but so what? How hard can it be, right? So last year we went three times and had so much fun that we decided to buy our own snowshoes. Which led to sliding down the hardest trails on our butts. We learned about snowshoes the hard way, but more of that in a bit.

We go to Cypress Mountain Nordic area on Mount Hollyburn, where there are dedicated snowshoe trails, and cross-country ski trails. It’s about an hour’s drive from home depending on traffic. The snowshoe trails and the ski trails interconnect in several places. The mountain is always busy, even on a weekday; Canadians know how to do winter. There are green trails (easiest), blue trails (medium), and black trails (most difficult). We start with the green ones of course, but by the third trip last year we’d upgraded to the black trails even though one of them had Don sliding down a very short section on his butt, and me not trying it at all.

Our first time out this year is a misty mysterious experience.

We leave Vancouver in overcast weather with the false promise of a clear day to come. Up on the mountain that promise seems a long way off. The forest is almost monochromatic. There’s something about it that’s both eerie and gentle.

Snow softens everything, snow and mist even more. There’s a reluctance for the world to show itself. There are only hints, as if to say come closer, come closer, and more will be revealed. There is nothing garish or harsh about a fog-bound forest. It speaks kindly and silently. All we can know is the trail in front of us, and we can’t even see that too clearly; it gets lost in white on white.

Skiers appear as apparitions as we intersect with them.

We continue on blue trails until we get to the warming hut, almost lost in the fog, but at the same time a beacon that has us pushing forward.

Here we stop. We never go inside to get warm. Mount Hollyburn staff keep a fire going inside, but we are warm enough from our exertion getting there, and it doesn’t feel safe with Covid floating around. Instead we sit on a bench outside and drink hot lentil-vegetable soup from a thermos and watch others appear from the mist and disappear again. It feels as if a great contentment has descended with the fog. We are surrounded by a barely discernible beauty.

From the warming hut we follow Far East. It’s a black trail, which we’ve done before. It’s the long way back, there are steep portions, and narrow sections with a sharp drop off on one side. It takes paying attention, and some focused negotiation. And eventually it brings us to Hollyburn Lodge. On a clear day you can see the approach to the lodge through the trees from the top of the hill:

Hollyburn Lodge is the gathering place, the resting place, coffee, burgers, beer and conversation. It’s the Nordic area equivalent of the après ski lodge, where everyone drops their gear

and goes inside for sustenance. It’s actually pretty down-home, and we are happy to be there for hot chocolate/coffee, and treats, before we take the quickest easiest green trail for the final trek back to the admin area and parking lot.

Of course we return, and each time get the weather we’ve been promised – bright sunshiny crisp and clear blue-sky days. It’s heaven. In this weather the mountain can really show off its charisma. Sun on snow and sparkling crystals, shadow patterns, and a forest that breathes ancient secrets. One time we’re there after a wind storm and the snow is littered with debris from the trees; twigs, pine needles, and pockmarks in the snow.

Other times we’re there after a fresh snow fall. All is pristine,

and the trees show off their new garments of purest white.

Each time we go to the mountain, passing the lower staging area by the admin buildings

we head by one route or another to the warming hut, but just before we get there, there’s this:

This is why we do it, this breathtaking beauty, this bright joyous world saying: Here I am, have you ever seen anything so splendid? I am here for the taking.

And so, filled with the glory of this high open space we continue to the warming hut

and sit on the bench in the sun drinking soup. We are warmed indeed.

We’ve been lucky so far and have always managed to find the bench free, and not had to sit on the ground,

though we’ve started carrying something to sit on just case.

We finally get around to buying our own snowshoes. There’s a store in town that sells second-hand sports equipment on consignment, but they only have new snowshoes. No matter. We choose a style that looks like they have good enough spikes for grip. The first time we use them is the day we face that black trail’s longest and steepest downhill section and by now we know for sure that they are not up to the job. They just don’t grip enough on steep icy trails. Down on our butts we go, and back to the store we go to try for some kind of refund. We aren’t really expecting to be able to return them, but think we’ve nothing to lose by asking. Sure, the clerk says, but I’ll have to charge you $20 each for rental. Deal!

We’re going to stick to renting them on the mountain for now – they are for sure the best kind and will grip into just about anything. With the rentals we tried that short steep section that had Don sliding down on his butt last year and wondered what the problem was. It was easy. We’ve now tackled almost all the black trails. High five to us! We are intrepid snowshoers!

Sometimes on bright sunny days squirrels come to visit at the warming hut. They are Douglas squirrels, almost as small as a chipmunk, and completely absorbed in scratching up some kind of nut from beneath the snow. They are so oblivious to us that at times they’re up on the bench next to us, and at times scampering over our snowshoes. We watch them for a long time.

There are always other snowshoers but because we go on a weekday it’s never crowded. As they come towards us, or from behind and want to pass, we negotiate who can step off the trail where. Usually it’s easy enough, but sometimes challenging if the trail is deep and the sides steep.

And there are always the skiers.

I love watching them, the way they skate with their skis, lifting one foot to drive forward and then the other. Its a graceful movement when done well, almost counterintuitive. Watching them reminds me of my life in a village in the far northwest of Canada. I would put on my skis at the front door of my cabin and have uninterrupted miles ahead of me.

On a sunny day in Canada – who needs a shirt?

And who needs pants? (I do love the little pink dinosaurs.)

After three or four challenging satisfying joyous hours we head home and I snap some photos from the car as we drive down the mountain and back into Vancouver.

Each time we go it feels like a time out, as if we’ve stepped into an alternate reality, some other dimension, that presents a whole different view of life. We are outside of our normal life. On the mountain we are outside of ourselves. Fun!

Next post: The next instalment of the Travel Highlights Series – Petra, the Galapagos, and Japan’s Kurayami Festival.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.