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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

For this Victoria couple, ski season on Vancouver Island lasts all year long

Jess and Rodney Newcombe spent the past year hiking deep into the backcountry of Vancouver Island to find snow to ski—months after the last flakes of winter stopped falling

By Emily Vance
November 11, 2022
Snow
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

For this Victoria couple, ski season on Vancouver Island lasts all year long

Jess and Rodney Newcombe spent the past year hiking deep into the backcountry of Vancouver Island to find snow to ski—months after the last flakes of winter stopped falling

By Emily Vance
Nov 11, 2022
Rodney and Jess Newcombe midway through the Augerpoint Traverse in Strathcona Provincial Park in May 2022. Photo submitted.
Rodney and Jess Newcombe midway through the Augerpoint Traverse in Strathcona Provincial Park in May 2022. Photo submitted.
Snow
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

For this Victoria couple, ski season on Vancouver Island lasts all year long

Jess and Rodney Newcombe spent the past year hiking deep into the backcountry of Vancouver Island to find snow to ski—months after the last flakes of winter stopped falling

By Emily Vance
November 11, 2022
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For this Victoria couple, ski season on Vancouver Island lasts all year long
Rodney and Jess Newcombe midway through the Augerpoint Traverse in Strathcona Provincial Park in May 2022. Photo submitted.

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As the first snowfall of the season settles on Vancouver Island, winter sport aficionados are dusting off their skis and snowboards, pulling out their Gore-tex, and getting ready for the start of the season. But for one Victoria couple, last year’s snow season is still going strong.

In October, Jess and Rodney Newcombe completed 12 months of consecutive skiing on Vancouver Island. Every month, without fail, the two hiked into the backcountry with skis, skins, and safety gear strapped to their overnight packs, searching for patches of snow. 

They did it as part of a larger challenge, called Turns All Year, where dedicated backcountry enthusiasts from around the world haul their ski gear up mountains and through dense forests in search of snow.

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In parts of the world where the mountains stay colder, and glaciers abound, completing the challenge is more common. On Vancouver Island, though, the patches of snow are few and far-between, and each trip requires some serious scouting skills. Not just any patch of snow will do, either—according to Rodney, the challenge doesn’t count as skiing unless you can complete 33 linked turns.

“To do the twelve consecutive months, you have to be stubborn and hard-headed,” Rodney said.

The duo said the first eight months, November to June, were relatively easy. Ever since moving to Victoria from Ontario five years ago, they’ve been avidly pursuing a life outdoors in the alpine. Though they occasionally ski at Mount Washington or in Whistler, most of their weekends are spent ski-touring in the backcountry on mid and north Vancouver Island. 

One of Rodney Newcombe's highlights of the season–skiing over a small mountain lake, called a tarn, at Adder Mountain in June 2022. Photo submitted.

The gear they bring depends on the season. Aside from standard backcountry ski gear and avalanche safety equipment, they also take crampons and ice axes. In the mild climate of BC’s south coast, snow conditions can change quickly.

“Even in the dead of winter, you could go from having a really nice powdery day, and then the next week you go, there's been some rain, a couple of cold days. You could have boilerplate ice where you're more skating than skiing,” Rodney said.

In addition to having the right gear, knowledge of avalanches and snow conditions are essential before setting out into the backcountry. Taking an Avalanche Canada certified Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course was something Jess and Rodney did immediately upon moving out west. Before heading out on each trip, they also check the local avalanche forecast on Avalanche Canada’s website.

Jess Newcombe skis fresh powder at Mount Elma in January. Photo submitted.

As for where they go to find snow on Vancouver Island, the two volunteer with the Alpine Club of Canada as custodians at Hišimy̓awiƛ, a backcountry hut on 5040 Peak which lies off Highway 4 between Tofino and Port Alberni. They spend a number of their winter weekends staying there and skiing nearby.

“It's a little bit of a suffer-fest to get there in the winter. But once you get up to the hut, then you're set, and it's just beautiful and so much fun,” Jess said.

As the two would find out, however, skiing there in September proved to be a bit more of a challenge. 5040 Peak is a popular summer destination, but mostly for backpackers and day-hikers.

“You feel a little bit ridiculous. People are hiking up in their shorts and jumping into the lake. And they're like, ‘you know there's no snow out there, right?’” Jess said.

Rodney had been there before to ski in the summer, and knew there was a backside gully that would hold snow. Despite the incredulous strangers, their September expedition was a success, and the two recount their journey with wide smiles.

“You end up hiking several kilometers—and over 1,000 meters [of elevation]—with skis on your back, ski boots on your back, to ski what was a 100 meter vertical drop,” Rodney said with a laugh. “Not awesome skiing, but it was actually the perfect day. The clouds on that particular day were really dramatic.”

Finding snow to ski in the off-season doesn’t just happen by accident. Rodney spends a lot of time looking at topographic maps, reading trip reports from other mountaineers, and hunting for patches of snow in satellite imagery. 

“It's definitely a fun thing to do. But it does take a lot of time. If you don’t do it, your chances of having a bad day are going to be a lot higher,” Rodney said.

Rodney Newcombe searches for snow at Mount Cain in August 2022. Photo submitted.

Even the most meticulous planning doesn’t completely eliminate the uncertainty that comes with pursuing extreme sports in the backcountry. In October, for the final month of their challenge, the two chose Victoria Peak, the third-highest mountain on Vancouver Island. Located in the Sutton Range, the mountain is a roughly 100 km drive west of Campbell River and accessed via logging road. 

Victoria Peak is located outside of the parks system, and as such, Rodney said the trail isn’t well-established. Neither had been there before, and they weren’t sure if the logging road would be passable. To top it off, they drove by two wildfires burning in the Gold River region on the way there.

“It was a little bit scary. And I guess exciting, not knowing what was gonna happen exactly. The sense of adventure was very high,” Rodney said.

Once they had arrived at the trailhead and started to hike, the uncertainty remained. The trail started out in thick bush before opening up into the alpine. Even then, the snow that they were hunting for was sloped away from them, on a different aspect, meaning they were hiking up an unknown mountain, in a prolonged drought, carrying heavy packs of camping and ski gear, in search of months-old snow they couldn’t see.

“I knew that we weren't able to see it from where we were, but it was kind of demoralizing,” Rodney said.

Luckily, the two have another tool that comes in handy as a backcountry scout: a drone. They flew it over the ridge, and were able to see that their hike was not going to be in vain. 

The adventure, however, didn’t end there. The two descended into a bowl with a narrow patch of last season’s snow that was icy from months of thawing and refreezing. The surface of the snow was sun-cupped, meaning that over the course of the summer it had melted and refrozen into bumpy, bowl-shaped, virtually un-skiable depressions. 

Jess Newcome ascends Victoria Peak in October 2022, for her 12th consecutive month of skiing on Vancouver Island. Photo submitted.

Rodney managed to ski down, but said it was a bumpy ride and “really not fun.” Jess walked down wearing crampons, a spiky, metal plating that can be affixed to the bottom of boots for better grip on ice.

Finally, after a bit more searching, the two struck white gold. A nearby patch of snow had softened after spending the morning in the sun. The two were thrilled to find that the snow quality was better than anything they’d skied since July. 

“It was just like, gorgeous spring skiing, to the point that we did it twice. It was so fun,” Jess said.

After an eight kilometer hike in, and 1,000 metres of elevation gain, this sun-softened patch of snow meant the final month of their Turns All Year challenge was a success.

“It was pretty exciting. I remember on that trip, we were saying, we're really glad we did this, it was a really good challenge, but we're never going to do it again,” Rodney said.

As for what the rest of the season holds, the two will continue venturing deep into the mountain ranges of Vancouver Island, in search of turns and fresh snow. The likelihood they’ll do another September or October ski tour on Vancouver Island, however, is low.

“Probably not again, but never say never,” Rodney said.

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