A couple of Sundays ago I wanted to tour the Spearhead Traverse. The weather was fantastic, conditions bomber and daylight plenty. The only problem? I had no one to tour with. The friends that were interested had backed out the previous night and everyone else was either working, mountain biking down in Squamish or already on multi-day ski touring trips of their own.
My stubbornness kicked in. I went anyway.
Ski touring solo is a rare activity that I cherish. Don't get me wrong, skin-track chatter is my favourite avenue to solidify friendships and forge new ones. Spending time with friends and loved ones in the backcountry is arguably the best. But going out on your own — especially on bluebird days where you can really take in the surroundings — lets you appreciate time in the mountains like no other. You can't really put a price on that.
Now let's talk about the rather large white elephant in the room. Travelling solo in the winter backcountry renders your avalanche self-rescue tools practically useless (apart from the slight chance you happen upon an incident involving another party), but you dutifully carry your transceiver, probe and shovel anyway.
There's the risk of misnavigation; the only thing worse than getting lost with your friends is getting lost on your own, so good knowledge of the route is paramount along with sufficient visibility to triangulate your position. Then there's the risk of an incapacitating injury; lose the ability to walk home and you're pretty much screwed, so you'd better have the skill and experience in every possible snow condition to not get hurt.
Soloists exist on a spectrum. There's the veterans who stroll to the top of Decker to have their morning coffee on top of a mountain. There's those who will charge up to Mount Atwell in Squamish and ski its scariest lines on their own for the simple reason that their high-performance partners were unavailable, other skiing peers just aren't comfortable with that level of risk, or maybe some people just like doing it all on their own. Then there's the Ueli Stecks; near-superhuman athletes that are unable to dial back their pursuits of solo climbing and mountaineering to a point where they perish in the mountains at the peak of their careers.
I don't make a point of soloing, but when I get the right day and no one is available to join me, I don't consider it an ego-fuelled liability, nor a search and rescue call waiting to happen. It all comes down to risk management.
I've completed the Spearhead Traverse around half a dozen times, so I was confident enough to navigate the route if I could see where I was going. The ski patrollers I spoke to that morning said there was a strong arctic outflow, so the wind pretty much guaranteed bluebird skies all day. I packed more water and food than I normally would in case something went wrong, or I needed additional nourishment to make it home. I also packed a space blanket and an extra couple layers in case I did need to dig a snow cave and spend the night in the backcountry.
Most importantly, the avalanche conditions were quite stable with little powder to tempt me into skiing something big. With the exception of one (arguably necessary) couloir to get down onto the Diavolo Glacier, my travel was pretty much all on low-angle slopes. And I skied that couloir very, very carefully.
All the calculated risks I took soloing the Spearhead were worth it. I rarely get a day in the backcountry where I don't have to cater to the needs of others, where I don't have to wait at the top of the skin track (or in some cases hustle to catch up), where I don't have to placate tired and/or hungry party members.
I love the solitude. I relish the inner dialogue when my body starts to reach the breaking point. I enjoy making my own honest decisions — with zero influence of group dynamics — that keep me safe.
One thing that sucks about soloing is the après. Drinking beer on your own is never as fun.
Vince Shuley hopes his friends will still ski with him. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram @whis_vince.