Sail To Ski: An Unforgettable Journey from the Sea to the Snow
“Joining seven strangers – albeit qualified ones – for a campaign in the mountains, is a calculated risk.
Joining seven strangers for a week on a 44-ft sailboat, in search of alpine adventure, is a serious gamble.”
Story by Kaylin Richardson. Images & Video by Andy Cochrane and Wyatt Roscoe.
The Journey That Almost Never Happened
At first glance, this trip seemed simple enough.
Our objective was as follows: we would sail up and through the circuitous British Columbian coast to the end of the Princess Louisa Inlet. From there, we would hike up Sun Peak and camp a day or two while backcountry skiing her slopes. Returning to the boat victoriously, we would sail smoothly back to Washington.
All of this was in attempt to prove that a Sail-to-Ski venture out of Seattle is not just feasible, but an absolute slam-dunk. In summary, this was an exploratory mission.
I was the last addition to a very full expedition, and I was keenly aware that my role as the “token pro skier” did not add a lot of value, as my new teammates expertly docked the boat in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. As I boarded I felt a shadow of tension on their friendly faces. At first I thought it was due to the interloper (me) joining the fray… but then I discovered the real source of the tension: the vessel TRUE, our only home and form of transportation for the next week, was having engine trouble.
There is nothing like adversity to bring people with a shared goal together.
Once on board, we assembled into our first team meeting. The instigators of this adventure, consummate adventurer and outdoor media whiz, Andy Cochrane, and proprietor and Captain of charter company Sail Bainbridge, Ben Doerr, laid out the challenges and options.
We were up against it.
I naively thought that weather was the main hurdle, but mechanical issues, wind direction, swell size, and most harrowingly, the state of the tide, all could make or break our quest for safe passage.
We discussed and weighed several backup plans – exploring the interior of Vancouver Island, relocating the skiing portion to outside of Squamish, and more.
But we all felt ourselves still deeply invested in getting to Princess Louisa by sailboat. After participating in this round-table discussion, I was so impressed with the problem solving and communication of the group. Never had I been with a team that was so open to suggestion and so equal. I was surprised with how swiftly I trusted each of these stranger’s judgment and care.
Our captain, Ben, did some engine tinkering, chatted with his mentor on the phone, checked the forecast again, and crunched some numbers in his head. Ultimately, since it was his boat, he had the most at stake. I knew my main role was to remain positive, whatever the outcome, and others chimed in with ideas, YouTube hacks, and potential solutions.
After dinner, Ben offered up his signature mischievous grin, and said, “Ah what the hell, let’s do it.” I don’t think reckless desire is necessarily what tipped the scales, but “exuberant intuition” may be a fair description.
Moving forward with the original plan, I quickly became acquainted with the rest of the team as we forecasted the happenings of the coming days. By the time my head hit the pillow, it was abundantly clear: Ben Doerr, Andy Cochrane, Hannah McGowan, Sam Ovett, Wyatt Roscoe, Sune Tamm, Jenna Ovett, and I were going to get very close this week. And not just because we were sharing living quarters in a sailboat meant to sleep just six… But because I could tell that somehow this expedition had been formed under a lucky star; there was not one person that didn’t gel, didn’t add to the equation, or didn’t laugh at the lewd jokes that immediately started bouncing off the walls.
Against all odds, I had found myself amidst seven full-on kindred spirits.
Still pitch black, the drone of an alarm awakened us at 5:45 AM. If we were going to hit the tide just right, we needed to be out of Nanaimo Harbor at first light. Everyone moving in concert, we were humming along in fifteen minutes.
Sitting on the bow of a sailboat at sunrise is almost sacred. It is akin to standing on top of a mountain at that same magical hour. With Sune, Jenna, and Hannah beside me, I felt almost anointed by the light. Looking across the Strait of Georgia, the water appeared calm, however the sheer expanse and weight of it reminded me that we were at the whims of forces far greater than ours.
As the sun rose and we made our way into the Strait, Captain Ben explained how the sailing would work. Teams of two would skipper TRUE for three-hour shifts, one steering the ship, the other on watch for traffic, dead heads, or any other detritus or obstacles in our path. Hannah and I volunteered for the first shift.
With Texada Island way off in the distance as our marker on the left and Pender Harbour as our starboard landmark (with the help of the GPS tracker to stay on course), we made a smooth crossing, fully sailing for the majority of the passage. As Hannah manned the wheel she shared how her decision to leave Tennessee one summer, using only her thumb and the greyhound bus schedule as a guide, set her on the trajectory to become a Rainier/Denali mountain guide, and Taos Ski Patroller. I was so inspired by the innate determination she had at such a young age to venture west and create the life she wanted. Needless to say, I developed a sizable lady crush on her very quickly.
For my 90 minutes at the helm, I was equal parts invigorated and challenged. The wind would do its work and I constantly made adjustments and readjustments to accommodate. Not yet a master sailor (far from it), I had the boat zipping the rest of the way across the Strait, albeit in a slightly squiggly line.
As we entered the Agamemnon Channel, each mile became more beautiful than the last. Passing Earl’s Cove into the Jervis Inlet, the mountains really began to rise. I was below in the galley making a snack when I heard hooting and hollering above…
Wyatt had spotted our first snow-covered peak.
The fair winds and gorgeous sunshine of the day had us all in high spirits, and miraculously a little ahead of schedule. We arrived at the mouth of Princess Louisa Inlet by about 6:45 PM, more than an hour before the tidal window we needed to pass through the very narrow and shallow entry.
Naturally, as people do, Andy and Wyatt donned dinosaur costumes and we all jumped into the life-affirmingly cold water to pass the time. Since that took only four minutes (the water was frigid), we spent the rest of the time cutting skins, dividing rations, and readying our gear for our big approach the would occur the following morning.
At 8:05 PM, with all of us on high alert, Ben expertly motored the boat into the magnificent sanctum that is the Princess Louisa Inlet. Twilight quickly fell as harbor seals watched us glide through the still water, between the steep walls of rock. Just before the darkness of night swallowed up the mountains, we received a magnificent view of Chatterbox Falls, at the end of the inlet.
We maneuvered into our dock and swiftly got to work on dinner and some reconnaissance, with our early morning departure drawing near. The 14+ hours it took us to get there from Nanaimo was not a cardiovascular feat by any means, but the wind and sea does present its own special type of fatigue. As we snuggled into our sleeping bags, a short night’s rest away from our mountain goal, eight souls crossed their fingers, said their prayers, and pressed their luck (or some combination of all three) for continued good fortune.
Up, Up, Up We Go
I fluttered my eyes open to a gentle pitter-patter sound. It was such a lovely, syncopated lullaby. However, the moment was fleeting, and I had to stifle a groan in realization.
The lovely pitter-patter sound was rain.
And a steady rain at that.
I rolled over to find Wyatt, Andy, and Ben all sitting up (in a small sailboat, we were basically like comfortable sardines). We each made eye contact, and through the uncanny ESP (extrasensory perception) of outdoor-minded people, we understood one another in a split second, without a word spoken: “Yeah, this sucks, but whaddaya gonna do? We’re here to climb a mountain. Let’s climb that mountain.”
So, our early departure was postponed a bit due to the extra preparations, as we tried our best to waterproof everything as well as we could with plastic bags and ingenuity. Fairly new to the winter backpacking ski expedition, I was so incredibly grateful for my new friends and their expertise. Sune patiently talked me through the stowage of all my gear in my huge pack and taught me the trick of balancing a heavy pack on your knee before slipping your arms through. That little trick proved to be a lumbar-saving tactic in the following 24 hours.
And just like that, we were off.
Passing the rushing water of Chatterbox Falls at about 9:30 AM, we took to the trail where it steeply began and steeply continued. One of the largest question marks of this mission was the maintenance of the unmaintained trail to Sun Peak. Our uncertainty was answered rather quickly.
Arguably maintained, it was unlike any trail I had ever been on; for 4,000 vertical feet there was not a single switchback.
The trail would momentarily jog to the left or right to accommodate a rushing creek or waterfall, but it just kept going up, up, up.
Luckily our Odin gear was waterproof and breathable to keep our core dry, but within 10 minutes everything else was wet. With the dumping rain, I was so thankful for my shells’ capability, but also its durability, since I became well acquainted with many a sharp branch, scrambling through the forest, over and under tree trunks and brambles. The precipitation highlighted the astoundingly vibrant greenery all around us, but it also made the roots, rocks, and mud underfoot more slippery and treacherous. I had the utmost faith in my hiking shoes (the HH Gallivants are DOPE, btw), which was a relief I had never felt so keenly. My focus was on one step at a time. I was grateful that was the mindset of the group as well. We weren’t going for a record on the ascent; we were there to ski, stuck together on the slog upward to the snow.
You know that you are with an all-time group when everyone seamlessly understands their role, instinctively sensing when you are the one to provide the morale boost, and trusting that when you need yours, someone will be there to pick you up.
At one point I was just looking skyward, wondering if we would make it to the top.
I was beginning to feel doubt creep in when Ben started telling me hilarious stories of his youth, and the odyssey that took him from Missouri to Seattle. I don’t know if he sensed I was dragging, but I was so grateful for the diversion.
And the laughter! The constant clip of quips and jokes made what could have been a doleful march into a pleasurable exertion. As we passed by epic waterfalls and cathedrals of trees (rivaling any church, anywhere), there would be a moment of reverence, taking in the majesty of the land we were blessed enough to experience. But rarely was there not a comment uttered in the next five minutes that didn’t merit a giggle, chuckle, or retort. Which was perfect – I like my earnest love of the mountains with a side of humor.
Andy and Wyatt miraculously sped up, down, and all between us to chronicle the expedition on film. A Jackson, Wyoming native living in Atlanta (and loving it), it was clear Wyatt was in his element. Andy, a fellow Minnesotan (we instantly bonded over this), delivered heartfelt encouragement, welcomed ridicule, and provided plentiful snacks throughout the entire day. I was super impressed by their stamina, but more so by their untarnished love for the process.
It was contagious.
About 4 hours in, the trail just ended. Perplexed, but not disheartened, we split up and tried to find the solution. After about 20 minutes it was discovered that we had made a wrong turn about 70 yards prior, when we passed a small ravine in the rock. What we had missed was a rope hiding in the crevice. Andy had been given some intel about this portion of the climb, and “climb,” in this case, was the operative word.
Too narrow to allow us to scramble up the smooth, wet rock with our packs on, we created an assembly line to pass all the gear upward to safety. Then we followed suit, one person at a time. It was a fun little exercise in teamwork, and I smiled about how incredibly cool my 10-year-old self would have found the whole thing.
Higher and higher we walked until way up ahead I heard someone yell “Go!” I yelled back, “Go where?” Straining to hear their reply, I heard correctly the second time, “SNOW!”
Yes, it was finally time to put skis on.
Transitioning into ski gear when everything was soggy-to-soaked only minimally dampened our spirits (pun fully intended), because it meant we were one step closer to turns!
However, we still had a decent adventure ahead before clicking in and letting gravity do the work.
But we were getting close.
Final Ascents and Pitching Tents
The pouring rain had mercifully let up, and it was replaced by a misting sprinkle, which shrouded the landscape in a dreamy haze. Skins attached and smiles affixed, once again, we headed upwards.
Trekking through snow, the going was a little more complicated since there was no trail to follow. Using what they’d gleaned from topographical maps and research, Hannah and Andy, with Sune chiming in, were our main guides through the trees, rocks, and snow.
Backcountry skiing in the spring is great because, in theory, snow is more likely to have stabilized. On the flip side, there is also the factor of spring melt jeopardizing the integrity of your platform as you cross rock fields and brooks – not to mention the chances of wet slides, as temperatures fluctuate. As we made our winding way up the slopes, these details were constantly on our mind.
As expected, we came to a drainage, but unexpected was the fact that a sizable avalanche had blasted through it recently. It didn’t look to have happened within the previous 24 hours, but it is always sobering to come across the aftermath of something so powerful.
Our original plan was to cross the drainage and make our way up the opposite side. Unfortunately, the ridge we would need to ascend was too sheer for safe travel.
At this point I looked to my partners to get their thoughts. Hannah and Sune, the most veteran alpinists, talked through the options and risks therein. Sam added some more thoughts from his experience. Everyone was asked for their opinion. It was textbook expedition communication, and once again, I was so impressed and humbled to be surrounded by such pros.
Collectively, we decided to head up the drainage through the avalanche path. We discerned that the slide was settled and the warmest part of the day had passed, which meant it was stable for the time being.
The drainage was too steep and sloppy to put in a skin track, so we fixed our skis to our backs and bootpacked up about 600 vertical feet. Bootpacking, walking straight up a snowy slope, is arduous work and slow going, especially after having already hiked for over 6 hours.
We just put our heads down, sucked it up, and kept going.
When it flattened out again, we put our skis back on and only had a short 20-minute skin to our campsite, arriving around 6:30 PM. Our little enclave was just at the point where the trees ended and the high alpine began. I would love to tell you that we all shared in a glorious sunset full of alpenglow and sweet triumph, but that is not the case. A heavy fog had fallen and the mountains were so socked in that we could barely see past our campsite. We swiftly went to work putting up the two tents, making dinner, and getting warm.
It was shocking how quickly the cold crept in once we stopped moving. Everyone huddled into the five-person tent to eat, and the body heat was sublime.
Pad Thai and chocolate had never tasted so good.
We discussed the conditions, admitting that our dreams of powder skiing were not looking likely. However, we all agreed to an early start the next morning before the snow really heated up.
Still misting outside, Sam, Jenna and I retired to the three-person tent that they generously agreed to share with me. Climbers, skiers, and life enthusiasts, the Ovetts personify the hashtag #CoupleGoals. Jenna is always up for anything, and Sam might be the most helpful and amiable human on the planet.
My only complaint is that when they zipped their sleeping bags together they didn’t ask me to join in on the cuddle.
I am kidding.
Because at a certain point in the night, I started to get really cold. I made the decision to change into my last clean (and dry) clothes. Deep at the bottom of my pack (in a plastic bag that formerly housed a loaf of bread) was a Lifa Merino baselayer set. And they were still dry! Slipping into them was honestly a slice of heaven. Sliding into my Nemo Jam sleeping bag, I nestled in and comfortably fell asleep with visions of epic turns dancing in my head.
Waking up pre-dawn, warm breath caking my mouth like it only does while winter camping, I realized it was my day.
Skiing was why I was there.
Everyone else had basically delivered on their end of the deal. I was there to (hopefully) make some compelling movements on skis. I still had to prove my worth.
Thankfully, the rain had stopped over night. It was not a perfect morning, but it was good enough, and that was more than enough to stoke the excitement. After the group beacon check and personal safety check, we serpentined upward. A thick fog was in and out, creating an otherworldly peekaboo effect of mountains and glaciers. Swirling in and out of the mist were holes of rugged beauty.
Sune, Ben, and I kept a steady rhythm on the skin track, marveling at our intermittent views. Then off in the distance we heard the unmistakable roar of an avalanche. Sune and I looked at each other and all he said was, “We need to get off this mountain.”
We linked up with the rest of the group and to everyone’s credit, it only took about sixty seconds of talking it through to reach a unanimous decision: we weren’t going any higher. Unlike other trips I’ve been on when there has been a split opinion, everyone was on the same page and agreed safety was paramount. The ugly truth was that the snow was pretty rotten and temps were only rising. To forge on into unfamiliar terrain with so little visibility would have been foolish.
We may not have gotten to see the top of Sun Peak, but we were still meeting our main objective…
…We were going to get to ski.
We all pulled our skins and transitioned into ski mode.
As Andy and Wyatt took their position downslope, cameras in hand, the rest of us waited. I asked who wanted to go first and they all said, without hesitation, it was going to be me. I begrudgingly agreed, as that was my “value,” after all. Each of them had lightened my load, literally or figuratively, over the last three days; the least I could do was try to deliver a banger shot for the trip.
Motivation, when it comes to ski photography, is never difficult for me; I want to get the best shot, every time. However, wanting to get a great shot for my team added even more coal to the fire! When Andy yelled “ready,” I took off, straight-lining and pumping, trying to get as much speed as possible for a “one turn wonder”—a turn that is more aggressive and dynamic than needed (or warranted) to produce one killer photo.
I loaded up my right ski and dropped into the turn, pressuring super hard, for that epic click of the shutter, when… I flew like I never had before, but “sans skis,” supermanning forward into a full somersault. The culprit was incredibly sticky, cement-adjacent, you-are-ultra-aware-of-your-ACL, kind of snow. And it stuck to the bottom of my skis like glue.
Hence, double ejection.
Needless to say, it was not the epic turn I had hoped for. It was an epic digger though, and although that will never make the cover of a magazine, it is always nice to have those documented. While picking up my gear, I hollered up to my friends above, giving them a heads up on the sketchiness they were about to experience.
We made our way down in sections, laughing at how difficult the conditions were, constantly taking inventory the entire ski down. The very last pitch before our camp was on a slightly different aspect and, to my delight, I managed to link together three creamy turns.
What Treks Up, Must Trek Down
Feeling the temperatures continue to rise, we packed up quickly. We all wanted to get through the terrain trap of the drainage as soon as possible.
Shortly after we began our descent, the group side-slipped down a narrow section. Feeling the most confident on skis, I stayed near the back to make sure everyone got through this more technical descent.
Checking to make sure Jenna and Sam were just about through the tough section, I was about to turn down the next bend when I heard a crack.
Sam had broken through a snow bridge that was above a creek about six feet below. Not a dire situation, but definitely a compromising one.
I wanted to get Sam out of there as quickly as I could.
I got down on my belly to evenly distribute my weight and with Jenna’s help shimmied over to Sam. Since he was sort of sideways I was able to pop off his skis, allowing him to slowly get in a more upright position. This gave him the leverage to hand off his pack, which was weighing him down too much for us to get him out. Finally, Sam was able to get a good grip (he’s a super strong guy) and I was able to firmly grab his jacket. In one smooth effort, Sam was out, and we were back on our way.
A large misconception about adventure is that once you’ve reached your objective, you can relax. To the contrary, in my opinion, the way down requires even more concentration. Sam had done nothing wrong, he had just happened to be the last one to cross that section. It was just another reminder to stay focused. Fortunately, we made it down the avalanche path in the drainage swiftly and uneventfully.
As we transitioned back into our shoes and onto the trail, I was feeling good but fatigued. The steep trail with slippery roots was challenging on the way up, but it was far more treacherous on the way down. We still had a long way ahead, and I zeroed in on the same mantra…
”One step at a time.”
Doing my best to savor my surroundings while also staying upright, I happily fell into step with Sune. An Arctic guide and scholar, Sune’s Swede/Brit/Icelandic background was fascinating. He added knowledge – but more importantly humor – to every conversation. I am not sure if he had been given the task to safely deliver me to the boat, but the pace was slow and the dialogue was enjoyable as we descended down the mountain.
When we finally made it all the way back to the water, the sun broke through the clouds, bathing our trusty vessel, TRUE, in glorious light. The rays graciously warmed the dock and we laid everything out to dry – including ourselves.
It was as if we were solar batteries and the sun was bringing us back to life.
Sipping a well-deserved beer and relishing in the body-high of achieving a goal, we failed to notice (or care enough) that the skies looked a tad darker on the horizon…
About fifteen minutes later, it abruptly began to pour.
All we could do after a mad scramble to grab all the gear was to get inside the boat cabin as quickly as we could, and laugh and say, “of course that happened.”
Utterly spent and slap happy with fatigue and elation, we ate dinner, swapped stories, and went to bed enveloped in a murk of animal smells, with our soggy, sweaty gear draped over every available surface around us.
All Good Things Must Come To An End
The next morning, with the mountain conquered, we shifted our gaze back to the sea. To safely make our passage at the narrows, we pushed off the dock at Chatterbox Falls a little before 7 AM.
The early morning light diffused over the mountains as mist collected on the water.
It was dazzling.
It was the kind of beauty that causes me to hold my breath. I don’t exactly know why I sometimes have this reaction, but I think it happens when something is so perfect, so pristine, that I endeavor to freeze time by holding my breath to make it last a little longer.
The return sail down British Columbia’s coast was smooth and relaxed. We took our shifts in twos and had a fantastic time trying to make one another laugh the hardest. Unlike most ski adventures in which you go your separate ways the minute you’re off the mountain, we had the luxury of two days of bonding to digest the experience and cement the friendships before parting.
And we made the absolute best of it.
But there was still an element of melancholy. The harbor of Bainbridge Island came into view all too quickly.
As we said our goodbyes, I was overwhelmed with how quickly seven strangers had become dear friends. Experiencing one of the most beautiful corners of the world with some of the most quality people I’ve had the privilege to know, was an adventure and a gift I will always carry with me.
I had discovered I wasn’t just the “token pro skier” add-on. I was a climbing partner, navigation assistant, sous chef, dishwasher, route-finder… I was there to help in any way that I could. And that was everyone’s attitude. None of us had to prove our worth because the collective was greater than the sum of its parts.
We were better because we had done it together.
The dream of this crazy mission was to sail from Bainbridge Island to the Princess Louisa Inlet, and climb up the mountainside there to make some turns.
Status? Goal happily accomplished.
And, dare I say it?
Gamble richly rewarded.
You can see more of what Kaylin is up to, over on Instagram: @kaylinrichardson
Want to book your own sailing or sail-to-ski adventure? Reach out to Captain Ben Doerr, at www.sailbainbridge.com.