8 Popular Whistler Backcountry Zones

First time exploring Whistler backcountry skiing zones? Just getting familiar with the touring options accessed from Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort? Read on to learn about 8 of the most popular destinations for turns in the Spearhead backcountry.

Despite the staggering breadth of peaks and glaciers in British Columbia, the vast majority of this incredible terrain will sit quietly throughout each winter seeing few, if any, visitors in search of powder. Access is the crux that defines mountain adventures in Canada’s most western province and the South Coast is no exception. Let’s be frank, it’s no picnic getting into the mountains when most plowed roads rise little above sea level. This is the context in which the Whistler-Blackcomb lift system offers such incredible value. No other location in Canada offers as much value in terms of easy access to exceptional backcountry terrain. Welcome to one heck of a playground.

Harvesting turns on Cowboy Ridge

Given the easy access, it’s no surprise that stacks of people descend on the Whistler backcountry each year to spend time in the Spearhead alpine. With 60 bucks and 30 minutes riding lifts, you can step out a few short kilometers from terrain that heli ski clients spend $1200 a day to visit. It’s that good. And the terrain stretches for kilometers, encompassing everything from old growth tree runs to long dramatic glaciers, and narrow chutes to steep alpine faces. The Spearhead offers it all in spades.

But despite the deep inventory of terrain, the interesting truth is that the bulk of people venturing past the ski resort boundary aren’t going far. Maybe it’s limited windows of time or perhaps it’s an appropriate level of caution for those new to the sport. Whatever the reason, the busiest terrain by far are those runs closest to the resort. Here’s below is an overview of those most trafficked zones.

Whistler

flute
Flute Powder

The Draw: The beauty of Flute Summit, commonly referred to as ‘Flute’, is all about ease of access. Flute offers some of the easiest and quickest to reach backcountry terrain off the Whistler Blackcomb resort. In addition, Flute provides some of the best backcountry skiing in the Whistler backcountry during storms when the alpine isn’t accessible.

Descents: The runs of Flute start with lower angle terrain before following over into a good consistent fall line down to Oboe Creek. Runs range from lower angle far skier’s right, more consistent and sparsely treed central lines, and more treed terrain skier’s left. The trees provide enough definition during storm skiing for those who know the terrain; for those who are unfamiliar, it is possible to trend too far skier’s right and begin a descent towards Cheakamus Lake. Avoid heading down to Cheakamus as – many parties have ended up triggering Search and Rescue calls from this area.

Getting There and Away: Flute is one of a few zones within the Whistler-Blackcomb Resort where a bootpack or skin is required to access marked runs. The ski area boundary that crosses the top of Flute Summit separates inbounds terrain to the northwest and backcountry terrain to the northeast. From the base of the runs it is possible to follow Oboe Creek until it intersects Singing Pass Trail which leads back to the Skier’s Plaza in Whistler, thus avoiding the need to skin back uphill. It’s also possible to to skin back up past Lesser Flute in order to reenter the resort, thus avoiding the Singing Pass Trail.

Oboe
Oboe Old Growth

The Draw: Oboe Summit, commonly referred to as ‘Oboe’, is a great storm skiing destination given the numerous tree skiing lines, particularly on the east aspect. Being a bit further from the resort boundary, Oboe offers a more opportunity for fresh snow that Flute; however, Oboe is still within easy striking distance of Whistler resort and sees lots of traffic.

Descents: There is good skiing on both the west and east aspect of Oboe. The west side, heading towards Flute, is a bit shorter with less continuous runs. The east side, heading down towards the Singing Pass Trail begins lower angle but steepens at treeline and offers more continuous pitches through openings in the trees.

Getting There and Away: After making a run down Flute’s northeast aspects, the next feature moving east is Oboe. The ascent from Oboe Creek isn’t particularly long and the area is so well used that most days you won’t need to break trail for the ascent. Exits from Oboe are straightforward; it’s possible to descent to the SInging Pass trail from either side.

Cowboy Ridge
Cowboy Ridge Turns

The Draw: Cowboy Ridge offers great ski terrain with fantastic views to the south into Garibaldi Provincial Park. What more could you ask for? Cowboy Ridge encompasses some of the nicest slopes for open turns accessible from the Kees and Claire Hut.

Descents: Cowboy Ridge is a sprawling open slope offering a perfect 300 m long pitch of skiing over 1 km wide. There are a ton of good lines across this west facing slope. Be aware that Cowboy Ridge can produce large destructive avalanches.

Getting There and Away: Moving east from Oboe after crossing the Singing Pass Trail, the next feature is Cowboy Ridge.s It’s best to ascend along more protected or low angle terrain at the north or south end of Cowboy RIdge. Singing Pass Trail is easily accessed from the base of the slopes and leads back to Whistler Village.

Blackcomb

DOA
Dropping into DOA

The Draw: DOA is the dramatic couloir splitting Blackcomb Peak prominent above the 7th Heaven area from most of Whistler resort. With that combination of aesthetic appeal and in-your-face advertising, it’s likely the most skied couloir in the Whistler backcountry.

Descents: A long, narrow chute, up to 45 degrees in places, beginning with a ski-width choke to bypass a rock outcrop. A southern aspect and heavy traffic mean it’s hard to catch with untouched powder; however, the atmospheric descent makeS up for the usual deficiencies in snow quality.

Getting There and Away: After a 150 m ascent skinning from the Blackcomb Glacier to the East Col, a short ascending traverse to the south across the east aspect of Blackcomb Peak leads to the notch which gives access DOA. Continue downhill trending skiers right to reach the ski area boundary and the 7th Heaven lift.

Circle Lake
Descending to Circle Lake

The Draw: Quick access, a long consistent fall line and short exit routes make the southeast facing slopes above Circle Lake a major target for the first groups through the Blackcomb Glacier Backcountry Gate.

Descents: Runs off Spearhead Col down to Circle Lake begin as a open slopes which leads into two broad gullies features split by a subtle ridge.

Getting There and Away: Access to the Circle Lake is terrain is quick from Blackcomb Glacier Backcountry Gate via a traversing ascent leading climber’s right to the Spearhead Col, from which slopes drop away to the southeast to Circle Lake. It’s an easy return route to the resort crossing over the Blackcomb-Disease Ridge Col to Body Bag Bowl above 7th Heaven.

Spearhead Glacier
Cold Smoke on the Spearhead Glacier

The Draw: Beautiful north facing poder slopes with views of Wedge Mountain make the Spearhead Glacier a top destination for groups seeking quality powder. A relatively short access route and quality run for an exit (Husime or Corona) add to the appeal.

The Descents: The upper Spearhead Glacier offers numerous lines on skier’s left and right; however, significant crevasses in the area dictate prerequisite knowledge, experience and equipment and what runs can be skied. Many additional runs can be found descending off Spearhead Shoulder east of the glacier.

Getting There and Away: Access to Spearhead Glacier involves ascending from the Blackcomb Glacier Gate to the Spearhead Col, then making a descending traverse to a short bootpack that accesses the head of the Spearhead Glacier through Guides Notch. Most groups return to the resort via a descent of Husume or Corona bowl.

Husume & Corona
Heading into Husume

The Draw: Husume Couloir and Corona Bowl are some of the most popular descents in the Blackcomb backcountry given their extended fall line, relatively quick access and rapid return route to the Blackcomb Glacier road within the ski area boundary. These lines are often skied as one-hit outings mixed into a day of resort skiing.

Descents: Husume begins as a steep couloir bound by rock walls which gradually widens into broad slopes split by a rock outcrop. Corona begins as a broad bowl that narrows to gully with additional slopes to skier’s right.

Getting There and Away: Access to Husume and Corona is a bit convoluted and involves ascending from the Blackcomb Glacier Gate to the Spearhead Col, then making a descending traverse to a short bootpack that accesses the head for the Spearhead Glacier through Guides Notch. To reach the runs, traverse skiers right along the head of the Spearhead Glacier until skinning or bootpacking can access low points in the ridgeline and the runs beyond.

Decker
Dropping down Decker Main

The Draw: Decker Mountain is stacked with long, protected, north-facing glacier descents that are immediately visible for anyone venturing into the Blackcomb backcountry over the East Col or Spearhead Col. GIven the proximity of these enticing rusn, it’s not at all surprising that they are heavily skied by groups out for a day tour.

Descents: Decker offers a huge range of lines, from steep lines such as Chisel Chute and the FIngers, to opens slopes off Decker Shoulder and long runs down Decker Glacier. Off the summit it’s possible to navigate through corniced terrain onto the excellent 9th Hole and further south Decker Main offer a steep descent down to Decker Creek. Everyone mentioned here is excellent, making Decker a great option for those with the energy to complete several laps. Caution should be exercised regarding ascent routes used on Decker given the high skier traffic and overhanging cornices on several slopes.

Getting There and Away: Decker is reached from the Blackcomb Glacier Backcountry Gate by passing over the East Col and descending past Circle Lake to Decker Lake at the base of Decker’s north face. Exit is typically out over the Decker-Disease Ridge Col followed by a contouring traverse around Disease Ridge Back to the 7th Heaven area.

Enjoying the Whistler Backcountry

So, what do you do with a list like this? What’s the point of this article? 

First, understand the context. If you’re headed out to these destinations, know that these aren’t areas of solitude. They all offer a high level of quality in some aspects and they are all fairly easy to get to and return from. They attract crowds. If you wind up in these places, be ready to see other folks; jump on the opportunity to be social and friendly rather than get uptight and possessive. 

Second, if you want first tracks in these zones you’re going to have to be strategic. Perhaps you’ll need to be the first one in the lift line. Maybe you’re staying to Kees and Claire Hut and will be out the door first. Maybe you’ll consider a pre-dawn start skinning from the resort up the Singing Pass Trail or whatever access route gets sorted for Blackcomb. Whatever the approach, it’ll take some thought and commitment. Someone is going to get some first tracks after a snowfall, but chances are it’l be the early bird.

Third, having been warned, my advice for those with the appropriate skills and experience and keen on fresh tracks is to push out beyond these popular areas and seek out some of the amazing terrain that sees a fraction of the visitation. Exploring new-to-you terrain can be one of the most enjoyable aspect of touring; make the most of your day and take the time to go further.

Have fun and be safe!

Matt Gunn

To learn more about touring in the Spearhead Range click here.