Snow Fall
The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek

By JENKINS T CAT
He shot us a bewildered look, mumbling technical jargon to no one in particular. He climbed out of the cockpit and sauntered over to the hangar. We exchanged worried glances. Suddenly, we were questioning our decision. Fresh off a camping trip to one of Western Canada’s notoriously remote slabs, we’d decided to hire a helicopter to go further. It was something we had been humming and hawing about for ages, but it had yet to come to fruition—each time we’d attempted it, bad weather suspended our plans.That morning had already been an emotional rollercoaster, so in hindsight, engine difficulties were fitting. Having never taken a heli-surf trip to this area, none of us knew what to expect—or whether it would be worth our time and money. The dense landscape and complete lack of roads north of Tofino ensures the reef passes, along most of the coastline, remain almost entirely untouched. It also means that getting to them is an adventure. As some of the few surfers with the knowledge and means to reach the best waves, our tight-knit crew has worked hard perfecting the art of strategic maritime missions. But the thing about exploring the coast by boat is that the same offshore wind that transforms the area’s best reefs from sectioning, chandeliering runners into hollow slabs is the same wind that creates sea conditions too vicious for a small boat to survive the five-hour round-trip out of Tofino. And that’s where the helicopter comes in. After a few minutes, the pilot emerged from the hangar carrying a trickle-charger type device. He connected the cables, and the engine sputtered to life. Say what you will about the marvels of trickle-charger devices, but jump-starting a helicopter does not fill you a great deal of confidence. Especially when you’re headed somewhere just north of nowhere.

Say what you will about the marvels of trickle-charger devices, but jump-starting a helicopter does not fill you a great deal of confidence. Especially when you’re headed somewhere just north of nowhere.

“Okay, we’re set to go,” the pilot assured us. At this point, it was too late to back out. With our money paid and our surfboards strapped to the landing skid, we had no choice but to trust him. We nodded confirmation. Moments later, we were airborne. Below us, Tofino and its surrounding area sloped steeply from rocky headlands to swell-exposed sandy beaches, a pattern that consistently works its way south some 25 miles to neighboring Ucluelet. There, the grains of sand transform into pebbled shorelines as the coast bends eastward toward Barkley Sound. North of Tofino, however, the abrupt headlands begin to take on the form of longer, flatter reefs, and the quantity and quality of surf increases by the mile. From heaving slabs to dribbling points and everything in between, it’s all there for the taking. You just have to know when and where to look. Say what you will about the marvels of trickle-charger devices, but jump-starting a helicopter does not fill you a great deal of confidence. Especially when you’re headed somewhere just north of nowhere. Growing up somewhere surrounded by untapped surf potential is both a blessing and a curse. While the ease of warm-water surf destinations has its allure, there’s nothing quite like the pleasure of scoring perfect, completely empty barrels after spending days tracking a swell and hours at sea chasing it down. And whether you end up scoring or not, at the very least you’re always left with an epic tale that those living in surf Meccas can’t even fathom. One particular mission comes to mind: After a two-day barrel feast, we’d run into a stiff southeasterly just as we left to head home. The chop continued to grow larger, meaning each time the boat’s bow smashed down, more water poured in. The extra weight and violent seas meant that the underpowered vessel could no longer get up on a plane. Our captain, photographer Jeremy Koreski, circled over and over, turning the headwind into a tailwind to help us reach a plane, before quickly spinning back in the direction of home. Meanwhile, Peter Devries and I frantically bailed seawater from the stern. Over the roaring winds, Jeremy screamed every cuss word in existence, occasionally sprinkling in the fact that he was, “Never fucking taking three people in the boat again!” Being the “third” man on that boat hadn’t made the situation very comfortable for me, so rather than joining the complain train, I uncharacteristically kept my mouth shut, bailed water, and tried not to make eye contact with Captain Koreski. Four hours later, when we were safely on land, we couldn’t help but laugh at the situation.

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Thankfully, our helicopter adventure turned out to be far less dramatic.

Traveling north under the now steady whir of the rotating blades, we watched the incoming swell bend around the tiny uninhabited islands dotting the coast. Peter and I squealed at each other through our headsets, pointing out the breaks below, amazed at the perfect, long-period swell and unseasonably warm weather. Every little reef and offshore island was alive with wave energy.
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It is a term with broad meaning. The name is derived from the Cascade Tunnel, originally a 2.6-mile railroad tube completed in 1900 that connected the east and west sides of the Cascades, a boon for the growth of Seattle and Puget Sound. The mountain pass that it burrowed beneath was named for the project’s engineer, John Frank Stevens, who later helped build the Panama Canal. Wreckage after the Wellington, Wash., avalanche in 1910. In late February 1910, ceaseless snowstorms over several days marooned two passenger trains just outside the tunnel’s west portal. Before the tracks could be cleared, the trains were buried by what still stands as the nation’s deadliest avalanche. It killed 96 people. Bodies were extricated and wrapped in blankets from the Great Northern Railway, then hauled away on sleds. Some were not found until the snow melted many months later. To skiers and snowboarders today, Tunnel Creek is a serendipitous junction of place and powder. It features nearly 3,000 vertical feet — a rarely matched descent — of open meadows framed by thick stands of trees. Steep gullies drain each spring’s runoff to the valley floor and into a small, short gorge called Tunnel Creek. The area has all of the alluring qualities of the backcountry — fresh snow, expert terrain and relative solitude — but few of the customary inconveniences. Reaching Tunnel Creek from Stevens Pass ski area requires a ride of just more than five minutes up SkyLine Express, a high-speed four-person chairlift, followed by a shorter ride up Seventh Heaven, a steep two-person lift. Slip through the open boundary gate, with its “continue at your own risk” warning signs, and hike 10 minutes to the top of Cowboy Mountain. When snow conditions are right, the preferred method of descent used by those experienced in Tunnel Creek, based on the shared wisdom passed over generations, is to hopscotch down the mountain through a series of long meadows. Weave down the first meadow, maybe punctuate the run with a jump off a rock outcropping near the bottom, then veer hard left, up and out of the narrowing gully and into the next open glade.