Back Door & Side Door: A Guide that could Save Your Life

Back Door and Side Door (and Wawa Ridge)… just saying those names gets folks excited about riding powder at Sunshine. After riding them for 15 straight years, several times per year, I last rode both ‘Doors ~18 years ago (I’ve never been on Wawa Ridge for reasons I’ll talk about later), so this is a bit of a different guide than I normally post.

All three are outside Sunshine’s boundaries, making them part of the National Park. People call it “slack-country” (lift-accessed back country), but it’s back country for sure. As I tell people on tour, they’re never closed. Just like West Bowl at Lake Louise, they’re not in-bounds, so not subject to the jurisdiction or control of Sunshine. Back Door is exceptionally popular; Side Door a little less so, and Wawa Ridge less still. Back Door requires a 5 minute basically flat walk to get to, Side Door is literally skied right off Meadow Park, and getting to rideable parts of Wawa Ridge can take 30 min to over an hour depending on a lot of variables.

First: How do you get there? All three are accessed from the top of Wawa. Standing at the top of the lift, looking straight ahead, you’ll see this:

The view from Wawa’s top

In the above photo:

  • The yellow circle is the back country access gate for Wawa Ridge (and beyond to Healy Pass, Simpson Pass, Egypt Lake, etc). There is a sign. Read it;
  • The yellow arrow is the walking/skinning route to Wawa Ridge. It’s in two parts because the track goes out of sight of this point behind that little knoll with trees on it;
  • The purple arrow is the most popular route off Wawa Ridge.

You do not access Back Door from this gate. If you look RIGHT from the top of Wawa, you see this:

Looking right, straight down Meadow Park. Tin Can Alley is the the right.

The red circle is the Back Door access. Up close, that access looks like this.

The Back Door entry. Boarders without backpacks wandering in.

Note:

  1. You have to take your skis/boards off to climb up the knoll even on a good day;
  2. There is a rope. You have to cross a rope. This is to tell you you are leaving the ski area;
  3. There is a sign, new in 2019 (finally). That sign reads:
ATTENTION:

YOU ARE LEAVING THE RESORT BOUNDARY -- NO FORMAL RESCUE SERVICES OR AVALANCHE CONTROL PAST THIS POINT.

You and your party are responsible for any companion rescue efforts. You should carry a communication device other than a cell phone should something go wrong. Please check conditions at www.avalanche.ca

 

Side door is really not marked. Ride down Meadow Park, past two long flats, and the run will make a sharp turn to the right at a spot called The Elbow. At the Elbow, you will see this.

The Side Door gate

I hear a rumour that one of those “Attention” signs will be put up here one day.

So that’s how you get in to all three.

Second: where are they? Here’s a view of all three from the top of Divide. To help see things, I’ll be showing two photos: one annotated, one not.

The view from afar.

Annotated. See below for coding

In the above photo:

  • The blue arrow is Tin Can Alley (a blue run);
  • The green arrow is Meadow Park (a green run);
  • The dotted black line is Sunshine’s ski area patrolled boundary;
  • The orange circle is the Side Door Cliffs;
  • The red arrow is the upper “fun” part of Back Door;
  • The yellow dotted line is the hiking track along Wawa Ridge;
  • The purple arrow is the main route off Wawa Ridge.

You can see from the above photo that the upper part of Back Door isn’t… steep. Nor that long. It’s about the same length as skiing Meadow Park to the Elbow (the corner in the boundary). It’s also not much steeper. I remember in the days that I skied Back Door that on a really deep powder day, it was hard to make much headway in there. You can also see that the hike to access Wawa Ridge, while ~1.4 km long, is not very steep. My friends who have done it call it a “trudge” that is best done with skins unless it is well packed in.

Here’s a better view of Side Door, as seen from Goat’s Eye.

The Side Door Cliffs

Again, the BLUE arrow is Tin Can Alley, and the GREEN arrow is Meadow Park. The green arrowhead in the above photo is basically at the Elbow. In this photo, you can see that Side Door’s start is OK moderatly tight trees, but it quickly arrives at a cliff band. The most obvious route into Side Door takes you to a really bad part of the cliff, too. Most folks will veer right, drop tight, super steep lines (think “steeper than Hell’s Kitchen, with tighter trees”) to get to the openings under the cliffs. There is a route to the left as well, but it’s a LOT narrower and a LOT steeper.

Here’s the start of the life saving advice:

All of those meadows are there because the trees have been continuously taken out by avalanches and rockfall off the cliffs. Riding Side Door always places you in a slide path, and there’s almost no way around it. Anywhere there ISN’T an avi area, the trees are so dense, no one wants to ski them.

Oh, and by the way, the moment you’re at the bottom of the avi paths, you’re in super dense trees again. On the bright side, it’s only about 75 meters through them to the Upper Canyon. The cliffs are quite visible from the Gondola.

But back to Back Door.

You can’t talk about Back Door without clearly understanding Wawa Ridge, because what happens on Wawa Ridge can affect Back Door. No matter how benign it looks, Wawa Ridge is one of the most dangerous spots in Banff National Park in terms of injuries — because it’s serious avalanche terrain. Take a peek at the photo below.

The avalanche run out zone of Wawa Ridge.

In this view from Divide, you can see where avalanches have taken out the trees, marking the slide extents. The picture’s a bit confusing because generally, the fall line for the ridge runs diagonally on the photo, from the top left to bottom right.

There are two main avalanche triggers here:

  1. Collapse of the cornices that form on the ridge, most risky up near the upper right in the above photo. You can even see the cornice forming in the above photo;
  2. An evil convexity that runs right across the ridge almost to it’s bottom. Convexities are avi initiation spots. A bend in the underlying surface places the upper snow layers under tension, and it is likely to fracture at the apex of the convex bend.

In the photos below (taken across the ridge from the top of Wawa Chair on Jan 5, 2019), you can clearly see the cornice building and the convexity. Photos are first unannotated, then annotated.

The ridge from Wawa. Look carefully. Can you see the avalanche hazards?

The cornice is circled. The apex of the convexity is the red dotted line. Note the fall line.

The cornice and convexity up close. Note the location of the boarder.

Same day. As seen from Goat’s Eye. Can you see the convexity, and how far it goes?

The visible part of the convexity (and cornice) marked

There’s that boarder again. There’s actually 3 of them.

The photos above were taken on January 5, 2019, when avalanche conditions were rated Extreme in the alpine, Extreme at treeline, and Extreme below treeline — the worst avi conditions you can have. I was astounded that the folks riding the ridge that day didn’t trigger something. I watched the two boarders ride the main Wawa Bowl gully; they rode it together, side by side, which is a REALLY bad thing to do in avi terrain. The boarder in the photo above made it ALMOST to the apex, but triggered nothing. The two boarders that ran the main gully paralleled the entire convexity and risked remote triggering themselves into a huge problem. Patrol speculated that day it was because the whole of the above photo had already slid once this year.

And Wawa Ridge slides 4-6 times per year, almost always rider triggered, almost always involving people who don’t know they are in avi terrain, who aren’t carrying the right gear (probe, transceiver, shovel), and wouldn’t even be in there if they had taken an AST 1 course, because they would know the terrain trap they were entering.

But what does this have to do with Back Door? A lot. Once you’ve done the benign, safe upper section of Back Door, you have to get out. And “out” leads you into this:

The Back Door exit gully

In the above photo:

  • The red line is the convexity/cornice edge that can trigger;
  • The purple is the limit of the avi debris run out;
  • The upper part of the yellow arrow is the benign “fun” part of the Back Door;
  • The lower part of the yellow arrow is the exit gully that takes you down to Wolverine.

Now, the life saving advice part:

In the Back Door, all roads lead to an avalanche run out path and terrain trap. I think it might be possible to take a REALLY high line through the (fairly tight) trees on skier’s right to get to the gully, but you can be screwed in the gully, too. Avi debris has made it down as far as the lower yellow arrowhead.

When you are in Back Door, Side Door or Wawa Ridge, you will end up in avalanche terrain. It cannot be avoided. For Back Door, any avalanche off Wawa Ridge bigger than Class 2.0/2.5 will take out your exit, and possibly you. And it happens every year, at least a half a dozen times, almost always involving people, and often fatally injuring them.


Avalanches aren’t the only problem for Back Door riders. I will end with a story I tell my tour guests. Back in 2014, I broke my leg inbounds in the lower section of Rock Ledges. The timeline according to my GPS:

  • I crashed. My ski went underneath a tree branch, and I tipped forward, causing a boot top tib/fib butterfly fracture. I was trapped with my leg stuck under the tree until Patrol got there;
  • 5 minutes after I broke it, Patrol was with me;
  • 15 minutes after my crash, I was in infirmary;
  • 90 minutes after my crash, I was in the Banff Hospital awaiting surgery.

The same day,

  • Two folks went into the Back Door around 1:30 PM, the same time I crashed. One came out.
  • The one who came out waited at the bottom of Wolverine for 10 minutes, but his buddy did not show up.
  • After waiting 15 minutes, he ran Back Door again. To do this, he went up Wolverine, down to the Goat, uploaded on the Gondola to the village, back up Wawa. He still could not find his buddy.
  • He notified Patrol. However, as noted above those areas aren’t our jurisdiction. Patrol contacted Parks Public Safety. They dispatched a rescue team and Cazz, the avalanche puppy. Parks asked if we had staff available to assist; we did. We agreed to initiate the search;
  • While waiting for Parks, two Patrollers and the guy did two laps in Back Door and could not find the missing skier;
  • The Parks rescue team and Cazz arrived. Cazz found the missing skier. He had suffered the exact same injury as me. He was found at 4:30 pm, high on the side of the exit gully. He didn’t like the tight bumps and trees in the gully itself, so rode up on the gully’s side to try to get better snow and line, but got denser trees instead. He was trapped under the tree branch with a broken leg for 3 hrs;
  • Look carefully at the exit gully photo above. You can’t get a rescue toboggan in there. A helicopter was called. And it was getting dark;
  • Parks Public Safety, with help from Patrol, successfully got him long-lined out at 6:30 PM at last light. He arrived to emergency at 7:15 PM — almost 6 hrs after the accident happened. He eventually became my hospital roommate.

You want to ride Back Door? Go for it. But understand:

  • You are going into avi terrain. You need to be prepared with probe, transceiver and shovel. You need to take an AST 1 course. You need to read the avi bulletin. Note that the boarders in the photos above do not have backpacks, meaning they have no gear. Every day I see hundreds of people going into Back Door without the gear. The two who rode Wawa Ridge on the Extreme/Extreme/Extreme day did so side by side, meaning they had not taken an AST 1 course.
  • You are on your own. Get into trouble and you have to know how to get out of it, because either no one will come to get you, or it will take them a long time. To quote the sign: “You and your party are responsible for any companion rescue effort”

As I mentioned, I last rode Back Door about 18 years ago. The “fun part up top” is fun, but it’s only OK, and the exit gully is like the in-bounds run “Shaken Not Stirred” but a lot longer. It never impressed me all that much, and considering I neither had gear nor checked the avi conditions when I did it back then, I’m surprised I lived to tell the tale.

I’ve never ridden Wawa Ridge because, while I was naive enough to not understand the avi danger in Back Door in my younger days, the danger on the Ridge was obvious even to me. And I would see stuff like this all the time:

A small point release natural avalanche on Wawa Ridge, just above the main gully.

A bunch of years ago, I wrote a new set of lyrics to CCR’s “Looking Out My Back Door” about the run.


Skiin’ Out The Back Door

Just came out from comin’ down, lots of powder all round

Got to sit down, cause my legs are real sore

Smiles start to set in, pretty soon I’m singin’

Doo doo doo, skiin’ out the Back Door

Lots of avi danger. To this I am no stranger

Got my probe and shovel, and I practice in the Dive

Been to Beacon Basin, me they won’t be chasin’

Doo doo doo, skiin’ out the Back Door

A short walk leads to paradise, with powder all around

There’s wide spaced trees, and the snow comes to your knees. Doo doo doo

Narrow winding exit, that part’s not my favourite

Doo doo doo, skiin’ out the Back Door

Watch the cornice up high, it could be your end

There’s no control so if it goes your doomed, Doom do doomed

On powder days its awesome, go in there with a good chum

Doo doo doo, skiin’ out the Back Door

Don’t crash or get injured, cries for help won’t be heard

There’s no Patrol even though you get there from the chair

Ride wih lots of good care, don’t be takin’ so much air

Doo doo doo, skiin’ out the Back Door

Doo doo doo, skiin’ out the Back Door