I’ll admit skinning up through the large “lumps” which punctuate the buried British Columbian woodlots scared me almost more than skiing down while avoiding tree wells large enough to swallow a troop of backcountry skiers. Avoiding yawning rock moats deep enough I could not see their bottoms – was also nerve wracking. I love the purchase skins provide for uphill skiing, but fear the point in steepness where their grip suddenly breaks loose and you are slipping backwards, locked in the narrow packed track which an instant before was your path to nirvana. Many backwards trajectories would have carried me into a possibly fatal flounder in these deep Canadian traps.
I spent the month of February enjoying books on CD and watching 5200 miles of largely sunlit mountain landscape slip by my Ford Focus windows on a loop up and around the course of the mighty Fraser River, our modest stream’s gargantuan northern cousin. My goal was to explore innovative new and also time tested winter recreation industry options.
Few resorts offer a belay rope as part of their sauna experience as does the Callaghan Country’s Journeyman Lodge. The weather pattern on my trip had brought the normal 10 feet or so of early season snow in December and early January – luckily followed by cold arctic air to at least keep the un-skied snow settled but soft two weeks after the last storms. Passing through at least 100 open road closure gates made me appreciate even more the wonderful sightseeing weather, even if I missed fresh powder days.
The 20 bed Journeymen Lodge ran about $350 US for the night, a real value considering the fare included meals and two full days of skiing and snowmobile transport to the lodge. The 15 klicks (kilometers) up to the lodge gain about 500 meters along a beautifully groomed extension to the Whistler Olympic cross country ski complex. I enjoyed not having to pilot the snowmobile for a change – riding behind Brad Sills, owner of an operation which offers world class backcountry with cat groomed Nordic skiing out the front door of the beautifully crafted lodge.
The snowmobile assist gets you to your home base in time to grab a sack lunch and follow one of the many skin tracks leaving the lodge. I’d like to blame my timid mantra “Are there any low angle tree lots around here?” strictly on my relatively advanced years (this trip celebrated my 60th year on skis) or the fact I most often travel solo and on my kind of new knee – but in fact I’ve always been a bit timid about extreme sports. During my life in the woods, I’ve been close enough to the edge to enjoy a front row seat; but I’ve never hucked off the precipice there (at least not on purpose).
Never once on my trip did anyone tell the old solo guy he should perhaps stay out of the woods. I love Canada. This was true, even up on top of Rogers Pass – world renowned headquarters of extreme back county. “Low angle trees?” I asked at the lady at the visitor center up top. Her kind answer to a dumb tourist question was punctuated by the staff member behind her who muttered “everything around here is pretty committing”.
Even getting across the creek at the Lodge proved to be a challenge. The narrow open water was banked by 3 meter tall snow walls (the belay rope down the long steep stairs at the sauna helped ensure an escape from a cold dip). The steep skin exit ramp from the clutches of the creek again tempted my new Swiss skins from Icebox Sports to send me backwards into the water from which it was very apparent my ice cube encased carcass would not be extricated until after I did not show up for dinner.
I did find a pretty mellow woodlot across the creek from the hot box. I grabbed quite a few lovely traverses and even a turn or two. Day two found me back there bucking up my courage for a slightly more aggressive path down. My alpine touring gear went back with the snowmobile; I enjoyed a cruise on my light track skis back to the base to complete two full days of skiing.
On the road to Prince Rupert – where I celebrated 50 years since my launch there on the Alaska State Ferry to my first summer on the Juneau Icefield at 17 – I skied a community mountain bought a few years ago by a group of locals for about $700K. Re-frozen three week old coastal conditions left only groomers surrounded by an abundance of open woodlots and skin tracks into the alpine available on the 600 vertical meter mountain. I enjoyed skiing with busloads of local students and locals. Heading for my car, I was invited by a local man to take part in the “Thrilling Thursday” raffle drawing in the warming hut’s upstairs pub. I walked away with the full story of this mountain coop from the one of the organization’s founders and a four pack of tall boy bottles from a Prince Rupert Brewery, my raffle prize.
I wondered why the folks at Chilcotin Holidays lodge wanted me to call before I left the town which was a full 90 klicks from the front door. The answer came as I drove their only access route – nearly covered in places by the daily rock fall which had me pinning down the time when the “rock plow” traveled so I could follow it on the way out two days later. In the lodge’s back yard I enjoyed a 1300 meter vertical skin despite the long trek up through sketchy snow to reach a dozen or so nice turns in the alpine.
As I departed I wished Jerry, ranch owner Kevan Bracewell’s 97 year old mother, many more years to share her incredible stories. Kevan noted, “Mom is aiming for 100 so she can get her letter from the Queen.”
My journey’s centerpiece was my ski at the Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry ski area, where – thanks to the lack of lifts and my pedestrian skin pace, I enjoyed two runs in two days and saw a total of five people. I was flat astounded at how a community built ski area with 9 wide runs down 1000 vertical meters at the end of a narrow 9k road (maintained by the community group) can be viable a full 8 hours from any large population center. I swore to stick to the one low angle slope available but at the end of a skin track I thought was a shortcut, I was on the way up the steep terrain. My tenuous but solid turns on the way down once again proved it’s nice to travel alone; embarrassment comes only in the presence of an audience.
The fine German ladies at the Stork’s Nest Inn in Smithers (home of the Smithereens) were kind enough to ask where I was disappearing to on my foray to the lift-less mountain and were kind enough to smile as they noted my return. My journey renewed my faith in the future of the hut industry. I also firmly believe – with help hopefully from someone with a bit time and youthful energy than I have – we are an ideal valley for the building of a lift-less ski area. Backcountry skiing is currently the only growth portion of the ski industry. I can’t help but believe there is a better way to transition folks from skinning up a busy ski area to finding the confidence to forge their own paths.