Backcountry Skiing on a Dime: Ymir Ski Lodge, British Columbia
The helicopter ride was only about 10 minutes but it was pure euphoria. No one could believe the views. I looked around the heli and everyone was grinning ear to ear, including our pilot, Jeff. Clouds were barely hanging on the snowy Kootenay peaks and the sun’s golden-red cast a sweeping glow into the horizon, just bright enough for a gentle squint.
We passed over Whitewater Ski Area’s famous Ymir Bowl, past a ridge painted with fresh figure-8s, and all of a sudden a tiny green roof came into view just below the saddle between two peaks. Jeff swooped to tree level and circled twice examining the undefined landing zone. I had no idea how the lumpy creek bed surrounded by towering firs was our best option. But, we slid right into place and hovered. My eyes shot wide as my teeth pressed into their opposing grooves. Helicopters are amazing. The glossy orange landing skids disappeared into the snowpack as Jeff’s voice crackled through the headsets: “I can’t fully depower so this is as low as I’m going– ” I didn’t move, unsure if more special instructions were coming to avoid the cranking rotors abov– “Get the fuck out!”
With a laugh, we unbuckled and followed the unloading protocol we learned 30 minutes ago – Sage, Yannick, and Yan unloaded the gear baskets on one side while Har Rai and I unloaded the other. We gathered our gear and pinned it to the fluff. The heli whipped up a powder tornado and circled above before disappearing over the ridge line.
And then the beauty of silence. The beauty of nowhere to be. After three weeks of research, planning, phone calls, cancellations, and more planning, we’d finally made it to British Columbia’s legendary backcountry. Cold, deep, dry, and empty. Even though we only had an hour of daylight, we wasted no time; we pressed our skins into place and headed up the slope to survey our playground for the week.
I grew up skiing in Tahoe and at Mt. Hood, both known for their Sierra cement and Cascade crud respectively. If what I know is water, the Kootenay snow is like bubbles.
After a careful snowpack evaluation, we donned headlamps and rode through the darkness back down to the lodge, the spray of powder occasionally blocking the view. My beard collected frost with every turn, pulling my cheeks taught. By the time I hit the bottom, a gaping grin was my new resting face; I had to strain to break through the woven ice quilt. (Maybe it was the initial shock of a frozen facelift, but I couldn’t seem to shake that grin the entire trip.)
It was -20 C out and I couldn’t release my bindings fast enough to get inside and defrost my toes. The proprietor, Trevor, gracefully agreed to let us open the lodge for the season and had warned us about the cold. “How cold could it actually be?” I thought. The lodge’s website showcased pictures of people wandering around in t-shirts and shorts, so it must warm up quick. Well, -20 is how cold it could be. I pulled a leather loveseat up to the wood stove and squirmed as the steam rose from my socks. Sage slid in next to me with a bottle of whiskey. The sweet spiciness of ginger, garam masala, turmeric, and cumin filled the room as Har Rai fired up the stove. Warmth is a state of mind.
After some frozen dreams and a few dangerously delirious encounters stoking the wood stove in the middle of the night, dawn slowly settled in, illuminating our makeshift bedroom around the wood stove. The lodge is a large rectangle with big wooden beams dotting the ground floor, a well equipped double-stove kitchen, and a wall of south-facing windows looking down into the valley. Upstairs, there are nine bedrooms and two composting toilets. It’s simple but it is luxury compared to the usual hut experience of one or two rooms and 50 of your closest friends. They even have a hot tub and a sauna, the option of a guide, and catered meals for the full-service vibe. The best part about Ymir Lodge – the price is right. We paid $500 CAD (~$375 USD, depending) per person for the week, a price Trevor offers early and late season, and for that alone it just can’t be beat.
But the reason we were there was out the front door. Yannick, the hut caretaker, and his buddy Yan set to the tasks of opening up the lodge for the season. Warm with excitement and oatmeal, Har Rai, Sage, and I raced out the door. The ominous sky was relentlessly frosty – supposed to be a storm moving in over the weekend. We skinned to the saddle and headed up the ridge into new territory. The plan was to dig pits on every aspect we were looking to ski and spend the day testing the snowpack and getting our bearings.
It’s amazing how much fun you can have getting your bearings. When we got the green light, we joyfully packed up and chased the fall line. We skied well into dark, ready to tackle some larger objectives the following day.
No big storm yet. It was snowing ever so lightly, barely mixing with the thin air. You could practically breathe it in. That same gaping grin was permanently frozen onto my face, with my beard now carrying just as much frost as the bent trees. With every turn, my ski tips dove and exploded from the white dust. Weaving through sparse trees, we chased pillows and pockets almost all the way down to Qua Lake, just below the lodge. On the way back up to the saddle for our last run, we stopped at the sauna – an old ski shack, about 50m from the lodge – to fire up the little belly stove for the evening. When the crackle turned into a blaze, we left to battle sunset for the day’s last turns.
I glanced up at the plastic thermometer above the door as we strolled into the lodge well after dark – “Woah, it’s 0 C in here!” Whiskey gingers all around to celebrate. The celebration carried into the cold, post-holing journey up to the sauna. Har Rai, Sage, and I sat by the glowing cast iron, sinking deeper into the stiff pine benches with every moment. When I couldn’t sink any deeper, I threw open the loose, weathered door and scurried into the nearest snowbank. I didn’t last long; back into the fire. Repeat. Har Rai and Sage seemed more comfortable in the thick, mind-bending heat so, after a few more cycles I left to start dinner in the lodge; stir fry never tasted so good.
There is no outside communication at the lodge. At best you can get some Canadian cell service at the top of one of the surrounding peaks and Yannick did have a sat phone for emergencies and to coordinate our exit, but that’s about it. Everyone tried to remember the breadth and severity of the incoming storm with the intensity of a strip-mall psychic; we instantly regretted not bringing a weather radio.
Whatever the forecast was, we awoke the next morning to at least 40cm (15”) of fresh snow piled at the door. We giddily skinned up towards the saddle. We were searching for yesterday’s skin track when it hit that our first guess wasn’t even close. Now, I’m tall – tall enough where people eschew standard measurements and just call me a giant – and it was up to my ribcage. Har Rai and Sage were swimming in it. We had to take turns setting the waist-deep skin track. And it just kept refilling. Luckily you could kick away a thigh’s worth of snow with minimal effort. Add in the froth of a cement-based powder skier and I felt super human. When we gathered for glory stories over our dwindling bottle of whiskey that evening, it wasn’t all dreamy deeps – Yan and Yannick had propagated an intimidatingly large storm slab while heading up the southern ridge. They were able to retreat safely but it was a somber reminder of the dynamic conditions in the backcountry.
The lodge was finally as hot as advertised; we were walking around in whatever we pleased. Over a breakfast burrito, I marveled at the power of the woodstove and the thoughtful insulation placement – none directly under plywood floors of the rooms above but tons lining the hallway. Five days in and the place was getting even better: most of our initial jokes about contracting the Hanta Virus had been bleached away, the beds were welcome for the weary, and the water was cold, clean, and refreshing.
We were feeling great until we took our first steps into the snow. Crunch. I couldn’t believe it. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Something had taken our fluffy powdered sugar and caramelized it like an over-torched creme brulee. We set out for the saddle hoping for the best, but it was everywhere. It was like skiing through glass. You would punch through the stiff shell, sink up to your thighs, and then shatter the crispy shards as you bobbed down the slope. My knees took the brunt of it. You learn something new every day, and on this particular day, I learned how to play canasta.
“There’s another storm – we may not be able to get the heli day after tomorrow.” Yannick was always the bearer of good news. In between games of dominos, hearts, and cribbage, we stepped outside for a smoke and temperature check. It was warmer, -4 or -5 C. At first our headlamps illuminated the tops of the nearby pines, but as the night drew on, the white flurries jammed their reach. Just before bed, all you could see was a sparkling mist hovering over the deck like a magic aura.
The temperature was an invigorating -10 C by the morning – a good sign for the snow stability (comes in warm, bonds, cools off). We dug new pits and cautiously skied familiar territory. It seemed things were leveling out. The crust was now hidden beneath a fresh 30cm and felt weaker than before. The skiing was fun but every so often you’d creme-brulee your ski in the wrong direction and, if you didn’t correct, disappear in a poof. Now our only worry was getting out the next day.
Our last day was December 22. I had to drive back to Seattle to catch a 6 am flight the following morning for the holidays, and we knew that if we didn’t make it out today, we might as well stay in BC through Christmas. But, just as quickly as you can caramelize powdered sugar, the clouds started peeling off the peaks and folding into the valley below. Har Rai and Yan, the two optimists for the day, set out early to scope the east ridge above the lodge and evaluate the fresh snow. The turns that day were some of the best of the trip – we skied a steep section top to bottom, lap after lap, with nothing but smiles, burning quads, frosted faces, and high fives before racing back up the skin track. “You think we have time for another one before the heli?” As the sun cracked the monochromatic sky, it felt like we were back to day one.
On January 21st, just about a month after we took our heli back to Nelson, I heard about a tragedy at Qua Peak. An Alaskan woman, Amy Downing, staying at the lodge was caught and killed in an avalanche. With heavy eyes, I read the CBC article and tried to track down any information about why the backcountry community was dealt another heavy loss. She was an experienced backcountry skier. Everyone in her group was an experienced backcountry skier. They had even skied the same slope the day before. But it didn’t matter, a 40m wide, 40cm deep slab cut loose and wrapped one person around a tree, partially buried and injured another, and partially buried and fatally injured Amy.
The backcountry is a special place. It’s where we can fulfill our need for adventure and satiate our desire to explore. It’s where we can get away and stand mesmerized by the humbling beauty of nature. But that same euphoric joy is beguiling; it will not keep you safe. It’s sad that tragedy functions as the greatest reminder and turns memories bittersweet. But, we can’t ignore the call.