British Columbia

Valle Nevado
Hut Skiing in the BC Backcountry
Imagine skiing for three or four blissful hours and arriving at a fantasy hut nestled high in the mountains, beneath a fabulous bowl of powder and a series of seemingly never-ending glades. Now imagine having to share that hut with an ever-changing succession of complete strangers, toting everything from exotic pets to drug habits.

My partner Frith and I have made a number of trips to public cabins like these in Washington state and British Columbia, and it seems like we always end up sharing Shangri-La with all 17 members of the University of Oregon outing club. Determined to find a place where the number of compatriots would be controlled, we found ourselves at the Wells Gray Inn in Clearwater, BC, with five other backcountry skiers and two guides, preparing for a five day trip into the Wells Gray Chalet system.

"As gravity exerts its inevitable pull, there is no apparent exit from the vehicle, and this proves alarming to those of us in the eight-passenger compartment..."

Ian Eakins, our head guide, owns Wells Gray Chalet & Wilderness Adventures with Tay Briggs. Ian flashed his impish grin as he introduced himself to everyone. A couple of middle-aged Canadian men, who looked as if they were experienced ski mountaineers, sat across the breakfast table from us while three older Canadian women sat together chatting about a recent trip to Nepal. Nepal became the central topic of conversation throughout the trip, since Ian had been a guide there for 15 years. This seemed quite appropriate as we made our way into the wilderness on skis, not only because the Trophy mountains resemble the Himalayas, but because of the focus on a distant, almost mythical kingdom.

Dave Pehowich, a strapping 22-year-old in the process of completing the University of Kamloops guide certification degree, assisted Ian. Since I rarely venture into the mountains with so varied a group, I found myself wondering how the trip would work. But over the next five days, the pace, terrain, and especially the personality of our head guide, would combine to create a memorable backcountry experience.

Our journey began with an hour ride in a vintage SnowCat. As we labored up the steep snow-covered logging road with Tay at the wheel, Ian would yell "shift!" from the rear of the eight-person passenger compartment. In case you don't remember the days before synchromesh transmissions, let me remind you: the act of shifting one takes time. During the three or four seconds the clutch was depressed, between gears, the SnowCat would slow and then threaten to reverse directions as gravity exerted its inevitable pull. This proved an alarming development as no easy escape made itself apparent. Then, from the back, Ian would yell "clutch!" and Tay would pop the clutch, causing the green beast to lurch forward, now in second gear.

Freeride at Valle Nevado
The excitement of the ride was not its only reward: we traveled approximately 12 miles up the road in about an hour, saving a dreary day of ski-trudging in the process. From there we shouldered our packs and took off toward the high country.

The path up to the hut climbed into the alpine zone and wound through meadows and open forest. We stopped once, lunched en masse, and practiced avalanche beacon drills. I found it reassuring others in the group demonstrated the certifiable ability to rescue me from potential disaster. (I also recommend beacon training as a way to break the ice among a group of people who have only just met. The idea that you're learning to find each other propels you into a sense of camaraderie that might take days to develop on its own.) Not that there were any avalanche worries on our trip ... the snowpack, with a deeply frozen crust below four to six inches of powder that had fallen the night before, seemed very stable.

After an three-hour, easy uphill journey, we arrived at the Trophy Hut. Thanks to Tay's early arrival and a propane gas heater, the hut was already warm. And the Hut has a propane sauna — a real treat after a day of touring around the local mountains.

On the first day, we climbed to a saddle above the hut on a quick, get-acquainted tour. That night, after a refreshing sauna, we feasted on a hearty meal, and Frith and I introduced the group to the Washingtonian's backcountry ski drink of choice, the snowshoe: equal parts Wild Turkey and peppermint schnapps, with a liberal amount of snow. In the newly acquainted group, this seemed to have served the same purpose as the avalanche rescue training — with none of the technical interference.

"Our group had three grandmothers who thought nothing of an all day climb to a hut, and never complained about face-planting..."

We got to know our fellow clients much better during this evening and learned that one, Siggy, had been a little girl in Germany during the Second World War and remembered the bombing quite well. Another, Margaret, had been a little girl in England during the blitz and remembered it equally as well. The two Canadian men, Dave and Tim, were friends who had skied and climbed together for years. I knew we had broken through the final barrier as a group when Tim, who had seemed taciturn, asked me the difference between the Rolling Stones and a Scottish farmer. (The Stones say, "Hey, you, get off of my cloud," and the farmer says, "Hey, McCloud, get off of my ewe.")

In the mornings, Ian would gather us all together on the hut's porch to make the day's plan. Ian's father had been a commander of a regiment of Gurka soldiers for the British Army, and during Ian's morning missives, I always got a sense of the old "pip pip, chin up old chap." His good-natured speeches usually started with, "The plan is..." and ended, "No hurry, chicken curry."

The general plan was to do day tours from the Trophy Hut for two days. From there we planned to tour eight miles to Table Hut, for a day and then ski out on the last day. This itinerary allowed a relaxed introduction to the Trophy Mountains and kept our interest level high by exploring new terrain.

The total amount of vertical rise accessible from either of these huts is modest; our maximum run didn't exceed 1200 feet. However, one could find terrain of almost any steepness, and after putting in an uphill skin track, multiple runs on a particularly good slope provided plenty of backcountry "vertical." The varied terrain proved a boon to our group with a range of abilities. Naturally, when the entire group skied together, gentler terrain was the call, but since there were two guides, we could split up and find terrain that suited those of us looking for more aggressive runs. (A note about the guiding: Ian feels strongly that all clients should be accompanied by a guide at all times, due to liability issues. However, they also rent huts to private parties, where you can serve as your own guide. The mountains are not particularly complex and competent parties should be able to have a great time directing their own itineraries. Of course any private party should be experienced in both avalanche awareness and rescue.)

Freeride at Valle Nevado
During a time when nearly all other mountain ranges in the Pacific Northwest and interior BC areas were suffering from poor snow conditions, we encountered remarkably good ski conditions and, in general, we found powder over a solid base. Because of the altitude, around 7000-8000 feet, and the northern latitude of the Trophy mountains, the ski season here extends from December through April. The Trophies are the southernmost extent of the Caribou Mountains, which are contiguous with the Monashees. The huts are located right about tree line and allow you to choose open, gladed, or tree-covered slopes, and any slope aspect is easily found. That north slope, with a perfect stash of powder in the trees, or that southern exposure with storybook corn, is just about guaranteed.

Ambitious parties which ascend one of the higher peaks, like Trophy Mountain itself, receive as reward for their effort a real ski-mountaineering descent. Table Mountain has a cute little hill with about 1200 feet or vertical right behind it. You can climb this peak and ski off the top in any direction. Here we not only had the best powder of the trip, and the most vertical (5000 feet in one day), we also saw a herd of reindeer.

The route from Trophy to Table has good skiing as well. Since the trip between the huts cuts through three different drainages, we experienced some excellent terrain (trees, bowls, lakes to cross), along with the sense of discovery at each new feature. The huts are stocked with food and contain sleeping pads and blankets, so our packs were light enough, even when touring from one hut to the next, to allow unfettered downhill action.

The group proved to be a good-spirited one; even those members who didn't have much downhill ability knew how to keep moving. This might have had something to do with the fact that all (except Frith and me) were Canadians. Most Canadian backcountry skiers have a long-standing tradition of organized outdoor activity. There are many high mountain huts in the Canadian Rockies and interior ranges, and since semi-civilized accommodations are available even in the high mountains, a remarkable array of the Canadian citizenry finds its way into the alpine winter backcountry. Thus our group had three grandmothers who thought nothing of an all day climb to a hut, and never complained about face-planting, while the two strong, silent guys stayed right with us and carried no apparent need to display their testosterone levels.

I wondered if Ian found the business of taking us on a five-day ski tour through these lovely, if not adrenaline-inducing, peaks somewhat anticlimactic after years of guiding in the Himalayas. Instead though he seemed to genuinely enjoy being in the Trophy Mountain backcountry. If you're looking for a unique backcountry ski experience where you can go beyond the usual "there and back" mentality of a day trip (and have the logistics hassles handled by a charming and competent guide) Wells Gray Chalets is a good bet. No hurry, chicken curry.

Brian Povolny, Correspondent

The drive from Seattle to Clearwater takes 8-9 hours via Bellingham and Kamloops. The drive home took us longer because we stopped at Penticton for a little Skaha rock climbing.

Wells Gray Chalets & Wilderness Adventures is operated by Ian Eakins and Tay Briggs out of Clearwater, BC, contact: 250-587-6444. They offer guided hut-to-hut ski tours of 4-7 days from January to April. Snowcat or helicopter access, meals and avalanche safety equipment are included.

If you have your own group (6 or more), you can rent a cabin. For a reasonable fee, you can hire a helicopter and go gourmet instead of freeze-dried.

These cabins are the snuggest, best equipped cabins we've seen in the backcountry. Cabins have complete kitchens with propane ovens and stoves. The saunas at the Trophy and Fight cabins define luxury in the winter backcountry. Sleeping lofts are comfy with mattresses, pillows and down comforters. All you need is a sheet.
— Sidebar by Frith Maier

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