To a strange land searching
Backcountry ski epic in Canada’s Chilcotins
To get the best out of anything you have to push the boundaries, especially when you’re in search of the ultimate run.
THE MISTY AIR was laden with moisture and every breath I exhaled seemed to thicken the atmosphere. The low cloud hung silent and unstirred overhead and in the pre-dawn darkness the streetlights glowed above me like amber-coloured orbs. I was huddled in a bus stop in Whistler Village waiting for the first bus to Pemberton. The streets were deserted, the revelling tribe of party animals that earlier sprawled the streets were now sprawled-out on their beds.
My ski gear was piled up on the ground next to me, along with a rucksack of belongings. Everything I’d need for the next week and nothing I wouldn’t. I ran through my mental checklist starting with the obvious; skis, stocks and boots. Check. Errr, hang on… oh crap. Where are my boots? Oh damn, I had left them in the drying room.
This was my first backcountry trip in Canada and the stokemeter was running high but it was tempered by a healthy dose of trepidation. I had just finished an epic powder-filled week at Whistler and I was still on a high, though by now all the snow in the resort had been cut up and packed down, so I was frothing over fields of bottomless ‘cold smoke’.
Once in Pemby I discovered the local bakery, Black Bird, and after a quick caffeine hit to spark the brain cells I met up with my good mate and guide, Till, along with a client of his, Thomas. We all piled into the car and headed out to the airport.
By helicopter we would fly into the wilderness of the South Chilcotin Mountains, located about 70km north of Whistler. Close enough to the Pacific Ocean to consistently deliver that famed west-coast snow but sitting just east of the Coastal Ranges where the air is a little colder and the snow a little drier. The area itself is steeped in history; the surrounding mountain towns were all once bustling gold mining settlements and during the years of the Great Depression were the bright lights of the economy. The zone we were heading into was first discovered as a winter playground by an Austrian couple living and working in the town of Bralorne. The visionary couple realised the unexplored potential of the mountains for ski touring, built a hut and the rest is history. The mining boom came and went and treasures are still being uncovered by skiers and snowboarders today.
We unloaded the car and made our way into the main hall where a few people milled about. There were a number of small groups also planning to fly in, which was good news to us; the company of others is always welcome around the fire after a day of backcountry skiing.
The helicopter banked left and began its rapid descent before pulling up for a soft landing in a snowfield adjacent to the hut. The hut, or better described as a small chalet by Aussie standards, was nestled a short distance away amongst trees, smoke already billowing from the chimney ready for our arrival. It was a classic old Canadian log cabin, built of pinewood in ’72, and is recorded as one of the earlier backcountry lodges in British Colombia. During winter a live-in manager and a fulltime chef are responsible for keeping guests fed and satisfied.
After sorting out bedding arrangements, which were in a combination of yurts and cosy bunk rooms, we gathered around the dining table and stuffed our bellies full with a hearty meal. The evening was spent kicking back on couches by the log After taking in the surroundings, we dropped into the open white face below, one by one skiing lines into the trees and the valley below.
fire while pouring over topo maps, drinking draught beer, getting to know one another and discussing tomorrow’s plans.
The hut attracted all kinds of people and this particular week brought an eclectic mix of BC locals. There was Matt, your typical bearded Canadian lumberjack; four young local women who were on a girls trip from Whistler and Vancouver; Alison, a former Canadian Olympic mountain biker turned recreational ski-tourer; Chris, an adventure and landscape photographer and snowboarder; a group of young blokes from Vancouver; and a few semi-retired businessmen from Seattle.
The next morning we woke early to a warm breakfast, and were presented with prepacked gourmet sandwiches for lunch along with an array of fruits, bars and snacks. This was our fuel for the day. Without lifts, we’d need it. Despite being in a remote hut deep within the Chilcotin mountains, the hospitality was on point.
The fresh snow from last week had since been doused with a heavy bout of rain so it was anything but epic. Visibility was also poor and there were strong winds blowing up high. Despite all that you couldn’t keep us down and we were psyched to get after it. That said, we heeded Till’s suggestion to ease into it and head out towards a mellow zone southwest of the hut. After all, we had a whole week to play with.
We put our skins on at the hut and started the climb up the front-facing slopes a short ways from the hut. By the time we crested the first ridge the clouds had begun to lift and we were rewarded with expansive views of the Chilcotins. We took advantage of the visibility and skinned up to a nearby peak to reconnoitre our new domain. After taking in the surroundings, we dropped into the open white face below, one by one skiing lines into the trees and the valley below. This pattern continued, but from different peaks each time, and after a full day of skiing we were knackered. Dusk began to settle over the mountains so we retraced our skin tracks back through the trees guided by the warm amber glow of the hut.
By midweek still no new snow had fallen and conditions were more like spring than the middle of winter. We’d accepted that we wouldn’t be getting the blower pow we all dreamed about, so we shifted our focus towards doing missions each day to explore new zones or peaks. The firmer snow was ideal for covering bigger distances and in the process we became more familiar with the terrain and confident with the stability of the snowpack. One particular zone we ventured into featured a series of broad mellow bowls, each capped by a peak offering numerous stoke-worthy descents. Also in close-range was the jewel of McGillvray Peak; it stands tall above the hut, each afternoon its west face glowing bright orange with the setting sun.
The next morning Till, Thomas and I set out towards McGillvray, planning to climb its southwest ridge with a ski-descent of the south face. We climbed a tight line along a knife-edge ridge; too far one side risked punching through to the steep west face and too far the other side risked triggering a slab avalanche. Just shy of the top, Thomas decided he’d had enough climbing and hung back with Till while I pushed on, the feeling of isolation heightening with each step, but I was in my element. The ridge broadened slightly as it joined the summit, taking the edge off the exposure, but the snow deepened and I began punching through up to my waist. After wading upwards for 15 minutes I finally found some firmer ground and managed to clamber to the top. I paused at the summit, caught my breath, took in the incredible views, snapped a few photos and then quickly got back to the task at hand.
To access the south face I had to descend off the summit cap and down on to the eastern ridge. This involved kicking-in a substantial cornice then down-climbing through the void to a position below where I could sort out my gear, step into my skis and prepare for the descent. I paused here for a few moments, scoping and calculating; it all looked so different from above. I ran through the obstacles in my mind: to skier’s right, a wind-loaded slope to be avoided; directly below, a
Kicking off the boots and sitting back that evening, drinking beer by the fire, life couldn’t get much better.
Black Tusk (in background), the same impressive feature seen from Whistler Blackcomb, looking a lot closer than it does with the naked eye, thanks to a 300mm telephonto lens.
steep hollow avalanche trap that rolled out of sight; and to the left, my line.
I jammed in a couple of small turns to release some slough before cutting left across the upper slope and continuing to scope out the terrain as I contoured around, double and triple checking my bearings. I soon came back into view of Till and Thomas, so I pulled up and gave them a wave before continuing the descent. This was the pay off. Below me was a wide open 35 degree slope, so I pointed my tips and let them run to gain some speed, and then began to lean full body into long arcing turns, left to right, all the way to the bottom. Pulling up, stoked out of my mind, I looked back up at McGillvray grinning ear to ear at what was one of the best climbs and ski descents of my life. I gave Till and Thomas a wave to indicate I was A-ok. They waved back then dropped into a chute on to the west face, and we met up again shortly after on a nearby saddle. From there we all skied back to the hut.
Kicking off the boots and sitting back that evening, drinking beer by the fire, life couldn’t get much better. We swapped stories, laughed, filled our bellies once again and, for a second, I glanced out of the small wooden window to see the west face of McGillvray ablaze in pinks and oranges with the setting sun. That moment, and the feeling of total contentment that comes only from a hard day earnt in the mountains, is why I was here. And why the backcountry keeps drawing me in time and time again.
... I looked back up at McGillvray grinning ear to ear at what was one of the best climbs and ski descents of my life.
Clockwise from top left: Bagging our first mellow peak of the trip; Whilst it is possible to skin into Whitecap Hut, we opted to save our energy and take advantage of the taxi; blue bird skies accompany us on the uphill slog; skis and boards racked and stacked awaiting the next day’s adventure.
Top to bottom: Whitecap Hut by night. The warm glow of the fire-lit hut draws weary backcountry travellers back after a long day’s adventure. Stephen waiting for the clouds to clear before take-off.
Steep chutes and big vertical, getting gripped in a no-fall zone while skiing off Whitecap Mountain (2918m), one of the bigger peaks to bag a ski descent in the area.
Early bird catches the worm. The sun rises over the snow-capped peaks as the crew step it out on the mission to White cap Mountain.