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.

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