A higher-altitude calling
Grace Yancey might someday write a book about her childhood winters – the igloo playhouse, a breezy, three-sided latrine and visitors from
around the world at her Little House in the Purcells.
The 4-year-old lives like other kids, at home in Sandpoint, most of the year. But during the winter, she and her family are dropped off by helicopter to survive at 6,500 feet in the snowbound Purcell Mountains of British Columbia.
They sleep in a 10-by-13, wood-heated cabin, where Grace bathes in a Rubbermaid basin. She shares a top bunk with her 17-month-old brother, Alden, perched above the Labrador retriever (trained for avalanche rescue) and parents who made a wild career choice.
Four years ago, Mark and Sarah Yancey bought a small but long-established Kimberley, B.C.-based backcountry skiing business called Boulder Hut/Ptarmigan Tours.
“It’s very much a lifestyle choice,” said Sarah, 35.
She met her husband, Mark, 41, in the Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol 12 years ago. They moved to Sandpoint in 2000, where Mark is a custom-home builder and a former assistant to the Schweitzer Mountain avalanche forecaster.
Each day, Mark and one or two guides lead as many as 12 clients into their “product” – world-class skiing in the chutes, basins, larch-studded parks and passes of the stunning alpine wilderness.
Most days, Sarah stays back with the camp cook, herding the kids from their tiny sleeping cabin to the more spacious Boulder Hut.
Mark and Sarah have bodies honed to competition-quality fitness. If he’s not breaking trails and traversing the mountains all day, Mark might take a “day off” to cut and stack firewood with a break to ski with Grace.
Sarah dashes around the cluster of cabins all day to run the business and the family. She uses a satellite Internet connection to coordinate clients, staff, helicopter flights and grocery lists between cooking, cleaning, nursing Alden, doing indoor projects or spending outdoor time with Grace, tending what could be the highest-elevation wood-heated hot tub in Canada, and countless other chores.
Grace sometimes dons a skirt and pink plastic heels in the hut. “But I always put on snow boots to go potty,” she said.
The Boulder Hut, perched just below the timberline, is surrounded by some of Canada’s most rugged and scenic peaks. Even in summer, the original hut – plus three newer cabins for guests and staff – are a good four-hour hike from the nearest logging road.
Last Sunday, skiers and snowboarders from the United Kingdom planned to fly out on the helicopter that was bringing in a group of skiers from Seattle, Spokane and Calgary.
The Yanceys enjoyed a family dinner with new friends who collectively could speak five languages.
“I want to thank you all for supporting my ski habit,” Mark said, hoisting a toast to the guests sitting at a Thanksgiving-quality feast.
“And I want to thank you guys who postponed cocktails after a full day to join Sarah for one last ski run while I stayed with the kids. It’s good for our marriage when Sarah gets to go skiing.”
“She made us climb up for two extra runs,” one client blurted as the muscle-weary group settled into an evening of laughter, music and conversation.
They had a kindred spirit down the valley in Kimberley.
“I feel like turning over the business to the Yanceys was the best thing I ever could have done for that place,” said Margie Jamieson, who built the Boulder Hut in 1984 with her late partner, Art Twomey. “I spent over 30 years of my life up there; a lot of blood, sweat and tears.
“Believe me, it isn’t without issues to run a small business that’s so remote, and in this economy. It’s an incredibly valuable time for them as a family right now. It’s got to be a crazy love affair.”