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Basic backcountry luxury

Mark Yancey, right, listens to a radio weather report before leading skiers from the remote Boulder Hut to backcountry skiing areas high in the Purcell Mountains northwest of Kimberley, British Columbia.   (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
Mark Yancey, right, listens to a radio weather report before leading skiers from the remote Boulder Hut to backcountry skiing areas high in the Purcell Mountains northwest of Kimberley, British Columbia. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

Boulder Hut’s location was well planned

British Columbia has around 30 commercially operated backcountry skiing and hiking facilities that range from rustic cabins to swank lodges.

While several years and a small fortune would be required to compare and evaluate them – most are accessible only by helicopter during winter – three skiers summed up their attraction to the Boulder Hut in 15 seconds.

“I get off the helicopter, bring my gear into the cabin and I feel like I’m home,” said Serge Branche of Calgary, Alberta, who’s wintered a week at the remote Purcell Mountains accommodations for 12 years.

“I’ve been here 24 years in a row and I’m still skiing new lines,” said Greg Woodman of Seattle.

“It’s all about terrain,” said Ken Bélanger of Canmore, Patagonia’s product rep for western Canada and a mountain guide who’s led a wide range of alpine adventures in North America and Europe for clientele including comedian Julia Sweeney.

“Some places market luxury, but luxury doesn’t do a backcountry skier much good without the terrain.”

The Boulder Hut’s location among the rugged peaks northwest of Kimberley is no accident.

The tenure, as a Canadian outfitter’s territory is called, was originally secured by a trapper looking for the wildness and isolation he needed to build a cabin and eek out a living.

Pioneering adventurer and conservationist Art Twomey assumed the tenure and built the Ptarmigan Hut lower in the valley in 1967. After nearly 25 years of living, exploring and guiding in the area, Twomey and his partner, Margie Jamieson, settled on a choice higher-elevation site to build the Boulder Hut in 1984.

The Boulder Hut – an understatement in its expanded form – is protected in the trees at 6,500 feet just below timberline and surrounded by peaks, open slopes, alpine lakes, bowls and basins. In summer, foot access is 41/2 hours from the nearest logging road.

On clear days, a helicopter can reach the hut with a short hop from St. Mary’s Lake area up through the high mountain passes. However, even if the clouds close in, pilots almost always can transport guests via a longer route up and down the Boulder Creek valley.

A spring provides year-round mountain-pure water. A small, silent hydro plant powers the facilities, which have expanded to separate wood-heated sleeping cabins for the guests and the guides, plus a 10-by-13-foot former tool shed the current owners have converted into their family quarters.

The original Boulder Hut, complete with the loft that was once the sleeping area for all the guides and guests, now serves simply as the kitchen, eating and gathering place.

“A lot of history came with this cabin,” said Sarah Yancey, who runs the Boulder Hut/Ptarmigan Tours from late December into April with her husband, Mark. The Sandpoint couple bought the business in 2005.

“Our area covers 15,000 acres,” Mark Yancey said. “In the five years I’ve been up here, we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s available.”

All groups come into the hut prepared to skin up and climb for their downhill turns, although some groups have hired a pilot for a day or two of heli-skiing during their weeklong visit.

“We know skiers have arrived when they realize that going up is as much fun as going down,” Sarah said.

Even the foot-soldier skiers can easily bag 3,000 to 5,000 vertical feet of downhill a day; some get more.

“We owe a lot to the people who had the vision for this place because we hear over and over that clients are impressed with the areas we have to ski as well as the scenery,” she said.

Regardless of weather or snowpack conditions, there’s always an open slope, trees or glades that are safe and fun for touring and making turns.

That means every evening is a celebration of sorts back at the hut, where:

•Canadians give lessons in going metric: “We got 30 centimeters of snow this week, that’s one foot; 10 centimeters is 4 inches,” Branche said. “Got it?”

•Relationships are made: “We’ve seen some couples get together up here, plus a few that got together and didn’t last, but they were sure fun to watch for a while,” said Woodman.

•Music is readily available through the hut’s CD player or the guitar that’s tuned and ready in the loft.

•The human condition is analyzed and debated: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you’re wrong,” Bélanger noted.

•Snowboarders are considered virtually equal to backcountry skiers, as long as they have split boards for mountain ascents.

•Business strategy is exposed: “Our advanced skiers really like the ‘Chute of Death,’ but the Boulder Hut marketing department advised us to change the name to the ‘Gully of Happiness,’ ” Mark Yancey said, noting that another series of popular runs includes Cardiac Arrest and Coronary Bypass.

•Ski gear is endlessly scrutinized and evaluated: “G3 skins have great glide”… “But their glue wasn’t any good” … “That was first-generation; they have the glue worked out.”

•Family-style meals are enjoyed with lively conversation following a toast at the long dinner table. And the hut cook begins preparing the next day’s hearty meals before dinner dishes are being stacked.

•Clients relax in a wood-heated outdoor hot tub, perhaps the highest-elevation soaker in Canada.

(Note 1: The helipad marks the distance record for a nude sprint from the hot tub to make a snow angel and return. Note 2: A sauna is planned for next year.)

Despite all of these amenities, Greg Woodman succinctly sized up the Boulder Hut’s main attraction with a bed-time comment that followed a dip in the hot tub, a glass of red wine and a dinner to rival any Thanksgiving feast:

“God that was delicious snow today.”

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