It’s been a grim winter in much of the West for powder hounds.
But winter is too short to waste wishing for more snow. When it’s lacking in your back yard, you have to go find it.
Students and recent alumni mostly from Western Washington University took matters into their own hands recently by scouting the options on the Internet and planning a group trek into the Brian Waddington Hut north of Pemberton, B.C.
The weather trends that have been stingy with snow across the Cascades and Eastern Washington have been dumping snow generously in the mountains of B.C. The latest U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reports indicate the snowpack for the Columbia River Basin is up to 97 percent of normal.
A quick scan of the brownness up from Washington’s portion of the basin indicates that most of that normal abundance of snow that’s going to melt and fill the river this year is piling up in Canada.
Word spread to the group of friends, all in their 20s: “Get your passports; let’s go!”
Even Eric Messerschmidt, a host at Scottish Lakes High Camp near Stevens Pass, was ready to make the break to see what was north of the border.
The Waddington Hut, one of four huts owned and maintained by the Varsity Outdoor Club of the University of British Columbia, is tucked in a valley in the Coast Mountains. It can be accessed only by human travel – no snowmobiles or helicopter drop-offs are permitted, keeping the water source pristine and the surroundings wild and silent.
Several of the peaks in the immediate range are named after characters from J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, including Aragorn, Gandalf, Shadowfax and Tolkein’s Peak.
“Our group took the liberty to name individual ski runs to fit that theme,” said Spokane native Zachary Winters, referring to the line of powder heaps the group dubbed “Bilbo’s Pillows.”
Winters, a WWU graduate in environmental science, first visited the Brian Waddington hut six years ago as a college freshman.
“It was the first backcountry hut I visited in British Columbia, and it was a pleasure to return years later with a different group of ski partners and more collective experience under our belts to explore the surrounding peaks,” he said.
The skiers climbed from the trailhead 8 miles to the hut, which is open to the public for $10 per person, paid on an honor system. It’s a very basic shelter, with no plumbing. Visitors fetch water from the nearby creek and use an outhouse.
The cabin is well-built and airtight with a single loft that sleeps 20. Although the hut can’t be reserved, a VOC website allows visitors to register as well as to check in advance to determine if a big group will be there.
Such coziness is appreciated at night since the hut has no wood stove for heat.
To prevent visitors from cutting down trees in the pristine environment, VOC chose not to install a wood stove. A gas heater is available, but reports from previous visitors indicated it was terribly inefficient and “a good way to waste three gallons of fuel for no useable heat.”
But having a good group of 16, plus a couple of Canadians who showed up, helped keep the hut warm enough, especially at dinnertime when skiers would fire up the white-gas lantern and cooking stoves.
The main downside to the lack of a wood stove: It was impossible to dry out boot liners at the end of a long day of exploring the mountain terrain.
The group was comprised of skiers and split boarders with a diverse array of experience levels, which posed both positive and negative aspects to safe backcountry travel. Knowing the avalanche danger was considerable-to-high in some places, the group spent the entire morning on the first day digging pits and assessing the results.
More friends joined the group as the week progressed, bringing updated avalanche forecasts to the land of no 3G.
“At the beginning of the week, we found many aspects with severe instabilities,” said Messerschmidt, who has the type of snow-travel training needed for self-sufficient backcountry groups.
“However, as time passed, conditions solidified and we were able to ski objectives by the end that were not safe at the beginning.”
Casey Engstrom said that in some ways, being in a big group of varying experience levels caused the skiers to make more conservative decisions.
“We had to be exceptionally cautious due to the wide variety of abilities and experience levels within the group,” Engstrom said. “However, the fact that there were so many people with slightly different opinions to take into consideration caused us to slow down and think everything over meticulously.”
For Andrenika Slade, this hut trip served as a first taste into the rewards of backcountry travel. An avid skier, Slade had worked as an instructor at the Mt. Baker Ski Area and decided she wanted to dive headfirst and go on a six-day hut trip as her introduction to backcountry skiing.
“I definitely think backcountry skiing is more rewarding,” she said. “You experience the mountain on a much deeper level than you do when you are inbounds, because a large part of your experience involves terrain analysis and the process of skinning up the mountain and taking in its beauty.”
While decision-making in the backcountry is complex, Slade said she loves how simple the rest of life is when she is up at the hut.
“You wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and spend the rest of the day on the mountain, experiencing the snow,” she said. “Then you come back, cook dinner and spend time laughing with friends, go to bed, and wake up and do it all over again!”
“There is more freedom in backcountry skiing,” echoed Chris Morgan. “You get to choose where you want to go and how to get there.
“You develop a stronger sense of place and a stronger connection to where you are because you have to be constantly engaged and aware of your surroundings as opposed to sitting on a conveyor belt inbounds.
“You may have fewer turns at the end of the day, but the quality is higher and each turn counts.”