It doesn’t take a helicopter and a fortune to ski untouched powder snow in the Canadian wilderness.
By cutting a few corners before the snow flies, just about anyone could afford a week of romping through British Columbia’s Valhalla Range.
Aside from $350, all you need is some strength, endurance, your backcountry ski gear and food.
Last spring, 10 of us rendezvoused in New Denver, B.C. Not far from town, we traveled by snowcat to Valhalla Mountain Touring’s back-country hideaway for a week of skiing in the northern Valhallas.
An old mining hut - recently remodeled - was the center of our universe. Each day, we ventured out to explore new terrain, lured by the names penciled onto the map: Emerald Forest, Little Caribou Lake, Shanibou Pass, Grizzly Meadows…
The snowcat stayed parked at the hut, leaving us with legs and lungs alone to propel us up the slopes.
Each day was a continual search for the best snow, a gamble judged only by snow reports, maps and constant surveys of the sky. Once we reached our destination, it was anything from knee-deep fresh powder to crusted-over wind slabs.
Our week began with high avalanche danger and strong winds. Though we were equipped with avalanche rescue equipment, we had to avoid the most tempting slopes.
It may sound strange for skiers to admit, but our biggest problem was the continuous snowfall, which made visibility low, trail-breaking arduous and the snowpack unstable.
We regularly accused each other of rubbing the hut Buddha’s belly (a jade figurine dubbed the Powder Buddha) the night before, chanting, “Om mani powder hum.”
On Wednesday, seven of us climbed for two hours into a virtual whiteout, attaining the peak of Little Sister, about 2,000 feet above the hut. It was cold, the fog was tight around the peak and the wind whipped at our Gore-Tex.
“Wow, I feel so extreme,” one woman joked.
Most routes down the mountain, through either open meadows or heavily treed glades, were invisible in the near blizzard.
Most of us were rewarded with only one run that day. That can be a drawback of the sport.
But the payoffs are plentiful.
Few people have the opportunity to leisurely feast their eyes upon a virgin slope of deep untouched powder. In the backcountry, every line is untracked, fresh. Face shots are frequent. Sweet anticipation precedes every run.
We choose our lines carefully because only about five are taken in a day. We must earn each run, with a minimum half-hour to 45-minute hike.
Each night, we’d gladly return to the comforts of the hut. And while ours was a humble cabin in comparison to some other Canadian huts, we lacked nothing important.
Hut living is like summer camp in the winter. We arrived with several people who soon became like family. We slept together in a single bunkroom, changed clothes together and relaxed together in the same small living space.
Hutkeeper Dale Caton saw to our creature comforts with his special efforts. The sauna next to the hut provided a refuge for our exhausted limbs after a day of physical exertion. A cask atop the sauna’s wood stove contained luxurious hot water for bathing and washing hair.
The smallest touches made the biggest difference; the smiley faces Dale drew in the snow outside the outhouse door, the dinner table that converted into a massage table, and the mixed tapes Dale left next to the battery-operated cassette deck.
The hut is equipped with a propane oven and lights, sinks that drain to a gray water pit, foam mattresses and pillows, and numerous books, magazines and games.
Although we had no television, computer or most trappings of the modern world, our evening’s entertainment was limited only by our imagination.
We quickly established that every night was Hawaiian night, and emerged for dinner in our grass skirts and Hawaiian shirts. The evenings culminated with a midnight game of beach volleyball in subzero temperatures. It was so short-lived that one player missed it by visiting the outhouse.
Then there were the late-night snowboard runs on the bunny hill, a small slope next to the hut.
Dale told us stories of other guests, like the group that had three birthday parties during the week. They danced until 2 a.m. and were up skiing by 7.
Another group had a budding opera singer who performed an entire opera one evening for her hutmates.
We took turns preparing dinner - a task that turned into a game of one-upmanship in gourmet cooking.
Because we arrived by snowcat, with a large sled attached to it, we brought everything. Thus, the menus included egg rolls with shrimp stir fry, homemade guacamole, Cajun chicken fajitas and chicken sausage gumbo. Desserts also were elaborate, including strawberry shortcake with whipped cream and a deep, dark, sinful chocolate whiskey cake.
The hut was heated with a small wood stove that the first person awake started. The walls were lined with cushioned couches. Racks above the wood stove dried wet ski gear.
When the weather let up and the snow settled, we ventured out on a longer-than-usual trek to Shannon Lake.
About two hours after leaving the hut, we descended into the lake basin and began a long slide across the lake, peering above into a nearly cloudless sky, sunshine and glistening slopes.
Arriving below a long slope, we began to examine possible ascents. We decided to zigzag up, through the woods, staying off avalanche chutes.
The climb up was as thrilling as the ski down, with every zig or zag revealing craggy peaks across a snowcovered expanse.
Our climbing skins gripped the snow as we trudged upwards. We stopped occasionally to peel off another layer, guzzle more water, or eat a snack.
At the top, the lines were obvious - with plenty of room for everyone and then some.
With a whoop and a holler we descended one by one down the 1,500-foot drop in bottomless powder.
At the bottom, we caught our breath, admired our tracks and slapped on our skins for another run.
The day ended much too quickly.
Reluctantly, we turned our backs on this gem of the Valhallas and pointed our skis hutward. The last two miles were an uphill grind that we dreaded in our exhausted state.
When we rejoined the snowcat track, we conjured up images of Caton coming to fetch us. As if clairvoyant, he appeared around a bend on his snowmobile, offering tow-ropes for all.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TRACKING THE BACKCOUNTRY Following are contacts for backcountry skiing accommodations that range from plush to rustic in British Columbia and Alberta: Valhalla Mountain Touring in New Denver, British Columbia, (250) 358-7905. The Alpine Club of Canada in Calgary, (403) 678-3200. Tourism British Columbia, (800) 663-6000. Alberta Tourism, (800) 661-8888.
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