Earlier in February, I joined a crew of ten others and Stephen Ludwig, guide and owner, and our tail gunner Joel for a week escape at the rustic but luxurious Snowy Mountain chalet, a relatively new ski touring operation. I’m happy to say that I found winter, deep in Cariboo country, at the head of the North Blue River. The area is famous for it’s deep snowpack, up to 4.5 metres at treeline.
The ski week runs from Sunday to Saturday. We left Vancouver on Saturday afternoon, and drove north past Kamloops to Clearwater, where we stayed at the Clearwater Lodge. The next morning, we drove another hour north to Blue River, where we met Steve and Joel.
Access to the hut is currently via snowmobiles, paired up, with a skier towed behind and skiff toboggans with gear and food. In the past, Steve used a piston bully to transport guests to the lodge, until he realized the costs were prohibitive, in addition to grooming the road for pesky snowmobilers.
Craig and Kirill on the journey up the North Blue River FSR Occasional stops were required to check the toboggans. I felt we were just as concerned about fitting all our gear on the toboggans, as compared to a helicopter. The toboggans were piled high, and were a challenge to get up the final icy hill to the hut. We skied the final kilometre and a half into the hut, where the undulating terrain was unsuitable for towing or doubling up.
Be warned that cardboard boxes don’t handle well during a snowy ride in, and can turn into a soggy mess by the time it reaches the hut. Beers didn’t handle the trip in well either, with a few casualties along the way, including six-packs carefully placed in backpacks. Moral of the story, bring more beers than you plan on drinking for the week.
The main hut consists of a downstairs kitchen, wood stove and benches for hanging out. Upstairs is divided into four rooms with beds for two to three people. Linen was provided, but bring your own sleeping bag. A separate building outside contained the Phoenix composting toilet, and the dry sauna. Another open outhouse provides a fine view of the ski terrain. There’s no cell reception or internet here, but electricity was available each night to charge up batteries. There’s even a flat screen TV to watch ski movies, or re-play footage from the day’s skiing.
We went with the self-catered, guided option which seems to work out well for our group of friends, heading into an unfamiliar area and wanting to maximize the skiing. Self-catered is fun, we took turns preparing breakfasts of bacon sausages eggs hashbrowns bagels granola and yogurt, organized individual lunches, and paired up for dinners. As long as everybody puts in an effort to cook well, this system works. And if your meal is a disaster, chances are that you won’t be invited along for next year.
I ate well on this trip. I don’t remember doing much other that waking up, eating, skiing, eating, and eating more. Spanakopita, arancini, cheese and crackers, salad rolls, jerk chicken pepper pot, spaghetti, brasato al barolo with creamy polenta, burritos, Thai red curry, chocolate cake, chocolate tart, pies and crumbles filled our bellies. There was no shortage of food on this trip. On the Snowy Mountain website, there is a quote. “First we ski then we eat.” I think we lived up to that.
Costa looking attentive, preparing his creamy mascarpone polenta.
Each morning, I woke up to the smell of bacon, or a smoke alarm if Craig was cooking. That only happened twice. After a morning briefing and a snow report, we skinned up somewhere through the five square kilometres of steep lichen covered trees in the ancient forest known as Snow-Landia, ripped skins and skied down.
I like to pick where to ski, and make the decision myself. I like to obsess over weather models, and determine the best place to ski each day. It was a good but unfamiliar feeling to hand that over to somebody else for the week. We surfed down over top of 30-50cm of dry powder through 500m long runs through widely spaced spruce and balsam trees back to the valley bottom. In Snow-landia, once you find the entrance through the cliff bands at the top, you can’t go wrong. All runs lead back towards the cabin.
Getting ready in the morning. The morning routine is always slow. It went something like breakfast, dishes, prepping lunches, finding all the pieces of my ski kit, and skins on. A planned departure of 8:30am usually meant 9am or later.
On the Coast, tree skiing usually means tight trees and heavy snow. It was different here, with wide open swatches of dry powder through the ancient forest. There was so much snow, and only so much daylight in early February to ski it all. I’m going to whine about not skiing enough on this trip, but that’s my only complaint. I’ll let all the photos below speak volumes for the quality of the skiing that we had. Apparently it can get even better here. I want to experienced that myself next time.
If you’re wondering where winter is, you might find it here. Kacie pokes her pole up to check the snowpack on our way up to the Gobsmack run. This is halfway up to treeline. It’s been normal up this this point in the winter, with a healthy 2.5 to 3m snowpack. As per the snow bulletin on Feb 1, the North Thompson snowpack is 87% of normal, compared to the South Coast, which is 29% of normal.
Keith is happy with the snow quality. Back in November, after watching a slow-motion clip of me skiing some coldsmoke powder in the Mount Baker backcountry, Keith said he was pretty jealous. I promised him that the skiing on our hut trip would be like that. I’m glad I was right!
Costa gets lost in the whiteroom in the Lucky Strike run, or was it Wolverine? Not that it matters, the skiing was powder here, powder there. Our group of twelve did little to track out the available terrain.
The two brothers dropping in.
Kacie getting her winter on. She flew off to Mexico to recover, two days after this trip. This was a stressful trip after all. Softshell or goretex? Bacon or sausage? And to sauna or not to sauna after the ski day. These were some of the many tough decisions made that week.
Before the first run of the week, Anna told me she wasn’t into tree skiing. That she wanted something mellow and open, like the gentle runs that we skied at the Vista Hut last year. She’s definitely having fun here!
Sandwiches filled with leftover beef for energy on the way up and the last slice of chocolate tart for the way down.
Keith getting lost in the whiteroom. It snowed heavily on Thursday. It was an interesting day, with rising temperatures and heavy snowfall, resulting in widespread soft slabs avalanches on all unsupported terrain. I enjoyed watching Steve response to the quickly changing snowpack, while pulling together a ski program that still worked for the day.
“If anything goes wrong, don’t post this photo”. Steve drops between cracks propagating across the entire slope. I’ve never seen something like this. We skied up to this gentle slope, and the slope broke into a maze of snowy crevasses without sliding.
This is the snow bridge over the North Blue River. With the heavy rains on Thursday night and Friday morning, Steve was worried that the bridge would wash out. Normally, this isn’t a concern until April, but it sure felt like it.
The plan was to either leave Friday, or at least shuttle most of our gear and the snowmobiles to the other side if we stayed another day. In the end, we left on Friday, skiing out in the warm rain before getting back on the sleds to the cars. Steve was right, the bridge washed out on Saturday, and the following group crossed it after cutting down some trees for a make-shift bridge.
Green is never a good sign in February. It’s been a weird winter, but I’m glad I’ve lucked out with the skiing so far. I’ve been fortunate enough to get out on some hut trips and explore new areas, and re-visiting old areas and skiing new lines. I don’t know where my hut trip next year will be, but I’m looking forward to explore another snowy corner of this beautiful province.
Lots of more photos on my Flickr webpage